Sitka dog comes home after 65 days lost in the woods

an older golden retriever rests on a dog bed
Stella has regained 11 pounds since being rescued, and she’s getting lots of extra treats. (Meredith Redick/KCAW)

Stella Mahoskey looks like your typical golden retriever. At age 13, her muzzle has grayed, and her hips sway a little when she walks. She has a trove of stuffed toys, and she loves getting chunks of Tillamook cheese as a treat. If you look close, you’ll see a long scar across her belly and left leg. That’s one of the only clues Stella gives about her 65 days lost in the wilderness this summer.

On July 7 of this year, Stella was lounging on her back deck with her family — Sarah and Jerome Mahoskey, and kids Kai and Quinn, when a burst of fireworks sent Stella bolting into the woods. The family searched until dark, but they were certain Stella would be on the porch in the morning.

The next day, though, they started to get worried — especially when a neighbor shared some ominous news.

“They said, ‘Did you hear that there was a bear that attacked a dog last night? We had the windows open in the back of the house and my wife heard this altercation that sent chills up her spine. And basically, I don’t think your dog could be alive,'” Sarah recounted.

The Mahoskeys didn’t give up hope.

After Stella disappeared in July, Sarah and Jerome’s friends started hiking the trails around where she went missing. Community members reported possible sightings. The Mahoskeys investigated every report. After two months of this, Sarah told a friend, “I feel like there’s a 1% chance that she’s out there, and so I cannot let go.”

The Mahoskey family cuddles with Stella at their home a few days after she was found. (Photo provided by Sarah Mahoskey.)

In early September, they got one final call — from Tim Eddy, a friend of Jerome’s who was working at the quarry that day.

“He said, ‘Do you have a golden retriever?’ And Jerome said, ‘Well, we did have a golden retriever.’ And he says, ‘Well, I think this is your golden retriever.’”

Jerome called a friend to watch the kids, revved up his four-wheeler, and drove over. At first, he didn’t see anything except an expanse of rock.

“She was on this cliff side and it was basically this ash and rock that was the same exact color as her,” Sarah said. “She totally blended in. The fact that Tim saw her — I just kept saying to him, ‘How did you see her?’”

Stella likely hadn’t been at the rock pit long — there wasn’t much in terms of food and water — but the Mahoskeys say the sounds and smells of the quarry may have felt like home to Stella, who grew up around Jerome’s excavation business.

“She knows those sounds, and those sounds are safe to her,” Sarah said. “They sound like, you know, sounds she’s been around her entire life since she was four years old.”

Stella was down to 30 pounds, about half of her normal body weight. She had a wide gash across her left side. The Mahoskeys haven’t confirmed that the gash was from a bear, but they believe that’s the most likely explanation.

“We think she probably hunkered down for quite a while, and just probably wasn’t able to move a lot and knew that it needed to heal,” Sarah said. “She obviously found a safe space, because the fact that she was bleeding and wasn’t found by that bear or another bear again is quite a miracle.”

“Miracle” is not an exaggeration. The hazards for pets lost in Alaska under these circumstances are myriad. But Stella has a knack for surviving against the odds.

In 2015, not long after the Mahoskeys adopted Stella from a couple in Port Alexander, she rode with Jerome to work on a rainy August morning. That day, heavy rain triggered a series of landslides. The landslides killed three people and rocked the Sitka community. Jerome narrowly escaped the landslide, but the truck — with Stella inside — was crushed. He assumed the worst.

Then, just a few minutes before rescuers suspended their search due to unstable conditions, they managed to pull Stella from the debris.

Stella’s surviving a landslide in 2015 could be attributed to luck. Her recovery from the wild in 2023 was luck — and something more. Sarah said Stella likely survived by foraging.

“She has always picked her own berries when we are out hiking,” Sarah said. “And she loves dandelion roots.”

On the advice of her vet, Stella was on a strict diet for the first 10 days after she was reunited with her family. Now, she’s eating well. She is up to 41 pounds, and she’s getting deliveries of venison bone broth and salmon from friends.

“Fried eggs with breakfast, whatever she wants,” Sarah said.

Stella isn’t revealing a lot about what happened during her time away, but she hasn’t changed much. The only difference, Sarah says as she cuts another chunk of cheese off of the block for Stella, is that she’s definitely a little hungrier than before.

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