Stickeen: The Story of a Dog
August 24, 2018 11:11 PM   Subscribe

John Muir's terrifying experience on a glacier, in a storm, with a remarkable dog (c. 1880)
I have known many dogs, and many a story I could tell of their wisdom and devotion; but to none do I owe so much as to Stickeen. At first the least promising and least known of my dog-friends, he suddenly became the best known of them all. Our storm-battle for life brought him to light, and through him as through a window I have ever since been looking with deeper sympathy into all my fellow mortals.
posted by Transl3y (17 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
good dog.. would kept the dog cause dog.
posted by drewbage1847 at 12:03 AM on August 25, 2018 [1 favorite]

great story
posted by nikoniko at 12:16 AM on August 25, 2018

Hey that sounds so much like my guy when we have to cross a suspension bridge while hiking. The rest of the time he's Mr. Cocky King of the Forest, then we'll get to the edge of a bridge and he stares ominously while whining. I used to carry him across when he was a pup but now a light smack on the butt will get him motoring across like a machine, belly low, running on pure will power. When he gets to the other side he'll do the triumphant wiggle dance for a couple minutes and attempt to return the favor by biting my elbow off.
posted by mannequito at 12:25 AM on August 25, 2018 [15 favorites]

My dear buddy Logan is at my feet on the smokepocalypse porch (it's lightened a bit) carefully burfing at unknown midnight noises. You bet, buddy. Good dog.
posted by mwhybark at 12:31 AM on August 25, 2018 [10 favorites]

Muir is a great storyteller.

But this is a really strange story.

Here's this dog who is really his own person, and less submissive to human beings than any dog I've known or heard of. He goes where he wants and has his own interests; he resists all blandishments and conditioning; he's daring, resourceful and self-reliant; he trusts his own understanding of situations, and knows from experience that he can get himself out of whatever he gets himself into.

Yet he's fascinated by Muir, perhaps sensing in Muir a kindred spirit also only loosely bound by convention and the expectations of others.

Then comes that fateful day when he finds himself on the wrong side of a crevasse his instinctive fears of which are too great to allow him to attempt to cross, even though he knows it will mean his death if he doesn't cross.

And at the last ditch he discovers a way to overcome his fears: by accepting Muir as his alpha and doing what Muir tells him to do.

He saves himself, but at a cost of becoming merely a man's dog.

It's hard for me to believe Muir did not realize he was offering his readers an allegory of the domestication of dogs in general, though I would have preferred to think Muir was giving us Nature undimmed by such sentitiousness.

And it might actually be worse than that. The dog is named for the tribe of Indians who populate the village where he grew up. Muir appears to be offering us an allegory of the submission of Indians to White people, as well.
posted by jamjam at 2:12 AM on August 25, 2018 [31 favorites]

An excellent story. Muir is an incredible adventurer and naturalist.

And yet, for some reason, this particular story makes me feel angry at the man.
posted by darkstar at 6:27 AM on August 25, 2018 [6 favorites]

The Futility Closet episode about Stickeen was what got me hooked on their podcast. Excellent drive-to-work companions...
posted by cyclotronboy at 6:35 AM on August 25, 2018 [4 favorites]

He saves himself, but at a cost of becoming merely a man's dog.

And then after he loves Muir, and looks to him first, and eats only from his hand, even though Muir says he’s a super great dog...Muir leaves him behind and doesn’t take him with him when he goes. So the dog learns love only to learn abandonment.

I love dogs and now kind of dislike Muir.
posted by corb at 7:49 AM on August 25, 2018 [12 favorites]

In defense of Muir, he tried to get the dog to stay behind, but knew from experience that Stickeen would not be denied his independence. He refused to abandon the dog even when doing so (waiting and encouraging the pup to brave the bridge) put Muir himself in greater danger of getting stuck on the ice overnight. Finally, although they bonded on the glacier, the dog already had a person (his original owner) and Muir couldn't very well adopt the dog without permission (evidently someone else later on had no such compunction).
posted by TreeRooster at 8:04 AM on August 25, 2018 [8 favorites]

Oh that’s terrific.

Here’s the Sierra Club on the history of the story, which also places it in the literary/intellectual climate of its moment, along with some discussion of its many, many retellings.

Thanks for sharing it here!
posted by notyou at 8:34 AM on August 25, 2018 [3 favorites]

(My pup, like mannequito’s, struggles to cross bridges of any sort if she can see light or sense air between the treads. This includes structures that aren’t bridges, but are only similar, like the deck attached to my mother’s cabin on the American River where Doughty spent a long afternoon marooned on a chaise lounge until I realized the deck was a kind of bridge she could not cross. Poor girl!)
posted by notyou at 8:47 AM on August 25, 2018 [1 favorite]

by accepting Muir as his alpha

No. Just no.

It's a great story, but "alpha dog" is a myth. And a harmful one at that.
posted by biscotti at 9:03 AM on August 25, 2018 [10 favorites]

I find it sad that none of their Indian comrades are ever mentioned by name.
posted by monotreme at 11:12 AM on August 25, 2018 [1 favorite]

Fantastic post. I could barely breathe reading that, and now I'm in tears! Superb writing. Not being close to any dogs myself it's intriguing to read such a nuanced and sensitive account of a dog's personality.
posted by prune at 2:15 PM on August 25, 2018 [1 favorite]

I agree it was nuanced and sensitive, but found it mainly to be a self-serving anthropomorphizing of the dog’s inner dialogue. It manages to interpret the dog’s personality and inner turmoil in just so perfect a manner as to alleviate Muir of any sense of guilt or responsibility for endangering and traumatizing the dog.

I’ve been chewing over this story all day and I, too, found it riveting. But I found it a shameful mistreatment of an animal that surely had no way of knowing the jeopardy it was being led into. Muir’s easy and stoic relationship with the notion of dying in a crevasse is cast in a rather dim light when he is fundamentally responsible for the dog, at that point.

And the throwaway line early on that “nature will have its way” is a supremely facile dodge for actually engaging his human intellect to predict what might happen to one or both of them if he tried to traverse an unfamiliar glacier in a storm with a dog in tow.

Had the dog slipped on the ice bridge and fallen to its death, I wonder whether Muir would have had the decency to even feel shame at his role in it, or if history would now be fawning over his gripping adventure tale about how that one time a dog followed him out on a glacier and, finally, hungry, cold, tired and afraid, met its tragic end.

Humans, because of our intellect, have a responsibility to animals to act in responsible ways. As I said earlier, this story really makes me angry at a guy I consider an extraordinary adventurer and important naturalist in the country’s history.
posted by darkstar at 8:08 PM on August 25, 2018 [3 favorites]

Right, with hindsight we can say he should have tied up the dog before going on the hike. That's kind of tough for me to call though, since I have allowed my dogs to follow me on mountain hikes--they love it so much! The fact that he got into a deadly situation was purely an accident. On the way home he made a mistake and started across the glacier a couple miles further up than the original crossing. Reminder: leave a marker! This led to a jump that turned out to be another poor choice: he was prevented from turning back and had to cross the ice bridge.

Or, I suppose he could have stayed in place and hoped for rescue. Evidently he thought it a better chance at survival for both man and dog to push on at that point. It might be that the ice bridge was actually more scary than dangerous. So assuming the story is told truthfully, should he have foreseen the danger and tied up the dog that morning, or was he wrong about pressing on as the best chance to live? I suppose either question might be outside my expertise...
posted by TreeRooster at 9:24 PM on August 25, 2018 [2 favorites]

(In fact, along with that trail marker he should have left to show where to cross the glacier easily, there's the rope he should have brought, the map he should have left with his friends, the friend he should have brought to remind him about the marker, the rope and the map, and the extra food, etc. Indeed if it had ended badly we could find a few faults! Cautionary tale.)
posted by TreeRooster at 9:30 PM on August 25, 2018 [4 favorites]

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