Finding More Than Moose Droppings in Talkeetna

By Melanie P. Moore

He told me his name was Dog.

“When I’m in the south, I spell it D-A-W-G. When I go to a restaurant, I spell it ‘Dogg,’ which sounds more like a last name.” He never told me his last name. Dog is a retired Air Force pilot who spends summers in Talkeetna, Alaska.

On vacation in July, my wife and I heard about the annual Talkeetna VFW Moose Drop from our bus driver, Heidi, who had driven us and other tourists to the Susitna river for a Jet Boat Adventure. Heidi, though younger than him, had been Dog’s flight engineer at one point in the Air Force. Now the Commander of the Post, Heidi had sold all her tickets, but told us how to get to the VFW where we could buy some. We looked at each other and shrugged, why the heck not? Every day of our three-week Alaska vacation had been planned in detail for months. Why not be spontaneous, live fully into the moment where we are, as we are on this day? I had no idea how profoundly I would be affected by this escapade.

Talkeetna is a tiny, funky little town—population 1,199. A cat, Stubbs, was elected mayor and served from July 1997 until his death in 2017. Talkeetna has captured the imagination of TV and movie writers. A moose walking past a stop sign in downtown Talkeetna was part of the opening for each episode of the TV show Northern Exposure.

We walked toward the VFW and found three old guys spray painting a giant bullseye over most of the parking lot. A circle of folding metal chairs made up the outer loop. A smiling, white-haired man walked over and we asked him about tickets. He didn’t have any, but we could get some inside, he said. I asked to hear the history of the Moose Drop and he said, “Let’s go inside and I’ll tell you.” Spoken like a true unreliable narrator, as we all are when we share our lore with new initiates.

Dog, holding the Moose Dropping bag–before filling it. (Photo credit: Melanie P. Moore)

Dog told us that some Alaskan towns like Talkeetna have quirky festivals. For example, the Nenana Ice Classic where people guess when the iced-over river will break (2023 Winning Time: May 8, 4:01 p.m.). Not to be outdone, according to Dog, the writers of the movie Snow Dogs were having drinks at Talkeetna’s Fairview Inn (rumored to have been where President Warren Harding was poisoned—he’d brought both his wife and his mistress on a visit for the ceremonial opening of the Alaska Railroad). Thus, we were told, the idea for the Talkeetna Moose Drop Festival was born.

What Dog didn’t tell me was that the festival, previously presented by the Talkeetna Historical Society, was cancelled in 2009, it’s 37th year. That year during the festival huge crowds had overwhelmed the town (then population 850) and mayhem ensued, resulting in multiple arrests, injuries, and one death.

It’s unclear when VFW Post 3836 and Auxiliary took over the event, but that’s the one we attended in July. Dog invited us into the inner sanctum where the moose droppings had been carefully shellacked and numbered—by the Ladies Auxiliary, of course. Two sets of droppings were made with each number, one for the drawing and one for the ticket holder which had been varnished a festive purple or green with a pin attached for wearing on your lapel.

Droppings, with lapel pins affixed, and tickets. (Photo credit: Melanie P. Moore)

Dog regaled us with tales of past Moose Droppings:

  • A story about Ace Ebling, “a two purple heart guy,” who called Dog one year and said he’d bought some helium to use for the Moose Drop. Dog had a minor in Physics and figured the helium could lift five to six pounds of moose droppings. But a shower came and helium doesn’t work in the rain. They had to wait for the rain to stop before they could drop. Within a few years, they were selling too many droppings for the helium to lift it.
  • The story of one year when Dog couldn’t attend and they used a helicopter—the rotor downwash blew moose droppings all over town. Two Auxiliary women verified this: “Did you hear about the helicopter?”
  • Dog said the Discovery Channel once came to film the Moose Drop and Ace disguised chocolate candy as a moose dropping. Talking with the young, female on-air talent, he bent over, picked up a “dropping,” and popped it in his mouth.
  • The time PETA called Ace to demand he stop the Moose Drop for humane reasons. He spoke to them at length but never explained it was moose droppings, not a moose that was dropped.

Dog “enlisted” me to be the “Poop Dropper.” I was delighted! We’d come to watch this storied annual event, then been invited inside, and now I would pull the string for the drop. I’d have to follow his instructions exactly.

Dog and me, pre-Drop. (Photo credit S.J. Reich)

We were ushered into the room where meticulous preparations were in progress. The numbered moose droppings were carefully accounted for by number. Once vetted for accuracy, the droppings were put into the bag—Dog’s late wife had made the bag from a POW/MIA flag. Dog stitched up the bag with thread so it would release when pulled, like a parachute.

Droppings are carefully monitored, by number. (Photo credit: Melanie P. Moore)

The parking lot, now filled with people, resembled a typical small-town event with families, dogs, children, filling in the circle around the bullseye. The Auxiliary ladies were selling hot dogs and popcorn. Dog walked to the middle of the circle and held the bag as it was hoisted by pulleys high above the crowd. Then Dog and I took the rope to the edge and began pulling gently to get the bag swinging as wide as possible. When he gave the word, I yanked the rope. Droppings fell in an arc as the bag swung across the bullseye. Prizes were based on distance from the target. Measurements were taken very seriously. It was the highlight of our vacation, with a fun story.

What I haven’t told you is the part where Dog said he’d joined the Air Force to find excitement.

“Did you find it?” I asked. He gave me a look that I felt to my core. His eyes receded to depths I couldn’t fathom. He showed me a photo on his phone.

“See that guy there, the one on the left? That’s me.”

The photo Dog showed me, pointing to himself, far left.

He’d flown a C141 in Vietnam before he was captured. He was released after 1,953 days. I have relatives who have fought in wars and good friends who’ve served, but I had never to my knowledge met a Prisoner of War (POW). I began to grasp that look in his eyes. A chill ran up my spine. I stumbled over words trying to thank him for his service, that there was no way any of us could make up for the sacrifice he’d made. But he waved me off. There was a Moose Drop to engineer.

Dog lives in Talkeetna in the summer and returns to Arizona and Southern California in the winter, where he helps Air Force pilot veterans’ widows get their late husbands’ private planes ready to sell.

“Their husbands, who were pilots, had these planes and they don’t know what to do with them,” he said. “So, I help out.” What a prince of a man. He never did tell me his real name.

On this Veterans Day I remember with gratitude the grace Dog and the Talkeetna VFW and Auxiliary gave us, welcoming us as strangers—or, worse, tourists—sharing the many facets of their Keep-Talkeetna-Weird fundraiser and the amazing heroes who get still a laugh out of it.

Photo credit: Melanie P. Moore
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8 Responses

  1. Got a bit teary-eyed towards the end. Great story Melanie. Thanks for sharing it and I’m so glad you allowed some spontaneity into your trip!

  2. Thank you, Melanie. Being a veteran myself (but the only battles I fought in the Army National Guard was against mosquitoes in the swamps of Ft. Stewart, GA) I am especially indebted to those service members who actually did to into the battlefields, and lost more than I could ever imagine. Your story is engrossing, and a testament to the resilience of the human spirit.

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