‘Miracle dog’ survives a month in Maroon Bells wilderness after getting lost

Betsy and Jim Chaffin held out hope with a little help from their friends

Betsy and Jim Chaffin hold their 10-month-old dog, Bella, in their home on Friday, July 23, 2021. Bella was lost in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness for a month and was found after the community rallied together to help track her down. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

A little cockapoo relied on a big heart, wily wits and maybe a little luck to survive four weeks in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness.

Bella disappeared June 18 while hiking the Capitol Creek Ditch Trail with Betsy and Jim Chaffin and their extended family, including two other dogs. Bella had gone ahead of the human pack with the Chaffins’ grandson and other dogs when she turned around. Somehow, she got off course and, willingly or not, went on an epic journey.

She was reunited with the Chaffins four weeks to the day she went missing. Bella was found by a worker on a ranch not far from the Capitol Creek Trailhead, which is southwest of Old Snowmass.

“It’s a bit of a miracle,” Betsy said.

The 10-month-old dog lost half of her weight — from 8 to 4 pounds — was impaled with two porcupine quills, had matted hair, was understandably skittish and, of course, was dog tired. She’s recovering nicely at the Chaffins’ home and is once again as friendly as ever.

Her story is remarkable for a couple of reasons, the Chaffins said. First is the obvious tale of survival by the little dog. But second is the degree of support the Chaffins received from friends and total strangers.

“The thing that really touched us was the outpouring of support,” Jim said. “One of the real gifts was the connections to the community.”

Here’s the story they recounted late last week: Their grandson figured the Chaffins and their group were just a little ways behind him so he didn’t think twice about Bella turning around. When they reconnected on the trail, they realized the little dog was missing.

“We never thought she’d leave the trail,” Betsy said.

They divided into two groups for a search that proved fruitless. Distraught, they reluctantly left Capitol Creek and spent a mostly sleepless night.

“You just feel so guilty,” Betsy said. “We just figured a coyote got Bella.”

They returned to Capitol Creek the following day and searched the area where Bella was last seen. They stopped other hikers to inquire if they had seen the little white dog and put up “missing dog” posters throughout the area.

Their hopes sagged and grief grew with each passing day. But on day 10, there was reason for hope. Aspenite Buzz Patten was hiking with his wife when they spotted a small white dog getting a drink. They attempted to approach the dog, but it took off running.

“We think she went into survival mode where she did nothing but hide, eat and drink,” Betsy said.

The sighting lifted their spirits, so Betsy and Jim returned to the trail nearly every day. “Betsy never gave up hope,” Jim said.

They consulted with ReRe Baker, the longtime animal safety and control deputy with the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office who has since retired, on what to do.

Betsy said Baker’s words of wisdom helped keep hope alive: “She said, ‘If this little dog has survived 10 days in the wilderness, she has a will to live.'”

They also contacted Seth Sachson, director of the Aspen Animal Shelter, for guidance. He put them in touch with the owner of a dog that is adept at locating humans and pets as well as a different person who makes psychic connections with dogs.

“We said by cracky, we’re going to pull out all the stops,” Betsy said.

Over the next three weeks, they erected a pup tent in Capitol Creek with some of their clothes and Bella’s toys inside. They scattered belongings elsewhere along the trail to try to lure their beloved pet but still no Bella.

“One thing became obvious, we weren’t going to find Bella until Bella wanted to be found,” Jim said.

They called all the veterinarian offices, groomers and animal rescue groups in the middle and upper valley in case Bella had been found and returned or was being kept by a rescuer. They placed a missing dog classified advertisement and called the radio stations.

As the days ticked off, some friends gently suggested it was time to get realistic. Betsy decided to place additional missing dog posters down the valley from the Capitol Creek trailhead. That turned out to be a pivotal decision.

Ochoa saw the poster and July 17 spotted a little white dog along the road that he suspected was Bella. He stopped to collect the dog, but it growled and ran into the woods. Betsy said Ochoa later relayed to them that he talked soothingly to the dog and coaxed it to him. He called the number on the tags and left a message for Betsy. She soon returned the call and the Chaffins met Ochoa an hour later in Basalt. As can be expected, Bella went nuts when she saw them.

Bella was nothing but skin and bones, so they are feeding her small amounts of food four times per day. She sleeps a lot. Midvalley veterinarian Katie Beiser removed the porcupine quills, gave Bella fluids, performed a medical shave and is advising them on nursing the dog back to health.

The Chaffins can only wonder what their dog experienced.

“How does any dog survive in the White River National Forest for a month, much less an 8-pound, 10-month-old little cockapoo?” the Chaffins wrote in an email letting people know Bella was found. “There was plenty of water between the creek and the rains. Was she eating grasses, cow pies, an occasional varmint? This is a drainage populated by coyotes, fox, mountain lion and bear — how did she manage to hide? What stories Bella could tell but will never be told.”