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As 8-year-old Ashley Harmon and her brother Timothy, 12, play on a swing set in Scarborough, Maine, a 4-year-old black Labrador retriever named Molly keeps an eye on them. That Molly is here to watch over Ashley, Timothy, and their brother Jared, 15, is a small miracle. The dog recently joined their family after surviving a three-week ordeal, beginning with the shocking death of the kids' father, Doug Harmon, in one of Maine's most rugged areas.
Harmon, who'd raised Molly since she was 8 weeks old, had been separated, then divorced from the children's mother, Joan Pelletier, for seven years. Because he lived nearby, Ashley, Timothy, and Jared saw Molly frequently and came to love her.
Then came May 28, 2007. High winds blustering over Chamberlain Lake, in Maine's Allagash Wilderness Waterway, capsized their dad's boat while he was on a camping trip with two friends. The only survivor of the accident, Scott Valente, of Raymond, Maine, last saw Molly paddling toward shore. But he didn't see whether she'd made it.
Meanwhile, Pelletier broke the news to her children of the tragic death of their dad. The apparent loss of the dog compounded their grief as well.
The adults in the children's life had not given up on Molly, though. Four generations of Pelletier's family had served Maine as either game wardens or forest rangers, and Patrick McGowan, the commissioner of the state's Department of Conservation, asked his employees to keep an eye out for the Lab while on patrol. Tourists were informed and watched for her as well. The day after the accident, a game warden did spot a dog resembling Molly.
"Once there'd been a sighting, our spirits lifted," recalls McGowan. He worried, though: If Molly had made it to land, she would have had to deal with predators, including bears and coyotes. About three weeks later Ashley received a sign. "I dreamed Jared brought Molly home, and we cried," she recalls. A skinny, exhausted Molly had, in fact, just wandered into the yard of a Millinocket couple. Jared happened to be staying nearby with his grandparents, who rushed him over to identify the dog. He recognized her instantly by her trademark howl, which she let out when she saw him. "Yup, that's Molly!" said the teen.
Molly, who sustained no lasting injuries from her ordeal, now spends her days frolicking with other dogs and gobbling up Frosty Paws, a frozen treat for dogs sold out of an ice cream truck. She's even allowed to sleep on the kids' beds. "She's spoiled," Pelletier laughs.
A local celebrity, Molly is recognized wherever she goes. "Is that the Molly?" people ask.
At home Molly is devoted to the kids. "If they're having a bad day, they lie quietly with her," says Pelletier. "They feel safe."
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, February 2008.