"Denali" Filmmaker and Cancer Survivor Gets a New Best Friend

Adventure photographer Ben Moon, whose story "Denali" touched millions of viewers, shares an update on his post-cancer life—and introduces his new pup, Nori.

Most of us have been touched by cancer in some way. And most of us have also been changed for the better by the great comforts and joys of an animal companion.

These two truths are intertwined in "Denali," the short film that amassed 15 million views online and stirred tears in everyone from NFL players to Oprah Winfrey when it broke the Internet about a year ago. The film chronicles adventure photographer Ben Moon’s journey through cancer from the perspective of his most devoted friend, his dog Denali. But the film is also a goodbye to Denali, then in his twilight years, as the pair revisit their favorite surf breaks and climbing crags one last time.

After the ensuing media frenzy, Moon took an understandable hiatus from the limelight and the inevitable question, “When will you get a new dog?” Now, he finally has an answer: Meet his new, 15-week-old, 35-pound adventure buddy, Nori. Here Moon reflects on his life as a cancer survivor, on appreciating every day, and the gifts of life shared with a dog.

Why do you think the film touched so many people?

After reading the thousands of incredibly touching letters I received after the film came out, I realized the film was more than the story of a man and his dog. It explored the universal themes of friendship and loss, as well as overcoming life’s challenges, such as a disease as indiscriminate as cancer. The faithful and unquestioning friendship of dogs can crack the thickest of walls, and the telling of the story through Denali’s perspective unlocked a lot of hearts.

After so much attention, did you need a break from the spotlight—and answering the question about when you would get a new dog?

I definitely needed to step away for a moment to reflect and get my bearings again. Part of my motivation to move to the Oregon coast was to have some space to recharge my creative batteries and write a book proposal. After giving it a lot of thought, I decided to write a memoir about my friendship with Denali and the whole cancer battle. The "Denali" film touched briefly on these topics, and Ben Knight, the director of the film, perfectly captured the feelings surrounding those experiences. After I saw how much the film encouraged others, it made me realize that writing more about the story might be helpful in a similar way.

I certainly didn’t want to rush into getting a new pup, especially after 14 and a half years with Denali. My girlfriend, Whitney, and I started dating around Denali’s very last week, and her dog, Sadie, had fortunately filled the void of losing Denali a bit. This spring we had just we moved to the coast and Sadie suddenly started exhibiting some unusual symptoms. We lost her to an aggressive cancer almost immediately. Feeling that sense of loss again only two years later made me question whether I was ready for another dog.

And now, two and a half years later, you have a new best friend. Where did you find Nori?

I had been opening up to the idea of looking for another dog and had been visiting the Humane Society a bit, but was a little disheartened with the process as there are so many amazing dogs that need homes, and it’s hard to bring just one home. I also wanted to feel a real connection and not rush it. Then one morning Whitney was at the Denver airport trying to stay awake to catch a flight and texted me the link to a pup she saw on Petfinder. I kind of rolled my eyes at first, but when I opened the link and saw the photos, my heart exploded, and I just knew right then that Nori was the one. I emailed the contact right away, and her foster mom called me and talked to me about how special Nori was. I and decided to go see for myself later that day.

What made you decide to give this one a home?

I picked up Whitney from the airport, and we drove out to My Way Home Rescue, a little farm out by Mount Hood. When Nori ran out, I could tell right away that she had a great personality. I played with her in the yard for a few minutes and then laid flat on the grass, and she crawled on top of my head and just laid there, super confident and comfortable. I think that I had already made up my mind to bring her home that morning when I first saw the photos; there was something about her eyes that just melted me. Like Denali, there was a bit of an old soul in there; it’s hard to explain, but when it feels right, you know.

How did she get her name?

Her amazing foster mom, Cheryl, gave her the name Nori, and because it seemed to fit her personality and her new life near the ocean I decided to keep it. My good friend Belinda Baggs, an amazing and graceful surfer I’ve traveled with a lot, mentioned that naminori means surfing in Japanese, so that helped with the decision a bit. I used to call Denali “Nali,” so Nori feels similar and familiar in that way too.

What kind of dog is she and how big will she get?

Nori is definitely a mix. She was rescued with her siblings and her feral mom in the desert east of L.A., so little is known about her actual breed, but I’m guessing there’s a little collie, shepherd, husky, and some sort of retriever in there. She’s supersmart, and right away she played fetch consistently without any training. According to the puppy charts, she might be around 80 pounds full grown.

How is this desert pup embracing the coastal lifestyle? What adventures have you all done together?

On her very first day, we brought her home to the beach, and I later realized it was the same place that Denali spent his last days. It’s amazing how things come full circle. Nori goes with me everywhere, so she has spent a lot of time exploring the beaches on the coast near my home. I live on a river and have a dock out front, so she’s been out a lot on a stand-up paddleboard during the past couple weeks. We also took her crabbing for Dungeness crabs in my little inflatable raft, and she did really well.

How did she like SUPing?

During her first time on my board, she was a natural and just sat there between my feet the whole time. I have a pretty narrow 14-foot downwinder/race board so made it even more impressive. She did fall in when she wandered too close to the edge of the board, but she just swam back over and was pretty mellow about it all.

Does she remind you of Denali? How do you think about Denali now?

She’s similar to Denali in a quite a few ways—her eyes and some of her markings—but mostly it’s the little things about her personality. Denali was independent yet always wanted to be nearby and was super affectionate. From what I’ve seen so far, Nori is similar—she’s very attentive but seems to be pretty confident and balanced.

Denali will always be on my mind in some way, as we shared so much together. I definitely appreciate how he stood by me through life’s ups and downs, from my mid-20s through my 30s, and I hope to do our friendship justice when I write about our time together in the book project.

Is your cancer totally gone? Is there a chance it will ever come back?

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I’m 12 years out now and my oncologists say that my cancer is 100 percent gone at this point, and that there is very little chance of a recurrence of the same tumor.

How often do you think about the fact that you are a cancer survivor?

I feel it’s a good thing for me to think on every day, as it gives me perspective and reminds me to make the most of every moment. It hits me hardest whenever I hear of someone losing their battle with this horrible disease, especially those who also had colorectal cancer. It always reminds me not to take my time here for granted. It’s a feeling that many survivors can relate to, that whenever I have any health issue it’s easy to overreact. I just had some suspect moles on my back checked out, and I was trying not to think of the worst-case scenario, a malignant melanoma. The moles ended up being OK, but it’s still nerve-racking.

For people living with and fighting cancer right now, what advice or encouragement do you have?

I feel that attitude is everything. It’s a life or death battle with so many variables out of our control, and attitude is a choice. We can either let the negative aspects of the situation overwhelm us, or focus on doing what we can to keep on the path of survival. A smile can rise above the horrific nausea and pain.
On that same note, it’s important to surround yourself with those who can treat you normally and get you outside or spend time with you when you’re feeling unmotivated. When I was super nauseous from chemo, if I was up to it, I would sometimes just go to Smith Rock and not even climb. Just being around friends and in the sunshine and fresh air was a huge lift to me. I also had friends help me go on surf trips to Mexico and Kauai that helped me recharge in between treatments.

Self-care is so important, and it’s important to do what will lift you up. Dogs are amazing friends during an illness because they don’t take any energy from us; they only give freely with no resentment.

Who needs who more—you or Nori? What do you think is special about a human's relationship with a dog?

At this point, Nori is a puppy so she needs me more than she will when she’s fully grown. A healthy bond with a dog forms over time, and a lot becomes unspoken. They witness our good days and our really low points, and the best part is they don’t hold any of it against us or remind us of our mistakes. Denali definitely let out a few knowing sighs over the years, but overall they just support us through it all. 

A month after I lost Denali, I couldn’t understand why the feeling of grief was so intense. My acupuncturist mentioned that it’s because the love we share with our dogs is so pure. We love them, they love us. No strings attached, no baggage—just pure support no matter what. Now that I have Nori, I’ve realized a lot of the things I hadn’t realized were missing, and how much I needed this for my own healing and closure. Life just feels a lot more complete now.

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