Reflections a column by Tony Smith
Reflections: A column by Tony Smith
“There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot”
Aldo Leopold: A Sand County Almanac
To paraphrase Aldo Leopold, there are some who can live without Golden retrievers, and some who cannot. I am one who cannot!
Katasha (Kasha) bounded excitedly up the now-familiar Cabinet Wilderness trail, one that meandered through a quiet forest of nearly all lodgepole pine, followed by a mix of old-growth spruce, larch and Douglas fir, typical of many trails in the southern portion of the Wilderness. As this was our fifth 2020 summer foray into huckleberry Shangri-La, four miles in, Kasha was very familiar with many aspects of this relatively benign trail, including where the most accessible watering spots were below. Although lacking the scenic beauty of such Cabinet Wilderness sites as Engle Peak, Lost Buck Pass, (with magnificent views overlooking Geiger Lakes as well as Wanless Lake), the springtime roar and waterfalls of Flower Creek along the Sky Lakes Trail, the Rock Lake Trail with an opportunity for a grizzly bear sighting, and the Dome Mountain Trail, connecting several high lakes and peaks in an alpine setting (just to name a very few), this rarely traversed route leading to a vale of towering old-growth alpine larch and fir snags with waist-high huckleberry bushes, has been, over the years, one of my preferred huckleberry haunts, along with the Katka-Boulder area, accessed either from North Callahan Creek or from Naples, Idaho.
One might ask, in a huckleberry season as bountiful and prolific as this season, when access to plentiful berries could be had by simply driving to one’s favorite picking site, would packing several gallons out from 4 miles in the Cabinets or Katka-Boulder hardly make sense? Could it be sharing the wild with the inimitable joy of humankind’s most loyal companion, the unsurpassed aromatic presence of alpine habitat, warm breezes and gentle swaying of trees, streams and pools of consummately pristine, untainted water, not-withstanding the benefits of physical and mental health, as well as fulfilling the age-old mantra: the harder the task, the more satisfying the result?
At the end of a long but fulfilling day, after 8-10 miles and as many hours of labor, my beloved hiking “partner” lies sound asleep in my truck’s backseat, long before I’ve shed my hiker’s gear, placed the berries in my cooler, and partaken of a much-deserved, ice-cold beverage.
Katasha is the third in a years-long lineage of Golden retrievers that have been so incredibly life-enhancing- a breed famous for intelligence and exceptional kindness, gentle with our grandchildren and beloved by my students at Turning Winds Academic Institute. It was not, however, without some trepidation in acquiring another. As of this writing, I lost my last to cancer (as well as my first) exactly four years ago, and was sure at the time I wasn’t capable of suffering such an emotional process, although a necessary one, such as euthanasia again. As the months passed (a healthy distance between the loss of a pet and getting another, according to the experts), I pursued and purchased Kasha from a breeder in Colville, Wa., and after the first year (emphasis on “after the first year,” which was truly a nightmare- I’ve no doubt most dog owners can identify with that “first year”), have not regretted the decision. I cannot imagine having the impetus to maintain as healthy a lifestyle, one that involves wood gathering, bird hunting, huckleberry picking, scenic hiking, etc., without her.
Many folks however, who desire a change in lifestyle as they age (“snowbirds,” for example) ,would find a larger-breed dog burdensome; furthermore, numerous are the accounts of accidental falls caused by an overly rambunctious young dog (in our family alone, we experienced a broken collarbone, reinjured pelvis, and a shattered kneecap requiring surgery within a year of acquiring our Golden. It is a miracle that she (Kasha) is still with us!)
Euthanasia, according to Dr. Michelle Pich, a veterinary grief counselor and instructor at the University of Pennsylvania, suggests that circumstances in this regard are typically fraught with uncertainty-that no other decision we make in life is similar. According to Pich, “Euthanasia is the pet owner deciding to take on the emotional pain of letting their loved pet go, to help prevent their pet from feeling any more physical pain.” She describes it as an “emotional rollercoaster,” claiming that the emotional pain can often be worse after a few days or even weeks than it did on the first day. In fact, most people put off this most painful of decisions. Only three times in her 30-some years of practice did her clients express regret that they made this decision too early. While every human society has well-developed rituals to help us through the horrific loss of a loved one, we lack those compensatory coping skills and rituals when a beloved pet is lost to us.
The Lost Dog of the Yaak
A number of years ago (although it seems like yesterday), while bird-hunting on the Yaak’s West Fork Rd. near dusk, a party coming down the road waved me to a stop, expressing concern about an Australian Shepherd some two miles up, an obviously lost dog they fleetingly had in their grasp, one that somehow escaped them. Within a mile, near a bridge that crosses that rushing stream, there, in my headlights, stood the most gorgeous Aussie I’d ever seen. I immediately came to a stop and cautiously opened my truck’s door, hoping to entice the skittish animal towards me, but without success. One option I briefly considered was to allow my previously-owned Golden retriever (Katoya) out of the truck, hopefully luring the Shepherd close to me. The danger of that became obvious-two dogs would potentially be lost instead of one. Unlike my current Golden, who stays closely attached to me in the wild and is never out of sight, Katoya was a wanderer, and I was always very cautious hiking with her in the Yaak. Unlike the Cabinets, that were sculpted thousands of years ago and defined by deep gorges, the Yaak was glaciated more recently, with many rounded ridges and vales; thus, on the path of a deer scent, for example, a dog could fall into a variety of drainages and very quickly become disoriented and lost. It was a chance I was unwilling to take!
For the next few weeks, a number of Yaak residents combed the woods, searching for such a beautiful animal. The owners left messages on trees (phone numbers, name of the dog, etc.), and favorite snacks along the roadway, all to no avail. I had assumed that I was the last to see it, but later heard rumors that others too had a brief glimpse of the dog. Suffice it to say that the animal was never found, and with numerous wild predators occupying the Yaak Valley, one had to assume the worst.
I awake in the night this time of year, my favorite time of year, and continue to be haunted by my failure to rescue that dog, being so near to it. It was a gorgeous fall day to be out in the Yaak, but one that turned excruciatingly tragic by evening. Throughout the ensuing weeks, it was hard to face the searing anguish in the eyes of those unfortunate owners, and the way this story played out was unimaginably sorrowful. It remains truly heartbreaking to think about it.
As I reflect upon this unfortunate episode from the past, huckleberry season is over, wood gathered, chopped and stored, the garden put to rest, and the long summer hikes with Kasha behind us as hunters take to the field. Other than an occasional grouse hunting foray, we both may soon be serenely snuggling up close to the stove, book in hand, a long sigh of contentment emanating from a companion that knows nothing but the most profound affection, and gives back, commensurably, the same.