Elwayville: Water Dogs

You know who loves playing in the water even more than you? Your everloving canine companion.

You know who loves playing in the water even more than you? Your everloving canine companion.

My mother reads this column. She has Elevation Outdoors delivered to the house she and Dad moved to in Tacoma, Washington, which she now shares with a stray, 14-pound Norwegian Forest cat named Hope Louise who lives on the third floor. Two years ago, after mom’s last German Shepherd died, Hope Louise mysteriously showed up at the front door.

A neighbor said the cat lived under the boat in his yard the entire winter. And since Hope Louise moved in with my mom, she hasn’t once been back outdoors. Mom would like to get another dog, but doesn’t think the cat would approve. We talk about dogs every time I call. When I told her I was writing a column about high alpine streams, well-loved pups, and our history in Colorado, she said, “You should write about the time Toby dropped a rock on Dad’s fishing pole.”

Toby was our first family dog, a beautiful, large German Shepherd that my dad got when he was in the Air Force before my brother and I were born. Dad taught Toby to fetch rocks from the bottom of lakes and rivers. On a camping trip to Twin Lakes, near Leadville, Toby decided to start the game himself, flipping dad a five-pound rock that shattered Dad’s brand new fishing pole. As I remember, we spent the rest of the weekend eating macaroni and cheese and oatmeal. We packed in all our food from that point on.

I also remember a consistent, adventurous succession of German Shepherds who accompanied us on numerous long treks through the Rockies—there was Sohn (he died on Mt. Princeton), Pancho (so big and black people thought he was a bear), Otto (who loved to ski) and Murphy (who kept my dad calm and happy in his final years).

Toby Two

I had my own dog named Toby, a Labrador/Malamute mix I acquired from a drunken roommate in Jackson Hole. I I took care of Toby whenever the roommate was out at the bars. When he asked me to do the same while he guided rivers in Alaska for the summer, I said, “Sure, but he won’t still be yours when you come home.”

Toby was a rambunctious, social creature who ran away for weeks in a row. Once, after I put up a new series of “Lost Dog” signs, one caller said he had seen him over the pass in Idaho. Toby usually came home when he was hungry or needed me to clean his snout of porcupine quills, although once he came running into the house with a giant trout that I will never know if he caught or stole.

On hungover summer Sundays, we’d drive along the Snake River, walk a mile or two back up the road, then jump in the water and let the current carry us back to the car. Sometimes skiing Teton Pass, I had to wait for Toby to get in another run, sprinting after some other group of boot-packers up the hill. When I moved back to Denver, we would drive up to Rocky Mountain National Park in the spring where, like the Toby before him, Toby 2 would jump into the river after floating logs.

When he died, I took his ashes up to Glory Bowl on Teton Pass on a Fourth of July weekend, and as I spread his powdery remains in the wind, a young woman hiked up to me and demanded to know, “Is that snow?”

I stayed a week longer and took Toby’s little black Labrador sister Bella to the Snake every day, teaching her to swim with her giant webbed paws. We stopped to fish just south of Sheridan, where she jumped in the lake for a dip, then sprinted along the beach until she got tangled in my line and snapped my fishing pole.

Dog Years

As much as I love being outdoors, I don’t know if I would enjoy it as much without a dog. Their excitement, enthusiasm, and especially their own wild, back-to-nature instincts make a a hike a swim,

or a run so much more interesting than it would be alone. As much as our human minds keep turning, the hardest thing to do is to be as present—and happy—as dogs always are, forever in the now!

I also love that innate sense of instantly sharing anything and everything that happens without saying any words, which only occurs with dogs, and the very best people you know.

When our blonde Labrador Bettie Wonder, a strong skier, runner and rabbit chaser, but not a particularly enthusiastic swimmer, passed on two years ago, my wife and I ran out of things to talk about. So we got a puppy for the first time in 15 years. I lost seven pounds the first month she was here. And I got deep out into the open space behind our house again, seeing the trees, birds and undulating folds of the rising hills through the dog’s eyes, always ready to be rediscovered, always revealing something new.

I also felt optimistic again. I was embarking on a new journey through the natural world that I hope will last many years. Time is a river, of course, and with a good dog as a companion, it feels just fine to be back in the flow.