Outdoor Adventures: Riika at 14
By Mitch Mode
Thunder cracks. I bolt wide awake, heart revving full. Pitch black; clock face light shows 3 a.m. The Boston terrier, Fenway, whines. I can see his outline in the dim light of the clock, ears cocked, alert, frightened. I tell him it’s OK and he turns his head toward me.
We hold for a moment as if waiting for another round of thunder. Nothing comes.
I lie back down and listen to the sound of rain. After a moment Fenway goes down, burrows into the blanket and curls up. There is no more thunder in the night and we return to normal. Outside the rain falls cold and steady.
In the darkness before dawn the dogs wake, Thor and Fenway; Riika sleeps late. I open the back door. It is still raining and the dogs stand statue still and refuse to leave the house. I try to shame them into it by asking if they are afraid they’ll melt. They still seem disinclined to go out in spite of it all so I close the door and feed them.
The day before Riika had turned 14 and we gave her food scraps from the table as a special birthday treat. She took the treats as if treasure rare and valuable. This morning she will sleep late as she usually does.
She is deaf now and moves tentatively. She wears her age in the white on her muzzle and the cloud in her eyes. A week ago I walked her in the woods and afterwards she was stiff and achy. It took her a day or two to limber back up. On the night of the thunder Riika did not stir; she could not hear the sound. She slept soundly.
I thought back this week, as winter fades and thaw comes, thought back to when she was young. Sally lived on the far end of Lake Tomahawk and in late winter I’d ski on the lake ice when there was enough remnant snow to give ski edge some bite. Riika would go with me, running free and easy, chasing the dreams of her wild heart.
We skied at daybreak one day, this time of the year. The day prior had been warm and the snow turned to slush and then froze in overnight chill. We went out, I on skis, she on a run, went out and turned back after half an hour. Riika lagged behind. That was not normal. I waited; she came up to me, tentative.
When she came to me, I could see smudges of blood on the frozen snow where she walked. The snow, when it froze, left sharp edges and over distance the pads on her feet were cut ever so lightly, but repeatedly, and now when she ran, she left smears of red on the snow that remained.
I picked her up, held her in my arms, and started to ski back, slowly now with the burden of a dog. She held still; she knew why I carried her. It took a long time to get back to land. I put her down, she shook off; went on as if all was normal.
That day the temperature went high and the top of the lake turned to slush and standing water and the next day the ice broke up and winter was gone.
That was a long time ago and we have both slowed. Riika can no longer run crazy wild and I pretend I no longer care to.
I wonder if dogs have memory of days past. They have memory, of course; commands and the lay of the land in the yard. They can remember people. We have a friend who visits once a year; Thor remembers him and will not leave the man’s side. Riika remembered (and not fondly) our former vet. When he came to the house to visit, Riika would run to greet him then recognize him and back away and not come close again. It took her two years to get over it.
Riika can remember, from one autumn to the next, what roads we hunt and where the turn-offs are. She will run ahead to a small cut in the trees, the old, grown-over path we walk, she’ll run to that each autumn we hunt and turn back to me, waiting for me to signal her down the path. But she remembers where it is before I tell her, remembers it after a year.
But I wonder if she can remember when she was young and could run like the restless wind of March. I wonder if she can remember when we’d ski together across the big lakes on mornings when spring was in the air and the day was made for freedom. I wonder now, when she is old, if she can remember the days when she was young.
I hope she cannot. I hope her memory is of places that are familiar in the fall of the year. I hope her memory is of people who come to the house and who she knows are friends. But I hope she has forgotten what it was like to be young and fit and be able to run for hours and in that find joy in her life. Those memories, they would be cruel to a dog in the same way that they can be cruel to us all.
On the day after the night of thunder the rain turned to snow. Riika went to the back door late in the morning and when I opened it she stood there. She stood as if to deliberate the value of the day at hand. She stood, head lifted to the swirl of wind and snow, sampling the scent of the day as she tastes the scent of bird in the October air. Then she walked into the yard, into the drift of late season snow as if she did not have a care in the world.
Which is how I want it to be.
An assortment of outdoor products is available at Mel’s Trading Post in downtown Rhinelander. Call 715-362-5800. To comment on this story, visit StarJournalNow.com.