Outdoor Adventure: If only dogs could talk
By Mitch Mode
Special to the Star Journal
Come times of snow, the dogs’ world turns smaller. In the time of no-snow the twosome runs free across the backyard, east fence to west side fence, garage at the south to the garage bookending at the north. The yard is their world, their playground, their domain.
The dogs own the yard from spring break up through the dusty heat of summer to the time of leaf fall. Dawning to dusk, it belongs to them. In the dark before sunrise to the star sprinkled night sky the dogs can range; their horizons expand.
Then comes snow. Then comes the chill of November and the bitter cold of January and through it all the snow builds in layers, a bit here, a few inches more, a heavy snowfall; it accumulates and as it does the dogs’ world draws in on them.
In the first snows we let it all be; the dogs trace their web of tracks across the yard, back and forth, from lilac bushes to slatted fence; they stand at the fence to peer out at the world beyond. It is still part of their universe.
With time the snow builds too deep and we use a snowblower to cut a pathway from patio out into the yard in an inverted “U” and back to the walkway, giving them respite in the deepening snow. That becomes the core of their backyard. Their world comes in. I wonder at times if it weighs on them, if it brings a sadness in the contraction of what they once had to what they now must cope with.
One wishes that dogs could speak; they would have much to say. In this December I would ask them, “Does this bother you, this pulling in of your backyard?” I would wait their reply with interest. Do they feel the discouragement of so many that I talk to as the snow brings their world, their human world, in tighter?
The dogs cannot speak and can only run in the narrow pathway that is the width of a snowblower and now, with each passing snowfall becomes more confining.
I walk to the yard, kneel and lower my face to the level of Fenway’s head which, given his diminutive size of a Boston terrier, is not very high off the ground. From his perspective the world is a slice of sky above but to the sides the horizon is a shifting line, sometimes visible, sometimes hidden from view in a deeper drift of snow.
I think to myself that it is as I sometimes feel in the depths of a big city where buildings rise tall in dull shades of gray and glint of glass and the only glimpse of a natural life is the thin ribbon of sky that I can see overhead. This becomes the world of my dogs as snowfalls come and snow depth builds and much of what they can see is only strata of packed snow.
At times they break out, forge their own way in the snow to the back fence where they can look out beyond at the world as they see it in summer and fall. But most of their time is spent in the channel in the snow or the hard frozen brickwork of shoveled walkway along the garage. This is their winter world. I wonder what they think of it.
Thor, longer legged and head-held-high is less bothered by the snow depth. He can still see over the top of the pathway through the snow; he can still push his way out of the cut lane to the back fence where he moves tight against the chain link and breaks a trail as the deer now do in their deep-winter yards.
But Thor carries other burdens.
Age has caught up with Thor, age and sorrow. Riika was born of the same parents but two years before Thor. Riika became the foundation of the dogs’ world; she was the cornerstone, the dominant dog in the house and when she died both dogs were distraught. Fenway seems to have come out of it. Thor has not.
There is a melancholy about Thor now, a weariness that is not simply the accumulation of the years. His eyes have gone dull, his head held lower, his gait uneven. His age, yes; but more. He has not recovered from losing Riika.
Two months ago I took him hunting on a picture perfect October morning when fall color was just past peak and the morning chill was giving way to a too-warm-to-hunt afternoon. We were in the sweet spot; good visibility in the woods and the temperature just right for a dog to work.
We walked a mile that day, an easy loop in the glory of October in an area rich in grouse and woodcock. We’ve hunted all his life. He’d always enjoyed it, working with a lightness to his gait and a nose that took in the world of unseen scent. He loved to hunt.
On this day though, a reluctance, a hanging back at heel. He was not finding joy in the hunt. He always had hunted with bright eyes and high energy. No more.
I have a photo of him that I took that day. Head high in the golden glow of sun; background of grouse woods; a handsome dog. I have it in color on my computer screen. But another photo, rendered in black and white; stark. Of Thor showing eyes clouded, head low, carrying a burden of sadness on that day.
It was the last day we would hunt together. Ever. I knew it.
I watch them, Thor and Fenway, in the deepening snow. I watch the two of them in the backyard where the snow grows deeper and the days shorter. I think of times past. I think of time present. I avoid thoughts of the future.
I wonder what they could tell me if they could talk.
An assortment of outdoor products is available at Mel’s Trading Post, downtown Rhinelander. Call 715-362-5800.