Beauty, exhilaration, panic and fear in one outdoor adventure
“They were plans built on the shifting sands of panic and despair. Plans of desperation and, at their heart, hopelessness.”
By Mitch Mode
Special to the Star Journal
I was working with Bella off leash. Big trees, brushy cover; a good mix. She’d range out, I’d whistle, she’d race back for a treat. She never hesitated on the return. We’d been out for half an hour without a misstep. It was going well. I was proud of her.
We crossed an open area into some big woods. She moved ahead of me to an old logging road, stopped, looked back, hesitated.
Then she took flight, front legs reaching forward, rear legs extended in a power-drive.
For one instant I had a vision of the old Greyhound buses with the greyhound outstretched, running, always running. Bella ran in a blur of motion, in a race toward an unseen goal, full bore, running smooth. In that moment a thing of beauty; a dog running in joy and excitement, feeling exhilaration and in that instant running is the most natural thing in the world.
When I was young I could run and on special days, very rare, there would come a time of mindless running, effortless and smooth, times of running when the burdens lifted and feet became wings and I felt I could run forever. I no longer can, but my dogs show me what I’ve lost and in their best moments I see the power and the joy and I am reminded of a river running uphill defying gravity and defying all we take for fact.
For a moment Bella showed me that. In that moment I stood in awe. Then I reached for the whistle to call her back. Three loud, firm blasts. She never slowed.
She ran to a dip in the landscape. I lost sight of her. And then: Gone.
Bella was nowhere to be seen. I whistled. Again with the whistle and again. The silent trees mocked me. Then fear rose like bile and I ran, ran to where I’d last seen her, my heart pounding from the run and from the fear. I stood in the wood trail. There was no sign of her.
I whistled again. Silence. I ran in the direction she’d gone. The old trail split in a Y.
Which way to go? I went left up a hill and at the top of the hill stood, panting hard, looked over the valley, ahead to the rise beyond. Whistled. Waited. Nothing. She was gone.
I ran back where I’d come from, tossed my jacket and gear on the ground; if she came back that way she’d settle on it. Maybe.
Then I turned and ran deeper into the woods and I ran, ran like I’d not done in years.
The land rises and falls like rollers on the big water. Ridgelines hide shadowed valleys and on the far side of the narrow valley the land rises again. I ran on the old road on the contours of the ragged landscape.
Deer flags; white tails, brown forms. No Bella in pursuit. I ran deeper into the woods whistle in hand, raising it, blowing it. Nothing. I ran half a mile and stood on the edge of a field. I looked for the mottled gray of puppy, looked for moment and form. Stood, sweat running in my eyes, stood alone. Then turned back the way I’d come.
She was gone. Four-and-a-half-months old and no clue of real world peril, gone running in wolf country, gone to who knows where. Gone. Just gone. Taken up in ghostly woods and phantom shadows, gone to dark clouds of uncertainty and fear, gone. The deep, primal anxiety that lies buried in our gut rose to my chest.
I had no idea what to do. I had no plan. I jogged when I could, walked when I had to, ran on the down hills. I came to my jacket where I’d thrown it to the ground. No Bella. I left it there and went back to the west, toward the road, toward my hunt shack.
I’d have to call Sally and tell her the dog was gone, tell her I had no idea where she was and tell her…well, what would I tell her? What could I say? What words to speak?
I’d go to my shack, get the truck and cruise the paved road looking for her. I’d tell Sally to drive out. I’d put the truck in 4-wheel low and drive the old dirt road.
They were plans built on the shifting sands of panic and despair. Plans of desperation and, at their heart, hopelessness.
I crossed the blacktop road to the driveway that leads to my shack. I jogged down the two-track to my truck and the shack.
Bella was there. Bella was there with tail wagging and eyes bright and ran to me as if I was the most important person in her life. I told her she was a good dog even though I did not think she was. I told her she was a wonderful puppy even though I wanted to do her harm. I held her and rubbed her ears and, ever so carefully, reached for the leash and clicked in onto her collar.
How she got there I will never know. She had to have been over half a mile away in country she was not familiar with when she ran off in the direction away from that shack. She had to have navigated that, doubled back in woods she’d never seen, crossed the blacktop road to find the driveway and gotten to the shack. At some point she’d been in the lake, she was soaking wet.
I lifted her to the truck and closed the door behind her. I called Sally and told her we were coming home and she asked how it had gone. I thought on that for a moment, then told her it had been interesting. Told her I’d fill her in later.
Bella crawled to the back and lay down. She slept like an angel all the way home.
An assortment of outdoor products is available at Mel’s Trading Post, downtown Rhinelander. Call 715-362-5800.