Sunday, November 24, 2013

Long May You Run: Bird-Dog (1996-2013)

things are so easily lost.
things just can’t be kept forever.
- Charles Bukowski “White Dog” 

   This weekend we made the decision to put our wonderful, beautiful Bird-Dog to rest after a couple months of increasing hardship and difficulty with her failing health. She was seventeen years old, which was something special for such a large dog, and a part of my life for the past fourteen. She had so many friends, four-legged and other people, who loved her company and boundless energy, and will be missed by all who knew her.

"Life's a beach"

   In fact it was the loss of that same energy that marked the gradual turn of events, as she grew more despondent and lethargic; her tail was always drooping, only a weak wag or two for a welcome anymore. Our walks became more of a slow meandering, weaving down the trail, a little deaf and blind, but damned if she wouldn't just keep going as long as you were there. And that stubborn trust is what we had to honor by making the right call, the hardest one of all.
   It was that quiet stare, her milky eyes looking at you all the time; just standing still because it would hurt so much to try and sit, and once lying down, it would be for hours because it took too much to get back up again. The pain medication kept down most of the groaning and whining, but after that much time with anyone, you just know when they are hurting, and trying to tell you something.

Skyscraper Ridge, Hatcher Pass

   Carrying her outdoors and down the steps to go to the bathroom had been a routine for the past couple months, and she had began to suffer noticeably with the onset of the bitter cold of another Alaskan winter. Along with issues such as increased incontinence - dealing with the constant cleanup of piss and shit all over everything (a hopeless hassle in a dry cabin) - she had also begun to lose weight and major muscle mass alarmingly fast. This according to the vet’s diagnosis was a hallmark of intestinal cancer, another common malady of older animals. And as part of the counseling we also carefully considered the Pawspice "Quality of Life Scale." which helped tremendously when confronting the potential guilt of too-soon versus too-late as far as timing the decision.

Tundra Snuggle: Part of the pack.

   Speaking of veterinarians, my respect for them and what a goddamned tough job they have is multiplied a hundredfold after this experience. Nothing like hanging out in a busy clinic and seeing the steady stream of stricken pets and their people to make you appreciate the full range of an emotional roller-coater that must be: maybe one pet a day on average needs to be put to sleep, offset by the puppies and kittens as a reminder of the cycle of life.
   We opted for a clinic’s help (Mt. McKinley Animal Hospital): my route had been to utilize a mobile vet who comes to my cabin for the cats, but minus thirty makes for mighty hard gravedigging, and there was an added bonus of cremation services (come this spring Bird-Dogs ashes will be scattered at some of her favorite sites and trails).
   The veterinarian was so empathetic and understanding, she showed so much compassion for all of us it was truly touching. And we were also joined unexpectedly by a dear friend who shared some of her support and was a big help to have there in the room at the end, and outside afterward as well. The hour-long process went professionally and cleanly, in a special room set aside for such a thing. After laying her down on a fuzzy blanket, her ankle was shaved and a catheter inserted into a vein and taped up by a couple assistants. The veterinarian then came in to the room sat on the floor with us and explained the procedure, and administered a sedative to put Bird-Dog to sleep, followed by a Phenobarbital to stop the heart. Then the vet left us alone for us to say goodbye while Bird-Dog went to sleep as we held her in our arms.

   Afterwards we pulled over by a favorite field, a place that Bird-Dog had spent many a time on the trails, to watch a beautiful November sunset and make a couple phonecalls. Coming back home to the cabin was just as hard, seeing the empty cushion and food and water bowls just made me lose my shit all over again. Didn’t think I had any more tears left inside, but there’s as big a hole left in the picture now as there is in our heart. Then the phantom effect of mis-hearing movement, the absence of ever-present noise in the background, like shifting around on the bedding, lapping up water from the bowl, and the remembering of a routine that there’s no need to do anymore, like getting up to let her in when she’s not there.

   Even going back down the road, the very next day after our last walk together, I started crying all over again because of the tracks left in the snow, my baby steps next to hers, with long streaks from her dragging her hind feet along. And then having breakfast at the diner the morning after, tearing up over the usual side of extra bacon… no need to wrap them up a doggie bag anymore, nobody waiting with anticipatory drool for our leftovers out in the truck.
   Bereavement is a bitch.

Goldmint Trail, Hatcher Pass/Talkeetna Range, AK

   It’s an emotional salve to focus instead on the memories that increasingly begin to seep over the fresher, sharper pain of the end. What I choose to remember most is Bird-Dog’s sudden spurts of energy spent pelting at top speed in endless circles around and around and around the cabin, or the yard, or the field, or the truck, just a wild, crazy joy, just because she was so full of life. And hair. Lots of fuzz, all the time, everywhere. She would arbitrarily decide to blow her coat every couple-few months, regardless of what state we were currently living in, or nomatter what season it was.

Norumbega Mountain, Acadia Nat. Park, ME.

    True to her breed's heritage (the ubiquitous Lab/husky mix so prevalent in the Interior) she so loved rolling in the snow; it was an annual ecstasy, a seasonal rite of passage in the spring to seek out those last, lingering patches for one more wallow. Part goofy and part smart, she spent much of her waking moments waiting to play, and whether it was with us, another dog or by herself, the days had many an opportunity to grab a chew-toy, one of her stuffed animals, or just any ol’ stick and just have at it. When on a hike she’d be let off the leash, and our faithful scout would bound ahead, then back again, making what for us was just a five-mile hike into a twenty-mile excursion for her. One of our favorite tricks was to whistle and then hide behind trees as she would seek us out, barking in admonishment upon our eventual discovery. Bird-Dog was very well trained and always stayed under vocal control and also responded to hand gestures along with specific commands and questions (quite the sublime pleasure after dealing with cats).

Castner Glacier, Alaska Range

   Bird-Dog probably logged more miles by truck and paw than a lot of people ever do; she saw more amazing things and visited many incredible places in her long life. Multiple drives across the continent from Alaska to the Lower 48, and many times up and down the East coast: more adventures than most people have ever had, she was lucky, and had a good life, as we were lucky to have her make ours better too.
   From a pound in Fairbanks back to a puppyhood in Kotzebue, all across Alaska, bounding through the fields and farm of Iowa, and across meadows in Montana, to the mountains of Maine. One of my most memorable expeditions was the two of us exploring the Castner Glacier in the Eastern Alaska Range. She accompanied me for a four-day/extended weekend traversing the length of the glacier up to the icefields surrounding Silvertip. One of many times we spent curled up together in a tent, this time listening to the tremors of nearby avalanches and the whisper of the wind as it cocooned our campsite in fresh snow.
   Another in the many memories we shared together was a field-sketch trip to the granite tor rock formations in the White Mountains around Mount Prindle: magical moments sitting on the side of a hill watching a pack of wolves directly across the valley from us, whose singing made Bird-Dog cock her head and lift her ears as if listening to a much more distant and primal call.

Long Pond, Acadia Nat. Park, ME

   I think Bird-Dog had the best time of her life right around the time things turned the corner for her: the majority of hikes taken during our tenure in Maine (2010-11) were with her, plus at least three-quarters of the peaks in Acadia National Park I scaled with her by my side. That included some hairy moments that involved carrying her up and down some logistically challenging spots, which she always seemed to understand suffering a temporary indignity was always worth the reward – something always shared between only the best of hiking buddies. Here she seemed at her happiest, bittersweet as it was also the beginning of the end what with the onset of Lyme disease, and a scare with vestibular disease.

Butte-iful Photobomb: Bodenburg Butte/Palmer, AK

  For Hatcher Pass in 2012 saw some prudent restrictions in the heroic outings: marked more by occasional excursions that were limited in distance and difficulty. Still, she took part in many a spectacular scene as we explored the Talkeetna Range and the Chugach Mountains together. Accelerated arthritis notwithstanding, she soldiered on, and more often than not, leaving her behind was a worse alternative.


   Throughout all my life I’ve been what I suppose you'd call a “cat person,” having had several of them, and many more in the periphery amongst family and friends. Bird-Dog was the first dog to ever become truly part of the family, a pack member, if you will. She coexisted with the cats perfectly: playing with the one who was into that sort of thing, and studiously respecting/ignoring the other one who wasn’t about to engage in such interspecies nonsense.
   Reading about other people’s experiences helps to process the feelings: as it happened, a National Geographic essay was published on a phenomenon noted by author Virginia Hughes
“In 1989, grief expert Kenneth Doka wrote that pet loss … is a type of "disenfranchised grief," meaning that the griever's relationship with the deceased, and therefore, the griever's grief, is not sufficiently recognized by other people. Pets, unlike people, are not publicly mourned, which means that grievers don't get the social support they need to recover.”
   That said, Fairbanks is a Mecca for animal people, not the least of which being a tremendous dog community, and there is so much support from the many friends who can certainly share in the experience of losing a loved one. Which is good, because I’m having a really hard time dealing with this, but that’s entirely normal and healthy. And all the reading I’ve done on how other folks recover and go through the grief has been a big help, and so let this public display of mourning, my little memorial photo-essay here, be a testament to how it’s okay to feel that way.

Good thing dogs can't read.

   So on Friday Bird-Dog had her Last Best Day, with an unending supply of treats, a short walk down the driveway, followed by more treats, a couple gourmet meals of salmon and scrambled eggs, treats, free range of the cabin, more treats (and yes baby - today you can sneak into the back room and chow down on all the cat food you want). Smooching the grey muzzle and skritching behind the floppy ears, nuzzling and nesting. Another friend came by the cabin for a visit, but aside from that it was a peaceful evening spent in quiet care.

Eagle Summit, AK

   Bird-Dog taught us lessons in unconditional forgiveness, dependency, companionship and trust, and she reminded us every day of how the simple pleasures and basic needs are all that really counts in life.
   Love most of all. And treats.
   Lots & lots of treats.


  1. My condolences, James. I never had the pleasure of meeting Bird-Dog, but I feel as if I knew her through your posts and this beautiful remembrance. Best thoughts to you.

  2. What a wonderful post. It made me cry and laugh. I really enjoyed seeing her pictures. She will be greatly missed. :)

  3. Loved reading this. Made me laugh and cry. Her pictures clearly show what a beautiful soul she has.

  4. Thank you Paige & John: judging from the sheer volume of traffic just this one post generated it touched an awful lot of folks... an awesome and fittingly fond remembrance for our wonderful fuzzball.