Dear Reader: The truth is never an absolute; it is subjective and it changes over time. So I do not claim that any of what I write is the truth. It is only my perception and recollection of events as they happened years ago. In some situations I have changed names and details to protect the privacy of people involved.
NOTE: I will never write about upsetting details without a warning.
It was pouring rain and dusk was approaching, but I wanted to stretch my legs and get a better sense of my new surroundings.
I put on my tennis shoes and rain jacket, leashed up Jackie and headed out the front door. A few strides took me into the parking area in front of the park office, and a couple dozen more to the other side and to a trail head. We walked the little bridge across the creek that comes down the hill then runs along both sides of the park entrance road.
It looked like a tropical rainforest: lush, green, and dripping wet. Beautiful western redcedar, douglas fir, big leaf maples and cottonwoods dominated the forest. The generous understory consisted of vine maple, elderberry, and many plants I didn’t know. Closer to the ground was just as plentiful: five kinds of fern (sword, bracken, licorice, deer and maiden hair), several types of edible berries though none were in fruit (both Himalayan and wild blackberry, Pacific and red huckleberry, salmonberry, thimbleberry, fairy bell, salal, and Oregon grape), and moss and lichen blanketing downed trees and limbs. The air was fragrant with the wild, earthy, fertile smell of a living forest, where new springs from old, and death nourishes life. I breathed it in, and then bent down to unleash Jackie. As always I said to her, “OK now be good. You have to come to me when I call you.” She wriggled impatiently, wondering what the hold-up was. As soon as she heard the “snap” that meant freedom, she raced ahead.
I pocketed her leash and hiked taking big strides, swinging my arms. I looked around. I looked up. It was magnificent. I passed an old western redcedar stump, known generally as “cedar,” cut off a good ten feet from the bottom where the tree fans out quickly and creates a far greater challenge for those cutting it down. Out of the stump top a red huckleberry bush grew. I saw a couple notches on the stump, and later learned they were the notches made for springboards: 100 years ago when this forest was logged, boards would be fit into the notches, laying horizontally so a man could stand on them while he and his partner on another springboard would hold either end of a crosscut saw.
I got to a fork in the trail: to the right it sloped downhill; to the left, uphill. I called Jackie and pretty soon she came running towards me from the right hand fork. “Come on girl,” I enthused, and turned left.
The trail came out onto the fire road. I thought for a moment, trying to orient myself. I turned right, continuing uphill. The road was gravel and slick with a mat of leaves, little rivulets running down it. My breath came out in plumes. I picked up my pace, really stretching my legs on the steep uphill. Jackie trotted alongside, then darted ahead, periodically stopping to sniff.
We came to a white metal gate pulled across the road. A sign indicated the end of the park boundary. I’d been told much of the land beyond belonged to a timber company, though Dosewallips had acquired the piece of property further up that was being rehabilitated; and just beyond was the Olympic National Forest, over 600,000 acres of wilderness surrounding the Olympic National Park. I decided this was enough for our first outing. The light was starting to fade, my tennis shoes had soaked through, and I was getting cold. I hollered to Jackie who looked back at me from up ahead, then turned and raced back to me, passed me up, and disappeared around a bend in the road.
The fresh smells and lush beauty were not quite so appealing now that I was feeling underdressed, and the rain poured even harder. I pulled my hood closer around my face and wrapped my arms around my middle. I hunkered down and marched a rhythmic pace downhill, now only paying attention to my footing so I wouldn’t twist an ankle on loose gravel or slip on decomposing leaves.
After a while I lifted my head and looked around for Jackie. She wasn’t in sight, but I was on a curved stretch of road with a steep hillside on the right, and couldn’t see very far in front or behind. I called to her. Not seeing her, I turned around and called the way I’d come. Sometimes on walks if I stayed where I was long enough she would notice I was missing and find her way back to me, the way dogs amazingly can. I continued to holler, and still no Jackie. I started getting irritated. I was cold and wet, and didn’t need trouble from her right now. I decided to backtrack to where I’d last seen her; sometimes she would catch an exciting scent and get so wrapped up in smelling and digging, she would be oblivious to my calls. That or, like a child, she had selective hearing.
I didn’t see her while retracing my steps, though I continued calling her in every direction. She probably was just out of sight, behind a big log with her nose to the ground and her butt in the air, tail wobbling with excitement. Damn dog! I stood where I’d last seen her, reviewing my options. I could return home, going along the path we’d come up on, and trust her to sniff her way back. That had worked before. But we were in a new place, we’d never come this way before today, so nothing would be familiar to her. And I worried that the rain would wash away the scent of our route. And if she simply stayed on the fire road and headed down, she would end up dangerously close to the highway. To top it off, I hadn’t yet updated her dog tag with our address or phone number. If someone found her, they would have no way of knowing where she belonged.
I decided it was too risky to go home and decided to walk back and forth between two points: where I’d last seen her, and where I’d first noticed her missing, and just keep on walking and calling her until she showed up.
Didn’t cougars come out at dusk to hunt? Jackie would be a prime morsel for one. Would I even hear her scream? Would I ever find her remains? Would I have to engage a cougar in order to save her? No question my dog would take on a cougar, having no real sense of her inferior stature and strength.
I pulled off my hood because the crinkling noise muffled sounds I needed to hear: Jackie running, barking, or screaming in distress; or a cougar snarling. Did cougars snarl? Probably. I tried to turtle into my jacket as much as possible, and took turns blowing on each hand to warm up my numb fingers. I looked up at the rain, the incessant, pounding rain, and the impending darkness. I cursed my dog. I cursed myself for being so ill prepared. I didn’t have as much as a pocket knife to defend myself against a cougar. I imagined coming around a bend and seeing one, all sleek and magnificent and terrifying. I would yell at it, unzip my jacket and pull the front open, making myself appear larger (hoping the cougar wouldn’t think that only meant more deliciousness to enjoy). Then I would have to decide. It’s recommended to throw sticks and rocks at them. I know that sounds like it would just piss off a cougar, provoke it, but that’s what the experts recommend. Problem is I’d have to bend down to pick them up, making myself seem smaller. Which would be more effective? Sticks and rocks? Or staying big? I guess I would have to hope for Divine Intervention or Instinct to fill me in on that one.
I continued my march. Downhill, knee joints smashing, tennis shoes squishing, yelling “Jackie” every two steps. Then uphill, thighs burning, toes stubbing, more yelling. All interspersed with the peanut gallery of my thoughts.
“Stupid, stupid dog! Why doesn’t she answer? It’s cold and I want to go home. I’m never letting her off-leash again. I am stupid, so stupid. Why did I let her off leash in a new place, without a new dog tag?”
Now I had to pee. And I was shaking hard from the cold, despite my physical workout. With each jarring step, my bladder protested. My fingers were numb. My toes were numb. My thoughts were numb, except for my mantra of “stupid,” directed equally between me and my dog. I pivoted yet again and started uphill. I started to whimper.
As I came around a corner, I noticed something 200 yards ahead in the middle of the road. I squinted through the dimming light and pounding rain. It was Jackie. Thank goodness! What was she doing just standing there in the middle of the road, looking at me? I hollered to her. And then suddenly she was in motion, running towards me with a wiggle in her hind end. As I waited for her I crouched down, continuing to scan for cougars.
Jackie raced up to me. Her eyes glinted wildly, as if she’d gone half-crazy during her time alone in the forest. Her fur was plastered to her body, saturated through and through. I reached out and calmly took her collar with fingers that could barely feel, and snapped on her leash. I kissed her wet forehead and told her how much I loved her and that I was so glad to see her again, and how she was in so much trouble she’d never be allowed off leash again.
By the time we walked in the front door I was seeing yellow. I unleashed Jackie and sloshed into the bathroom, scraping my pants off my hips and down past my knees. After a long, long pee, I roughly toweled Jackie and cranked up the heat. Then I peeled off my clothes and hopped in the shower, holding my fingers under the hot water for a long time as they went from numb, to feeling like they were burning, to finally warming up. I savored the feelings of an empty bladder, of being warm, of standing under hot water; and of knowing my pup was safe and warm as well.
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