I grew up a dog-loving kid.
I cried for Maggie, the spaniel who was hit by a car before I was born. Fanny, our dutiful golden retriever pulled me through knee-deep snow in our backyard during the bitter Minnesota cold. And though she never responded to a word I said, I cried, too, for Fanny when she died.
Other dogs would come later. First there was Pepper, a mutt that we picked out from a squirming litter of $10-a-head dogs that I spotted in the newspaper classifieds while dad was off on a business trip. He was not pleased. My father finally came around, well as much as you could to Pepper, a thick-skulled and habitually wanderlust dog that had to be bailed out of the pound on more than one occasion. Later we would add another dog to the mix, Rush, a squat Springer Spaniel with so much energy that she seemed on the verge of combusting at all times. It's been years since both of my childhood dogs succumbed to old age.
I couldn't bring myself to cry over Pepper. I knew she had a long, pampered life. Later I was saddened to hear that Rush, our dutiful spaniel who crashed tirelessly through acres of South Dakota corn in search of pheasants, was gone, too. But I didn't shed a tear. I had given the dogs over to my parents. I knew it was different for my parents. The house was now truly empty. The dogs were the last links to the days when doors slammed, faucets ran, telephones clanged and music pounded through the walls. The house is quiet now. The way they always said they wanted it, but surely not the way they imagined it.
As an adult, I've never really had a desire to own a dog. It's a combination of the cost, the mess and the fact that I'm surrounded by dogs - in my neighborhood, in my social life. To be honest, I'd be perfectly happy if they disappeared entirely from my life, well almost entirely. There are a few exceptions. One of them was Nina, a stocky lab with a cinnamon coat and yellow eyes who has been a consistent companion for almost a decade's worth of river adventure's, thanks to her low-key demeanor.
I met Nina in Coeur d'Alene when she was little more than the canine equivalent of a teenager. She was a rescue dog, but showed no signs of abuse, none of the skittish mistrust associated with such rehab projects. To the contrary, Nina was the dog that we trusted around our kids. The one who knew instinctively not to step on your fly line. The one who was allowed on trips when other dogs, including her sibling, Ella, were left in the rearview mirror, tails wagging forlornly.
So it was understood that when we planned our most recent river expedition, a four-day float down the Wild and Scenic Wallowa and Grande Ronde rivers, that Nina would accompany. Nina greeted the Bend contingent at the boat launch with her usual exuberance. And while it had been only a month since our last excursion, a multi-day float from Macks Canyon to the mouth, I couldn't help but notice that Nina seemed a little more subdued. The wet-nosed greeting was a little less vigorous. The eyes were still warm and the smile was still there, but there was a little less bounce in her gait. When we left the launch Nina needed help into the raft, a small jump that I saw her execute countless times. The years were catching up with Nina and all of us.
Dogs with their compressed life expectancy have a way of forcing us to reflect on our own mortality. I marveled at the gray in our beards, the lack of hair on my own head. As a parent, one of the best reasons I can think of to own a pet is to teach your children about the inevitable end of life and how to cope with it. Sometimes I think the sadness of a pet's passing is really just the realization that our time is invisibly slipping by. A dog's life serves as a tangible chapter in our own lives, and the passing of a pet is a time for reflection.
As the days passed lazily on the river, Nina and I drifted in our usual orbits. Me sipping beer as the raft slid down the river and Nina perched on the cooler seat next to me, her jowls resting on her paws, eyes fixed on the passing trees and rocks. But at camp she spent less time stalking the river and fishing with me, as was her usual habit, and more time just curled up in the autumn grass and soft river sand.
On the second day or third day, I realized that her food bowl sat untouched during mealtime. She had stopped eating, save a few scraps from our plates. My buddy Toby, who acquired Nina from the pound when she was two years old, remarked soberly that this might be Nina's last adventure on the river. If that were the case, I thought this was a fitting finale, an epic four-day adventure that included a moose sighting, a bear encounter and fall colors bursting crimson, amber and burnt orange.
After three fishless days on the river, I finally felt the pull of a steelhead during a mid-day break from rowing. Like so many times before, Nina was there as I reeled in the fish and dragged it up onto the shallow rocks. As was her custom, Nina wanted first crack at the offending rainbow trout, inserting her nose between my hand and the fish. When I finally got the hatchery steelhead unhooked and euthanized with a nearby rock, Nina waited only a minute before dragging it brazenly out of the shallow pool where I had set it. Chastised immediately by myself and Toby, Nina shot a glance that said, "yeah, what are you going to do about it." Nothing, of course. After a decade, she had earned the right to make some mischief.
At our final camp on Sunday night, Nina was out of gas and still on hunger strike. She padded around the site a bit, but didn't venture far. As we prepared to break camp on Monday morning, Nina remained staked out under a broad cottonwood tree where the late morning sun filtered through yellow leaves in a golden glow. We finally coaxed her to the raft, but not before one of us noted that it seemed Nina was content to stay here in the canyon while we pushed on.
Nina and I spent the rest of the morning fishing together and soaking in the remaining October sun. She muscled in close to me on our shared seat and I took the opportunity to rub the soft fur between her ears and stroke her neck. I'm glad that I did.
We parted ways a few hours later; Toby and Nina headed back to Idaho and our crew back to Bend.
Two days later, I opened my email to find a message from Toby with the subject line "Nina." Toby informed our group that Nina, our faithful river dog, had taken a turn for the worse when she got home. A trip to the vet revealed that Nina had large tumors on her lungs and in her stomach. She had been suffering silently and dutifully. It was now time for her to go.
I didn't cry for Nina. That wasn't my place. But my heart was heavy for my friends who loved her like a child. Friends who now have a young son of their own, but a house with one less pair of bright eyes.
Farewell Nina, you will missed.