Mountain Passages: A Fool’s Errand?

Mountain Passages: A Fool’s Errand?

Backcountry patrollers are good people who have difficult job. And this one particular old Bear is a bit tired of trying to please everyone on the trails in winter. By Alan Stark

The sun is just coming up over the horizon to the far southeast. A red circle blasts through the neighbor’s pine trees as I wait for coffee to drip into the pot on this winter morning. The sun is about as far south as it gets before the long arc northward, as it moves toward the summer solstice. Then it becomes a startlingly bright yellow flare that comes up over Greeley to the far northeast.

Coffee is beginning to drip into the pot. I scratch my scrotum, because that’s what half the population does standing around in jammies watching the sunrise and waiting for their coffee. Sure it’s a time for a scratch, but also a time to reflect. The subject that pops into mind is, “trying to please everybody,” a concept that has totally eluded me for my entire life. And the more I think about the concept, the more I know it’s a waste of time to consider. There are a good number of days when I can’t even please myself, much less anyone else.

I put on water to boil for oatmeal, pour a cup of coffee for Blue Eyes, walk down the hall and put it on her bedside table. Moving to a familiar routine and finished with my reflection of the day, my thoughts now move to the work in front of me.

In an hour, my partner and I will get to the equipment cache at Ned Fire. We’ll sign in, draw radios, a SPOT unit, and whatever other gear we’ll need. The duty firefighter may or may not be up when we get there. But if the firefighter is up, we’ll talk for a moment, usually about the weather or maybe just say, “Have a quiet shift, no fires today.” The firefighter will nod and maybe say, “Have a good patrol, no incidents today.”

IMG_2271At the Brainard Gateway, I park the Highlander, grab my boots and coffee cup and head for the warming hut. After I get my AT boots on, I start working on a fire in the small stove. There is something primal about building a morning fire. I’m not sure what it is, but getting that fire started is all consuming. I think of nothing else but making sure the fire is going. My partner is outside shoveling snow away from the warming hut door and then the doors to the pit toilets.

There are forty or so cars already here. These cars and trucks belong to the hard-core backcountry skiers. Some of them started near dawn and will be coming in, just as the citizenry begins to show up in force around 10:30. The hard-core skiers are worth listening to, because they have been coming here for a hundred years and know all the trails cold, and can accurately tell us where trees are down across the trail. We use their information to pick our route for the day. If one of us is feeling responsible and into trail work, we might go clear the tree, but more often than not, we’re just looking for a good ski route, not additional work. Whether we clear the tree across the trail this week or next doesn’t matter all that much, it’s a long winter.

“Hey, what trails did you do this morning?” I ask.

He’s 50 to 70, silver hair and beard, fit looking, wearing an anorak with tele gear and old Scarpa boots. His skis have seen a number of miles and probably have “omni wax” on the bottoms, a combination of years of waxes and scraping which will help him hold on a pitch and effortlessly glide down a trail.

“Reservoir Road to Little Raven and back on Waldrop. My loop.”

“Anything good?”

“Little Raven.”

“ You been doing this for a hundred years?”

“Just like you.”

“Just thirty years.”

These are good mountain people. But some of them think there is no need for ski patrollers in the backcountry—that if a person is out here, she should be able to take care of herself.

As backcountry patrollers, we understand that. When we first started work up here, at the request of the Forest Service, there were a number of patrollers who wanted to do the work but didn’t want to wear red vests and white crosses, because they thought uniforms might make the hard-core backcountry skiers grumpy. But we worked hard to earn and keep our crosses. The vests have pockets everywhere for our first aid gear, radio, and SPOT unit, so we wear them and we’ve gotten used to the occasional look of surprise or even a frowny face when we pass by.

We have even gotten used to the occasional smart ass…

“Whoa, ski patrol is here, now we’re all safe.”

“Yup, except you.”

“What daya mean?”

“Think about it.”

Or the person of limited observational skills…

“Sorry sir, but your dog isn’t allowed on that trail.”

“Where the hell does it say that?”

“On the Brainard Lake webpage, on the map at the warming hut, and on the sign your dog is peeing on.”

We make an effort to be friendly and helpful and not act like snow cops. The job is service and safety, education and information, and a basic medical response if needed. Unlike ski area patrollers, we don’t do law enforcement. The Forest Service folks make it absolutely clear that we are not to do law enforcement in the backcountry. Alpine patrollers have a much tougher job, and more bosses than anyone needs—both within the patrol and from ski area management.

Backcountry patrollers have an easy job and light-handed supervision from the local Forest Service folks. They are good people with the difficult job of managing the forest and serving the community at the same time; often caught between massively conflicting interests. As good and decent as our local Forest Service people are, I sometimes end up shaking my head at the Forest Service policies handed down from biggies in Washington who have forgotten their field experiences.

With the exception of the smart-mouths and the terminally stupid, most of our interactions with trail users are positive and often interesting, sometimes fun. Some take time to tell me what they are thinking about. The perennial subject is dogs on the trails, the new subject this year is fat tire bikes.

I get it that dog spelled backwards is God. I love my dog. But dogs on the trails can be a problem. We have seen dogs badly hurt by the steel edges on skis. Is this injury the dog owner’s fault or skiers fault? It is usually the dog owner’s fault. And the fat tire bikes…in the summer a hiker can step off the trail to let a mountain bike pass. Not a problem, but in the winter getting off the trail is problematic. Conflicting uses…we tell people to try to get along and cut some slack with each other.

The chores are finished. We go back to the Highlander and pull out skis, poles, and packs and walk to the trailhead to gear-up. It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood.

IMG_2272It’s absolutely true that National Forest belong to all of us, not just elitist backcountry skiers in plastic boots on AT skis. But certain uses are simply incompatible with other uses. A more extreme example than dogs and fat tire bike riders happened last year when we stopped a rabbit hunter on the Middle Saint Vrain Road who was shooting north. He didn’t have any idea that people skied the Buchanan Pass Trail a 100 yards north of the road.

The Forest Service needs to rethink the concept of multi-use trails, particularly in the winter. Trying to please everyone is a fool’s errand. Sure, there are trails where multi-use works. But the Forest Service needs to change their policy and accept the fact that some activities are mutually exclusive; this activity works here and this one works better over there. A good example of specific trails for specific activities is here at Brainard, where there are two trails, CMC and Little Raven that are designated “skier only” in the winter. But most of the trails we patrol are multi-use and a free-for-all. We need more activity specific trails in our National Forests.

Will the multi-use policy, particularly in winter, change? Probably not. Sometimes I wonder what the Forest Service folks in Washington scratch in the morning.

Alan Stark is a volunteer backcountry ski patroller and lives with a Blue Eyed person and her dog in Boulder and Breckenridge. He can be reached at alanbearstark@gmail.com

Postcard: Going up?

Going up is hard. Much harder than going down, anyway. It helps to put your head down for some reason … as if putting your head down makes the pain subside. It doesn’t. But it does help. And for the record, it’s hard to put your head down when climbing, because chances are good that your surroundings are worth looking at. In this photo my friend Sam was at 12,800 feet, suffering hard, but stealing a glance whenever possible.

Photo by Devon O’Neil

Mountain Gazette’s Best Stories of 2015

Mountain Gazette has been known for its ability to capture the essence of mountain life since its beginning, and 2015 was no different. From hairy avalanche scares to essays on nature and wildlife, these are some of the best stories from Mountain Gazette this past year.

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Stories of adventures and misadventures led the way this year, and Pete Takeda started us off with “Epic Luck“, illustrating just how thin the line can be between an epic story and a near-death experience. Cam Burns climbed the Grand Teton woefully underprepared in “The Grand Teton with Heidegger and Hegel“, ate brains and eggs at a Missoula saloon in “A Night at the Ox“, and eventually wandered into Guidebook authorship as a broke climber in “Confessions of a Non-Wannabe Guidebook Writer“.

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On a more reflective note, Chris Chesak recalled the birth of his daughter and his newfound fatherhood during his year-long deployment to Iraq in “Daddy, the War and the Webcam“. Jane Koerner found a dog in a latrine that became a lifelong friend in “The Beast in the Latrine“. Alan Stark pulled on his Yaktrax and found some perspective with the help of the local wildlife in “Mountain Passages: Coyote“.

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Mike Medberry took us to the Sawtooth Wilderness and meditated on nature in “Spangle Lake: Why We Come to Wilderness“, and guided us through the complex political process at work at Boulder-White Clouds in “Monumental Wilderness in Idaho“. Brooke Williams rebuilt cairns, hiked naked and reflected on youth in “Dog Gash, Big Bend National Park“. Alan Stark traveled to Cuba and smoked hand-rolled cigars, giving us pointers along the way in “Mountain Passages: Insider Info on Travel to Cuba“.

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In our photo series In Focus, Greg Von Doersten showcased his photography in “The Big Picture of Adventure Photography“, and Nicole Morgenthau showed us her work and walked us through her process in “The Mountain Men“.

On top of all that, we featured weekly postcards from writer Devon O’Neil as he traveled both across the globe and close to home.

Author John P. O’Grady pondered the Catskills. literature, and his collie in his Land in the Sky column.

Ex-pat and wordsmith Michael Brady reported from Europe.

And poetry editor Michael Henry of the Lighthouse Writers Workshop brought us new verse from established and up-and-coming writers.

You can keep track of Mountain Gazette stories all year at mountaingazette.com.

 

 

 

Postcard: First tracks

 

 

Most first tracks carry an element of danger. It is easy to dismiss this brand of first tracks because the tracks are flat, but I have always been afraid of testing the frozen-ness level on a lake like this. I happened to be driving by at 50 mph recently when these fellows were preparing to ice fish. I couldn’t help but think they deserved a fist pump for their gumption, or at least a blurry photograph on MG.com.

Photo by Devon O’Neil

Postcard: The power of big peaks

 

Big peaks transmit a kind of soft, gentle power when you are in their presence. It’s almost like they say, “Shut up and behold, hoser. You’re in our world now.” Such was the feeling I got as we skinned toward the north faces of a pair of peaks in excess of 13,800 feet, pictured above. If you really let them talk to you, and listen to what you think they might be saying (let’s be honest, none of us is able to actually hear their message; we must intuit a certain semblance of takeaway), they can be profound communicators. But it takes your belief to make it real.

Photo by Devon O’Neil

Becoming a Guide

Or how a heli-ski run at five years old changed a life. By Nina Hance

My parents’ fridge is plastered with many pictures of family adventures. There is one snapshot in the clutter of images that always catches my attention and makes me smile. I’m standing on the top of a ridgeline holding my skis, looking content, my head tilted to the side, leaning against my poles. The leg straps on my full-body harness stick out below my puffy, red down jacket. My goggles cover most of my face, but my expression is still visible. I’m grinning from ear to ear and my five-year-old figure is tiny against the backdrop of the spectacular, snow-covered Chugach Mountain Range of Alaska, stretching into the distance.

Alaska 6My mom took this picture on top of a mountain called Cracked Ice. We had just been dropped off by the helicopter on what was to be my first heli-ski run ever. There had been a split second opportunity that day. It was my mom’s day off and the two of us were hanging out at the Alaska Backcountry Adventures heli base on Thompson Pass in Valdez, Alaska. I had just finished my schoolwork for the morning and was making my daily round of the parking lot, wandering from door to door of the parked RVs selling my hand-woven potholders to the heli-skiing clients and film athletes, when my mom came to tell me that my dad had two seats available for us in his group. Next thing I knew, my mom was helping me into my ski gear, and we were loading into the heli with my dad and his guests. At a mere 60 pounds, I was light enough to sit in the front seat between my dad and the pilot.

At 5,000 vertical feet long, the length of Cracked Ice would be the longest run I had ever skied in my five years of existence. The flight from the base to the top of Cracked Ice happened so fast that I could barely comprehend what I was seeing out of the window. From high above, I looked down onto glaciers and crevasses, things I had never seen before. We were flying into a world of snow and ice, a world of ski terrain that was daunting yet exciting.

Looking back on that day, I can still clearly remember skiing the run. The powder was knee-high on the adults, and waist-high on me. The run felt never-ending and my thighs burned so intensely that I had to take several breaks. The tracks that I made on my skinny, little skis looked itty-bitty compared to the adults’ big swooping turns. By the time we reached the bottom, my legs were so fried that I just plopped down into the snow, exhausted, but very excited. From that point on, the years passed by as I traveled to Alaska every spring with my parents on their yearly commute to Valdez to work as heli-ski guides.

While my parents were out in the field guiding, I entertained my days at the heli base doing schoolwork, playing in the parking lot, or weaving potholders. My potholder craft turned into a thriving little business. People began seeking me out, hoping to buy my potholders. Word about the nifty, colorful potholders spread, and soon most everyone on Thompson Pass, locals and international guests alike, were buying potholders as fast as I could make them. I had to start making potholders in the early winter, a few months before we went to Alaska, so that I wouldn’t sell out before the season was over. Phatz Ski Rental, the shop at the heli base, began carrying and selling my potholders. Doug and Emily Coombs, friends of my parent’s and fellow guides, were my biggest customers, ordering large quantities from me every year.

Alaska 3Fifteen years have passed since my first heli-ski run. I am continuing my annual commute to Valdez, just like my parents. My income no longer comes from selling potholders, but from working as an apprentice guide for Black Ops Valdez, a heli and cat-skiing operation based in Valdez.

During my first two years of college at Montana State University, I missed the heli-ski seasons in Alaska. Given my certainty about wanting to be a ski guide, and my indecisiveness about choosing a major, I decided to take the spring semester off and go back to Valdez. After applying at several heli-ski operations, I landed a job with Black Ops.

On March 6, I flew from Bozeman northbound to Anchorage. The sun, illuminating the peaks in a deep, red glow, was beginning to set when I drove over Thompson Pass and into Valdez on the Richardson Highway. I remember when I was young, thinking of how massive the peaks looked. Everything seemed bigger when I was little. These peaks are an exception, though. They still look just as gigantic and magnificent. Their size, magnified by the flat waters of the ocean meeting the bases of the mountains, never ceases to impress, even now as I look at them as an adult.

Driving into town, the moist, salty sea air triggers nostalgia of childhood days spent playing on the rocky beach. Large snow mounds piled high by the plows stand taller than most if the buildings. The port, snow covered and full of boats, reminds me of the walks we used to take along the docks in search of otters. Bald eagles, perched high in the trees next to the grocery store, prune their feathers and gaze down at the town’s activities. Pulling into the driveway of the guides’ house, my home for the next two months, I gawk at the six feet of snow covering the front yard.

Black Ops Valdez, owned by Josh and Tabatha Swierk, was established in 2008. The Swierks began offering snowcat and snowmobile skiing a few years back, building up their cliental and experience before adding the heli this last season.

Alaska 3 I was thrilled to join the BOV crew, knowing that I would be learning from a team of some of the most experienced guides in Valdez. I mainly worked as the dispatcher, also attending guide meetings and cat-ski guiding on stormy days. Alongside that I worked in the office, gave safety briefings, and occasionally tail-guided for the heli-skiing. At the beginning and end of each day, I sat in on the guide meetings listening to the guides plan and discuss their day. I felt overwhelmed once I realized how much learning lay ahead of me.

During the meetings, I observed how the guides planned out a day based on the weather, group dynamics, snow conditions, and any other factors that could affect daily operations. Barry “The Blade”, our cheery and talkative pilot, gave me mini lessons on weather forecasting and flying mechanics of the helicopter.

When I wasn’t cat-ski guiding or working in the office, I got to tail-guide for the heli-skiing. Even though I grew up in this terrain, I continue to marvel at its beauty and expanse. Everything is bigger here; the runs are longer, the snow is deeper, the slopes are steeper. In every direction, big peaks with aesthetic lines stretch endlessly into the distance. Glacier valleys, separating one mountain range from another, look like vast, white rivers, frozen mid rapid. Occasionally they shift position, sending spooky growls and grumbles echoing across the valley. The skiing is so incredible that is almost feels surreal; dense enough to carve, yet light enough to smear a turn and get face shots. The thought of taking a three-minute heli lift to a peak that would otherwise take an entire day to climb becomes a profound reality.

I have always been slightly intimidated by the sum of skills and responsibilities that an aspiring guide needs to learn. There are many little, yet important details that need to be taken into account, from picking a line to ski to timing your rotation in the field with the heli’s fuel run. Each time I tail-guided, I was given one specific skill to work on, whether it was loading and unloading the ski basket, shoveling out a landing zone, or communicating with the other guides over the radio. For the instances when I didn’t have enough time to dig a full snow pit, I learned to make quick assessments based on hasty pits, ski cuts, and terrain observation. The details extend even further within each task. Whenever I landed the heli I had to find an area that was flat, size up the proper spacing to land the heli next to the group, and chose the best direction to land based on wind speed and direction. As the season went on, I began to feel less intimidated by the extent of responsibilities as I fell into a routine and logged more hours of practice.

Alaska 2On my last night in Valdez a family friend and Valdez local invited me over to her house for a salmon dinner. Walking into the kitchen of her cluttered, yet cozy cabin tucked back into a thick forest, I inhaled the scents of spices and freshly chopped wood. Looking out of the window past the pines, I admired the pink tinge of the evening alpenglow on the Chugach. While pouring glasses of wine, I noticed two potholders hanging on a hook above the stove. They were well used, burned and faded, but I immediately recognized them as a set that I had made many years ago when I was a little girl. Seeing them hanging in her kitchen made me smile and think of the first time I came to Valdez as a five-year-old. Who would have guessed that I would end up back in Valdez fifteen years later working as a ski guide. I didn’t simply spend this season working for a ski-guiding company in Alaska—I continued a lifestyle that started as a little girl and is now becoming the same profession as my parents’. I love guiding for many reasons. Developing a partnership with these intrinsically beautiful, yet potentially unforgiving mountains is challenging and inspiring. The reward of giving people one of the best ski days of their lives is fulfilling. Reflecting on the past fifteen years, I realize that I am most passionate about guiding because of the connection it has to my childhood and the lifestyle that evolved from it—thanks to my hand-woven potholders.

When God Spoke English

When God Spoke English: A review of Adam Nicolson’s in depth history of the King James’ Bible. By M. Michael Brady

Of all the great books of the English language, the King James Bible stands out. Not even the collected works of William Shakespeare, who was alive when the King James Bible was published in 1611, can match its influence on the growth and scope of the language. Through the centuries, this book speaks to the mind as no other.

How this came about is the theme of English historian Adam Nicolson’s in-depth account, first published in 2003 by Harper Collins in England under the title Power and Glory: Jacobean England and the Making of the King James Bible. The political background is historical record. In 1603, King James VI of Scotland ascended the throne of England as King James I. At the time, religion and politics were entwined, and strife between religious factions was commonplace throughout Europe. James immediately set out to stem the strife and thereby unite England.

He was the right man for the task. Baptized Catholic but raised by Scottish Presbyterians, he had been trained from birth to deal with rival political factions. He was an accomplished scholar and the author of works such as Daemonologie, published in 1597. One of his first initiatives as the King of England was to initiate a project to make a new translation of the Bible. His structuring of the project is the first known example of rhetorical teamwork. It assembled a task force from across a quarreling clergy, from the established Church of England to the Puritans.

The goal was not merely the book, as there had been two previous translations into the vernacular, that of 1382 by Oxford scholar John Wycliffe and his followers and that of 1525-1535 by cleric William Tyndale, who had been inspired to the task after visiting Martin Luther at Wittenberg in 1524. This new translation was to uplift and unite. That it did, with phrasings of beauty and godliness that had never before been heard in the street.

The newness was a result of the teamwork that James had initiated. The translators worked in six translation companies, two each at Cambridge, Oxford and Westminster. Their editorial routine comprised working in ledgers, in which drafts were written on the left and comments and revisions on the right. A draft would be read aloud, and a team would listen and comment. That was another first and perhaps the key to the enduring power of the book that still reads like no other.

Aside from the work itself, the translator-writers left few records of their doings. Yet the remnant records might ring true if written today. One translation company quarreled incessantly about language. Samuel Ward, a fellow of Christ’s College, Cambridge and a member of the Second Cambridge Company that translated the Apocrypha, left a 95-page, 5 by 6 inch diary, written not about his work, but rather of his penchant for earthly delights. Others left tidbits that have been reconstructed to depict the era and the monumental scope of the task.

This account of the seven-year-long efforts of a group of 47 nearly anonymous, pedantic, self-serving, often drunk divines in creating the King James Bible, Adam Nicolsen has provided a clue as to why English, the vernacular of tribes of quarrelsome peasants living on islands off the west coast of Europe, became a world language.

The book:

When God Spoke English by Adam Nicolson, London, Harper Press 2011, 282 page paperback, ISBN 978-0-00-743100-7

 

The Beast in the Latrine

The dog a woman finds in a latrine becomes her lifetime companion. By Jane Koerner

Aging seems less daunting with Beast as my companion. We’re not aging gracefully as much as we’re adapting. After ten years of mountaineering together, we have to take our joints into consideration. Beast used to disappear without a trace. I would give him ten minutes to reappear. At 15 minutes, I would shout his name at the top of my lungs, cupping my hands around my mouth to amplify my calls over the wind. Eventually he would show up, a mostly black speck racing across the basin below or bounding from rock to rock down the mountainside opposite, a hurtling marvel of strength and coordination. I failed to appreciate the effort until he flopped at my feet, panting heavily, begging for an edible compliment.

Nowadays he stays in sight, looking back occasionally to gauge the distance between us, then waiting for me to catch up. This is his opportunity to squat and take a rest break. On the return trip, we stick so close together, I have to shove him aside with my knee occasionally so we don’t trip over one another and tumble down the mountainside together. He seems content with my Granny gait, as I lower myself down with a tight grip on my hiking poles and a cautious placement of each foot. He didn’t used to be this patient.

Our second summer of hiking together, he vanished as I was making my way down the interminable switchbacks to the parking lot. He was trotting along behind me, his progress interrupted by prey worthy of a chase or shrubs in need of his scent, and then he was gone. I shouted and shouted until I went hoarse. I finally heard him barking hundreds of feet below the trail, in dense scrub oak. I was still feeling the effects of the ascent in 90-degree-plus heat. Fearing he might have caught his collar on a branch, I abandoned my route for his.

Hours later, I arrived at the parking lot as the sun was setting, bloodied from shoulders to shins, my knees throbbing from the steep, gravely descent. I would never find him. He would die up there of dehydration or predation, trapped and invisible in the treacherous jungle. He was probably unconscious by now, or half-eaten to death. Weeping in despair, I knelt and reached behind the rear tire for my key.

A wet nose grazed my hand. Smart dog, I thought. Smarter than me. His shortcut worked out fine for him, and now he was cooling off in the shade while I opened the trunk so I could revive myself with the spare water bottle I always kept there.

I should have known that he had better route-finding skills as an adolescent than I did after 35 years of mountaineering. I found him in a latrine in April 2004. Opened the door, and there he was, poised to exploit this unexpected good fortune. A tour of the adjacent campground produced no owners, only a few theories. “He barked all night, tied up to that tree over there. Someone must have cut him free.” “No, he chewed his way out. Look at what’s left of that mangled rope around his neck.” The campground was within earshot of the highway. My theory: someone shut him up in the latrine so he wouldn’t get run over.

If he was grateful to be liberated, he didn’t show it. He wouldn’t come near me, but he was more than willing to follow me up the trail at a safe distance. Close enough to take advantage of the snacks that dribbled from my sandwich bag and mouth, yet far enough to elude capture. Back at the car, he watched me warily, retreating to the forest on the other side of the creek every time I tried to collar him. Two men in a pickup helped me catch him and wrestle him into the car. I couldn’t leave him behind. I was living in northern Utah at the time, where dogs are kept for hunting, not as a surrogate child-rearing experience. My neighbors caged them in the backyard and fed them scraps from the dinner table. When the number of pups in a litter exceeded the number of households available, the excess was dumped in the mountains. Spayed dogs were a rarity. The next hiker tempted to rescue him might treat him the same.

The vet said he was at least a year old. “A rock chewer,” he surmised after inspecting his mouth. How long he had been living in the mountains, I could only surmise. Was he an abandoned pup who managed to outwit the coyotes and mountain lions? A run-away? Or did he tumble out of the back of a pickup, a common occurrence, according to the vet. From my perspective, his chipped teeth demonstrated an impressive set of survival skills.

I named him Beast, hoping to transforming him into a Beauty once he was neutered and trained. The neutering didn’t make much difference. He still mounted every dog in sight. But he had made peace with my house. It was no longer a prison to be fled before I could drag him in, squirming and tugging in the opposite direction, but a restaurant that served two meals a day and a motel with a more comfortable mattress than his previous lodging in a cage or the underbrush.

For a dog that had interacted with few, if any, humans indoors, he was surprisingly trustworthy. The local newspaper dubbed him the Pied Piper of our town for his remarkable ability to lure children out of their yards without parents protesting. On walks to the park two blocks from my house, a growing chorus of “can we pet him? can we pet him?” trailed us to our destination. Then the fun began as the squealing abductees took their turn trying their luck at stroking and poking every conceivable body part. Not once did he bare his teeth or growl.

To this day, in town or on the trail, adults stop us to pose the same questions. “Has your dog had a stroke?” “Does your dog have epilepsy?” A reference to the tongue that dangles out the right side of his mouth. “No,” I patiently explain. “He was born that way. He’s missing a part of his jaw and his tongue sticks out whether he’s awake or asleep.”

Then a mystified look. “What kind of dog is he? He certainly isn’t a pedigree.”

“The first vet said husky-shepherd-lab. The second one said malamute-Australian-cattle-dog-lab.”

After numerous encounters of this nature, Beast’s routine is as refined as a burglar’s for breaking into a safe. He hypnotizes his target with his big brown unblinking eyes. Immobilized by his steadfast gaze, Target notices the tongue that swivels to the corner of Beast’s mouth, further contorting his lop-sided grin. “How adorable! What a cutey-pie!” No longer in command, his hands respond to Houdini’s every movement—from raised head to wagging behind. The head is patted, the butt rigorously scratched, relieving the incessant itching of Beast’s skin allergies. (“He’s the most allergic dog I’ve ever seen. He’s allergic to everything,” the vet said.) Treats are rewarded with a drooling grin. Target programmed for completion of Pavlovian experiment. Rolling over on his back, Beast spreads his legs and straightens his tail, exposing maximum square footage for a satisfying belly rub.

“It’s an insult to call him Beast,” my hiking companion, Babs, complained the fifth time he sucked her into his magnetic field for hours on end. She has never owned a pet, will never own a pet. Too much trouble.

“You should call him Bushwack,” my other hiking companion, Barb, said. A speed demon herself, she was jealous of his round-trip marathons up and down the mountain, three ascents for our one. He always makes the summit first. If we take an unintentional detour, he waits by the summit cairn until we correct our error. In his younger years he could bash his way through anything: willows so thick we wished for machetes, marshes the size of golf courses, piles of rock as mobile as a battalion on the march.

Beast’s inner beaver collected fallen aspens, which in transit became an unintentional crowd control device, clearing the trail of large hiking parties. Since losing a molar, a canine and half an incisor to unknown causes, he has downsized to sticks.

His husky genes proved indispensable on cross-country ski outings. Until the stiff hind legs and cloudy lenses of senior citizenship slowed him down, he could haul me, by his end of the leash, more than a mile uphill. As the most successful toy thief in my county, he has accumulated a yard full of pockmarked Frisbees, and deflated tennis balls, footballs and soccer balls to be deployed on behalf of his favorite game, Toss the Toy until Mistress Can’t Take It Anymore. Repeated thuds against the side of the house signal, “It’s time for the game to begin.”

At the first sign of fatigue—I’m human, after all—he switches balls, booting it with his nose into the air and perilously close to the patio door. This trick dates to the lessons in my backyard, when I rewarded him with dog biscuits for dribbling and bunting the soccer ball he found in my neighbor’s front yard.

Once he learns a trick, he never forgets it. I was teaching at a university, and every time I took him to campus, I had to keep him on a tight leash to prevent him from participating in the soccer and Frisbee matches on the Quad. Once, he snuck out of my building to snatch the Frisbee away from the final match of the university’s annual Frisbee tournament. Setting aside the intense rivalry of such a high-stakes match, both teams deserted their posts to give chase. The Pakistanis, whose soccer ball was redirected toward the net of their arch-rival, our graduate students from India, shook their fists as they pursued him. They were on the verge of scoring the winning goal. I apologized profusely as I handed them their slobber-soaked ball.

My next-door neighbor sent his son over to retrieve their missing toys. He accused me of stealing. “Why do you take our toys?” he asked, pointing at the pyramid of miniature plastic tables and chairs and delimbed dolls that Beast had arranged while no one was paying attention. That pyramid was located in the front yard next to the garbage can, as if Beast were taunting them. Toss the Toy balls stayed inside the garage, tucked away in the dog dish each night before bedtime—biggest, flattest ball on the bottom, smallest one on top.

I didn’t know what to say to the boy. “Don’t ask me,” I mumbled, pointing at the dog. “Ask him.”

When my students learned of my impending departure from the university, they grieved over the loss of their therapist. Twice a week he would walk with me to work and lounge in my office until it was time for class to start. Students with a history of skipping classes and little interest in the subject matter arrived early to play with him in the hallway and stayed the entire class period. On test days they would line up outside my office door, awaiting their appointment with Dr. Beast, whose undivided attention compensated for the absence of their beloved Fido at home. During class their canine psychologist would roam from student to student, offering unconditional affection, especially to those with acute performance anxiety. Classes routinely visited by him enjoyed higher rates of attendance and higher test scores on average.

Three years after my departure, former students still email to inquire about his health. They never ask about me. At age 12, my best estimate, Beast limps for days if he gets his way with Toss the Toy. After ten minutes I hide the football, then the Frisbee as he yips in frustration at my retreating heels. On hikes with friends, he still patrols the line, making certain the rabbit up front is not pulling too far ahead of the tortoise—at age 64, me. Last summer we had to adjust to recently diagnosed conditions: bone on bone in my right kneecap; arthritis in his hips, shoulders and knees. If we overdo it, I recline on the sofa afterward, icing my swollen knee while he snores like a locomotive at my feet. I have to shake him sometimes to wake him up. His eyes open, and in their mirrors I catch a glimpse of my tenderized face as I help him up.

No matter how our day goes, we follow the same routine at bedtime. I call him, keep calling him if need be, until a thunk announces his awkward exit from the living room chair. Like my sideways steps on staircases to spare my knee, he is accommodating the undeniable limitations of aging. I suspect his cataracts are worse than mine. Nuzzling my calf so he won’t lose me in the dim light, we slowly climb the stairs and shuffle down the carpeted hallway to the bedroom. He curls up on the cushion on the floor, his former nest on the bed out of reach now.

One of these days one of us might not wake up. The actuarial tables stack the odds in favor of my outliving him. But, as with so much of life—from marriage to job prospects to unforeseen accidents—it’s best to take nothing for granted. This realization has inspired another routine; before switching off the lamp on my nightstand, I listen to the lullaby of his snorts, sneezes and sighs, its melody steeped in eleven years’ worth of memories. Then it occurs to me; I should have named him Heart Thief.

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