Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Adventures with dogs

My sister in law: Lisa, died unexpectedly; and Southern Brother is off to parts unknown (aka unknown Arizona, for now); and two of his four dogs are here in Fort Worth. These two: Chaffee and Hoss

Chaffee is so named b/c she is the color of the muddy Atchafalaya River.

These are working dogs. I try to take them out each day to get some exercise. They like to sniff new territory.

These are herding dogs. They are genius at noticing and interpreting body language; they retain, at all times, instinctive sense of geometry and of terrain. When I walk with them, they stay 50-100 yards out ahead of me, chasing birds and sniffing out prairie dogs or whatever. If I shift direction, they immediately shift themselves to remain directly in the line of whatever direction I am walking. These are smart dogs: they will follow voice commands and hand signals. They will stay out of traffic. If I give them a shout and an arm wave, they will be dissuaded from even nearing a road. One of Chaffee's and Hoss' puppies won a herding championship for the Southeastern United States.

They love water. And this caused the problem. Chaffee, especially, will plop into any puddle or creek she comes across. I imagine this is instinctive. When you are herding, you take water wherever and whenever you can find it. Every time.

These are now old dogs. The photo is maybe 5 years old. Both Chaffee and Hoss are now approx 13 years of age. This, also, contributed to the problem.

The problem, partially, was the Trinity River. We began walking where the shore was gentle. Upon encountering the river, the dogs beelined for it and plopped in. I didn't love it, b/c we've been DRENCHED with rain for over a week, and the river is high. However, the dogs had lots of gentle shore to get in and out, and I wasn't too concerned, and I didn't wave them off. They played. They came out. We walked on.

1/2 mile down the way, we had walked for 200 yards atop a river's edge of inclined cliffs which rose about 15+ feet above the water line. These are rain soaked super muddy inclined cliffs, with trees and brush everywhere, with some thin footing and ledges and rocky outcrops in some places. The dogs, 75 yards ahead of me, had land and trees to explore on the left, but they liked the cliffs on the right. They had looked over the cliffs a couple of times, had assessed the danger, and were fine. Until, 200 yards down the walk, they went over the cliff/steep hill and onto some ledges and outcroppings they could navigate. I didn't like this, first, b/c this is Texas in Sept, and those cliffs are snake havens. It's a 100% guarantee there are snakes on those cliffs. Second, I knew the dogs might willingly go into the river, and might have trouble coming back up the muddy and severely inclined bank. Which is what happened.

It's a bad feeling to rush towards a cliff edge, and, before you get there, to notice spreading ripples, in the river, from where your dogs have jumped in. Worse, they are not even my dogs: they are my brother's dogs. Losing my own dogs would be sad. Losing my brother's beloved dogs would be worse. That would be disaster.

Over the cliff edge, it was not the best situation. The dogs were in a shallow cove which was surrounded by cliff. They had no extended vision either upstream or downstream, and thus could not see a place to exit the river. The swollen river was too fast and too wide to comfortably attempt to traverse to the other side.

The dogs were facing, immediately above the waterline, a 5 foot horizontal egress onto 4 vertical feet of steep and super treacherous and slippery mud, followed by 3 vertical feet of merely treacherous and slippery mud, and only above that - about 7 feet above the water line, would they gain a ledge which was merely muddy and slippery, but appeared navigable. They kept trying to come out, and they kept slipping backwards into the river. I yelled encouragement from above. They kept failing, and tiring. Finally, Hoss, the most nimble, made it out by the barest margin. Chaffee is less nimble. She would have made it out 5 years ago. But I had watched Hoss, and he BARELY made it. I knew Chaffee could not make it out. This was a bad moment to be me.

I hate snakes. I will be fine when I die. Truly, I do not fear it. I do prefer to die in some fashion other than snakebite.

I studied the cliff/steep hill problem. A quarter century ago, it wouldn't have been such a big deal for me to shinny aside a cliff and possibly drop into a river. Now, it is. I determined a path of young tree trunks which I could use as gripping places to move myself close to the water. I saw I could get about 10 feet down the cliff, but could not reach all the way to Chaffee. Without a tree trunk, I was 100% certain to slide/fall into the river. Of this there was no question. Chaffee was tired, and was quiet in the river. She was no longer trying to make it out, and, really, there was no use. She could not make it. I can't overemphasize the slipperiness and the steep angle she faced.

So, I had to go down:

Plan A: I could see a bit of a bush. Maybe I could hook a foot/knee into the bush, hang my arms down towards the waterline, and grab either her collar or the skin above her neck, and haul her out.

Plan B: Figure something else out once I got down there.

Plan C: Crash splash into the river - basically on my buttocks while keeping my legs soft and my feet out of the mud (danger there) under the waterline, grab the dog's collar, swim out of the cove, then float 100-250 yards down the shoreline until we could find a gentler slope and get out.

Plan D: Crash splash into the river, grab the dog, wait for a cyclist or a hiker on the opposite shore, attract their attention and signal for them to call the fire dept. There weren't going to be many bikers or hikers on the opposite shore. But, eventually, someone would have come along and wondered what the hades I was doing in the river. Plan D seems overdramatic, but Plan E was swim across the rain swollen river, and that was a bad plan.

Plan E: Swim the river: bad plan.

I now seriously considered whether I should let the dog risk death rather than send myself down the cliff which was undoubtedly home for many snakes. The things in my favor: 1. the dogs had recently trampled down the path I was to take, which ought have scared off any snakes. 2. I had been yelling from atop the cliff, which ought(?) have scared off snakes. 3. do snakes even come out on rainy days? I hoped not, as I was now firming up a decision to go down the cliff. And, begin...

I made it 5 feet when I noticed the greenbriar thorn vines which were hanging suspended in midair at various heights: from 1 foot off the cliff to about 4 feet off the cliff. There were at least 12 to 15 of these monsters, tangled and yet spaced out in a curtain wall of thorn vines, and they looked like this:

only the thorns were more mature and monstrous. I think the military ought incorporate these into their warfare capabilities.

I moved, with effort, and hanging onto my young tree trunks, and getting scratched and punctured, through about 7-8 thorn vines. I was about 9-10 feet above the water line. Chaffee watched me, and she tried again to make it, and she slid back, but her hind foot caught on a slim almost-sapling, which bent precipitously under her weight, yet held her on the bank with her head and collar about 3 feet above the water line, and her hind legs inches from the river. She was stressed in this position, and would not hold it forever. I decided to emergency-crash some greenbriar vines (ouch), and that moved me 4 feet lower. Chaffee was 4 feet to my left, and she was just BARELY too far below for me to get to her. I was at the bottom tree, and began looking for something else to support my weight, and then she decided to struggle closer to me. She made tremendous effort, and it was as if she were Bambi on ice, and she moved about 18 inches upward (not kidding: big effort = 18 inches), and she froze: splayed out in a terribly tenuous position. I looked, and I figured she could hold that for about 10 seconds or so. It was enough.

I gripped my tree trunk at its very base and shoved and leaned left across the cliff. I did not, at this point, even feel the thorns. I grabbed her collar with my left hand. I had a foothold and a handhold, and I pulled and slung her diagonally above my head and left to right - sort of midair skidding her across the cliff face, and I released her collar at the end of this movement, free-flinging her the final few inches of her journey to the ledge which could be navigated. I had her hind legs mostly angled to the river, and her head mostly pointed to the cliff top. She dog scrambled a couple of times - to gain equilibrium, and she found her footing. Yes! She zig zagged and made the cliff top, disappeared from view, and then her ears and head and chest reappeared. She was looking down over the cliff. She was looking at me - the man with a foothold, a handhold, and 5 thorn vines arrayed across him, and 8 more thorn vines between him and the cliff top.

You'd think I would be most concerned with not falling down the cliff and into the river. Truly, I was most concerned with the pain from the thorns, secondarily concerned with snakes, and only third concerned with the danger of the cliff. I gingerly disentangled, and disentangled some more, and came back up the cliff. Near the top, I began losing footing. Seriously losing footing. I grabbed and then hugged a young tree trunk like you would hug a young child who had been lost and now was found, and I swung my body sideways, and a leg up over the cliff edge, and UNDAINTILY, for certain, pushed myself up and rolled onto solid ground. This was more primal, less ballet.

I lay there, breathing heavily, being ministered to by Chaffee. Then I sat up, still recovering my wind. Which is when I heard something behind me, and turned to see the back end of Hoss, 25 yards away, disappear down another spot on the cliff edge. @#$%^&!

I called for him, and he did not reappear. This meant: 1) he was pursuing a varmint, or 2) he was in mud or worse, and could not make it back up the ledge. Me and Chaffee went to look. Hoss was 8 feet down, vigorously digging into the mud in pursuit of a varmint in a hole. Thank goodness. I called him up, and he came, and we headed back, and I verbally kept him away from the cliff edge until we had moved beyond the cliff. Chaffee wasn't going back down the cliff. Hoss had more bravado, or blood lust, or stupidity, or all three.

And that's our adventure story. Except, I think, when Chaffee was tired, and in the water: when a member of her pack (me) came closer to her, it gave her heart to try again, and it activated her instinct to give rescue a chance. I liked that moment.

Soon after, I called Southern Brother to share the story. This was a bad move, as I was thinking only of myself. I was not thinking about him, aka a man who had just lost his wife, and was now to receive news that his beloved dogs had been needlessly imperiled. He chastised me for not properly controlling his dogs. Which I deserved. For I had made a bad judgment call - twice, it turned out - that his dogs would not go down the cliff. Lesson learned. But, Southern Brother, this is official notice to you that I did face the snakes. So, that is something. I may be stupid, but it's a loyal stupid!

And the rest of yesterday, and even into today, I admit I've been a bit hyped up about the entire sequence of events. I'm trained to be manly, and to go: "Shucks, it was nuthin." But, it was kinda somethin, and I'm grateful it turned out okay.

The dogs, on the other hand, care only about the present. The past - even what happened an hour ago - is way in the past, and they do not worry with it whatsoever. "When do we eat?" is what they want to know. Also: "When do we get to go somewhere?" They are travelling dogs, and have traversed all of Louisiana thirty times over: riding in the bed of Southern Brother's truck. They like to go.


emjay said...

OMG Greg!! Just reading that scared me to death. DON'T DO THAT EVER AGAIN!!!

gcotharn said...

I'm with you. That was more than enough of that type of fun, unless I acquire the world's strongest rappelling gear, plus a pet mongoose to de-snake a path.

Mark said...

You should receive a trophy or at least a medal for your valiant effort. Snakes give me the heebie jeebies.

gcotharn said...

A medal? ... I like it. As in:

Whaddaya want? A medal?


Southern Brother said...

Upon further review...I didnt chastise you...I just said 'make them go ONLY where you want them to go...you can tell them NO and they will mind' or they know the consequence...Grab their ear and tell them NO...then use your belt or leash on Hoss and make them heal...thats torture to them...not being able to run, play and be a dog...kills them to just have to walk next to you...BTW...I trust you comletely with them, they have been your dogs too for all of these years...great story, very well written

Anonymous said...

O Wow! What a story! I hoped it would end happily and I was extremely grateful it did dear Uncle! Thank you for facing the snakes..I would have done it too.

SpecialK said...

I read this whole adventure sitting on the edge of my seat. I can't believe this really happened! Kind of feel like Bruce . . . don't know if I want to smack you or hug you! VERY well written. (now write it from the dog's point of view - that would be hilarious) xox, Kathy

gcotharn said...

Thanks for fulfilling your jobs as my relatives and issuing the kind words. If you reeaaally liked it: a medal wouldn't cost all that much money, is all I'm sayin...

Webutante said...

Wow! Greg, what a great story. Adventure like that is what makes the world go round from time to time and livens up our lives. Still it's adventure we like in measured doses. Great job. Can't wait to read about the next one! You're a very good writer, btw.

gcotharn said...

Thanks, Jane. Hope everything is going as well as possible in Cali.

H.C. said...

beautiful,wonderful dogs :)

gcotharn said...

Thanks, H.C. I think so, too.