Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Back to the Buckhorn

As I've spent the last few days reflecting and looking through my record, I find that there is a hole. In my last post I made a reference to one of the defining moments in Jake's life with us and I can't find any record of it, even pictures and that is downright surprising. The possibility exists that it's written in one of my older journals which are currently packed for the move, but it's not here, so let's get on with it.

In 2011 Chelsea and I decided to take up backpacking together. Jake was always up for some trail so of course, he would be along. He was about three years old. We started with an easy jaunt to Elkhorn Campground in the Dosewallips and a month or so later we decided to head to one of my favorites, Heather Creek. Heather Creek is accessed via the Upper Dungeness River Trail on the north side of the Buckhorn Wilderness of the Olympic National Forest. Heather Creek offers no stunning vistas, breathtaking waterfalls, or mountain peaks, but it has forest peace to spare and is relatively easy to reach.

The trail follows the Dungeness River and about a mile from the trailhead you cross the Royal Creek where it meets the Dungeness. You can turn right at this junction and head into the Royal Basin, but that takes you into the national park, where dogs are not allowed, so we thumbed our noses and proceeded.

We decided to do a simple overnighter from August 5th to 6th, 2011. It was early afternoon when we hit the trail. I remember it was such a pleasant afternoon. Being close to the river you don't hear much else and the mosses grow and overhang the trail as a reminder that you're in the northwestern rain forest.

Shortly after we crossed the log bridge over Royal Creek we were spread out over the trail a little. Jake had been very nervous on the log bridge and refused to cross it on his own. Jake was off his leash and was about 40 feet in front of Chelsea who was about 60 feet in front of me.

They had both rounded a bend and I couldn't see them. When I came around the bend Chelsea was on the right side of the trail looking frantically up the hillside. When I got to her I could barely make out Jake well up the hillside. We're not even sure what he bolted after. I ran up the hillside to bring him back and followed him as best I could, but he's a lean and nimble beagle and I'm a chunky human so there was little hope for success in that from the beginning. I frantically followed him up the hillside for a few hundred yards then his path bent back along the trail so we were now roughly parallel to the trail but headed back towards the trailhead.

I could hear his classic beagle bay and kept trying to call after him, but as I said, we were right by the river and you couldn't hear much else. Also working against us was Jake's very beagle characteristic of turning off his ears when his nose was on the chase. Chelsea was trying to follow us while staying on the trail. When I couldn't see him anymore I went back to the trail. Chelsea and I were both starting to get earnestly scared.

The area was bounded on the north and east by rivers and on the west by the ridge. There was no way across the Dungeness and we didn't think Jake would try to cross the Royal Creek bridge on his own. Climbing over the ridge would have been a 2500' climb.

We had no idea what to do. We saw where he had gone so we figured we should drop our packs and head up into the brush to try and find him, all the while our stress levels ticked up by the minute. We covered a lot of ground and we found lots of little features on that hillside we wouldn't otherwise have found. About 600' up the hillside there was a little goat path that basically paralleled the trail which we followed for a while.

Then the light began to fail and it began to be surreal. I kept trying to step out of the moment and think so I could come up with the best next step. We were still far from Heather Creek but we didn't want to leave the area. During our search we noticed a campsite near the log bridge over Royal Creek so we made camp in the twilight. We were anxious, disheartened, and exhausted so I decided to make a fire and try to eat something. Neither of us had any sort of appetite but the logical portion of my brain new that we had been hiking around for hours without a bite so we each choked back a protein bar. We were in disbelief.

After resting a little we decided to hike back to the trailhead to put up a sign on the bulletin board. It was only about a mile so we covered it fast.

When we got back to the tent it was well into the night so we laid down to an uneasy sleep. The clock was ticking. We didn't know how to find Jake and we figured this city dog probably couldn't handle himself in deep forest. The olympic forests are known to contain some predators like bear and cougar and we were genuinely afraid for Jake.

In the morning we ate an oatmeal packet each and decided to continue hiking the trail to the south thinking that's the only way he would go due to the natural boundaries. We made it all the way to the Camp Handy shelter without any sign. Our search lasted into the afternoon but soon we had to accept that we might be leaving without him. Now it was starting to feel even more detached from reality.

Eventually we ran out of time and we headed back. It was the longest car ride of my life. 

I have to pause and say I'm having a hard time writing this part. I can't help but second guess my decision to leave without him. I had all sorts of pressing issues. I had bought 60 pounds of fresh tuna from a friend that would be wasted if I didn't go can it that afternoon and I had to go to work the next day. I don't remember why, but it was particularly important for me to be at work that week. These all sound like great reasons to leave but I now reject them.  At the time there was the element of uncertainty that was overpowering but why would I place more importance on tuna than my dog?

Anyway, we headed home and when we got home the silence in the house was deafening. Over the next couple of days we were gripped by grief. I felt like I couldn't go back and look for him but I didn't want to lose him. We were both working at the time and even though we never discussed it, we spent as little time in the house as possible. We would go to dinner and then wander around a store but eventually we would have to come home. It was awful. 

I think it was made worse by that element of uncertainty. We didn't know where he was or if we would see him again.

Tuesday night Chelsea's cousins came to visit. They told us they were going up to the trail the next day. It was extremely generous of them. They also took with them their dog Lexi, who Jake knew well. I made them a map much like the picture above and they were on their way. After a few hours of searching they had come up with nothing so they also came home empty-handed. 

Now it was Wednesday night and Jake had been alone in the wilderness since Saturday night. I was starting to reconcile myself to losing him.Chelsea and I could barely talk to each other about it. She later told me she was praying constantly for his return. I was handling things differently. I refused to pray. I believe in the hand of God in my life, but I also believe that he will do what he thinks is best for me. What if it was time for me to lose Jake? What if I prayed for his return and he did not come back? I didn't think I could handle that so I could not take the risk. Instead, I felt the grief. 

Thursday brought no developments and with the passage of another day Jake's prospect of return grew slimmer. 

Friday was a normal day except for the grief until about 2:00 pm. It was close to the end of the work day when I got a phone call on my cell phone and the caller said he had found Jake. I was elated. He explained that he was camped at the trailhead and in the middle of the night Jake had begun to scratch at the side of his tent. At first he was very scared, thinking it was a wild animal, but then he heard that characteristic wimper. Nobody can scare anybody with a wimper. So he opened his tent and let Jake in. Then he said that as soon as Jake was in the tent he tried to spoon the guy. That's all the proof of identity I needed. 

He said he wasn't able to bring Jake to me because he had to catch a ferry at Kingston, but he had left Jake with an older couple who had just arrived at the trailhead to camp for the weekend. All we had to do was go pick him up. It wasn't time for me to finish my day bu I immediately headed for home. I had biked to work so it took me a little while to get home. I deliberately didn't call Chelsea with the news because I wanted to tell her in person. 

She was surprised to see me when I got home early but I wasted no time explaining myself. Within 10 minutes we were in the car and headed back to the forest. The trailhead is about a two hour drive from our house so we were anxious to get after it. 

Jake was a sight when we got there. Over the days he has lost about five pounds which is saying something when you're only 30 pounds to begin with. He found the trailhead on his sixth night in the wilderness. He was exhausted and even when we got there he just laid on this little blanket that the folks were letting him use. I don't know what he ate during that time. (When we bolted he was wearing a doggy pack that had a couple of days of food in it. We didn't get the pack back so I always assumed he got it off and then made short work of it. Getting the pack off would have been the hard part. He hated that pack.) His hair was dirty and matted, but despite his exhaustion you could see the enthusiasm that was intrinsic in him.

One question was how he made it down to the trailhead. We thought he wouldn't cross the Royal Creek due to his nervousness on the log bridge. I've long believed that it was due to Chelsea's cousins going after him. As I said, they had their dog Lexi with them. Beagles are hounds first and foremost (that's why we were even in this pickle) and I think after a little while he was able to find the trail and follow Lexi's familiar scent back to the trailhead.

We took him home and loved him all the more for this experience. He was never the same again. He became extra clingy in uncomfortable situations like the vet office. We had always gone camping before and he would lay on people's laps around the fire but after this he wanted nothing to do with fire. Around the campfire he would retreat as far into the shadows as his rope would let him and he could find no relaxation. We found that it was always best to put him into the tent after dark. He would burrow into the sleeping bag and rest contented until we came to bed.

I had considered this as one of the locations to leave his remains but ultimately I didn't choose it because I don't know what he experienced there. Why would I leave him in a place of fear where his time was passed alone? More than once we wondered what had happened to him there. Was there danger or just solitude? What were the nights like? You see why I couldn't choose this. The real question is why I even considered it.

It's still a place I like to go but we never went back there with Jake. Now would be a good time for us to do some hiking in the National Park since I won't have to feel guilty about getting some trail without him.


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