It was a note that shattered my already bruised and tender heart into a million pieces.
“Peg – PeePee is dying. Come visit tonight. Euthanized tomorrow.”
The words might appear to be abrupt and written without feeling, but I knew the writer, my friend, was beside herself with grief and that was all she could manage. I was on my way out with Bella, the Labra-dork, to check hare snares, so I grabbed my phone to take with me. For some odd reason I get much better reception in the woods than I do in my house and it was a phone call I needed to make alone.
When I was back in the woods, I dialed my friend El’s number and got her voice mail. I tried to leave a message. I really did, but my voice failed me so I hung up. A couple of minutes later her number popped up on my phone and I barely managed to answer it. We were both weeping as she explained that PeePee had stopped eating a few days before and was refusing cooked chicken, fish, beef and even the people food he loved. El had taken him to the vet that morning and was told what she already knew – it was time. She explained to the vet that she needed to let me say goodbye and since he wasn’t really suffering, the vet gave him some medicine and he went home.
And then that damn note was written.
PeePee started out as my dog, but in the end, both El and I belonged to him. He started life in the final days of November, 2004, during the time I lived in the bush, 100 miles from town and 75 miles from my nearest neighbor. Four days after he and his three siblings were born, Cubby, their mom, became very ill with a serious infection. I was on the satellite phone with the vet for many hours trying different remedies but too no avail. The ice wasn’t thick enough to support a small plane to fly Cubby into town and so she took her last breath as I whispered love in her ears and cradled her in my arms.
There wasn’t a lot of time to grieve because there were four newborn pups to care for. I managed to create a formula out of milk, eggs, vitamins and oil and began to bottle feed. Every two hours. For days and days and days. After feeding I would rub their backs and burp them and then hand them off to Uncle Caleb – a confused and neurotic border collie cross who thought he was a mom. He had the job of licking their butts because newborn pups can’t relieve themselves without that stimulation.
Against all odds the puppies not only survived, but they thrived. They grew fat and thankfully as they aged, the time between feedings was lengthened. They slept by the woodstove, in a straw filled box fashioned out of wood, with Caleb curled up protectively around them. When they were about 4-weeks-old they were introduced to puppy porridge – ground up kibble, soaked in warm water – and they were eager eaters. Caleb was happy too because the pups were incredibly messy and were generally covered ears to tail in food, which meant he got to lick them all over.
Soon enough they were spending their time in the sheltered kennel – playing and growing and generally causing trouble. PeePee was especially bonded with me and when he figured out not to use the floor of my wall tent as a bathroom, he spent many happy days just hanging out. He was sensitive and mischievous and earned his name because of that combination. If he was scolded too harshly he’d pee. If he got too excited he would pee. There simply was no other name for him.
The following May, PeePee and canine crew, traveled with me too Alaska where the job was to live and work on a glacier giving dogsled rides to fly-in guests. Puppies are slowly introduced to being in harness and pulling a sled. Runs are short and fun. The glacier was the perfect place to learn because the rides were less than 2 miles and the guests loved on the dogs afterwards. PeePee took to it like a fish too water. He LOVED to work and LOVED all the people. They even forgave him when he peed on them.
My intention was to return to the bush after summer was over, but Darrel and I met, fell in love, swore to each other ours would be a summer romance and were married six months later. So Alaska became our permanent home.
PeePee’s mom, grandmother and great grandmother were all lead dogs, but I wasn’t sure if he would be because of his sensitivities. As he got older I often ran him beside Diablo, his half-sister. She was a handful that dog and even though she damn well knew the various commands, she would choose to ignore them if she felt the trail was too boring. While it was exasperating, that stubborn streak came in handy when we had difficult situations and trail we had to push through. I looked and looked for a hint of that in PeePee, but it was nowhere to be found – until the day we were in a fun race and Diable attempted to drag the team over to the BBQ area where the smell of charbroiled hamburgers wafted over the crowd. I yelled for a “haw”, a left-turn in dog language, which Diable promptly ignored because the burgers were to the right. PeePee, bless his heart, jumped over his sister and pulled her and the team hard left. That was the moment the heart of a leader was born.
We had so many grand adventures PeePee and I. Living and working on glaciers. Giving land tours in Alaska’s coastal rain forest. Traveling the historical trails of the explorers who searched for the Northwest Passage. Running miles and miles on the most amazing trail systems where we live, including a section of the Yukon Quest trail. And on pretty much every single trip, PeePee was at the front of the team. He became so good at his job that he would run single lead – a rare thing for a sled dog.
A couple of years ago I was traveling out of State for critical medical care and it so happened my friend El was beginning what would turn out to be a massively successful dogsled tour and yurt stay business. She was looking for some dogs and it was wonderful that she was able to give many of our crew jobs, so I could concentrate on the business of getting well. She was also in great need of another good lead dog and that is how PeePee came to know and love El as well.
He was a charmer with guests and admired by the other mushers. His gentle nature won her heart and when he needed to be retired last year, we made the decision that he should stay with her. PeePee became the ambassador of her kennel, visiting all the working dogs before breakfast and then greeting guests as they arrived. While teams were on the trail, he had luxurious, heated, straw-filled accommodations in her barn and hung out there with another old timer. They even had a doggie door which lead to an outdoor play area. At night he checked all the working dogs after chores were done and then trotted indoors to love and be loved by his humans.
He was such a remarkable dog and so when the phone rang a second time that late afternoon of the note, I had to brace my heart. In between sobs, El told me that PeePee was fading and that she was taking him to the vet within the hour. I walked out of the woods and waited for her to stop by. When I walked out of the house, she took my hand and we walked to the top of the driveway where her truck and PeePee were waiting.
When she opened the door I knew it was indeed time. He wasn’t distressed and in fact his weight was healthy and if you didn’t know any better, he appeared to be a dog simply laying in the back seat. But he had “the look” that dogs seem to be able to convey that they are done. I could see that the spirit that made him PeePee was already on its way. It comforted me somehow.
I spent several minutes with my face buried in his fur, just talking quietly to him. I told him many serious things. Sacred things. And then I reluctantly gave him a final kiss and told him I’d see him on the other side.
As El said, and I agree, dogs are amazing creatures. They live and love in the moment. They get on with that business every day of their lives and when they’re done, they’re done. We could learn from that.
“It came to me that every time I lose a dog they take a piece of my heart with them. And every new dog who comes into my life gifts me with a piece of their heart. If I live long enough, all the components of my heart will be dog, and I will become as generous and loving as they are.” Author Unknown