Idaho Adventures - Part III
On Saturday, June 4th - our last day of vacation in Idaho - I load the dogs into the car for the short drive up into the forest to wander along a familiar dirt road. Meadow's had three days of steady improvement since her bout of vertigo. The views from this road never grow old.
Meadow has always had an incredibly good nose. In the forest, she often lags behind to investigate smells while the other dogs and I move on ahead. This morning, as we're finishing our hour long walk, I'm focusing on Finn and Maia ahead of me. Suddenly, the peaceful quiet of the forest is shattered by the harrowing, high-pitched squeal of an animal.
Turning toward the sound, I see Meadow, mere feet off the road in the underbrush, in mid-pounce on something, like a wolf on the hunt. My instant thought is "marmot" because of the sound of the squeal, but almost as quickly I think, "There aren't any marmots here." Before I can even call Meadow's name, an elk calf unfurls her long legs and neck from her hiding spot in the shrubs, springs up, and bounds right toward me. Meadow is fast on her heels.
Meadow lunges and the elk screams her terrible, animal-in-mortal-fear scream. The calf bounds right past me, eyes wide with terror, heading downhill and away from the threat. Meadow is in hot pursuit – although in my mind’s eye it’s more like slow-motion – trying to bite the calf’s flanks to slow its escape, in true wolf fashion. Despite my concern for the calf, I’m fascinated to see how wolf-like Meadow appears in this instant. I have the impression she isn’t trying too hard; more like, “Wow – isn’t this cool? I’m gonna finally catch an elk!” Despite many opportunities over the years, Meadow has never killed another creature, big or small. Nor does she destroy stuffed toys. She has a soft mouth, and a gentle disposition. But she is, after all, a Malamute, closely related to wolves.
I lunge for Meadow’s big fluffy tail as she and the elk stumble past me in their odd instinctual hunting dance, but I miss. Finn now joins in the chase, doing his herder’s growling right on the elk’s heels. The three of them – elk calf, Meadow and Finn – disappear down the steep and rocky hillside, into the trees and out of sight, the elk calf screaming the entire way. “Meadow! Finn! COME!” I yell, to deaf dog ears. I go hoarse, yelling their names; I know it’s useless, but I don’t know what else to do. The calf’s pitiful, loud cries continue as it tries to escape down the steep terrain. I feel certain I’ll end up with one, maybe two dead dogs, imagining mama elk stomping them to death, or the dogs falling off a cliff in hot pursuit, breaking a leg in some remote gully where I’ll never find them. I can’t bear the thought that the calf elk may die. I’m mad – at the dogs, at myself for bringing us into this situation, at my sense of helplessness again so soon after Meadow’s vertigo incident. I’m thankful that Maia – in her old age and wisdom – hasn’t joined in, remaining by my side. Yet she seems as worried as I am, watching Meadow and Finn disappear down the steep hill enthralled with the hunt, listening to the cries of the elk, and my yelling.
All I know is that my best hope of being reunited with my dogs is to stay put. When dogs leave the trail in pursuit of something, they invariably return to the same spot where they left. As frustrating as it feels, I know I can’t leave this place. Maia stands beside me as I keep calling, “Meadow! Finn! Come!” I know it’s useless, but I don’t know what else to do. I’m forced to listen to the calf’s screams, getting farther away, and less frequent.
After several minutes, Finn returns, but not quite from where I expect, the direction from which I could still barely hear the calf screaming every few seconds. Just as he jumps back onto the road, he and I both spy an adult female elk. Mama! But as soon as she sees us, she bolts – the opposite direction from where her calf has run. Damn. This is becoming a tragedy of errors. Part of me wants the mama to confront Meadow, scare her off, but the other part of me is relieved she’s run the opposite direction, because I’ve heard how a mother elk will stomp dogs, coyotes, even wolves to death to protect her calf.
I quickly attach Finn to the leash and coupler I already have on Maia, and run with them both the half mile to where the car is parked. I put Finn and Maia inside and run back toward the area where this drama started. Finn barks his dismay at being left behind. My cell phone and camera are heavy in my pockets as I run and I think briefly of returning to stash them in the car, but no, I don’t want to waste any more time, and who knows, I might want my camera. Just then I hear what sounds like a pack of coyotes yipping in the distance. “Great,” I think, “now they’re on alert that a calf is in distress, and could be moving in for the kill. And find Meadow.” My mind races with awful possibilities for Meadow and the calf.
I’m familiar with this particular area, and drainage, from my years living and hiking here with the girls. Down I go – after hearing yet another scream from the calf, which ironically I welcome because it means she’s still alive and Meadow hasn’t actually killed her. I follow a game trail down the hillside, beside a noisy stream, angry that it obscures sounds. Then…I hear Meadow let out a loud yelp/howl of pain, somewhere down below. This is the first time I’ve heard anything from her, and it doesn’t portend well. Have the coyotes found her? My heart races. I’m frightened of whatever scene I may come upon, but I can’t not go.
Downward I stumble over rocks and mud, willing myself not to panic, not to fall. Around a bend, incredibly, I spot Meadow: standing stock still in the game trail, looking at me, covered in dust and mud, panting hard with tongue hanging.
The early morning sun is cutting through the treetops at a sharp angle. Like a scene out of Apocalypse Now, Meadow’s warrior-like appearance is highlighted by the beams.
Smiling broadly and calling her name, I approach with relief – she’s alive! Meadow takes a couple unsteady steps toward me. As I come close, I see a small bit of blood on her cheek and forehead. With some alarm, I check and am relieved to see it’s not her own blood. The amount is so minimal; I convince myself that the calf has survived. I imagine that the calf finally kicked Meadow hard enough to make her back off, deciding the fun is over. That must be the yelp of pain I heard from Meadow.
Meadow stumbles over to the stream and drinks like she’s just crossed the Sahara. I wait, patiently. I’m just so happy she’s alive and in one piece, I can’t get mad. I’d dealt with the sense of nearly losing her just days before when she had the vertigo; this was almost too much. I barely held my fear under the surface until I saw her, alive. I’m pissed she chased the calf, but thrilled she’s okay. All is forgiven. We hike – very slowly – up the drainage, stopping again for Meadow to drink.
We ever-so-slowly walk the dirt road back to the car, Meadow stumbling occasionally as if she’d just raced a marathon. Her breathing is labored, her gait stiff, her tongue long. I can tell she’s hurting. She’s ten years old! This escapade was way beyond her usual level of activity or current degree of fitness.
As we finally see the car, I hear mama elk bugle, calling for her baby. Finally! Music to my ears. I fervently hope she quickly finds her calf. In my mind I can still hear those coyotes yipping.
Somehow, Meadow has the energy to jump into the car. She slips her head between the seat belt and the rear side door, one of her favorite spots in the car.
As we drive out of the forest and back into the development, I see a neighbor on horseback with her Border collie trotting alongside. She’s heading up to the very roads where our morning drama unfolded. I stop the car and get out. We exchange pleasantries, catch up a bit. As Lynn adjusts her horse’s saddle I say, “Meadow chased an elk calf down that first big drainage; I don’t know what happened to the calf, but you might look out for it so that your dog doesn’t also give chase. I’m sure it has had enough.” Lynn smiles and replies, “My old lab Inky did that once. I was so mad at him, I tied him to a tree and rode off without him.” She didn’t have to say that of course she returned for Inky after a short interval – Lynn loves her dogs as much as I do mine – but it was a relief to know that she understood how angry - and embarrassed - I felt.
I am ready to return to tame Seattle after this last incident. At Meadow’s age, I really thought she was past this nonsense, but I guess finding an elk calf hiding just off the road was simply too tempting for a dog who has always literally vibrated with anticipation – nose up, following the scent on the air - when she detected elk in the forest. Meadow has always had a special ken – and yen – for elk. Deer, cows, sheep – they don’t elicit the same strong desire to chase. I learned to attach the leash as soon as her nose went up! But this time, Meadow was behind me and I didn’t even know she’d gone off the road until I heard that first squeal and turned to see her pouncing and ….oh my god it’s an elk calf taller than her and it’s running right at me to escape! Meadow…no! But of course, by then, it was too late.
That afternoon, Meadow was content to snooze in the sun, one tired dog. I bet she enjoyed some amazing dreams.
I realize Meadow and I are both fortunate this turned out as well as it did. Some may fault me for taking my dogs out into the forest, off leash. I know there are risks. I do what I can to minimize those risks – with training, observation (of their body language), and alertness to our surroundings. I certainly don't encourage my dogs to chase wildlife, but I also know that their instincts often overrule my commands to leave it. I trust my dogs to know their own limits, to know how to keep themselves safe. Life is full of risks; a life spent avoiding them altogether is not a life well lived. My neighbors in Idaho can’t believe I regularly go “alone” into the forest. “I hope you have a gun with you,” they often say. No, I don’t. I’m not afraid of wildlife, although I know I could be killed by a surprised bear, or even a mama elk or moose protecting her calf. I’m willing to assume those minimal risks. My dogs and I enjoy our forest time too much to let worries about rare possibilities keep us away. We’re more likely to die in a car accident.
The dogs and I will be in Idaho again in a couple of weeks, and we’ll spend time in the forest as we always have. The forest feeds our souls, enlightens our minds, and makes us feel alive. Meadow will be on leash, this time. She still has minor bouts of dizziness so I don’t want her dashing down hillsides. Otherwise, we will venture out as always, marveling in all the wilderness has to show and teach us, taking in what we can, while we can. I have so little time left with the girls – Maia is 12, Meadow is ten; I strive to make what remains as enjoyable and memorable as I possibly can, for all of us.