The circadian rhythms of a dog owner involve hours parsed by feeding and walks. Meg feeds the dog before sun up, and I feed myself hours later: soft-boiled eggs and sautéed kale and a strong cup of coffee. I sip and look out into the still-dark day and skim headlines of flooding, riots, bureaucratic waste: the mourning news. The weather forecast, in small print next to the New York Times’ masthead, calls for ‘Heavy rain. Sun elsewhere.’ Many misconstrue that as boilerplate text for the Northwest edition. Nonetheless, cold, rain and gales have no impact on the postprandial dog walk, a rain-or-shine event.
I owe a debt of gratitude to a Labrador mix with the aspirational name of Shackleton. He took his first clumsy steps around Seward Park when his age was defined in weeks. (It took us more than an hour to complete, surely the slowest recorded circuit of the 2.4-mile loop.) For it is Shackleton, and his predecessor Eliot, another unpapered, unintentional love child of a Lab and other, who have helped me know the urban woods. We’ve watched beavers and otters swim, coyotes hunt, mayflies hatch and salmon leap. We’ve learned to distinguish spruce from fir and to bird by ear, albeit on a remedial level. We’ve identified the tracks of heron, otter, raccoon, Douglas squirrel and coyote. And we’ve done it all in the near-country of my neighborhood green spaces.
True to his name, Shackleton seeks adventure. While he seems content on a Lake Washington stroll, wanderlust goads him to sniff far from the madding crowds. His serotonin levels spike at the first sighting of snow. He wallows swinishly in even the tiniest snowpatch and I observe, taking vicarious delight. I used to take him rock climbing when he was a puppy, but he kept stealing socks at the base of climbs and I never knew to which pair of shoes they belonged.
But truth be told, he’s not the greatest fishing dog. In fact, he might be the worst. When I come across a pool of rising trout, he decides to go for a swim. The fish stop feeding and I can forget about casting. If I can drift my fly into fishy water before he spooks the quarry, he watches carefully and perks up when a strike pulls the line taut. Again, he goes for a swim, straight towards the end of my line where I try to play the fish without hooking the troublesome pooch. Once, he decided to take a dip in the Cooper River where he paddled right through the run I was fishing, then got swept downstream into fast water. I dropped my 5-weight stick, raced downstream along the bank and prepared to jump in when he managed to eddy out in slower water.
So why the hell do I take him? For the simple reason that he’s great company and he always makes me laugh. With a combination of horror, laughter and sheer disgust I recall how he found a sex toy, cavalierly tossed out at a trailhead after some backseat tryst.
“I hate to tell you this, but your dog has a thong dong in his mouth,” a complete stranger told me.
I was rather embarrassed as I watched Shackleton crouch down in a coy downward dog pose with a pink dildo clenched between his jaws. He wanted to play fetch with his new “stick.” I didn’t know what to do. He looked so happy, I less so. The thought of extricating the object from his mouth made me queasy. I think I ordered him to drop it, a bootless strategy. I bribed him with some jerky. Nothing doing. In his mind, Shackleton had an ace and his owner had nothing to trump it. He pranced around with it like some Lipizzaner stallion until eventually, like the original owner, he got bored of it and abandoned it.
Last winter, Meg and I walked Shackleton at Deadhorse Canyon, where Taylor Creek runs, feeding into the Cedar River further downstream. Just as we got out of the car, I spotted something caught in a tree. It was a spent condom, hanging flaccidly from a willow branch like some deflated windsock. I looked at Shackleton and wondered anxiously how high he could jump.