Freya the Brown Dog is a legend among domesticated canines. She is the kind of Very Good Dog whose purpose in life is primarily to serve her steward by being good. And sometimes by rolling in bear or coyote scat, or eating deer carcass until she rolls home like a drunkard, dazed and swollen.
Once, after the 8,000th valiant attempt and despite my horrified stare, she even caught a squirrel. It made a calculation error and basically ran straight into her mouth. Years of fierce threats from the bottom of tree trunks gave way to her true spirit, and she merely rolled it in her gums for a moment then spat it back out. For the rest of the day, she pranced about with a proud wag so other dogs and squirrels would know of her prowess and mercy.
In the mountains, where we spend much of our time, she scouts the trails, ensures those squirrels don’t block my path, and refuses to acknowledge bears beyond a brief whine to let me know we stumbled into one. On a hike some time ago, I literally nearly stumbled into one and Freya neatly tucked herself behind my body and close to our snacks so she could cut and run with supplies should I succumb to the beast.
So when I heard her yelping in the bush ahead of me last weekend, crashing down the mountain in a hysterical rush to find me, I braced myself for the bear. Freya emerged from the thick undergrowth at full tilt, tail tucked, and crying out as though she’d been gravely injured. As she scurried behind me, I heard a low growl ahead.
I made note of every bad choice that had led me to the situation I was standing in right then. Freya lost her bear bell in the mountains a couple of weeks ago. I hadn’t replaced it. Today, we were bushwhacking above my house in the foothills of the Selkirks, and I never bring bear spray with me. I worry most about the wolf traps that are placed out there, not the wildlife.
I looked around at the trees I might get behind and tried to decide which ear I would sacrifice in front as I planted my feet in the ground, rolled my shoulders forward, and tucked my head down. Finally, I might have a use for all those single earrings I’d lost the pair to. I wasn’t going to die. My hiking companion and two more dogs were just down the hill behind me – a crowd big enough to deter most anything but a stubborn moose.
These are literally the things that cross my mind before I even see it: Environmental awareness and accessory upcycling. If our minds are capable of having our entire lives pass before our eyes in a single moment, or of making the rapid-fire reflexive moves that save us from imminent doom in traffic and on mountain bikes, or we can instantly know and imprint on memory every detail of the environment we’re in when a bear is crashing toward us, why can’t I remember my darn bank PIN?
Right as I was trying to remember it, I saw the cat emerge from the bushes. In Freya’s defense, it was the biggest cat I had seen up close and a far sight larger than the lazy feral bird killers at our house. This kitty was bigger than Freya and probably eats brown dogs for breakfast.
Of all the things I do not want to run into in the woods (Neil Diamond, Pabst cans, cannibals, and cats to begin with), cougars are at the top of that list.
Just as I realized what it was and that both of my ears were now at risk, the other dogs barked and the mountain lion disappeared into the hillside in a single, sleek motion like some sort of beige phantom.
Freya, still cowering behind me, did not make a noise.
Good Dogs know a Bad Kitty when they see one. I checked her over for scratches and found nothing but her damaged pride.
“What should we do?” asked my companion.
Continue to develop our humble respect for nature, count our blessings, and maybe change our underwear, I thought.
“Carry on,” I said, sounding particularly casual and calm, “we’re almost to the top anyway.”
Ammi Midstokke can be contacted at email@example.com
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