Yesterday, Labor Day, I decided in the crisp September air to take out the Big Sur and ride to the Windsock from the house. This is an old favorite mountain bike ride of mine that I’ve done often over the years. The Windsock is a simple little indicator the Missoula hang glider crowd placed atop a tall Ponderosa not too far above the “M” on Mount Sentinel. It is a lovely overlook of the University campus and the river valley. Soon it will offer locals one of the few autumn foliage sites that includes colors beyond the surrounding forests’ Tamarack yellows; old Maples surround the clock tower and oval, lining Arthur and the other roads about the campus. Crazy Canyon was busy with many Missoula outdoor recreation types, most hiking up the trails or riding their mountain bikes. Many were wearing shells.
For a Lab, Wen had lived a long life. Her days were filled with countless adventures. The prior two Labradors had many days afield as well and at the house with the kids. The first one I bought for field trialing; a dog from BC, she had a seizure. The second, an English Lab, sadly died of cancer. The field trialing did not last long with the Canadian dog as time and commitment became an issue. I’ve never owned a dog with such energy, however. Non-stop go… The English dog had a great upland nose, but was not too excited about the ice in the Flathead River during waterfowl season. I picked her up from a former colleague. A litter from Susan Scales’ labradors. Susan, from the Essex/Suffolk border, wrote a retriever training book, Retriever Training. While in Missoula, she signed my copy “To Garland, Sorry I was so rude! Best Wishes, Susan Scales.” I enjoyed visiting with Susan and picking up a few pointers about her training style, a bit less harsh than some of the other methods. I keep her book on the shelf next to Tom Quinn’s The Working Retrievers, another excellent work.
At any rate, all three dogs were wonderful bird dogs; but, as happens with retrievers, each also became principally great family pets. Labrador attributes, obedient and excellent with children. As dogs will do, these animals found their way into our hearts. Companions, friends. Trustworthy, no grey. It would have been impossible to spread their ashes in all of the spots they had frequented, so we stuck with a few of the local mountains, the three main rivers and a few feeders. “This is to be a celebration,” I remarked to Todd, Erin and Seth as we drove along to a section, the confluence of the Clark Fork and the Bitterroot. “Think of New Orleans without the brass,” I went on… They weren’t quite buying it, but managed to hold it together as we tossed ashes into the river below Cottonwoods that were showing early signs of turning. Many old duck hunting and fishing memories flooded my mind. I told a story about a Raven harassing one of the dogs one day as I sat half frozen in a makeshift blind. While the dog was on a retrieve for a drake Mallard, the Raven swooped down and flapped its large black wings over the dog in a menacing way, as to say, “This is not where you should be, girl. Go back to your master and tell him to find a different area to spread his decoys. Now go, or on the next retrieve, I’ll fly down again and harass you with my long beak.” The Raven made for entertainment that day while I quietly sipped coffee from the thermos, observing the solitary bird as it scrutinized the occasional whitetail deer wandering through the green fields below. Great birds, Ravens.
As we walked upstream along what was once a rail bed, we watched a Bald Eagle circle over the large dark green pools of the Blackfoot. Not too long prior, Seth had seen his first bear in the same area. Also, not too long prior, Wen, Seth and I had found ourselves stuck on a rock in our canoe in the middle of the river. We sat there serenely that day as the clear river flowed by and had a calm discussion about what the best approach might be. I decided to simply jiggle us off of the rock and press on down stream. I’ll never forget Wen’s expression that day though as we sat there motionless. Dogs have a keen sense of awareness, and she knew that the old man in the stern had somehow for the first time screwed up while navigating the canoe. The section’s pretty boney in spots and the glare that day got the best of me. It wasn’t much of a production, but it sure made for another great memory with family and a dog on a Montana river. A few days prior, Todd and I drove up one of the local canyons where we’ve often grouse hunted. It was pouring rain as Todd drove his small Toyota up the bumpy dirt road. “I miss the old days of listening to the ball games on the AM while driving off of the mountain after camping and a couple of days of bird hunting,” I mentioned as we plodded along behind some fellow in camo with a circle on his rear plate, slowly driving a new silver Ford pickup. It was bow season, so I figured that was his story. We drove through one section where my rear derailleur on my cross bike unexpectedly and for absolutely no apparent reason exploded as I peddled up the mountain road one day. I had a pretty significant tantrum in the woods during that episode. A good reason to ride in the woods. Fortunately it was simply a coast off of the mountain to the bottom that day, where my wife picked me up.
Todd and I parked just below where the kids had camped and/or hiked with the dogs numerous times in the past. It was now hailing and the sky was black with a low ceiling. There are numerous old logging roads and skid trails that we call “fingers” which stretch along the mountain side above and below one another. Excellent high elevation habitat for Mountain Grouse. We began walking out one of the roads while I zipped up my shell as the weather was now blowing snow and sleet. We reached a section where the roads become paths and merge. The roads are old and eventually appear as paths with small Douglas Firs growing throughout. Hands in our pockets, and attire now wet, we decided to walk along an upper section.
Kaboom! I’m not sure how else to put it other than that. I was walking on the left, the uphill side of the road and Todd next to me on the right, just below. Out of the corner of my left eye, not 35 yards above us, I just glimpsed a great white flash and felt the percussion as the explosion occurred. We kept walking. It was that simple. I don’t even think we stopped. Immediately afterwards we heard thunder not too far above us in the distance, but it soon abated and simply snowed. “I reckon that was lightning,” one of us concluded, though it smelled a bit like sulphur. I mentioned the story of my father getting knocked down by lightning while on a green golfing in West Virginia. Other than that, we simply didn’t say much, deciding we’d check it out on the way back. Our ears were ringing, but we pitched the dogs’ ashes in some of the favorite spots in the area and took a few photos in the sleet with the phone. This was a pretty tough spot, given the great memories of the dogs working the area with Todd in particular. We decided not to make a production of where the explosion had occurred, simply looking to see if there was a fire on the upper hillside just above us – which there wasn’t. As we drove out, we stopped and I showed Todd how to lock the differential and what that meant in cases he ever needed to use the feature. The fellow in the Ford was nowhere to be seen. We watched one Grouse on the side of the road scamper off nonchalantly as we crept by. “We heard it down here,” Molly said when we got back to the house. “I heard it though the headphones, Dad,” Seth echoed.