Monday, June 13, 2011

Water dog

At the end of our road where the walking trail begins there’s a creek that winds its way through long, swaying marsh grasses, appearing from around a bend in the shadow of a small mountain. If you were to follow the creek upstream, picking your way carefully along the undefined edge where it meets spongy mud woven-over with straw-like grass, you would eventually end up at a small lake, carved from a rocky bowl where sheer cliffs drop straight down and disappear beneath the dark water.

The creek leaves that lake secretly through marsh grasses and becomes not much more than a trickle in mid-summer. At that time of year, the creek reaches our road as a thin thread with barely a ripple of movement. It slips quietly beneath the road through a wide-mouthed culvert to emerge on the other side and gather in a pool where the dogs can swim.

I used to think Murdoch was scared of water. The first week he stayed with us, a nameless, borderline-psychotic puppy, more interloper than lovably eccentric family member, he balked at the small streams that snaked their way across the old logging road where we used to live. It was spring and the melt water ran freely, gathering along the trail in large depressions that had to be waded through or leapt over.

Bear and Max sloshed through the water without hesitation, stopping occasionally to drink, while I picked my way around stepping from high spot to high spot. Murdoch seemed at first puzzled by this sudden appearance of water and then outraged that he was going to have to get his feet wet. I laughed at him, this puppy who had come into our home strutting with overconfidence and a flippant disregard for life, now humbled by a simple, gently flowing stream. I imagine Bear and Max took great pleasure in that.

Somewhere between those first tentative flying leaps over the offending streams and his latest kamikaze bombardments on the pond at the end of our road, Murdoch has fallen in love with water. He approaches swimming like he approaches life, it’s not about finesse or economy of motion or getting from here to there, it’s about how big of a splash he can make, how much of a commotion he can cause. There is nothing graceful about that dog at all.

Murdoch swims like a person drowning. His front legs pump up and down, coming right out of the water and splashing and plunging loudly with each paddle. His head darts forward between strokes, mouth wide open, snapping up mouthfuls of water. He snorts and snuffles and hacks with each swallow, his eyes wild and round as though he’s not so sure this swimming thing is altogether natural, but man is it fun.

Mostly he prefers to have a reason for being in the water, so I stand above the culvert with a stick in my hand and Murdoch, quivering in excitement beside me. “Ready?” I ask and bring the stick up over my head. Murdoch bolts down the steep, muddied slope to the water and I let the stick fly out over the swimming hole. He leaps as though his legs house coiled springs and launches out past the shallows, plunging into the center of the pond in a loud explosion of water. His black shape is highlighted for a moment with the white spray cascading up around him like a reverse waterfall and then it closes in, the water sloshing together again over his back.

His head bobs away as he swims after the stick. I can see his black shape, a shadow in the water, swirling up brown muck like smoke that will soon obscure his body entirely.

He snatches the stick in his jaws with characteristic authority and swims to the edge, hauling himself out amongst the greening grasses. Murdoch bounds back up the hill, his once shaggy hair slick against his body, black and shiny like oil, making him appear much skinnier, more sleek, less galumphing.

He places the stick in my hand, eyes locked on it, body tensed and ready to go. He doesn’t bother to shake off the water, which streams from his fur, soaking the dusty ground to a dark brown, and pools around his feet. In an instant he is off again, running, then flying through the air with a wonderful reckless abandon, pouring everything he has into making the biggest, loudest splash he can.


  1. what a lovely post! i have *never* had a dog who is a good swimmer. toby did a true dog paddle, with his head up high, splashing with his front paws sort of frantically. boscoe won't have anything to do with water, won't even stand in a stream to drink. and riley, who is part springer AND SHOULD LOVE WATER, takes a cue from boscoe. he'll stand in it, but he won't swim. at all.

  2. Toby's swimming style sounds a bit like Murdoch's. Bear is the quintessential Black Lab, she's a beautiful swimmer and takes every opportunity to be in the water. Even Max swam a few times after he came to live with us and I think it was good for his crooked old back. By that time his back-end had lost a lot of muscle so it kind of bobbed up to the surface like a cork! Quincy, with us for such a short time, was the only one of the bunch who wouldn't swim but loved to sit in the river and let it flow past his knees, or wallow in big mud puddles.. dogs are funny.