Monday, June 6, 2011

Who’s a senior dog?

The first summer we lived in Thunder Bay, Bear and I occasionally drove to a nearby conservation area for our walk, a change of scene from the old logging road we plodded every day.

Unlike the logging road, the conservation area was lush with towering trees. Well-worn paths meandered beneath a canopy of green, hemmed in on each side by battalions of sturdy trunks. If we felt so inclined, we could follow a particular trail along the river that eventually met up with another conservation area and we could walk for miles. But mostly we headed for the spot where the trail emerged from the trees onto a large, square plateau of rock. It sprawled out in front of us like a giant table, mostly flat except for a few deep divots where water gathered in large puddles.

Bear and I would head across the open rock to the edge where the river narrowed and changed from dark, liquid glass to a shattering rampage of white water, tumbling and churning its way over rounded boulders and sharp rocks as the land abruptly changed elevation.

We would watch the water for a while lost in the white noise of it cascading over the rocks and sometimes feel its vibrations, rushing to catch the riverbed as it dropped away beneath it.

If there were no clouds in the sky, the sun beat down on that rock shelf relentlessly so it too became a heat source and standing out there was a bit like sensory overload; the intense heat, the constant rush of water, the earthy smell of the river. Sometimes when we turned to go it felt like we had been swimming all day in the sun.

When we stepped back amongst the trees, it was like another world. We would walk the sun-dappled path, enjoying the cool of the shade, taking our time as the trail rose up from the river, steep in spots.

On one such day as we climbed back up the path breathing the green smells of the forest, the crash of the river muffled by the trees, we met a man coming down the trail with a dog toddling beside him, a spaniel mix with light blond hair and the droopy look of a senior.

“Well, here comes another old dog,” the man said with a warm, knowing smile as he looked at Bear. I laughed lightly, not quite sure what to say. Is four old for a Lab? I half wondered in my still fairly new acquired position as a dog owner. That doesn’t seem right.

“How old is she?” he asked.

“Four,” I replied.

“Oh,” he said, slightly taken aback, “She’s just a young thing.” Then added, by way of explanation I suppose, “She has a lot of gray on her chin.” I looked sideways at Bear and felt slightly insulted on her behalf.

“Yes,” I laughed again, and shrugged. “I guess she’s had a stressful life.”

As Bear and I continued along the trail bathed in golden light filtered by the trees, I thought of the times during the previous year when Bear’s life was less than tranquil; like the time she was dumped out of the canoe in a set of rapids, or got lost in the woods at night when she was frightened by a mistakenly fired bear-banger, or when her eyes swelled shut from bug bites before her body got used to them, or the time she slid off a polished rock into the cold waters of Lake Superior.

She earned every one of those gray hairs, I thought as we arrived back at the car. And she had a lot of fun doing it.

Bear is ten now and there have been countless more stressful events in her life since that day in the woods - a box of kittens, a borderline-psychotic puppy, and life-altering leg injuries to name but three. Her gray hair is no longer contained to just the very tip of her chin, but stretches all the way to her neck.

It fans out from her nose and along her lips as though she has rested her chin for a moment in a pail of flour. Tufts of white grow inside her ears and on the bottoms of her feet while, recently, sporadic strands have begun to appear along the ridges of her eyebrows. And Bear, just being Bear, catching sticks, demanding peanut butter, walking in the woods, defies labels and wears it all like a badge of honour.


  1. Lucky, Katie, and Lucy (all 12) want Bear to know he's but a mere whipper-snapper! They still feel and act young too. I'm wondering if labs age slower than German Shepherds? By the time Jess was 12, she definitely seemed elderly. Lucky and Katie are still going strong, though, distinguished white faces and all. :)

  2. Bear will be so pleased to know she is a whipper-snapper. If it wasn't for her knee issues she would still be out frolicking like a puppy, giving Murdoch a good run for his money.