It was Memorial Day weekend, 2012. My boyfriend, Clay, and I had driven out to Lost Creek Wilderness, in Pike National Forest to backpack and camp for a few days; escape the stress of our jobs, breathe the fresh air, and exercise our very energetic three-year-old golden retriever, Clementine. Technically Clementine is my dog, but since Clay and I started dating a little over a year ago, she has had no trouble bonding with her new “father figure.” Clay’s patience for Clementine has grown, and his sense of adventure contributes a certain spontaneity that our team of two was previously lacking.
Clementine is not a smart dog. In fact, she is a bit of a dolt. An immense klutz known for over-excitement and flatulence – she regularly responds to her nickname, “Tooty,” which came from her knack for clearing a room. Tooty is loving and kind, loyal and sweet. She thinks highly of me, even when I’m at my worst. She is maternally protective of other animals and children. She will nurture a rubber ball as if it is a tiny puppy, build a nest of clothes in which in can slumber, and lick it to her standard of clean. She waits patiently for us to return from work, always greeting us with grunts of joy at the front door, eager to settle in for the evening and watch Project Runway at our feet. And if you ever need a hangover nap companion, she is right there, ready to be the little spoon. She is in short, a wonderful animal, and my very best friend.
After hiking in from the trailhead, we spent an evening tucked away in a camp spot not visible from the trail. We had ventured off route after seven miles of initial trekking to find our beautiful temporary abode. And beautiful she was: nestled between a bubbling creek and jagged rock face jutting into a sky-blue dome, we were enclosed in lush pine forest, protected by an overhang of trees, just big enough to grant a feeling of safety without impeding on our view of the star-spangled sky. This area is known for its wildlife; cougars and black bears roam, and one of the state’s largest big horn sheep populations resides in this expansive territory. Realizing our bounty, we decided to christen the location “Base Camp” and spend the next few evenings here; our exploration time would be used on short day-hikes in the surrounding wilderness.
Clementine was thrilled with our decision; leaving our heavy packs at Base Camp meant we could move more quickly, which meant more freedom for her to explore. An outdoor enthusiast, she is always ready to hit the trail. She insists on running to the front of our patrol to scout for wildlife or fellow trail-goers. She will run 50 yards ahead and double back to report her findings and ensure the team is intact. While Clementine eagerly wagged her tail, we examined a map of the 140-mile trail network winding through Lost Creek Wilderness. We decided to head northeast on Hankins Pass Trail, which ascends to Lake Park, an alpine valley nestled against the Tarryall Mountain Range. We had a leisurely lunch at 11,000 feet elevation, and began our descent just as rain clouds began to roll in from the west. Though windy and rather chilly, our descent back to Base Camp was much quicker than the ascent, with Tooty leading the way down the winding trail.
Using Clay’s GPS and the trail map, we eventually located our temporary nylon home in the woods. Relieved and exhausted, we needed to make the best use of daylight, and only a half hour or so remained before dusk. Always prepared, I quickly used my supply of baby wipes to “clean up” in the tent before retiring by the creek for a supper of tuna. While Clay used the last of the baby wipes to scrub the sunscreen and dust off his neck, arms, and face, Tooty and I relaxed by the creek, sharing an aluminum pouch of lemon-pepper tuna. Each bite I would take, I would offer her a small piece. Not normally one to receive table scraps, she was delighted at each little shred of fish flesh I would share with her. As the sun set and the sky transitioned into a lovely shade of smoked amethyst, we enjoyed our much-needed protein. In that moment, under the moonrise, as I shared a meal with my loyal canine companion, waiting for my beloved to “bathe” himself in the lime green tent with baby wipes, I was enamored with my life.
I hardly noticed a slight rustle in the brush behind me. As I dug the final scraps of tuna from the bag and offered it to Clementine, she ignored me. Looking past me, the hair down her spine erected from her neck to her hind. “Clementine,” I said in an attempt to regain her attention. Convinced that whatever had caught her attention was benign I continued prodding: “Clem, don’t you want this…” No sooner had I offered her the last bite of tuna had she leaped from her seated position, running full-speed in the direction behind me, towards the creek. I jumped from my camp chair, spinning around to follow her, and instinctively calling her name. “Clementine!” I shrieked.
It was then that I saw what had held her attention captive for the last few moments: a white streak of fur, barreling down-slope towards the creek, quickly approaching our utopia in the woods. And there was Clem, sprinting full-speed ahead, completely fearless. Oh my god, I thought. A wolf. But no, impossible in this terrain. Holy shit. A cougar. We are right by the rock face. Complete mountain lion territory. It’s been stalking our campsite all day, waiting for the right opportunity to carry my dog off in its jowls. I prepared myself to watch my dog’s death by the paw of a merciless cougar. There was nothing I could do. Clementine was going to die a martyr, and I would have to watch.
They say just before you die, your life flashes before your eyes. The same can be said for the moment just before you witness the death of your best friend. I thought of Clementine as a puppy; her soft downy fur, puckered at her neck ears as she yipped for my attention. The way she would fall asleep next to me at night, her orange coat bathed in lamplight gently rising and falling with each sleepy breath. I thought about what it would be like if she wasn’t carried off by the predator, just injured and left for dead. I thought of all the words I would whisper into her ear as I sobbed my final goodbyes.
As the white streak of fur came into clearer view, I began to think about how I would defend myself if it decided to forego my canine friend and come after me. Frantically, I searched the ground for the biggest stick I could find, and imagined sticking my hiking boot into its throat. I braced myself, and just then, I noticed this beast was horned. “What the hell,” I murmured to myself. As it jumped across the creek and neared our campsite, Clementine’s paws dug into the wet soil, and she met it face-to-face. The beast slowed to a halt, rearing up on its hind legs. As it did, its profile came into view.
Not a wolf or mountain lion, or predator at all, but a bighorn sheep, turning 180-degrees on its back feet as it met my dog, Tooty, on the edge of the creek bed.
Flabbergasted, I moved my hand to my forehead, knowing there was nothing I could do to prevent Clementine from executing her plan of defense. The sheep, four or five times her size, clumsily trampled back up the creek bed toward the trail, and continued into the wilderness. Irked by the anti-climactic turn of events, Clementine turned back around, and trotted towards me. The boredom on her face was almost heartbreaking. Empathetically, I could feel her disappointment, but she could not begin to understand my relief.
Buttoning his jeans, Clay tore out of the mesh-door of the tent. “What?!” he shouted. “What the hell…” He looked around in confusion. Clem lazily licked her paws and wagged her tail, interested in this sudden burst of energy from her dad. Hopeful, she waited for him to chase after her, or perhaps initiate a match of wrestling.
“A sheep,” I said. “A goddamn sheep just tried to kill us. And Clementine saved the day.”
Bewildered, he spun a circle on his feet, looking around for visual evidence of the crisis he had just heard from the confines of the tent. The woods were quiet, eerily so. The sky had darkened, and nightfall moved over us with a calming stillness. “We better bang some pots and pans,” I said. “Just in case it was running from something.”
“Yeah,” Clay agreed, still confused. He began rummaging through our bear bag for the non-stick cookware. I stood over him, shaken by the rollercoaster of emotions I had just endured. “A sheep,” I giggled. “A sheep.” Accepting that the potential for further excitement had passed, Tooty resigned to her perch next to my empty camp chair, patiently waiting for that remaining morsel of tuna.
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