There are few of God’s giftings for our earthly pleasures and uses that exceed a really good dog. My daughter Laura’s dog Fuzzner, is such. As I write she’s challenging the two, thousand-pound, long-legged, brown intruders browsing willow on our property uninvited. To her single-focused reasoning, they’re grave threats to the family she guards with a jealously that over the years has never relaxed or relented. Even the young neighbor kids who live across from us at the end of the rural road, whom she no doubt recognizes perfectly after years of their coming over to play with our children, she would most forcibly keep from our yard if she were not restrained by her running line. When our kids leave our yard to play at their place, Fuzzner strains at the end of her tether, watching her charges at a distance, barking her worried bark with no let-up until they return to her safe and secure.
Fuzzner is half golden retriever, half Rottweiler. Around our family and the few of our friends she has accepted through back country pack trips together, she’s your typical warm, loving golden. But when she’s in guardian mode, she’s pure Rottweiler. Now since she’s lightly nipped one of my friend’s children, albeit when the boy strode abruptly right up to look at her just-born puppies, and since she’s closely grazed with her choppers a kind, housesitting lady who loves animals so much she was determined to pet the dog she’d been feeding, warning or no warning, and since Fuzzner has come close to fastening her pearlies down on others, some folks have been critical of our keeping such an edgy animal. So I tell them about Fuzzner and the bear.
When Fuzzner holds to such a penchant for indiscriminant use of her fangs to keep our household safe from threats of knobby-kneed six-year-olds and harmless old ladies, why would we continue to harbor a dog that risky? Well, our rationale is not totally like, but has an aspect in common with, the case of that farmer who had a pig with a wooden leg. When asked by a city feller about the unusual circumstances of his oinker, the farmer explained that the pig was no ordinary pig—that three different times he had saved one family member or another from sure death—(here the farmer almost chokes up with emotion and rubs away a tear) “…so Mister, when you got a pig like our pig, you eat him real slow.”
At least in common with that feeble attempt at a parallel, is that when you’ve got a dog that has saved your son from a huge, on-rushing grizzly, and at a little more than arm-spread, you’re not going to just dump her. Imagining what our son Levi would physically be like today, if indeed he would have even lived, were it not for Fuzzner’s heroics, we feel strongly that risky or not as a neighborhood dog, Fuzzner deserves and always will have our loyalty and affection.
Many years before Fuzzner’s birth, my pal Ken Davis came north to hunt with me. (If you like to laugh out of control, as well as gain valuable insights and inspiration, visit his blog at www.kendavis.com) I had been interested in scouting out a new moose hunting area and with Ken I looked into the upper margin of the country. But, though we did see some big bulls, we only had time for a hurried look. Ken and I had to move on to the second phase of our hunt where I had an arrangement with a bush pilot to fly us into another location. So I didn’t learn all I wished to know about this area on my recon with Ken.
Some years later I ran into an old homesteader who dwelt in the elevations right below the moose-rich high bench that Ken and I had looked into. Upon questioning him, I found that the sourdough ran a trapline up in the very high country of my interest. He knew it like the proverbial back of his hand. “Rod, that’s wonderful game country up there all right, but I’ll warn you, you’ll have lots of competition. The black bears are thick as flees. And one particular brownie is big as a barn. He goes through the moose calves like eating popcorn and he’s mean as seven kinds of sin. I hope I never have to face him!”
A number of years after my talk with the old homesteader I finally got my chance to investigate that high country in earnest. My good friend Gary Nerlfi and his son Matty would accompany my son Levi and me on a nine-day hunt there. We would penetrate it from the opposite direction from the one Ken and I had taken. After building a base camp with a bear-proof cache at low elevation, we moved out, clearing trail toward the high, moose-rich bench country. All of us were heavily packed. Not only did we have to carry camp gear and supplies for nine days, but hunting gear, paraphernalia for dressing and packing meat, and meat cache and trail-building equipment. At age 62, though my own pack weighed close to eighty pounds, things went swimmingly as I cut a compass course through the timber. That is, as long as I could use axe and bow saw standing up or only slightly bent over. But then we reached a hillside choked with low brush. While we could wade through it, Fuzzner, carrying her forty-pound pack with the panniers bulging out on both sides, was really having a tussle down at her level. And carrying my pack, I couldn’t stay bent to the ground to cut the brush. It required a different strategy.
“Gary, let’s shed our packs. If you’ll stay here with the boys and dog, I’ll cut for twenty minutes on our compass heading. Then I’ll come back and we can move everything up. If this kind of brush continues beyond where I turn around, we’ll do the same thing, but you can cut and I’ll stay.”
Under that plan, they seated themselves on the ground by their packs, thirteen-year-old Levi in front, Matty close behind his life-long best friend, and Gary in the rear leaning against a spruce. Fuzzner, head on Levi’s lap, enjoyed the rest and soaked up the love. I took a couple of steps and began slashing. After some thick going, the brush thinned. But since I was in the mode, I continued uphill, watching the heading and cutting through the standing and downed timber. By the end of my twenty minutes I had made quite a distance. I turned and began jogging back down my new trail. As would soon be seen, I wasn’t the only one using it.
At perhaps one hundred yards from the men, I heard Fuzzner erupt and all hades break loose. The dog was going absolutely berserk. Now when you’ve had as many dogs as I have, especially breeds like Great Pyrenees and Tibetan mastiffs, fierce guardians, you get to know dog talk pretty well. It just sounded to me like bear. Calling out, “When you guys get that one skinned, I’ll send you another one,” I doubled my speed.
Arriving, I found the commotion anything but a joking matter. The dog, hackles up and still intermittently voicing her warning, stood guard in front of Levi and gazed steadily in one direction. Levi lay face down in the leaves, hands clasped behind his neck, and, as the old country boys would say, “shaking like a dog passing peach seeds.” Matty’s face looked like two pee holes in the snow. Gary, who would beard the very devil to save family, friend, or stranger was keyed up, to put it lightly, and covering the area of Fuzzner’s stare with his .300 mag.
From their report, at about the right time for me to return, they heard a ka-wump, ka-wump, ka-wump, the sound of pounding footfalls approaching at a run down the trail I had cut. Next they saw trailside brush shaking as the on-comer ploughed by. I had been pushing the crew, figuring it would take at least four days of hard cutting to build our long trail, so they thought it was me at a run, not wanting to waste a moment. But Fuzzner, canine senses more acute, knew danger when she heard it. It all happened in an instant. Remember that I had taken a couple of steps before beginning to cut? That left a thin wall of brush between the men and the trail. Through the veil they saw a giant brown shape bearing down on them at full gallop. If at home Fuzzner perceives a pencil-necked, forty-pound neighbor kid as a threat, you can imagine what a deadly threat to Levi she saw in this on-rushing giant! It might cost her life (not that a dog thinks that way) but she was not going to let this monster have her ward. Ripping herself off Levi’s lap, with a ferocious roar, Fuzzner launched herself, forty-pound pack and all, straight through the brush toward the creatures face. The bear, taken totally by surprise, spun an instant ninety and fled in a brush-busting escape.
When I had comforted Levi and nerves had settled, I carefully measured the distance between where Levi’s head had been in the leaves, and the big scuff mark the bear’s clawed pad had gouged as it pivoted. One boot sole, two boot soles, three, four—eight heel-to-toe boot sole lengths—eight feet. That’s maybe half a bound for a grizzly coming on the wind downhill, not much more than a tenth of a second between Levi and contact. One can only guess the outcome if it had not been for Fuzzner and her single-minded instincts as a fierce guardian.
Casting about up the hill, Levi and I found a fresh print in damp ground, made by the bear before he began to run. Levi, eyes bulging out like door knobs, exclaimed, “Dad, it looks like a cave troll!” The hind tracks measured, heal to tip of claws, a length-and-a-half of Levi’s size eights. Some bear. Thinking back to the giant the homesteader had described, the old timer had lived in the country for decades and probably would have known if there were more than one brownie of that size in the area. And old boars can hold some pretty proprietary views of their territory. I think chances are quite good that the old sourdough’s bear and Levi’s was one and the same.
So I repeat that in the realm of gifts from our Creator there’s not much in life that can beat a really good dog. And if it’s because trusty ol’ Fuzzner has an over-developed sense of urgency to protect her own that we have our son Levi alive and intact (handsome son-of-a-gun that he is now at twenty) well then we’re surely not going to cast her out for her over-the-top solicitude and will willingly continue to put up with her threats to innocent small children and harmless little old ladies.