The Barnhill Family’s Disaster In the BWCA: A Tale of Love, Loss, Heartbreak and Redemption

All right, maybe “disaster” is too strong a word. It wasn’t a disaster. It was almost a disaster. Very, very almost.

First of all, in the spirit of full disclosure, I should warn you off the bat that if you are the sort of person to be deeply troubled by stories of Cute and/or Beloved Domestic Animals In Peril, then you should stop reading right now. I actually started this post a while ago, but I couldn’t bring myself to finish it until we had a better sense of my dog’s prognosis.

I couldn’t write this when I honestly thought she was going to die.

Unfortunately, it’s still an open question. She’s definitely on the upswing, and after what she’s been through, she looks fantastic. Still. We could still get Very Bad News next week, so I’m just hanging on to each precious day, and feeling grateful for it. Gratitude, I’ve found, is a powerful thing. Very powerful, indeed.

In any case, my dog is super old, super gnarly, and is, as far as I can tell, made of cast-iron. We’ve had more scares than I can count with her, and every time she comes out of it astonishingly healthier than she was before. She had a brain event a while ago when she lost control of her limbs. We thought that was it. She got better. She ate a dead fish and got a terrible salmonella infection that the vet said would have killed any other dog on earth. Not Harper. She has eaten, digested, and shat batteries without even a stomach ache. She’s tough, smart, and fiercely loyal to us. She’s the greatest dog on earth, and I’m speaking in entirely empirical terms here.

Anyway, here’s the story:

We piled the family (two parents, three kids and a dog) in our extra-long, Kevlar canoe, along with backpacks and Duluth packs, and slid into the wilderness.
The Boundary Waters, as usual was exquisitely beautiful. It was greener than in recent years due to heavy snows and consistent (persistent?) rains, the rivers were plump and high, the lakes lousy with fish, and wildlife scurrying in every direction. It was also, however, lousy with bugs. Massive swarms of the biggest mosquitoes I’ve ever seen in my life crowded the air, divebombed our eyes, invaded our noses and mouths and assaulted our skin. It was a mosquito invasion, a mosquito apocalypse, a mosquito Plague from a very pissed-off God. We cowered and wailed and begged for forgiveness, but received no succor. We learned later that we’re having a banner year for mosquitoes this year. So that’s great.

Now here’s the thing about camping: even when it sucks, it’s great. It was cold, drizzly, and windy. The kids work hard, we work hard and it’s awesome. One of the things about being outside from the moment you wake up to the moment you crawl into the tent. is that you become incredibly good at noticing things. We notice the shine of the clouds on the water. We notice the wiggly shadow of a beaver as it slides just under the skin of the waves and disappears into the weeds. We notice the rhythms in our own bodies, and the rhythms in one another. We anticipate one another better, respond better, listen better. When we’re in the woods, we operate better as a family.

And there was one thing that both my husband and I noticed: Harper was slowing down. We knew it would happen, of course. Some day. In the future. Harper was sixteen after all. At least. She came into our lives in the fall of 1998, and the vet said she was between three and six back then. And after all these years, she never showed a hint of ever slowing down. She went running with me, chased squirrels and rabbits, and was a general spaz.


This year.

This year she lagged.

This year she slowed.

This year, instead of leaping into the canoe and leaping out, she paused, planned, stumbled.

My husband and I watched her and worried. “This is probably her last year camping with us, ” we said over dinner. And we were sad about this. When Harper first came into our lives, we were a couple of idiot kids with no sense of direction, no plans, no lives. Harper made us into a family. And we never looked back.

On Saturday morning, the day we were supposed to leave, I woke up before everyone else, stumbled out of the tent, and realized that Harper was gone.

Like, completely gone.

I filled her food and water bowl, called for her, walked the trails that spidered away from the campsite before they vanished into the thick undergrowth, and found nothing. No tracks. No signs. We heard nothing in the night. The ground wasn’t disturbed. She just….. vanished.

Come back, come back, come back, my heart said. But she didn’t.

So, we couldn’t leave. Fortunately, we always pack an extra day and a half’s worth of food, because you never know if it’s just going to be too dangerous to paddle out. The weather can be changeable and dangerous, and it’s important to be prepared.

Also, one can lose one’s dog. And you can’t look – or weep – on an empty stomach.

For the rest of the day we looked. Ted bushwacked in three directions, calling her name, but heard nothing. We piled into the canoe and paddled along the jagged shore of the large lake, calling and calling, but nothing. We talked to other campers, but they had seen nothing, heard nothing.

Come back, come back, come back.

As the day waned, Ted and I tried not to look at each other. We tried to smile for the kids. We tried to keep them upbeat. We did our best to keep from crying, because we knew that any emotion we show, the kids will feel a thousand times over. “This sort of thing happens all the time,” we lied. “Harper’s a tough cookie. She always knows where we are. She’d never leave us for good, never.” That part had always been true….but what if it wasn’t?

Finally, we went back to the portage trail that we had hiked across to get to this particular lake in the first place. We figured, if she had run off chasing something and got turned around, she might have ended up on the trail, recognized the smell, and stayed put until we came back.

In retrospect, it wasn’t a great theory, but it was all we had.

It was an awful trail, thick with bugs and mud, and about a mile long. And while it was easier to do without Duluth packs on our backs and a canoe on our shoulders, our hearts weighed heavily inside us, and so it was a long, trudging slog. The only one among us with a spring in his stride was my son, Leo.

Leo the true believer.

Leo the ardent friend of his dog.

Leo, whose first language is Dog, who’s prime culture is Dog, who was – and I will admit this freely – raised by his dog.

Leo believed that we would get to the end of the trail, and his dog would be waiting for him. Leo believed that he would be exasperated but happy, and that the re-united family would trudge on back.

But Harper wasn’t there. Leo stood there for a moment, his damp breath punching in and out of his nose, before dropping his backpack to the ground, tilting his little face to the sky and letting out a long, brokenhearted wail.

And the girls cried.

And Ted cried.

And I cried.

Because there was no pretending anymore. There was no illusion of a happy ending. We had lost our dog. And lost her forever. We took one another’s hands and trudged back to the canoe.

Come back, come back, come back, our hearts thundered.

That evening, I made dinner. We sat on a log and told stories about Harper. I told them – though they heard it before – about how Harper showed up at our friend’s house, sick, scrawny, and desperate for love. I told them how Harper took care of Ella when she was a baby, herding her like a little lamb, keeping her near me as I desperately typed out my four-times-delayed Master’s thesis. We told them how Harper used to grab the leashes of other dogs and take them for walks.

“We love Harper,” the kids said.

“We know,” we said. “We love her too.”

Come back, come back, come back, in our breathing in and our breathing out, in our watering eyes, in our twitching lips, in our shaking hands.

In the middle of doing the dishes, we heard a sound – a high, bright howl. I thought it was a loon. Or a pack of loons. Loons aren’t in packs, I thought absently.

Ted leaped to his feet. “HARPER,” he called. That’s not Harper, I thought. It’s a pack of loons. “Harper,” he called as he turned on his heels and ran up the rocky knoll next to camp.

The howls pitched higher, and there were more of them. Coyotes? Wolves? It certainly sounded like more than one animal. The kids followed Ted, calling wildly for their dog.

“Harper, Harper, HARPER!”

About a third of a mile down the lake, Ted saw a scuffling in the scrub. Then the points of ears. Then a curled tail. Then our dog, scrambling out of the woods and into the water.

“Don’t take your eyes off her,” he told the kids. “Don’t let her out of your sight.” He ran down to the shore and leaped into the canoe, paddling like mad to our dog.

It was then that I started sobbing.

Ted carried her back to the campsite and we gathered around her. She was in rough shape. She had some puncture wounds around her snout and some cuts on her two back flanks. She didn’t want to put any weight on her back right leg. But the worst of it was a benign tumor on her front left leg – a tumor that the vet had told us was dangerous to remove at her age since older dogs don’t do well with surgery, and she couldn’t care less about it, so why bother. It had grown by quite a bit, was now irregularly shaped, and quite red. It oozed.

“She may not make it through the night,” Ted told me.

“I know,” I said. “And we may have to carry her on the portages home.”

“I know,” he said, and we both knew that we would happily carry her down a thousand portages, just to get her home again.

Harper is home now. And she’s doing great.

“This dog is built to heal,” our vet said. “She may even outlive us all.” And I believe it. She’s on antibiotics and they appear to be working. She’s eating and drinking and annoying the neighbors with her obsessive barking at All The Squirrels. She’s not out of the woods by any means. We still may find out that her tumor has outgrown its blood supply, that it’s now necrotic and will eventually kill her. That’s a possibility and I accept it.

Still, she’s home.

Still, she’s alive.

And I know I don’t get to keep her forever, and I know that her life has an expiration date, but by being grateful for today, I also have the opportunity for gratitude for every day. Gratitude, I think, is one of the great forces of the universe. We are much happier when we are saying thank you than when we are saying please. Gratitude anchors us in the world we are in, this moment, this experience, this life. When we are in a state of gratitude, we are most fully alive.

I am grateful that Harper’s okay.

I am grateful that she came into our lives.

I am grateful for the irrevocable shift that she precipitated in my life. I am grateful forever.

So this is my prayer right now: Thank you.

11 thoughts on “The Barnhill Family’s Disaster In the BWCA: A Tale of Love, Loss, Heartbreak and Redemption

  1. Were you TRYING to make me cry this morning? If so… mission accomplished. I’m glad your doggie is back home. I’m so glad for you, for her, for your family – and for those of us reading and whispering “come home, come home, come home” with you.

    Let us know how she’s doing. K?

  2. I am a dog lover of dog lovers and weeping as I type this. I know the kind of friend dogs are, the love they hold in their hearts for their humans, and the fierceness of their loyalty. I, too, pray Thank you. For your dog and mine.

  3. Like the others that commented above, I boohooed while reading it. Our dog is a part of our family as Harper is to yours. I could feel the sickness in my stomach at the thought of leaving the Boundary Waters not ever knowing what happened to her. So glad she found her way back to you! And….hope she continues on her recovery!

  4. I started crying about a third of the way through, and kept crying through the end.

    “The dog is alive,” i kept telling myself. “Keilly already said the dog is alive and home.”

    Losing a pet is terrible, but losing one and not knowing what happened is so much worse. Over Christmas my cat Demosthenes disappeared–I spent all the next day putting up signs. The next day I went out again and discovered someone had removed them. I broke down in the front yard and my mother finally had to order me back inside because drivers were slowing down to watch (we eventually found him and he’s okay). I’ll keep my fingers crossed for Harper.


  5. Pingback: Regarding Harper | Kelly Barnhill

  6. You can definitely see your skills in the work you write. The world hopes for even more passionate writers like you who are not afraid to mention how they
    believe. All the time go after your heart.

  7. Appreciating the dedication you put into your blog and in depth information you provide.
    It’s great to come across a blog every once in a while that isn’t the same unwanted rehashed material.
    Great read! I’ve saved your site and I’m adding your RSS
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  8. Pingback: Good dog. My good, good dog. – Kelly Barnhill

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