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.

Still.

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.

Into the Woods

Last year, I took my family into the wooded north of my fair State – to a wilderness area known around these parts as the Boundary Waters (officially the BWCAW, or Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness). If you’ve never been, you simply must. Ancient rocks, abundant wildlife, deep, cold lakes with some of the clearest water in the world. Moose. Eagles. Cougars. Wolves.

It’s magnificent.

We went sporadically when the girls were little, but ever since my son turned two, we’ve gone every year. And every year, we’ve come home saying, “Well, that was definitely our hardest year. Next year will be easier.”

We said that when Leo tried to lose himself on the portage.

We said that when he stabbed a hole in the tent with a stick.

We said that when he peed on my sleeping bag ….. on purpose.

We said that when he dumped boiling water on his feet – right before a huge storm, and we couldn’t leave.

And we said that last year, when, after using the latrine and accidentally dropping the hand sanitizer into its putrid depths, decided that he would be responsible. He would be useful. And he would be brave. So, my son – my irony-loving son – hooked his arm on the lip of the toilet, and lowered himself inside.

He returned to the campsite, up to his thighs in decomposing shit, proudly displaying the hand sanitizer.

Next year, Ted and I told ourselves with quavering voices and shaking hands. Next year will be easier.

And today, I believe it. Today, we venture into the woods.

There is a great poetry to the wilderness excursion. We go seeking……something. Peace. Riches. Serenity. Enlightenment. Adventure. Castles. Dragons. Enchanted Kings. And we re-emerge into our real lives indelibly changed.

Or the world that we left has shifted under our feet.

Or the universe we left is not the universe to which we return.

We go to the wood and survive in the wood and are changed by the wood. We become fairy tale, fable and myth.

Last year, when we were camping, I brought a notebook and wrote the opening chapters of my project Witless Ned and the Speaking Stones. Since then, I finished the book, and realized that Ned needed an accomplice – a girl named Aine.  Now I return to the story, again in longhand, and will restart the narrative while sitting on a rock, next to a groaning tree and a windy lake.

And you know, I’m rather excited about it.