I was drenched. The rain wasn’t heavy, or even steady, but we’d been out for hours. I’d pulled the drawstrings tight; my hood bore down on the visor of my hat, pushing my glasses hard against the bridge of my nose. Mosquitoes swarmed my face, and I buried my chin deep into the high-zipped neck of the rain jacket. I managed to protect my nose and its immediate surroundings, but was otherwise unable to sustain a defense. The mosquitoes hadn’t been so bad when I first realized my headnet was missing. But as we mucked through the wet, dense willow riverbank, they were out in force. Ella, tormented too, urged me to higher — drier — ground, but I resisted. I’d lost the river for the last time.
A couple of weeks ago I started letting Ella take me on walks. She starts along her favorite downstream trail and I follow. No two walks are alike; she may follow the river or head away from it. She loves chasing birds, finding swimming holes, and running circles around me (literally). We can do this only because Ella is so well-trained: she chases birds on the wing, not on the ground, to play, not to catch. She won’t chase game (grouse and ptarmigan, caribou, moose, or even the snowshoe hare), and she can’t catch squirrels. Ella knows to stay within range. When I can’t see where she’s gone, I stop to look at the wildflowers, mushrooms, and nascent berries at my feet. She always comes racing back.
As we started out into the drizzle, I threw on a wool overshirt, hat, rain pants and rain jacket, and stuffed a headnet into my pocket. Mosquitoes aren’t dissuaded by a little rain.
“Where’re we going?” I asked.
Ella ran well ahead and then back, tail wagging, full body smile.
The first time she urged me down this path was a few days after I arrived here last August. I had my fishing rod in hand, and she seemed to know exactly where to go. I stopped when she did, dropped my line, and a couple of casts later caught a nice grayling. Good girl!
This time we walked past the fishing hole, fording a small creek. Ella ran ahead and back, leaping over dwarf birch brush after sparrows, robins and swallows, lost in the joy of the chase. I studied the lichen, scouted for mushrooms, admired the flowers – wild roses, native peas, fireweed, purple monkshead, yellow potentilla, blue bells, pink plumes, alpine-white dogwood, lavender asters – in the brief season of their glory.
The rainy week had given rise to mushrooms, patches of common “deceivers” (yes, that’s what they’re called) and similarly ordinary-looking brown-capped gilled species, and clumps of white puffballs, like bunches of miniature low-flying balloons. The stranger mushrooms generally kept to themselves: a round stemless mushroom here, a large slimy orange one there, a shelf mushroom on deadwood, a mushroom with a black-scaled stem. I took samples for awhile, dropping them one by one in the zippered pocket of my jacket, avoiding the largest and slimiest; once or twice I picked a suspicious-looking fungus only to drop it out of some innate fear.
Dampness had started to seep in past my rain gear; it was time to turn back. I waited for Ella’s inevitable return, and soon she came running.
“Let’s go home. Find the trail!” I commanded.
Ella turned and continued north, by my reckoning, the way we’d been heading all along. The mountains were obscured by clouds, but I was sure she was headed north.
“No, Ella. Go home! Find the trail!”
Ella pursued the northern path again.
I led for a bit, turning home as best I could without doubling back; Ella and I prefer to hike a loop rather than out-and-back. Ella redirected me at every opportunity.
“Go home. Find Gary. Find the trail!” I ordered again.
She tried, but when I fought her again, she walked behind me and sat. Her message was clear: lead or follow; don’t try to do both.
We wandered — how long I’m not sure — until I realized I could no longer hear the river. I was lost. The river was my guide; home was upstream. Clouds continued to mask the landmark mountains, but eventually I saw enough to know which way to head to reach the water.
We crossed a small drainage and headed upward until we found ourselves on a high bench, well above the river, then dropped down to its edge. Ella wanted to cross the river, but it was wide and fast; she might make it, but I wouldn’t. And there seemed to be no need: home was on our side of the river. When the willows and mosquitoes got too dense, we headed back to higher ground. Ella found the animal trails, scouting ahead, circling back. We were wet, but I felt safe, knowing I only had to continue our upstream course, the water to our right.
Suddenly the bench narrowed, and I blanched: two creeks appeared to our left. As they flowed to the river they turned; to continue upstream meant crossing them. This made no sense. We had forded nothing but a tiny stream near home, and a shallow drainage as we climbed the bench. Logic told me I shouldn’t be crossing streams, but I also knew I had to continue upstream. We started across, and I felt my boots fill with water. So I headed downstream. Maybe by doubling back I could find a spot where the creeks were narrow and more easily crossed. Maybe I could find a river crossing.
It was getting late. I hoped Gary wouldn’t notice the time; there was little he could do to find us, and I didn’t want to stress him. Besides, how embarrassing to be lost! I was wet, but not really cold or tired. I was losing a lot of blood to the mosquitoes, but otherwise felt fine. It would not get dark, not really. Ella had to be reminded that the time for chasing birds was over, so I knew she still had plenty of energy.
We wandered. Defeated, we headed back upstream, where we looked for the best path across. I picked up a walking stick to steady me on the slippery rock riverbed. We stopped at the small mid-stream island, looking for the easiest crossing, then waded in again. Water leaked in at the elastic cuffs of my rain pants, soaking my jeans. The tail of my wool shirt, hanging just below my rain jacket, was soaked. As I trudged along in my water-filled neoprene-lined boots, the water warmed until I barely noticed it.
But we were on the right track. My relief in knowing this was only slightly marred by the sight of bear scat on the path, the first I’ve seen here. It didn’t look fresh, or at least that’s what I told myself. Before long we came to the timber remains of an old bridge, placing us only a couple of miles from home. The cabin we’d hiked to on a sunny day the weekend before stood across the river. I let Ella lead me to an easier path up the bench, knowing now exactly where we were.
When I got home, it was 7:30; we’d been gone almost four hours.
“Were you lost?” Gary asked.
“Were you scared?” he wanted to know.
“Only a little.” It was the truth. I think.
Gary hadn’t worried much, knowing he couldn’t do much, and knowing that Ella would do her best to keep me safe and get me home. As I took off all the wet layers of clothes and hung them over the cold wood stove, I knew I owed her an apology. She had tried to lead me home. She knew where she was, and she knew where I wanted to go. I knew she knew. I just didn’t trust her enough. Or maybe I just didn’t trust myself.
Sunrise: 4:47 a.m.
Sunset: 11:18 p.m. We’re losing six minutes of daylight every day now.
Weather:High, 64; low, 39, cloudy.