Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The Greatest Athlete I Ever Knew

The greatest athlete I ever knew was something of a diva. She was barely coachable. She would frequently pretend not to hear you and go off to do her own thing. She was incredibly fast and stronger than she looked, and she could run all day long without tiring (or swim, for that matter). She was smarter than many people gave her credit for. She was pretty and knew it, with her golden-brown hair and big ears. And she had a weakness for mushroom stems and belly rubs. The greatest athlete I ever knew was Mocha, our chocolate lab/"Chesapeake Bay" retriever.

Mocha's story actually begins about two years before we got her in the first place. During spring
Posing for the camera outside Eastern Market in DC
break of my sophomore year at Woodberry Forest, we had just moved into a new house in Long Beach, California, and had to put down Kona, our faithful chocolate lab of almost thirteen years.* A few days later, while on a walk, my dad and I decided that we wanted to get another dog. Since we were living in a big city, and my mom wanted a dog who wasn't going to treat everyone who rang the doorbell as their new best friend, we did some research and settled upon a Chesapeake Bay retriever, who like labs are incredibly loyal dogs, but unlike labs are generally only loyal to their "pack."

*A note on Kona; he was the greatest kitchen scavenger of all time. Food that slipped off of the counter during preparation was almost always caught before it hit the ground. He also ate any stray bugs that came in the house.

And so, a couple of months after losing Kona, my parents drove to central California and came home with Severn, a male Chessie who was show-dog handsome but unfortunately tended to be dominance-aggressive. Within two years of getting Severn (who was indeed an intimidating dog; he oozed self-confidence in his walk, and was built like a linebacker), we moved back to Alaska, to the small town of Valdez. Valdez happens to have a no-kill animal shelter, and their small, fifteen to twenty-page weekly paper (the Star) always contains a 3" x 3" square advertising the shelter's "Pet of the Week." During our first summer, shortly after we had moved from the Ten Mile subdivision into the main part of town, the Valdez Star Pet of the Week was advertised as a year-old Chesapeake Bay retriever named Mocha.

Severn (L) and Mocha (R) wading in Shoup Glacier Creek
Now, Chessies are a fairly rare breed of dog. Even living in Washington, DC, which is a) more or less on the bay itself and b) full of wealthy people with fancy dogs, I typically do not encounter a Chessie on the street more than once a month. Therefore, a Chessie in a small Alaska town was something that we just had to see. So we got Severn into the car and drove the ten blocks to the shelter to check out Mocha. Well, as anyone reading this who loves pets knows, it is impossible to go to an animal shelter and come home empty-handed. Twenty-five dollars later, we had a second dog for the first time in our family's history. It was the best twenty-five dollars my parents ever spent.

Mocha was a major wild child when we first got her. Despite being only a year old, we were already her third family and her third town (she had originally come from Seward via Glenallen). Her first family gave her up because their kids only teased her outside the reach of her rope (she was an outdoor dog then) rather than play with her, and so the parents finally gave her away. Her second owners were a young couple, but when the woman got pregnant, her boyfriend skipped out. Forced to deal with a baby or a puppy, the woman chose the baby and took Mocha to Valdez because it was a no-kill shelter. Since she had already been through the wringer twice, and because Severn never missed an opportunity to assert his authority over her as the lead dog in the house*, she was hardly affectionate, something which didn't really change until we moved away from Alaska.

*Since Severn dominated her, Mocha frequently took out her frustrations on couch cushions, humping them like a male dog.

We quickly learned that Mocha could not be trusted off the leash or near an open door. If the front
On an early morning walk in Pine Plains, NY
door was open and she smelled daylight, she took off, and there was no catching her. She would romp all across town, and in the early days one of our (unpleasant) neighbors would call the animal control officer to report her loose, and Shana would find her and drop her off, pleased as punch from her free wanderings. Eventually she started coming back on her own if she was hungry, or at least zoomed by to tease us with a chance to catch her before taking off again. If she got loose in the late summer, she would head straight for a streambed and find dead and decaying spawned-out salmon to roll around in (somehow she never ran into a bear during those times - thank God for small miracles. Her Glenallen owners had taught her to chase snowmachines, so the sound of an open motor (be it snowmachine, four-wheeler, or the town's giant snowplows) would cause her to tear the leash out of our grip and give chase.

Retrieving a tennis ball in Robe Lake
Severn and Mocha were allowed off the leash for swimming excursions, snowshoeing trips, or hikes along the Shoup Glacier trail, and it was those outings that were the source of her greatest exploits. We took the dogs to swim at Robe Lake just out of town, and the first amazing thing was that Mocha could outswim Severn. Chessies are water dogs, and Severn had learned to swim in the four-foot waves of Huntington Beach, where he was always apoplectic if my dad or I came out into the water to boogie board or body surf. But not only could Mocha keep swimming and chasing tennis balls until long after Severn had plopped himself on the beach, we would have to start the car and drive down the road with an open tailgate to induce her to leave at all. The only other dog I have known with her boundless energy was Sidney, the border collie who belonged to our family friends the Hartmans and who happened to be Mocha's best friend.

Romping in the snow above Thompson Pass
My parents frequently took the dogs snowshoeing forty miles out of Valdez on the other side of Thompson Pass, where the drifts were two or three feet deep and the dogs resembled porpoises in the way that they bounded through the snow. Severn always wanted to keep track of everyone, so he would run out fifty or a hundred feet or so, and then come running back to check on his people, and then repeat the process. Mocha felt no such obligation, and would run wherever her heart and nose took her; romping in deep snow was her absolute favorite thing in the world. On one such occasion (the Friday of Presidents' Day weekend 2004), she flushed a ptarmigan (essentially a big quail) and brought it down in deep snow, whereupon she promptly started tearing out breast feathers in preparation to eat the bird. My mom came up quickly enough to take it away, and over Mocha's protests (she had killed the thing, dammit!) stuffed it high in a tree for some lucky wolverine to find later. ADD dog that she was, Mocha sped off looking for her next prey.

In a blizzard, happy as a clam
Unfortunately, that next quarry turned out to be not another ptarmigan or relatively harmless bird but a porcupine that she cornered underneath the spread boughs of a big spruce tree. When Mocha attacked it, the porcupine did what porcupines do in such situations, but that did not deter the dog, who kept going after the big rodent and progressively filled more and more of her front with quills. My parents dragged her away and then to the car, which is about when the adrenaline of the hunt subsided and Mocha realized that she was in serious pain. When they returned to Valdez with Severn, Mocha, and Mocha's several dozen embedded quills, they went straight to the vet's office...which was closed for the day (and the weekend), as the town veterinarians were going out of town for a vacation at Sheep Mountain Lodge, a hundred and ninety-two miles away. Luckily (in some cases), people in small towns not only know everyone else but their vehicles also, and my parents noticed the vets' car on the other side of the parking lot in front of the Bottle Stop, where they were picking up beer for their getaway. My parents prevailed upon Dr. Hawkins to remove the quills (which were in her mouth, face, neck, chest, and front paws), and then called ahead to Sheep Mountain to pay for the Hawkins' dinner.

Off the leash and running free
Mocha had one other encounter with a porcupine that ended up with her in somewhat less expert hands, but also demonstrated her outrageous strength. My dad took her up the Mineral Creek trail on a sunny Sunday afternoon in July of 2005. When she found this second porcupine, my dad was close enough to get her away after only one brief attempt, which nevertheless resulted in about two dozen quills lodging in her mouth and skin. This time the veterinary office was well and truly closed, and so my dad called me and asked me to bring help, with the promise of beer as a reward. As per usual, I was down the street at the Graika house, and so I brought with me reigning state champion wrestlers Casey and Skylar Graika, along with our friend Brendan Flynn. It literally took all four of us to restrain her, with a Graika on each pair of legs, Flynn holding her head, and me more or less draped across her body (we stretched her out on a towel in the driveway), while my dad extricated the quills with a pair of needlenose pliers. Even with four strong young guys holding her down, she still almost broke free.

Mocha's one other pursuit of a rather large Alaskan animal did not present so much danger or possibility of pain to her, but could have caused some legal trouble to my parents. This time my dad took both dogs out on the Shoup Glacier trail (which would make it the summer of 2004). This trail winds through perhaps half a mile of bushes and small birch trees before opening on a broad tidal flat with nothing but grass and fireweed between the trees and the water. Near the shoreline Mocha spotted a sandhill crane, and was off to the races. Sandhill cranes are big birds, up to four feet tall with a seven-and-a-half-foot wingspan. While they are great at soaring on thermals, they need a lot of runway to get airborne, much like a 747. They also happen to be protected, so as Mocha charged across the beach and the crane started slowly flapping its wings and running through the shallows, all my dad could think was "Shit, how am I going to explain this to Tony (Beck, the town's state trooper and game warden)?" Mocha hit the shallows while the crane was still trying to get aloft, closing rapidly, then started swimming when she lost the bottom. With only a short distance to go between Mocha and her quarry, the crane got airborne and swung away. The problem was that Mocha was now far out in Valdez Arm, barking and swimming after the departed crane, in a body of water where fifteen-foot tide swings are fairly commonplace. Now my dad's thoughts changed to "Shit, what if she can't swim back to shore?" After several calls, she finally gave up her pursuit and turned around for the long swim back. Was she chastened after the multiple scares that she had given my dad? Of course not! She was as happy as could be.

At the World War II memorial in DC
Mocha remained fairly aloof until my parents moved to Washington, thanks (I believe) to us being her third family and to three years of abuse and being put in her place by Severn (who was put down in the fall of 2004 after biting my mom unprovoked). But after the move (and the transition to being the only dog), it seems that she realized we were indeed her family, and she became more affectionate, and significantly less of a flight risk.* She hung out around people more, and not just when they were in or near the kitchen. And she grew a little more interested in new people, perhaps because they could never stop exclaiming how pretty she was. The one thing that she never grew to like was small dogs; she would have thumbed her nose at every one she came across if, you know, she had opposable thumbs.

*Unless, that is, we journeyed to the open farmland of my aunt and uncle's place in Pine Plains, New York. Then all bets were off and she acted as if she were a three-year-old again. This included chasing expensive thoroughbred horses. As my dad put it, "We were lucky some hedge fund asshole didn't send us to the poorhouse."

Sneaking a nap on the den couch in Pine Plains
Whenever my parents left town, Mocha came down the street to stay at the Alaskan Embassy, and was the easiest dog to sit for of the multitude that we have had. She was perfectly happy to lie around in some corner of the house, whether it was the couch in my room (she was not allowed on furniture, but went through phases where she decided that she would sneak on anyway), on the landing at the base of the stairs to the top floor, or her favorite spot, Vince's walk-in closet in the master bedroom, which was both cool and quiet. Given the amount of hair that she shed, I wouldn't be surprised if Vince is still finding stray Mocha hairs, almost four years after moving out of the Embassy.

A rare glimpse of Mocha not in the pool in Pine Plains
The last time that Mocha displayed the considerable energy and athleticism of her youth was at the Carnahan family reunion in Pine Plains in July of 2010. We let her out of the car and she immediately started sprinting laps around the Jeans' nineteenth-century farmhouse, just out of sheer joy. That weekend she roamed across fields and trails, taunted the cows at the neighboring Ronnybrook Dairy, but most of all she swam. She just about lived in the pool for four days, getting out only to eat and go back to my parents' cabin. It was as if all of her years simply shed from her like so much hair. At the end of the weekend, however, she needed help getting in the car because she was so worn out, and had almost melted into a puddle of goo by the end of the long drive back to DC. She didn't even go upstairs to bed for two days after that weekend.

Throughout the past fourteen years, Mocha has been an indelible part of her family. She has rather stoically put up with jokes about her big ears (including having them folded back to "streamline" her), her shedding, her Glenallen redneck heritage (my dad would frequently ask her if she would prefer Reba McEntire or Garth Brooks to listen to), and her conspicuous lack of thumbs or frontal lobes. She has been universally beloved by people and dogs alike (except by the pug down the block, who was once attacked by a Rhodesian Ridgeback and maintained a hatred of all large, tan dogs). And as always, it hurts to say goodbye to a faithful friend. Dogs (and all pets, really) teach their people a lot of things. They teach selflessness, patience, and love. They provide comfort and affection, and an anchor during rough times in our lives. She may have been a rescue dog (and I would say the prettiest rescue dog, full stop), but she rescued us just as much as we rescued her. And when they leave, it is incredibly sad.

We said goodbye to the most remarkable dog we've ever had late this afternoon, petting her as she laid her chin down on my dad's arm and closed her eyes. In dog heaven, I know that Mocha is gallivanting through snow drifts with Sidney, swimming after innumerable tennis balls, startling all manner of wildlife, and finding a nice quiet corner to lay down in where someone can find her to stroke her ears. Goodbye, Mocha. We will miss you dearly.
With her best bud Sidney in the snow