The first time we saw Springer, she came leaping through a missing window-glass panel on a house we had just leased in Denmark. The last time I saw her she was on the operating table at the vets, the vet was injecting her with the solution to "put her to sleep," and I was crying openly.
In between for a dozen years or so, she was great fun except during cross-country skiing trips. More about that after my heart slows down.
We "acquired" her totally by accident, when we leased a house in Denmark. The day we went to the house to begin moving in, we noticed a pane of glass missing from the front door window area. Then we found out why it was missing -- strange landlady.
Springer, as we named her later, came leaping through that window. She was a medium-sized, nice-looking Labrador Retriever and Setter mix. Springer raced around us, welcoming us to our -- including her -- new home.
It turned out the landlady had moved to Portland and didn't want to keep both her dogs. The other was a Saint Bernard. No wonder. A Saint Bernard is already two dogs in one -- maybe three. While I was a camp counselor one summer in Brooks, neighbors had a Saint Bernard. The big beastie seemed to end at our little house at the end of many days, and I would load him into the sedan's rear seat and take him home. His rear rested on the seat back, while his huge jaws, open and slobbering, hung over the back of our front seat.
Getting him home was a dampening experience.
Springer, on the other hand, was a perfect doggie size -- you know, the size an all-round pet dog is supposed to be. She was also fast, loved to play with us and the kids, and more than anything loved to be with me in the woods.
I loved to be in the woods a lot, so we were often there together. We hiked, which took up most of our in-woods time, and we cross-country skied. This took up most of our winter in-woods time.
From South Paris, I didn't cross-country in cross-country ski areas -- too flat, too boring, too many others "ooing" and "ahing" their way around, including the elderly man who I found lost and led back to the area's building. (This was not my own cross-countrying time but while I was assigned a news story about the place and a cross-country skier -- turned out to be the man I rescued.)
My fun in the snow was composed of sliding various directions, climbing steep hills with sheer determination -- what cross-skiing uphill means, flying down steep hills, around sharp curves, into trees I got to know on a first- name basis after I named them, and avoiding snowmobilers. The avoiding-snowmobilers was pretty constant, because I chose snowmobile trails for my outdoor fun in the sun, snow, and cold.
I belonged to the Norway/Paris Fish and Game Club, many of the members of which were also snowmobilers. They would wave as they passed me, where I waited in deeper snow alongside the trail while they zoomed by, and they would laugh about me. They laughed about me during the club's meetings.
"Did you see Grossy out there the other day, hiding behind those bushes?" one would say to another.
"And did you see him jumping off the trail just before we should have run him over?" the hearer would respond.
All right, all right. Enough was enough. But at least the trails were interesting, well maintained, and the snowmobilers knew I would likely be in the way so would watch out to not actually sled over me.
Springer became a fixture on those snowmobile trails with me. On down hills, she became an accidental terrorist to me. She would race along in front of me, but on down hills I would be swiftly catching up to her.
Afraid of skiing over her -- no way could I have stopped without falling, which would have hurt a lot, I would scream at her.
"Get out of the way, you stupid dog!" she would hear me holler.
The "stupid dog" apparently had a death-defying sense of humor. She would wait until I was less than a foot behind her, then she would leap lightly off the trail, turning her head toward me and laughing with her Springer doggie laugh.
You've never experienced a real doggie laugh until you are just about to mow the doggie down and it steps aside. Laughing.
I wasn't laughing.
She spent many hours helping me maintain a section of the Appalachian Trail, where I was a Maine Appalachian Trail club member/volunteer maintainer. She always enjoyed romping in the woods ahead of me. I don't recall her laughing then...way too much fun to take time to laugh.
Spring also accompanied our family on our own hikes -- as in walking trails for pleasure rather than maintaining them. On one such family outing in the Maine part of the White Mountain National Forest, we were heading down the west side of Caribou, Speckled, or Haystack Mountain -- forget which in my doting 29.5 age -- with Springer ahead of us down the mountainside somewhere.
She was black, as black as a black Lab or as black as a black bear.
That color is important to the story, because we heard a scream a fair distance down the trail. We knew they had seen black. In a few minutes, we met them as they trudged up the trail we were descending.
"We saw a black bear!" the father of the bunch said, excitedly.
We knew the black bear's name. And soon after the hiking family left us, she came trotting up the trail, tongue hanging out while she did her doggie panting thing, to see why we were so slow.
She didn't mention seeing a black bear. Or seeing a family of hikers.
But we knew.
Unfortunately, as the years passed, she became older, as all of us unfortunately do. It was on an AT maintenance trip that she began to fail.
Three of our four bread-snappers were with me also, and as we worked our way up a fairly steep, open clifflike part of the pathway, we found Springer lying down.
She had obviously collapsed, as she didn't get up, just looked at us, knowing we would save her. That's what doggie owners are for, you understand.
We used a frame backpack as a litter, placing her on it, and two of us trying to carry her back down the trail. Twice she nearly rolled off, because, if you notice in the sporting goods ads, backpacks are not advertised to serve as litters. I then picked her up and carried her across my shoulders.
We had tools with us, so every so often I'd lay her down while the kids and I went back for where we'd last left the tools. Then I'd pick her up, shift her onto my shoulders again, and we'd continue our tiring trek back down the mountain toward the car.
The day wore out, and as dusk was upon us, I decided we should spend the night by a brook that crossed the trail.
Wearily, I put Springer down, and she stood up, wagged her tail, and happily walked ahead to the brook for a drink. You get thirsty when "Dad" carries you for several hours on his shoulders.
I didn't kill her, just thought about it.
We spent the night there, and the next morning we all -- including Springer -- finished the walk down to the car. She walked and trotted with us.
For the next year, she gradually became incapacitated until she could no longer walk or control herself. We made the awful decision to have her "put to sleep."
Sadder than I ever remember feeling, I took her to the veterinarian's. He administered first the numbing solution and then that which ended her life.
Just before she died, she looked up at me, seemingly puzzled.
"I've always trusted you," I imagined her saying.
Then she was gone.
I vowed I would never do that to an animal again.
As I write this, nearly 20 years later, tears begin to flow.
Milt Gross can be reached for corrections, harassment, or other purposes at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Milton M. Gross Copyright 2012
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