Reflections on Chessie – A Great Tahoe Dog
Our lab-retriever mutt of nearly 18 years passed away last fall. It was way past her time, but that tired expression feels hollow—inadequate in comparison to her affection for our family.
Chessie saw us through deaths and births; she comforted the old and brought joy to the young. She accompanied me on ski descents of Mt. Tallac, camping at Star Lake, and even ran alongside my mountain bike for the entire length of the Flume Trail, from Spooner Summit to where the sandy double-track hits Highway 28 just north of Sand Harbor. She cleaned up after Michael and Jane when they were infants striving for equal food distribution between face and floor. She was everything that we could ever hope for in a mountain dog and it certainly feels as though she’ll be impossible to replace.
The night she passed, a terrific hailstorm pelted South Lake Tahoe, ripping through the leaves of my pumpkin plants and driving everyone indoors. I felt at the time that this was the heavens shaking their fists at me for listening to the vet and putting Chessie to sleep, but maybe it was something different, maybe it was a symbol of how we all felt: torn apart and a little frightened without her.
Wifey and I wanted to involve Michael and Jane in the process of Chessie’s passing. I took them with me to pick up the box with her ashes.
“We’re going to go pick up Chessie,” I say with forced cheerfulness.
“Where is she?” Jane asks.
“She’s at the vet and we are getting her remains… her ashes.”
“Like from the fire?” Michael guesses.
Not wanting to explain cremation in too much detail, I say, “Something like that, Buddy. Something like that.”
First we took the little cedar box from the vet’s office down to my parents’ house in Minden. I gave Michael and Jane each a Dixie cup and we took turns sprinkling Chessie’s ashes around the plants and yard.
“Chessie likes to lay right here,” Jane said motioning to a sunny spot in the backyard. “Can I have some more for here?”
At our house we spread ashes around too and then dug a hole behind a little snowboard bench that I made the year before in our garden. This was the place where we were going to bury the box with the rest of Chessie’s ashes. Wifey had the idea for everyone to draw a picture of Chessie with our family and then say something—a favorite memory, at her little gravesite in our backyard.
Michael went first, “My favorite memory of Chessie is when she beat the bear.”
We all smiled and Michael placed his picture in the ground. This was a good memory—it was a delightful fall morning a year or so back and I had decided to take Michael and Jane on a small hike out by Fallen Leaf Lake. Thankfully, Chessie came with us. Embarking on our little adventure from the Forest Service road along Taylor Creek, we hiked up the west side of the water with Jane in a backpack and Michael skirting back and forth on the trail jumping off of granite rocks and dragging or kicking his feet producing copious amounts of dust. Chessie all the while ran ahead occasionally checking back by poking her head around the next turn, waiting for me to notice her, and then promptly sprinting off again.
About a mile into the hike, I saw a flash of dark brown ahead on the trail. Quickly grabbing Michael, I lifted him onto my shoulders so that he was nearly sitting on his sister.
We all looked toward the noise on the streamside of the trail and saw a large black bear and her cub running away. Chessie, looking bewildered and shocked, was stumbling back toward us as quickly as she could.
“What happened?” Michael asked.
“I’m not sure,” I said tentatively setting him back on the ground. “Stay right here. I need to get a closer look at Chessie.”
I squatted down, gave Chessie a pat on the head and looked at her face. There was an obvious gash on her nose and another right below her left eye down to her mouth. “Wow Chessie, that must have been pretty scary,” I said.
“Did Chessie beat the bear?” Michael asked.
“I think so, Buddy. I think so.”
“So, Jane,” Wifey interrupts my daydream. “What about you? What’s your favorite memory of Chessie?”
“Hmm…” Jane ponders the question. “Guess what?”
“What’s that?” Wifey responds.
“I like when Chessie farts,” Jane smiles mischievously.
“That is pretty funny,” Wifey laughs. “But what about a nice memory of Chessie?”
“Oh, hmm…” Jane thinks again. “Guess what? I like to roll in the grass with Chessie.”
“That is fun,” we all agree as Jane puts her picture in the ground.
“What about you, Daddy?” Wifey asks.
“Well, my favorite memories are the adventures we had together. Chessie was a tough dog. Did you guys know she could keep up with skiers all the way down the mountain?”
“She couldn’t keep up with me,” Michael puffs out his chest.
“Well, maybe not in the past couple years, but when she was younger she was the absolute fastest down the mountain, even in deep snow. She would leap forward and then slide on her belly like a sled.”
Michael and Jane ponder the image for a moment, until I interrupt and turn to Wifey, “What about you, Mommy? What’s your favorite memory of Chessie?”
“Definitely, the bloody wound blanket.”
“Wow, impressive. Going deep on that one,” I say.
“Old school.” Wifey smiles and puts her drawing in with the kids’ artwork.
I suppose the “bloody wound blanket” represented when Wifey first really bonded with Chessie. We were moving to Tahoe over a decade ago when Wifey and I stopped with Chessie to do some canoeing, relaxing and swimming in the Potomac River. It was our little way to say goodbye to the east coast. While canoeing the Antietam Creek one afternoon, Chessie alternated between floating in the canoe with us and running along the riverbank jumping between the rocky shoreline and meadows adjoining the creek. On one of the transitions back into the water, Chessie’s feet slipped out from under her and she impaled her chest on what we later guessed to be two sharp pointed rocks. We cleaned out her wounds as best we could and kept driving west.
While stopped in St. Louis, Missouri, we brought Chessie to a vet who shaved the areas where the rock had cut her and gave us some medicine to prevent infection. A day or so later in Boulder, Colorado, Wifey bought her dream car from her cousin who ran the finance department at a local dealership. We lowered the rear seats on Wifey’s new car, opened up our bouldering pad, wrapped it in what would later become known as the “bloody wound blanket,” and set Chessie up on her throne. For the duration of the trip, through the mountains of Colorado and Utah and all the way through the desert of Nevada, Chessie perched atop her traveling palace inside Wifey’s brand new vehicle enjoying the scenery and leaving trace smears of blood from her earlier injury in long calligraphic lines on the blanket of bloody wounds.
Chessie was an amazing Tahoe dog, perfect for our changing family. Like many young couples, Wifey and I learned about parenting and responsibility by first having a pet. Admittedly, we treat our children with greater care and use a slightly tighter leash: no leaping into rocky rivers or chasing down bears.
Tahoe Dog, Do:
- Go on adventures and roll in the grass.
- Let them clean up after dinner with kids.
- Avoid dog farts. They sneak up on you.
Tahoe Dog, Don’t:
- Get too close to bears.
- Throw out the “bloody wound blanket” (even if your spouse disagrees).
- Forget to honor your dog and involve children in their passing.