|THE DOG WHO SPOKE WITH GODS - by Diane Jessup|
ask of my companions. Hills, sir, and the sundown, and a dog as large
Viktor Hoffman set aside his binoculars with a grimace and a sigh. After hours holding still in a blind, his back was killing him. He wanted more than anything to reach over his head and have a giant stretch, but that would be seen by the dog.
The object of his attention was a brindle pit bulldog across the ravine. The young adult dog looked very much out of place in the thick woods; his short cropped ears and fine coat of fur marked him as a domestic, not wild, animal. The dog was resting easily, however, as if very much at home in the evergreen forest. The very fact that the dog was a domestic animal in this wild setting was what made it of interest to the scientist.
Hoffman sighed again. Dark, very dark, clouds were gathering to the south.
so as not to let the dog see his movement, he backed down from his tree
blind and struck off on a fairly well-marked game trail. Reaching an opening
in the timber, Hoffman paused to watch the towering black thunderclouds
drop their loads of moisture on the peaks across the valley. Moments and
sights like this kept the professor coming out to do fieldwork far better
By the time he reached his camp, his mind had one plan of action.
He stepped into his tarp-covered "kitchen" and took up the water container. Eyeing the darkening sky he figured he had just enough time to make it to the river and back before all hell broke loose. As he walked, he noticed how quiet it had become. The entire forest was holding its breath in anticipation of the coming deluge. Rain was nothing unusual in the western half of Washington state, but here in the coastal mountains it often came in epic proportions.
In defiance of the growing darkness the sun broke through one last time, shooting low rays through the firs, cedars and hemlocks lining the river. The golden light looked almost solid as it hung before him in bars between the tree trunks. He reached his "beach," a bar of sand barely two feet wide tucked into the slick black rocks along the river's edge. A dozen feet away on the opposite shore there were several yards of sand and gravel between the water and the tree line, but on this side the bank dropped away quickly, and the water ran swift and deep. This served his purpose well though, enabling him to drop the can straight down, filling it rapidly without getting any bottom sand in it. As the container filled, Hoffman glanced downstream at the opposite shore.
dog was standing hock-deep in the water a hundred yards away, staring
back at him. The sun was slanting in from behind, backlighting the animal,
forming a bright halo around its fur.
Viktor Hoffman was a research biologist with a particular interest in the impact of domestic animals on the natural environment. His current area of study focused on the life span of "feral" dogs; domestic dogs living without dependence on humans for food, shelter or social bonds. Unlike cats, which return with relative ease to an independent life in the wild, very few dogs survive without direct or indirect human intervention. While it was an intense struggle to find subject dogs living with no trace of human assistance, it was Viktor Hoffman's forte, and his unique papers, while often criticized by peers for their weak numerical basis, had found sufficient audience to make him an authority in the field.
current research focused on solitary dogs living in remote locations and
thereby unable to participate in group hunting or scavenging techniques.
A decade spent carefully cultivating
Hoffman had arrived two days earlier to take the first critical step in the project; determining the animal's status. Far too often, dogs reported as "feral" turned out to be either free-ranging owned animals, or abandoned pets. Obviously, with cropped ears, this young dog had not been born in the wild, but had been lost or abandoned at some point in its youth. Over the next few days Hoffman would carefully determine the animal's true status. Should this dog prove out to be living independent of human care, the biologist's study would pose the question: could a domestic dog survive in the wilderness with neither direct nor indirect human intervention and care? If it could, how could it? If it could not, what would be the nature of its failure? Radio collar tracking telemetry and visual observations would reveal this particular animal's fate. This year's previous subject dog had succumbed to starvation relatively quickly.
The ranger who had brought this particular dog to Hoffman's attention assured him the animal was feral. The pit bull resisted all efforts to be lured into camps and somewhere along the way it had learned, like all wild animals, to fear humans, but for Hoffman that suited his needs perfectly. If the dog hung around their base camp and begged for food then it was not really feral, and it could not be included in the study.
The next morning as he brewed his coffee, Hoffman noticed the pit bull standing fifty feet away, observing him from amongst the huckleberry and salal bushes. Only the end of its nose moved, as it tested the air for clues about the intruder. The scientist frowned, carefully watching to see what the dog's reaction to his presence would be. He needn't have worried, for when the dog noticed him looking back, it jumped quickly into the brush and disappeared.
Hoffman arranged the base camp to suit himself and then sat back to drink his coffee and enjoy the solitude. In a week or so, if the animal checked out, his students would arrive, and then the real work would begin. The dog would have to be trapped, measured, weighed, examined and collared. Then the monitoring would begin, ten readings a day, plus once every seven days the dog would be monitored every fifteen minutes for twenty-four hours. The animal's home range would need to be mathematically determined, his fecal material analyzed, his activity and temporal patterns charted.
Draining his third cup Hoffman leaned back, a thoughtful expression on his narrow, rather austere face, as he looked straight up into the firs and cedars which towered over him. He drew the chill air deep into his lungs, and the scent of the evergreen trees brought a flash of memory, followed unmercifully by another: Christmas Eve, holding hands with Helen as they leaned up against the couch in front of the fire, listening to carols and watching the tree's little lights twinkle - and Christmas Eve alone, his wife buried two months, sitting on the couch looking at the dead fireplace, just him and the tree there, both of them trying to be brave.
the truth be told, his insistence that he be the one to go ahead and establish
the dog's status was a thinly veiled excuse for getting some time alone
in the wilderness. As much as he enjoyed the company of his students,
this beautiful solitude was something the biologist needed. Alone, he
could remember Helen as she had been when they were newly married. Without
With a huge sigh and a small smile to himself, Hoffman rose and started his workday. Setting out to collect hard data on the dog, he was unable to locate the animal all day. He returned to camp in the late afternoon when his coffee thermos ran dry. That evening the dog was back, the bright, disembodied glowing of its eyes the only sign of its presence. Sitting at his camp fire, Hoffman mused that it really caused no harm - this approach behavior - so long as he was careful never to leave any food uncovered when he left camp. That the dog should be drawn to his campfire and his presence did not surprise him. It was a dog, after all, not a true wild animal. Even a feral dog would be curious about this stranger in its territory. The parameters of the project were strict, however: they must not impact the dog any more than possible.
the evening wore on Hoffman sat on a tiny camp stool, his coffee beside
him and his after dinner pipe in readiness on his lap. Propping his feet
up near the flames, he watched the eyes
The wind switched to the north in the night, and the next day dawned clear and cold. Every object outside the tent was coated with a fine dusting of ice, and frozen water in the dirt below his feet caused the ground to crackle when he stepped on it. Hoffman emerged from his tent shivering and resolved once again to stick to summer field work. One look at the day, though, and his resolve wilted.
Today he would continue collecting evidence of the dog's status, look for additional blind sites, and try to locate a high spot from which his cell phone would work. After breakfast and coffee he packed a lunch and set off.
little hair he had left might be gray, Hoffman thought as he broke through
the heavy brush, but he was still in damn fine shape for a man his age.
After three hours of tramping steadily
He started up the rock slide, and when he neared the top he stopped to rest on a large, flat rock. He unpacked his lunch and thermos of coffee. Overhead, the sky was the peculiar shade of dark blue found at mountain elevations. The ancient rock slide he had just scaled stretched below him seventy-five yards until it ended at the tree line.
A movement caught his eye and his composure shied like a young horse. A glance of tawny gold moving below and to his left reminded him that cougars were common here. He smiled in chagrin, glad there was no one to noticed him startle, because it was only the dog, which had evidently been following him at a distance. The young animal, distracted from the trail he had been following, was sniffing furiously at a crack between two rocks. In another moment, when he heard the sharp alarm whistle of a marmot, Hoffman knew why. For the next hour he watched with amusement the antics of the young predator and the wise prey. There were several of the large ground squirrels, and they all took turns standing upright, watching the intruder, then diving under the rocks only at the very last moment before the dog reached them. Hoffman could almost imagine their sharp whistles were taunts directed at the pit bull. Then again, the scientist had to admit that the dog, despite not obtaining any food, seemed to be having the time of his life. Tail thrashing madly, he seemed to enjoy each new chase as much as the last. He never appeared to grow frustrated - only more and more excited. He only stopped when he was utterly exhausted, his tongue lolling and his face covered in specks of white saliva. He lay down then, stretching his hind legs out behind him, staring straight ahead, his eyes squinted shut in happy exhaustion. After a while the dog rose and moved back into the trees, while the marmots jeered his retreating form.
Hoffman spent the rest of the afternoon marking trails to likely blind and radio tracking sites. Pleasantly fatigued and ready for fresh, hot coffee, he turned for camp, some three miles distant. The late afternoon air was growing chilly and he rolled down his shirt sleeves. At a picture-perfect creek running steeply down a boulder and fern strewn course, he stopped and used his thermos cap to fetch up a drink of water. He drank, as always amazed at the sharp chill of mountain streams, and the glory of their flavor. His long suffering mouth, much abused by a lifetime of scalding coffee and tobacco pipes, savored the clear taste. Stowing the thermos away he moved on, stepping lightly from stone to stone as he crossed the creek. As he reached the far side he slipped suddenly, regained his balance for a moment and then slipped again, his boots unable to get a purchase on the slick, smooth, mossy rocks. His left foot slid down between two boulders and as he fell he twisted, grimacing at the sudden sharp pain. He tried to land on the bank, but didn't. He landed on his back, in the water. It couldn't have been worse; his pack and clothes were soaked.
From where he lay on the ground, Hoffman tried to raise his left leg clear of the rocks but pain prevented him. With cold foreboding, he reached down and lifted the leg free with his hands. The pain was appalling. He moved himself up out of the water and huddled on the ground for several moments, nursing the badly sprained ankle and cursing himself silently and viciously for having been so clumsy. A sprain like this would take time to heal, and make walking in this rough terrain difficult, if not impossible, for the next week. Grimly he recounted in his mind how rare a find this dog was, and he resolved on the spot that this injury would not affect the study. Once he got back to camp, he could deal with a sprain, no matter how severe. He would simply call Tag, his grad student and research assistant, and have him come up early to finish the determination on the dog's status.
It occurred to him to look at the contents of his day pack. He pulled it around to his front without much hope. Everything inside, packed simply for a hike on a day with no rain expected, was soaked. He looked forlornly at the phone, thinking about the cost of its replacement. He set the pack aside and looked himself up and down. Camp was a long way away, and the autumn sun was very near the top of the surrounding peaks. He was not dressed for a night out in the mountains, and now he was wet. He must get back. And he must hurry for he would never be able to find his way in the dark.
With great difficulty and much wincing, he hoisted his pack on and struggled to his feet. He stood on one leg, looking at the stretch of rocky path ahead of him. If the ground were more level, he might be able to use a stick like a crutch, but here on the rocks, and in the thick underbrush, a crutch would be useless. He started forward, hopping on one leg, resting, and hopping again. In fifteen minutes he was, despite his cold dunking, covered in sweat. He stopped and looked at his ankle. It was purple and already swollen grotesquely.
He swung his backpack off and rummaged inside for the phone. Pulling it out, he had to try. You never knew, miracles could happen. He knew in his heart it would never work. He tried anyway, and wasn't surprised at his failure. This is not good, he thought grimly.
He stopped after another fifteen minutes of crawling and hopping and estimated he had covered about one hundred yards from the creek where the accident had occurred.
sun settled below the peaks across from him, and dusk began in earnest.
Hoffman was no stranger to survival techniques, and knew he must keep
at it until he reached the camp. At this
and hobbling, he moved toward his distant camp through the growing darkness.
In time the underbrush became a dark gray mass all around him and he realized
he could no longer see his markers or his way. It was decision time. He
could try to build some kind of a shelter here and huddle wet and miserable
through the night, but it just seemed too risky. He eased himself to the
Squinting down what portion of the trail he could still see, straining to catch sight of one of his trail markers, a movement caught his eye. The dog was a dozen yards away, watching him.
Nuts, Hoffman sighed to himself, everything is going wrong. The subject animal he was trying to keep from seeing him was standing there staring at him. He held still, hoping the animal would shy away as it had the previous times they had met.
It didn't. It was watching him with interest.
"Well, thank you at least for not laughing," Hoffman called to the animal. The dog's head was lowered, his neck outstretched as he watched the man. The professor chuckled. He felt a twinge of gratefulness for the dog's company as he sat all alone in the darkening mountains. "You don't look much like Lassie," he commented. With his pointed horn-like ears and flat skull the dog looked more like a demon than a guardian angel. "You look like a medieval gargoyle," the scientist joked. "A daemon." The dog sat down, his front feet close together, his head still lowered, furthering his resemblance to a sitting gargoyle. "Daemon. Yes, Damien would be a good name for you," Hoffman decided.
It became too dark to see the trail and he was still miles from camp. There was nothing to do but go on and hope for the best.
know now what they mean by the expression `you're not out of the woods
yet', he thought grimly. High, thin clouds hid the stars. Sighing
in frustration he leaned against a tree, angry
For a sharp moment he felt concern; he had no weapon and the dog was, after all, a pit bull. They were alone together in the dark woods, and he was unsure of the dog's intentions.
You're injured Viktor, and obviously an easy target.
he stopped his mental fright tactics and chided himself. The animal was
simply curious about him, and probably aware that he afforded no threat.
You could sell this story to the trash
The dog crept closer and lay down, as if it were his pet, waiting patiently for him. A warning buzzer went off in Hoffman's mind. The scientist in him demanded he use this opportunity to do what he had come to these mountains to do: determine the dog's status as an independent, wild living dog. It was not acting like a feral dog and he had to ask himself: had he gone through all this to find that the dog was simply someone's lost pet?
"Come here, boy." Hoffman held out his hand as if there was food in it and made chirping sounds. "Come on." He made his voice reassuring and gentle but the dog sat back up, obviously startled and suspicious, and for a moment Hoffman thought he would flee.
"You're afraid of that, huh? Well I won't hurt you. Come on now." The man continued speaking for several moments, but the dog stayed sitting, his posture one of wary uncertainty, watching the man without a dip of his ears, or a wag of his tail to show he appreciated or understood the kind words. When at last Hoffman leaned back he had made up his mind - this was no one's pet. It was a domestic dog living without dependence on humans for food, shelter or social bonds. The dog was curious about him, that was all. Damien was a perfect subject for this study.
Complete, utter darkness had arrived and Hoffman's thoughts turned again to his own increasingly serious situation. Standing up he determined to keep moving to combat the chill now entering his body. He heard a soft sound and glanced down to find the dog's form - the rich gold color muted to gray in the darkness - almost within reach. Hoffman drew back, startled.
What the hell?
dog disappeared. Then it reappeared. Then it disappeared again, away from
him, down the trail in the direction he had been taking. For a moment
the professor hesitated, then, for a
I'm in a jam.
The dark form of the pit bull hovered about. After a moment it lay down somewhere out past his feet. In his line of work, Hoffman had of course heard stories of dogs sensing when people were in trouble and helping them. As a behaviorist he looked at those stories differently from the other two "camps", those who either dismissed them as maudlin exaggerations of canine reasoning or those who embraced them as proof that dogs were furry little people. That a dog's behaviors would appear to be helpful to a human he did not question, but he would inquire into the actual, fundamental basis for the behavior.
the end of his little rest, the scientist had to admit he was puzzled.
He could come up with absolutely no reason why the animal was displaying
these particular behaviors. If the dog had
"I'd give five - no seven - years off the end of my life for a cup of coffee right now," he said into the dark, to the dog who was waiting for him. Damien came and curled up in a ball, so close that he could see its outline. The dog heaved a heavy sigh and settled its head into its turned back front paws.
"Don't get too comfortable, friend, I'm going to have to keep moving." His cooling sweat was a chill sheen on his body. In the distance, he heard the river. That was encouraging. If he stayed near the river he could work his way back up or down it in the morning and find his camp.
a few more minutes rest he rose again, and the dog again moved in and
out of his sight, showing him the path. For another hour they moved on
through the dark, the scientist covered in
Sometime well after midnight, the underbrush he had been fighting his way through suddenly ended, and the professor moved forward with relative ease. Sliding his sprained foot forward, he felt a strange brushing on his thigh, almost like a branch, but firmer. He felt with his hands and found a tightly stretched piece of rope. He laughed out loud.
"Son of a bitch!" he said in delight.
He had run into one of his tent's support ropes. He was in his camp. He was at his tent. His tent with his lantern, his pipe, his coffee, his aspirin and his sleeping bag. It was unbelievable good fortune. He glanced about for Damien. He listened but could not hear any sound of retreating steps. The dog was gone.
"Damien?" he called into the dark. "Hey buddy, I owe you one," he said, then crawled into his tent.
did not see the dog again until after sunset the next evening. Having
decided to rest his ankle for three or four days before he tried to hike
out, Hoffman propped his foot up before his campfire and sat back to enjoy
the beautiful solitude of his temporary prison. Other than short, painful
forays out to drag more dead wood back to the campfire, there was nothing
to do but
Hoffman knew as much of the available evidence of canine domestication
as anyone, and he had to admit he did not know the answer to this questions.
So he pondered the feral dog's
The next night the dog came again, and again lay across the fire from the scientist. This time it watched him for only a few minutes, then curled up, business like in the light drizzle, to get some sleep. Hoffman decided to stay up, all night if necessary, to determine if the dog stayed till dawn or left sometime before that.
It was pleasant, sitting by the cheerful fire and smoking; the misty drizzle did not bother such an experienced Pacific Northwest outdoorsman. The fire sent sparks sailing up into the void above him, encircled by the great, gray tree trunks that ringed the small clearing. By midnight the drizzle ceased and the air became so still Hoffman's pipe smoke hung in the air like a miniature, gray aurora borealis. Damien lay curled in a tight ball, his nose tucked in to his paws.
As he reached for the coffee pot once again, Hoffman became aware of the dog's head slowly rising, of the animal staring out into the black forest intently. For several long seconds they hung like that, the man with his outstretched hand stopped halfway to the coffee pot, the dog still curled in a ball but neck stretched up, staring with eerie intensity into the night. Then the sound of the dog's growl reached him, and it was so low Hoffman seemed to feel it rather than hear it. He listened to see if he could hear what it was that alarmed the dog, and then he heard it too, over the sound of his damp wood burning; the unmistakable shuffling and coughing sounds of a bear.
Damien exploded. The dog bayed, his hair erect all along his back, his tail stiff and straight as a class-bred pointer's. Hoffman smiled to himself hearing the anxiety in the young dog's voice. Had Damien been an older dog, or a dog with a well defined territory to defend, the pit bull might have launched himself headlong at the far larger, far stronger adversary, in the fashion of his bullbaiting ancestors. As it was, he barked his warning from where he stood.
Hoffman could glimpse the bear at the very outskirts of the light. It was a juvenile, this year's cub. For an anxious moment he scanned the dark forest for signs of the cub's mother - that could be trouble - but only the one bear was in sight. His concern was tempered by his knowledge that it was highly unlikely the black bear would try and harm him. However, it could easily destroy his entire camp searching for food.
"That's right, Damien, give `em hell," he encouraged the dog quietly. "Scare `em away."
glanced back at the man, then jerked his head back to continue baying
and barking. The bear moved off into the woods, away from the strange
acrid smell of woodsmoke and pipe tobacco, the man smell and the noisy,
frightening dog. At last the pit bull stopped barking, standing stiffly
and listening with obvious intensity, only occasionally "harumphing"
as if muttering threats he had forgotten to use. After a few more moments
he sat down, still carefully looking after the bear, then he lay down
at last, but his ears swiveled continually, back and around, while he
guarded the camp. It wasn't until the cold, damp early morning, when the
only hint that sunlight was coming was a faint gray tinge to the sky,
that Hoffman watched, chilled and tired, as the dog stood up, shook himself,
and trotted off into the morning gloom. The scientist then retreated to
his tent, where he slept till noon.
days after his sprain, Hoffman determined he was fit to hike out. Other
than hanging his remaining food high above the ground from a tree limb,
he left the camp as it was, for he would be coming back with his undergraduates.
Picking up a large fir bough he had fashioned into a walking stick, he
set out. Damien had been, as usual, absent when he awoke, but ten minutes
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