When I was a young newspaper reporter who needed to fill some time in between covering car crashes and jury trials, my editor would send me around to local businesses to do profiles on their products. One of those businesses was Kokatat, a manufacturer of paddle sports apparel and gear in Arcata, California. I toured the factory and spoke with the owner, who told me that Kokatat is a Yurok Indian word that means “into the water.” I don’t remember anything else I learned that day, but I’ve never forgotten that.
The word is on my mind tonight as I remember a day in 2007 when my mother and I took her Golden Retriever puppy Sunny to the river for the first time. We were staying at a small resort on the McKenzie River soon after Labor Day, and had the whole place pretty much to ourselves. My big dog, Ruby, had passed a few weeks prior and I was in mourning. Spending time with a boisterous 6-month-old puppy was bittersweet—so much life ahead of her, but she was not my dog.
Sunny was my parents’ second lifetime dog. They waited nearly four years after their first lifetime dog passed to get another puppy, and she was their darling baby from the day they laid eyes on her.
The second morning of our stay, I let my mother sleep in while I slipped out of the cabin and down to the beach with Sunny. It was deserted at that early hour, except for a flock of four or five ducks that were poking around at the waterline. Sunny had been down to the river the day before and had shown no interest in going in the water, so I let her off the leash. She nosed around and false-charged the ducks a few times, while they just ignored her advances. But when she wouldn’t leave them alone, they decided as a group to set sail downriver. Seeing them all swimming away from her before she’d had time to really even get to know them was too much for Sunny. She didn’t hesitate before splashing into the water after them. They kept going. And she kept going after them. And before I knew it, she was out in the middle of the McKenzie and heading downstream fast. She was just a puppy who had never even been in the water before.
My mother was too far away to hear me when I yelled, and yelled, and yelled for Sunny to come back. Nobody was anywhere on the grounds of our resort. There was a fence that ran all the way down to the waterline at the edge of the property, which Sunny had just sailed past. I clambered over that fence and I ran as hard as I could to keep pace with her as she shot downstream. I shouted and whistled and begged her to come back until I was hoarse, unable to bear the thought of losing another dog so soon, let alone this dog.
I don’t know how far I ran before she finally swam to the shore and plunged into my arms, but she made her way out of the water that day. I walked her back to our cabin and came in to find my mother just waking up. She’d had no idea what had just happened. Our relief was gigantic.
That night, as we were talking of this and other things, I started to cry. Mom asked me why, and it took me a minute to sort it out. Finally I told her, “Ruby would never have done that.” I missed my dog that ran to the sound of my voice. Sunny was not my dog and she never did that; I marvel still that she came back to me at all. But she did come to me the one time when it counted the most, and for that I will always be grateful. My parents’ love for their dog is a mighty force, and they deserved to have her for the full measure of her life.
When we were at the cabin, Sunny would start each day by running into my bedroom and vaulting onto my bed. She would plant herself flat on top of me and enthusiastically lick my face to wake me up and I have to tell you: I have never experienced a better wake-up call before or since. I told my friends when I returned from the visit that the title of Best Dog In the World and the little tiara that goes with it had officially been passed from Ruby to Sunny.
Some time this summer, when nobody was looking, Sunny stepped to the edge of another river that she had no choice but to enter. A tumor in her spleen that had spread into her lungs was stealing her breath. She slipped silently into the water where the current took her, and she could not make it back to shore this time. My parents said goodbye to her this morning and sent her on her way to the Rainbow Bridge we all hope and dream awaits our pets and, someday, us.
She was a good girl, and much loved. She will live forever in our hearts.