Ryan Chin and his dog, Big Head, are has-beens–they’ve run the fastest they will ever run and jump the highest they have ever jumped.
Big Head, the once unbreakable lab who used to leap out of moving car windows is now a has-been like me. We have run the fastest we will ever run and jump the highest we will ever jump. Where we once leaped with confidence, we now hesitate in doubt.
On a recent fishing trip to a coastal river, we came to such a doubting spot. We paralleled the river along a logging road before finding an easy bend to reach the river’s edge. Working upstream, I spotted a nice pool but a cliff blocked our way. The water quickened as I approached the dripping wall leading up to the pool. Water trickled down: over ledges, to the tips of ferns, and to the ends of mossy blades. Sunbeams blasted the top of the cliff projecting wafts of steam into the breeze. Big Head chewed and dug at an exposed root sending sand skyward. I admired the work of water and explored my options.
Going around the cliff was impossible as it rose 50 feet above me and was too steep to climb. On the streambed a shelf ran along the cliff’s bottom and the cliff itself was sloped just enough to pick my way across. The bedrock shelf was knee-deep and looked deeper upstream. I could manage, but for Big Head, the water was too fast and the polished shelf out of reach. He would have to wait.
I visualized both my options: forging through the currents or traversing the cliff. Gauging depth in moving water is deceiving; if the water became too deep then climbing out or retreating could lead to a dunking. The decision was made. I put my rod between my teeth, tightened my pack and began traversing the rock face, stopping every so often to scope out the water depth below me. When I reached a flat area, I turned to see Big Head on his hind legs, his front paws and claws curling onto the cliff face. He focused on the challenge, his tongue hanging, eyes fixed. I smiled at his big black eyes calculating the odds. His decade old puppy grin shined through his white snout and he turned to me.
What do you think Dad? Should I fucken go?
I raised my hand and yelled, “Hold on Boyeee!”
The water was hip deep at it’s deepest so I slid in, gripped the wall, and allowed the water to slide me midway to Big Head’s position. The cliff was no joke. I had picked my way across, testing holds and trusting small ledges, drawing on my rock climbing days. In his prime, Big Head would have darted up the cliff, using it as a banked wall to bridge the two flat areas. Those days are gone, he knew it, I knew it.
I tested my footing, held my hands up in the classic spotting position, and motioned for him to go. His tongue moved with his bobbing head, his lab-tail clubbing the vegetation around him. I slapped the cliff and made a pushing motion with my open hands.
“C’mon Boyeee!” I yelled.
He backed up, shook off, and he went!
Nails scraped, moss flew, and his rear end drooped into my waiting hands.
“Whoa boy!” I laughed.
Sensing my hands he slowed his charge, allowing me to apply counter pressure. I extended and with a final shove–he jumped to safety. I pivoted sideways for a slimmer profile and sidestepped upstream, watching the line of bubbles downstream of my legs. Bubbles formed, flowed, and disappeared in the same moment. Water from the cliff ran down my fingertips and to my elbows, my body a part of its journey. The sun glistened through the trees, ferns waved in the breeze, and without thinking, I found my hand on my furry boy’s head. My thumb rubbed the groove between his eyes as I clamored onto the bank. A barrage of licks strafed my face.
That was kick ass Dad!
I remained on my knees and whispered, “Who’s a good boy…”
My head rubs morphed into uppercuts to his chin and he peeled away in search of a new stick to destroy.
Like the creation of moss-covered cliffs, the language between a man and his dog takes time.
* * *
Big Head is the new dog in the book, Without Rain There Can Be No Rainbows, a multimedia memoir about Ryan Chin’s teaching experience in New Zealand. Mr. Chin likes to call it a pet and teacher memoir sandwiched into an overseas adventure. The book is available at Amazon, and in Portland, OR, at Powell’s Books. He keeps a stack on his dashboard for random giveaways so if you see a Chinese guy driving a big white van with a lab in the passenger seat, toss a bloody steak in the window. Big Head will give you a lick and Mr. Chin will give you a book.