Once In A Lifetime
By Ed Hamrick
I sat quietly on the point overlooking the headwaters of Mikes Run as the first light of dawn filtered slowly through the trees. I cradled the head of my longtime friend and hunting companion in my lap and unconsciously stroked the familiar spot behind her ears that she liked so well. We had been here many times before, eagerly awaiting the start of the day's hunt, anticipating the mysteries that awaited us in the autumn woodlands of our 360-acre Gilmer County farm. Today, however, we came to say good-bye.
It seemed like only yesterday that I was returning home from work and noticed a sign alongside the road advertising the sale of Australian Shepherd puppies. I was familiar with the breed as my grandparents had owned several fine dogs that were both intelligent and good-natured. Acting on a whim, I turned into the driveway assuring myself that it wouldn't hurt to just take a look.
Although there were four beautiful pups from which to choose, I knew instantly that I would be taking home the bright-eyed, tri-color female that nuzzled and pawed at my outstretched hand. I named her Nikki. I should have guessed from the very first night that we were to have a special relationship. I gave in to her pitiful cries from the garage and moved her box into my bedroom. For nearly 17 years, she occupied the same spot on the floor beside my bed each night.
She grew from a clumsy but spirited pup to a thing of beauty. Her ebony coat glistened as if oiled, transitioning into tan feathers on her fore and hind legs. A white diamond marked her muscular chest. I worked hard to make her a hunting dog, and she was a willing pupil. Before she reached the age of two she caught a squirrel on her own and proudly presented it to me. In her prime, Nikki was a joy to accompany in the field, and I was proud to showcase her abilities to friends.
I often marveled at the unique hunting style she employed, using her keen sense of hearing and sight to great advantage. She would move stealthily along the forest floor, pausing often to listen, turning her head slowly from side to side while scanning the tree tops for the slightest motion. Once the sound or movement was identified as prey, she became a dark blur in the woods streaking towards her target. Inevitably, the characteristic staccato barking that followed would announce her success in sending her diminutive target up the nearest tree.
Occasionally, if I took too long to make my way to her barking, she would run a short distance to greet me and then hurry back to the base of the tree. I always felt she was implying that if I didn't get the lead out, the squirrel would escape. Nikki learned quickly that the sharp crack of my .22 Anschutz usually heralded the opportunity for her to secure and retrieve her quarry. She waited for those moments like a center fielder in anticipation of a fly ball. To my delight, especially when hunting with friends, she always carried the deceased squirrels back to me, dropping them at my feet and waiting for the praise that served as her only reward.
On one particularly memorable hunt in Ohio with my good friend and Nikki's veterinarian, Dr. Ronald Smith, she earned her keep in a peculiar way. Following the sound of her barking to a hickory grove, we noticed what appeared to be uncertainty on her part as to which tree the squirrel was located in. She would bark at the base of a large hickory and then move to a white oak and then on to another hickory. I know that dogs can't count, but suffice it to say that we bagged a total of six squirrels from those three trees.
If she had a fault, it was that she lived only for me, often displaying aloofness and sometimes downright hostility towards my hunting partners and other animals. She loved to go to our Gilmer County camp, and she would position herself under the dinner table between our feet while we ate. A newcomer to the camp learned of her presence one evening when she grabbed his ankle and held it firmly between her jaws during supper. Too polite to mention it at the time, he endured the indignity and commented on what a “remarkably protective dog” I had when the weekend hunt concluded.
Time makes no exception for man or dog. Nikki's ability to hear and her mobility were greatly affected by age. Initially, aspirin and shorter hunts made it possible for us to continue our woodland visits. Although handicapped, her enthusiasm and devotion were not diminished. Eventually, overwhelming pain in her hips ended any serious hunting expeditions. She still enjoyed travelling in a vehicle, but now we had to lift her into the front seat. Near the end, her eyesight failed completely which she partially compensated for with her sense of smell and familiarity with her surroundings.
The melancholy murmuring of the small stream nudged me from my reverie, reminding me of the difficult task at hand. The first tears spilled down my cheeks as I gently wrapped her in my old brown hunting coat and lowered her into the ground. Sadness gripped my heart as I came to the full realization that Nikki was gone, and that it was unlikely that I would ever find another dog in my remaining years on this earth the likes of her.
In spite of the loss, I knew deep down that I had been blessed with the unique opportunity to experience the powerful bond between man and dog that comes only once in a lifetime.
--Ed Hamrick is the Director of the DNR.