Big Pappy


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Pappy loved wagging her tail. Over the eight years she graced my life it whacked my legs a thousand times. Had we hooked her to the grid my hometown would’ve been powered for years. She even kept it spinning while alone. I’d be in the house and hear her knocking the door for hours on end. She’d sit with my family as we ate outside, her tail cracking cement or whatever came across it. This waggy appendage was but one of many ways she showed her mood. Pappy was always happy.

I first met her on a trip to Charleston to see my older sister. Her family adopted Pappy who was living in their little backyard. She was a medium-sized dog who could put her paws to my middle if need be. Her fur was cream-colored and dotted in patches of light brown, many of which masked her face. On her tongue was an inky black splotch. When she panted there it was. When she licked you there it was. When she saw some food, well the splotch lapped at it. She was a beautiful dog. And with this body of hers she loved to run.

Stuck in that little yard, Pappy had plenty of pent-up energy. She’d pull my sis through the street on rollerblades. If Pappy got loose it was a mad dash to retrieve her. My older sister is married to a military man and in time they relocated to Alaska. They couldn’t bring Pappy and so asked my parents if she could live on their farm in the nowheres of North Dakota. They already had one dog and were reluctant to take another. But hesitance gave way to acceptance and so Pappy moved north to her new home.

Moving north didn’t take the southern soul out of this ‘ol gal.

Though our little dog Zort had come before her, Pappy grew to be the family favorite. My father always referred to her as a real dog as she was sturdy, friendly, and lived for the outdoor life. He called her Big Pappy. She growled when need be but otherwise was both gentle and endearing. Within our family she took on a multitude of nicknames: Happy Pappy, Aunt Pappy, and finally Fat Pappy after years of overfeeding took effect.

I moved away but any call home required a requisite asking of what the dogs were up to. Mom filled me in on walks they’d taken and what kind of food she conjured for them to eat. Dad sent me periodic pics of the dogs doing something out in the yard, either bouncing through snow or resting on our driveway. It made me miss them but I returned home often. Each time I did the first signs of life were Pappy and Zort. They’d bark but then realize it was me and begin their tail wagging. Each jumped to my car’s open window in a battle for attention. Pappy had the advantage as she was bigger. I’d get out and crouch to give them each the head pats and belly rubs they deserved. If I tried going in Pappy jumped and locked her paws around me, almost as if it were a hug. She never seemed to let go.

Unlike Zort, Pappy was drawn to the outdoor spaces that lay beyond her porch. She was an adventurer at heart who loved taking advantage of our many acres of land. In Charleston she’d been confined by city life and cages. But up here she spent her time outdoors with a river, woods, and many fields to plod her paws upon.

There’s a trail through the trees at the end of our driveway. Whenever someone went for that walk she’d invite herself along. At times she stayed mere inches ahead, sometimes causing a collision. At others she’d go off on a sniff then emerge with more burrs than before. Halfway along the trail is a dip where water flows from a field to the river. Here a hunter leaves field dressed deer whose pelt and bones lay preserved. For years Pappy chewed those dead things, using a paw for leverage as her jaw pulled free the mangy fur. She was sometimes so enamored with these rotted animals I’d have to call for her to catch up. But she couldn’t resist a good bone and I often saw her digging holes to tuck one in. She’d look to see if anyone was watching then use her nose to fill the dirt she’d dug. I never did see her retrieve those buried treasures.

Pappy loved our land but what she cherished most was the river. It flows past the end of our yard and takes but a minute to get there. So Pappy took it upon herself to go for dips on hot and humid days. Someone would look out the window and see her coming back with fur all wet. “Looks like Pappy had her swim.” When we were down to the garden she’d watch us work or eat peas off the plant, then waddle away to water. If there was fresh cut grass I’d throw it on when she came back up. It’d stick to her fur and make her look quite silly.

When she was still young she never seemed to leave that water. She’d follow our pontoon for miles, both swimming in its wake and running along the muddy shores. Sometimes she scared us with how far she’d go. During some flood she swam an entire field with nowhere to rest, all because my dad boated that way. After a ride on the river we’d be on the return and see Pappy chugging in the direction we’d just come from. My dad would stop the boat to fetch our furry fish. She’d flop herself on deck, a wet and muddy mess. As we headed for home she’d sit with a tongue unfurled, unfazed by the wind which dried her.

Perhaps inspired by Pappy I tried using the river more than ever. For a few summers my mother and I took to canoeing on cool afternoons. Pappy never missed an outing. As the canoe was slow going she easily kept pace and even passed us. She’d top the bank and dash into woods, then come back down to water. Her favorite trick was to swim to the middle and greet us. Many times I patted her head as she worked her legs to keep aside the canoe. The river we live on forms the border between North Dakota and Minnesota, so after a pat she’d crisscross from one state to the next.

“Do you know where Pappy’s at?”

“I think she’s up in the woods on the Minnesota side.”

“Oh no never mind, there she is in North Dakota.”

Years later we acquired kayaks and Pappy enacted her same routine. She always swam along, even as she aged and could no longer run like she used to. Despite growing old on land, Pappy stayed young in water.

Pappy swimming up to a dead tree as Zort rides on my kayak.

Come winter the river slowly morphs into a frozen platform. My mother and I use it for long walks, stepping through deep snow or snowcat tracks. Of course Pappy followed. She could navigate any season. But as the years went by she slowed more and more. She could no longer stand to eat her many meals and so did it sitting down. Arthritis affected her hind hips and there was a thickening in those same knees. She took on an odd sort of plod where her rear did its best to keep up with the front. Still, she never turned down a chance to leave the yard. Even if a half-mile behind she wanted to be part of the adventure. Sometimes she wouldn’t be seen for most of an hour. We’d assume she turned tail and headed for home. Then out of nowhere there she’d be, waddling up to get in on the action.

Only once did I see Pappy scared. I’d taken someone for a couple hours of kayaking and she wanted to come along. My last look at her was as we rounded the first bend. Her head stuck out from the middle of our swollen river, trying to keep track of where she was. “Pappy, go home,” I shouted. I was hoping she’d give up and circle back. Hours later we finished our trip downriver. We drove home but Pappy wasn’t there. This was odd as she rarely departed the yard on her own. More hours passed and soon the sun would be setting. I knew she must be lost and so set out to find her.

I paddled a couple miles, shouting her name to both shores, afraid I might find a body. Pappy was strong but not invincible. I was coming up on a section of the river I know well — at its bend stands a dead tree with an eagle’s nest. I called Pappy’s name for the hundredth time and heard a whining from the North Dakota side. There she was, just a few hundred feet ahead.

I pulled ashore and Pappy was crying. I’ve heard dogs whine but never anything so sad as this. She was stuck in the mud and seemed to be both lost and confused. All four of her legs were sunk deep and she wasn’t moving. I got out and the mud floor gave way on me too. I unstuck myself from the suction and made my way to her. I pat her head and got to digging. The poor girl whimpered ’til the moment she was free. Once unstuck she ran to the woods. I dragged my kayak through the trees, across a bean field, and then finally to a road where a pickup came to get us. Pappy was wet, muddy, and worn down, but she was safe. I thought she always would be as there were so many whose heart she held.

I was in the downtown Chicago library when I got a text from my sister asking if I’d heard the horrible news. Soon after my mom left a voice mail saying to call back, that she needed to tell me something important. I stepped into a side hall that overlooked the streets and called home. Mom answered and started to fill me in on everything. Over the weekend Pappy hurt her leg, no one knows how. She was unable to walk and so lay in the garage in pain. After a couple days my parents took her to the vet. They were told she tore a muscle which now left her crippled. When they brought her in they never expected this but she was to be put down. They spent fifteen minutes comforting ol’ Pappy, saying goodbye. Then the vet administered her final sleep, freeing her from pain.

I was shocked and couldn’t control my crying. This was so out of nowhere. I always knew we’d have to put her down due to those legs but that was a time I thought to be years away. And I’d just seen Pappy two months before, when the snow still filled the fields near Easter. I’d taken her on the trail for a walk through the woods. I came out into a field and soon she fell behind. But when I doubled back there she was in waiting, her tail slapping the snowy floor. With Pappy you were never alone.

My mom told me more details from her final days. They noticed she was favoring a leg and soon was immobile. She sat in the garage to escape the heat, the cool cement keeping her comfy. Mom cooked her favorite meals and brought them out to her. Before taking Pappy to the vet my father bathed and combed her with care. They took her to town up the river road so she’d be close to the water that seemed to be her second home. After the vet they brought her back in a blanket. My parents chose a place for Pappy on the edge of our woods. Dad dug a hole and wagged her tail a final time before putting her in.

Pappy now lives at the end of our yard, beyond the garden, behind beautiful evergreens. Her spot looks out over the river to the trees. It’s sad to think she’s tied up in a blanket at the bottom of some hole. Never again will she give hugs or swim beside me. Never again will I see her wag a million miles an hour. But at least she’s buried in a perfect place, a spot where she’s always looking across the land she loved.

Pappy's view.
Pappy’s view.

After Chicago I returned home and said my goodbyes.

Goodbye to the most adventurous dog I’ve ever known. Over the years you were my companion for countless miles and endless sniff adventures. You visited me as I camped the woods or made my way across the ice. You rode our boat and always swam beside the canoe and kayaks. It was a joy to watch you paddle up for a pat before crossing to the next shore. I know you’ve now crossed forever but you won’t be forgotten. I’ll always love and miss you.

Weeks after she passed I went to her new spot for one last look. The sun was setting and a gentle breeze blew atop the tall grass that leads down to the river. In the quiet of nature I could hear this grass swaying and felt the dying sun as its colors penetrated trees. Oh Pappy, what beauty you have here. I stared at the mound that was her grave and imagined her beside me. She sniffed and pawed at that heap of dirt, wondering just what the heck was down there. She knew it must be something good. And she was right. So Pappy kept digging, her nose and paws buried beneath the dirt. Even in death she was a curious soul.

Pappy with my sis and I on the river ice.
Pappy with my sis and I on the river ice.


It’s been six months since Pappy passed. She is missed.

More writing on the river can be found here:

The Minnesota Side