• My latest book available in paperback and eBook formats

  • Available from Amazon paperback or Kindle

  • Updated w/double blind study results. Ebook or paperback

  • New updated edition available NOW!

  • Recent Posts

  • Tracking Footprints

  • Archives

  • Top Posts

  • Pages

Koda confronts Death

Hi Folks,  Koda has been writing up a storm as he is now 8 years old and in middle age.  I think he must be going through his mid-life crisis.  Here is another piece of his memoirs.  I think this one is quite interesting and gives us a window into a dog’s psyche.

What I know about death

The first time I knew death was when Soona died. I wasn’t really there, but I knew afterwards. Soona was old, and sick. I knew that. And for two weeks Leslie gave her all the attention, and I let her. I was only a year old then, but I knew I had to be quiet now and let Soona and Leslie have their moments together. One day Dennis brought my leash and took me for a walk. That night Soona wasn’t at home and things felt strange.

Koda and Soona just before she died

Koda and Soona just before she died

The next morning, I stood by the sliding glass door. I felt compelled to go outside. Something was shimmering on the patio. Leslie let me out and I went to that spot where the shimmering was and sniffed and sniffed. I smelled Soona there. Leslie said that was where Soona had died yesterday. They had taken her body away before I came home, yet I could still see her there as if she was saying goodbye to me. It might seem like I annoyed her when she was alive, but she really loved me and here she was telling me in spirit.

After Soona died, we moved to Wyoming where we live all the time now.

Koda compares his foot to a wolf track

Koda compares his foot to a wolf track

Winters are the best and I really like the snow and the cold. During my first winter, when I was just at little more than one year old, we spent a lot of time walking in the meadows where all the elk like to graze in the evenings. One afternoon I found a dead coyote. A young man, like me, he’d gotten too bold and had mingled among the elk herd, looking for a meal perhaps. He was kicked in the ribs right there and died. I still didn’t know much about death, but this coyote looked like me and was a lot like me. I sniffed and sniffed him, but really I didn’t want anything to do with that coyote. I like deer and elk when they are dead and I like to chew on their bones, but this dead coyote I didn’t like.

Koda enjoys an elk carcass killed by wolves

Koda enjoys an elk carcass killed by wolves

Many times I’ve run after coyotes. I’m a lot bigger than any coyote. They are wild like wolves, so running after them makes me feel wild and free. Yet this dead coyote reminded me of something I didn’t want to be reminded of. So every time that winter when Leslie came close to his body in the dry grass and snow, I stayed far away.

Living in Wyoming, I’ve seen lots of death, everything from deer, elk, marmots and squirrels (like!), to cougars, wolves, and coyotes (don’t like!), but when I was 5 years old, I had an experience of death that was mighty different. Leslie took me to the desert where we stayed with some friends. I liked Steve and Vicky and they also had a big dog named Maggie. Every day Leslie and I hiked around this desert called Sedona which was sandy and red like me.

Koda in Sedona

Koda in Sedona

One morning, I followed Leslie into a little room Steve used as an office.   I was bored while Leslie and Steve talked. Then I noticed that shimmering again and the special smell–a smell that reminded me of Soona’s death. It was coming from a small table where a man’s wallet sat. The wallet needed something from me. I went over and put my nose on top of the wallet so I could smell what it needed. My mind went still and through my noise I was traveling. The shimmering scent led me to an old man by a bridge on a road of stars. This man told me he didn’t want to cross the bridge. “I’m scared and alone” he told me. He was so nice and I didn’t want to see him afraid. After all, I am a protector. So I went to him, stood by his side, and walked him to the other side of the bridge. It was an easy thing to do, and especially since the bridge appeared like a rainbow in the stars. I liked this place and wanted to explore more, but I knew I couldn’t. The old man turned around, patted me on the head and smiled, then disappeared, just like that. Suddenly I was back in that little room with Steve and Leslie staring at me. They too sensed something had happened. But you know, humans can’t smell like I can, so they had no idea what happened. Apparently I’d been still for many minutes with my nose on that wallet. Then Steve told Leslie ‘That’s my father’s wallet. He died 6 months ago in this house, and had a difficult death.” I guess I helped him cross that bridge and that felt good.

Koda enjoys a view

Koda enjoys a view


The Totem

I know or have heard of many people declaring that their totem animal is one of the strong, impressive mammals–the wolf, the bear, the cougar, the lynx.  Why are so many of the small animals ignored as a totem?  For instance, Plenty Coups, the last chief of the Crow Indians, had a vision in which his totem animal was revealed to him.  This small little bird was his guiding inspiration, the totem whose wisdom saved his people and won them a reservation on their native lands.

The Lynx

“Listen, Plenty-Coups” said a voice.  “in that tree is the lodge of the Chickadee.  He is the least in strength but strongest of mind among his kind.  He is willing to work for wisdom.  The Chickadee-person is a good listener.  Nothing escapes his ears, which he has sharpened by constant use.  Whenever others are talking together of their successes or failures, there you will find the Chickadee-person listening to their words.  But in all his listening he tends to his own business.  He never intrudes, never speaks in strange company, and yet never misses a chance to learn from others.  He gains success and avoids failure by learning how others succeeded or failed, and without great trouble to himself.  There is scarely a lodge he does not visit, hardly a Person he does not know, and yet everybody likes him, because he minds his own business, or pretends to.

“The lodges of countless Bird-people were in that forest when the Four Winds charged it.  Only one is left unharmed, the lodge of the Chickadee-person.  Develop your body, but do not neglect your mind, Plenty-Coups.  It is the mind that leads a man to power, not strength of body.”


We think only of these large mammals as totems because, I propose, we no longer fully ‘know’ animals anymore.  Who amongst us could understand the ‘Chickadee-person’ like Indians that lived with all the animals, large and small, observing them in detail day in and day out?  Each animal has a special quality, a unique force that can connect a person to that higher need in themselves.

I also wonder if there are dual totems; totems in tandem that make up the whole, rather than just a partial piece.  For instance, when I was told that Soona had bone cancer, I knew her slow death would be excruciating, as well as debilitating.  Not a life for a dog.  I got some good advice: take off work for a week and do all the things with her that she loves, then put her down.

I took off work, but was agonizing over the decision, even though I knew it was best for her.  During that week that stretched into two, I was given a series of dreams.   All my dreams had wolves in them–courage, strength, canine. Yes.  But they also contained an important critical ‘other’ totem–elk.  In each dream, over and over, I watched wolves take down and kill elk.  It was the full circle of life.   In every dream, my focus wasn’t on the wolves, but on the dying elk.  I would look deeply into the eyes of the elk as she lay dying and saw there was only a quality of complete surrender.   She knew this was her ‘dharma’ or lot in life.  No remorse, no fear.   I realized it was Soona’s time to go, like these elk, and she was surrendered to it.  It was only me that wasn’t.

So the totem wasn’t just the wolf, but the wolf and the elk.  They are one and there can’t be one without the other.  Their lives and deaths are intertwined.  They are one totem, coins representing both sides. The Yin and the Yang.

Does that mean my friend who changed his name to Wolf, should be Wolf-Elk?  Or the one now known as Bear be Bear-roots?  Lynx-Hare?  Cougar-Deer?




I came to do a thing for a dog

Walking the Winds.  It’s what I dream of constantly.  It’s what brought me to Wyoming in the first place.

I’ve walked the Winds over 8 times and never can get enough.  In the last five years I haven’t been able to get there for one reason or another–health, foot problems, moving, work.  Last time I was there it poured every day for a week.

When my old dog died, I swore I’d take her ashes up to the Wind Rivers. She’d been my constant hiking companion there.  I’ve held onto them for the last two years, lamenting that I might not be able to fulfill that promise to her, dreaming of the day I’d go back.

This year I tested myself first in the Beartooths on a four day backpack.  The old injury in my foot seemed to have healed enough to brave the trek to the Winds.

So last week I packed up and chose a route I’d done partway before, up the Fremont trail from the Big Sandy entrance.  I’d planned to do a 7 day over to Dream Lake with Koda.  The weather looked incremental and unstable on Monday, but after that the report said ‘Sunny’.  I hiked to Dad’s lake, five miles in, on Sunday and made camp.


The hike into Dad's from the Fremont trail


The first mishap occurred that night.  My newest Thermarest, the latest greatest lightest model, had a pin hole in it.  The mattress was dead the next morning, essentially laying me bare on the cold ground.  The temperatures were hovering around freezing or less at night so this wasn’t good.  Since I’d only used the mattress 2 times before, I hadn’t brought a proper patch kit.  I tried duct tape, lots of other tapes, to no avail.  OK, I can live with sleeping direct on the ground.  I’d done it before.

By Monday the weather was certainly very unsettled, so I decided to stay at Dad’s Lake and day hike to Shadow Lake with Soona’s ashes.  The 10 mile round trip into a glacial valley was phenomenal.  Shadow Lake sits on the back side of the Cirque of the Towers, the primo climbing grounds for world class climbers.  The front side is crowded with hikers and climbers, but the back side is not.  I had the whole valley to myself.

The trail winds up to the Continental Divide, a cluster of above timber line granite peaks, then cuts off into a wide sub-alpine valley for 2 miles that dead ends below the Cirque.  Three lakes sit at its base.  As I walked up the valley, it became only more and more stunning.  A wide river flows easily through its floor.  Glacial carved towering mountains surround you on both sides.  The view from Shadow lake of the Cirque is phenomenal.

As I turned up the side trail to the valley, the threatening weather turned intense.  It started to snow, hard.  But the valley kept egging me on and I knew this was the perfect place for Soona.  Finally, the lake appeared through the trees.  The cloud cover was heavy but the snow had stopped for now.  I had a quick lunch, knowing that I better return to camp soon; scattered the dog’s ashes, and sat down for some prayers and chants.  Suddenly the sun appeared through a small parting of the clouds.  The entire sky was black except for right above me where the heat of the sun changed the mood.  It was a brief 10 minutes of sun, as if the heavens had opened to receive my prayers and Soona had acknowledged her final resting place as ‘Good’.  When I started back to camp, the clouds covered the sky again and snow came down.  It snowed the whole 5 miles back to camp.

At Dad’s lake, the weather seemed to turn, the sun came out, broken clouds scattered the sky, a beautiful sunset was beginning.  Koda jumped in the lake and then it began snowing again.  Despite toweling him off (with my backpacking towel!) and a good fire, he went to bed shivering.  That night was the first time I ever opened up an emergency blanket and used it–on a dog!


Dad's Lake. The Continental Divide looms in the background


That evening was going to be very cold.  I knew it.  It’d been snowing all day and clearing some in the evening.  Surely it would be around 20 degrees tonight.  I wanted a good fire.  The only dry wood was what I could find still hanging on the trees.  I picked around for dead branches and carried a load back to my camp.  As I sorted through the dry branches I found a giant, and I mean giant, dragonfly, the biggest I’d ever seen, clinging to one.  He had gotten cold and was still.  I moved the dragonfly to a nearby tree, pondering it for a time.  The mystery of his’ life strategy stuck me…how he survived by becoming still and asleep.   When it was cold, boom, he was in another state, helpless, at the mercy of his unique physiology.

By the next day, when the weather was supposed to clear, a cold north wind had come blazing in.  I hiked up to Washakie creek, but was loathe to do the 3 miles of a 10,500 foot pass to Dream Lake in the threatening weather and strong winds.  Washakie creek combines side by side with East Fork River in a wide and beautiful sub-alpine valley, a place where most of August would be uncampable due to mosquitos.  But the cold had killed off all the bugs and it was an incredible camping spot.  Tons of wood and good fishing.  Although my fishing pole had broken in half the day before, it still worked just fine.  I caught 3 fish in the span of 15 minutes, nice big brookies.

By the next morning, instead of the weather improving as predicted (I swear that being a weatherman is the only job where you can be wrong half the time and STILL keep your job), it was overcast and threatening to snow, with daytime temperatures hovering in the high 30’s.  Besides the bad weather, my Steripen water purifier (also fairly new) broke.  No clean water (except if I boiled it) was a real set-back.  So along with my sleeping pad, broken fishing pole, and bad weather, I decided this trip was just for Soona.  I made the hike out that day, getting nice and dehydrated without any water to drink.

The good news is that the foot I’d been nursing for a year survived nicely, and I met some incredible, inspirational people.  A couple who was celebrating the woman’s 60th birthday by doing the entire Highline trail (over 100 miles) in 14 days.  Another couple in their early seventies who’d been backpacking in the Winds for over 25 years.  And I camped next to a 60 year old man who, because his doctor had told him not to backpack alone any more, was making a last memorable trip to the Winds by staying there for a month.  He was taking pictures and keeping a good journal, “for my grandchildren”.   He had dehydrated his own food, would come in from one trailhead for a 10 day stretch, then hike out to replenish and come in from another trailhead.

“I’ve watched the mountains all August, go from wildflowers to fall snows.”  I bow down to all these inspirational souls who keep backpacking way into their later years.  Next year I’m going for 3 weeks, and do it like the Texan rancher.  But this year I’d come to do a thing for a dog.

last backpack in the Beartooths at 10

Heaven in Canada

Happy even in old age