By Joseph Robertia, Redoubt Reporter
I lost a friend recently. Fall is when I miss him the most. We saw each other daily in the summer, but interactions were always more brief than I would have liked. We spent more time together as the cottonwood leaves began to dapple in gold, the fireweed’s cottony-white puffs were carried on the winds of change and the lead-gray sky washed us both in cold rain.
It’s never easy to bid farewell to those close to us, particularly after sharing so many years and surviving some pretty harrowing experiences together. You’d never know about those difficult times from him, though. He was the quiet, stoic type, especially about his athletic feats and acts of heroism.
He had rust-colored hair, glacial-blue eyes and a build like a brick outhouse, but he never used his size or muscle to intimidate others. A true gentle giant, he preferred to use his physical talents for chipping in as part of the team, helping others less able-bodied than himself.
The love of the outdoors is where we bonded, probably because that’s where we both were most at peace with the world. Journeying together by dog sled, we traveled hundreds to thousands of miles a year through the backcountry. Even as the winter weather arrived and the landscape became draped in a thick white cloak, his enthusiasm never seemed to fade. His spirit always howled, “Let’s head out to where we belong.”
No matter how cold or tired I felt, no matter how steep the mountains we climbed, no matter how dark the night seemed when we camped out miles from civilization, he never complained. We both were in our element.
If anything, he seemed to only get more motivated, digging deeper with himself. It was impressive to watch him haul a heavy load, his muscles rippling, his hot breath coming out in thick puffs of steam.
His prowess in the outdoors far surpassed mine, and on more than one occasion he saved my life. Several times he led us through a blizzard where I had lost all sense of bearing and direction in the featureless white. Another time he read thin ice and suggested a safer path, but, full of hubris, I went forward, breaking through and nearly freezing to death. He never said, “I told you so,” and I never ignored his judgment again.
Time is a predator that stalks us all, though, and the last two years he really slowed down. He became frail and struggled each morning with harsh stiffness in his joints. He seemed content to spend most of the day sleeping, lazing about the house or relaxing in a warm spot of sun on the front porch. I never faulted him for it. He lived a simple life, but simple isn’t easy, by any means, and the years of hard work exploring sometimes harsh landscapes had taken a toll on his body.
In his final days I had to do almost everything for him, providing care as though he were my own family. In retrospect, he truly was. I even carried him to relieve himself when necessary. Heavy in my arms, he always seemed more embarrassed by this deed than I was, and always settled back into bed without resistance or saying a word.
During this time, the blood in my own heart felt thick from sorrow, my forehead became kneaded in a permanent frown and I worried as he slipped further away each passing day.
Then came the end. I was at his side, doing what I could to comfort him, telling him unabashedly how much he meant to me. He heard some of the words, I hope, but by the look in his eyes those final moments, it was clear he was already far away and traveling alone.
In the following weeks, I lost the desire to go through the motions of everyday life, things like being cordial at work, making small talk — the minutiae of mundane interactions that make up the bulk of our days away from the people and things we care most about.
I grieve the only way I know how. I step outside with an armful of harnesses and my kennel of dogs erupts into an excited cacophony. It keeps me from hearing the silence in my heart that was once filled by the barks of Cyder.
There’s a hole in my life where my friend use to be, and a gap in the team where my lead dog used to be. I miss Cyder, and know the trails ahead will be lonelier without him.
Joseph Robertia is a freelance writer living in Kasilof with his wife, Colleen, and daughter, Lynx. He and Colleen operate Rouges Gallery Kennel.