Saying Goodbye to Echo

Echo on his second and last winter campout, making tracks across the lake.

This post is in memory of our dog Echo, who died this spring.

I’ve dreaded writing about it, hence the spacious gap since I last posted here. But he deserves the tribute. I’m hoping that what I share will be comforting or inspiring to someone out there in the vast expanse of the internet who has experienced something similar, or who just needs to hear it.

The Dying Part

April 18 started out like any other day. The kids were off to school, my wife was at the gym, and I was rushing to gear up for my bike ride to work. As usual, I had given myself 30 minutes for a commute that requires on the best of days about 28 minutes, and on the worst of days about 40.

This was not the best of days. On my way out, I noticed Echo in the back yard, not being his usual spunky self. Instead of bouncing around, chasing birds, squirrels, falling leaves, any moving object, or the mere thought of any moving object, he was curled up by the door with his head in his paws. Confused, I went out to check on him.

I knew it was serious when he didn’t jump up to greet me with tongue and tail wagging. He could barely lift his head in my direction. “What’s up buddy?” I asked, as I knelt beside him. His dark brown eyes were heavy and sad like only a dog’s eyes can be. He was clearly in pain. Then I saw blood around his mouth, and my heart dropped. “No, no, no…” I remember saying, over and over. “What’s happening? What’s happening?” I was scared and worried.

Already late for work, I texted my wife to ask if she could take him to the vet. I gave Echo a hug and was off on my bike.

The ride to work was a blur, a swirl of wind, tears, and prayers. After some meetings, I haphazardly prepped for class, while checking in constantly with my wife, who was at the vet. Just before class started we were notified that Echo had eaten something indigestible and it was stuck in his intestines. Surgery could help, but would cost between $2,200 and $4,500. We needed to decide as soon as possible.

First time on grass.

I taught my class in a fog, ended early, and raced home, praying all the way that this would somehow work out. It didn’t, and we chose that afternoon, with much tears and gut-wrenching, to put Echo to sleep. I held his head in my arms and sobbed as the vet injected a lethal blue liquid into an IV in his wrist.

What a terrible decision, having to price out the life of a friend. My staunch frugality was brought to its knees in shame. But, it won in the end. Given our financial circumstances and the less than strong confidence from the vet that surgery would be successful, we decided that the cost wasn’t feasible or justified.

For consolation, I’ve reflected on stories from friends who grew up on farms, where animals were always living and dying, where the human circle of life spreads its wide orbit around countless smaller ones. Although sad, death is natural and normal. Mostly, I’ve reflected on people who’ve lost children, family members, and friends, people whose grief dwarfs my own in comparison, like the moon dwarfs an artificial satellite passing between it an earth.

That evening, we buried our friend in the woods. The brief ceremony focused on what we loved about Echo, and the lessons he taught us. Under my breath, I asked him to forgive me, for this and for all the times I lost my temper and got frustrated with him. I resolved to do better, to pay forward what he gave me with his short life.

The Living Part

We brought Echo into our home as a tiny puppy just over two years ago, during one of the few snowstorms of a mild Nebraska winter. The farmer we bought him from told us he had never been outside. His paws had only ever tread soft carpet, his face and fur had only ever felt indoor, conditioned air. It was a pleasure to introduce him to the world.

Echo’s first snow, at about 10 weeks old.

His first steps into the snowy grass of our back yard were cautious, and preceded by lots of curious sniffing. I wondered if snow had a smell, a thin, crisp, subtle smell that’s really the frozen absence of other smells, the richer, deeper ones that proliferate in heat and life.

To a dog, it must be more than that. Snow, like the other ingredients that make up wintertime, must contribute to the season in a way that only an animal can sense. It must have a variety of smells, from dry to melting, light and fresh to hard and old, and I’m sure Echo learned them all in his first winter.

Fetching in some icy creek water.

After the thaw, Echo experienced grass, mud, wood, rocks, and trash, followed by flowers, bugs, and, finally, water. Wet, wonderful, water. To Echo, everything outdoors was the best ever, but water was supreme. Water was his favorite medium, and he was the paintbrush, swirling and splashing and absorbing, then emerging in a flurry to paint his canvas of earth in all directions.

Echo loved life completely, down to the last drop. His unashamed enthusiasm turned the drabbest and dreariest of days into colorful celebrations of existence. His energy was contagious, and it will be sorely missed.

A rare moment of pause.

Equally as important as his love of life was Echo’s unconditional love of every walking thing. That love was sometimes manifest in a canine instinct to stalk and hunt. Otherwise, Echo wouldn’t hurt a fly, except in his reckless play. This made him the worst watch dog, but also the most gentile, forgiving friend to all he met. Echo was instantly your bestie, without judgment or qualifications. His example is one we can all learn from.

Twenty Days, Twenty Ways: Prepping for Earth Day

Earth Day is coming up on April 22. That’s only twenty planetary rotations away. In preparation I’ll be sharing twenty ways to make the world a better place.

Here’s a sneak peak at the first five. Check the Facebook page daily for more info on each one.

  1. Plant a tree.
  2. Shower colder and faster.
  3. Eat fresh and local.
  4. Carry a spork.
  5. Turn off the dry cycle.

Many of these will be simple, but some may push us out of our comfort zone. It might hurt a little, or cost a little, or slow us down a little, but we’ll be OK. We’ll abandon some of the habits and conveniences that simplify our lives in the short term, in exchange for ways of life that ultimately enrich us and our planet for the long term.

This feels really gimmicky, but the cause is just, so let’s do it.

St Patrick’s Day Overnighter

The earliest morning rays warming up the iron bridge.

We celebrated St Patrick’s Day this year with a campout at Wildwood, a reservoir and wildlife management area about 20 miles north of the city.

Our neighbors on both sides ended up being noisy and remarkably potty-mouthed, partying late into the night, but good times prevailed overall thanks to reasonable winter weather, epic skyscapes, and kids who mostly kept it together.

[Last time at Wildwood, my first campout alone with all our 72 kids]

We left the house Friday around 5PM, with five kids, two adults, seven backpacks, food, water, the dog, and kitchen sink all crammed into the minivan like toys in a closet or books on a bookshelf after the kids have “put them away.” The trunk and doors of our now lowrider would only close after the unwieldy mass of gear was piled, squished, and finagled into place. Upon opening the trunk and doors at our destination, the gear would then spill out like water into the gravel parking lot, with the kids surfing out on top of it, and dispersing in all directions.

Open camping on the lake.

Wildwood has zero amenities, aside from the dumpster and outhouse. No fire rings, tables, tent pads, or hookups. It’s free range, libertarian camping, without regulations to speak of, and no rangers to enforce them anyway. Camping is open, in the sense that you stake a claim, spread your camp chair legs, and then hope in vain that the crowds congregating around you aren’t too rowdy.

We snagged a nice lakefront spot and pitched our accommodations, a three-person backpacking tent for the four youngest kids, a two-person tent for the adults, and the hammock for our oldest. Next, we went to work scavenging wood from the nearby cedars, and building a fire to boil water for dinner.

Each kid was responsible for planning and preparing some portion of a meal. For dinner, we ended up with Maruchan Ramen noodles over shredded carrots and cucumber. For dessert, we had foil-wrapped s’moritos, tortillas besmeared with peanut butter, folded around chocolate chips and mini marshmallows, and baked on the coals.

Thick, low clouds temporarily absorb the blow of Nebraska’s pounding wind.

The kids, exhausted from three hours of uninhibited outdoorsing, running, jumping, shouting, rock throwing, and exploring, started putting themselves to bed around 9:30PM. The adults weren’t far behind.

As the clouds dissipated in sync with the fading twilight, the stars found their places in a big, dark night sky. The quiet serenity was only disturbed by the distant honky-tonk song of migrating geese, and the uninhibited reveling of our neighboring campers, who drank and yelled and trolled around the lake cat-fishing until 3AM.

I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.John Burroughs

The kids slept soundly all night, as oblivious to the noise as were the stars. I slept more like a catfish, I imagine, restless in the dark shallow waters next to camp, with a rusty old jon boat buzzing around me.

Fortunately, there’s more to camping than sleeping. In the morning, there’s breakfast, homemade honey muffins and hot chocolate next to a warm fire, followed by a radiant sunrise.

Sunrise over Wildwood Lake, Nebraska.

Gear Review: Camping Stuff From Grip

Zucchini in the Grip-On non-stick skillet, cooked over spruce and organic fescue.

Last year the kind folks at Grip-On sent us an assortment of camping stuff to try out and review, including the:

The ones with links are available via the Grip shop on Amazon. The others aren’t yet for sale online.

All of these items have held up well over numerous camping trips and cookouts, and they’re all a decent bargain. I’ve found the skillet most useful. We like to cook over a campfire in the backyard, and zucchini on a stick just doesn’t work. The pocket light and waterproof cards would be nice stocking stuffers or birthday presents for the outdoorsy. The jumbo fork and marshmallow tree are great for roasting en mass, but when we need skewers we usually default to the on-demand whittling of sticks.

Here’s some more info on the light, skillet, and cards.

Pocket Light

This light gets the job done. The bottom is magnetic, which is nice for sticking to a tree stand when hunting, or to other metal objects for hands-free doing of things. The torch itself is blinding, as LED tends to be.

Stock image of the pocket light, as ours has apparently gone the way of the earth.

This sturdy light withstood numerous falls over the past year, in the custody of our five year old son. It shined strong until the very end. We think it is now resting peacefully among the grass and sticks en route to our last campsite.

The LED Camo Pocket Light goes for about $7 as an add-on item at Amazon. This is comparable to other small LED work lights. Requires 3 AAA batteries, included.

Non-Stick Skillet

We’ve used the skillet to cook some tasty meals on the grill and over the campfire. It works well for anything too large or awkward to cook on a stick, like hamburger patties, or foods that would slip through the grates on the gas grill or BBQ, like cut meat or veggies.

The skillet, in fold mode.

The diameter is 12 inches, depth is about 2 inches, and weight is 24 oz. So, it’s reasonably sized for a short backpacking trip. The quality is fine, though the folding handle is getting a little loose.

The skillet will run you about $10, making it cheaper than most.

Playing Cards

We’ve used these cards on a few campouts and around the house. Mostly they stay in our camping box, so as to be ready for the impromptu overnighter.

The cards are slick, both literally and figuratively. The glossy plastic makes them slippery, which isn’t really an issue unless you’re trying to play solitaire in an RV as it curves up a mountain road. On a level, stationary surface, they’re fine. Figuratively, they’re slick because they don’t fold or crease like the standard issue card. They take a beating and bounce right back.

Blackjack with the translucent waterproof playing cards.

The only downside we’ve discovered is that they’re not entirely opaque. Beware that if there’s any more than an average amount of light coming in from behind, your hand will easily show through to your opponent.

The waterproof cards are $13 after shipping.

Winter Camp Out Long Overdue

Setting up camp with the kids on the west bank of the majestic Wagon Train lake.

To my regular readers, I want to apologize for the empty chasm between my last post and this one. It has been far too long since I’ve written, and I’m sure the silence has been bewildering and unbearable. I’m back for good this time, I promise. It won’t happen again.

To everyone else, welcome to dad vs wild, where you’ll find regular updates on the mini-epics of me and my fam, plus an occasional gear review. I pretty much post every week, unless I have more important things to do, like live my life, in which case months may pass without so much as a phone call.

Today, I’m both excited and embarrassed to report that we finally made it into the woods for our first camp out of the season, and the year. Last Friday, I recruited four out of five kids for a night on the marshy banks of Wagon Train lake. Fingers and toes got cold, and a few tears were shed. Otherwise, it was mostly smiles, so, a minor success, which I consider a major success.

The kids finally subdued, by food and fire.

Wagon Train is one of the dozen or so dammed-creeks-turned-reservoirs close to Lincoln. In the spring and summertime, it’s generally a hot swampy mess, thick with mud, and crowded with mosquitoes, ticks, and foliage. But in the fall and winter, all the other forms of life either dry up or hibernate, leaving a bleak but peaceful landscape for us and the owls.

We typically park on the west side and hike north into the woods until we find a flat, dry spot without too much bramble. Like the last few trips, this one was about as simple as it gets. We walked in half a mile, pitched tents, built a bonfire, and cooked hotdogs on sharpened sticks before snuggling up in our sleeping bags. It was breezy but not unreasonably cold, with highs in the 30s and lows in the low 20s.

Boiling water for breakfast, a combo of nearly expired freeze dried eggs and spaghetti
Boiling water for breakfast, a surprisingly tasty combo of nearly expired freeze dried eggs and spaghetti

Some things I’m learning about winter camping with kids, and a dog:

  • At this point, our younger two (three and five years old) are able to pack and carry their own clothes, water, and some food. But they still haven’t figured out how to keep their extremities warm. Pockets are for rocks, shells, and miscellaneous objects that look cool and are probably worth lots of money, but are actually worn down pieces of trash. So, after getting to camp, the first thing I do is put up a tent and lay out a sleeping bag where the littles can recoup from their long, slow walk in. This ties them over until the fire is ready.
  • Kids under six are still learning that pee and poo should be taken care of with more than eight seconds of forethought. As with their fingers and toes, which are just fine until they’re frozen stiff and everyone is sobbing, potty needs are put off carelessly until the insulated snow clothes almost become a giant diaper. Regular, mandatory potty breaks are key. It’s like on a road trip, but much worse.
  • The dog still has no idea how to sleep out in rural Nebraska in the winter. He paces the tent and barks all night. More here. My current solution is to take him to the truck around 9PM and leave him in the back seat until morning. In warmer weather, we’d leash him to a tree.
  • The harebrained parent supervising this outing needs to stay calm, even when everything spirals downward into a cold whirlpool of tears and pee. These kids are champs just for being here. Power through the challenges, and soak in the successes, like telling fantastical bedtime stories under a dark wintery sky before sleeping warmly next to the greatest kids on earth.
  • Apparently, geese are just as nocturnal as owls, and dogs. Please remind me to bring ear plugs next time. I love listening to the sounds of nature at night, but only for like an hour, not seven.