A few years ago, on a beautiful, postcard-worthy Alaskan summer day, A Certain Flyboy and I packed a picnic lunch, climbed inside a C-185 Skywagon float plane, and prepared to say a final farewell to our two beloved Labrador retrievers.
We ascended from the surface of the lake into the cobalt sky, and peered down on the incredibly picturesque late summer landscape of the 49th state as we made the 100-mile journey to Chelatna Lake. As we approached our destination, the mesmerizing, blue-green water captivated and beckoned us. The plane descended slowly until our wing tips dipped below the tree tops; soon the floats kissed the cool water and skipped across the lake until our aircraft came to a sputtering stop near the edge of the deserted shoreline. We climbed out of our buoyant chariot and made our way onto terrafirma carrying lawn chairs, sandwiches and drinks, and a duffle bag filled with some special and unusual cargo: the ashes of our sweet canines:
Our first family pet was an energetic Lab we called Nike—from the Greek, nikao translated, “super conquerer.” We felt this was an aspirational and apropos name for a discarded pup who spent her first months in a shelter in Hampton, Virginia. Her lifelong loyalty was, we were certain, a reflection of innate gratitude for adoption into our family. Nike was a ravenous chewer, of dog treats and chews, and unfortunately, leather shoes, belts, and slippers, and in one particular act of separation anxiety-induced rebellion, half of a linoleum kitchen floor in our first base house. She could run like the wind, never knew a stranger, and although she was Man’s Best Friend, Nike was my faithful companion during long separations that are all-too-common in this nomadic military life. Nike was a working dog who served as a canine ambassador at Tripler Hospital in Oahu during our first assignment in Hawaii. There, she brought smiles to the faces of countless patients and medical personnel as we traipsed up and down the corridors each week. Sadly, after 14 1/2 incredible years, cancer invaded her body and quickly spread too far to contain. And so, on one very sad Alaskan fall day, I held her sweet face, looked into her brown eyes, and said the words I had repeated so often through the years, “I love you, Nike, You have brought us much joy.” Then I bid a tear-filled goodbye to our first dog. Our faithful companion. Our sweet Nike.
It took several years before we were ready to welcome another dog into the family. But when the time was right, we traveled from our duty station on Florida’s Emerald Coast back up to the Land of the Midnight Sun to pick up our second Labrador pup. This time, our canine had an impressive pedigree as the offspring of our friends’ beautiful purebred dog, Sophie. We loved taking a little bit of Alaska home with us in the form of a squirming, adorable yellow Lab. Since she was born on the day of George W. Bush’s second inauguration, we named her Abigail Walker – after the first First Lady to live in the White House, Abigail Adams, and “W,” our 43rd president. Abby was scary-smart, incredibly driven, and she operated in full afterburner mode from the get-go. She was indefatigable insatiable, and irrepressible in her enthusiasm for tricks, treats, tennis balls, swimming, and the pilfering of any food left unattended by unsuspecting humans. Abby was well-trained by my man, but she was, no-doubt, a Mama’s girl. Those sweet, knowing eyes saw me through some incredibly sad times of personal loss, and remote assignments that took my flyboy to war zones in far-flung places across the globe. She was my running partner, confidante, and friend, and losing “Downtown Abby” before the age of 10 was a crushing loss understood all too well by those who have said farewell to a precious canine companion.
By the time we landed on the lake that summer day two years ago, Nike and Abby had been gone for 18 years and 3 years, respectively. We had been carrying their remains from duty station to duty station, unsure of what to do with them, but hesitant to let them go. But, when the Air Force sent us to glorious Alaska for a second tour of duty, we decided to leave them in the place where Nike’s life ended and Abby’s life began.
So we sat on the shore with not another soul in sight, enjoyed our lunch under the warm sunshine, and reminisced about the blessing of two incredible dogs who graced our home and enriched our family for so many years. We laughed at many happy memories, and episodes of malfeasance and mayhem, and shed a few tears before releasing them into the water— where all self-respecting Labradors love to dwell.
One day, another blonde Lab will make her way into our home and our hearts. She will have big paws to fill, and will join an unforgettable duo of canines who enriched our lives and proved the sentiment, ‘Dogs are not our whole life, but they make our lives whole.”