I had a month on my hands to go anywhere I wanted. I didn’t have enough money to travel overseas to some exotic place like Borneo or Africa, so I decided to load up my dogs and take a road trip. I thought I’d drive down through California, cut over at the Mojave Desert, and then motor through Arizona and New Mexico, but I ended up in my hometown of Roseburg, Oregon where I grew up. I started my vacation with a hike up Cougar Creek on the North Umpqua River. My dogs Jimmy and Will were long-legged Airedale terriers, brothers who loved to shred shoes and eat cardboard. They’re unique in the dog world, being descendants from both hounds and terriers.
We started our hike at Wright Creek, a few miles downriver from where Zane Grey’s favorite fishing camp used to be. I kept one dog on a leash and switched them out every twenty minutes to let each have a shot at running free. We climbed a thousand feet up the trail to where the ruins of the Wright’s cabin still stood, crumbling and weathered from the decades. They were pioneers and had Airedales too. Then we continued another thousand feet to the top of the divide where I planned to follow a different ridge leading back down to the North Umpqua instead of the way I had come, making a five-hour circuit.
After five miles and getting well away from the highway and the trailhead parking lot I figured it was safe to let both dogs go at once. I thought I could do it for just a few minutes and then leash one back up. However, minutes after I let both go, they sprinted up the trail following a scent and disappeared. If you hike with more than one Airedale, or any dog that originated from hound ancestry, like bloodhounds, redbone hounds, beagles, or even basset hounds, I don’t recommend letting more than one off leash at a time unless you are well away from highways, towns, people, and any other place where it would be unsafe or inappropriate for rampageous hounds to come storming through. These types of dogs were bred for one purpose, chasing the scent of animals for hours until becoming blurry-eyed tired.
My dogs had done this before and had tracked me down. When in doubt, I waited where I lost them, however this time I didn't and continued down Timber Creek Ridge. A quarter mile farther, I called out for them, my voice echoing across the canyon and fading into the green labyrinth of giant Douglas firs. I recommend getting your dogs used to coming to a whistle so you don’t blow out your vocal cords, but I left mine in my car.
After two hours I reached the trailhead, but my dogs weren't there so I started to worry. I settled into my car to wait and called my parents to let them know what was going on. As night came the temperature outside dropped to freezing. A man approached with a bright flashlight, so I quickly opened my door to face him. "Forest Service Ranger," he said. "I just come over to check what you’re doing."
"My dogs ran off,” I said.
"People usually don't stay here after dark," he said, not really understanding my situation.
"I can't leave. This is where they’ll come back. Maybe you've seen them?” He shined his light in my car to look around. There was camping gear, clothes, food wrappers, and tarps, but nothing to suggest I was breaking the law.
"What kind of dogs do you have?"
"Airedale terriers," I said proudly. If having dogs who chewed holes directly through the plaster walls of my garage with their incisors and gnawed all the corners off the picnic table while cutting their adult molars was something to be proud of, then I was proud as hell. When owning an Airedale puppy, remove any item from the premises that you couldn’t live without, because he will drag it off, demolish it, or eat it.
"I'm not sure what they are," the officer said.
"They have black and tan wiry fur, floppy ears, and are twenty-seven inches at the shoulder," I said.
"So you’re just going to sit here all night waiting for them?"
"They mean everything to me. I think they got confused back in one of those canyons coming down Timber Creek," I said.
"You have enough warm clothes?"
"Sure, I'll be all right. It's my dogs that need worrying about." I was hoping the ranger would help me look for my dogs, but he didn’t.
I kept my window partly down so I could hear the dogs when they came back. I was too worried to sleep hard and at first light they were still gone. I hurried back up the ridge to where I lost them, motivated by great fear for them. I scoured the trail for their tracks, nothing, just deer. A single track can tell you an entire history, and sometimes not finding a track was just as good as finding one. It could mean my dogs hadn’t gone a certain way and I could eliminate it from my search pattern.
I hiked five miles up to Cougar Bluff where I stood for twenty minutes blowing my whistle and listening for their howls, but nothing, just dead air. I headed back. Then to my surprise I came across five of their tracks, which brought me to an abrupt halt. Encouraged, I examined each one’s crusty edge. They had gone back yesterday the same way I had gone back, probably only a few minutes after me, so where were they?
I jogged down Timber Creek to complete the five-hour loop I had made the previous day, baffled by their vanishing. Somewhere on the way back while following my scent they had made a wrong turn. If your dog gets out of sight and you feel you have to keep moving, walk as straight as possible so he can track you.
I returned to my car late in the afternoon, and the dogs still hadn’t shown up. I drove around posting signs, and then sped back to the trailhead to wait out a second night. I was going to stay in the area while my folks called around in town and I planned to search for them until I found them, even if it took a month. It was my obligation to do right by them; that’s what you do when you get a dog, like you would a human partner.
Heavy, suffocating guilt fell over me. I felt irresponsible for letting them both loose and not waiting where I had first lost them. They were either terribly lost, trapped, or had gotten picked up by someone. They both had microchips implanted under their skin and tags on their collars, so at least I had done that right. If they were okay, they should turn up somewhere after wandering out of the hills.
Under the moonlight, I waited for them to appear. I sat in my car for several hours staring dully at the empty trail as it led out of the eerie forest and onto the road, but all I could see was the outline of branches swaying ghostly in the breeze. The longer I sat there the less my chance of finding them. At five in the morning I headed out to make the five mile climb to Cougar Bluffs and complete the circuit again. If I got high up on the ridges away from the flowing water I might hear their howls in the darkness. I hiked ten hours, searching several different canyons and ridgelines while watching the ground, but all I could find were those same five tracks, so I headed back to my car. The adrenalin and fear had worn off and I felt mostly numb, starting to accept that my dogs were gone forever, missing in the wilds of Oregon.
When I arrived at my car I found a note on the windshield telling me a Forest Ranger had found both dogs up Steamboat Creek and had taken them to the pound in Roseburg. I crumpled the note in relief and let out a huge sigh of joy. “Thank you,” I said. I threw my gear into my car and drove straight there in an hour. I had to wait for the clerk to fill out paper work before I could see them, so I stepped outside to wait. Jimmy and Will smelled me through the thick, concrete wall of the building, and after about a minute started howling like a thunderous contrition. Airedales howl louder than any dog I’ve ever heard, and I loved it man, loved it. They were okay, and that was good enough for me.
The clerk finally finished. "Sign here," she said. After glancing over the document I did. Then we walked around back and opened the enclosure. The dogs shot out and rammed their heads into my thigh.
“Jimmy, Will, where you been. What happened to you guys.” I said. They wagged their tails and threw their heads from side to side like we were getting ready to go on another hike. I took them home where they slept like a pile of bricks. They didn’t move for two days, except to yawn and stretch. They always made a happy little yodel when they yawned, as if they were saying how great they were.
I called John, the man who had picked them up, and he told me the story of how he found them. Apparently they had made their way down Timber Creek Ridge, but somewhere near the North Umpqua River they headed the wrong direction. They crossed the river on a bridge I assumed, turned left onto the highway, crossed on another bridge, turned right, and walked miles up Steamboat Creek Road. I never would have found them if someone else hadn’t. "I couldn't believe it," John said. "I went to use the bathroom, and when I came back there were these two big dogs in the back of my truck." Worn out, Jimmy and Will had jumped in the first vehicle they had found and refused to get out. "I called several times but I couldn't get a hold of nobody, so I had to take them to the pound. I didn’t really want to release them back into the wild. I wouldn’t want anyone doing that to my dogs."
"That's quite all right," I said. “Thank you."
"Funny thing,” he went on. “I was stopped at a light on my way out there and some lady pulled up alongside me," he said.
"Those are great dogs, what kind are they?" the lady asked.
"I don't know," John said to her. "I found them in the woods."
The next day I bought radio collars and new leashes for the brothers so I wouldn’t lose them anymore, and as soon as they arrived by mail, the dogs and I went for another long hike.
The Wright's Old Cabin