It snowed last night, I can smell it. The dry air, the chill nudging the back of my throat. The tip of my nose feels numb. Engulfed in a lair of blankets I retreat into sleep. It’s way too early. And I forgot to set the coffee machine.
I hear it softly at first, a whimper, thin, rising. Maybe it woke me. Maybe it started before the alarm bleeped. I didn’t hear the alarm. Maybe my husband turned it off.
The whimper curls into a whine. I roll into the wall. If I could just have ten more minutes.
In the pre-dawn the sequence unravels, predictable. The brush of hide past wood. The stutter of the door against the doorjamb as the whine crests, shrill, insistent. I sigh into darkness. Reluctant and shivering, I am summoned to semi-consciousness by an inevitable urgency:
The dog needs to pee.
He’s not my dog. Through marriage I find myself the constant, wary companion of one mighty hulking canine. The dog weighs as much as I do. He smells sour and meaty and his affection for me is undying. For the love of a good man, I married into a pack.
But I never vowed to stoop and scoop, not in winter, not before coffee. Not on mornings when the cold prickle of stars pierce the fog of my own breath.
We don’t have a dog door. Each morning I haul the sliding door open and inhale a cold so biting it leaves me weeping and numb. The dog charges past my knees, knocks me into a snow drift. With quick jaws he nabs the single most captivating orb ever to grace his universe: the tennis ball. Mauled and deformed it sits cradled in the cave of his mouth. His haunches quiver. I grope for the Chuck-it. Bare feet shoved into running shoes, I trip on my laces. Ice slips past my ankle bone. I’m such a sucker.
Frostbitten and stumbling, I curse the doggy plumbing forcing me to forsake the sweet undertow of sleep to pitch through sleet. I hurl the tennis ball across the yard and yank my fists up into my sleeves. Despite my discomfort, my misery is rewarded. Other mornings bring with them a calm at once stunning and raw: The silver wash of moonlight over fresh snow. The indigo stillness of the Bridgers. A massive cloud plume glowing low and unearthly over the ridge line, collapsed in a woolen fog across the blue-black slopes of Baldy, Saddle, Ross, Sacagawea.
And then there’s the quiet. I’m out early enough that the workday whoosh of cars has not yet begun. I have the silence to myself. It’s paralyzing. Seldom at a more reasonable hour do I still my steps, especially in the grip of winter, to cock my ear to the wheeze of wind through aspen boughs, the creak of paw pads across snow. My favorite mornings are the ones when I can actually hear the snow fall, hear the invisible brush of each crystal flake graze powder.
My husband pities my awe of the frigid morning; he makes coffee while I’m out or he takes his turn with the dog. But I admit a growing devotion toward the canine and I’ve become selfish with my time before daybreak. Though his pleading forces me from the covers when I’d rather be huddled and dreaming, the obligation of letting the dog out launches me into the outdoors at a time of day that would otherwise be lost on me.
Groggy, I accept the routine. I grumble at the first thud against the bedroom door. I rise with the dog, rubbing my eyes as I’m herded out into the cold. The chill outings do not transform my life or compel me to bow down to the mercy of winter, but each moment does present me with a snapshot of the season, a detail to file away before I slide the door shut behind my dog and creep back under my duvet. When I do finally begin my day on my own terms, I may or may not revisit my foray through snow and darkness to scoop a load of dog doo. But I’ll scratch my dog behind his ears, hear him grunt as he cranes his head against my palm. Thawing from the cold, I’ll inhale my first steaming jolt of coffee. And on some level, I’m assured that I know what it is to be roused by the day, to be aware of the morning around me while the waking world still sleeps.
Frosty Paws: Winter Dog Care
The winter months are upon us, and with the cold of the season comes special demands placed on our canine companions. Here are some tips to help keep your pooch healthy and in good spirits whether in the field or at home.
1. Extra Food: As most outdoor enthusiasts are aware, winter sports burn a lot of calories. The same logic applies to dogs who join us in our favorite winter pastimes. Whether your dog is wandering around with you at the Christmas Stroll, plunging into a slush-chocked river for a duck, or charging headlong down a mountain slope in knee-deep powder, she is burning calories at an alarming rate. Feed accordingly.
2. Plenty of Water: Though the air is cold and you might naturally be thinking that your dog doesn’t require copious amounts of H20—think again. If on the trail, your dog, like you, is exercising, and plenty of water should be packed along for him regardless of the outside temperature. Furthermore, make sure, like all times of the year, you always have plenty of fresh water available for your dog around the house or in the kennel.
3. Kenneling: If you kennel Fido outside, make sure he has an insulated dog house that is relatively draft-free.
4. Dog Jackets: Dog jackets come in variety of materials and styles and are a particularly important accessory for those of us with short-haired camerados. Insulated nylon jackets work great for strolling downtown, but neoprene hunting jackets are the way to go for dogs who will see action on the slopes, field, or river.
5. Hypothermia and Frostbite: Most of you who are skilled and experienced in the outdoors have probably learned to recognize the signs of hypothermia by this time in your life. The symptoms of this life-threatening condition are no different in dogs. When out and about in cold weather, be aware of how your dog is feeling and behaving, paying particular attention to disorientation. Be prepared with an ample supply of dog biscuits and a short leash to help navigate your disoriented friend safely out of the field. Always check paws, ears, and other vulnerable extremities for signs of frostbite.
6. Snow-Packed Paws: One of the most debilitating conditions for a dog during the winter is snow-packed paws. Like dried mud, snow will often stick to the long hair between a dog’s toes, eventually caking and making it impossible for the dog to continue her activities. Thankfully, the solution to this problem is simple—keep the hair on the bottom of the dog’s paw clipped short. Naturally, this is only a problem with long-haired dogs.—JIMMY LEWIS