Nikko was rather fearless and foolish, a tireless trail dog and a dining room mooch. He had selective deafness and a tail that wagged almost constantly. He would rest his snout on your lap if you sat on our couch and he was not afraid to steal food if you weren’t looking. He loved nothing more than racing down trails through the old growth near our old mountain home. If you threw a stick or a tennis ball, he would run all day, but he would rarely bring the item back, and he would never clue in about why I’d get frustrated. Nikko traversed many years and miles with me, and we had a lot of great times together.
Nikko was a tiny ball of fur at the pound in Bend, Oregon when we first saw him in 1998. He’d been abandoned in a burlap sack on the side of the road. He was so cute, Denise didn’t have a hard time convincing me to get him. Still, neither of us could have guessed that Nikko would survive so long. He always had an insatiable appetite, as if being abandoned as a pup made him neurotic about his next meal. Accordingly, he got chubby for a while, but he still managed to race ahead of me on hikes around Mount Hood. Flag Mountain, Castle Canyon, and the Salmon River were favorite spots.
He enjoyed visiting lakes and rivers, although not as much as his sister Rikki did. He liked to cool off, but was rather lazy and tentative about swimming. That’s okay. So am I.
Nikko was always up for a walk or a hike, even a simple release into the green of our backyard. He frequently got antsy in the car when he knew we were headed for a trail, and he had a little pathetic whine that went something like “whoo whoo woo”. While Nikko lived to run, he was also basically content at home. He enthusiastically greeted us when we got home, and besides a puppy’s shoe fetish (including a pair of slippers owned by the late great drummer from Ghana, Obo Addy) he stayed out of too much trouble. Never mind the tubs of leftovers we’d get careless about on the counter.
Odd stuff happened with Nikko. A few years ago, he got injured when he walked out the door a little slower than anticipated, and it was slammed shut on his tail. He didn’t need that last inch anyway. Five or six years ago, Denise and I were walking our dogs in the snow at twilight when we passed a bridge washed out by a flood. I just wanted to check it out. We had crossed it many times, but I wanted to see the destruction up close. Nikko followed me, then passed me recklessly, flying straight off the ragged end of the bridge into darkness. He yelped and was silent. The fall was about twenty feet on to a rocky bank. He was actually across the main channel of the river, so without an intact bridge and in the cold darkness, a rescue took some serious ingenuity and a lot of friends. Yet Nikko was fine. Shockingly, nothing was broken. Sure, he started waking up in the middle of the night to pee, but he hiked as hard as ever, and until the past year, he was still a thing of beauty running across a field.
Just last summer, Nikko accompanied me on a great hike up Mount Hood’s Cooper Spur. It wiped him out, and I could see his hiking days were fading, but he kept trying. Nikko was a goofy loveable creature who never stopped being a puppy despite his gray face. In some ways, he is a reflection of me.
Nikko, aka Nikko Biko Freako, was put to sleep this week, just weeks shy of his fifteenth birthday. We will miss him a great deal.
Flag Mountain is a low forested ridge tucked away between higher Cascade Mountain peaks near Rhododendron, Oregon. When I need to get out of the house but don’t have a lot of time, this is one of my go-to hikes. It is relatively short, it is steep enough for a great workout, and it’s less than ten minutes from my driveway. It’s a perfect workout hike on short notice. For me, however, its appeal runs much deeper than that.
The first vantage point is ten steep minutes from the trailhead, at a little saddle beside a rocky knob where the trail first tops the ridge. It’s a natural spot to rest, perhaps snap a shot of Hunchback Mountain’s dark green wall across the valley. A short scramble to the side, hikers will find a wooden bench with a brass memorial plate on its backrest. It was dedicated in honor of Kathi Walsleben-Beck, a U.S. Forest Service Hot Shot who had grown up visiting Flag Mountain. Along with 13 other firefighters, she died on July 6, 1994 outside Glenwood Springs, Colorado on Storm King Mountain. The fire blew up, and flames overtook them as they tried to reach a safety zone. It is considered one of the worst modern day wildland fire tragedies.
After the installation of the bench, Kathi’s mother put a journal in a Ziploc bag and left it there. She told Kathi’s story and came back every so often to write a new entry or to change out the journal when it got full. She also encouraged others to share their thoughts. Denise and I discovered the bench shortly after moving to Welches in 1998. There were often other physical mementos resting in the Ziploc or draped from a nearby tree: prayer flags, special small rocks, tiny photos, and so on. Kathi’s bench was a shrine. It was sad and beautiful at once.
On a misty July day in 2000, Denise and I hiked to the bench with a few friends–and a judge. Originally we wanted to get married at the beach in Newport, Oregon, but planning got a little out of control. It seemed crazy to get married and have a reception hours away from an airport and further from home. Everyone would have to fly or drive a significant amount and have to get hotel rooms. There would be no good home base, so after some mutual handwringing, we scrapped the idea, frustrating a number of family members. We still have regrets about the decision, but I will never regret the moments of getting married on Flag Mountain.
When we hiked up the steep trail, Denise was clad in a long lovely white dress and hiking boots. I wore a mandarin collar white shirt and suit jacket, with my Lowe backpack on, along with, get this, wildland firefighting boots. Denise joked that I was just going to keep hiking. Nah. The judge perspired so much, she had to wipe her glasses off to see. One of Denise’s closest friends came with her family after cancelling a rafting trip for the first wedding date. Jen, the woman who introduced us, came with her tiny lapdog. There was a comical sequence we discovered late. Our friend Steve carried a video camera, and he accidentally had it on while we clambered up the steepest section. A few lewd bachelor-party-type comments unwittingly made their way onto the tape for all to discover later. In the end, it was a beautiful, simple ceremony. Nine year old Casey and the other kids sang “You Are My Sunshine”. Through the whole ceremony, I was aware of the bench in the background, putting the joyous moment in perspective.
I hike Flag Mountain at least a few times most years. There are two open spots that work as summits, and one secret spot in the woods above a large cliff that also gives great views. I don’t always go to the highest point, but I almost always visit Kathi’s bench, where I can see the spot Denise and I tied the knot. There was no Ziploc bag when I was there last week, nor any visible mementos, and perhaps that is fitting. Coincidentally, as I sat and enjoyed the view, Denise called my cell phone from Portland. As I subsequently hiked higher, I knew that one of the largest wildfires in Colorado history was blazing near Colorado Springs, threatening homes, and firefighters were once again putting their lives on the line. So many connections, for better or worse.
The sadness that obviously accompanied Kathi’s death has been tempered by time. The wood of the bench has been worn of its veneer, just as my marriage has become as comfortable as an old glove, and hopefully our families can forgive us for not having a large traditional wedding. In the end, I suppose, time takes care of everything.