Our dog Sugar is the “swimmingest” pooch I’ve ever seen. If she is anywhere near a body of water larger than a water bowl and deeper than a puddle, her heart will be pounding, her legs will be trembling, and she’ll be charming me with her dark eyes and little doggy guiles for the words of permission—“Okay, Sugar, swim!” She’s been this way since she was a pup. It’s apparent she was born with the instinct; the skills, however, were acquired the hard way. Although I doubt Sugar remembers the day she learned to swim, I do. It may be the worst story I ever tell on myself, at least in writing.
We brought our new puppy home on the Fourth of July 11 years ago, a year before we bought the houseboat. A frightened, quivering ball of fur, Sugar quickly took over our hearts and our household.
A few months later for Labor Day weekend, my friends and I planned a camping trip to Lake Ouachita near Hot Springs. I told Roxanne I wanted to bring Sugar. “No,” she worried, “I don’t want you to.” Roxanne had become as attached to that dog as any little girl with a new Raggedy Ann.
“Why not?” I asked, explaining reasonably, “She’ll get to play with us guys, go exploring, get bits of steak and goodies, maybe learn to swim. She’ll have fun. We’ll be on an island, no way to get lost. What could possibly happen?”
Roxanne relented and Sugar joined us for the biggest adventure of her young life. It went just as I expected. She made a dozen new best friends. She learned that steak and potato chips and brisket are good things for dogs. She explored to her nose and heart’s content, but never strayed far from the warmth of the campfire. Three days of cloudy weather with frequent downpours did not diminish her enthusiasm for this high adventure. In the evenings she’d lay on a soggy blanket and watch me, her trusting eyes reflecting both the flickering campfire and the adoration I so richly deserved. “Thank you for bringing me here.”
On the last day, several of us decided to venture out in the boat to circumnavigate the island. The uncooperative weather had kept us confined under tarps for most of the weekend. Although the wind was still blowing waves a foot high and more, at least it had stopped raining. We had a brief window, and of course, Sugar wanted to go. Why not?
It was a rough trip, slow going due to the wind-kicked waves. Several times I admonished the dog to get down in the bottom of the boat, but she insisted on standing on her hind legs with her paws on the edge. I watched her carefully for most of the trip, but her balance is extraordinary and I eventually relaxed my vigilance. It was obvious this dog was born for boating.
We finally made it around the island, a trip of about 30 minutes, and as we approached the landing area, one of my friends asked with alarm, “Hey! Where’s the dog?”
I looked around in panic and Sugar was not in the boat! Wasting no time, we pulled out and backtracked. I was overcome with worry and remorse, my guilt as black and cold in my heart as the lake water beneath our hull. Although I have behaved irresponsibly many times in my life, this time real harm was the probable result. Keeping my eyes peeled on the shore with sagging hope, and on the open water with overwhelming dread, I didn’t know what I was going to do if the worst had happened. All I knew was I could never go home.
Regarding the conversation with Roxanne that began this trip—I didn’t tell all of it. When I asked, “What could possibly happen?” Roxanne had responded without hesitation, “She might fall out of the boat.” I dismissed her concern with a “Phffft,” perhaps similar to the sound Sugar made when she hit the water, but nobody heard.
It is difficult to build suspense when everyone who follows this column knows that Sugar didn’t drown. She wasn’t run over by the boat. And I didn’t join a traveling carnival.
In a short while we spotted the dog. Somehow she’d negotiated 60 or 80 yards of cold, choppy water and made it to the shore—learning to swim, I suppose, the same way baby ducks do. When we picked her up she was happy to be reunited, but her prevailing attitude was clearly, “Oh man, that was fun! Let’s do it again!” All Jack Russell.
In our years on The Phoenix, Sugar never lost her pure joy for swimming. Around the dock, her enthusiasm and stamina are legendary. We eventually taught her to wait for permission, and I still harbor suspicion that she didn’t exactly “fall” into the lake that day.
When we got home from the campout Roxanne asked, “How was the weekend?” I told her it was great except for the rain, then threw in the good news: “And guess what? I taught Sugar to swim!”
I didn’t reveal the whole story until about six months later. In retrospect, that was probably still too soon.
Until next time,
My Best from the Stern
Ted A. Thompson