Posts Tagged ‘Marley’

Ten Days on Isle Royale

Monday, September 19th, 2011


If you were to fly to Detroit and then get in a car and drive due north, you would arrive five hours later at the Mackinac Bridge, a giant graceful span connecting Michigan’s upper and lower peninsulas. If you continued across the bridge and northwest from there another six hours, you would arrive at the tip of an isolated point of land that juts into Lake Superior’s vastness. From there if you continued by water for another three hours, you would arrive at one of the planet’s little known but most precious gems, Isle Royale National Park.

Isle Royale is the country’s least visited national park, and for good reason: It’s so ridiculously hard to get there. The wave-tossed boat ride over is infamous for forcing passengers to surrender their breakfasts over the rail. But the remoteness is key to the charm. There are no cars, no crowds, no (well, few) conveniences. I just returned from 11 days of backpacking on Isle Royale with my good friend, Pete Kelly, and I can say it was worth the logistical hurdles.

Pete and I have been backpacking together since we were undergraduates at Central Michigan University in the 1970s. Last year we spent a week on a backcountry trail in the mountains of central Pennsylvania. But this trip was extra special, something we have been talking about for the past thirty years. Lake Superior is notorious for its harsh, fickle weather and occasional violent storms (let’s all pause to hum a few bars of “The Edmund Fitzgerald”), and I arrived carrying enough cold-weather gear for an arctic expedition. But what greeted us on the island more resembled a holiday in Bermuda: balmy, breezy days with blue skies and crisp mornings. Ideal hiking weather, even if our packs, loaded with above-mentioned woolens and ten-days of mouth-watering dehydrated foods, weighed in at about 50 pounds each.

From the ferry dock, we headed west along the island’s rocky southern shore, making seven miles (and three blisters) before stopping for the night to camp along the water at a site called Daisy Farm. We were sweaty enough to dive into frigid Lake Superior. The water is so cold that a few seconds with your head submerged delivers a monumental case of brain freeze most commonly associated with eating ice cream too fast.

Each day followed a certain rhythm. Up about 7:30, coffee and high-protein cereal, breaking down camp, hoisting packs, walking on average 7.5 miles over rough, rocky terrain with a break in the middle for lunch — peanut butter on pita for Pete; sausage, cheese, and pita for me. Along the trail, we paused frequently to eat the wild thimbleberries (think a spicy raspberry) that grow prolifically all over the island. By late afternoon, we would be in place for another night. The long evenings (it wasn’t truly dark until after 9) were filled with swimming, laundering clothes, taking photos, making journal entries, filtering drinking water, and preparing dinner, a task that involved pouring two cups of boiling water into a foil package of what looked like sawdust, sealing the zipper and waiting for 10 minutes. We often ate while admiring the orange sun slipping into the black water. The national park forbids fires in all but a few locations, and so by 9:30, sitting in the dark with nothing much to do, it was time for bed. I drifted off each night to the lunatic cries of Isle Royale’s signature bird, the loon.

It took about three days to fully get into the rhythm of the trail, rising with the sun, sleeping with the arrival of darkness. But for the final week of the trip I marveled at how the strains and stresses of everyday modern life washed away, replaced by a zen-like sense of inner peace and tranquility. I did not miss my iPad or MacBook or Kindle or Apple TV or Facebook app or Twitter tweets or Pandora; I did not miss them one bit. I did miss my loved ones, but in a good way. The trip was a therapeutic reminder of what is important in life and what is not. When you are carrying everything you need on your back, material possessions take on a whole new perspective. Mostly, they just seem burdensome. On our final full day on the 45-mile-long island, we stumbled across an enormous moose feeding in a pond. We spent 20 minutes inching closer to watch her through the branches, and I was reminded that you don’t need $300 Broadway tickets for a memorable show.

Then it was time to go. In what can only be described as cosmic irony, huge ominous thunderclouds rolled over the island just as we were stepping aboard the ferry to return to the mainland. By the time we were thirty minutes out into the (very rough) waters of Lake Superior, lightning was flashing all around us, rain lashing the island behind us, temperatures plummeting, and gale winds building. This after 10 days of gentle-as-a-lamb weather. Could we have been any more fortunate? If indeed I have a guardian angel, as my parents so strongly insisted, he certainly has a sense of humor.

One last note: The large, greasy hamburger I devoured with a cold beer upon stepping off the ferry in the tiny town of Copper Harbor was the singular most rewarding dining experience of my life. Those conveniences of modern life…not so bad after all.

Goodbye to a gentle girl

Tuesday, January 18th, 2011


Those of you who have followed my writings and blog posts since the release of Marley & Me already know about Gracie. For the past six and a half years, she has been our sweet girl. We brought her home in September 2004, nine months after losing Marley. Even though she, like Marley, was a Labrador retriever, it was hard to believe they were the same breed. They couldn’t have had more different personalities. While he was wild and untrainable, hopelessly incapable of containing his unbridled energy, she was calm, sedate, and shy. He was big and powerful; she was delicate and petite. He was a bull in a china closet; she could daintily tiptoe through the most crowded glasswares shop without disturbing a single teacup. We called her the anti-Marley.

Gracie was well-behaved to the point of being a little boring. I used to joke, “Gracie, you’re a great dog but don’t expect me to write a book about you. You never do anything!” And yet she had a fairly hefty resume. As my book climbed the bestseller lists, more and more reporters and talk-show hosts wanted to interview me, and they often wanted me to bring along my new pet. Gracie appeared with me on Good Morning America and the Today Show. She was featured on The Dog Whisperer with Cesar Milan, and her photo appeared in countless magazines and newspapers, including People, The New York Times, and USA Today, not to mention on the back cover of tens of thousands of copies of my children’s books. A television crew even came all the way from Brazil to film her and our other Lab, Woodson, at my side walking through the meadows surrounding our home in Pennsylvania.

For the Good Morning America appearance, the show’s producers sent a Cadillac Escalade limo to drive her (I was allowed to tag along) to New York City, where they put us up at the fancy Millennium hotel in Times Square. I was a little nervous sitting down across from Diane Sawyer, but Gracie was not stressed in the least. She sniffed Sawyer’s hand, then curled up at our feet, yawned, and closed her eyes as we went live across the country. Yes, the anti-Marley.

I’m writing today to tell you that we lost Gracie last week. It’s a long, painful story, but the short version is she died from a rare complication of Lyme disease. We began noticing she wasn’t quite right in the second half of December. Her appetite was a little off, and her usual energy (she could sprint like a leopard) was down. I thought she might have a bladder infection or some other minor malady. Our local vet did a blood test and discovered Lyme disease and put her on a course of antibiotics. But the next day she called back with much more dire news: another test had found high levels of protein in her urine, a sign her kidneys were malfunctioning.

We rushed her to the University of Pennsylvania veterinary hospital, one of the best in the country, where she remained for the better part of a week as she underwent batteries of tests, including a kidney biopsy. It seems her immune system in its attempt to attack the Lyme cells had caused irreversible harm to her kidneys. All the vets were in agreement; there was nothing they could do for her. We brought her home and kept her as comfortable as we could for as long as we could.

On this past Friday, she let us know it was time to let her go. She had stopped eating and drinking, even stopped licking snow, and had grown very weak, just a shadow of the glossy-coated vibrant dog of a few weeks earlier. A vet came to the house so Gracie could end her life in her own home surrounded by the family that loved her. She slipped away peacefully.

With the help of my kind neighbor Neil Wotring, I buried her on the edge of the meadow behind our barn, right beside Marley. Two dogs, so different yet both so great in their own way, and both so dearly cherished members of our family.

Farewell, sweet Gracie, our gentle girl. Your home is now in our hearts.

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

Tuesday, August 31st, 2010


Summer is in its last glorious days, the kids are heading back to school, and with each day I note fall’s creeping arrival by the ever-earlier sunsets and crisper nights. It’s fair to say I mostly (gloriously) took the summer off. Here are a few highlights of the last couple months:

* Five nights in Montreal for the International Jazz Festival. Good food, good music, mercifully cool weather, and all those great French accents. What wasn’t to like? Added bonus for the 18-year-old: Legal to drink!
* Sailing. My childhood boat, The Mary Ann, which I write about in The Longest Trip Home, is back in the water for another season and I’ve managed to get out more often than in past (too busy) years.
* Gardening. The hot sunny weather, punctuated by just enough rain to keep things from frying, has resulted in a bumper year here in the Northeast. My 18×35-foot plot has been going crazy, yielding pounds and pounds of tomatoes and peppers and beets and beans and cantaloupe, and much more. Enough already!
* Summer reading. Much more heavy on fiction than my usual mix. “Hotel Iris” by Yoko Ogawa (definitely twisted); “This is Where I Leave You” by Jonathan Tropper (the most fun I’ve had with a book in ages); “Next” by James Hynes (a little overwrought but worthwhile); “City of Thieves” by David Benioff (totally engaging; a natural for film); “Leaving the World” by Douglas Kennedy (if you like downers, this one is for you); “Ship Fever” by Andrea Barrett (beautiful, beautiful). I tackled the opening chapters of “The Dome” by Stephen King before concluding that life is short and I just wasn’t engaged enough to hang on for 700 more pages. I’ve begun listening to “The Help” on audio, but need more driving time to finish. An excuse for a road trip?
* Writing. Mostly for myself, seeing where it leads me. To interesting places, as it turns out. And that’s okay.
* Writing II. I put the finishing touches on the final book in my children’s picture-book series. It will be called “Trick or Treat, Marley” and is due out for Halloween 2011. All I’ll say is that my collaborator, the very talented artist Richard Cowdrey, outdid himself on this one.
* My beloved Great Lakes. My daughter Colleen and I spent five nights on Lake Huron with our dear friends, Pete and Maureen Kelly and their daughters, Andrea and Kathryn. Why is it that cold Coronas with lime taste so much better when your toes are stuck in warm, white beach sand?
* Mom. At 94, Ruthie still has her sense of humor — and her love for ice cream sundaes. (That’s her in the photo with her granddaughter Colleen during our Michigan visit in mid August.)
* College sendoff. We dropped our oldest son at college and stood in the parking lot watching him disappear into the distance, knowing our little nuclear family had just changed in profound ways. I categorically deny being misty eyed. Passages.

And that about brings us up to speed. September, here we come.

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