It’s warmed up today; ten degrees on the thermometer truly a heat wave after a week of -20F. Today on my and Geardog’s walk, we encountered an elderly man with his Jack Russell at one of the main trail junctions in Campbell Tract. Little “Isaac” was wearing a fleece coat and trailing a rope leash as he bounced around greeting passing dogs and other park users. A passing mountain biker snarked at the man, “Your dog is chasing me. Please call him!” But Geardog Kaamos was already on the case, playing with Isaac so that the biker was able to continue on his way.

“It wouldn’t do anything anyway, if I called him,” chuckled the man, as we watched Isaac and Kaamos romp around in the trees. As a person who usually gets annoyed when people have out-of-control dogs, I should have been aggravated, but I wasn’t. Something about this man…

Usually I approach dog walks like a military mission; at top speed, give no quarter, cover as much ground as possible, greet people politely but keep walking at all costs (especially in -20), but this time I paused to talk. “He’s never been much for training,” the man continued. “When my wife died three years ago, some people gave me the dog to keep me company. I said OK.”

Startled, all I could muster was “It’s better than being alone,” which is true, and something I can really relate to. Pets are a warm presence, company on cold nights, someone to greet and be greeted by every time you come home. If you’ve ever lost a pet – ever reached out on reflex to pet a head that is no longer there, turned to fill a food dish with a meal that will never be eaten – you know the difference between an occupied house and an empty one. It’s a quality, maybe of the air, that is recognizable the second you walk in the door, regardless of whether you can actually see or hear the pet at the time. You can tell it’s there.

The man and I turned to amble down the trail, chatting amiably as our dogs played. “I park over there,” he pointed, “and do the loop. When it’s warmer, I go farther.”

I told him I was getting ready to drive to BC, but it had been -47F in Tok so I was waiting for the weather to warm up. He told me about a friend whose car conked out in weather like that, causing the friend to almost lose his feet. “It’s not as bad if you have two cars,” he advised, “but alone, you should wait.”

We were then at our point of parting; my car in one direction, his in the other. I didn’t want to leave without shaking his hand, though I don’t know why. “Have a good holiday season, sir,” I said, reaching out. I watched his face, his eyes drooped like a Basset’s, relaxed gaze turned mostly towards the snow at his feet. I touched his shoulder to call his attention to my outstretched hand, and he grasped it eagerly and kindly. One tear coursed down his cheek, falling straight and fast like a meteor across the night sky.

It was likely from the cold and wind. My eyes tear when I ride in the cold, too. I’ll be looking for this man when I walk now, though, and if you frequent Campbell trails and happen to see a man with an aging, fleece-jacketed, disobedient Jack Russell, I hope you take the time to shake his hand too.