We got Game 6 against the Lightning, the most consistent, relentless, great play from an entire lineup for an entire game that I have ever seen from the Caps.
We got Wilson’s assault and battery in Game 7 that rallied the team to advance to the finals.
We got to watch a rightfully cynical sports town begin to let themselves believe.
We got The Save.
We got to watch a team figure out that it’s not enough to just be the better team. Hell, we’ve been the better team plenty over the years. We got to watch them figure out what it takes to win a Championship.
We got to watch decades of DC sports demons exorcised at once as the last six tenths of a second of this epic journey finally vanished from the clock.
And then it got so, so much better, as we got to watch elite professional athletes burst with the uncontainable, exuberant joy they’ve dreamt about and played out in their heads since they first laced up skates as little kids.
We got to watch them share it with each other, with their families and, bless them, with all of us, too.
I have waited a while to say this, because I don’t say it lightly:
I’m sorry, Bullets, Wizards and Nats. Sorry, Doug Williams. Sorry, Tiger. Sorry Shaun White and the U.S. Women’s soccer team. Sorry ‘We Want Dallas.’ Sorry Curlin, American Pharoah. Sorry, Justify.
I’m truly sorry, Riggo.
But this is now my all-time favorite sports moment. A moment that took decades, then took two months, then sixty minutes, then twenty, then seven and 37 seconds – and it’s a moment that is still happening with no signs of slowing. If anything, it’s building. Today’s jubilant parade and rally is testament to what this means to this city.
Thank you, Washington Capitals. I could live to be a hundred and will never, ever forget this.
“Dogs’ lives are too short. Their only fault, really.” — Agnes Sligh Turnbull
Each time I have brought a new puppy into my life, I have held their little heads in my hands, inhaled sweet puppy breath, gazed into their still cloudy-blue eyes and – just for a moment – become filled with the dread of eventually having to say goodbye. Before we’ve shared a single walk, puppy class, car ride, camping trip, table scrap, or vet visit, I already know they will leave far too soon.
But I think we all make a pact with our new dogs. Mine’s a pretty standard contract, really: I will train you the best I can. I will provide you with quality food, ample exercise, and professional care. I will take more photographs of you than has been taken of the first 30 U.S. presidents combined. And when the day comes for you to break my heart, I will not be selfish.
My first dog was a yellow lab named Jasmine, an obedient, fun-loving Frisbee dog and companion of the highest order. Years later I added a second dog, a German Shorthair named Sierra. While walking them around my neighborhood I ran into a pretty blonde woman walking her two Jack Russells. Our fondness of dogs is how we met and why we became friends, and that bond has helped carry us through 20 years of marriage.
When Sierra was still a young pup, Jasmine died from cancer at age seven. In my inconsolable rage I remember declaring, “Dogs should live to be ten. Period. Any less is unjust. Any more is gravy.”
Over time, we said goodbye one by one to what we call our original four ‘charter’ dogs. All but Jasmine made it well into those gravy years.
I now have two Wirehaired Vizslas. I got Winnie as a pup and Finn came along a few years later as a three-year-old, so they’re about the same age. These dogs changed everything for me. They have been responsible for immersing me in the outdoors. My time with them on hikes, kayak floats, and camping trips, plus my passion for capturing moments along the way with words or a camera, has changed how I view and interact with the world. My life is far richer for having them in it.
Now that Finn is ten and Winnie will turn ten this summer, I’ve been thinking a lot about our time together. It’s not as if their age snuck up on me – almost two years ago I added Winslow, a Wirehaired Dachshund puppy, to the team to bring some youth to my stable of bearded dogs. I think he has made us all a little younger.
But time marches on, and I see the signs. Finn, bless his heart, has lost his hearing in the last year. He knows basic hand signals but I’m having to retrain him to watch for me to give them. But training time is quality time, and we both enjoy it. An unexpected benefit to his hearing loss is he has never slept better. I also notice he’s starting to get a little creaky when he first gets up. So, we have that in common.
It’s interesting to watch Winnie age because she has felt like an old dog since she was born. She’s always been quietly observant, and it gives her an old-soul quality. Her favorite warm weather activity is to stand chest-deep in water. That’s it. Not swim or splash or chase minnows or toys. She just stands there. God, I love a weird dog.
We measure time by the dogs in our lives. I don’t know the year my wife and I met, or bought our first house, or when we moved to our current little slice of paradise. But I can tell you which dogs were with us when those things happened.
Right now we’ve got a crew of five (the aforementioned bearded dogs, my wife’s Jack Russell, Gromit, and her Basenji, Petey). Together we’ve had dogs big and small, easy and hard, young and old. I try not to think about them getting closer to the end. All we can do is keep them fit, safe and healthy, and embrace our time together, no matter how short.
Ten years is not a magic number. I’m not entitled to it and it wouldn’t be enough if I got it. Every day is a gift. Every year is gravy. And when the time comes to hold their heads in my hands that final time, to look into their eyes once more and breathe in their last breath, it will not be with dread, but with gratitude.
Originally published in The Piedmont Virginian, April, 2018
I first wrote about Virginia’s elk restoration project for Virginia Sportsman Magazine back in 2012, shortly after the first modest group of elk was transported from Kentucky to southwest Virginia. The plan was the result of immense effort by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF), legislators at the state and local levels, wildlife biologists and private landowners to bring back the state’s once-native elk. And the work never stops.
I was privileged to have been present for the second elk release in 2013 (there was a third in 2014), and have been back a couple times, always graciously hosted by Leon Boyd, one of the key drivers of the project. Boyd, who grew up exploring the same mountainous terrain of Buchanan county nearly 200 elk now call home, watches over these animals and this land with a level of care that goes far beyond stewardship. When he talks about this project, the animals, the land and all the people it takes to initiate and sustain a project of this scale, you get the sense he’s talking about family.
Five years ago when I watched those elk awkwardly stumble down a trailer ramp and set foot on Virginia soil for the first time in their lives, I knew I would always have a special attachment to them. So when I learned that Leon was organizing a work weekend where volunteers would spend a day helping out, I wanted to make the trip. The weekend would involve lots of hard work. But there would also be some social time with like-minded conservationists, some wildlife viewing and even an opportunity to scour the woods and fields in search of a rare Virginia elk antler shed before heading home. So I asked a couple of close friends if they might be interested in joining me.
I have hiked more miles with Chris Gibson looking for antlers than I can count. Like me, Chris is obsessed with antlers. To Chris, they are more than beautiful, fascinating biomechanical artifacts. They are almost sacred. Their pursuit is the one thing that gets us both moving with enthusiasm after a too-sedentary winter.
My friend Shawn Story is an all-around outdoorsman who loves to hunt more than anyone I know. He has taught me much about hunting and we always enjoy time spent outdoors together. He has spent a lot of time out west and loves the wildlife of Montana and Wyoming, including the magnificent elk. As I write this it occurs to me that Shawn is the type of man that would thrive just as well 150 years ago, in a Virginia flush with native elk, as now.
All three of us are proud and enthusiastic Virginia natives, too, so when I asked them if they wanted to be a part of this, they both responded without hesitation, “I’m in!”
Tourism has always been a major goal of the elk restoration project in Virginia. I interviewed Allen Boynton for my 2012 article, at the time a VDGIF biologist heavily involved in the project. His biggest long-term concern at that time, he told me, was providing the public with opportunities to enjoy the elk herd. Buchanan County is rugged and remote, and access can be difficult.
But great strides have already been made here. When Chris, Shawn and I arrived we stayed in a wonderful little cabin at Southern Gap Outdoor Adventures. The campground and cabin area at Southern Gap overlook a food plot where the elk routinely feed, so visitors have the opportunity to view the elk there.
Nearby Breaks Interstate Park has elk tours throughout the year, and works with Southern Gap to shuttle guests to the primary viewing plateau in the heart of the elk habitat. There are plans for a visitor’s center with wildlife exhibits and other exciting recreational and educational opportunities as well.
But there is no better advertisement for the draw of these elk to visitors than the words and reactions of the visitors themselves. The first night we arrived, there was enough daylight left for Leon to lead a caravan to the habitat in hopes of seeing some elk. Chris, Shawn and I (along with Shawn’s German Wirehaired Pointer and my Wirehaired Dachshund who came along for the weekend) all piled into Shawn’s truck and followed the group up and up and up the winding gravel road. Just as we reached the clearing at the top, Shawn and Chris saw for the first time, Virginia elk.
They were utterly speechless.
Then a moment later they couldn’t stop talking and fumbling with camera phones, heads out the window to eliminate any barrier between their eyes and those animals. “There’s another one!” “Oh my God.” “I can’t believe we’re seeing this,” they exclaimed, along with a handful of other excited remarks not suitable to share here.
The elk were healthy and content, and not particularly wary of us. Many of the individuals appeared disheveled, just the result of being caught between winter and summer coats. But they were beautiful to us. Seeing these elk roaming free in our home state filled us all with joy, and we drove around with excited smiles, wide eyes and full hearts until the sun set and we could see no more.
“I find myself having a difficult time putting the whole experience into words,” Chris shared with me later. He had never before seen elk in the wild, and always assumed he would have to go out west to do so. “I don't even fully understand all the feelings I experienced the first evening we were there, watching that herd of elk, many born right here in Virginia, grazing along the hillside as the sun set behind them.”
Shawn, too, was overwhelmed, despite having seen plenty of elk out west before. “It was awe inspiring,” he said, “To see a wild elk herd in my home state.”
We sat around the fire that night remembering and talking about having seen with our own eyes an elk herd on Virginia soil, on reclaimed strip mine land no less. The terrain has been transformed into near perfect elk habitat. But we would get up early and help improve it the next day, clearing rocks from fields so they could be mowed, thus expanding the amount of inviting pasture on which the elk can graze. It proved to be back-breaking work, but oh so rewarding.
The group of volunteers included men, women and children from all over the area, including a group from the recently started West Virginia elk restoration project which is using the materials that were used here to construct the quarantine pens. All told, volunteers logged 285 total hours of work that day, and were rewarded with a great meal afterwards, also provided by volunteers.
The next morning we returned to the habitat, with sunburned necks and aching backs, hoping to find an elk antler shed. Nathan, a new friend we met down there, showed us around the places the elk travel. Nathan spends a lot of time observing the habits of these elk. We searched together at first, then drifted apart after a while, each eyeing different terrain in hopes of glimpsing a treasured, bone-white prize. Nathan found two antlers – an old, broken base of a large antler, and an older spike shed. He graciously gave both of them to me, not wanting me to go home empty handed.
But what I wanted more than anything was for Chris and Shawn to find sheds, and after putting in some hard miles, they both did.
The antler Shawn found was still attached to an elk the night before, in fact we all have photos of it. “The tireless work and dedication put forth by everyone involved to reclaim coal mine property and turn it into wildlife habitat is truly astonishing,” Shawn said. “But to actually watch a bull for two days, then search tirelessly for a shed antler and to be gifted one off his head hours after it dropped is the cherry on top.”
“To be a proud owner of a rare find such as this and to share those moments with friends is a day I will not soon forget,” he added.
In the 2012 article I mentioned earlier, I quoted David Allen, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF) president and CEO. This program in Virginia simply would not have happened without the untiring support of the RMEF.
“Hats off to the citizens of Virginia, and especially those of Buchanan County, who understand there is no higher calling in conservation than restoring a native game species to sustainable, huntable, balanced populations,” Allen said. “For everyone who doesn’t understand it today, I believe you’ll be convinced over time that this was the right decision, the right thing to do, the right way to go about it.”
And now, six years on, I can speak for a group of three friends from the opposite end of the state when I say we are convinced. And we pledge to do our part in convincing anyone else who will listen.
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