Over the river, through the woods: a Black Hills Christmas

(Editor’s Note: If this story sounds familiar, it is because it has been printed somewhere every holiday season for the past 15 years. We do this because it brings back the best of holiday memories.)

Over the river and through the woods to Grandpa’s and Nonni’s cabin they came for Christmas, and once all had arrived, we counted 34 legs (seven people and five dogs.)

Christmas Day activities really start with preparations the day before, so we will begin there.hhra or vert -- reindeer cookies

Wife Suzanne (“Nonni” to the grandchildren) and I left town, driving over the creeks and through the woods to the cabin, buried deeply within the peace and beauty of the Black Hills National Forest in South Dakota. The first thing we saw when we pulled into the yard was that the chipmunk table was in use again.

The chipmunk table is a chunk of log about a foot high and 10 inches in diameter. It stands on end, and until last springs, a chipmunk had been using the wood as a dinner table, evidenced by the stack of pine cone fragments. But last spring, the table’s user drowned in a rain barrel, which we immediately dumped. The table remained unused all summer, so we were highly pleased to see someone else move in.

Just behind the chipmunk table was a nail on the back of the cabin. The week before when we were hauling water to the cabin, a six-gallon container leaked and soaked my shirt, so Suzanne hung it on the nail. We forgot it, and when we saw it hanging there that day, it was badly torn. The sleeves were pulled out of the shoulders, and there were jagged little rips all over the garment. Can’t you just see a couple of young coyotes gleefully yanking on it? We left the remains of the shirt on the nail in case the Canis latrans wanted to have another go at it.

Christmas morning, we began preparing a traditional dinner with turkey and sweet potatoes and dried-corn pudding, all crammed into the little oven of the elderly propane stove.

Cooking in that oven was a challenge because the temperature is either 250 degrees or 450 degrees, the oven regulator being contrary. The trick was to adjust it often to come up with an average of about 350 degrees.

I guess we got it right, because aside from a few charred parts, everything was perfect.

The cabin is not terrible large. When you have five adults occupying the seating, two babies creeping as fast as they can to touch that fascinating wood stove, and a maelstrom of five swirling dogs whose aggregate weight is 347 pounds, there is little time to relax.

It was fun — it was hilarious.

Track of the cat, in front of our cabin.

Track of the cat, in front of our cabin.

And it was tiring. That night, when all of the family except two of the dogs returned to town, Suzanne and I put our feet up and relaxed, sipping tea and enjoying the warmth of the wood stove. As bedtime approached, she took the dogs out for their evening constitutional, only to bound back into the cabin moments later. She heard what sounded like a child screaming, and the dogs had taken up an agitated patrol around the cabin perimeter.

It is a lead-pipe cinch there were no children around in the snow-filled forest that time of night. And there were reports of mountain lions moving back into the Black Hills. We dragged the dogs indoors, possibly depriving a lion of its Christmas dinner.

Finally, blessedly, we crawled into bed. A word of advice: On winter nights, don’ t drink a lot a tea before bedtime, especially when outhouse is 60 feet away.


Sheridan Lake in winter leads off this collection of frosty images, with our holiday best wishes to all.

‘Blender, Colorado River Dog,’ is a top Christmas gift for dog lovers of all ages



Here I am, happy as a peach orchard boar. The river is fast and  smooth, my tourists are busy being stunned by the beauty as my raft sweeps by those red cliffs. I am at peace, and then some yayhoo starts yelling, “Hey, what’s that in the water. Hey, it’s a dog — Hey, do something quick before it drowns.”

Well, for Pete sakes, it is a dog, swimming for all he’s worth. I set my oars to slow us down best I can, and the tourists start grabbing for the dog. They get him and drag him aboard and then everyone on the boat is making over him and feeling like some kind of heroes or something. A couple of them give the mutt some of their lunch.

I get to thinking, “What’s a dog doing out here in the middle of the Colorado River? There ain’t any other boats around, and we’re not close to any houses; it don’t make sense.” But then I can’t think about it any more because we are in the rapids and I start earning my pay.

When we finally take out for the day, the dog bounces out of the raft and runs off. Pretty strange.

So the next day, there I am in the middle of the river again and some yayhoo tourist starts hollering, “Hey, what’s that in the water? Hey, it’s a dog — Hey, do something quick before it drowns.”

So begins “Blender, Colorado River Dog,” our all-time best selling book.

“Blender” is a 60-pound redbone hound with shoulders and haunches like a quarter horse and ribs like a picket fence. He is the joy and aggravation of his owners, who live along the Colorado River in the red-rocks country near Moab, Utah.

Our hairy hero’s story has been told by newspapers around the world, and his book was serialized in its entirety by the Saturday Evening Post.

One of Blender’s most well-known activities was swimming in the Colorado River, hoping passing rafters would pull him out water and feed him, especially if they had an extra ham sandwich.

Here are a few of the newspaper headlines:




PADDLIN’ POOCH IS A MOOCH — Salt Lake City Tribune

The book is loaded with color photos of the red-rocks area as well as illustrations by Lakota artist Marty Two Bulls.

It is popular as a gift for dog lovers of all ages, and is found in many elementary school reading classes. It sold thousands of copies, and we have what might be the last 23 books available for retail sale.

For your copy, send a check for $11 plus $3 for postage — a total of $14 — to Top Dog Publishing, 2718 W. St. Patrick Street, Rapid City, SD 57702. Be sure to send the address where you want the book shipped.

Wearing his bandit mask, Jesse James stole our hearts

When we looked at the baby raccoon, two intense black eyes looked at us

When we looked at the baby raccoon, two intense black eyes looked at us

“Holy cow, there’s 20 pounds of dynamite,” a guy said as I carried a massive, snarling raccoon into the veterinarian’s exam room. Well, it was actually 40 pounds of dynamite. You want to talk about a brawl …!

Baby Jesse James came to us months before in a cardboard box. The first thing I saw when I peeked in was a little black ball of a nose; next was a pair of intense black eyes, peering out of an equally black “Lone Ranger” mask. The little fellow was the size of a softball.

He was a sweet baby and a great buddy through his teenage months. He loved people, but his greatest affection was for our resident assassin, a panther-size Siamese cat, who hated him. Jesse would waddle up to the cat, pay no attention to the slashing claws that had lacerated many a dog, and throw a bear hug on the hissing creature. One time while clasped together, they rolled off the four-foot porch with the cat landing on the bottom.

Jesse always wanted to go with us in the car. We usually couldn’t take him, so we would hang him in a tree (we lived in the forest near Sturgis, S.D.) and race away before he could get down.

We didn’t cage Jesse after he was a month or so old, but let him run free; he had his own little house on the porch where he could come and go as he pleased. We knew that when he grew up he would go wild and wanted him to be prepared.

We locked up our own house because we feared he would get in and damage something. One day we returned to find a door left open, and fearing the worst went inside.

There was Jesse, sitting in a pile of the baby’s toys, playing with a little firetruck. Nothing else had been touched. After that, he came in whenever he wished, always on the lookout for a snack or his beloved cat.

Summer wore on and the ravenous raccoon grew at a rapid pace; when autumn arrived, he was pushing 20 pounds. As the days shortened he would stay away for longer and longer periods, until, finally, he was gone for good. Or so we thought.

One dark evening shortly after Thanksgiving, we heard a scratching at the glass door, and there was a huge raccoon. Was it Jesse? We were not sure because this animal was so much bigger than our masked friend. He came in and we offered him a bit of breakfast cereal, which he crammed into his mouth. Yes, it was our boy, and when I petted him, I withdrew a bloody hand. We turned him over and saw the poor creature had been ripped open from end to end. No guts were protruding, but it was severe and needed treatment were he to live.

We locked him in his little house and the next morning raced to our veterinarian, Charlie Meiner. Jesse and I walked through the waiting area and directly into the treatment room.

“Holy cow, there’s 20 pounds of dynamite,” a guy said as Jesse, now alarmed, started to fight. Once in the room, we slapped him on the scale and he turned out to be 40 pounds of fat, clawing, snapping dynamite.

Onto the table he went, off of the table he leaped onto a countertop of jars and bottles that crashed down, glass and cue-tips exploding in every direction.

The masked miscreant fell writhing to the floor, Charlie and I trying to corner him. Charlie was wearing heavy gloves, yet Jesse bit him hard enough to make his fingers ache. We finally wedged Jesse into a corner and Charlie plunged in a syringe.

Jesse relaxed and fell into a deep slumber while the vet went to work with needle and thread. It took more than 100 stitches to put Jesse back together. Charley figured a coyote probably got him.

The stitchery done, Charlie pumped Jesse full of antibiotics and pain meds, and while he was at it, shot him up with assorted vaccinations against future diseases.

Shall I pick him up in the morning, I asked, figuring they would want to keep an eye on him through the night.

“Lord, no.” Charlie said. “My girls don’t want that animal in here a second longer than he has to be. Take him home, and you better drive fast before he wakes up.”

I raced the 20 miles home and was able to lock Jesse in his house before he regained full consciousness.

We kept him there for several weeks, feeding him heavily all the while. When he was released, his wounds had healed beautifully — he was jolly and friendly and fatter than ever — and then he left us. Never to return.

I like to think he lived a long life and was daddy to generations of little masked bandits. I wonder at the bond that grew between wild Jesse James and us — when he was hurt, he knew where to come for help.