His amber ball wins the day

Owning a dog means braving a sharp slope to find its favourite ball

December isn’t the ideal month for a senior to mountain climb, even in the backyard.

The last 30 feet of the lots on my street fall away in a slope suited to mountain goats.

My dogs avoid going down or, if they must, approach it on well defined paths avoiding dead willow clumps, and 50 years of blown down branches and assorted debris. Their main path edges sideways like an Italian vineyard.

Maybe twice a year, if I must, I descend for good purpose, to retrieve something blown down by a storm or to check the stability of my perimeter fence. Otherwise I limit my patrols to the level part of my property.

Saturday I ventured down hoping to find my blue heeler’s favourite ball.

It had been missing longer than two weeks despite at least four concentrated tours of the yard along the fence and under trees and shrubs.

He has two balls, a tough amber model with only one tooth puncture wound after four years of tug-of-war with the bigger dog. The puncture allows air to move in and out as he squeezes or releases the ball making a pluck, pluck noise which endlessly entertains him.

The red ball is a poor excuse, made from fragile rubber that quickly tore and now sprawls flat, without bounce.

Just as some toddlers hug a binky or stuffed animal close at all times, my heeler cherishes his amber ball.

If it’s out in the yard, when I walk out the door he dashes to pick it up, drops it at my feet, and waits to play catch. I fling it with a six inch wide plastic rake. He’ll fetch until he has to flop down and catch his breath.

When he goes to bed, he carries the ball into his house to make sure the other dog can’t toy with it.

Seldom does he forget where he left it. Which makes me conclude he must have had it in his mouth when something down the hill caught his attention.

He raced down, let go of the ball, and it bounded along behind him until it burrowed into dry leaves the same colour.

You might expect a trek down my backyard slope to be a spur of the moment undertaking. Not so. Not in my yard.

Like a mushroom picker or a snowmobiler striking off into the wilderness, I need to tell family where I’m going and when I should return. Proper attire is essential.

A thick jacket to protect against scratchy bushes.

Safety goggles to ward off flicking branches.

And leather gloves in case I panic and grab an acacia tree with its one inch thorns sharp as quills.

With a vivid memory of my August trip that took me half an hour negotiating the slippery gravel slope clutching grass clumps and thimbleberry bushes.

I uncoiled 20 feet of sisal rope and snubbed one end around the base of a sturdy saskatoon bush growing near the top.

Both dogs sat watching as I wrapped the rope around one hand and began rappelling an inch at a time watching for a smooth amber orb.

Near the bottom of the slope, nestled in leaves, under a slanting length of charred fence,  I spotted the red ball.

I tossed a tiny rock in its direction. That was enough for the heeler to fetch out the rubber remnant and return triumphantly with it to the level yard.

But the red ball satisfies neither of us. Despite the off season, today in a sports store I found a ball my heeler happily accepted though it will fill no space in his house or in his heart. Next April, we’ll resume hunting for his amber binky.