Tuesday May 10, 2016 – 4:45 pm.
It started like any other afternoon with a game of ball in the side yard. Our two little dogs, Sunny and Boo chased the tennis balls, Ace ran big circles around us barking at something or nothing at all. We had played this game hundreds of times with Ace eventually loping into the woods to chase a squirrel. Some times he would go deep into the woods to the creek and you could hear his bark echo back. Other times, he would pop out up along the gravel road. Whatever route he took, rarely was he gone more than an hour and usually it was only a few minutes before he came back to catch his share of the tennis balls. This time, and for reasons no one will ever know, he disappeared into the woods and vanished without a trace.
When an hour had passed and the sun was getting low, we started to look for him. We drove up and down our gravel road knowing the sound of the car usually brings him running for a ride. When that didn’t work we hiked to the creek until it was too dark to see.
Around midnight we drove to a neighboring community on the chance that he had gotten off track and ended up there. Nothing. Concern, fear, and a host of other emotions took over.
We rescued Ace from the old Transylvania County animal shelter 7 years ago because he was on the list to be put down. They were out of room and big black dogs are not a popular choice when it comes to adoption so his prospects were slim. He became part of our family and anyone who knows us, and many who don’t, recognize Ace from his appearances in our real estate videos and around the racquet club where my husband and I play tennis. He was even featured in a video about the relationship people have with their pets that aired on the Dr. Oz show.
We went to bed that night with heavy hearts. His absence left a giant hole in our home and our other two dogs were already showing signs of missing him as much as we were. He is a healthy 95 pounds but because of where we live our heads were spinning with scenarios to explain why he hadn’t come home and none of them were good.
The following morning we did what we knew to do. We contacted the shelter and filed a lost dog report, contacted the local vets in case someone found him, printed “lost dog” flyers and posted them everywhere we could, we placed a “lost dog” ad in the newspaper and with the local radio station. We also contacted the homeowners association for the neighboring community and they agreed to send an email blast to the homeowners with a copy of our flyer. That decision proved to be critical.
We had a basic idea of where Ace might go, but knowing that large dogs can travel as many as 5 miles in a day, and with nearly 300 wooded acres in our immediate area it was like the proverbial needle in a haystack. Where do we start?
For two days we hiked the woods around us. There was no clear cut path and the thick Rhododendrons slowed our progress as the briars tugged at our jeans. A friend joined us on the second day but mostly we hiked separately to cover more ground, hoping for some sign of Ace, paying special attention to ravines, holes, or caves that he might have either fallen into or escaped to. We saw plenty of bear scat and other signs of recent bear activity including one cave where the sound of cubs could be heard coming from inside.
Friday, May 13 – 6:30 am
Robert was standing on the driveway when he heard Ace’s bark coming from deep in the woods below us. We hadn’t seen or heard from Ace since Tuesday, but like parents, dog owners know the sound of their own dog and we had no doubt that it was Ace. But where was he?
Robert started off on his way down an old logging road and into the dense woods, following the sound of Ace’s barking and I drove to the road below us as we talked by cell phone. We believed Ace was somewhere between us. I didn’t hear anything from where I was parked then Robert confessed that he wasn’t sure of his own location. I blew the car horn. He couldn’t hear it. Now Robert AND Ace were both lost in the woods. I needed help.
I started making calls and soon three friends arrived and two more were on the way. We met up at our house to form a plan, but about that time, Robert found his way through the woods and out to a road he recognized so the search team shifted gears to go look for Ace. They took the logging road again with a plan to spread out and canvas the area where we believed we had last heard Ace and I went to pick up Robert. It was now coming up on 9:30 am.
Our friends worked their way through the woods and down to the community below. We knew a good portion of their hike was rugged and tough going and we were very grateful for their efforts. Ace was no closer to being found though.
Around noon, we began a new search with two other friends. For the third time, we headed down the logging road, this time, with the plan to hike in a more westerly direction toward where we believed Ace might be. But echoes in the mountains can play cruel tricks on your senses and we got off course. Armed with only our cell phones, efforts to determine our location proved difficult. Google Maps wasn’t enough and a GIS map helped only to a degree. We relied on our iPhone compass and made our way deeper into the woods, facing a steep, densely wooded climb up, stopping two more times to get our bearings. It had been hours since we had last heard anything from Ace and I wondered if now we were lost. Then, as if on cue, we heard his distinctive howl from below. We were exhausted and had no more energy to go back down, especially knowing that although we heard him, it was impossible to determine the exact location. There was a collective sigh of relief knowing that Ace was alive, but we had no choice but to find our way out of the woods and come up with a new plan.
Late afternoon, we ventured out for our third search of the day. This time, we would follow the creek that runs below our property. Before setting out, we learned that a friend of ours had consulted a psychic in another state who she has known for years. With no other information, except that we had lost our dog, we were told that Ace wasn’t hurt, that he was in the woods near water, but was disoriented and couldn’t find his way home. It wasn’t much to go on and maybe it was grasping at straws, but we clung to the idea that he was close by as we made our way into the woods once again.
The hike was difficult, through dense vegetation and spring time laurels, with pollen so thick in the air we could see it floating in the sunlight and feel it in our throats. We pressed on for about three hours with no sign of Ace until we stumbled out of the woods into the backyard of a home, exhausted and profoundly discouraged.
As luck would have it, the homeowners, Mr. and Mrs. Williams, had received the email about Ace being lost and they told us that they had heard him up in the woods earlier in the day. Physically, we were spent, but our hope was buoyed with this news.
A friend who had stayed at our house to be with our other dogs was called so we could get a ride home and regroup once more. We were back at our house but a few minutes when Mr. Williams called, telling us that he believed Ace was behind their house again. We rushed back and waited. Sure enough, we heard Ace up in the woods. The sound of his mournful howl broke our hearts but now we had a better fix on his location. By car, we were about 2-3 miles from home, but only half of that as the crow flies.
There were times during the day’s search when it seemed Ace was so close but no amount of calling and coaxing could get him to come to us, something we didn’t understand. The bond we have with Ace is strong and there was no reason, or so we thought, for him not to come to us.
At dusk, Robert and I held what could best be described as a vigil alongside the creek on the Williams’ property. We hung some of our clothing on nearby trees to try and give Ace our scent. Mr. Williams gave us hot dogs to set out. Nothing was working. We could hear Ace and were confident he could hear us calling to him but as darkness fell, we knew there was nothing more we could do and returned home. That night, standing on our deck, we could hear our boy Ace crying in the distance. There are no words to describe the helplessness and the heartache we felt knowing he was out there hungry, cold, and scared, and we couldn’t get to him.
Saturday, May 14 – 6:15 am
Just before dawn, we returned to the creek and the hot dogs left out the night before were untouched. We brought Ace’s metal bowl with some kibble, rattled it and called him to breakfast. That was a sound we knew he’d recognize. It didn’t take long before a conversation with Ace began. We would call to him and he would answer in a sorrow-filled howl. He wasn’t coming to us, but judging from the sound he appeared to be staying in one place, somewhere above us. Robert had hiked the mountain top above us earlier in the week so the decision was made for me to stay where I was and Robert would try to go in from that point. I kept talking to Ace and Robert tracked our voices.
I could faintly hear Robert in the woods above me, but then I got a text saying “I see him and he sees me”. My heart stopped. I quit calling out to Ace and waited. It was just past dawn and I was alone in the woods with a bowl of dog food in my hand. My knowledge about the area’s bear population was not lost on me as I considered the situation I found myself in, but it didn’t matter. Ace was now in our sights.
It seemed like an eternity before I got another text, this time with a blurry image of Ace and Robert together but then came the phone call.
Robert confirmed that they were indeed together, but they were stuck on a ledge only about 30” wide. There was rock to their right and a 40′ drop off to their left. One wrong move and both of their lives were in danger. There was no way they could get off the ledge safely.
I called 911 as I wrestled with limbs and branches while trying to keep my footing, and scrambled back down the hill, across the creek, and to the Williams’ driveway. Robert had taken our car so when I found my way out there was a moment of panic….how was I going to get to them! Luckily, Mr. Williams was home and was able to take me to the gravel road I knew Robert had taken to get into the woods.
Mr. Williams waited with me until the first responder from my 911 call arrived. The three of us walked the gravel road until we were able to locate Robert by the sound of his voice and then found our way through the woods to him so we could assess the situation. It wasn’t long before a team from Connestee Falls Fire Department and EMS arrived. The team of about six, strapped with gear you’d see on a mountain climber, devised a plan to create a harness for Ace and get him out first, then do the same for Robert. After insuring that both were attached to safety lines, they hoisted Ace up and brought him up to me, following right behind him was Robert.
The tears, the relief, and the gratitude we felt for the rescue effort was overwhelming. Even now, when we think back to days leading up to the rescue, when we were living on not much more than hope and peanut butter…fearing the worst but hoping for the best…and then facing a truly life threatening situation, the emotions come flooding back.
We will be forever grateful for the tremendous support we received through social media networks, our tested and true friends and neighbors, and the Connestee Falls Fire and Rescue team.
Aside from being thin, dirty, and somewhat dehydrated, Ace was in remarkably good shape. Sunny, our middle dog who had barely touched her food and stayed mostly in her bed the entire time Ace was gone is back to normal. Boo, the littlest, is happy to have her big brother back to keep her warm. The giant void we all had felt the days that he was gone was now filled with peace.
The Sunday following the rescue we were in church when our pastor shared this passage with the congregation. It pertained to an entirely unrelated story he was telling but for us, it spoke right to our hearts.
Unless the Lord had given me help,
I would soon have dwelt in the silence of death.
When I said, “My foot is slipping,”
your unfailing love, Lord, supported me.
When anxiety was great within me,
your consolation brought me joy.