The Last of the Pilot Hounds
Copyright © 2016 David E. Nees
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This work may not be reproduced in whole or in part, by electronic, mechanical or any other means, without the express permission of the author.
She came around our middle school one spring day, lurking in the shadows, avoiding the teachers. We discovered her at recess. She was obviously an orphan, maybe abandoned. She showed up each day and we kept parts of our lunches hidden, gave them to her at recess time and helped hide her from the teachers. She was affectionate and won all our hearts. Always hungry, she eagerly accepted the food we saved for her. We never knew where she went at night, but she would be at school the next day, grateful for the food we saved for her.
My thirteen-year-old heart was smitten. I was in love. I had to have her, not let her just disappear. I hatched a plan to take her home and one day I picked her up and stuffed her under my coat and, with my friend distracting the bus driver, managed to sneak her home. The vet called her a “mixed terrier”. I called her Queenie, a prescient choice for a name as it later turned out. She was beagle sized. She had a cream white coat, sweet disposition and quickly established herself as the queen of the family. In her role as the queen, she was loyal to, and fiercely brave, for her family. And as part of our family, she joined us in our annual summer visits to the bay.
The bay, or more exactly, McGregor Bay, is an archipelago of islands, channels and bays located on the north shore of Lake Huron. This is a harsh country; you can see it in the trees, bent and twisted by fierce winds that come in the fall and winter. The scoured rocks still show their scars from the last ice age. We inhabit the land during the few mild months of the year when the softness of summer invades. The water remains cold but clean and refreshing, the air is pure and invigorating with an ever-present background scent of pine. Blueberries are abundant from late July on. It only takes one only a few hours to pick a week’s worth of fresh eating. Small mouth bass and great northern pike reward the angler who makes even a reasonable effort.
The Bay is filled with a close-knit community of cottages and lodges perched on rocky island outcroppings or nestled into pine and cedar stands. Cottage sites are mostly dictated by a sheltered place to put in a floating dock. In the heart of the bay was a general store and post office. They also had a fuel dock there to supply our thirsty outboard engines. The store had been a fixture in the Bay since the thirties. The community came to the store to pick up their mail, get supplies, buy gasoline or kerosene and share local news. It was what you might find in a typical small, country town in the forties or fifties. But what was unique to this store was that everyone arrived by boat. There were no roads in the community. You parked you car at the “landing” and came into your cottage by boat. The bush, away from the shore, was impassible; densely treed, with a rough, rocky terrain who’s low places became swamps, there being little drainage through the bedrock. With very few cottages having electricity and no phones, the way the community communicated was through daily gatherings at the general store, timed with the arrival of the mail boat or Sunday services at the Anglican church up the hill from the store.
Now over the years, the cottagers had developed a stereotype called the “Ohio fisherman.” This was a guy that rented a cottage in the bay, often with some buddies, and for a week or two did nothing but fish and drink beer. I guess most were okay, but they definitely did not mix with the regular cottagers, who felt they were the proper residents of this summer community. The Ohio fisherman stereotype didn’t emerge undeservedly. The worst of them often threw their beer cans in the water or on shore, left trash about and generally were not friendly when encountering the cottagers. Unfortunately with stereotypes, the worst define the group.
When in the Bay, Queenie loved riding in the boats. We had open boats with bows that were planked over in a small triangle. You could stash gear under the bow to protect from the spray and, if the boat didn’t leak badly, it stayed dry. If you were going out in a boat, Queenie was going with you. She would be the first to jump aboard; she was not going to be left behind.
As you motored away from the dock, she would run up onto the planked over bow and stand as far forward as she could get, like a look out, inches from the edge. We all wondered at her amazing sense of balance. When the waves built up and the boat bucked and pitched, she stayed at her post, never losing her balance. I saw her stagger a few times, almost going overboard, but she never fell off.
One summer day Louis, my father, headed off to the store. As usual, Queenie jumped in the boat and took her position on the bow. When they got to the store, Queenie jumped out and went into the store, trotting around the aisles, checking everyone out. Yes, dogs were allowed in the store, along with the owner’s two overly fed Labrador Retrievers. As Louis stood in line to pay for his groceries, Queenie trotted up to him and sat down next to his feet.
An Ohio fisherman standing in front of him turned to look at her and remarked, “Funny looking dog. That your dog?” He said it with some disdain in his voice. Maybe he had a German Shepherd back home—a real man’s dog, but who knows? He was doing nothing to dispute the truth of the stereotype.
Now Louis was an ex-army colonel who had spent the war years in the arctic. There he had encountered many life or death situations with the harsh and unforgiving climate. In his youth, growing up in Hoboken, New Jersey, he had boxed Golden Gloves. He was a tough guy and nobody’s fool.
Giving the Ohio fisherman a hard look in the eye he replied, “That is a very special breed of dog you’re looking at.”
The Ohio fisherman looked at him. A smile started to curl his lip, “You gotta be kidding me. That’s just a mutt.” The disdain in his voice grew. He was either not very observant or else dismissive of Louis’ hard glare.
“That just shows how little you know about dogs. This is a Pilot Hound and she’s the last of her breed. Mister, this is a very rare dog.”
There was a pause. “I don’t believe you. I never heard of a Pilot Hound,” the Ohio fisherman replied. But a hint of doubt now crept into his face and voice.
“Well that proves what I said. You don’t know much about dogs. Let me educate you.”
By now the many conversations in the store died down and people began to turn to look at Louis. “Listen closely. I’ll give you a short history of the breed. In the nineteenth century, they shipped goods up a down the New England coast by sailing ship. It was a good way to move a lot of cargo, but it was dangerous. There are a lot of fogs and shoals along those coasts.Navigation was primitive in that era, so the mariners developed a special breed of dog to help them. They called the breed Pilot Hounds. The dogs were bred with a white coat so they could be seen at night.”
Pointing to Queenie, Louis continued, now to a growing audience, “She also has very keen eyesight. These dogs were trained to look for shoals and rocks. They could see them well before the sailors could. If the shoal was on the starboard side, that’s the right side to you, the dogs were trained to bark twice. If the shoal was on the port or left side, the dog would bark once.
“Well with the advent of modern navigation aids in the twentieth century there was just no need for the breed anymore, so it began to die out. This dog, this ‘mutt’ as you call her, is the last of her breed. She’s a pure-bred Pilot Hound.” Louis held the Ohio fisherman with his eyes; a man probably twenty years his younger, staring at him, daring him to denigrate his special dog.
The Ohio fisherman finally looked down at Queenie and shuffling his feet said, “Well that’s quite a story, but I’m not buying it. I never heard of any dog like that in my life.”
“I’m not surprised. You come from the mid-west and you wouldn’t know about sailing off the New England coast, especially all its perils.”
The man harrumphed in defense of his imputed ignorance.
“Mister, I don’t tell tales, I don’t tell stories. Now you’ve insulted my dog, but instead of taking offense, I’m trying to educate you. But look,” he continued, “you don’t have to believe me on the basis of my story alone. You just watch from the docks when I leave. You’re going to see the dog in action. I’m going to get into the boat and I’m not going to have to call the dog to get in, she’ll jump in on her own. The first thing she’ll do is run up to the bow and stand as far forward as she can. It’s bred into her to do that. Now when we motor off, we’re going to head towards Meanwell Cut, to the west. But just out from the store we’ll pass a shoal on the right side, you know the one I’m talking about?”
The man nodded.
“Well listen carefully, the dog is going to bark twice when I drive the boat past the shoal. I don’t have to tell her to do that, it’s what she’s bred for. You hear her bark, you’ll know that I’m telling you the truth. And the next time we meet I’ll want an apology for insulting the last of the Pilot Hounds.”
Louis gathered his groceries and called Queenie. As he went out of the store, he looked back and said, “Just watch and learn.”
By now most of those in the store had stepped out to see the Pilot Hound in action. Louis knew Queenie would jump to the bow of the boat, it was her spot and she always went there. Louis also knew that sea gulls hung out on the shoal they were going to motor past.
Now Queenie hated sea gulls. They were impertinent and always flew into her territory. She was queen of our cottage and the little rocky peninsula on which it sat. No animal, bird or mammal, was allowed to be there unchallenged. Sea gulls however, ignored her, and worse, baited her into attacking. When she did, they would nonchalantly lift off into the air, laughing at her. Their unwillingness to accede to her authority infuriated her and their bad manners only increased her dislike. Sea gulls were her sworn enemy. As a result she would bark at them whenever and wherever she saw them. Louis figured Queenie was good for a couple of barks.
As they motored by the shoal, sure enough, there were some sea gulls hanging out on the exposed part of the rock. Louis whispered to her, “Queenie, sea gulls. Get ‘em!” Queenie’s fur bristled, her body tensed, her tail went up and she let out two sharp barks that shook her frame in the gulls’ direction.
Louis finished the motor boat ride home and thought no more about his encounter with the Ohio fisherman who he never saw again. However, that Saturday at the weekly sailing races one of the men came up and said, “Louis, I didn’t know Queenie was a Pilot Hound. Is she really the last of the breed?”
Louis smiled, “She sure is Harry.” From that day on Queenie got a lot more respect from the inhabitants of McGregor Bay. After all, everyone felt a special sense of pride in having the last of the Pilot Hounds in their community.
[Author's note: This story was written from an oral tale told by my father, Louis. It happened (at least this is how he told it) and he recorded it in a self-published book on the bay titled, "McGregor Bay, The Quiet Paradise", now out of print.]