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In November 1995 I had what turned out to be a chicken-skin adventure with a friendly but mysterious German shepherd. A few days before the encounter, I had discovered a new trail not far from my home in Kaneohe. The trail starts off of Kaneohe Bay Drive mauka of the Kokokahi YWCA, and since the ridge it sits upon is unnamed, at least on maps I have, I've christened it Kokokahi Ridge for reference here.
After scouting out the route on a Wednesday, I returned the next day to do some trail maintenance (I have the week off for spring break). As I parked my car, I noticed a rather large German shepherd sniffing around the hedges and shrubs along the street where the trailhead is. When I opened the door of my vehicle to get out, the amiable pooch trotted over and made himself available for a stroke on its mane and a how-d'ya-do.
Thinking the dog would head off down the street to wherever his home was, I shouldered my pack and started up the trail. After no more than ten yards, I could hear my new friend bounding after me. I stopped and tried to shoo him back toward the road; however, he'd have none of that. Instead, while I waved my arms and repeated "Go home" a half-dozen times, he just sat there, his head tilted slightly to the left, his eyes gazing at me curiously.
Since my shooing efforts failed, I decided to continue on. "He'll get tired and turn back," I reckoned.
I strided briskly up the winding trail, moving fast, working up a good lather and putting my lung power to the test. All the while, the dog stayed right with me. At times, he bolted ahead, putting about ten yards between us before stopping and waiting for me to catch up. Then he'd let me pass, and trailing right behind, he'd press his nose into my upper calves as if telling me to hele mai--move faster.
Even when the pitch of the path steepened to the point where I had to scramble hand over foot for a short span, my friend pressed on. Reaching the first major nob in the ridge, an eroded hill with a nice view of Kaneohe Bay, I stopped and congratulated my now-initiated hiking companion by caressing his brown and black coat and stroking his teepee-like ears.
"You're going the distance with me, huh, brah?" I smiled. His eyes, black like watermelon seeds, were trained right on me as if he understood what I'd just asked.
We continued on for another 15 minutes and stopped at a rocky outcropping where a couple generations of Castle High students had painted and re-painted a huge "C" for their windward community to see.
The improved trail ended at that point and I had brought a machete so that I could continue to hack my way along the ridge. The going was obviously much slower from then on, but the shep moved along patiently with me. While I chopped along, he hung back a few yards as if knowing that an errant swing of my cutting tool could hack off a limb. And when I paused to rest, he moved next to me, beckoning for a pat on the head to which I always obliged.
When I pulled my water bottle from my pack, he was right at my side waiting for his sip. Using the palm of my left hand as a water dish, I obliged him then, too. If he could talk, I'm certain he'd thank me.
I continued my labor, chopping away at barriers of Christmas berry and guava. Every now and again the shep would dash off into the brush along the ridge, pouncing on some insect or rodent that my meager senses couldn't detect. He'd be gone for a few minutes. Then he'd be back. He always came back.
We worked our way to the highest pu'u on the ridge, a point with a fairly lofty elevation of 942 feet. Resting in a small clearing with a splendid southeast view all the way to Makapu'u Point, we shared the last of our water supply. I congratulated my friend again, for his endurance, his patience, and most of all, his companionship.
Although the trail continued on from there, I decided we'd had enough for the day and began to backtrack along the route we had ascended. The trail cleared now, we could move more easily and quickly on the downward journey.
Thirty minutes later, we neared the trailhead. Seeming to recognize the lay of the land, the shep jogged ahead of me more often. Always, though, he waited for me to catch up. Was he waiting for me to show him the way? Or was he checking to see if I was all right?
When I reached my car, the dog paused momentarily by my side for what was to be my final pat. While I fumbled with a pocket in my pack to get my keys, the dog trotted off up the street. When I looked up again, he had disappeared. "Probably went home to get something to eat and drink," I thought.
That night, when I recounted my story to my brother, he asked me if I knew about the heiau in the area near the trail. "That was a spirit dog," he asserted. "He went along with you to make sure you were safe on your hike."
Goose bumps appeared on my arms. Was my brother right? A hardcore skeptic, I knew the dog was real. He was there with me. I touched his silky coat, heard him pant, saw him dashing about, felt him lap water from my hand. Or did I? Was he really a spirit, an aumakua shielding me from harm?
Although I may never find out, I do know that I couldn't have had a better hiking partner than that exquisite, steadfast, and loyal animal--real or otherwise--that accompanied me on my hike along Kokokahi Ridge.
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