Kathy and I live next to the Blue River Parkway in the Red Bridge area. Occasionally people either lose or abandon their dogs in the park and one day one such lost or abandoned dog showed up in our neighborhood. Kathy fed him once, and from that point on he knew no other home. Over the years, several different dog enthusiasts told us he was a British Black Lab, different from an American Black Lab, distinguishable by a large “otter like” tail. We named him Wags because of that large tail and his habit of enthusiastically wagging it whenever he met people or other dogs.
Wags really enjoyed visiting the woods along the Blue River. In the winter we could roam freely through the entire park. In the summer we would have to limit ourselves to the areas that we could walk without getting chiggers, ticks, and poison ivy. Even though Wags was a Lab, he was never much of a water dog. He would only tolerate swimming in the Blue River during the summer, and since he was too large to bathe in a tub at home, swimming in the Blue River was how we bathed him. If he came home covered in mud after a walk along the Blue River we would hose him down in the yard, not a favorite of his. Wags taught us that there are many ways to love a river. You don’t need to like swimming in it to enjoy the environment and the life sustained around and within it.
In the fall of 2007, Wags and I started a tradition. We would walk along as much of the Blue River as possible before spring, when the plants and bugs come to life. Our starting point was the location where the Blue crosses from Kansas into Missouri, near the community of Kenneth. We would walk maybe ½ mile or so along the river, remembering where we finished and then the next time we walked, we would start at that location and then cover another ½ mile or so. Every fall we would start over at the Kansas/Missouri border. Most years we would reach Swope Park. Some years we would get farther and some years we would fall short of Swope Park, but it was our tradition.
Along the way we would encounter an assortment of animals. Squirrels, deer, turkey, raccoons, and possums were common. Occasionally we would hear the high pitched howls of coyotes in the distance, with Wags occasionally responding and the coyotes immediately becoming silent. Apparently the howls of a larger canine caused them concern. One time Wags and I spotted a coyote 100 feet ahead of us on a trail walking towards us. I think that Wags, the coyote, and I were equally surprised. After a pause, Wags chased after it, which made me nervous. What if the animal was fleeing back to a large pack that would then turn aggressive towards Wags? After all, Wags did not hunt for a living and would probably not fare well against a wild pack. Wags returned after a few minutes, quite happy with himself and his new acquaintance. This was Wags’ most scary encounter with wildlife over the years as he didn't notice the bobcat I once saw hiding under a honeysuckle bush and he had no interest in playing with the occasional copperhead snake we would encounter.
The land along the Blue River contains hills and valleys, gullies, and obstacles such as downed trees. As Wags aged, we needed to walk shorter distances and walk along easier terrain. Our typical walk became one loop around Alex George Lake. This allowed him to walk in manicured grassy areas instead of wild forested ones. In recent years, several concrete-paved bike paths were constructed along the Blue River. These bike paths became increasingly desirable for our walks. As his stamina decreased during our walks he would reach a point where he just did not want to walk anymore. He would lie down, rest and enjoy being out in the park. He was too heavy to carry very far, so I began bringing a wagon that I could then pull him back to the car in. Though he resisted the wagon at first, it became a staple of our walks, making it possible for him to meet other dogs and keep up his social life. Wags passed away in October 2017 and we miss him. While the Blue River runs on, Wags runs through our minds, and the two will always be inextricably linked in our hearts.