The Last of the Pilot Hounds, by David Nees

#dogs #new england #pilot hound

Growing up, the family had a cottage in McGregor Bay. McGregor Bay is an archipelago of islands, channels and bays. It is off Georgian Bay which juts out from the north side of Lake Huron. McGregor Bay contains a small, close community of cottages and lodges all connected by the sheltered waterways. In these waterways there was a post office and a general store that sold groceries, some marine hardware and clothes. There was a fuel dock as well. The community came to the store to pick up their mail, get supplies, buy gasoline or kerosene and share local news. This was what you would 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 McGregor Bay community. You parked your car at the “landing” and came into your cottage by boat. While there, you went everywhere by boat. The bush, away from the shore, was impassible.

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 overboard, left trash about and generally were not friendly when encountering the cottagers. Unfortunately, as with most stereotypes, the worst defined the group.

Well, I had a childhood dog, a stray I brought home from school in the seventh grade. She was beagle-sized. I called her Queenie, a prescient name given by her young “owner”. The vet called her a mixed terrier. She had a cream white coat, sweet disposition and quickly established herself as the queen of the family. She was friendly, loyal and fiercely brave. She traveled with the family every summer to the bay.

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, and, if the boat didn’t leak badly, it stayed dry from spray. If we went anywhere, Queenie would jump in the boat, insisting to go along. As the boat motored away, she would run up onto the 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 tipping. I saw her crouch down, almost going overboard, only a couple of times in all the summers we spent together on the water.

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. At the store, Queenie trotted 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 lined up to pay for his groceries, an Ohio fisherman, standing in front of him, remarked about Queenie.

“Funny looking dog. That your dog?” he said with some disdain in his voice. Maybe he had a German Shepherd back home—a real man’s dog—but who knows?

Now Louis was an ex-army colonel who had spent the war years (WWII) in the arctic. In his youth 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.”

The Ohio fisherman looked at him incredulously. “You got to be kidding. That’s just a mutt.”

“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.

“Well that proves what I said. You don’t know much about dogs. Let me educate you.”

By now the conversations in the store died down and people began to turn to look at Louis. “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, especially off the Maine coast.

“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 this 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.”

“Well, I’m not surprised. You come from Ohio and you wouldn’t know about sailing off the New England coast, especially all its perils.”

The man harrumphed in defense of his ignorance.

Louis continued: “Mister, I don’t tell tales, I don’t tell stories. Now you’ve insulted my dog, but instead of taking offence, I’m trying to educate you. But look. You don’t have to believe me on the basis of my story alone. You just watch from the docks when I depart. 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, 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. “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 seagulls hung out on the shoal that they were going to pass.

Queenie hated sea gulls. They were impertinent and always flew into her territory. She was queen of the cottage and the little peninsula on which it sat. No animal or bird was allowed to be there unchallenged. Sea gulls however, ignored her, and worse, baited her into attacking, at which they would nonchalantly lift off into the air, laughing at her. Their unwillingness to accede to her authority and their bad manners only infuriated her more. 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 tail went up and she let out two sharp barks at the gulls that shook her frame.

Louis finished the motor boat ride home and thought no more about his encounter with the Ohio fisherman. However, that weekend, at the sailing races (the cottagers held informal sailboat races every Saturday), one of the men approached 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 in the bay felt a special pride in having the last of the Pilot Hounds in their community.

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