TELLURIDE – Two tragic tales about dogs and the people who love them united in a happy ending last week when Oof, the 100-pound “teddy bear” of a dog who recently lost his owner to a massive rockslide on El Diente, found a new home in Telluride with a woman whose own canine companion was killed in a freak hiking accident.
Kacey Long was mourning the Friday, Sept. 24 death of Neko, her 5-year old Siberian Husky who went everywhere with her, when word quickly spread throughout Telluride’s humming grapevine that a Kuvasz- or Great Pyrenees-mix with an affinity for hiking was destined for the Cortez pound unless someone stepped in to intervene.
Oof had accompanied his owner, John Merrill of Cortez, up El Diente, where the second fatal rockslide of the summer in that area claimed Merrill’s life on Sunday, Sept. 26. While it is unclear whether Merrill reached the summit before his death, it was to have been his fifteenth summit of a peak over 14,000 feet.
With a rescue helicopter unavailable, and aware that Merrill had not survived the accident, San Miguel County Sheriff’s Office personnel and Search and Rescue volunteers were unable to recover Merrill’s body until the following day, Monday, Sept. 27, leaving Oof overnight on the mountain in a precipitous spot directly above “a pretty substantial drop,” said Todd Rector, one of three rescuers who brought the dog to safety.
“He was in the exact same spot as he had been the night before,” he said. “He was stuck there pretty good.”
The rescuers eventually got the hungry and very thirsty dog down to a safe spot before boarding a helicopter that was forced to make an emergency landing.
Yet despite the heroic efforts made to save the dog’s life, because Merrill’s newly pregnant wife was planning to return to her native Central America and no other family or friends were available to take Oof, the family friend who collected Merrill’s remains and the dog was directed to deliver Oof to the pound.
But Oof never made it to the pound, because Rector and fellow rescuer Julie Hodson headed to Cortez the next day to bring him back to Telluride, where inquiries about him were already picking up speed.
As the drama surrounding Oof played out, Long, who moved to Telluride from North Carolina a year ago with her dog in search of a fresh start, was trying to recover from her own heartbreak.
She and a friend had been hiking the Alder Creek Trail with Neko and another dog for about 15 minutes when the unimaginable happened. The dogs took off running down a ravine, shortly after which Long heard Neko let out a horrible cry. The hikers made their way down to the injured dog, to find he had slammed into a tree chest first and cracked his sternum, she said.
“I laid down and put my arms around him and he took his last breath,” said Long.
“I was in complete disbelief and hysterical,” she continued, describing that day as the worst of her life.
The next few days were heart-wrenching for Long. Having lost her 11-year-old Siberian Husky named Sable to cancer last June, it was the first time her home had been empty in 12 years.
“So many people were so supportive and caring, coming by to check on me,” she said. “The people of Telluride are amazing.”
Hearing of Merrill’s death and the uncertain fate of his mountain companion, Long wondered what would happen to Oof. On Wednesday, Sept. 29, a friend showed her an email about Oof sent by local real estate agent Mary Fedorka that was making the cyber- rounds throughout town. The email advertised Oof as a large-breed young male “in good shape with a mellow disposition” and in need of a home.
“I immediately started to cry; he was heartbroken and so was I,” said Long. “I thought maybe we could comfort each other and help each other get through our tragedies.”
Two more people also told Long about Oof.
“It was like it was meant to be,” she said.
Long called Fedorka and told her the story. That same evening the friend who originally showed her Fedorka’s email drove her to meet Oof at his foster home in Ames.
“He came over to me and plopped down in my lap... he was so sweet,” Long said.
The following day Long took Oof to Trout Lake for a two-day camping trip she had planned, where the duo hiked, paddle boarded and had a great time getting to know each other, she said.
“He slept in the tent with me and took up the whole place,” she described. “He even woke me up with his loud snoring.”
Long said she entertained the idea of changing Oof’s name to Diente, but thought better of it.
“Oof is so appropriate,” she said, of his name. “He's the sweetest, most loveable, loyal dog around.
“I know that we’re both broken-hearted and we don't want to replace who we have lost, but it’s a wonderful thing that we were brought together. I am looking forward to many years of adventures with my new buddy Oof.”