By Sammi Johnson

At first glance, she could have been one of the bear cubs running amok that summer. The berry crop in the mountains was dismal and had forced all the bears down low. Seeing them in the West Glacier area that 2004 summer was commonplace.

But, upon closer inspection, this bear cub lookalike was actually a shivering, wet, abandoned black puppy.

Basically still puppies ourselves, my now husband, then newly minted boyfriend, Ty, and I had made seasonal life in West Glacier our norm. As a rookie raft guide, my days were spent outside, on the river and carefree.

With each of us working at various seasonal job outposts with seemingly endless daylight to play and a very short to-do list, this summer was one to remember. So, the thought of adding to our short list of responsibilities a stray, whining, cute, soft, adorable puppy was … hard.

We made “lost puppy” signs, put ads in the paper and asked all of our raft guide and park friends if they needed a dog. We were serious — we weren’t meant to have a dog.

As soon-to-be college kids returning to Missoula, we needed a dog like we needed a hole in the head. The obstacles were plenty and the reasons we couldn’t keep this dog were endless. We weren’t living together and one of us would need a place to rent (with a dog, gasp). I also didn’t consider myself a dog person and didn’t envision having one.

We traveled a lot, skied a lot, worked hard, played hard and were just soooo busy, where would a puppy fit in?

We finally found another raft guide couple to say yes to the dog, only for us to freak out on the day of dog delivery and completely rescind our offer. We threw reason and caution to the wind and kept her: Ryder.

As you do in life, you bend, adjust and make it normal, as we did with Ryder. She was a whiny, skeptical dog who barked at strangers, loved to run and defended Ty and me to the end. A good friend once said: “Ryder loves two things. Sammi and Tyrel. The end.”

Ryder’s soft ears, addiction to retrieving balls and sticks, and sweet brown eyes warmed our hearts, and she has been a huge part of our lives for 13 years. She started out life a little rough — abandoned on the side of the road only to be hit by a car a few short months later, crushing her pelvis.

We were devastated, but somehow she recovered. We had about 10 bucks between us and spent everything on her vet bills and recovery. We tended, mended and fretted over her until her new puppy bones healed and she made a full recovery. It was modern-day miracle to our young college eyes.

She symbolizes our relationship’s arc of adolescence to adulthood. She foreshadowed a life full of kids, which brought more whining in different forms and more unconditional love. She recovered from her traumatic start and broken body to thrive, training for half marathons with me, running in the hills, chasing deer, swimming in all the lakes and sneaking onto all the beds.

She loved to rest her head on your shoulder while driving, to see what we were seeing, and be next to us on road trips long or short. Dog was literally my co-pilot.

Ryder recently passed away, and the emotions are still very raw. It’s been immensely sad for us, more than I could have ever imagined. I tear up at the thought and memory of her. Our kids loved her, although she kept a safe distance from their antics. Before we had our kids, Ryder proved that pets are the perfect training ground for responsibility.

To make Ryder comfortable in her last days, my daughter would prop her up with her most prized possessions. She’d provide Ryder with her kitty and white blanky as a pillow and bed buddy to offer comfort and love, and to make her feel at ease. That memory will also be engrained in our hearts and minds forever. Thank you, Ryder.

Sammi is a mother, wife, business owner and marketing director at the Flathead Beacon in Kalispell. Contact her at sammi@flatheadbeacon.com.