I asked Janet to share the news with the Northwapiti list yesterday that Orion was gone, as it was just too hard for me to do. Thanks Janet - and my thanks for crying with me at the vet clinic and driving me home. It helped a lot and I am grateful. Things are still very painful, as I really don't believe that this vibrant, amazing animal is gone - but I'm going to attempt to tell the story.
Early yesterday morning Orion appeared to be maintaining well - he was obviously no better, but didn't seem much worse either. I walked him and gave him his first round of medication. At 8:30 when I called the vet and gave them an update on his condition, there we a few signs that he might be deteriorating - his temperature, which had been very high the day prior had taken a significant drop and was now a touch below normal; he appeared to be breathing harder then yesterday; and he had vomited up a bunch of the water I had let him drink earlier. I thought it was because I had let him drink too much all at once.
We talked about the option of a whole blood transfusion, again looking to buy him some more time so the drugs could 'kick in' - although in reality, all the meds hadn't even slowed down his condition yet, but we weren't really discussing that. Between phone calls to the vet I kept going downstairs to check on Orion and it was becoming obvious that he was starting to go downhill. When the vet talked about getting pre-screened, 'clean' blood shipped up from the lower 48 for a transfusion, I indicated I didn't think we had that much time, whatever we did had to be done that day. While the vet looked to clear his schedule, we got in touch with Natalie's son and daughter in law to ask if they had a young healthy dog we could use for a transfusion. They graciously offered two dogs.
A trip down to check on Orion moved everything into frantic mode - he was 'crashing'. Orion was loaded in the truck and covered with blankets. For a moment then I thought we had lost him, as he became very unresponsive. In my heart, at this point, I knew he was leaving us. When we got to the vet, he looked a little brighter, although he was still obviously a dog in critical condition. The vet was willing to do the transfusion, but when I asked him what the chance of it helping Orion, he indicated he was almost 100% sure it wasn't going to save him, "...but we can try if you want", he said. Through tears I was debating the options. I asked Brian if Orion was his pet, what would he do? Before he could answer, Orion did - he arched his back and made a whining moan. I've never heard him whine before, except in excitement. I asked if he was in pain and was told it would now be like he was being held underwater and unable to breath. I made the decision that moment that he be freed from pain and fear and be euthanized.
With my head against his and me whispering in his ear, this once beautiful, strong athlete left us. He was 6 years old, a main leader, a finisher of Iditarod, Race to the Sky, John Beargrease Marathon, Grand Portage Passage, Knik 200, Klondike 300 and more. This season alone he had traveled 1400 miles of trail with me.
Yesterday afternoon I took a 10 dog team out for a run. In lead was Orion's brother, Draco. As we sailed around the spectacular trails near Willow, I could see shades of Orion in his teammates. I remembered 'postcards' of him in harness - when he first stepped up as a leader in 2001 at the Grand Portage race, his exuberant, 'pointy teeth' grin when we stopped for a break. I know this sounds foolish, but the way the late day light was playing off the dogs, I could have swore there was a spot of light traveling down the trail with us. I know I could feel him.
He is being cremated and I've already decided where his ashes will go. Last year on Iditarod we had a spectacular run from Galena to Nulato on a cold, crisp morning. We were fresh off our 24 hour break and the dogs were raring to run. Ironically, I don't remember who the other leader was, but I remember Orion being up front and remember stopping to give them all a snack. Orion was rolling around in the snow and grinning a big Siberian grin. It was so obvious that he was loving what he was doing. His passion for the trail shone from inside. That's how I will remember him and that's where his ashes will go.
You were so, so loved, my friend.