Coya in the Chugach Mountains

The song of a robin drifts through an open window, deepening memories that have flooded my being this June 8 morning, memories of another, much more sorrowful June day, now eight years past.

I love the melodies that robins sing in spring and early summer. They seem to me among the sweetest sounds born upon our planet. But they sometimes have a soulful aspect, because I heard a robin singing, clear and strong, on the last walk I ever took with Coya, a mixed collie who entered my life in 2006.

I’d met Coya through Helene, newly my sweetheart, whose Anchorage “family” also included a black whippet mix, Blue, and a cat named Kitty Boy. Helene explained that Coya and Kitty Boy had once been best buddies, but the entry of Blue into the household changed the dynamics. Coya immediately took to Blue and largely abandoned Kitty Boy.

Coya also took to me and we quickly bonded. Helene didn’t mind, because Coya had never really warmed up to her. When Helene later decided to take a job in Oregon, she asked if I’d like Coya to stay in Anchorage with me. To be honest, the suggestion surprised me and I hesitated (that hesitation lasting a day or two).

Though a “dog guy” all my life, I’d never had a dog of my own and, over the years, had largely given up the idea I ever would. Besides that, I had other responsibilities, most notably the care of my increasingly frail mother.

After agonizing a bit (something that’s part of my nature), I agreed to welcome Coya into my own family life, one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

Coya seemed to happily embrace her new circumstances and our bond, already strong, grew even deeper. She became my primary hiking and hill-climbing buddy and over the next several years we shared many adventures in the Chugach Front Range, as well as in Anchorage’s parks and greenbelts.

I think it was during that period I began staying closer to home, both because of my mom’s needs and the fact that I hated to leave Coya behind while going on trips that she couldn’t join.

Besides our shared adventures, with me Coya was a warm, affectionate dog. She could also be a stubborn gal, so we had our share of disagreements, but her love—I don’t know what else to call it—brightened my life, even as she helped broaden my horizons while I traveled less. She added a new dimension to my world and, in no small way, changed my daily routines and the way I interact with the nature of my adopted hometown. And she deepened my understanding of the strong connections that can be made between species.

Anyone who’s had a beloved canine companion knows what I mean when I say Coya became a cherished member of my family.

In early 2012, Coya turned 11, yet I didn’t think of her as “old.” She still had lots of energy and loved to roam the mountains, even if she had slowed down a bit. Then, in spring of that year, she got sick.

It turned out Coya had a rare and virulent cancer. After considerable testing and eventually lab work from outside the state, her doctor, a skilled and compassionate veterinarian named Scott Rapp, told me that even with aggressive treatment, Coya might live only a few months. I made the hard decision to not put her through that.

Some steroid medications helped to give her a short-lived boost. But even with that, our walks got much shorter, and most days we simply did neighborhood strolls. And we spent a lot of quiet time together in the house, in the yard.

On June 7, Coya and I took a short walk on the Coastal Trail. Much of that walk is now a blur, but I do remember that Coya seemed happy, even eager, to be out exploring a favorite trail. And I remember the robin.

Somehow that robin’s song imprinted itself in my heart and, I suppose, in my soul, because I can still hear the bird’s warbled notes, coming from high in a tree along the trail, while Coya and I walked slowly together beneath it.

That night, Coya’s condition worsened. She clearly was suffering and neither one of us got any sleep. Cuddling with her on the living room couch, I knew it was time.

I comforted her as best I could those final difficult hours, then early the next morning, before “business hours,” I called Cornerstone Animal Hospital. When Scott Rapp happened to be the one who answered the phone, I couldn’t hide my sorrow. Sobbing quietly, I could barely get the words out: “I need to bring Coya in.”

She was euthanized the morning of June 8, 2012, leaving a huge hole in my life. Not long after, friends encouraged me to get another dog, but I wasn’t ready. I needed to grieve. I told them I’d know when the time—and the new dog—was right. A year later, Denali came into my life.

This lifelong dog lover feels incredibly blessed, to have had his later years enriched by two sweet, loving, and high-spirited mountain-rambling dogs. And today I honor the memory of that first dog, Coya, who enriched my life in ways I never could have imagined.

Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit is a widely published essayist and the author of more than a dozen books, including “Living with Wildness: An Alaskan Odyssey” and “Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife.” Readers wishing to send comments or questions directly to Bill may do so at

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