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  • Maureen Chambley

Harley’s Big Splash

Updated: 4 days ago

The publicity photo of Babe is from an earlier victory, before she swept the field to win her first national field trial championship in June of 1996, days before we met. Her owner was and is a wealthy philanthropist and renowned dog handler who hired me to walk Babe every weeknight at 10pm. I was to fill in while he conducted a search for a new household staff member willing to accommodate Babe’s potty break schedule.


inset of champion black lab against trash-strewn wildness where the dog was walked.
Inset photo: Babe in a field trial publicity photo. Background photo: Schuylkill Banks on Facebook. The location is downriver from where I walked Babe. Imagine walking here in the dark surrounded by heavy summer growth.

I accepted the assignment because it was temporary. The owner insisted that 6-year-old Babe — and the occasional Lab-in-training — be walked down by the river rather than to the nearby park to avoid chance meetings with “ordinary” pets. He correctly assumed we would not stray far from the train tracks, but that didn't make the visits less creepy.


For decades the banks of the Schuylkill River (pronounced sko͞olkil, Dutch for “hidden river”) was a wilderness of scrub, dirt paths, tall grass, trash, and criminality. When we ventured toward the river we never knew what we were going to find. It helped a lot that the typical bad guy will go out of his way to avoid a big dog. And that Babe was so highly trained none of the nasty things she could perceive in the dark ever compromised her discipline. She knew why we were there and wasted no time getting down to business. Minutes later we would cross back to our clean, orderly, softly lit neighborhood to walk the seven blocks back to her house. All things considered, Babe was easy duty.


When a field Lab trainee stayed at Babe's house, walking the extra dog was not a problem because every dog I met had been trained from an early age to walk next to a handler after a braided poly slip lead was dropped over their heads. The dogs did not wear collars. They did not pull. And just like Babe, removing the slip lead on a gloomy river bank was their cue: it’s piddle time. After a few minutes listening to their movements, I would turn away from the river and depend on the light cast from distant windows to silhouette the dogs. Poly leads were placed over heads, dogs would move into heel position and we would head back. Until Harley came along, the routine was straightforward and uneventful.


FOUR VERY LONG MINUTES

Harley was not the dog's real name. Trainees rotated through my summer schedule for a night or two, never to be seen again. But I remember everything else about the ebullient, recklessly charming black Lab that accompanied us that hot summer night. By the time we reached the riverbank, I had been in Harley’s life about 15 minutes. On the walk to the river he stayed by my side though he was a little bouncy, behavior I chalked up to youthful enthusiasm.


Turned out to be more than that because the moment the lead slipped off his head, Harley rushed headlong toward the river. I stood in shocked disbelief as he disappeared into the gloom. Seconds later we heard the splash.


Locust Street entrance to Schuylkill Banks in 2002.
Photo: Schuylkill Banks on Facebook, Locust Street entrance circa 2002. The trees on the far side of the train tracks border the park. The asphalt path in the foreground is roughly where the old dirt path used to be and as far as I would venture with Babe and her occasional guests. In 1996 there were no fences or barriers on the river side of the tracks, only overgrown wildness that shielded disreputable human activity. The gold arrows represent Harley’s run to the river.

In those days the old bulkhead formed a solid edge level with the ground. Weedy growth tall enough to conceal a man and several stunted trees leaned over the edge shading the water black. That night was the only time in my life litter proved to be a good thing as it guided me to the bulkhead. I couldn’t see Harley and the constant flow of traffic along the opposite side of the river masked the sound of his movements. But somewhere down below was a possible future champion that couldn’t climb out.


Adding to our misfortune was an unfavorable tide. While fervently hoping I wouldn’t have to swim in a filthy river in the dark, I stretched out on my left side very close to the edge. Reaching down with my right arm I was ecstatic when my fingers touched the murky water. But my arm was dangling mere inches from the bulkhead while Harley’s running start put him in the river some distance away. For several frantic moments my fingers dipped and stirred hoping to draw Harley’s attention. It worked. After exploring with fingertips to find his neck, I gripped Harley’s scruff and pulled up as hard and as fast as I could, sliding his sopping wet body across my own as we rolled away from the river.


Drenched, elated, and smelly, Harley frisked like a puppy alternately shaking off dirty river water and windmilling his tail. Babe stood beyond the splash zone patiently waiting to leave. From beginning to end, the river dip, rescue, and Harley’s happy dance added about six extra minutes to our visit. A delay the owner asked about when we arrived back at the house. The answer produced a bucket of water and shampoo that I used to neutralize Harley’s stink. The next night it was just Babe and me.

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