LYNDEN - When Lori and Dennis Brown wake up to a new day with their dog Charlie, they marvel at what a combination of faith, technology and the goodwill of friends and strangers can do.
Charlie, their 7-year-old female black Lab/springer spaniel, went missing June 15 in the wilds of Whatcom County. When the Browns were reunited with him Aug. 9, dozens of people had become involved in a complex web they perceive as a miracle and their version of the classic Disney "Homeward Bound" movies.
Lori, who works for Lynden Door, and Dennis, who works for the Lynden Tribune, are both 55 and have lived locally for 35 years. They have loved Charlie since they first saw her as a tiny puppy.
Question: How did Charlie become lost?
Dennis: Our friend Ron Holtrop took his dog Indy and Charlie on a hike at 4,000 feet elevation on a logging road off the North Fork Road on June 15. When Indy returned from exploring but Charlie didn't, Ron searched three hours for Charlie. When he told me, we searched for three more hours.
Lori: Ron was devastated; he and Dennis are like brothers.
Q: What was the initial search like?
Lori: Co-workers of our employers expressed so much concern and went out searching, too. They tacked up posters and I put a notice on craigslist.
Q: How hard was it without Charlie?
Lori: We never gave up hope of finding Charlie, but now we have two dogs and we couldn't be happier! I had always wanted a golden retriever since I was a girl, and in July we got Annie Lou from a breeder in Eastern Washington. Then I realized I should put Charlie on Facebook.
In late July we found a voicemail from Ben Smith, a guy who lives in Puyallup but was working on a project in Maple Falls. He had put an elk camera up in a tree, and he took our poster and told us he was pretty sure the camera had pictures of Charlie, because these guys in a gravel pit told Ben about Charlie being lost. Charlie kept showing up in pictures in Ben's camera, so we knew he was alive.
Dennis: I left food, dog toys and a shirt near the camera. More people searched but couldn't find Charlie. Our friend Ryan Oppewaal located the camera, since Ben was traveling back and forth from Puyallup, and did a computer chart based on the times of the photos.
Q: Was Charlie always in the pictures?
Lori: I panicked because Charlie didn't show up in the pictures Aug. 6 and 7. The next day, two young people from Blaine, Justin and Lisa, were hiking where Boulder Creek runs into the Nooksack. They saw Charlie stuck on a sandbar (about 15 miles from the elk camera). Right then, they see rafters and the rafters see Charlie. The hikers and the rafters both think Charlie belongs to the others.
Dennis: The hikers tell the story at Crossroads Grocery in Maple Falls and they're told they need to talk with a local woman who helps animals, Sage Skeels. Right then, Sage walks in and she and the rafters drove back to the river hoping Charlie was still there and that they could rescue her. They bribed her with a steak! Sage had seen our poster, so she took Charlie.
Q: When were you reunited?
Lori: On Aug. 9. Sage had found our number. Sage sent me a e-mail picture of Charlie. I was in the Lynden Safeway and I started screaming! I knew instantly it was Charlie.
Dennis: When Lori showed me the picture I started crying like a baby. When we met up with Sage in Maple Falls, Charlie starts barking and we both just went nuts! When we put Charlie in our truck, she let out a big sigh and went to sleep.
It was amazing how she found her way down safely from 4,000 feet. After all that time in the wild, she was healthy, except she had lost one-third of her body weight. The vet asked Charlie, "What have you been eating up there?"
Lori: There's no way anyone but God could have orchestrated all the events that led to Charlie's return. Charlie loves having company in Annie Lou. And we can't say anything more than "thanks" to all the many people who helped us bring Charlie back home. We're not Charlie's owners; we're family!
Michelle Nolan is a Bellingham freelance writer.