Whether I’m in my wheelchair, road bike, mountain bike, or car . . . my dog Bernie is always by my side. He’s my sidecar.
Before Bernie, my life was one of unapologetic freedom. I was early in my career as a wildlife biologist, flitting between seasonal jobs to make ends meet while wholly recognizing and appreciating the unrivaled freedom of a life of little structure or responsibility.
Growing up, Anna Soens was the reason her family had a dog. After Tyson, a sweet but eternally hungry (trash- and cabinet-raiding) lab mix, passed away at almost 15, she knew her life was too unpredictable and wayward to add a new furry companion. After college, Anna was living and working full-time off the grid in some of the most remote corners of Nevada. Working as a wildlife biology field tech meant getting paid to literally camp, hike, and investigate mountain lion kills. “Home” was a tent, pickup truck, or work trailer. Working two weeks on, one week off, Anna spent almost all of her free time trad climbing throughout California, Utah, and Nevada. Thoughts about what her future looked like or what she might do with it felt overwhelming, so instead, she relished in a rootless existence and all the exploration, opportunity, and ability that came with it.
In 2015, my world of perpetual movement came to an abrupt standstill. I took a 35-foot fall while climbing – pulverizing the lowest thoracic vertebrae in my back. As some of the shock began to ebb away amidst the blinding pain, I remember the terrifying moment when I realized my legs weren’t responding.
When Anna broke her back, paraplegia was secondary in her mind. As she desperately pleaded with her legs to twitch or flicker, she was consumed with the need for them to carry her back to the places she loved most: the peaks of the Sierra Nevada mountains, up the fissures of Moab’s sandstone walls, and across the talus fields and through the gnarled arms of Nevada’s endless seas of sage. The stillness of her feet was merely the quiet, tangible evidence of the lost freedom and ransacked identity that she was mourning – her ability to find escape and peace in these favorite places was lost in an instant. Anna was devastated and terrified. Hating the straight lines of the corners of the hospital room and the constant barrage of lights and beeps at all hours of the day and night, she longed to wake up in her tent again and brush this nightmare away with the sleep from her eyes. From her laptop, Anna escaped the hospital room by devouring photos, trip reports, and climbing route beta – with the new hunger of a caged dog.
After taking a year off to focus on physical therapy and relearn everything from using the bathroom to driving a car, I accepted a job with the US Fish and Wildlife Service in Boise, Idaho. And, for the first time in several years, my life was stable enough that adopting a dog didn’t feel completely irresponsible.
In 2017, I found a quiet, fuzzy black bear of a dog at a shelter in Boise. He was about a year old and had been picked up as a stray in eastern Idaho. He’d clearly had no training and had likely never lived indoors before. Under his limited shelter notes were the words: perfect dog.
Though perfection may be open to interpretation, Bernie is undeniably the most loyal, devoted creature I’ve ever shared my life with. Wherever I am is the only place he wants to be. And for the months and years after I adopted him, that’s exactly where he’s been.
Slowly, Anna stumbled upon the world of adaptive sports through the non-profit organization, Oregon Adaptive Sports (OAS). Finding herself in awe of athletes who were climbing, skiing, and mountain biking in a style she’d never seen before gave her hope for the future for the first time since her fall. They were getting after it – and Anna was pumped. OAS was instrumental in helping Anna become independent and active outdoors again, while connecting her with the Bend, OR, community – which she now calls home. She became fixated by the three-wheeled adaptive mountain bikes that easily crawled over rock and trail. If her legs couldn’t get her back into the wilds, Anna knew her arms and this bike would. In 2017, with the help of grants, she was able to fund her own Reactive Adaptations handcycle and regain some of her lost freedom and autonomy. She’s taken it (and Bernie!) to a mountain bike festival in Targhee, a technical riding camp in Moab, a women’s crush-fest in Sun Valley, and has used it to access climbing at Smith Rock. It’s allowed her to race against other handcyclists, hike with able-bodied friends, and run Bernie for miles through the Boise foothills and Central Oregon singletrack.
At a time when my life and my future felt like they had shattered into pieces and I was trying to pick them back up, Bernie was the furry, steadfast presence of love and thrill that allowed me to hold it together and eventually build something even better than I had.
On road trips between Idaho and Oregon, cycling across Utah slickrock, postholing through snow in the Sierra, running rivers down class IV rapids, or melting into my lap on the couch, Bernie is my most eager and dependable companion in everything I do.