Summer. In a matter of days, the weather just might start acting like the season it’s headed toward, rather than a daily game of weather roulette. We all know that spring in the Rockies is as unpredictable as—dare I say—the weather. A Monday can start out feeling balmy with a slight breeze that can quickly turn into a Tuesday that looks like Switzerland in February; followed by three days in a row of low 70s. Dogs go from happily absorbing rays of sun on the deck (let the shedding begin) to curling up nose to tail as close to the fireplace as they can get.

“Memories were being made right there under the stars with chocolatey smiles and sticky hands and a slobbery, happy dog.”

Let’s face it, around this time we all get weary of winter weather. We want to plant flowers and hang hammocks. We want to take hikes and hang out at Evergreen Lake concerts. We’ve glared with growing disdain at the snow boots parked next to the flip flops at the front door. We’ve scurried inside lugging the plants we planted too soon. We’ve kept our down jackets next to our T-shirts, not quite trusting that we won’t need them again this season. And we’ve vacillated between long walks with our dogs to opening the door just long enough to let them out to do their business. We’ve paid our dues—dog and human; we want the reward.

Dogs everywhere have been waiting for summer to hit and all the summer behaviors that follow. This is the season when humans inexplicably drag meat outside to cook on the grill. It’s when humans seem to suddenly live outside. Camping—the joy of all joys—happens in the summer. Camping is a dog’s best summer. Camping is filled with fantastic new smells to explore and sleeping all together by huddling on the ground in a heap. Camping means all household manners are thrown out completely. Our dogs especially enjoyed it when I’d toss pancake bits to them directly from the pan. That never happened at home. And how no dog was left behind. If someone was meandering away from the campsite, the dogs could come too. If there was kayaking on a pond, the dogs could come too, sometimes going for a ride.

The last camping trip we took with our big Labrador, Merlin, was memorable, to say the least. We were car camping, which means all the luxuries were on board, including toys: shotguns for skeet shooting, BB guns for target shooting at the campsite, kayaks, rock climbing gear, and lots of dog toys. Oh, the dog was never forgotten. A large bag of pigs’ ears came along, too, distributed generously, unlike at home. There was a reason for that: they caused alarming digestive distress, and no one wanted to be cooped up inside with a gassy Merlin. Out in the open air was no problem. Another reason for this dog to view camping season as the best thing ever!

Always on the lookout for a fun new dog toy, that year we found an amazing ball that when twisted in just such a way would display flashing lights. It also glowed in the dark, and if twisted another way would chirp in three different patterns. It arrived with a bonus vanilla rubber scent that Merlin found irresistible. Fetch was Merlin’s game. He lived for fetch. Stick, Frisbee, rope—if it was tossed, it was retrieved. But this wondrous thing was no stick. This was a whole new world in the game of fetch. When night fell, we presented the ball. It had been soaking up sunlight for hours and the first time Merlin saw it, it was glowing. He pranced from foot to foot, his hind legs sprung. He knew what a ball meant: fetch. And with so many people just sitting around the campfire, it also meant that the game would go on and on.

Across from the campsite was a field. It was riddled with prairie dog holes, so not ideal to run around in, but for Merlin, it presented no problem. That’s where we tossed it. Never mind toss, we hurled it far out into the darkness. Merlin started running before it ever left the hand. And he brought it back at an awesome speed. He’d then pick the next thrower by rolling the spit-covered ball out of his mouth into that person’s lap or onto their shoes. Hint taken. That thrower might toss it short (depending on age) or give it a good long throw back out into the field. After several rounds of this, the ball was given a twist and it displayed flashing lights and began to chirp. Merlin went nuts.

The whole family was there—kids, parents, and some friends too. And, of course, the smiling dog. The campfire crackled and marshmallow sticks came out to make s’mores. Between Merlin’s frequent returns with the ball, there was storytelling and a lot of giggling. Memories were being made right there under the stars with chocolatey smiles and sticky hands and a slobbery, happy dog.

Suddenly, we realized that Merlin hadn’t come back in a while. We called him. No answer. We called again. Still no answer. We all got quiet and listened. That’s when we heard it: the distinctive sound of digging, paired with distressed chuffing. No chirping could be heard. We exchanged knowing looks. Oh no! Merlin had lost the ball. No doubt it went down a hole and he was desperately trying to dig it out. Merlin’s black coat meant he blended into the darkness. We grabbed flashlights and spotted him doing just what we imagined. He had dug a hole large enough to obscure his head and shoulders, and he was not stopping. We called his name. He backed out of the hole to look in our direction, his face covered in fine dirt. Then he plunged right back into the business of rescuing that wondrous ball.

We let the digging go on for a while. But eventually, we grew tired and ready to call it a night. After dousing the fire and making sure the food was secured, we were ready for our sleeping bags. We had to trudge out to the field and physically pull Merlin away from digging. He was on to his third hole by then and showed no signs of stopping. We brushed the dirt from his coat and forced him into the tent where he whined for freedom before finally giving way to sleep. In the morning, he bolted from the tent and went right back to it, stopping only for water breaks and food.

Sadly, he never recovered the ball. And try as we might, we never found a replacement. Even though it seemed like a sad and futile exercise to some, I’m not entirely sure that for Merlin, the digging wasn’t just as fun as the fetching. I will forever remember fondly that camping was that dog’s best summer—ball or no ball.