Oreo turns to the camera in response to the word "adventure" while exploring Ice Pond Preserve on Aug. 28, in Hancock. Credit: Aislinn Sarnacki / BDN

After keeping us company for hundreds of miles on hiking trails, Oreo, our canine family member, has embarked on his final adventure. He has headed over The Rainbow Bridge, to that idyllic place where many people believe their beloved pets wait for them in the afterlife.

We miss him terribly. And to all the BDN readers who have followed his journeys over the years, I know you will, too.

Starring in my weekly hiking videos and columns, Oreo reached so many people, sharing his infectious enthusiasm for the Maine outdoors. He had more friends than he would ever meet or know about. (Though I tried to tell him, “Oreo, you’re famous!”) He was a lucky dog.

Losing a dog, a best friend, is devastating. I know many of you will understand. Now there are empty spaces all through our house — and beside me when I hike. At first, it felt like there was a puppy-shaped hole in my heart, but for now I’m determined to fill that void with love for my lost friend, and all our many happy memories.

In a time of great loss, it helps to remember all that was given, all that was gained. Oreo gave my husband Derek and me so much love and joy, and we did our best to return the favor every single day.

From left (clockwise): BDN reporter Aislinn Sarnacki poses with her husband Derek Runnells and their dog, Oreo, while hiking at Shackford Head State Park in eastern Maine in May of 2019; Oreo hikes Green Lake Trails in Ellsworth in October of 2015; Oreo climbs up a steep trail on Sargent Mountain in Acadia National Park in October of 2016. Credit: Aislinn Sarnacki | BDN

During our many adventures, Oreo reveled in his time outdoors. He loved scrambling up rocky mountain slopes, rolling on soft beds of moss, trotting across bog bridges and sleeping in a tent … with me, the both of us crammed into my mummy sleeping bag, somehow.

At home, Oreo enjoyed splashing in his kiddie pool, even though he had been afraid of water when we first adopted him. He loved lying in the sun in our herb garden and going for long walks through the woods, down to the stream. On the back deck, he often climbed up into the hammock with me, lying on my chest in a gesture that appeared so loving that it’d make Derek and I burst into laughter.

Every night, Oreo had a routine. After Derek and I climbed in bed, he’d wait a couple of minutes, then jump up. He’d crawl up between us, then slowly, ever so slowly, he’d lean against me and slide down onto his side. He could never get quite close enough. Sometimes kisses were involved. Oreo gave and received countless kisses. He also knew how to hug — and slowly edge me off the bed in the middle of the night.

Oreo wasn’t a perfect dog. The first months of his life are a mystery, but left many scars. He was 7 months old when Derek and I adopted him from the Bangor Humane Society. We weren’t expecting to drive home with a pet that day, but Oreo, sitting patiently behind a chain link door, stole our hearts.

He was a scrawny pit bull mix with a big head that looked goofy on his petite frame. He had intelligent brown eyes, soft black-and-white hair and a chunk missing out of one floppy ear. His muzzle was comically pink, and the soft skin on his hairless chest was dotted with big black spots. The very tip of his tail was white, as if dipped in paint.

I remember the first few days of dog ownership. As he followed me around our apartment, I feared I’d do something wrong. What, I’m not exactly sure. I was just nervous to own a dog. But it didn’t take long for Oreo to become a part of our small family. Even our two house cats embraced — well, tolerated — him. Then it became hard to imagine a life without our rambunctious little dog.

From left (clockwise): Derek Runnells of Dedham holds his dog Oreo while hiking on the Richardson Tract in Orrington in December of 2018; BDN reporter Aislinn Sarnacki and her dog Oreo enjoy the view on Schoodic Head on March 26, 2014, in Acadia National Park on Schoodic Peninsula; Oreo licks ice from his muzzle while exploring the Holden Community Trails in February of 2015. Credit: Aislinn Sarnacki | BDN; Courtesy of Derek Runnells.

Seven and half years flew by, with Oreo at our sides. With Derek and me, Oreo found love and security and adventure. Together, we explored more than 200 different hiking trails scattered throughout Maine, and along the way, I wrote a dog-friendly hiking guide and dedicated it to him. We also created a rubber stamp of his paw-print so he could “sign” books for fans.

We dressed up for Halloween together in homemade costumes. When Derek and I dressed up as characters from the fantasy series Game of Thrones, Oreo was our dragon. When I dressed up as Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea, Oreo was my fish. On Valentine’s Day one year, Oreo helped Derek and me build a snow fort. His digging actually helped. And on Christmas, he was always so excited to stick his nose inside his stocking to find treats and squishy balls to chew.

There are so many little things I’ll remember about Oreo that make me smile. He always smelled good to me, a little bit like honey. He cocked his head to the side when I spoke to him. And he once got so excited about something he jumped right up onto the kitchen table.

Oreo wasn’t particularly old when he got sick, but as my husband pointed out to me, he had a lot of miles on him — hundreds of happy miles in the wilderness.

Oreo stands on some boulders above small waterfalls on April 4, near our home. Credit: Aislinn Sarnacki / BDN

In his last days, Oreo felt cared for and loved. He was sick for some time — we’re still not exactly sure what with — but he declined quickly, which I think is a good thing. An energy-packed dog like that wouldn’t have wanted to be bedridden long.

His final hike (on Earth at least) was on the trail near our home, a place he always loved. A world of thick moss, sunlight, bubbling brooks, waterfalls and giant boulders, it was Oreo’s playground. And even though he didn’t feel great that day, he was still sniffing around for squirrels. I imagine he continues that intense search up in doggy heaven. He nearly caught one once. Its fluffy tail was trapped in Oreo’s teeth, then, with a wide-eyed look of surprise, Oreo let it go. And away the squirrel went. Derek will always chuckle at that memory.

Everyone says goodbye differently. Derek and I chose to be there for Oreo’s last breaths. We held him. We kissed him. We said his favorite words: Adventure. Hiking. Squirrel. Good boy.

And of course, we told him we loved him, so many times. We could never say it enough. It’s love — pure, unwavering love — that is the biggest gift a dog offers. And it’s the biggest gift we can give in return. He made it easy.

I like to think Oreo is scouting the trail ahead, searching for squirrels and streams to splash in, and we’ll see him again some day. Until then, we’ll hold him close, in our hearts.

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Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn is a Bangor Daily News reporter for the Outdoors pages, focusing on outdoor recreation and Maine wildlife. Visit her main blog at actoutwithaislinn.bangordailynews.com.