Eric Atherton: Family vacation becomes canine reunion

Last week my family finally got around to visiting Iowa's most famous lake destination, Okoboji. We rented a house in the city of Arnolds Park, less than 50 yards from its famous amusement park, and our kids could walk to the beach in less than 10...

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Chelsea, a 3-year-old Labrador retriever, carries a training dummy while Roxie, her 5-month old relative, follows on West Okoboji Lake at the waterfront in Arnolds Park, Iowa.

Last week my family finally got around to visiting Iowa's most famous lake destination, Okoboji. We rented a house in the city of Arnolds Park, less than 50 yards from its famous amusement park, and our kids could walk to the beach in less than 10 minutes.

With go-karts and mini golf just a stone's throw from our house, I expected to be able to turn the kids loose, leaving me free to find out what kind of fish I could catch from the public docks that extend more than 50 yards into the lake.

But there was one variable I hadn't considered — my dog.

I've never vacationed with a dog before, but this time it was a no-brainer. I couldn't stand the thought of being separated from five-month-old Roxie for a whole week, and I figured that this would be a good chance for her to get some good water work.

I was right on that count, but what I hadn't counted on was how much of a social magnet a young Labrador retriever could be.


Center of attention

Everywhere I went with Roxie, she was mobbed by children and their parents. The kids would pet her, let her lick their faces and sometimes get down on their knees to hug her while I chatted with their parents. There's just something about a white, half-grown Lab with an ever-wagging tail that makes people smile, and I would be lying if I didn't admit that I enjoyed the attention she received. Given a choice between fishing or spending time with Roxie on the waterfront, I quickly decided that the latter was more fun.

Then there were the other dogs we encountered. Iowa is famous for having an abundance of Labs for pheasant hunting and waterfowling, but I wasn't prepared for what I encountered. When I'd take Roxie to the lakeshore at 6 a.m., there usually were at least a couple guys already there, working their retrievers. By the time the dogs were done introducing themselves to each other and the other owners, we were all soaked and sandy, but no one seemed to mind. By week's end, I'd encountered at least a dozen Labs ranging in age from 6 months to 16 years, and nearly all of them were hunting dogs.

But the truly amazing encounter happened the day we arrived at the lake. I took Roxie down to stretch her legs while I scouted out entertainment and dining options, and almost immediately I was greeted by a tan gentlemen named Tim Marler, owner of Extreme Water Sports (he later would captain the boat that took my kids parasailing, but that's another story).

"Can I ask where you got your dog?" he asked as he looked at Roxie.

"A kennel in eastern Iowa, near Manchester," I said.

"JNJ Kennels, right?" he said. "I've got a 3-year-old Lab from there, too."

Within a few minutes, we'd determined that his dog, Chelsea, was a full sister — probably a litter mate — of Roxie's mother, Bella. So, although I've never heard the term applied to dogs, Roxie was Chelsea's niece.


A few days later, Tim brought Chelsea down to the lake for a family reunion of sorts, and after some uncertain nose-sniffing, Roxie and Chelsea soon were fighting for toys and playing a robust, big-splashing game of leap-frog in the lake. A dozen people stopped to watch the show, and another Lab, a 6-month-old named Jersey, joined the fray with such energy that Roxie occasionally would hide under a dock for a brief respite from the roughhousing.

By the time we left the beach, Roxie was as tired as she has ever been.

Who's your daddy?

The next day, we left Roxie at the house and took the kids on a much-anticipated trip to "The Sugar Shack," where we loaded up on fudge, rock candy and gummy worms.

When we left the store, I immediately saw a big, pure-white Lab sticking its head out of an SUV's window. A lady sat in the front seat, and my daughter, Alissa, immediately went over to check out the dog. I followed, introduced myself and asked, "Where did you get your Lab?"

"A kennel near Manchester," she said.

Yep, I'd stumbled into another of Roxie's relatives. They share the same father — Buddy, a big, energetic, square-headed fellow who looks as if he could go through a brick wall if the need arose.

So now I'm plotting a family reunion. I figure that next summer, we can use social media to spread the word that all owners of JnJ Labs should gather on a certain day at a park in Cedar Falls, Iowa. I'm trying to imagine the fun of seeing a dozen or more pure-white Labs and perhaps twice that many kids engaging in a furry free-for-all.


If there's a lake around, it's a safe bet that no one will go home clean and dry. And I don't think anyone will mind one bit.

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