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Kristi’s final run

Kristi Riverman, a dog musher and owner of Happy Tail Pet Wash, inspired smiles and tears from friends when she ran her dogs one last time
Photo by Buffy Pollock Kristi Riverman, driving, takes her dogs on a final run in the mountains, with her husband, Mike Ussary, and longtime friend and fellow musher Allyson Griffie.

Sounds of a seven-dog mushing team on a recent cold day sounded like little more than a pack of dogs and their two-legged cohorts living their best lives in the hills south of Medford.

The trademark squeal of Medford resident Kristi Riverman, longtime owner of Happy Tail Pet Wash in Medford, brought a smile to the faces of the dozen friends and family who showed up to witness the 60-year-old’s final run with her beloved mushing dogs.

While Riverman flashed her broad smile, a closer glance and occasional tears on loved ones’ faces yielded clues to a year of hard-fought battles.

Diagnosed with cancer in July 2020, Riverman endured rounds of chemo and surgery. A lung condition forced closure of her decade-old Happy Tails Pet Wash in March, but she headed into summer with a hopeful prognosis and travel plans with husband, Mike Ussary. Sadly, followup scans this summer put her final plans on a fast track as her cancer returned with a vengeance. Faced with immunotherapy and further treatment suggestions, Riverman opted for a summer of “quality over quantity,” said Ussary.

Courtesy photo Kristi Riverman

A dog musher for a decade, Riverman yearned for a final run with her pack.

“Last year we didn’t get out and run the dogs at all. Between the surgery being delayed during COVID, recovery from chemo and surgery,” he said.

“The whole plan this summer was we were going to get out and run the dogs. We try and run dogs when it’s like 40 degrees, not much above that. We knew she didn’t have a lot of time left, so we started watching the weather.”

Ussary said learning she had just six to eight weeks left only pushed Riverman to make some final precious memories. Another bout of bad news, her beloved border collie and “honorary husky,” Brutus, died of lymphoma in September.

On Oct. 16, leaving one of eight spots open for her late pup, Riverman trekked into the woods. Determined to feel the wind on her face, she climbed onto a four-wheeler at the urging of her excited dogs.

Prior to the run, Riverman said with a soft smile, “It means the world to me to be able to do this. My dogs have given me much.”

Venturing down a dirt road for about 20 minutes — fellow musher and longtime friend Allyson Griffie and Ussary in tow — Riverman’s trademark squeal could be heard before her two lead dogs reappeared in the distance. Teary-eyed but smiling, Riverman painstakingly leaned over to thank each dog before sitting to rest. Griffie accepted blame for Riverman’s love of mushing and said it was emotional to accompany her on her final run.

“The first time I met Kristi was at the dog wash … Somebody told me there was a dog wash by the roundabout over by Bear Creek Park, so I drove the dogs over, pulled up and went inside and she shrieked and said, ‘Huskies!’”

“Anyone who knows her knows the shriek I’m talking about. That was the first time I saw that beautiful infectious smile, and we were friends from that day forward.”

Owner to mostly border collies at the time, Riverman’s shop and custom murals on the walls inside were dedicated to a husky named Nonaya.

“She said she had spent her dog’s whole life trying to make her not pull on the leash, not realizing they were bred to pull,” Griffie said.

“A few months later, I went to a dry land mushing event in La Pine and I invited her. At that time, she had border collies and horses. I drove her to La Pine with me and the rest was history.”

Thus ensued, Griffie said, lots of laughter and Pendleton Whiskey.

“After she’d been going through chemo, she had a lot of bad days, but all of us mushers went out to a winery once after she’d had a transfusion. It was a day she felt the best she’d felt in a while, and we asked her, 'What would be on your bucket list, if you could do anything?’” Griffie said.

“She said, “I want to run the dogs one more time.’”

Griffie managed to keep her emotions at bay until seeing her friend break out into a huge grin as she was led by barking dogs up the sunlit hillside.

“It was very emotional. I haven’t been stoic on purpose but just to help get things done. … When we finished the run, we both bawled. I said, ‘I’m not ready to lose you!’ and she said, ‘I’m not ready to go!’”

Losing a number of close friends to cancer, Riverman was always first in line to help others and always lived life to its fullest, said Griffie. With her final run checked off her to-do list, Riverman would rehome her younger huskies the following day — with various mushing friends — and entrusted Ussary with her older rescue pups. She would live one final week, passing away Saturday, Oct. 23.

Friend and fellow musher Jan Purkeypile said Riverman had a special way with dogs and will be sorely missed.

“She was just one of a kind and a very strong lady. Whenever we would retire our mushing dogs, and they got to be house dogs, we always would go see Kristi for their first big bath. The dogs would be freaking out, and she had such a calming effect on them,” Purkeypile said.

“I was so happy for Allyson because Kristi did her first run with Allyson, and Allyson got to ride along on the last. You could tell Kristi didn’t feel good but she was bent on doing it. … and she did it. I’m gonna miss her smile and her giggle.”

Ussary said he would forever cherish memories of his late wife, including her poetic final sendoff doing what she loved.

“She had been so tired she could barely stand, but that morning, she was up early-early. She was stoked. I didn’t know if she’d be able to do it but she drove that four-wheeler by herself. We didn’t help her,” he said.

“She loved her friends and her family, and she loved her dogs. I know it meant the world to her to get to go one last time.”

Ussary added, “She always lived her life to the fullest. It’s that mindset … to never put off to tomorrow what you could do today. It’s a reminder to go out and really appreciate the time you’ve got. We're all going to miss her terribly.”

Ussary said donations in Riverman’s memory can be made to NW Snow Dog Rescue, 37019 N. Findley Road, Deer Park, WA, 99006; nwsnowdogrescue.org.

Riverman is survived by her husband, Michael Ussary, daughter Valorie Petersen (Sioux Falls, SD), stepdaughter and son-in-law Elizabeth and Jason VanHorn (Central Point), granddaughter Layla Chartier-Ussary (Central Point), parents Thomas and Rosalie Riverman (Yachats), and sister and brother-in-law Cheryl and Ron Vandlac (Sherwood). She was preceded in death by sister Rosemary Riverman, 1981; stepson Thomas Ussary, 2002; and grandson Roman Patterson, 2016.

Reach freelance writer Buffy Pollock at buffyp76@yahoo.com.