Sunday afternoon begged for a walk.

After 10 weeks of July, the weather finally moderated. The air was cool. The breeze was gentle and the sunlight was so inviting it virtually pried me off the couch.

The only debate? Where would this walk take place?

After a brief discussion, we opted to walk the levee around Sahara Lake at Sahara Woods State Fish and Wildlife Area. It was an outstanding choice.

Just a few moments into our walk, I spotted a pair of pied-billed grebes soaking in the sun on the mirror-like surface of the lake. We watched silently as the grebes occasionally dove for fish. They didn’t catch any while we were watching, but their leisurely pace suggested they might have been going through the motions.

After moving on, it was just a couple minutes until my wife spotted a bird of prey high atop a tree overlooking the lake. The angle of the sun was difficult, but we tentatively identified the critter as a Cooper’s hawk.

It was while peering through my binoculars at the hawk that a sense of foreboding came over me. It felt as if someone was approaching. And, seconds later came the unmistakable sound of leaves crunching underfoot.

It was a strange feeling. We hadn’t seen any cars, or any other signs of human life.

Looking around, I saw no one, but the sound of crunching leaves kept getting closer. Finally, I dropped my eyes to the ground to see a medium-sized black and white dog approaching. He appeared to be a pit bull mix.

The dog, which my wife quickly named Buster, after the dog of Buster Brown Shoe fame. (If you’re under 60 you’ll probably have to Google it.) The dog was quite gregarious and was soon licking my wife’s hand as she petted it.

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Initially, we figured he was on a walk with his family and they would be catching up soon.

Sadly, that wasn’t the case. He was either a runaway or had been abandoned. He looked well-fed, healthy and obviously didn’t fear humans.

And, to be perfectly honest, he was wonderful company.

He alternately followed us, or led us around the lake. If he got too far ahead, he’d plop down in the grass, take a good stretch and let us catch up. But, at no time did he show any interest in striking out on his own.

There were a couple cars in the Sahara Lake parking lot. We walked through the lot, hoping one of the cars belonged to his family. No such luck.

When we got into our car to leave, “Buster” sat down next to the vehicle, sighed and dropped to the ground. He gave me that puppy-eyed “I’ve been through this before” look. As we drove off, he followed for about 10-15 steps before stopping.

It was truly difficult to leave him behind.

The following day, I notified park personnel. I was told finding stray or abandoned dogs near the lake was a regular occurrence. Park staff has a dog house and a pantry stocked with dog food for the inevitable visitors.

They take photos of the dogs they board and post them on social media. I was told that most of the dogs are adopted.

Buster was a good guy. I hope his story has a happy ending.

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LES WINKELER is the outdoors writer for The Southern Illinoisan. Contact him at les.winkeler@thesouthern.com, or call 618-351-5088 / On Twitter @LesWinkeler.


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