On Oct. 6, 2012, the Braun family’s golden retriever Murphy, startled by a gun shot, bolted into the Tahoe National Forest near an off-trail campsite at Hell Hole reservoir.
Over the next two days they scoured the area for Murphy but that Sunday evening they went home to El Dorado Hills without their beloved pet … but the family had no intention of giving up the search.
“It was terrible having to make that drive home,” father of three Nathan Braun told Village Life in the family’s first in-depth interview. “How could we be leaving with one less member of our family?”
He took Monday off work to search with wife Erin and they continued to make the hours-long drive whenever they could, feverish in their mission and determined to find Murphy before winter.
The Brauns set up a Facebook page and posted lost dog bulletins all over Placer and El Dorado counties. By then dozens of volunteers formed an entourage to help find the then 5-year-old dog.
“One time we stayed at the Motel 6 in South Lake Tahoe to get an early start on a sighting,” Erin said. “We also chased a couple of goldens by foot throughout South Lake Tahoe and Myers.”
They had friends, family and even strangers help canvas the region during the first few months of the search. “I’m still amazed how many people helped us,” Nathan said .
Eventually winter brought the heartbreaking realization Murphy could be gone. “At a certain point we felt maybe it wasn’t fair to the kids to spend so much time searching,” Nathan explained.
Then the second winter came and more hope faded, but it never extinguished. At the same time, 11-year-old Matthew Braun and his younger sister Morgan asked Santa for a special Christmas gift — please bring Murphy home.
“That was motivating,” Erin said.
Every few months the Brauns would receive sighting calls. “But it always turned out to be something else … an Akita … a male dog,” Nathan said.
Until June 15, Father’s Day, when the near-impossible happened.
Erin texted friends: Do you believe in miracles? After 20 long months, Murphy was found at a campsite near French Meadows and, according to Nathan, “just five miles by bird’s flight or 11 miles by car” from where she was last seen.
Earlier this spring, a Foresthill resident and frequent hiker to the area was alarmed by an emaciated golden retriever and tried to find its owner. He searched lost golden retriever, Placer County, El Dorado County on the Web, which led him to the Brauns.
By phone Nathan asked him, “Are you sure it was a female golden retriever?’”
“I’m not sure,” the hiker said.
Yet they started getting more tips that a dog with the same description was sighted in the area.
Erin was resolute, telling Nathan, “You need to go camping.”
On Friday, June 6, Nathan headed to Ahart campground in the French Meadows reservoir region with longtime friend Larry and the Braun’s eldest son Matthew. Not wanting to tell Matthew the real reason behind the trip just yet, Nathan tried playing cool at first.
“I hid the handmade signs I made, but couldn’t help calling out Murphy’s name,” Nathan remembered. “Matt asked, ‘Why are you calling Murphy, Dad?’”
“I don’t know; you never know,” Nathan answered.
Camp ground host Jason Smith greeted them and asked how long they’d be staying.
“Hopefully one night so we can get our dog and get out of here,” Nathan said. “I’m looking for my golden retriever we lost 20 months ago and I’ve heard there’s been a sighting.”
“I know exactly what you’re talking about,” Smith said. “I’ve seen a dog going from campsite to campsite. Some people thought it’s a coyote, but it’s a dog. She’s here every third or fourth night, so should be back tonight or this weekend.”
By then he wasn’t hiding anything. Nathan was on a renewed quest as he tore into the eight pounds of bacon they brought to lure Murphy and talked with campsite neighbors about their story as they fried it up.
Nathan perked up when he heard the words, “Maybe it’s not so unrealistic your dog’s still alive.”
Two campers said they’d always come snowmobiling to the camping area every winter but that the past two winters had been so mild, with such little snow, they hadn’t been able to.
Could it really be? Nathan thought, yet he still tried to shield himself from more disappointment.
Murphy didn’t come by that night so the next morning as the three reluctantly packed up, Nathan asked camp ground host Smith if he’d keep Nathan’s baseball cap, an old blanket and a 20-pound bag of dog food by his trailer. Smith agreed.
The Brauns had plans to go out of town that week before Father’s Day. “But something said we shouldn’t go,” said Nathan. “There was too much going on.”
That intuition was right. Days later the Brauns got the phone call, “Jason’s got your dog.” Smith was able to leash Murphy and had a friend notify the family.
“The very first night I laid out the blanket I heard some movement,” Smith said. “There was Murphy, sleeping on the blanket. And right there I knew, that’s Murphy. That’s their dog. It was curled up with its head on the hat.”
Still uncertain it was Murphy, the Brauns drove back to the campground on Father’s Day morning. “We get there and Jason wasn’t there,” said Nathan. “My blanket and hat were right there, but Jason was making rounds between the other four to five campgrounds he manages.”
They drove site to site within a five-mile radius, looking for Smith before they got to Lewis Campground and saw a crated dog in the back of a truck. Other campers had been holding her.
She wouldn’t come out of the crate for anyone, Nathan recounted, but when the Brauns walked up “She gave a little sigh of relief and put up her paw.”
“It was very touching,” Smith said. “The whole family was crying. I was doing my best to not cry.”
Her physical transformation from living in the wild was startling and made Nathan wonder if it really was Murphy while Erin and the kids never doubted for an instant. The family found the scar on Murphy’s ankle she’d gotten as a pup, which put any wonder to rest.
Murphy’s old mannerisms keep resurfacing. “She’s the same, just a lot mellower and doesn’t want to be left alone or go outside unless we’re with her,” Erin said.
She’s tired and frail but some things never changed. “The hard spot on her head’s the same,” Matthew said during our interview. “That’s how I know it’s her.”
“She has the same spots on her nose,” said 10-year-old Morgan as she gingerly touched cherished Murphy.
Little 3-year-old Finegan, too young to understand the ordeal Murphy endured, threw a ball to play catch while Murphy just stared at it. “She was never a good fetcher,” Nathan said, smiling.
“It’s kind of like someone returning from the dead,” Nathan continued, still in awe days after the reunion.
The vet said Murphy’s lighter fur and darkened pigment in the whites of her eyes are similar to what happens when people are malnourished, yet within days her coat was already getting darker and her eyes clearer.
The first 72 hours the Brauns separated Murphy from their younger golden retriever, Lambeau, who’d been depressed after Murphy first went missing. “We were wondering how Murphy would act after living in the wild so long,” said Nathan, but she hasn’t shown any aggression. Plus, they wanted to get Murphy checked for heartworm and parasites.
When Murphy’s check-up came back clean except for being very skinny, they reunited the pair. “They started wagging tails and sniffing each other,” said Erin. “It was like Lambeau was saying, ‘I know you and I also know you’re not feeling well.’”
Still, the miracle of how Murphy survived remains a mystery. Was it the two mild winters that enabled her to search the campgrounds for food? The Brauns also believe the time they spend in Tahoe helped. “She’s used to that environment,” said Nathan. They haven’t even ruled out someone else may have cared for her for a time. They are just happy to have her back.
One thing is for certain. “Her camping days are over,” said Nathan. Just in case, the Brauns have already fitted her with an identifying microchip so they never lose her again.
“We have so many individual people to thank the list is endless,” Erin said. “Words cannot describe how grateful we are. Homeward Bound Golden Rescue was instrumental in their efforts to help, the campground host, Jason.”
“It’s because of every person’s efforts that the camper could first track me down,” said Nathan. “It wasn’t just one person. It was all the people who helped for even an hour. I’ll never forget one man got out of his car and said he wanted to help when he saw me posting signs with Finegan, then a baby, on my back.”
“You all know who you are,” said Erin. “Thank you from the bottom of our hearts. We are forever grateful.”
What is the lesson Erin and Nathan will teach their three children about the harrowing experience and even more miraculous reunion? “Persistence and hope can pay off,” said Erin. “We never gave up.”