Jerry Galusha and his best friend, Doug Cooke, share a friendship that dates back to 1984, when they were living in Rangeley and were introduced by mutual friends.
Over the years, they have often gone fishing or deer hunting, activities they both have enjoyed immensely.
“The relationship that we have is just unbelievable,” Galusha said. “We’ve had some really amazing adventures.”
This fall, Galusha was confronted with a heart-wrenching task. He would take Cooke into the woods, one last time, in search of a big buck.
The difference was that this time they would not be walking the tote roads and trails together. Instead, Galusha would be carrying Cooke’s cremains in his backpack.
Cooke died on Sept. 5 at age 61 after a long struggle with renal failure. Galusha said after 40 years of dialysis or living with a transplanted kidney, Cooke opted to cease treatment and enter hospice care when his third transplant failed.
Doctors had originally told Cooke he would be lucky to celebrate his 30th birthday. Thus, he tried all his life to avoid getting too emotionally attached to people. He seldom asked anyone for favors.
Cooke and Galusha hadn’t seen each other much in recent years as Galusha focused on raising a family. But in late August, Cooke left a voicemail for Galusha explaining that he planned to enter hospice care.
Cooke told Galusha he didn’t need to do anything, but wanted him to know. He did not want to become a burden to anyone else.
“His body was telling him that he’s had enough,” Galusha said. “He couldn’t golf. He couldn’t play his guitar. He hadn’t been hunting in years.”
Galusha couldn’t let it end like that. In spite of Cooke’s reluctance to have his old friend see him in such poor health, he went to visit him.
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Chad Thompson was in trouble. They were 30 miles from Old Town, well off the Stud Mill Road, and there were no cellphones.
But as Cooke faced his own mortality, he asked one favor of Galusha.
“He said, ‘Promise me one thing, could you please, just one time, take me in to Upper Dam to go fishing before you dump my ashes?’” Galusha said.
The dam separates Mooselookmeguntic (Cupsuptic) Lake and Richardson Lake north of Rangeley. It was a favorite spot of theirs, one Cooke introduced to Galusha, who grew up in New York.
“He really loved the wilderness and Rangeley,” Galusha said of Cooke, who was a Vermont native.
Galusha immediately said yes but, knowing how much Cooke also enjoyed hunting, he didn’t feel as though the fishing trip was enough to adequately honor his friend.
“I said, I’m going to take you for the whole deer season, every time I go,” Galusha said. “He looked at me and started crying and said, ‘That would be so awesome.’
“It was hard. We cried and hugged each other,” he said.
When Galusha went deer hunting near his home in Rangeley during the third week of November — a week the two buddies often spent together over the years — he tried his best to make it like old times.
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When Adam Blanchette came across a tangled pile of legs on his hunting trip, he suspected he’d come across a strange situation.
Galusha spared no effort. He carried the cardboard urn containing Cooke’s cremains inside a camouflage can, which was wrapped with a photo showing Cooke posing with a nice buck he had harvested many years earlier.
He also packed Cooke’s blaze orange hat and vest, along with his grunt tube, compass, doe bleat can, deer scents and a set of rattling antlers.
Galusha chronicled the events of each hunting day by posting to Cooke’s Facebook page, complete with observations, recollections and photos.
Lots of deer were seen and there was one encounter with a buck, but after missing initially, Galusha refused to take a bad shot as the deer was partially obscured by undergrowth.
“I just did what Doug would have done. He’s not going to shoot and I wasn’t going to shoot,” Galusha said.
He spoke reverently about Cooke’s resilience through the years in the face of his constant battle with health problems, which included not only kidney failure, dialysis and transplants, but four hip replacements and, eventually, a heart attack.
The arrival of muzzleloader season provided one more week to hunt. On Friday, Dec. 2, Galusha walked more than 3 miles along a gated road to an area where he had seen deer a week earlier.
That got him off the beaten track, away from other potential hunters, something Cooke would have appreciated.
“He wasn’t afraid to go do stuff,” Galusha said. “It might take us a little bit longer, but he didn’t care.”
Galusha, who still often refers to Cooke in the present tense, said he vocalized some of his reflections while in the woods. He saw eagles, which he thought might be Cooke keeping an eye on him.
“I talked to him a lot,” Galusha said, who also enjoyed telling the handful of hunters he encountered that he was not out alone, rather with his friend.
He then explained the story of his promise to Cooke and reverently removed the urn from his pack to show them.
When Galusha finally saw the buck, it wasn’t quite close enough. He uses one of Cooke’s favorite tactics to coax the deer closer.
Galusha tried the grunt tube, and then the doe bleat can, but the deer didn’t seem to hear it. Then, he blew harder on the grunt tube and finally got the buck’s attention.
“I irked one right in, that’s what Doug would say,” said Galusha, recalling Cooke’s affection for using the alternating calls.
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Armed with a crossbow, Nick and Edwin Ellis weren’t going to let a frustrating start to the moose season prevent them from finding the perfect bull.
The spikehorn turned and walked directly at Galusha, who shot it.
“I cried,” he said of the moment, recalling that Cooke had been there when he shot his first antlered deer, also a spikehorn.
During the long drag back to his truck, Galusha had plenty of time to think about how much Cooke would have enjoyed the hunt — and watching him make the drag.
At one point, a crew of loggers had approached.
“I was pointing to the sky saying, ‘We got it done,’ shaking my hand,” Galusha said. “A guy came up behind me and said, ‘You all set?’ and I’m like, yup.”
Cooke and Galusha had lived together for 10 years at one point, but they also had gone long periods without talking with each other. Even so, whenever they were reunited it was as if they had never been apart.
The last few visits were difficult. Cooke’s health was failing, but Galusha just wanted to be there for his buddy.
“It was emotional,” said Galusha, who was present when Cooke died. “I held his hand to his last breath.”
Next spring, hopefully when the fish are biting and the bugs aren’t, Galusha will grant Cooke — who he described as a fabulous fisherman — his final wish by taking him fishing at Upper Dam, just like they used to do.
“I’m thinking maybe around his birthday [July 19]. It might be sooner, depending on how buggy it is,” said Galusha, who expects to make more than one excursion with Cooke.
Galusha said he will know when it’s time to say goodbye.
“I really don’t want to let him go, but I promised him I would, so I will,” he said.