Off the beaten path: The gift of living life to its fullest

December 2012 Posted in People
Susanna Branch and Summer

Susanna Branch and Summer

By Brenna Wiegand

Susanna Branch had a bucket list before bucket lists were bucket lists.

“I had a lifelong list of things I just had to do before I died,” said the 69-year-old Silverton jazz singer. “As a result, I’ve been on a hot air balloon crew; ridden camels among the Pyramids, was part of a dolphin research project and a naturalist with the best whale watch boats in the San Juan Islands.”

Recently, Branch fulfilled two goals at once – owning a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel and training her to track.

“I was 11 when I got my first purebred dog, a black Cocker Spaniel named Charcoal,” Branch said. “The woman selling the puppies offered to take me to a dog show with her. On the way from Bowling Green (Missouri) to Cape Girardeau, she threw a book into the backseat with me – How to Show Dogs – A Guide to Junior Showmanship.

“By the time I got to the show I had read the book – and I ended up winning the class,” she said.

Her life has been a much like that experience – taking what’s thrown her way  and making the most of it. She has lived in Turkey, exploring and swimming in the Mediterranean. After her marriage ended, Branch settled in Colorado Springs, working at Cheyenne Mt. Zoo, Tutt Library at Colorado College and as a dispatcher for the Colorado Springs Police Department.

She worked in Israel where she practically walked into a communications position with Cannon Films.

“Here I was, interviewing Helen Hunt at the Hilton in Tel Aviv and at the next table was Morley Safer interviewing someone for 60 Minutes,” Branch said. “I thought, ‘What am I doing here?’”

She was a dispatcher for the University of California, Berkeley and moved to San Francisco in time for the “Quake of ’89.”

Her interest in dolphins got her a “volunteer job” with Project Circe and the Dolphin Communication Project, funded by NASA, where she met Pierce Brosnan, David Carradine and Martin Sheen, among others.

She was a research volunteer for Peter Byrne’s search for Bigfoot where she  interviewed “very credible people who had nothing to gain.” Her skepticism about Bigfoot began to melt away. She was an extra on TV’s Northern Exposure during the show’s last four years, until 1995.

Near the show’s end, she heard the New York road show musical Kismet was holding open auditions in Seattle.

“The people auditioning sat in the hallways wringing their hands, nervous and shaking,” she said. “I just went in for the fun of auditioning.”

And so, at 52, Branch played Ayah d’Zubbediya in the 1994 show at Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre.

In 1997 she moved to Friday Harbor, where she worked as a docent at the Whale Museum, a naturalist on Western Prince Cruises and on an oyster farm. Later, in Port Townsend, she formed a jazz trio and was vocalist at Pete’s Place for about a year.

Eight years later, Branch is in Silverton, still hunting up jazz gigs. But it seems Summer is now calling the shots.  Branch’s Cavalier King Charles Spaniel Summer makes a delightful – if not persuasive – companion.

“One time she was trying to play and I was really trying to get something done on the computer,” she said. “I kept ignoring her and she kept tapping on my leg and bringing the ball. Before long she had all of her toys piled up next to me. I said, ‘Summer, I can’t.’

“She had just won a blue ribbon in rally, which I’d shown to her before putting it on the table, telling her not to touch it. Well, I looked down and she’d taken the blue ribbon and placed it carefully on top of all the toys and was just sitting there staring at me.

“That was too much,” she said. “I decided to give myself a break.”

Summer has reason to be a little demanding. She became an official Tracking Dog Nov. 11 – a day Branch will never forget.

“She looked at me and gave the start article – a cloth napkin – a really good sniff, and she was off. She didn’t waver.”

Following her dog at the end of a 30-foot lead, Branch watched in amazement as Summer homed in on the scent. After a sharp right, the little spaniel stopped and started dancing about.

“I said, ‘Are you sure?’ She sniffed and took off like a bat out of hell at an odd angle,” Branch said. “I didn’t know if that was right but they always say ‘trust your dog; trust your dog’ and I did.”

But Branch began scanning the area for the “drop” – always a glove. Then she noticed a lack of tension at the other end of the leash, and looked around to see Summer nosing the glove around in the grass.

“I started crying; I’d wanted it so badly,” Branch said. “I held the glove up in the air and the judges blew their celebratory whistle and the gallery just went crazy. She was wagging her tail; she knew she’d made everybody happy.

“Tracking dogs have a lot of pressure on them,” she said. “They not only use their noses but they kind of have to figure things out: Does the track really turn this way or did the wind blow the scent over here? Their little minds are going, which is why you don’t talk to them too much while they’re concentrating.” Humans have roughly 5 million scent receptor cells, according to, while dogs can possess 50 times that amount.

“What the dog actually smells are the skin cells that are falling off of you all the time – along with anything else on your shoes, etc.,” Branch said. “A dog’s nose is so sensitive it can tell what kind of detergent I used on my clothes; what kind of dish soap; what I used in my hair; they can just piece all this out and break it down into layers – it’s amazing.”

“Once you’ve taught the dog the concept and are in a test, you are totally blind and must rely on your dog’s willingness and ‘stick-to-itiveness,’ ” she said. And, you must enjoy trudging around in fields.”

Another item to cross off her bucket list.

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