Rascal and Chaser are Back: Old tricks in a new light

Walker’s never been a dog to work for food rewards.  It’s freedom he values.  He will accept treats under certain conditions, but he’ll also turn up his nose if he senses an attempt to reinforce the obvious.  He knows to wait at trail junctions, for example, but the deal is that he gets a direction signal from me, and freedom to find the next junction or solve the next puzzle on his own. It’s not even just freedom he craves, it’s pursuit of the unknown. 

He lives to race “around the next bend,” to borrow that phrase my Dad used to brandish when our character-building adventures seemed to go on without end. That, of course, is the point:  new experiences define our existence.  So these 5 weeks between semesters, I’ve tried to follow Walker’s lead. We have indeed found new trails, new treasures, and connected the dots between the known and unknown.  In the downtime, I’ve also managed to read a dozen books, and redecorate a couple rooms.  (It’s a fine line between adventure and over-caffeinated cabin fever, I suppose.)  Just when I started running out of ideas and spending altogether too much time exploring Star Wars character bios on Wookieepedia, Walker threw me a rainy-day curve-ball.

I had taken him down to Lake Clear, where we lived for a few months when we first moved to the ADKs.  The trails that weave between lakes and ponds of the Saint Regis Canoe Wilderness area looked pretty much like we’d left them last March:  leafless, wet, semi-frozen and slathered in saturated corn snow covering boilerplate ice.  The surface was no good for skis or snowshoes but bare boots sufficed, so long as there was no schedule to keep.  A “bad day” in the woods really is better than a good day at the office.

Walker waited at the junctions to Little Clear Pond, Rat Pond, Fish Pond and the ski trail that cuts between Bone Pond and Little Green Pond. He had plenty of marks to cover and messages to sniff, keeping his speed in check while I bungled along. Things only went sideways when a deer blew at us.  This sound, which I guess he has never heard before, is something like an enthusiastic grade-schooler learning to make honking noises with the mouthpiece of a new trumpet.  Walker stood stock-still at the first blow.  He looked back at me with wide eyes and wider ears.  That would have been the moment to stand him down, but the deer blew again and Walker took off like Wile E. Coyote, hip-checked by Roadrunner.

I hollered once, and pulled two “pistols” from my hip pack:  one tracking device and one “juice box,” which will deliver my message by way of voltage, if needed.  The GPS showed him gaining ground. 100 yards. 200…  “YooHOOO!” I howled, with my finger firm on the trigger. POW.  One mid-level jolt reset the neurological pathway, and he was back at heel.  Funny thing, I thought that was the end of it.

Walker slipped ahead as we made our way back towards Little Clear Pond.  This time, he refused my calls to “Woah.” (which should trigger an instant stop.  It translates to “wait up,” or “wait for me, you lousy 4-legged scoundrel”) Maybe he couldn’t hear above the din of rain and his own steady footfalls in slush.  Maybe he has selective hearing.  Maybe he just wanted to see around that next bend. I watched his signal make tracks north west of Bone Pond, straight into the wilderness, out of range of voice or voltage.

He angled toward Fish Pond trail, and I waited to see whether he would head north to points unknown, or south to intercept our previous tracks. If he chose the latter, I might be able to continue around the rest of Little Green Pond in time to intercept him on the railroad bed where we started.  He chose south, but I miscalculated the distance and speed needed to make the interception.  I watched his signal whiff past mine, 750 yards before I got to the junction.  His icon continued east, zipped passed the parked car, climbed the steep ridge behind the fish hatchery, and disappeared.  Ah, just like old times: Walker had converted a routine walk in known territory to a game of ultimate hide-and-seek.    

There was no sign of his tracks near the car; he’d passed it without emerging on the trail.  I worked my way to the fish hatchery, and climbed the ridge in search of his last known whereabouts.  The steep spit of land juts straight up from the railbed, and straight down to Little Clear Pond.  Given the location and resolution of my device, I couldn’t be sure his signal was lost on the ridge or underwater beyond.  Despite the fearlessness of ice fishermen, we’d seen plenty of open water in our travels this week.  So I climbed the ridge hoping to find tracks leading back to dry land.

Just beyond the peak, his tracks mingled with a half-dozen deer beds. I followed his prints to a runway and slogged down the game trail until it reached the mottled ice of the bay that spills into Hatchery Brook.   Light rain and heavy fog made it hard to see whether the prints made the crossing, or if they lead into one of three visible holes in the ice.  I crouched and belly-crawled through spruce cover at the edge, trying to make out his prints, or at least the morphology of the openings.  All looked like natural freeze-thaw edges.  Nothing looked freshly fractured. I can’t honestly say I was relieved, but I worked my way back to the car and texted Dave.  “I lost him good.”

I drove to a handful points he could have reached in the time he was gone, but the GPS never picked him up. Dave met me at the post office to join the search; fresh eyes and a warmer heart might be in Walker’s best interest.  His very survival has long relied on the fact that we haven’t both felt the urge to kill him at the same time.

I was still explaining the events of the morning when the GPS chirped and Dave said “turn here!”  I spun the wheel and sped down a dead-end road.  Three people were milling about the driveway where the signal went “on point.”  An older gentleman on a cell phone approached the car as he wrapped up his call.  “If you’re missing a dog, my number is…”  The message would be on Dave’s cell phone later, but first we introduced ourselves as the search party.  “I found him curled up in my dooryard an hour ago,” he said.  “He’s such a sweet dog.  He looked lonely and hungry, so I fed him a steak dinner.”   

Dave handled the conversation from here, while I stood sputtering senselessly through blue frozen lips.  The man carried on about how sweet Walker was, and when I explained the history of the canine con artist he laughed “I think your dog is smarter than you are.”  Yeah, no kidding.

The only justice I could extend at this point was to re-appropriate the Slim Jims I was saving for him.  Dave and Casey happily accepted the prize and went back to work.  Walker and I made the long drive home, where I started the coffee and returned to work on my remodeling projects.  Walker slept in my bed while I worked.  Yeah, he’s certainly smarter, but his experience is my existence.  There are far fewer unknowns in the world, or even my own consciousness, thanks to this dog. 

littleclearpond

Advertisements

Rock Your Age

img_20161015_071952577Around this time last year, I pedaled ten backwoods miles behind Walker, only to have him dust me at the airport. We were nearly done for the day and headed back for an afternoon nap, when the sound of a prop plane started buzzing through the trees. Walker skidded to a stop and I watched his curiosity pique as the buzz crescendoed. His body stretched and tightened. His nose strained to sort out a sound he could not identify. I stood silent and amused at his herculean cognitive effort. Then he blasted off like a cannonball. How did I not know the fuse had been lit?

It was the first time in a long time I had to mash the pedals in earnest. My heart, legs and lungs were not up to the task. Walker gained ground, made the airport fence, and ran North along its posted perimeter. I chased, gasped and spat, 300 yards off the back, wondering “Why doesn’t TSA just shoot him?” But when the plane was gone he stopped, sashayed back through the forest to the bike trail, and waited for me to catch up. He achieved his objective or the moment was gone, and he was ready to reconsider that afternoon nap.

img_20161015_075519861

I thought about that today, as the eternal gigolo made not one, but two trips up Mt. Azure, and I think he would have gone again if I didn’t bribe him into the car. His behavior has come a long way in the past year, but I can’t be sure if it’s age related, training related, or just a new-found contentment. He still prefers loops over out-and-back adventures, so when I planned the double ascent, I talked Dave into joining me so he could take Walker home after one trip.

img_20161015_073536123

Today is Gobal PT Day of Service. We freshman in the SUNY Canton Physical Therapy Assistant program were asked to get out and do something of significance to us. Mt. Azure, a little mountain with magnificent views, has both need and significance. Azure has become a regular favorite of Walker and I, but it is in desperate need of erosion control measures. The short & steep trail is heavily traveled and laboriously maintained by the volunteers of the Friends of Azure Mt. club. Earlier this summer, I stopped to thank someone for his work, while a group of youngsters crashed around us, trampling tender vegetation and unwittingly negating his efforts.  He kindly asked them to stick to the trail, and they grudgingly obliged, but the effort is endless. The Friends’ have had truckloads of rocks delivered to the trailhead (four, as of that encounter), that people have slowly carried to the summit for distribution. It’s a technique that minimizes trampling and encourages revegetation, especially on the plateau beneath the fire tower. I’ve lugged two or three rocks on every trip since that day. I also went back to school in August, and not long after that, my classmates discovered my age. So naturally I challenged them to a rock carry:  Anyone half my age who could double my rockpile over a two hour stretch, wins a quart of maple syrup. Would you believe none of them accepted?  Kids these days…

img_20161015_073516096

So I decided to carry my age in rocks for #PTDOS.  Forty two pounds.  Since I’m a bit of an over-planner, I did a test-carry a few days earlier – one trip with 21 lb. Then I talked Dave into coming along to tend Walker, then Dave filled his pack too! Sixty-three pounds so far:  Walker’s age in dog-years.  

We met just one other group on that first trip. Since big W’ wasn’t carrying anything (a possible flaw in the plan), he danced ahead for the greeting. I crested the summit in time to see him wiggling through a receiving line of legs, making each person laugh as he passed through to the next. “Your dog made my day,” the first person said. “I needed that,” added the last of the line. The sun had only begun to melt the morning frost as they turned to head down. Every hiker has a story; most of them we’ll never know.

Hikers were arriving by the SUV-load by the time we finished the first trip. I crouched to weigh up another pack-full of rocks, and Walker fell-in with a new family. Laughter and wagging prohibits calling him off in my book, so I just tracked him on GPS to see what he would do:  Return for that mid-morning nap, or follow the giggles. Giggles carry more weight than we do, so Dave unzipped his pack and filled it up for a second haul. Walker returned to us before the halfway point, downed most of Dave’s water, and slipped off the front again. We quickly unloaded at the summit and began the descent.

img_20161015_081944047Group after group and family after family schmoozed Walker. He gets rewards for waiting for an invite to be greeted, and rewards for ignoring anyone who ignores him. Yet, there’s an uncanny synergy between his happiness and theirs. He seems to know when to hesitate, and when to do that thing with his eyes, or when to sidle up to a possible hand-out. I’ve long wished I kept a journal of things people said to him, or about him.  He caught up to one family on St. Regis and spent half the day with them. He rejoined me on their way down and they cheerfully asked “Is this your dog?  He’s going to be in our family Christmas photo.”  Later, on the same mountain, we encountered a mom bandaging blisters on her wailing young hiker’s feet. Walker held back until the kid held his sobs and stared. His brother explained, “he looks like Buster. Can we pet him?”

So who knows if Walker has “settled” into his age or just achieved contentment, but we hike, and we hike off lead, because the better parts of humanity are only accessible through live, untethered interaction. And we carry rocks up and pick up trash on the way down, because we believe in the yogic Yama Astaya as Carolyn explains it: “non-stealing,” means treating everything as if it’s on loan to you from the future.

Just try to leave everything in a better state than you found it.

Rock on.

#PTDOS

img_20161015_135712

Leap of Faith

The moment Walker shimmied into the trash can might have led to his leaping through the window today. He was four years old when he climbed in the can, but new to our family, so it could have been our golden opportunity to establish ourselves as strict leaders with high expectations for obedience. Instead, the can went down, his head went in, and I said “ummm, excuse me.” His tail froze in mid wag while he held his breath for more meaningful words. Each of us waited for the other to expose their intentions. He slithered in up to his hocks, and I laughed my ass off. Discipline has never been my thing.

It was some years before I realized that kind of thing encouraged him to push the edge. The epiphany did not happen before his first vault through a car window. The car was stopped, the windows were open, and we were silently fumbling for a camera to capture the peacock wandering the woods of North Haverhill, NH. It was a sasquatch moment to us, and probably the same in bird-dog-lore to him, so he leapt. Who could blame him, really?

The next time he tossed himself through the window seemed inexplicable though. He’d done a two hour run in the August heat followed by the short drive to the Paul Smiths College campus. There were no risks visible in my view: one tired dog, no students and no hot dog stand. Hardly  anyone was present at all, except for our landlord of one-week’s acquaintance and the set-up crew for a lakeside wedding on the campus green. It was Dave’s first week of work with the college and somewhere on campus, at that very moment, he was meeting with the board of trustees. I apologized profusely that night, although he admitted that if he’d seen me hotfooting it across the lawns in pursuit, he would have disavowed knowledge of our existence. Who could blame him, really?

That moment nearly cost Walker a lifetime of window rights. To this day, we cruise the back roads with the windows shut tight and the AC cranked, like a couple of delicate lilies not want’n the dusty country air to disturb our hair.  Except today.  Oh, 72 and blue,IMG_20160523_093846065 how I missed you!  Once again, we threw down a couple hours of paws-V-pedals first, stopping twice to swim in the Hayes Brook, and once for a break at the sheep meadow lean-to. He obliged a few pictures and I shared my lunch. The plan was to meet Dave and Casey on campus next. I would take both dogs off his hands while he was busy with un-dogable duties. I texted him to say we’d be there in 10 minutes, and loaded Walker, windows down, for the short drive in a hot car.

IMG_20160523_091007797

 

The PSC campus has some mean speed bumps. The Prius would probably bottom right out if I hadn’t already ripped off the superfluous low-hanging accoutrements on a few incidental back road adventures. (Still holding out for that lift kit, Brother)  Anyway, the car couldn’t have been moving more than 5-mph when he launched, but I was as surprised to see him go as I was to see him stick the landing and head for the admissions building. I tucked the car in the first lot  and got out. He hadn’t gone far; something at the forest edge had his attention. Around here, that could just as easily be a grouse nest as someone’s unfinished Slim-Jim. I hooted at him once. We called each other’s bluff:

“You don’t mean that.”

“Neither do you.”

He carried on sniffing while I got the bike back out of the car with a handful of helpful objects, such as his external brain, or e-collar, for short. I pedaled over to where he had been sniffing. He greeted me on sight and sat at my feet, making huge brown eyes and flicking his tender ears at flies that harassed the poor guy.

A good con artist knows exactly how to play the edge of indictment. It’s a little like having a new car stolen by someone who delivers Toys for Tots and returns it with a full tank of gas.

I buckled on his e-collar anyway. Now seemed like as good a time as any to attempt a cross-campus bike ride.  “Let’s go.” I said, to his obvious surprise. We whirled down Apollo’s Way, and locked up a “woah” at the first stop sign. “Crosstheroad” catapulted him over the crosswalk. “HA,” I hollered, with a hand-signal backup ready for his headcheck. He raced down the street, with me at his side. We passed campus safety and skirted the last speed bump at three times the limit. Ahead, a throng of summer schoolers sat in the grass across the road from our last stop sign.

I suddenly remembered that chart that describes the probability of successfully negotiating a technical skijoring move as “inversely proportional to the number of onlookers.” Heads turned our way in waves like wind whipping long grass. “Woah,” I said, as he touched the road’s edge. He stopped on a dime but turned to me with crazy eyes, flapping tongue, and spikes of white hair sticking out of his slicked-back ears like a junky on the edge. “Crosstheroad,” I whispered, at the very moment he might have burst from anticipation otherwise. He crossed and ran the last hundred yards at my side, looking sharp, smart, and straight-up professional, at least from behind. We met Casey and Dave, went swimming, and chased sticks before driving home with the windows up and the AC on, all in time for his mid-afternoon nap.

Who’s the con artist now?

Who can blame me, really?

Get While The Gettin’s Good

I once worked at a place where people counted off minutes until 3 o’clock, or 5 o’clock, or Friday, or whatever. My paradigm for “workplace” at the time defined that as normal, so I was surprised by the friend who suggested that was reason enough to move on. “Don’t wish minutes away,” she’d say. “You can’t get them back.” Over the next 18 months I separated myself from some extras, paid off my debts and prepared to make changes, only to have change find me by luck before I could create it by design.

Now that I’m on the cusp of another transition and hypersensitive to the value of minutes, it takes more than a late season snowstorm to derail my motivation. It’s something of a reversal of the era when I maintained the “FairWeatherCommuter” persona, making it into my 40’s without ever holding a job I hadn’t pedaled to, avoiding rain all the while. I’ve learned that rain bordering on snow does have its benefits on a backwoods bike ride in blackfly season. Besides, how many more years can Walker throw down a dozen miles at a run? How many more years can I? I’m sure to become a frumpy sot when he’s gone.

The Big Guy had earned some high mileage only-dog time, after several days of tempering his pace and shortening his walks to hang back with Miss Casey who happily bumbles along only as far and as fast as she can. So after breakfast, we parted ways with Dave and his golden girlfriend and high-tailed it for the Jackrabbit ski trail.

Parking at the access point in Gabriels is reasonably secluded, so I let him wander around and shake off the drive while I geared up and assembled the bike. The old sneak had a 250-yard lead before the first turn of my pedals. I raced into pine needle carpeted singletrack and came upon him sniffing a log pile. He abandoned the object of his curiosity when he saw me coming, rounded his body, revved up the big engine, and took off with a spray of mud and needles in his wake.  Game on.  We rolled in unison around tight corners, wet rocks and hairy obstacles. Walker presses the pace but waits without words at blowdowns and steep climbs. He knows my human weaknesses, but doesn’t exploit them like he once did. We were still together when the trail burst out onto the gated gravel road. Walker set a snappy pace as he led the way, “soft pedaling” at junctions just long enough for me to offer one word directions and skid around behind him. We made a hard left and climbed to the first opening. He gave me a sideways glance as if to assess the space-time gap between us, and leapt over the bank into the willow patch below. Good timing, I thought, as he probably knew I would. He could harass the local wildlife while I peeled off my wet gloves and turned up the flaps on my under-helmet toque to let out some heat while I listened for him in the shrubbery below.

Walker’s tags jingled, sticks snapped and he emerged from the cover with a meaningful look, though I’d be hard pressed to guess his meaning exactly. Getting no help from me, he turned his attention back to the bushes and stealth-walked his way in: A front paw, a back paw, a front… a tight curl of the tail, lift of the last paw and… hold. This accomplished flushing retriever has never tried to impersonate a pointer before, and this attempt, if it was one, was a laughable start. Locked up with one back leg lifted, he looked like an old dog that forgot himself the very moment he poised to soak a stump. Then he charged. A woodcock flushed from under his nose, spiraling out into open space before sailing straight away and across the opening. I cheered his diligence and he stepped up for kibble and ear scrubs, which I obliged. One hundred and thirty-nine days until timberdoodle season, Big Guy, don’t rush it.

He took each of the next junctions at speed with me hot on his heels as we rolled around the last gate, down the railbed past the Lake Clear airport, and back to the Jackrabbit trail. I wondered if he was running the course from memory, or just running, listening for me, and running some more. Did it even matter? Was it still raining?

We made a hairpin right-hander where the Jackrabbit plunges under a beaver pond. We slipped into softwoods, picking our way through a game trail, turned hunting trail, turned bootleg bike trail. The first blowdown had been cut and stacked, making the entrance more visible than I remembered but several others remained deep within the fir stand. Walker sluiced through the tangle and vanished before I cleared the first log, but I was on board and chasing soon after. Dark cover opened to a bed of dormant berry bushes, crisp pale lichens and emerald-green moss. At its center, white paws flailed wildly over a white-furry belly. I waited silently while he rolled and groaned, kicked at the clouds and scraped the back of his head in plant fuzz. He uprighted himself with a shake, shiny black side up and ready to run. Two colors, twenty personalities, and I never know which will be around the next bend. He cast a glance my way as if to make sure I was ready, and trotted ahead.

An eerie fog settled onto the canopy of the aspen grove, as if the prickly tips of bare trees held its weight aloft. We followed a trail of yellow matted grasses to the next log landing, where Walker raced through dark stumps in the mist like the Hound of the Baskervilles crossing the moor.

We hit our backtrack on the far side, and he tempered his pace to stay just in front of me. I allowed myself to believe he was finally tired, until it occurred to me he might have other reasons. He might have been bored with a repeat stretch of trail, or maybe he was waiting for me. In any case, he angled left at the next junction, a move that would extend the ride by a few miles. I could think of no better use for our minutes, so when he looked my way I called out “Okay!” which has evolved to mean “sure, let’s do whatever you want right now.” His greatest gift has been training me to be present.

IMG_20160406_103413810 (1)

We negotiated the sandy road, water holes, and remaining hills at an agreeable pace and arrived back at the car together. He got a full body toweling down and a handful of kibble. I got into dry clothes, and settled in beside my snoring muse for the ride home.

We’ve both come a long, long way on this journey and his new personality makes it possible for mine to go back to school while clinging to every one of these minutes along the way. Time to get while the gettin’s good.

_20160110_141619

I’ll be the Blind Squirrel, You be the Nut

 

Not long ago, I spent my spring weekends waiting for Dave to return from harassing Maine’s trout population. The dogs and I passed the time exploring Seven Islands Timber Company land in the Upper Magalloway Watershed. Cell phones, GPS, and ticks were unheard of, and decent printed maps were easier to come by in those days. The Maine gazetteer did such a fine job of documenting obscure and transient logging roads that I bought a second copy just to slice up and pocket the pages I needed. The gritty dogs by my side in those days pounded out some big miles between lakes Aziscohos and Parmachenee, never once getting lost or being late for the campfire. We were never tempted to take risks, except to share space with emerging black bear, twelve-hundred pound moose, and double hitch log trucks.

It’s been some time since Dave’s hassled the fish, and the ashes of those dogs have long been adrift in New Hampshire’s Nash Stream State Forest. Here in New York’s North Country, there are new lands to explore, new gadgets to employ, and a dog that hit his prime when he turned nine.

Today, he’d been waiting in the house for almost six hours by the time I returned. I let him outside, sans collars while I hurried inside, changed into the clothes I’d laid out, grabbed the action gear bag, the same old knobby-tire bike and rolled out.

Earlier, I had suggested to Dave that I’d take Walker to hike the Pinnacle, but the bright sun and retreating snow inspired me to take advantage of the bike to cover more distance. By the time we reached the trail head, we were ready for more action than the half-mile hike to the Pinnacle offered. We rolled over the ridge instead, and headed for a Jeep road junction I’d GPS-marked on a recent expedition. On that day, thick slush forced us to abandon the bike and walk. I had expected it though, and hitched boots to my hip pack in a fashion Dave called “dorky, but serviceable.” Walker and I made it as far as the junction before calling it quits on that trip. Today, I expected to explore the trail beyond it. If we were lucky, it would punch through to another trail we’d found on the east side of the mountain, forming a loop. We’d been methodically mapping these roads and trails in out-and-back trips for a month; today I aimed to connect the dots.

The Jeep road sloped down through yellow birch and aspen into a shaded valley that had hardly begun to thaw out. Slush sucked at the tires, but the frozen ground held firm. The bike was still helpful to keep up with Walker, but I’ll admit to some apprehension about the effort it would take to climb out of the valley if we needed to backtrack. This was no Seven Islands truck road, and I was packing a few more pounds and years than I had on those trips. When the descent finally ended, we encountered a seasonal brook that flooded the road. The prospect of wet feet would make either the loop effort or backtrack unpleasant, but the junction, just 50 yards ahead, taunted me as intently as summit fever afflicts its victims. Walker bounded through the water first, and in his wake I noticed a firm gravel surface beneath. I clipped in, rode downstream, and found him waiting at the limit of our previous experience. I thrust my right arm out and he charged up the new path: my dedicated partner, fearless companion, master navigator.

The old skid road was two decades into a healthy regeneration process, as the pioneer species slowly submitted to young forest trees. A tangle of pin cherry blow downs interspersed with blackberry bushes and maple saplings impeded my progress. Walker doubled back to check on me. “Pocket hunter,” I teased, each time I rewarded his apparent concern.

I pushed the bike through a mile of slush covered growth before ice seized the back wheel and suspension. It was against my better judgement to carry it, just one week after recovering from debilitating back pain. Nobody would steal the bike if I left it behind, I just needed to decide where we were headed. The GPS placed us within a mile of the intended connector trail, but our present path dissolved into the forest. Walker would happily agree to bushwhacking or backtracking, but standing listless and deliberating is not something he tolerates. He bowed impatiently and whined, as if to say “What next? Let’s Go!” I took ten steps off the trail just to give him a trajectory and stopped moving the moment he vanished. There was just enough cell service to text Dave. Someone ought to know how far I’d deviated from the original plan: “crossed the state forest boundary north of the Pinnacle, traveled east on a trail that dissolved, bike is frozen. Leaving it here to bushwhack 0.84 mi SE to mark 17,” which I hoped he would recognize as the limit of a previous excursion. Wet feet and a risky exit strategy motivated me to start jogging towards my lengthening shadow.

Walker disappeared into a wall of spruce, fir and cedar. I checked the handset for his location and realized we would have to tunnel through the thick cover to hit our target, which felt increasingly like hitting the head of a distant pin. Worse, the point I intended to reach should be on a ridge, and the closer we got without gaining elevation meant that we would be facing a ledge at the end. I sent Dave another message “frig this, we’re coming out on our backtrack. Gonna be late.” Walker sensed that I’d stopped, or maybe sensed that I was starting to walk in a circle, but he appeared out of nowhere and whined until I pocketed the phone and moved on. Maybe he just hates gadgets, and I can’t blame him for that, but he’s also been known to bark when I stop to read a map or check a compass. Perhaps he just has no patience for the ineptitude of human navigational sense.

We thrashed back to the bike for three reasons – I figured I could push it out as well as I’d pushed it in, and if I could get the wheels to turn it would hasten our retreat. Third and most importantly, it has lights. Those are a result of an incident last fall that ended in an effort to find Walker in the Adirondack woods after dark. He’d had the last laugh that day, as we rattled around in the dark while he was hobnobbing with the rich and famous of Upper St. Regis Lake.

This time, we made it back to the Jeep road well before nightfall. I even managed to free up enough moving parts to ride the bike back upstream, and up most of the climb to the Pinnacle trail head. I stopped on the dry, sunny landing and prepared to text our imminent success to Dave. Just then, the old Tacoma trundled up the road, redhead at the wheel, blond dog riding shotgun. Walker went into a frenzy of circles around Dave, as if to imply “we’re saved.” It seems Walker would rather we humans didn’t pretend to be so wily and wild. Maybe he was just miffed about missing his mid-afternoon nap. He’s sliding comfortably into his fuddyduddydom, and I have to admire the wisdom in that.

3 (2)

My Gigolo, My Healer

Two days after we finished moving into our new home, Dave fell off a ladder and broke a rib.  At the same time, a sap tsunami broke loose and spring break began, leaving one man plus Dave with his busted rib to care for a 2500-tap sugaring operation.  I put in a little time to help them keep ahead of it. Walker exercised patience while Casey got a few days off during the time Dave was unable to lift her into a vehicle. A week later, we agreed that I should take Casey to visit a friend, stock up on meat from the farm that looks out for her, and leave the anxious but able-bodied Walker to accompany Dave at work.

I loaded the car with gear and dog and headed out, leaving the boys to themselves in the ram pasture. Miss Casey is a good sport about being hoisted into the car, placing her little T-Rex front legs on the seat and letting me boost her bum. She’s also good about letting me wrap my right forearm under her rump, tuck my left arm under her chest, and carry her bodily up and down stairs. We did several flights a day like that, for four days. Each time, I felt like a superhero but something in her eye suggested otherwise.

IMG_20160327_165949919
Siesta on the deck

Two days later and back home, I was in so much pain I could not breathe. In truth, I could inhale, but exhaling caused the kind of pain that sent tremors from my middle spine to the toes of my right foot. I lay flat in bed, counting shallow breaths between spasms. I worked up to five consecutive breaths without the sensation of being stabbed in the ribs, or kicked in the kidneys. With concentration, I managed a minimum of fifteen breaths between the violent spasms that seized my right leg, for the rest of the night.

I was laid out in this condition for the majority of my mother’s first visit to New York. She had essentially driven five hours to pick me up and drive 45 minutes to a new chiropractor. I only recognized the self-inflicted nature of my pain when I got to the item on his form that read “list any chronic or recurring conditions,” and felt inclined to write “lapses in common sense.”  Fortunately, the good doctor made the adjustments that relieved the offending nerve, allowing Mom and I to enjoy lunch at a trendy coffee shop before returning home to rest.

Thursday morning I awoke feeling well enough to be present and make breakfast for everyone. Dave and Casey left early for another record-breaking day of maple sugaring, Mom set off for her trip back home and Walker and I set out for a walk in the cool morning rain. I became faintly aware of a rebounding ache to the left of my lower thoracic spine. The awkward footsteps through five inches of slush on two inches of mud became more work than they should have been. I walked with bent back, silently insisting I was well enough to manage a little thing like a dog walk. I made it a good four-hundred yards before I spotted the most delicious looking cushion of cool, untouched, wet snow and lurched toward it like an old dog preparing for one more glorious roll in the last patch of spring slush. I let the pillows of slush quiet my back muscles while the rain rinsed my face. When I could no longer hear Walker’s tags in the distance, I fished the GPS out of my pocket and watched his track trace the path two rabbit hunters had followed the previous week. Lucky dog. I’d been nagging him to stay out of that mess, but now that I lay here he could have his fun without me. I smiled knowing how good we both felt just then. His prancing-dog icon on the GPS screen rejoined our intended trail at the far end, and stopped. He made the sharp left and steadily followed the track to my position. I set the handset down, closed my eyes, and listened for his tags. When he arrived he licked the rain off my face before licking the pocket that held his treats.  Always the gigolo, this guy.

I pulled myself together enough to hand him some kibble and get us both home and dry.  I climbed into bed with an ice pack, and set an alarm to be sure I made it to the next chiropractic appointment. Walker, unnecessarily, used his stealth-crawl to climb up beside me, and dropped his head on my legs. Later, he followed me to the door and I made the snap decision to bring him along, aware that I was taking advantage of his company by subjecting him to a drive he’d rather skip too.

The second adjustment worked as well as the first and Doc’ gently suggested that I renew my yoga practice, with attention to core strength, once the muscles recovered from their recent unwelcome activities. Walker and I headed for the dog park, where I could assess my condition while his forward progress would be kept in check by the many scents on the trail. It seemed like a good plan, until I realized I’d left the bag of gadgets at home, an hour of bumpy roads to the north. There was no way I could ask him to endure the drive home without so much as a walk in the park, so I let him go, commando.

Six months ago, when I discovered this park with Miss Casey, I lamented the thought that I would never be able to bring my wandering rascal here, off lead. Since then, he and I have spent all of our days and nights together, learning about each other and learning to communicate. I don’t ask for anything I don’t need, and he does what he’s asked. He’s even learned to slow down and wait for Casey when we are not able to indulge in two separate walks. When he and I are alone, he stretches his limits, but seems to use what I call my “auditory plume” to track me. The more noise I make, the farther he’ll range. If I move quietly, he’ll appear in the distance for an instant of eye contact or instruction before disappearing again. The behavior is measurable by GPS, and statistically significant. Perhaps I’ll write a journal article about it someday. Meanwhile, I just had to trust my judgement and his impulse control.

We moved slowly along a popular stretch of near-level trail. He carefully sniffed ferns, stumps, root balls and rocks. I lumbered along, achy but happy, and occasionally leaning on trees to wait for him, waiting for me. He slipped out of sight a few times, forcing me to use my own Scooby-senses to track him. I listened for his footsteps. Silence prevailed. I wondered how much trust to extend and considered giving him a hoot when I heard an enthusiastic lapping sound in the gully below. Sensing my gaze, he hoisted his dripping rump out of the mud-hole and we both had a good laugh. He rocketed up to my side and shook to share his mess (which, I like to tell unsuspecting sunbathers “that means he loves you”) and we carried on. He slipped ahead once again, and I heard the splashing sounds of his vigorous over-mark, followed by an equally vigorous “burnout.” Rocks and mud clods sailed across the trail ahead, indicating that his back paws spun wildly while his front paws held firm on the brakes. Finally, we neared the end of the loop and I called him back. He turned and bounded at me as if he’d been waiting for that moment all day. I completely forgot myself and flapped my arms, squealing and cheering my champ, my gigolo, my healer.

 

IMG_20160401_130305769
Mat warmer, muse, mama’s best friend

Making Tracks

IMG_20160321_094915533

What peculiar fun it must be, to move like an otter. Boing. Swoosh. Boing. Swoosh.  I’ve never actually seen one in motion on land, and until now I’ve never found a track in the woods. I’ve seen it only in charts and books, so I experienced a few nanoseconds of mental gymnastics before identifying it. My mind’s eye first conjured an ATV with one flat tire and a bad transmission, bucking and leaping down the old woods road. Whatever made the Boing-Swoosh track had been first to venture forth from nearby water, freshly freed of ice, like the primordial emergence of spring itself. I envisioned the sea leopard from Alfred Lansing’s Endurance.  What an ugly trauma that must have been, to have a fanged mass of predatory blubber and fins lurching and sliding in pursuit until a sharp-shooting shipmate could dispatch it before you were reduced to fish bait.

 

IMG_20160321_101201686

Those intrepid explorers have been on my mind recently, and not just Shackleton’s lot, but all of those who traveled to parts unknown where creatures and landscape could become familiar only by observation and experience. While I’ve recently moved from one North Country to another, then north of the North Country, I can only pretend to be intrepid in the 21st century. Walker and I wander the backcountry with modern gadgets and fabrics, leaving a hearty dinner to cook on its own in the crock. We roam the landscape surrounding our new home just to see how it’s shaped and what it holds, but our commonalities with the explorers of old are hardly more than an abundance of curiosity and restlessness. In our first two weeks, we’ve discovered new tracks and smells. We’ve found drumming logs, alder swamps, aspen stands and the biggest black cherry burl I’ve ever seen. We’ve found vast tracts of public lands, and daunting assemblages of posted / no trespassing signs. We’ve bumped into remote camps, ski trails, spent shells, empty bottles and other signs of human existence. We’re alone, but never truly isolated.

IMG_20160320_115130819

In 1912, Teddy Roosevelt, his son Kermit, Brazilian explorer Cândido Rondon and an agglomeration of men with dubious qualifications set out to paddle an uncharted Amazon tributary in dugout canoes, just to see where it went. They dug the hulls out of trees, and repeatedly did so when one or another of their craft was destroyed or lost to the river. When the river became too wild to paddle, they built roads around miles-long stretches of rapids and waterfalls, by felling trees and laying corduroy, over which they would drag and pry their unwieldy loads. They hunted for subsistence, survived hostile animals and secretive indigenous people, and also a murderer in their own ranks. Their families knew nothing of their condition or survival until they returned, months later than expected.


I think of them, with a kind of nervous nostalgia, when I’m following a gated road or game trail just to see where it goes. Here, at the periphery of New York’s North Country though, there are no piranhas or carnivorous monkeys, and certainly there are no sea leopards. I’ve yet to even spook a moose. My metered doses of isolation usually involve a consultation with topographical maps or satellite imagery on Google earth, while I sip coffee in my bathrobe fresh from the dryer. Dave always knows my starting point and general direction, and I always intend to be home for supper. I carry a compass and never walk farther than I’m willing to backtrack when terrain precludes a loop, which it typically does. I also record my track, and Walker’s, on GPS for later download and reconciliation on those satellite photos. I’ll electronically mark things like camps, posted signs, trail heads, junctions and of course drumming logs and coveys.

Occasionally, the gadgetry is more distracting than helpful. The day after we arrived at our new home, Dave suggested that I “take the dog, walk northwest, and look for woodcock habitat.” Mountains of boxes remained to be unpacked, broken down and recycled, but he intended to blow it off to make time for an early sap run and he was suggesting I do the same. Walker and I wandered a web of truck roads and ski trails in a nearby sliver of the 72,000 acre Santa Clara tract. The habitat we passed through reminded me of a dozen places we’d known in New Hampshire, including Cedar Stream Road in Pittsburg, Mill Brook State Forest in Jefferson, Amos Emery Road in the Nash Stream State Forest, and a sundry of private tracts and trails we had access to. It was a little early for worm diggers, but the place had potential. We stopped at a landing that served as a divide between a pair of feeder streams headed for the East Branch of the St. Regis river. A foot path lead to a trail head registry for a hike called the Pinnacle. This junction offered more options than could be entertained in a day, so I pulled out the GPS to mark it for later. I was vaguely conscious of the rattling tags and scampering trot happening behind me as I fumbled with the arcane keypad. Walker’s active panting gained a click and snort feature as his excitement amped up. I remember thinking it was nice that he was enjoying himself enough to stay close while I typed. Then I heard it: the unmistakable tweetle of a flushed timbderdoodle. Walker turned to me with a hard stop, and I took his glare to mean “Don’t tell me you were looking at that pocket computer!”

These tricks of the 21st century supplement my wanting hippocampus, but there is no substitute for experience.  All of those marks and images and maps only make it possible to imagine my surroundings.  My sense of place comes from the footsteps I take as I wonder those hills, posthole in late season snow until I find the south slopes and bare ground, or climb out of the muskeg and make time in the open understory of a maple stand, where the christmas fern and deadfall are still flat to the ground. It’s a bit like being one of Randolf Menzel’s bees, as described by Bern Heindrich in The Homing Instinct: if removed from her home and released elsewhere, she’ll zoom and festoon through her new surroundings at great expense of energy, until she learns it, recognizes it, and beelines for home at will.

IMG_20160318_101308126