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.