Tag Archive 'hiking with dogs'

Jan 15 2014

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Icy Hike

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winter hike at duskBecause of the thick coat of ice covering everything during the past few weeks, my dog Matika and I haven’t been outdoors much. Restless and feeling pent up, we went out Monday in spite of it.

A January thaw had melted off most of the ice and snow. All the same, the trail was difficult to negotiate. Good thing I was wearing Yaktrax rubber and wire traction devices on my boots. Without them I would have been sliding all over the place. As things were, I did better than Matika.

I was busy doing literary work most of the day so we didn’t leave the house until late in the afternoon. That put us on the trail just before dusk. We did a short loop that only took an hour. I had stashed a headlamp in a jacket pocket before leaving the house, but I really didn’t want to use it.

A little exercise, fresh air, and the sound of wind whispering through the trees. These are reasons enough to go for a hike no matter what the conditions are, even in the dead of winter. Matika is always ready when I am. The hardest part is getting out of the house.

From an icy ledge, I enjoyed a good view of Mount Mansfield all blue and frigid-looking in the distance. A short while later, a swath of pink streaked across the sky. I caught glimpses of it through the barren trees.

In winter, when the flora and fauna are dormant, the elemental aspects of the natural world are more pronounced. Every time I witness it, I resolve to get out more this time of year. But the dire warnings of weather forecasters keep me hunkered down at home more often than not. My mistake.



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Sep 08 2013

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Canine Companion

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Matika, JA photoYesterday, while I was out promoting my Adirondack book, a fellow asked me what my next adventure would be. I told him that I wanted to do the Cohos Trail in northern New Hampshire. Would I be hiking it alone? he inquired. No, I told him, my dog Matika will be accompanying me. He looked at me like I was crazy.

I have a few friends whose company I enjoy on the trail, and I like going out with my wife Judy every once in a while, but Matika is my #1 hiking companion. She’s my #1 fishing companion, too. In fact, during the past seven years, she has been with me on nearly every outing. Usually I mention her sniffing around in the background. Occasionally I write about her at length. Sometimes I don’t mention her at all. But she is almost always there.

Matika is a long-haired German shepherd that Judy and I rescued from an animal shelter in 2006. Her origin is hazy but we know the breed. We had another dog like her several years earlier. When we rescued her, the vet told us she was about a year old. In dog years, that makes her about my age now. If we’re going to do another trek together, we’d better do it soon.

Matika is smart, quite attentive, and gentle. She’s a good dog. She’s bossy with other dogs, though – a trait I haven’t been able to correct. She loves people. I can’t help but feel she’d make a good companion to a good number of dog handlers. But it’s my good fortune (and Judy’s) to have her in my life.

Matika loves the woods as much as I do. She also likes her soft bed and other creature comforts so I had my doubts about her penchant for wildness at first. But that doubt vanished when she hiked the 100 Mile Wilderness with me. After that trek, I’ve called her Wilderness Dog. And for the most part she has lived up to the name.

We’ve walked many brooks, bushwhacked, and hiked countless miles together. We’ve been overheated, bug-bitten, cold, rain-soaked, and muddy together more often than I care to recall. She’s slept with me beneath the tarp so many times that it would seem strange now to sleep under it without her. Matika is not my pet. Nor am I her master. She’s my canine companion, and there is no one who understands my wildness better, my wife notwithstanding.

Who is going with me on the Cohos Trail?  Wilderness Dog, of course. And that seems perfectly natural to me.


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May 14 2013

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Springtime Overnighter

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spring hikeA tidal wave of green sweeps through the Champlain Valley during a succession of warm, dry days, giving me a serious case of spring fever. There’s no sense fighting it. I load my backpack, usher my dog into the car and head for the hills. Next thing I know, I’m hiking up a logging road winding deep into the mountains.

The road narrows to a trail shortly after crossing a brook. I leave the trail, following the brook upstream until I reach the edge of spring. There I find painted trilliums just opening up. There I set up my tarp on a high piece of ground, just in case the clouds gathering overhead deliver the rain that has been forecasted.

The stream rushes along incessantly. A few black flies swirl around my head without biting. I collect enough dry wood to keep a small fire going after dinner. Matika chews a stick, then another. The intoxicating smell of pollen, warm earth and forest rot fills the air. A slight breeze spits a few raindrops my way. I don’t care.

I feed sticks into the campfire for hours on end. A hermit thrush sings in the distance. Darkness descends. Then an eerie calm overtakes the forest.

A light rain falls shortly after Matika and I slip beneath the tarp for the night. It doesn’t last. I toss and turn a while before falling into a deep sleep. I awaken to a Virginia waterthrush singing loudly at daybreak. Matika licks me until I rise.

I stumble down to the brook to splash cold water into my face. The sun clears the ridge, peeking through the trees as I lounge before a breakfast campfire. When all the sticks in my woodpile are gone, I break camp.

An hour hike out takes two hours. I admire a patch of bleeding hearts along the way and stop by the brook crossing to daydream. Matika sniffs around. A forest calm lingers within long after I return to the car. The green overtaking the valley seems richer than it was the day before. I revel in it.


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Mar 19 2012

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Early Spring Hike

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Judy kicked me out of the house yesterday, telling me that I badly needed to go for a hike in the woods. I didn’t argue. I was exhausted from yet another week of burning the candle at both ends but recognized the therapeutic power of getting outdoors. So I grabbed my pack and went. Matika was right on my heels, of course.

With the snow completely gone in the Champlain Valley and temps soaring into the 70s, there was no denying the outbreak of spring. The brown countryside I drove through looked more like March than April. What the heck, why not take advantage of the situation? I headed for the mountains.

The logging road I hiked up was soft and muddy – easy on my tired feet. I plodded along conserving what little energy I had. Matika, on the other hand, was all over the place sniffing about and running wildly. Silly dog.

I crept past a closed gate, some maple syrup lines and a blown beaver pond. Hardly any snow on the ground for the first mile, but that changed quickly once I crossed the Smith Brook, entering a copse of hemlocks. There the snow cover was patchy. A few minutes later I crossed the brook a second time, reaching the retreating edge of winter. I stopped for lunch. No point going any farther uphill.

Robin, fly, butterfly. At 1200 feet the natural world wasn’t exactly teeming with life, but the first signs of spring were apparent all the same. The murky brook was half full of runoff. Remnant moss and ferns offered green hope. The bright sun blazing through naked trees gave the forest a surreal look. I soaked it all in while slouching against a tree, daydreaming.

A handful of snow rubbed across my sweaty brow. A splash of mud on my pants as Matika raced past. And the raw, distinct smell of the earth awakening. That’s all I needed to celebrate the Spring Equinox a little in advance. The world this time of year is supposed to be stark, almost barren, stripped down to essentials. I expected nothing else. So the robins singing loudly later on at dusk came as a pleasant surprise.


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Jan 19 2012

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Deep Freeze

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A change in weather over the weekend reminded me that it gets cold here in Vermont – wicked cold. Temps dropped below zero, and my enthusiasm for a long-awaited hike on my day off dropped with it.

I awoke Monday morning to single digits. Warmer, but not warm. So I puttered about the house while the mercury climbed. By late morning it was 10 degrees Fahrenheit. Hmm… that would have to do. I put on four layers of wools and thermals beneath my shell and went out.

A town forest twenty minutes from home seemed like the place to go. I wasn’t in the mood to drive any farther than that. Commuting to work every day does that to you.

Told Judy before leaving the house that I’d be glad to be in the woods once I was there. That was true but the chill that came when I broke a sweat kept me from lingering. I walked about an hour through the forest, cutting tracks through several inches of fresh snow, then called it quits. Outside just long enough for my beard to ice over. No more.

My dog Matika would have stayed out longer. Tracks of deer, squirrel, field mouse, you name it – there was plenty to sniff. She ran back and forth through the snow like she was born to it. Yeah, she has a heavy winter coat as most long haired German shepherds do.

Had the place all to myself for an hour. That was nice. Enjoyed the way the sun broke through the trees when the clouds opened up, and the way the snow clung to the boughs of conifers when they didn’t. But it was just a tad too cold to reflect upon the wonders of wild nature any more than that.

Fixed cup of hot chocolate as soon as I got home, then thawed out. It wasn’t enough of a hike to blow away all my stinky, mid-winter thoughts, but it would have to do. For now, that is. Next time I have a day off from work and temps rise into the twenties, I’ll go out for a much longer walk.  No doubt Matika will be ready to roll when I do.


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Apr 15 2011

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Mud and Water

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After a week on the road, I wanted to reconnect with my home turf.  French Hill seemed like just the place to do that, so I parked my car in front of a closed gate yesterday and tramped into the quasi-public reserve there.  I went looking for signs of spring, of course.  It’s that time of year.

Matika ran about, wild and free.  She was absolutely elated to be in the woods again.  My reaction was a bit more subdued.  I felt relief, pure and simple.  The world is mad.  The quiet forest is the only thing that makes any sense to me.

Nearly a thousand feet above the Champlain Valley, the high rolling ground around French Hill is still recovering from winter.  Patches of snow linger on the forest floor, and both beaver ponds are still half covered with ice.  I visited the larger one first since it was close to the logging trail.  My boots sank deep into the mud.  My tracks filled with water.  Here in Vermont, you don’t enter the woods this time of year unless you’re okay with mud and water.

A few peepers chirped from the edges of the large pond – hardly the chorus I had hoped for.  Spring is coming late this year, thanks to all the snow that fell this winter.  That’s okay.  It felt good to have soft earth underfoot regardless.

I had to bushwhack to reach the smaller beaver pond.  I followed the tiny stream flowing down from the larger pond then approached smaller one slowly.  Three mallards were floating there.  I didn’t want to disturb them so I kept Matika behind me.

Woodpeckers had been busy digging in a dead tree along the edge of the pond.  The beaver lodge on the far end of the pond had a few new sticks piled on top of it.  The mallards swam over to the icy half of the pond then went for a short walk.  I watched them for a while before following a fresh set of deer tracks back to the logging trail.  Matika and I spooked the deer a few minutes later.

Before leaving the smaller pond, I found the bright green shoots of false hellebore breaking through the forest duff.  I almost stepped on them.  Didn’t think much about it until I reached my car, but those shoots were the first new vegetation I’ve seen in the Vermont woods this year.  John Burroughs once wrote that the first signs of spring are always down low in the wet spots, not on the high, dry ridges.  It makes sense really.  After all, mud and water is what early spring is all about.

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Mar 29 2011

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Winter Kill

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A big thaw about a week and a half ago melted off most of the snow in my yard.  That and the return of robins, blackbirds and geese gave me an early case of spring fever.  But temps have hovered around freezing since then, making me surly.  It’s been a long, snowy winter this time around, and I’m ready to see the end of it.

I reworked my Paris travel book this morning, getting it ready for publication.  At first working on it was a pleasant escape from the reality out my window.  But after a while, it got to me.  I can only take that bubbly, upbeat narrative a few hours at a time.  It really doesn’t suit my end-winter mood.

I went for a short hike this afternoon, more to burn fat than anything else.  I had expected the temps to climb into the 40s by now.  No such luck.  So I donned my thermals for what I hope will be the last time this year.  Then I loaded my dog Matika into the car and headed for the Rail Trail.

The trail was clear at first, while we were passing through farmer’s fields, but quickly turned to hard-packed snow under the cover of trees.  Yeah, it’s still winter in the woods.

Matika was happy to be outside, as always.  There were plenty of new and interesting smells to keep her busy.  I let her do her thing undisturbed while I trudged along leaving tracks in the snow.  I daydreamed about finding the first shoots of skunk cabbage, or some other sign of spring.  Maple sap lines appeared.  That’s about all.

Where’s Matika?  I looked around, catching her silhouette against the snow about thirty yards off trail.  She was tugging at something.  I called her away from whatever it was that she had found, then went over to investigate.  Sure enough, the bloody leg bones of an unlucky deer protruded from the snow.  I didn’t have to dig up the rest of it to know what had happened.  Like I said, it has been a long, snowy winter.

A short while later, Matika and I found the fresh tracks of another deer pressed deep into a muddy stretch of snow-free trail – a survivor most likely searching for food.  I turned us around before spotting it, concerned that my canine companion might give chase.  We had gone far enough, anyway.  And while walking back to the car, keenly aware of my winter fat, I wasn’t quite as surly as I’d been before.

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Mar 16 2011

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Almost Spring

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A sunny day with temps in the high 30s.  Good day to head for the hills, so that’s what I do after a few hours of desk work.  “Is that a robin?” I ask myself, catching the shadowy shape of one on a rooftop while loading gear into my car.  On second look, it’s gone.  Maybe I was just imagining it.  Too early for migrating birds.  After all, there’s still a foot of heavy snow on the ground.

Stepping out of my car at the trailhead, I immediately hear the rush of water.  I walk over and, sure enough, there’s Preston Brook open and running fast towards the lowlands.  That puts a smile on my face.  I strap snowshoes to my rucksack and shoulder the load.  A trail of hard-packed snow points up Honey Hollow Road – closed for the season to all vehicles.  Then I begin what should be my last winter hike, going deeper into the mountains.

For nearly an hour I trudge steadily uphill, putting one foot in front of the other.  My dog Matika dashes from one sniffing spot to the next.  The woods are full of good smells this time of year.  Hares, squirrels and other forest creatures are awakening and moving about.

When the road levels out a bit, I fasten the snowshoes to my boots and leave the trail.  Matika runs across a thick crust of snow.  I sink no more than an inch into it, pleasantly surprised by this ease of movement.  Good thing.  Soon I’m following the trace of an old skidder trail next to a deeply cut ravine, descending rapidly towards the brook.  It’s a bushwhack now, just me, my dog and the trackless wild.

A smile breaks across my face when I spot the brook again.  It is rock-strewn and running hard, but still wide open and as clear as any mountain stream gets on a cloudless day.  The sun burns bright through naked trees, warming my face.  I’m hatless and in shirtsleeves now, yet still breaking a sweat.  Matika catches a scent then so do I.  It’s the nearly forgotten smell of the earth just beginning to thaw out.  Several days before the equinox, it is almost but not quite spring.  I caress exposed ferns and moss growing on the side of a huge boulder before following the brook farther downhill.

Matika cavorts about the woods, delirious with the freedom of the hills.  I tramp along as if living a dream.  The warm season is about to unfold in all its muddy, wet, bug-ridden glory.  And that’s a prospect that makes me happier than words can say.

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Jan 07 2011

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Deep In It

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My dog Matika was restless so we had to do something.  Okay, maybe I was a little restless, too, having stayed indoors doing literary work for a week or more.  At any rate, we headed for Aldis Hill the other day despite the weather.

I had hoped for a daylong excursion in the mountains but a morning snow shower nixed that.  The prospect of a forty-minute, white-knuckle drive each way along greasy roads did not appeal to me.  Better to stay close to home and leave the bigger outing for a sunny day.  So I headed for the hill.

We hiked up Aldis Hill as a light snow shower tapered off to the occasional flurry.  Almost immediately I regretted not having a pair of Yaktrax with me –  a simple device that slips over each boot, providing traction on icy surfaces.  A couple inches of fresh snow concealed the hazardous conditions underfoot.  Last weekend’s melt-off had turned the hill into a great mound of ice.  Oh well.

Matika didn’t care.  She ran through the woods all smiles, as sure-footed as a mountain goat.  I hobbled along, paying more attention to where I stepped than to the surrounding snow-covered woods.  Near the top of the hill, I stopped long enough to enjoy the view eastward towards French Hill.  And that’s when it struck with full force:  deep in it now.  Deep into winter and there’s nothing to do now but endure.  A fortnight past the Solstice, the days are getting longer, yes, but it’ll be another month before that’s noticeable.  Until then it’s the deep freeze with long dark evenings, a lot of shoveling, and difficult driving.

Descending the hill was even more treacherous than ascending it.  I caught myself wishing for a lot more snow so that I could break out my snowshoes.  That’s how woods walkers like me embrace winter.  Those whose moods run closer to the surface glide down slopes on skis, but some of us would rather slog along, sinking half a foot into the white stuff with each step.    What the hell, if it’s going to be winter we might as well be waist-deep in it.

Matika doesn’t care.  Winter, spring, summer or fall, it’s all good to her.  Dogs are even better than children at being in the moment.  But I am more than half a century old, think too much, and am always looking ahead.  So I dream of warmer, sunnier days even as the cool, fresh air fills my lungs.

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Nov 18 2010

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Hiking at Dusk

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After running errands in Burlington, I went to Indian Brook Reservoir to exercise my dog and stretch my legs.  It was already late afternoon by the time I reached the trailhead.  The dark gray sky overhead made it seem even later in the day than it was.  No matter.  With less than an hour of light left, Matika and I headed down the trail.

Deer hunting season is in full swing now.  My wife had insisted that I take blaze orange with me, at least for the dog.  Good thing I did.  Without it I wouldn’t have risked taking Matika into those twilight woods.  Should have had some blaze orange on myself as well.   I made my dog stay close at hand, more for my protection than for hers.

Mine was the only car in the parking lot.  Matika and I were the only creatures afoot – the only visible ones, anyhow.  A rare thing, indeed, on an otherwise busy trail.  I reveled in this unexpected solitude, until the last bit of daylight piercing through the clouds faded away.  That’s when I started thinking I should get back to the car.  By then Matika and I were a mile into the woods.

With the air temperature well above 50 degrees, it felt more like September than November.  But the defoliated trees and the shortness of the day told the real story.  Everywhere I looked: stark and uninviting woods.  The slippery mud underfoot made for slow going.  By the time I reached the feeder stream at the far end of the reservoir, the forest was dark.

Having hiked this trail many times before, I navigated it more by memory than sight.  That’s the big advantage of experience.  You come to know what to expect.  Without even seeing them, I knew where all the treacherous spots in that trail were.  I also knew that hurrying out of the dark forest would only increase my chances of falling down, so I took my time.  And I can honestly say that I thoroughly enjoyed the rest of the walk.  Life’s better when it has an edge to it.  Just a little, that is.  Just enough to vanquish petty concerns.

Daylight had completely vanished by the time my dog and I reached the parking lot.  Matika didn’t care and neither did I.  We were both happy to have hiked while we could.  We shared the liter of water that I had on hand, then climbed into the car.  I drove home by headlights, making sure to call my wife so that she wouldn’t worry.  Next time I’ll make sure to hike earlier in the day.  But darkness often comes sooner than expected this time of year.  Whatever.  I take my small pleasures when I can.

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