My wife and I enjoy the company of two very active Australian Shepherds, Koira and Aspen. Both have boundless energy and love the outdoors. They have been my hiking companions for years. Last year Aspen’s hip dysplasia advanced to the point where I knew not to take her on any more steep climbs. Koira still appeared to be un-phased by the fact that she was nine years old.
On July 5th, 2008, Koira and I left for a day traverse of Giant Mountain and Rocky Peak Ridge in the Adirondack High Peaks. The traverse from W to E is about 11 miles and over 4,000 feet of vertical climb. It is by no means an easy day hike, but I thought well within our collective comfort level. Lillian and my dad dropped us off at the Zander Scott (Ridge) trailhead at about 9 AM. I predicted our pace and said we’d see them at the Elizabethtown trailhead at 3 or 4 PM. The day was warm for the Adirondacks, though by no means hot, and the views were going to be fantastic. I heeded cautions about lack of water along the route and was lugging 3 liters for the two of us.
Off we went, on a VERY popular hiking trail. Koira’s enthusiasm for being on the trail was only surpassed by that when she first saw or smelled the Giant’s Washbowl and enjoyed a good splash. We climbed and the views got better and better. We reached the summit of Giant after about two hours and enjoyed a snack on the top. My dog naturally appeared a bit winded but was happily sprawled on a rock enjoying the breeze.
We backtracked just a bit and took the trail junction over to Rocky Peak Ridge. Trail traffic immediately went from busy to non-existent. The ridge is a long series of bald knobs and a lot of short but steep ups and downs. It was about the time that we reached Mary Louise Pond on the summit ridge that I realized something wasn’t just right with Koira. She stood chest deep in the muck of the pond and really didn’t seem excited about continuing our hike. After a bit of coaxing I got her to proceed.
We hiked for about another half mile. At the top of a steep downhill she abruptly sat down in the middle of the trail. Quite suddenly her body language said enough was enough. No amount of coaxing could get her going again. I didn’t know if the problem was sore paws, sore legs, or overheating and exhaustion. It didn’t really matter. She wasn’t going to move. We had about four miles left to go and a net 3000-foot descent.
What could I do? After about 15 minutes of unsuccessful coaxing I picked up my 45-pound dog and started carrying her down the mountain. For those that haven’t had the pleasure, this SERIOUSLY slows your pace on a steep descent. Having a dog slung over one shoulder also tends to throw off your balance. Luckily, the one time I fell I didn’t do so on top of the dog. Of course, I couldn’t do this continuously since I had no sort of harness. We had to take a lot of breaks.
After a while, another hiker passed us, inquiring if everything was OK. I told him that we were OK, but that my wife was meeting us at the trailhead and to please let her know that we were going to be significantly delayed. We didn’t see or hear anyone else for a couple of hours. The clock ticked by. I knew with absolute certainty that we were going to get off the mountain well before nightfall, but it was taking time and considerable effort. Occasionally I’d put Koira down and she’d stumble several steps, but that was about it.
We finally reached the Rt. 9 trailhead about 6:30 PM. The parking lot was deserted. Oh well, I was happy to be out. We found a place to sit underneath a tree and wait for our ride. After a few minutes Lillian and my dad showed up. They had just returned from calling the State Police, who in turn relayed the call to the DEC ranger service. Apparently the verbal message I had sent along with the other hiker got translated to “he’s carrying the dog and needs help”. Lillian hiked up the trail quite a ways but never found us. She returned and wanted to get help before dark. After only a few minutes a ranger pulled up. I assured her that all was well and thanked her for the prompt response.
We got cleaned up and headed back towards Indian Lake, stopping for dinner along the way. Koira enjoyed a few of Aspen’s Rimadyl anti-inflammatory pills during the following days. It took her a while to get over it, but she wound up being fine. We know that at least part of the problem was some seriously abraded paw pads. I’ve read about some remedies like the liquid band-aid product that I am going to try with future hiking companions.
I’m mainly reporting this to you to list the lessons learned. I hope this tale can help someone with their trip planning in the future. I also hope you’ll accept this report’s good nature and not incite debate over dogs on trails, dogs on leashes, dogs in wilderness areas, etc. My dogs are trained not to attack wildlife. Enough said.
· Don’t overestimate the fitness of your canine hiking companion as he or she ages. Our expectations are usually too optimistic, because we can’t stand to think of them as anything other than youthful and full of energy. In reality, the aging process may be a significant step change rather than a gradual decline.
· You need to make the activity level judgment call, because your pup won’t do it. Your dog won’t tell you it is too much until it is too late. They live to have fun and to please you.
· Be especially conservative with your trip plans if you have a large dog. I was lucky here in that Koira was small enough, though not easy, to carry. If I had a 90-pound Labrador we would have been up on the mountain overnight waiting on a SAR attempt.
· Set two time expectations for completing a trip. 1) Expected time you are going to show up. 2) Time after which it is reasonable to assume something bad has happened and to notify emergency services.
· If you send word ahead for someone meeting you, do it in writing if at all possible.
My dogs and I still greatly enjoy being out in the woods together. However, now we restrict our hikes to three or four miles and over generally flatter terrain. By the way, in case you are curious, “Koira” is Finnish for “dog”.
Update: Koira left our world on January 30th, 2010 due to a rare and very aggressive form of canine cancer. There is a tribute to her and an explanation of the disease here
. We hope she is climbing mountains and swimming happily in puppy heaven.