Mountain Dogs: An Ode to Camping With Canines
A dog is a necessity.
I’ve always had a dog in my life: Ferdinand, Polo, Ruff, Buck, Maggie, Hanna, Major Tom, Hanna (apparently I really loved the name), the countless strays my mom fostered, the dog I took with me to college—Solo—and the dog after her, Otto. Dogs are essential to me. Without a dog around I feel lost, and this sentiment only gets stronger when I’m camping. A dog is there as a marker of safety and companionship. If no one is available to pack a bag and set out into the wild with you, you can always count on your dog.
Every dog lover has an archive of good dog stories. This one is about transition.
Solo “Lady Fingers”
Solo went everywhere with me. It was only natural that she’d go camping with me, too. We started camping frequently with friends. The Uinta Mountains have been my favorite place to backpack and camp. These mountains, for those unfamiliar, are located in the North Eastern corner of Utah. They’re one of five ranges in the world that run east-west. They’re also situated so one can cruise through the corner of Wyoming and buy some strong beer to pack in.
Solo stood proud in the Uintas. She looked at home. I even once mistook her for a bear as she playfully chased a young mountain goat across the forest floor with reckless abandon, eventually losing all chances as the goat, now almost an apparition, bounced up the rock scree like a ballerina. Solo was a by-your-side kind of dog. Only the occasional wildlife distraction kept her from acting as your shadow. Camp, climb, canoe, ski, she was there. I don’t remember ever teaching her how to behave while camping—it was just something she knew. Except during thunder. She only made peace with thunder and its rumblesome ways after she went deaf. Solo added a level of security to camping.
Solo packed in her own food and never needed a leash. She was self-sufficient. She slept inside the tent only under protest. The moment she smelled the day, she forced her way out and lay sniffing the breeze. She sniffed out other animals’ remnants, she rolled in scat at every opportunity, she acquired the nickname of “Lil’ Worm” when she had a bout of worms after an encounter with a baby deer leg she found. A lady she might be, but a dog she must be.
As Solo got older, our backpacking trips grew shorter. The once 20-mile round trip turned into five miles, into two miles, into car camping or finding a friend to watch the hound. One of her last backpacking adventures had me and two friends carrying her out with a makeshift gurney. Packing out a dog of 120lbs wasn’t really an option. Her legs would fail, she’d collapse, we’d position a blanket underneath her. One – two – three – lift! She would adamantly try and get her bearings when we’d lift. She’d demand we let her walk another 10 steps or so before collapsing again. She had a couple of hikes after that one, fueled by Prednisone and Tramadol.
It felt like the crescendo of Solo had passed. It stung like the first bitter wind of winter. She passed away after 15 years of being my best friend, September 10th, 2012, in a field, with a view of the Wasatch Mountains in one direction, the Uintas perpendicular in the other.
Sir Otto Black the Great
I couldn’t bear to think of getting another dog—until the weight and loneliness of not having a dog outweighed the former sentiment. Part of it might come from being a woman. A dog made me feel safe. I didn’t implicitly know it until that hole was opened. Solo had known me for half of my life. She graduated high school and college with me. She moved to three different states with me. How could that be replaced? It couldn’t, but suddenly, that wasn’t the point anymore.
I picked Otto up in a dusty little county road town called Elmo. Otto, from Elmo. I can’t say what drew me to him. The puppy face, probably. It was December 19th, a day when the snow dusted the road and swirled. The two-hour drive was meditative. I stopped on the side of the road to let him do his business. He sauntered off, then came galloping back, straight into my arms. From that moment, it’s been about building trust. Whereas Solo had some time with me—a few years—before I took her camping, Otto has been my adventure buddy since that first day.
Training a dog to be respectful to you and to the wilderness in the outdoors isn’t as innate as Solo would have had me believe. Otto has the energy of an entire pack. He’s spry, athletic, eager. He’s been on four backpacking trips with me thus far. Each time, getting a little better than the last.
His first adventure went well. I was overly concerned, having attached a bike light and a bell to his collar in the event he wandered off too far. All dogs must have a natural aversion to being cooped up, and Otto, antsy to get out of the tent, ripped a fine hole in the mesh of my newly purchased Black Diamond tent. C’est la vie. He lay awake, intrigued at every movement in the coniferous landscape of the Uintas. I couldn’t blame him. The world, being so new; who was I to contain it?
Each trip since then he’s mellowed out more in the tent, stayed a little bit closer, and gotten quicker to come when called. Wash, rinse, repeat—so goes training a dog. Keeping it consistent. Sometimes I fear that Otto will run with reckless abandon in to the growling arms of a bear, or, more likely, into the domain of a territorial moose. Until then, I must train him to avoid distraction. I don’t know what it was about Solo that had her trusting me from so early on. Maybe it was something so gradual that I didn’t notice and never appreciated it until this new, naïve little black dog bounced into my yard. All I know is that having a dog by your side while camping, or waiting for you as you rappel down, or getting in the way of your oars as you row your boat is worth it. It’s worth holes in your tent and broken fishing rods, and it’s worth packing some extra snacks.
Where with Solo I began to grow wary of adventures too far and long for her old bones, with Otto I seek out the long road to wear him out. It’s a new energy that has me charged for more. In one breath I thought I was lost, in another, I’m found.