Friday, August 8, 2008

A Month of Adventures (Week One): Working Pack Dog

Working Pack Dog: Acadia sleeps in my backpack

With clearing skies, yesterday, Eric and I along with Sobo, Okemo, and Acadia set off for a canicross hike up Mt. Abraham in the Green Mountains of Vermont.

Canicross is a dog-powered sport involving cross country hiking or running while your dog pulls you. It requires the dog to know basic dog sledding commands such as gee, haw, on by, and line out and it requires the dog to pull. The hiker wears a canicross belt around his or her waist, the dog wears a dog sledding harness (we use x-back harnesses), and the dog is connected to the hiker with a 7-8 foot line usually with an integrated shock absorber. The shock absorber, absorbs energy and takes the shock off of the hiker and dog during starts and stops.

Our hiking guide, 100 Classic Hikes of the Northeast, euphemistically described this hike as "a favorite first hike for families." Clearly, they were not referring to out of shape lowlanders. All kidding aside, Eric and I spend a lot of time hiking with the dogs and found this hike to be difficult both in terms of the elevation gain and the terrain (boulders) for the last .2-.3 miles.

Mt. Abraham is 4006 feet high with a total climb of approximately 1700 feet over 2.3 miles. Round trip, the hike was 5.6 miles and it took us approximately 6 hours of hiking with a break at the summit to eat lunch and enjoy the views.

After driving to Lincoln Gap, we harnessed the dogs into their x-back dog sledding harnesses, hooked them up to our canicross belts, and set off. The dogs pulled consistently up the rough and, at times, muddy trail. Because there were many trees in the trail along our route, we used directional dog sledding commands such as "gee" and "haw" to tell the dogs to go left or right around the trees.

The first 1.3 miles of the hike is a mostly up hill albeit fairly gentle (for Vermont) and winding climb towards the Battell Shelter through a pine forest. Throughout the hike, we could smell the pungent pine scent of the trees making the entire hike smell like one giant Christmas Tree.

Sobo demonstrates "line out"

Okemo pulls hard up hill.

A moss covered downed tree

A cluster of mushrooms along the trail

We stopped briefly at the Battell Shelter to rest and take a few photos. Back on the trail, the sign for Mt. Abraham pointed upward and indicated there was another .9 of a mile to the summit. The last .9 of a mile took us over 1.5 hours to do. It's a tough stretch of trail that our guide book described as "a bit of scrambling on a few slabs" of rock. Given this surprisingly gentle description, Eric and I were unprepared for the long, tough, scramble up nearly vertical slabs of rock. Complicating things further, due to the heavy rains, the rock slabs were wet and hence a bit slippery in several places. The dogs, however, did wonderful, pulling hard up the uneven terrain and following our "easy," "whoa," and "wait" commands nicely.

Eric resting with all three pups at the Battell Shelter

Are we there yet?

Approaching the top

Unfortunately, we reached the summit just as the clouds began rolling in over the mountain so the views were slightly less spectacular than they could have been. Reaching the summit, our eight week old puppy, Acadia, was clearly pooped. She immediately curled up next to Eric (her favorite person on the face of the earth) and went to sleep not even to be roused by the smell of our sandwiches or chips.

Sleepy Acadia

More views from the top

Sobo, Okemo and me at the top of Mt. Abe

Eric, Sobo, and Okemo at the top of Mt. Abe

Acadia curled up in my backpack.

Sobo and Okemo, however, were still clearly good to go on and summit Lincoln Peak, Mt. Ellen, Camels Hump, etc. Our plan for the day, however, was to return to our vehicle parked at Lincoln Gap the way we had come up so after a brief respite we set down the steep and challenging terrain. In some respects, going down steeply, especially with two motivated sled dogs pulling along and one sleepy puppy is far tougher than going up. For the descent (and most all descents) we usually "de-power" the dogs since we do not want them pulling us down and off the mountain. Thus, instead of hooking to their harness tugs (and thereby telling them to pull), we connect the line to their collars (thereby communicating "do not pull."). We also had plenty of opportunities to work on the "whoa" and "easy" commands on the way down.

A "de-powered" Okemo and Sobo

Views from the top

Sobo rests at the top of Mt. Abe

Before we left the top of the mountain, it was clear to us that little puppy butt, Acadia, was tired when she crawled into my back pack and went soundly to sleep. Since we figured it might be easier to carry her down the first steep, scramble over the rock slabs, Eric zipped her into my backpack, leaving room for her head to peak out of the top, and we all set off down the mountain joking that Acadia was working on her "working pack dog title." Do the miles count if the dog rides in the pack? All kidding aside, we would love to have Acadia earn a real working pack dog title when she is a little older just as her father, Orion, has.

Heading down, Eric and I returned to our dog truck parked at Lincoln Gap about 2.5 hours after leaving the top of Mt. Abe with sore knees and two tired adult sled dogs and one not so tired because she slept in the back for the ride down, sled pup.