Flat Mountain Pond

So this weekend was kind of a big deal!

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My family camped pretty regularly when I was small and I backpacked solo (plus dog) during my college years. I had wanted, for a while, to thru-hike the Appalachian trail. Instead I bought a horse, which pretty much consumed the next decade!

But I’ve been thinking. Toying with the idea. Standing on mountains looking down into forest and pond and wanting, even while I appreciated the wide-open view, to know what was down below.

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But there were complications. Missing highly relevant pieces of gear now that I’m living in New Hampshire instead of Illinois. Titus’s injury and then Titus’s inability to sleep in the presence of humans. Weather. Fear.

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And then: this weekend. An invitation to join some friends at Flat Mountain Pond. A small, accepting, dog-loving crew with whom I felt safe enough to ask dumb questions, break out my 15-year-old gear, and believe would still like me even if a certain darling cattlefrog chose to bark all night.

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Flat Mountain Pond trail is an easy about-five-mile walk from the Bennett Street trailhead. We opted to shave a little distance and add a little climbing in exchange for scenic pools and cascades by taking the Bennett Street trail for the first part of the hike and hooking onto Flat Mountain Pond a bit later on.

I opted to start a bit after the others in the name of getting enough sleep (and to hike off my jitters without inflicting them on anybody but the dogs!). And I was a bad hiker: I looked at the map and skimmed the book description for water crossing info and obvious red flags, but didn’t bother to check the elevation gain. So I was a little surprised by hitting a short but bracingly steep stretch of trail! But I’ve been wanting to get a little more climbing into the dogs. And myself!

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I was especially proud of us all at the numerous water crossings. I worry about water. It’s an easy place for something to go badly wrong. But we were calm and methodical. I focused on the task and my foot placement and never felt uncomfortable, even when navigating some awkward spots. Titus handled his temporary off-leash privileges without making me regret them and when I opted to keep him leashed crossing, never made me regret that, either. And Lilo, who I used to have to baby across, was cool as a cucumber.

And when we reached the pond, our friends were there and we otherwise had the place to ourselves. That was exciting for everyone!IMG_5467

Fog lifted and settled and lifted again for the entirety of the trip. Sometimes we had stunning views, as above. Sometimes the pond, peaks, pines were enshrouded and those stumps seemed to float in midair. There was no bad options and the constant gentle shift was fascinating to watch.

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My gear was a mishmash of new equipment (like the Ursack bear bag that I used, with odor-barrier plastic bags, to protect my food), dayhiking stuff that I’ve acquired along the way, and my Kelty external frame pack and Walrus tent that my parents gave me high school graduation presents back in 2000.

The tent is a heavier than comparable modern tents, but pretty bombproof and — it turned out — more spacious than I had remembered. Two humans would be stretching it, but one human and two dogs worked just fine!

And the pack felt like coming home. I wouldn’t want to carry it on technical terrain, but for this, it worked just fine.IMG_5515

We do need to dial in our sleep system aside from the tent. The dogs were comfy, but I wanted more sleeping bag than I got!

And I really need to solve the bugs-biting-my-short-haired-dog issue. The flies and mosquitoes were vicious this weekend. All four dogs felt it, but poor Lilo was the only non-cattle dog on site and thus the easiest target by far. I’ve been utterly unimpressed by the “natural” sprays that I’ve tried in the past and she hates them besides. A Vectra trial last year was uninspiring. And I’m reluctant to use my own sprays on a creature that licks herself.

If the budget was endless, I’d put her in a Hurtta Sun & Bug Blocker and pick up doggy sleeping systems for them both. But alas, I have my limitations and I’m not sure the size chart accommodates her, to boot. So I’ll keep thinking. And I’m very open to suggestions if you folks have solutions that work for you!IMG_5559

I was really impressed with both dogs. They hiked beautifully in both directions and were generally good citizens in camp and in the tent. Cosleeping in the bedroom at home is still an ongoing process, so I was especially leery about the latter — but they slept better than I did! I’m not totally sure I should celebrate that, but hey.IMG_5563

As for me, I can’t remember the last time that I spent so long just sitting still, resting and relaxing, enjoying the company of friends and enjoying the company of myself. I’m doer and a goer, by nature and having Titus has both exacerbated and made me reevalaute those tendencies. I don’t rest very well when left to my own devices. But the weight-carrying hike in, the excellent and mellow company, and the perfect peace of the setting all worked its magic on me. For a day and a morning, I was able to let go and just be still.IMG_5595

And then walk back out again! I left ahead of the others on account of the very warm forecast; I wanted as much of Lilo’s hiking as possible done before it got hot. We timed it right, I think. In the last mile I was sweating even hiking downhill, but never really uncomfortable. Titus, who is the least fit of us currently, finished up tired but game. And Lilo actually seemed to get stronger as she went along (although she’s holding down the couch pretty well right now!).

Now we rest, recover, regroup. I’m not sure what or when our next outing will be. But there will be a next outing. For now, that’s enough for me.IMG_5596

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Hiking Our Own Hike

First things first: we have an Instagram now! It is cleverly usernamed @bullyandblaze. I’m be posting one or two pictures a day, either current events or older favorites, and we’ll just see where it goes from there.

Speaking of current events, I’m pleased to report that we’ve been hiking a lot lately! Our mileage is vanishingly tiny but our frequency is up from nearly zero to several times per week. Right now, frequency matters more. Contributing factors? Primarily two.

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Not these two, seen here atop tiny Bog Mountain.

Factor the first: Titus’s last check-up with our local vet. The listened thoughtfully to my assessment of our current state, conducted a careful exam, and then made it clear in the process of discussing timelines and options that he thought Titus looked pretty good and that I should go ahead and do more with him.

Sure is interesting how much better I feel about listening when a vet says that while making clear that I am heard, understood, and will be supported if things don’t go well than when they imply that I am crazy and/or stupid!

So I took a deep breath and dove in.

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Or committed to dabbling a few toes, at least.

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Look who wades in the water now!

Factor two was realizing how many new-to-me trails there are within 20-40min of my house that are totally suitable for this current project. I’d been feeling a little down, friends, about not hiking big hikes currently. Or not even about the big hikes, necessarily. Just: new places. New trails. There were so many routes on my wishlist, but precious few fit our current parameters for distance and difficultly.

Simultaneously enter a bit of creative Googling and also a new obedience class for Titus that has me driving just a slightly different direction than I had ever driven before. And thus enter a whole new list (and reminders of a few former favorites) of easy-to-moderate short hikes that don’t require spending more time in the car than we’ll spend on trail.

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South Mountain loop at Pawtuckaway. Not a new route, but one that I haven’t visited in a while and a perfect fit for date-night hiking!

So we’ve reinstated the midweeknight hike that was a favorite feature of last summer. Not enough time between work and bed for long drives or long dramatic hikes, but plenty for a few pleasant miles away from it all. Like any adventure, they don’t all work out. We made it less than a mile into a very pretty hike last week, for example, before retreating in haste from what turned out to be a mosquito hellpit! But trying things again feels good, even so.

And finally enter, once more, the reminder that there are worse fates than spending more time in the car driving through beautiful landscape than on trail hiking through same.

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The photo that I was arranging didn’t turn out as well as I’d hoped, but I love this one (taken by Paws on Peaks) even better!

I think we’re about a month away from taking another look at any of my longstanding wishlist hikes and given the way the last year has gone, it may turn out to be much longer than that. But affirmed support and new excitement are a heady combination, and we’re all enjoying getting to walk through the flowers as well as stopping to take a few sniffs of same.

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White Blaze Wednesday

IMG_4653IMG_4663IMG_4666IMG_4671We hit the road last weekend: central New Hampshire to Pittsburg, PA, and back. We drove from one green spot on the map to the next, checked out all sorts of pretty little forest roads and trails, and then on the return drive, stopped at the AT just past Bennington, VT. Many miles still lay ahead of us, but those rocks and white blazes felt an awful lot like home.

 

 

What We Did On Our Early-Summer Vacation

Or late-winter, depending on your point of view. But it is 84 degrees out there right now! This is, just for the record, about 20 degrees too many.

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The truth is that I’ve meant to write here for weeks. I would compose posts in my head and then never actually sit down and write them because their content, whatever it was, paled next to the reality that my dogs just were not doing well. Which is its own deeply infuriating saga that I’m not going to detail here except to say that I ended up rage-quitting most of the specialists in favor of our local vet clinic. This flies in the face of my every instinct when dealing with lameness — but it seems to be working for now, and at least doesn’t make me so frustrated with not being heard that I want to scream and hit things.

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Then there was a few weeks of silence when everyone was, it looked like, doing well and I was afraid to say anything and jinx it. And finally, as I began at last to believe that we were on the right track and at least to breathe again, a stretch of time when I couldn’t be bothered to write because I was too busy enjoying my dogs again.

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So we’re hiking! Sort of. We’re taking it very, very, glacially slow. We’re toddling. Tinyhikes. Two miles. Maybe three. No significant terrain or elevation change. Just decompression walks in the woods.

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It’s enough.

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It’s everything.

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We’re also training a bit more. Playing a bit more. Flirting with nosework. Hanging out on the porch in the sun.

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And Sunday was apparently opening day for cattlefrog wallowing season. So there’s that!

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I feel like we lost the winter and like, in so many ways, we’re right back where we started a year and change ago, except that this go-round it’s not only Titus who is unfit and out of practice! But I think we understand each other better now, and we’re finding all sorts of interesting new places to stroll that meet our current needs, and it’s been a long cold winter, but now the sun is out again.

At the end of his tinyhike today, Titus sat by my feet and gave me his classic, “Aren’t we so lucky?!? Isn’t this great!?!” grin.

We so very are.

It so very is.

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No Shame

“You’re doing a really good job.”

That’s what the first vet who saw Titus back when this whole saga started said at that first lameness appointment, as I gave what has become a standard apology for him not being the very best patient in the world: “I know handling skills are important. We’re working on it. He’s touch-sensitive and hasn’t been with me long enough to have made much progress yet.” Now I add, “And he’s been poked and prodded a lot recently.”

“You’re doing a really good job.”

I could have hugged her. I kind of wish that I had.IMG_4002

It’s been interesting — in a really unpleasant way — to watch how reactions have changed since then, when I walked in with an anxious but fit and clearly in-training dog. It’s been a rough going-on-eight months. No one is fit now. Everyone is rusty. I’m pushing harder for answers on relatively mild but persistent not quite rightness that, I guess, most people would let go.

And everyone, it turns out, has an opinion.

Everyone has expectations.

Here is a short list of things that I’ve been questioned, challenged, and/or outright shamed about during Titus’s recovery and Lilo’s various events. Sticking by Titus. Trying to fix him. Not giving up on his athletic future. What I feed my dogs and how much (that last repeatedly by someone who had no idea how little). What I give them to chew on. (There is literally nothing you can give a dog to chew on that someone, somewhere, will not shame you for.) Doing too much with a rehabbing dog. Not doing enough. Using Trazodone. Letting him be too active. The degradation of training and manners. Accepting delayed loss of the extra weight in the name of actually getting some training done.

A short list. I could go on.

(I’d add especially, Not spending enough time with either dog, but that one, I mostly do to myself.)

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And the thing is, I understand where every single person who said every single one of those things was coming from, just about. They all have points and concerns that are valid enough on their face. They’re all noting things that are more or less true.

But you guys, I just don’t care.

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Shame is a terrible way to teach or encourage.

And doubt is a terrible way to show support.

I’m not against discussions or questions or disagreement. I’ve also had wonderful, heartening and healing, useful conversations with people whose perspectives and priorities differed from mine. I’ve even changed my mind and behavior more than once.

The difference is, those came from a place of support not conditioned on whether I was doing what they thought that I should. Those were with people who said, or clearly meant, “You’re doing a really good job,” before we talked about how to do better. Those were the conversations that kept my chin up when the other kind, even when I held my own and pushed back, crushed me flat.

I don’t have some earth-shattering conclusion here. Just, this stuff is hard enough on its own, I guess. For values of “this stuff” that include “loving a dog who is struggling” but also just “being a human being in the world.”

It has made me kinder, I think, and more willing to stand up for my dogs and myself, and more willing to believe that other people are doing the best that they can.

I just wish we could all be nicer to each other.

So I’m trying, anyway.

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Zealand Road is the Best Road

One by one each fall, the USFS seasonal forest roads close. One by one again in the spring, they’ll reemerge from under layers of ice, snow, and mud and open back up again. In between, they belong to skiers, snowmobiles, and hikers who — mostly — are resigned to the extra miles in pursuit of winter peaks.

And, on Sunday, to me and the dogs.

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A quarter-mile of snowmobile trail allows transit from the parking lot on 302 to the start of seasonally-closed Zealand Road.

Zealand Mountain and its environs are very, very special to me. There’s a little bit of everything — beaver ponds, waterfalls, dramatic views from cliff and through notch, and interesting, ever-changing forest — in a relatively small area and somehow whenever I visit, it feels like exactly where I need to be. Lilo and I did a neighboring peak together and descended the long way, via a ridge walk and past Zealand Hut and then the road a ways back to our car during the height of foliage season. I remember thinking in astonishment and joy that even the road walk was beautiful.

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Hiking North Sugarloaf in December (I never wrote it up, but that’s where the pictures in the New Year’s hopes post came from) required walking the first part of the road and demonstrated for me that it’s beautiful in winter, too. It has been on my mind for a while. It’s low-elevation, to minimize cold and wind and danger in the winter months. Gently rolling, to build Titus’s strength without overtaxing him. Also: wide enough to get comfortable distance from fellow travelers while my hooligan dogs relearn how to hike as a team.

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That’s one way to close a road.

Our recent warm weather (and heavy traffic) have made for horrific conditions on most of the well-traveled trails. Meanwhile, the rivers are running high and fast. I don’t have any desire to tackle a 4ker until things improve substantially; it just doesn’t seem like any fun right now. Low-elevation trails are not exempt. I’d tried on Saturday to visit some friends who were camping only half a mile from the road and ended up aborting the attempt thanks to a sketchy stream crossing that, I learned the next day, also turned back and/or caused trouble for almost everybody else in the would-have-been group.

But Zealand Road has just a relatively thin layer of relatively solid snow, thanks to weather-induced consolidation and being traveled primarily by folks who know their stuff and gear up appropriately for conditions. And it is, you know, a road with car travel three seasons of the year. So the river crossings are very thoroughly bridged!

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And the views are pretty spectacular. Even on a day with moody, heavy clouds, I caught many glimpses of mountains and enjoyed the company of the rushing river…

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…and the decoration afforded by interesting boulders with their icicle farms.

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About a mile into the trek, warmed up and content in my choice of layers, swinging along with my snowshoes on for those moments when Titus needed to explore something off-trail (and happy to have upgraded last spring to a fancy lightweight set of mountaineering ‘shoes so that I never resent wearing them when it’s not strictly necessary), praising the dogs for what a good, good job their both were doing, I found myself feeling settled in a way that I haven’t for — a while now. Happy. Calm. At peace. Exactly where I needed to be. It’s often the way that I feel in this part of the Whites and a way that I haven’t been feeling, what with one thing or another, even though so much of my life is so, so good. I just breathed it in and let it be.

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My first turnaround point for this hike was the Sugarloaf trail a mile up Zealand Road. We reached that point more quickly than I had expected, with both dogs moving happily and well. So we continued towards my hard stop turnaround: Hale Brook trailhead. That was 2.5 miles in (or 2.7ish with the road walk to get to…the road walk) and was the absolute upper limit of what I felt like I could ask of Titus today without feeling like an idiot if he was sore after. We’ve done a couple of successful 4 and 4.5 mile outings since his injury, but have struggled to successfully move beyond. Must admit that I’m a little gunshy at this point about the balance of strengthening and asking too much!

Just as I was starting to see a little fatigue in the dogs (we’re all badly out of shape, remember!) and to doubt my memory’s conviction that Hale Brook had to be just around the next corner, a trio of skiers appeared and assured me that indeed, we were almost there. Not two minutes later the trail sign came into view.

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Hale Brook trailhead!

Both dogs were hungry (although Titus denied being at all ready for a break). I fed them, then myself, and we hung out for twenty minutes before packing up to head back out. The road ahead, as seen above, did look inviting! But the full 7 miles (plus snowmobile trail) was well outside my “not feeling like an idiot” range. Maybe next time!

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Titus needed a little easing into the walk back out. He struggles a bit with turnarounds for some reason and we walked for a moment with him holding onto his tug leash as an alternative to dive-bombing Lilo’s head. I busted him back down to just the Kurgo Quantum leash hooked to a belt. He’d had that plus the tug leash to the belt on the way out, for 11′ of blissful freedom, but his brain works better with fewer space to make choices when he’s a little tired. With just 6′ of play (and plenty of encouragement), he settled back into walking nicely.

It is pretty wonderful to be able to let him have a little more space, though! I’m being very cautious due to his vulnerable leg and the amount of ice still present, but more and more I’m able to give him enough room to show off his floating trot and easy, ground-covering lope (we’re trying to avoid the sprint for now!) and it is so, so good for my heart. And probably for his, too!

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Leading the way back.

I’m keeping a close eye on Lilo’s movement, too. I’ve been seeing a tiny, intermittent front-leg lameness as we’ve been ramping her exercise and dog-dog playtime back up over the last week or so. I don’t think it’s anything major. A day of rest and a dose of Rimadyl disappear it again. She presented with the same last year after hiking Moosilauke and went on to recover beautifully. Interestingly, I put her on Dasuquin with MSM after that hike up the Moose. We recently ran out of that stuff and I haven’t yet reordered it; I’ve been having her finish off some other joint supplements that Titus refuses to eat instead. They’re pretty similar on paper, but it’ll be interesting to see whether the tiny offness vanishes again once I get her back on the Dasuquin.

(I really wish I could convince Titus to eat that stuff, but he categorically rejects it. Maybe if I smashed the tablets up into powder and mixed it with his salmon oil? Act in your own best interests, dog!)

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The walk back out is slightly downhill and was smooth sailing. We even ran a verrry slightly negative split, though that’s probably attributable to the dogs needing to sniff every twig on the way out but only every third twig on the way back. We returned to the Jeep a tired and very happy crew. And my fix for the backpack hip belt buckle that I had broken (Titus helped) the previous day worked beautifully!

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First I thought about tying it, but this was much easier to remove and replace when I wanted to take the pack off for a minute. Nice to not have to go out of my way to replace the buckle ASAP!

I was a little afraid to take Titus out of his car crate upon arriving home. Happily, he looked great! I am trying to be proactive with the anti-inflammatories on days that he does more than his usual, but I’m confident that we’re not going to mask an acute setback — just hopefully minimize within-normal-limits soreness while we rebuild all that lost muscle. Now Lilo is snoring away on the floor to my right while Titus…gnaws happily on a knuckle bone to my left. Oh, my trail dog. Heal up so we can do more like this very soon!

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This is his contemplative face.