Hiking the Novice Dog: Part One

I’ve been feeling self-conscious lately. I keep saying things like:

“Sorry, too many miles for the dog.”

“I’d love to, but the dog’s not ready.”

“Wish I could, but I promised the dog an easy one next time out.”

I’m a little afraid that my friends think I’m avoiding them. The truth is that I’m just in a funny place right now, hiking-wise. I really love a big-mile day. I also really love hiking with my dogs. Part of the impetus for bringing Titus home was combining those loves. In the meantime, though, I’m turning down invitations because I have three rules for hiking with dogs.

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Mt. Major: a cool hike with a cool summit, but not our end game.

It’s Gotta Be Fun

My dogs don’t help plan the hike. Oh, they’re willing participants! It’s all paws on deck the second I start filling water bottles or loading up my pack and the only phrase that gets Lilo out of bed before sunrise is, “Wanna go for a hike?” But they don’t know where we’re going when we arrive at the trailhead. Hiking with dogs — participating in any sport with animals — is a responsibility. It’s on me to make sure that they’re okay out there.

This starts with checking their physical readiness for the day’s adventure. That link goes to  really nice article about appropriate exercise for young dogs that has me rethinking how quickly I want to take Titus up his first 4,000-footer. Other factors are important. About five flat miles on mostly dirt are a very different proposition than the same miles up the moonscape that is Mt. Washington. Mileage, terrain, footing, elevation gain, technicality, and weather all matter. This is true when hiking with a mature dog. I know that Lilo, for example, needs shorter, easier hikes when it’s hot and humid out. And it’s even truer when considering where to take a novice pup. I want Titus hiking with me for many years to come. That means I need to give his body a chance to acclimate to the job.

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It also means keeping track of conditions and rerouting to a flattish, shady route with lots of water instead of a dry summit when it’s 90 degrees F for the first time this year.

Mental and emotional readiness matter, too — and not just for the dog! Lilo did not start out as a fan of hiking. She thought it was scary; she’d frequently check out or just refuse to go down the trail. I’m goal-oriented, you guys. I like to move along and get stuff done. I found this super frustrating. S0 when I decided to try convincing her that hiking could be a fun game, I also decided that I would only take her out when I was in the right headspace to walk half a mile, stare at a rock for fifteen minutes, and then go back to the car. If I wanted to get summits and go fast, the dog stayed home. If I wanted her company in those early days, the hike had to be all about her.

Lilo was an extreme case, but the basic point holds for any dog. They don’t enjoy being scared, stressed, or sore any more than we do. Know your dog and make it fun. Pick routes with features they’ll enjoy and avoid, until you’ve built some trust, routes with features they won’t. Bring good treats and/or favorite toys and play happy training games as you go, including taking the time to train novel elements of the trail. Give them a break before they get tired. Move along again before they get frustrated or bored. Your mission, should you choose to accept it: help your dog arrive back at the car feeling like they won.

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Practicing recalls on trail and loving it!

And understand that not every dog wants to hike. Your odds go way up with a good introduction to the game, but if the dog just doesn’t want to play, that has to be okay, too.

Tip: Start a new dog with such short, easy hikes that you feel a little silly about it. Scale up based on age, fitness, and apparent ability level, but only add one new layer of challenge at a time. If she’s rocking out three flat miles, next time try four or five or find a three-mile loop that includes a small peak — but don’t decide it’s time to run her up Washington!

Okay. This post is requiring a little more brainpower than I expected and the day is a little nicer, so I’m going to break here. I’ll follow up with my other rules later in the week. In the meantime, please enjoy Krista‘s excellent post about some specific White Mountain routes for novice dogs. It’s a really well thought-out progression and probably I should have just linked it in the first place instead of promising to write my own philosophical post!

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Postponed

I hate to tease a post and not deliver, but this week got away from me a bit. Novice dog post will happen for Monday. In the meantime, please enjoy this series of Lilo crushing Boulder Loop (and feeling Mr N levels of smug about it) on our way up Mt Major the other night.imageimageimageimageimageimage

Sunrise, Sunset

The best hiking buddies are the ones that not only go along with your crazypants ideas but also come up with their own. Which is to say that we met up with Paws On Peaks at dark o’clock Saturday to revisit the Welch-Dickey loop.

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My legs weren’t working very well — I guess not enough sleep or caffeine will do that — and we missed most of the sunrise, alas. But there was still a hint of color in the sky when we reached that first outlook.

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Krista brought caffeine. Be like Krista.

It was neat to see how much Titus has learned in the last few weeks. He was much more confident on the ledges!

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Dogs in the camera frame may be farther from the edge than they appear.
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Not to be outdone.

I don’t think introducing new people to this loop will ever get old. If I had to pick one route to hike for the rest of my ice, I think it would be this. Except for the part where it turns into a death trap in the winter. So maybe not.

Ty got sucked up the same off-route ledge that Lilo fooled me into following her up last time, too. Fearless leaders, unite!

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The dogs and I headed home for a nap and then back out again in the evening to tackle Kearsage as a sunset hike. I ended up behind my clock for this one, too; Google Maps led me astray. But we hit the summit via Winslow trail with enough light to be confident of the turn-off to Barlow on our way back down, which was my secondary goal.

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This was my first time on Kearsage, but I hear that we were pretty lucky to have the summit to ourselves. It was a gorgeous night: warm and a little breezy, very comfortable for a short linger to snack and take in the views.

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The faces I get when I say, “Cheese!”

We started back down with headlamp on to find the yellow Barlow-trail blazes. This was my first time night-hiking a trail that I hadn’t seen in the light and it was a good one: not super-obvious above treeline, but well-blazed and -cairned enough to reassure me when I was on the right route and without too many inviting false turns. We got a few steps off-trail a couple of times, quickly realized it, and calmly worked our way back.

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Flowers starting to flower. Spring has sprung.

I was more comfortable on Kearsage after dark than on Lincoln Woods, which seems a little bizarre since I knew that I was almost certainly alone on the mountain: there had only been one other car in the lot (and I knew from my Google-induced detour that the other side of the mountain was still gated with a long roadwalk in) and I’d met its people just below the summit. I guess it’s just down to the tricks that one’s brain plays. I’m very well aware that I’m more likely to get in trouble soloing by slipping and smashing my head on a ledge, but that’s an immediate risk that I work to mitigate with every step. There’s not a whole lot to be done when my brain starts calling up every scary story I’ve read recently! But lonely trails are weirdly comforting.

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I did a lot of thinking this weekend, too, about how I decide what to hike (and what not to hike) with a novice dog (or any dog). I’ll write that one up for Friday. See you then!

A Week in the Life

My parents were in town this weekend, so we went for a hike.

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My dad and his oldest granddog, the backseat driver.

We revisited the Frankenstein/Aresthusa loop that the pups and I did a few weeks ago.

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Titus and I ran some trash back to the car; Lilo did not approve.

We practiced our selfies…

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…and our scrambling…image

…and have more to learn about Leav(ing) No Trace.

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We stopped for a minute and Titus was SO MAD he had to eat this twig.

We took in the views…

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…and took the spur trail to the waterfall.

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Not pictured: inconveniently-located sun.

The dogs also rode along with me to take care of a friend’s dogs while she was out of town.

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Scenic overlook near said friend’s house, with clouds.

We explored a new trail from a familiar trailhead and found the prettiest little gorge.

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It doesn’t photograph well (at least not by me), but you get the idea.

As always, there were chores to be done.

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“But there was recycling in here last night!”

And some so-called fun stuff turned out to be just more chores.

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We gave it three days at a really great daycare and Titus quickly got over being overwhelmed, but still just didn’t love it. Except for the wading pools! So that’s fine; he doesn’t have to go to daycare; he’ll have plenty of hiking buddies and other friends. And I’ll definitely get him an at-home pool.

But even when we’re not communicating well…

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…and even when it rains…image

….we’re still in it together.

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Although one of us may be slightly less dignified than the others. (We take turns being that one.)

So that’s nice!

Hope you all have good weekends. We’ll catch you on the flip.

Ethan Pond

Last Saturday, the pups and I jumped in the car and wove through the back roads to meet Amanda and family at Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site. The grounds (though not the buildings) are dog-friendly, so we had a lovely ramble along the nature trails and through the fields. Both of mine were thrilled to see Arya and her people again (as was I!). They even had some rousing group play, as we essentially had the place to ourselves. Which is to say that Lilo and Titus both played with Arya and ignored each other…but Arya was delighted with the attention and honestly, that’s a huge step forward for them. They’ve been noticeably more comfortable and relaxed together since.

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Amanda and family, starring Arya!

The play did end abruptly when Titus demonstrated that he is very much not a pit bull. The little guy slipped while running and landed awkwardly — and stood up dramatically non-weight-bearing on a hind leg. Then laid down. Then rolled over and died.

If this had been stoic Lilo, I would have thrown my keys at one of the humans and told them to bring my car now. But I’d seen Titus do something very similar a few weeks ago when it turned out that the problem was the world’s tiniest pine needle between his toes.

(Seriously, I’d brushed it off his foot thinking that couldn’t possibly be what was bothering him and surely he had some sort of fracture.)

I sat down with him and rubbed his belly and told him how brave he was until he decided that he would live after all. He was trotting soundly by the time we got back to the car and all systems remained go when I jumped him back out of the car after our quick picnic, so we continued with our day!

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Trail underwater between the bog bridges.

While I was at Saint-Gaudens, Paws on Peaks and another of the usual suspects had hit Zealand trail from the newly reopened-for-the-season Zealand Road for a traverse to finish up on Ethan Pond trail. The dogs and I beat feet for that end and started hiking towards Zealand; the plan was to meet up with the others and join them for whatever portion of their hike remained back to my (and their spotted) car.

I had kind of expected them to be done by the time I arrived, but no! We met up just past the spur trail to Ethan Pond shelter, just as both groups had decided that the other must have run into a problem and turned around. Three people, five dogs. Boom!

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Ethan Pond in the mist.
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Nobody poses like the heathen dingo.

After seeing the others’ pictures, I did wish that I’d been able to join them for the whole hike; the area around Zealand is my favorite part of the Whites and the stretch of trail between there and where we’d met up looked wild and beautiful. Even just the out-and-back from Ethan, though, had a lovely remote feel — at least after the initial madhouse on the section shared with the route to Ripley Falls!

Though the pictures don’t show it, there was a fair amount of ice still on the Ethan Pond trail. And we did pass several emergency vehicles at the Webster-Jackson trailhead on our way to the spotted car; it turned out that they’d been conducting a rescue of a hiker who fell on a nearly-flat stretch of icy trail while not wearing traction. Result: broken leg. Gear up, folks! It’s still winter on top and under the trees.

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Where it’s not mud season, anyway.

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I had some of Krista’s gear and vice versa from our trip to pick Titus up from New York, so I ended up following them to her car at the Zealand trailhead. Confession: I also just wanted an excuse to drive up my beloved Zealand Road.

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Pretty even before you get to the trail!

I’m deliberately trying to stay away from the area right now because I know there’s no way I’d be able to hike just to the hut and back and the 4,000-footers or even Zeacliff are all a bit more than I think Titus is ready for. Soon, though! Very, very soon.

(And yes, knock wood, Titus has remained sound!)

Gratitude: An Irregular Series

I haven’t finished the post about last weekend’s activities yet (everything is good! just busy this week!), so instead here’s a quick shout-out to three items for which I have been very grateful this week:

1) Healthy Paws pet insurance. This is the company I have both pups insured by; I chose them because of friends’ good experiences and because at the time that I signed Lilo up, they were the only pet insurance company that would cover a second torn CCL. She’s had no issues, knock wood! But she’s an active pit bull of unknown origins and it wasn’t a gamble that I wanted to take. The claim for Lilo’s recent hospitalization was my first use of her policy. But the premium for our high-deductible, high-reimbursement policy fits my budget well, the peace of mind has been handy over the years, and they were super easy to work with when I did file the claim, including review of her medical records and approval of rembursement less than 24 hours after I sent those records in. Thanks, Healthy Paws, for making a hard time that little bit easier.

2) Smart, kind, helpful, and non-judgmental friends. I ended up reaching out to my circle this week to brainstorm about some Titus challenges. He’s doing really well overall and levelling up in some super-exciting ways, but he’s more routine- and schedule-oriented than Lilo or my previous dogs (and non-dog critters) and he’s been struggling a bit with the transition from weekend back to weekday. He gets better as the week goes on – Wednesday through Sunday are honestly really smooth sailing, which I did not necessarily expect to happen this quickly when I brought him home! – which is the opposite of what I’d expect if it were lack of exercise, attention, mental stimulation, etc., but Mondays are hard for the little guy (I know how he feels!) and I needed some fresh ideas.

But admitting a need for help can be tough and I can get really cranky about generic advice. That’s totally my personal failing and I intellectually appreciate that people want to be helpful, but it makes me want to crawl out of my skin. So I ended up putting my question out to my circle along with a request for specific, concrete advice and people really, really delivered. The validation that he is a (completely wonderful but) challenging dog was more useful than I expected and I got some shared stories and some suggestions that I’m in the process of implementing and that I think will make a lot of bang-for-buck difference in everyone’s comfort level. Thanks, friends!

3) Impulse control and relaxation training. This was a game-changer for Lilo, with her shyness and reactivity, and it’s fascinating to watch it work for Titus, who has a really different baseline temperament. (I think it’s also been really useful in helping Lilo adjust to having him around, both in obvious ways and also because she has a model for and faith in, “My person will reward my wonderfulness a bit later on.”)

We’re still only scratching the surface in terms of his training: building a little duration (and speed) into his sit, starting whiplash turns (but hey, I’m pretty sure he knows his name now!), some Zen (in different positions and contexts and he definitely has the idea, although I haven’t named it yet), a lot of relaxation in general and settling on a mat in particular, and this week we’ve gotten serious about a nose-to-hand target. With this dog, I’m thinking much more concretely about how to build impulse control into everything we do. That target started out quite sharky, for example, and it’s been fascinating to watch his overall behavior even outside of training sessions shift as he’s begun to grok the idea of nose touches and gentle licks paying off while toothiness does not.

But the big shift has been that in the last couple of days, he’s starting to put himself on his mat, either to chew on a toy or just to curl up and relax, when he’s not sure what else to do. We’ve had good progress in the structured-settling department: I was able to lay on the couch with Lilo and read a chapter of War for the Oaks while periodically reinforcing him for a nice settle on the floor beside me, for example, which felt like a huge victory! But I was starting to think that self-soothing would be a much longer-term project than anticipated. (Which would have been and will be fine!) It’s really delightful and gratifying to see him figure out that he can make those choices for himself and I think he likes it, too (and I know Lilo does!). Maybe soon I can read two chapters (after hiking him a couple of miles and before a shaping session – ha!)? Thanks, impulse control!

Frankenstein and Falcon Cliffs (and the Long Way Down)

When I picked Lilo up from the vet hospital, I promised not to take her on any twelve-mile hikes for a day or two. She was in fine form on Friday night and Saturday, though, and Titus desperately needed to stretch his legs after, so we all hopped in the car for a shorter jaunt.

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I had hiked an out-and-back to Aresthusa Falls, which may or may not be the tallest single-drop waterfall in the state depending on who you ask, in early winter. That hike was supposed to be a loop starting with Frankenstein Cliffs, but we lost the trail early on and followed the tracks to the falls side and that ended up feeling like enough for the day. This time, I lost the trail again in the same place — but was smart enough to ask Lilo to find it. She put us right back on the blazes. Good girl!

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Cattle frog + mud hole = OTP

After a bit of sidehill traversing, we came to the trestle. This is still an active track during the warmer months, though I believe only for “excursion trains.”

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Better signage here than down by the parking lot!

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I had read a blog post by someone who had, terrifyingly, thought they needed to cross this bridge as part of the route. I was not about to follow suit! But did climb up the bank to take a quick peek around at the view from the top.image

On the way back down, I tripped and rolled my ankle hard enough to feel it in my knee. Ow. I envy people who are able to hike terrain in trail runners; I’d love to scrub some weight, but with my dodgy ankles, I just don’t dare. Happily — not only for the sake of the hike but because I drive a stickshift and need all my limbs in working order — I walked out of it and so we went on.

Apparently I’m not the only one who found the trail a little hard to follow at times, as shown by this marker where the trail turns left and an inviting(?) small slide goes straight up…

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Positive reinforcement fail!
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Waiting for me to realize that she was indeed on the trail.

There are some steepish bits of rocky trail on the way up to Frankenstein Cliffs and the occasional big step up was required, but there was nothing that I’d classify as a scramble and nothing that made me nervous to watch Lilo tackle while I helped the little guy. This hike did make me appreciate the hind-end awareness work that I did with Lilo in her early training, mostly just for fun and as something to do. Titus, like many dogs, has no idea that he has hind legs — which means that he doesn’t use them to his advantage in dealing with terrain. But he’ll learn!

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Approaching the outlook.
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She beats me to all the best views.

We passed a handful of folks on their way down the trail while on our way up, but had the cliffs themselves (and most of the middle miles) gloriously all to ourselves. I really love this sort of view, you guys. Don’t get me wrong; I like a 360-degree bare summit, too! But there’s something about stepping suddenly out of the trees to a sudden edge and a look down into wilderness that speaks right to my heart.

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A less-crowded Willard-like view of the Notch.
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Supervising my walk down towards the edge.

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Titus is doing much better with tethering, by the way! I do tend to scatter kibble for him instead of putting it in one spot for Lilo; he’s a little vacuum, so no worries about scraps being left, and it gives him something to do while I eat and enjoy the view. His quarter still runs out at the end of a longer outing, which is totally fair. But he’s no longer offended by the basic idea of the thing. Progress!

My plan for the hike was fluid. I wanted to get to Frankenstein; from there, we’d turn back or continue based on how the dogs and the weather were holding up. Everyone was in good spirits and the rain was holding off, so we packed up and continued to the spur trail to the next outlook, Falcon Cliff.

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The blazing was better up here, but it was blowdown city.
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Lilo wasn’t loving the humidity, so I put her vest on Titus to help keep her cool. Also, I don’t even know what to tell you about his face.
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Falcon Cliff!

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The view from Falcon was a bit more restricted but also a bit more wild. That’s a good trade in my book! As you can see, it was also a bit more misty…and no sooner did I think, Hmm, than the first raindrops fell.

That cut the humidity nicely!

Too bad Lilo hates hiking in the rain.

It also made a decision for me: we were at about the halfway point. There was nothing on the Frankenstein Cliffs side of the loop that I would have been uncomfortable downclimbing in the dry or even that I thought would be dangerous in the wet…but the trail on the falls side is very, very gentle and civilized. So rain at the halfway meant that my preferred descent route was onward.

I did have to discuss it with the dogs. Poor Titus had a minor meltdown when I foolishly didn’t tether him before dropping my pack to put the rain cover on. He so wanted to bite the rain cover and needed a few minutes to put his brain back in his head when I asked him to please not. Lilo, between the rain and the barking, was ready to be done. She spent a little while standing on the junction and needed to be convinced that forward was a better route than going back.

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“But the car is this way.”

That was the only real hiccup of the day, though, and as hiccups go, we could do worse! Once everyone had their feet moving in the same direction, life was good. We were rewarded with one more surprise outlook before the trail began to descend…

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It was a light rain or a heavy mist, but she still didn’t want to carry it around for one more minute than necessary!

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I’m not sure that “ridge walk” is technically the right term for this section of trail, but it had that sort of feel: remote, peaceful, and very green with cool moss, lichen, and fungus everywhere.

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It has been 0 days since our last derp.

We eventually began to descend. Just as I was thinking how nice it was to be alone for so much of a fairly well-traveled loop, I heard voices below and ran into — maybe a dozen kids hiking in a group? Very nice group, though! First I stepped aside and then they decided they were going to stop for a water break, so they made plenty of room for the dogs and I to come through.

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The dogs were exemplary at every meeting, by the way! Even a bit later on when we passed two little dogs who were not very happy to see us: Lilo just kept taking cheese and heeled nicely through, while Titus was a bit worried that he was being yelled at (by the dogs) but trusted me to keep him safe. They’re also both doing a nice tandem step-off-the-trail-and-sit-for-treats when we let others go by.

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That looks safe.

I opted to skip the spur trail to the falls themselves, in part because I didn’t want to keep Lilo out in the rain any longer than necessary (although we were much better-shielded at this elevation where the trees were taller and she had decided that she wouldn’t melt, after all) and because I wanted to avoid stressing the little dogs by potentially having to go by them again. I’d like to see it in the spring, though! Maybe we’ll go back again sometime soon.

I had forgotten this bridge (which is reinforced and solid, although it looks awful) was on this otherwise lovely trail and had a good laugh when we reached it.

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Honey badget don’t care.
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Baby’s first bog bridge!

I’d meant to take the side trail (Bemis Brook) on approach to the car, but wasn’t paying attention to how far we’d gone and thus wasn’t sure when we reached the upper junction if it was the right spot or already the lower. Maybe next time! I’ve heard it’s lovely — runs parallel to the main trail but closer to the water, possibly with some small cascades?

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The main trail has some (very) small cascades, too, though!
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My heart.

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The trail at last spit us out into the upper parking lot near a wonderfully-located privately owned home. We had a short, pretty road walk back to the lower lot and our car.image

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Lower lot with Frankenstein Cliffs in the background.

Keeping us on trail is hard work and Lilo was ready to jump in the car for a rest by the time we reached it. Titus thought about being tired enough to lay down…

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…but then got distracted. So it goes!