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.
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Toolin’ Around

We weren’t formally a part of this month’s positive-training blog hop, but the theme — training tools — was right up my alley. Also enjoy these pictures of Titus, mostly taken by the friend who strolled around little Blue Job with us the other day.

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Serious business snow dog.

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…or not!

The positive-reinforcement training tool that has been on my mind recently is actually a method: Kathy Sdao’s SMARTx50 protocol, described in her (great little) book Plenty in Life is Free and also conveniently excerpted here. That acronym stands for See, Mark, And Reward Training. In very, very, very brief, the goal is to reward the dog for making a good choice or doing something that you-the-handler likes fifty times a day.

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I don’t know that Titus ever saw more a proper flight of stairs before he came to live with me. To this day, he is very careful and cautious about our interior staircase and generally doesn’t attempt it without supervision and encouragement (and preferably a lead from Lilo).
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But he really wanted to climb the Blue Job fire tower! This was as far as I let him go, but you can see him enjoying the view.

The protocol is beautiful to me: elegant, simple, and clear. It’s easy for the handler to understand and to implement in a way that even clicker training isn’t, necessarily, especially when you’re just starting out. And — importantly for me and for Titus, it shapes the handler’s mindset at least as much as the dog’s behavior.

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On Little Blue Job, his second summit since July. It barely counts — we walked 2.5 miles and the elevation gain isn’t even worth mentioning — and you can see here how he still, still, still is not rock-solid on that leg, but we had beautiful weather and good company and a good workout from the horrid mashed-potato snow and even managed to get the tiniest little bit lost. A great success!

Titus can be overwhelming. It’s what I was looking for in a dog, but it’s also, you know, true. And Titus can find life, especially house life, overwhelming, too. We had made great progress during his first months with me. As long-time readers may recall, the month leading up to his injury was wonderful. But the injury and recovery period set us back on our heels in so many ways. Now we’re moving forward again.

And with greater freedom comes greater responsibility, both on my part to rebuild what we lost and redirect us towards where I’d like us to be and on Titus’s part to remember how to function as part of the household with — slowly, appropriately, but steadily — fewer management aids and restrictions. We can both be anxious critters; we both tend to feel that overwhelm. (Thank dog for Lilo, who has a clear, strong, and steadying sense of self!)

SMARTx50 helps keep my eye on the prize and also on the presence: on my good dog who is always trying the best that he can. It sidesteps the overwhelm and the sense of playing whack-a-mole with all the many pieces that we have to work on and instead says: Yes. Yes, that. That is perfect, right there. It has been an invaluable aid in helping us renegotiate life outside the crate and off the tether, and while I don’t use it as formally with Lilo, it echoes through every part of my training life and in every way, I am so glad.

 

Tecumseh Revisited

Mt Tecumseh, hiked from the Waterville Valley ski area, was Lilo’s first 4,000 footer and I remember at the time being so happy that I’d brought her with me because it meant that I would never have to hike that fucking mountain again.

I felt a little bad about how much I disliked the trail, especially since part of the reason was the endless flights of beautiful stone steps that some trail-builder(s) had clearly poured immense quantities of time, effort, and love into. But the effect of climbing an endless stride-regulating staircase through mostly nondescript forest was just not my favorite.

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Very perplexed by the cheering and whooping coming from the ski slopes.

When I adopted Titus, I resigned myself to hiking it one more time. I decided that we’d do it in winter, all three of us together, so that it would count for everyone’s winter list if I ever decided to pursue that and so that the snowcover would smooth out all those stairs.

But then Titus got hurt. I missed the higher summits. Tecumseh from the ski area is a short 5-mile round trip without too much elevation gain (it’s only just barely a 4ker) and a relatively short drive from my house. And so Lilo and I found ourselves in a parking lot full of skiers and snowboarders putting our hiking gear on.

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She actually found the trailhead before I did. We had to walk up through the lot a bit, occasionally stepping between parallel-parked cars to allow another to pass, and one time she refused to step back out again. When I looked over, she had her nose to the ground and when I followed, she footstep-tracked right up over the snow berm, across the shuttle bus lane, and up to the trail sign that I had thought was still a little ways further up. Good bull!

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I was legitimately cheerful for the first part of the trail. Winter Tecumseh definitely beats summer Tecumseh! Everything is prettier under a blanket of snow and everyone we met along the way — this is a very popular winter route — was in high spirits. There was even a light snow for the first half of our ascent: not enough to obscure visibility, but very pretty and festive.

Of course, once you turn away from the outlook onto a ski trail, you’re on the staircase and that section is Rather Steep even when smoothed by the snow. You’re also in nondescript pine forest for nearly all of it and I can’t help it: I’m a forest snob. I loved those pines near the top where they were covered in an elegant layer of ice, but mostly if I’m climbing, I want to be rewarded by changes in the forest that I’m climbing through. So I spent that stretch having determinedly upbeat conversations with Lilo about, “Seriously, this fucking trail.”

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Still funny.

Lilo did bonk pretty hard two-thirds of the way up. I’m not the only one who’s a little underfit right now, alas. I had promised her in the car that we didn’t have to summitif she didn’t want to, but she brightened right up after a kibble break and happily led me the rest of the way to the top. Sorry, girl! Nutritious snacks earlier next time out!

Unlike last time, we did have a pretty, moody view from the (artificially cleared — another strike against this peak!) summit.

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And a nice peekaboo view from the trail not too far below.img_3630

Trail conditions were pretty excellent — well-packed but not slippery — and the wind never kicked up as I’d feared that it might. I ended up using my snowshoes for all but the first and last mile, not because I needed flotation to go with my traction but because I wanted the televators for the slog of a climb. I saw plenty of folks doing well in just spikes, though, and some who were barebooting happily.img_3634

We did step out onto the ski trail outlook on the way back down to enjoy the view and watching the skiers and snowboarders go by. It reminded me of last spring’s trip to watch the skiing in Tuckerman Ravine — we’ll have to get one on the calendar for this year, too.img_3637

Of course, now I’m stuck hiking this mountain yet again when Titus is ready. I hear the approach from Tripoli Road is a bit more interesting — maybe we’ll try that!img_3638

No News is No News

I was originally going to call this post “Setback,” but luckily for you all I waited to write it until I was feeling a little bit less dramatic!

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As those of you who have been here a while know, Titus was originally diagnosed with an iliopsoas strain after coming up mildly lame on the easiest hike he’d done in weeks. This was waaaaaay back on the last day of July. The surgeon who saw him in August was very clear that we couldn’t rule out a CCL tear, but the signs and symptoms at the time all pointed towards the ‘psoas. So that’s what we worked on rehabbing through mid-October, when he came up acutely lame after several weeks of nice improvement.

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The second-opinion surgeon — actually my first choice, but the scheduling in August hadn’t worked out and I liked the one we saw then very much as well — diagnosed the partial CCL tear at that time. She agreed that the original X-rays from August weren’t indicative of the tear having existed at that time, which was reassuring. We still can’t totally rule out the possibility that it had been present but too recent to cause the telltale changes in the joint. But that’s kind of six of one, half a dozen of the other, and it was nice to have two opinions saying that the course of action to that point had been reasonable.

So we did the TPLO on November 1st and hoped that in addition to mitigating what did turn out to be a partial CCL tear (but intact meniscus, hurrah), it would help resolve the muscle injury.img_3578

But an offload of that right hind leg has persisted throughout the post-op rehab. I spent a couple of weeks chatting with our team about it at Titus’s PT appointments and trying to believe that it was, as suggested, simply muscle weakness and fatigue that needed strengthening. Until I finally didn’t at 12 weeks post-op when a slight hitch appeared in his gait. So off we went back to our surgeon for a recheck…

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…and guess what. The knee is in great shape! Which was not a surprise to me but still felt like good news. A tiny part of my brain kept remembering that things just happen to this dog and wouldn’t it be just his luck to trash his meniscus, too? Surgeon concurred with the rehab team that the symptoms pointed away from that, that it was unlikely given the partial tear, and that he would likely be significantly more lame.

The bad but also unsurprising news was that he was — is — quite tight in his iliopsoas and also in his quadriceps. So much for simply needing strengthening and so much for the TPLO fixing the muscle issue. I guess that was a bit of magical thinking in the first place, but man, it would have been nice!img_3648

So Titus has been busted back down to walking the rail trail for a while instead of hiking, even though I don’t actually think that easy hiking we’ve done is necessarily bad for those muscles — and I’m really struggling to minimize the stuff that I think is, because this dog, untethered and unsedated, leaps and capers and sprints and does hard cutting turns just hanging around one or two rooms of the house.  We’ve upped the frequency of his cold laser treatments now that our local vet offers it, too. The surgeon is also a CCRP and is going to touch base with the rehab team about stretches, etc., to target those muscles. She also agreed to give us a referral to a rehabilitation clinic a couple of hours away that I’ve heard really great things about. We can’t go frequently, but I’m really hopeful that they can help us devise an at-home program and then we can do monthly check-ins or something. I guess we’ll see.

So that’s where we are right now. Not where I’d hoped we’d be while closing in on 14 weeks post-op, but I feel like we’re looking at the right problem again and collecting the right tools to address it. Paws crossed!img_3646

And hey, Lilo and I hiked a 4,000-footer again finally! Check back on Friday for that story (and on Wednesday for Lilo’s turn to the Dark Side at a friends’ recent overnight).