The first weekend of October, I led an intermediate backpacking trip with the Syracuse University Outing Club (SUOC). Duke, healed from his knee injury and all other ailments, came with us. I was worried that things might not go so well again, but I was also eager to give him a chance to redeem himself.
In the weeks since returning from that first backpacking trip with Duke, I have been making the most of our down time and continuing to teach him skills that will translate to the trail. The biggest thing we have been working on is lessening the pulling on the leash. This is very difficult to do, but he responds well to being talked to. I say “calm down Duke” and “wait for me Duke” probably 20 times a day. At first, I thought, well, this is my life now, better learn how to un-dislocate a shoulder, but he really is getting a lot better. One thing that also helps a lot with this is clipping his leash to the front of his harness, which not only relieves pressure on his neck but also makes pulling awkward for him.
The other thing I have been working on with him a lot is not chasing animals. His breed was bred for pointing birds, so I know he has the instinct to learn the self-restraint to just look and point instead of chase. Every time he sees a bird or a squirrel walking in Syracuse, I tell him to leave it and keep walking. The instances of him lunging after a critter have greatly reduced since I first got him, so this aspect of his training is also going very well. This is especially important for him to learn before going on the trail because not only can he pull me over if he jumps after something while tied to me, but also Duke must abide by the 7 principles of Leave No Trace, which include Principle 6: Respect Wildlife.
This weekend’s trip was on the French Louie Loop, a 20ish mile loop trail off the Northville-Placid Trail in the southern/central region of the Adirondack Park. When we arrived at the trailhead around 12:30 on Saturday, I thought I would let Duke out for a little while to stretch his legs and hang off the leash. Not a great idea; he was fine for a while, but when it came time to leash him and start the hike, he thought that us catching him was some sort of game. It took at least an hour to catch him. We had to corner him under a truck, and I crawled under on my belly to clip him up. This fiasco coined the term “Duke Delay”.
Once we actually started hiking, he was very well-behaved. I could tell that the leash training in the city was making a big difference. He was still very excited to be walking, and the leash was fairly taut the whole time, but I didn’t feel as though I was being dragged down the trail. Instead of jumping into the brush after squirrels, he just stopped and pointed (most of the time) and I only got pulled off a bog bridge once and it wasn’t even really his fault.
The first day we hiked 8.1 miles to the South Shore Lean-to, which is a gorgeous shelter on the water with loons, bright foliage, misty morning fog and all the other Adirondack cliches. We ate dinner, talked about finding French Louie himself (one of the famous Adirondack hermits who lived for years in the West Canada Lakes area as a trapper after joining the circus didn’t work out), and I found a fantastic felt fedora that really truly suits me I think. As usual, Duke and I shared a sleeping bag and kept each other warm.
The next day we hiked the rest of the loop. We went past Louie’s old hermitage site and endless views of pristine lakes with their autumn colors on. We asked everyone we passed if they knew how to get to Louie’s cave, but the location still remains a mystery to me. We finished the hike faster than any of us expected, so I unsuccessfully tried to get everyone to hike up Pitcher Mountain with me to the fire tower. Maybe next time.
I was able to be in the moment again and enjoy the hike. I watched Duke, but he only occupied 50 percent of my brain space instead of 99 percent. Hopefully, with a little more training we can knock that down to around 30 percent. This hike really made me a lot better about taking Duke on the trail with me. He still isn’t quite there, but he’s making some progress.
I would like to train him to really focus and listen so he can be walked off leash. Right now, even though I don’t think he would run off too far or anything, he probably wouldn’t stay on the trail if I let him off leash. It’s extremely important that he stay on the trail at least 90 percent of the time in order to be in line with Leave No Trace. Walking off the trail violates the second principle: Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces, and if he were to do his business off the trail without me seeing and I don’t pick it up or bury it, we would be violating the third principle: Dispose of Waste Properly. This is why, moving forward with his training, I will be bringing him to managed state forests as well as properties owned by the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) to train him to walk off a leash. There I will be away from traffic and other hikers and also hopefully in areas with minimal ground vegetation for him to trample. Once he’s perfectly well-behaved out where no one really minds if he’s running amuck, I will begin to hike with him off leash on backpacking trips.