A Hike in the Forest, July 28, 2019
A nice, mellow hike with the dogs on Six Mile Creek, a trail we rarely visit. That was the morning’s plan.
Why don’t we use this national forest trail more often? It’s not far from home and is on the morning-shade side of a mountain slope, under big, old trees much of the time, keeping things cool in the hot part of summer. It gets little use, a plus because we like our solitude. It’s rough, narrow, and steep in places. Not a good running trail, but decent for hiking. Another plus: we’re unlikely to encounter any summer-grazing cattle on this part of the national forest. (Or so I thought.)
Part of my lack of love for this trail stems from years ago, exploring it for the first time one August morning with Maia and Meadow. I had heard that some mountain bikers had done trail work on it earlier that summer and so thought it might be a good running trail. It stretches five miles, point-to-point, but we’d just do an exploratory out-and-back.
Maia started alerting to something she didn’t like about roughly two miles from the trailhead, in a thickly forested section. Tail down, nervous, looking down slope through the big trees, hearing something crashing through the undergrowth below us, she wanted us to turn back. Meadow didn’t seem bothered, so I tried convincing Maia to continue but after a few more nervous signals from her I decided to listen. I wondered if she was alerting to bears; she normally wasn’t concerned about deer or elk but didn’t like bears. I trusted Maia implicitly, so we retreated, without incident.
Here’s what I wrote in my training log that day, August 19, 2006: Hike/run: 4 mls w/girls a.m., Six Mile Creek (starting from Rd 305 NE of Circle C Ranch); new trail to us, tried it early last summer but balked b/c not well used – it gets better after you cross dirt road. Lots of elk/deer/whatever crashing through underbrush, eventually spooking Maia so we went back (plus, no water yet). Hiked up, ran down.
Last year, on July 1st, I took the boys up there to re-explore. I’d read that the trail had been cleared of downed trees in 2015. I packed water, something I don’t often do but remembered the lack of water in 2006. This time we got much farther up the trail than I did with Maia and Meadow, eventually reaching a beautiful stretch through a meadow filled with flowers and big granite boulders leading to a ridge offering views of Granite Mountain and its fire lookout to the north. Roughly three miles in, just after the pretty meadow, we found ourselves navigating steeply downhill on a little-used, overgrown narrow track through muddy bogs full of mosquitoes, losing all the elevation we’d gained. I slipped more than once. Finn lay in the mud to cool off and Conall sunk his paws deep into the mud for its cooling effect, lapping at what little water still seeped up through the ground. The lower we dropped in elevation, the thicker the undergrowth, now reaching taller than me. We were no longer having any fun. I decided to turn back. I got no arguments.
Third Time’s Not a Charm
This morning, tired and not motivated to run, I thought a nice quiet hike where we were unlikely to encounter any weekend warriors would suit. If we made it to the ridge above the boggy area, that would be enough. We were just out for a stroll in the forest, after all. I put a flask of water in my running pack for the boys.
Well, it was deja vu all over again, as they say.
In the same spot where Maia started acting nervous all those years ago, Conall had the same reaction. It’s both disconcerting and fascinating to watch him. It’s like having a dog with a sixth sense, or extrasensory perception. But then, for Conall it’s probably a simple matter of scent and hearing; he knows something’s out there, but Finn and I can’t see or sense it.
The odd behaviors start early on. As we climb through a steep but mostly open area about a mile from the car, Conall stops to sniff an Indian paintbrush flower leaning over the trail. He sniffs that flower multiple times, sometimes looking up briefly to scan the trail ahead before sniffing again. It’s odd that he takes so much time and seems puzzled or concerned by what he smells. I eventually step around him but am wondering if he smells another animal that recently used the trail, brushing by the flower. Conall quickly catches up and passes me but doesn’t dash to catch up to Finn, who has taken lead position several yards ahead. Conall finds huckleberries beside the trail, so we take a break to graze.
Continuing up the trail, Finn again in the lead, Conall stays just ahead of me but keeps jumping onto downed trees next to the trail to get a better look through the forest. One time, he sits down on the tree trunk and just stares into the forest, listening. He’s never done that, sit on a tree trunk, so that gets my attention. I stop to listen, too, but I don’t hear anything. As we continue climbing through this forested section, Conall moves very slowly and frequently stops, dropping his tail, forcing me to constantly nudge him or go around him.
Now I start remembering Maia’s nervousness in this same spot; it’s all coming back to me. Still, I urge Conall to keep going. He’s reluctant. He stops and turns, staring down the trail behind us; I half expect someone, or something, to approach us from behind. Are we being stalked? At one point he just sits down in the tall grasses beside the trail, for no apparent reason. He’s trying to tell me something, but…what? I don’t see or hear anything unusual.
I do notice cattle prints in the dust of the trail in places, and a few old cow pies, so they’ve been here grazing at some point. But cattle don’t scare Conall. If anything, he enjoys standing up to them when we encounter them in the forest, repaying all the taunting grief the pastured cattle near our house give him when we walk by.
I finally admit that Conall is doing his best to tell me we should turn back. His body language – nervousness, scanning, sitting, stopping in front of me to block my path – are all behaviors Maia used whenever she felt unsafe on a trail. That reflection reminds me I shouldn’t question or ignore Conall; this isn’t something he does often and urging him onward is contrary to everything he’s trying to tell me. Knowing Maia also had issues in this exact spot simply reinforces that Conall’s unease is legit.
But why? What does he sense? What’s out there?
As we stand in the trail – me deciding what to do – I notice my shirt and shorts are covered with burrs from an obnoxious weed I don’t normally encounter in the forest, unless the ground has been disturbed by logging or cattle. Looking more closely at both dogs, they’re covered in grass seeds and burrs. That decides it for me; this trail is not the relaxing forest reprieve I had hoped. We’re going home.
As soon as I say, “Let’s go back,” Conall relaxes and returns to his usual happy, exuberant trail dog personality, dashing down the trail ahead of me and Finn, then waiting for us to catch up. We stop and eat more huckleberries on the way down. There’s no more scanning, slowness, wariness. Whatever bothered Conall was higher up on the mountain. He feels safe now that we’re retreating to the car.
My good sense relies on the good sense of my dogs.
Where the trail crosses an old dirt logging road – maybe a mile from the trailhead – I can’t find the start of the overgrown lower portion. This is my excuse to take the abandoned logging road out, something I’ve been wanting to explore. It’s longer but much nicer than the trail – no thistles or tall grasses shedding sharp seeds – and has more natural water available. Near the car, though, we encounter some of those free-roaming cattle I’d hoped to avoid. Finn’s tired enough to not raise a ruckus and Conall assumes the posture and attitude he has when the cattle behind fences in pastures taunt him: I’m not afraid of you! Well, okay, maybe a little, because you’re really big, but I’m pretty sure you’ll run away before I will.
Back home, examining the boys’ coats, I realize it will take hours of careful picking – like one chimp grooming another – to remove the sharp grass seeds and burrs from their thick fur before I can put this outing behind us. In today’s training log entry, I make a note: Do not go here again!
There are many times I wish my dogs could speak my language, especially when they’re sick, or injured. I want to know what they know. What did Maia, and now Conall, sense and fear in that bit of forest?
What’s out there?
Cover photo: Heading up Six Mile Creek Trail, Payette National Forest, July 28, 2019.