It was a déjà vu kind of morning.
I was following the boys along an old Forest Service road, a couple inches of fresh wet snow on top of the ice, snow and slush mix left from the last snowfall a few days ago. We were walking an out-and-back route near home. Early on Conall re-discovered the elk leg bones he uncovered there a week ago (read here). After a quick couple of gnaws, I urged him to leave it so we could continue to our turn-around point.
On the way back, Conall ventured a ways ahead of me. At a bend in the road I lost sight of him briefly. Rounding the curve, I saw him well uphill of the road, maybe 30 feet into the trees. Unlike Finn, Conall rarely leaves our path to chase squirrels or chipmunks. I briefly wondered if he’d seen a fox, but then I noticed he had something in his mouth.
Looking at me – to make sure I saw him – and wagging his tail, he returned to the road, proud as could be, struggling to carry some sort of forest treasure he wanted to show off.
Another set of elk leg bones!
He followed his nose up-slope and dug them out of the snow.
It’s quite likely they came from the same elk as the leg bones he gnawed on earlier. In both instances, the two leg bones were still connected at the joint, with some hide still attached and showing about the same amount of decomposition. I realized that it’s also likely that the lower half of an animal skull Conall found and chewed on yesterday on a nearby section of road we were running on – a treasure he first found a week earlier – was from the same elk. (I’m assuming they’re elk legs based on their size and the dark color of what skin and fur remained. White-tailed deer have lighter coloring and aren’t as large.)
Conall’s ability to find these bones, often well off the trail, amazes me. Finn never finds any. Finn relies on his sight, detecting motion, to find live things like squirrels and grouse to chase. Conall uses all of his senses; his sense of smell is especially keen, helping him detect both living and long-dead animals.
Thinking how Conall had now uncovered two full elk legs, seeing the hooves, brought on the flashback to a scene in 2008.
Different Dogs, Same Behaviors
Back then, I had two female Alaskan Malamutes, Maia and Meadow. I credit them with giving me the confidence to explore so much of the forest after moving to Idaho in 2005, not knowing a soul. The girls showed me all sorts of wildlife as we ran trails, including our one magical wolf encounter (read here). By 2008 the girls were nine and seven, starting to slow down a bit. I decided to adopt nine-month-old Finn that summer so the girls could help train him into a proper trail dog. They immediately adored Finn and considered him part of our pack.
That December, I took all three dogs on a trail run with friends Jane and Jim and their whippet-husky mix Pixie. About two miles into the run we came upon a neat pile of four elk forelegs on the edge of the single-track trail, stacked together like kindling. Clearly left by a hunter, yet odd in location and position. But…the perfect number of forelegs for the number of dogs in our group!
Each dog quickly picked up a foreleg and proudly tasted it, carried it, set it down to lick and sniff, and carried it some more, tails wagging in that slow, broad sweeping motion of dogs intent on something really good. I’ve never seen happier dogs; they hardly knew what to do with this trail manna. Their reaction, their body language and obvious pleasure was clearly something very primal and deeply-encoded in their DNA.
With the girls, I saw their wolf ancestry coming through loud and clear. With all of my Malamutes, I’ve enjoyed watching them be the dogs most closely related to wolves, retaining so many wolf-like behaviors and abilities.
But we were on this trail to run, so we humans set off again. The dogs followed, each with their elk leg. They each struggled a bit to carry them. Finn was the first to drop his, after maybe a half mile of effort. I was surprised when he did, so I picked it up, thinking I might carry it for him until I understood why he dropped it: it’s heavy. Like, truly heavy. That’s also when I realized how rank they smelled. My glove was rendered useless for the rest of the run. (Lesson learned.) I tossed Finn’s elk leg into the trees well down-slope from the trail.
Pixie was next to give up her elk leg, after roughly a mile of carrying. Another tossed into the trees.
Maia and Meadow proudly continued carrying their elk legs. Knowing now how heavy they were, I was impressed. We eventually reached a creek, our turnaround point at four miles from the trailhead. (This is the spot where the girls and I saw the bear and cub a year earlier – story here.)
At the creek, Maia took advantage of the break, got comfortable, and began chewing on the joint end of her prize in earnest. Meadow was clearly thirsty, looking at the creek longingly but unwilling to drop her own prize lest one of the other dogs steal it. She’s step into the creek, but wouldn’t drop the elk leg. After much coaxing I convinced her to drink, but only after dropping the foreleg into the creek at her feet, to better guard it.
To save time, I took Maia’s foreleg away and made her drink while making sure none of the other dogs took it. After giving it back to her, I took advantage of the free-flowing water to wash the stench of elk leg off my hand.
Finn and Pixie drank but also eyed the girls and their elk legs carefully, cautious to not challenge the girls directly but mindful of any opportunity to snatch a foreleg if the girls turned their backs. No such luck.
Dogs tanked up with water, we all headed back up the trail toward the trailhead, Maia and Meadow proudly carrying their forest treasure again.
I noticed, though, that rather than assuming their usual lead position, both girls were behind the rest of us, laboring to keep up.
At about mile six of this eight-mile run, Maia finally gave up. Her forest treasure was just too heavy. She stopped and dropped the elk leg onto the trail, but wouldn’t leave it with the other dogs nearby.
Another foreleg delicately picked up with my fingers, tossed down-slope and into the trees, then fingers wiped clean on my running tights. Oh, the stench.
That left Meadow, the largest and strongest of the four dogs, still carrying her treasure. Would she make it back to the trailhead with her prize?
Yes. Well, she would have, if I had let her.
It occurred to me as we ran that last mile that it would be impossible to let her bring the elk leg home, even if I could stand the smell of it in the car. One bone + three dogs = a recipe for disaster.
So, a hundred feet from the trailhead, I asked Meadow to drop her forest treasure. She did. She then watched – horrified, I’m sure – as I tossed it as far as I could down-slope into a thicket of shrubs. She started to go after it until I called her back.
I felt AWFUL.
She had carried that heavy foreleg for roughly six miles, and what did I do? Steal it! Even worse, I threw it away! After all that work, she was denied the chance to truly savor it at home.
I’m surprised she forgave me. Talk about unconditional love.
Same As it Ever Was with My Dogs
I see so much of Maia and Meadow in Conall. It’s like he got all of their best traits: Maia’s smarts and awareness of the wildlife around us in the forest, and Meadow’s sense of humor and friendliness toward all dogs and people. He also shares their affinity for forest treasure, most especially elk legs.
Learning from that experience in 2008 with Maia and Meadow, when Conall finds bones in the forest I let him chew for a minute or two, then insist he leave it behind, even if he seems to want to try to carry it home, initially bribing him liberally with treats. He leaves it beside the trail or road, and it’s almost always there when we come that way again in a few days or even a few weeks. Often, it’s been buried under snow in the meantime. Like a dog who buries a favorite bone in his yard, Conall always remembers exactly where in the forest he leaves a bone and when we get near, he runs ahead to claim it, every bit as excited as he was the first time he found it.
Talking Heads’ Once in a Lifetime from the 1980 album Remain in Light, which includes the repeated phrase, Same as it ever was. [Apologies if watching this makes you feel old because you remember, as I do, when it first came out. And can I just say, David Byrne has aged well.]
Feature image: The Payette National Forest offers so many options. Which way shall we go today? December 11, 2019.