Starting with his earliest forays into the forest near home as a puppy, Conall has had the ability to follow his nose to animal bones left on the ground.
Some bones appear in the normal course of life, after animals die from natural causes or as a predator’s meal. Other bones appear after hunters kill and butcher an animal. In every instance, the bones are quickly dispersed by forest scavengers, a piece here, another there.
As the boys and I run or walk in the forest, Conall often suddenly veers off trail several feet into the undergrowth and trees, even when the landscape is covered with snow, returning with his forest “treasure.” Conall’s exquisite sense of smell picks up the scent of the bones from yards away, leading him directly to it.
Conall is always so proud of himself when he finds forest treasure. Of course, my lavish praise reinforces his pride. Conall poses for photos before he agrees – at my insistence – that he leave it behind. If we’re doing an out-and-back route, he’ll dash ahead to pick up the treasure again on the way back. And he always, always, remembers where he left forest treasure, searching for it the next time we pass that way, whether a week or a month has gone by.
Finn doesn’t possess these skills. At all.
I like to believe that Conall’s superior skill in this regard is due to his close relation to wolves. His DNA remains mostly wolf – Alaskan malamutes are one of the breeds most closely related to wolves. Finn (Australian shepherd) and so many other breeds created by humans over decades of mixing, culling and shaping are designed by us to perform specific jobs valuable to their keepers: herding livestock, guarding livestock or people, killing pests, tracking and retrieving game, or simply fitting nicely on the ample laps of royalty (and later, us common folk). They’re good at what they’ve been bred for, but most have lost the most basic survival skills that are embedded in the wolf’s DNA: using their senses and instincts to find food for themselves.
Early on January 2nd, Conall and I headed up into the forest on a snow-covered Forest Service road. (Finn joined us on this same road the day before but showed some slight lameness afterward, so he stayed home this day.) I usually wait 30 minutes or so after daybreak before heading out so that nocturnal forest creatures can make themselves scarce.
On this morning, though, a story unfolded before my eyes that had me surprised, entertained and laughing.
About a mile up from our starting point is where Conall found the lower portion of an elk leg on an earlier outing. That elk leg had been moved from its previous location where Conall first found it in November. He dug it out of the snow berm on December 19th, and again on December 27th.
But when the boys and I ran up there on January 1st – celebrating the new year – Conall couldn’t find his elk foot in the spot he’d left it on December 27th. He searched, on the way up and on the way back down. Even with Finn’s help, he couldn’t find it.
I figured it had been carted off by some other forest denizen.
The morning of January 2nd, Conall and I headed up into the forest again. Conall searched for his elk leg in the spot he’d last seen it and to my surprise, found it! Right where he’d left it before. Why he and Finn couldn’t find it the day before is a mystery. The forest is full of mysteries.
After giving Conall an opportunity to gloat over finding the elk leg, I asked him to leave it behind, even asking him to move off the road where the snowmobiles run, up onto the berm so it would be safe, before continuing up the mountain. He reluctantly complied.
As soon as Conall dropped the elk foot onto the snow berm I turned uphill, ready to continue our run. That’s when I saw…a dog? Coming down the road toward us? Oh hell, no, it’s a fox! I can’t let Conall see it!
I quickly distracted Conall, blocking his view up the road, and put a leash on him. Just as the clasp closed on his collar, he spied the fox.
Tension! I’ve written about Conall’s ongoing dispute with a fox who taunts him from just beyond our yard fence. Conall immediately assumed this was the same fox and it needed to be taught a lesson!
The fox saw us, and after some indecision about what to do, which way to go, finally left the road and climbed a steep hillside. Whew! The last thing I wanted was for it to run up the road, the direction I wanted to go. I marveled at the fox’s ability to move quickly through the snow, leaping over obstacles on such a steep incline. With leash in hand, though, I didn’t attempt to get any photos. It was all I could do to hold Conall back.
Conall was incensed! He wanted to take after the fox. I guess I’ll finally find out just how hard Conall can pull on snow! Once I saw the fox was safely off the road, I let Conall run up the road, pulling me so fast my feet could hardly keep up. When we reached the spot where the fox had left the road Conall slowed enough to inhale its scent in the footprints it left behind. He wanted to follow its tracks up the steep slope but I said no. Conall continued pulling me up the road, around a curve bending toward the direction the fox took through the forest. It wasn’t until we rounded that curve and the fox was nowhere to be seen that Conall slowed and I felt I could safely remove the leash.
Talk about elevated heart rates! I’m sure all three of us had adrenaline pumping for those few minutes. I was secretly happy to have covered so much uphill terrain with little effort on my part.
Later, after our heart rates returned to normal, Conall and I ran along a spur road higher up on the mountain. I watched Conall suddenly follow his nose into a deep snow bank. I expected him to find more forest treasure, but he came back empty-mouthed. What scent had he detected? I didn’t see any prints in the fresh snow, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t some buried underneath that Conall smelled.
Oh, to know his thoughts. To know what his nose knows.
Eventually we reached our turnaround point, and turning back, retraced our steps.
As we neared where the elk leg had been deposited on our way up, Conall increased his pace, eager to reach it. I struggled to keep up with him, the snow soft and churned by snowmobiles. I felt like I was running in slippery sand. Thankfully it was downhill.
Conall reached “the spot” and stopping, got a puzzled look on his face. He searched the snow berm where he’d deposited the elk leg earlier, and…couldn’t find it. Gone!
Conall sniffed the snow, pushing his nose deep into it and inhaling, then pulled his head out and looked around.
He repeated this two more times, digging for a better smell, before his gaze settled on a fresh set of tracks that left the berm and headed down from the road into the trees.
He wanted to follow the tracks but I told him no, the elk foot is gone, best to share forest treasure with all the forest creatures. They need it more than you do.
But I wondered if that fox we’d surprised and chased earlier was the culprit.
I kinda hope so.
Karma’s a bitch.
I’m sure people assume I must be bored silly, spending hours “alone” in the forest with just my dogs for company. Au contraire! It’s as if each outing we’re sharing an exciting story in our heads the entire time, unfolding with each step, silent but rich with content based on body language. Did you see that squirrel? Look, an elk leg; my favorite! Where do these tracks lead, and who left them? Wanna play with this awesome stick? Look, wild water to drink! Can I have another treat?
And that doesn’t even include the sounds of nature – bird songs and calls, burbling streams, tree limbs moving in the breeze, coyotes yipping in the distance – adding context, texture and background to every adventure.
Our options for forest runs and walks are limited in winter. But that’s okay. For the dogs, there are always new scents and tracks to follow on the same old route, new messages to decipher and always the exciting possibility of seeing the animal who left those messages. For me, each outing brings a new and entertaining conversation with the boys, wherever we are.
Feature photo: Conall enjoys a chew on his elk foot while Finn removes ice balls from this feet, December 27, 2020.