Among the far-too-many-to-list joys of running through the forest with my dogs off leash is watching them follow their natural curiosity, navigate obstacles, and solve problems.
The joke among those of us who choose to live with Alaskan Malamutes is that when we ask them to do something, they look at us, thinking, Maybe. What’s in it for me? Often, it’s better to let them figure things out on their own, generating their own internal rewards.
This morning, running through the forest on crusty old snow, I got to watch Conall think through a problem. It was fascinating (well, certainly for me) to observe. Even better was seeing how proud he was of himself.
About two miles into our run, we started heading up a steep section. A dusting of new snow made it slick and slow-going for me. Two-thirds of the way up the hill, waiting for me, Conall amused himself by standing atop a small boulder just off the trail, watching me struggle. You humans are so slow.
Conall has always loved climbing boulders of all sizes. I’ve watched him scope out a new boulder, assessing its climbing potential, sometimes circling it searching for a reasonable way to gain purchase. If he’s not confident of success, he doesn’t try. I appreciate that good sense because I don’t want an injured dog.
I’ve only seen Conall take a pass on climbing a new boulder a couple of times.
Notice the larger of the two boulders in the feature photo? It’s in a section of forest we run frequently, year round. We passed it early in today’s run. That was one of Conall’s first major “summits” at just a little over one year of age. Believe me, I held my breath that first time. But he was so proud! He posed for photos, took in the views, and posed some more before rejoining me and Finn on the trail. I praised him lavishly, which helped “set” the behavior. Thereafter, every time we ran by that boulder Conall would clamber atop it, having fun and showing off. Finn always waits patiently as I praise Conall and take photos.
Until that one time there was some snow clinging to the side of the boulder Conall uses as an on-ramp. He took a running leap, hit the patch of snow, struggled for purchase, digging his claws in, and slowly slid off the boulder. He was unhurt, but I could see it took a toll on his confidence. I have since convinced Conall to climb that boulder again, several times, but only when it’s dry; I want him to maintain his mojo. Sadly, Conall atop that boulder is no longer a regular event when we run past, although every now and again he gets a wild hair and shows off by summiting.
Now that Conall is six – and, perhaps in part, a result of that one slip – I’ve noticed he’s a tad more cautious climbing the biggest or steepest boulders. That’s okay. Smart, even. I know I don’t do half the crazy, adrenaline-inducing stuff I did when I was young.
With age comes wisdom.
Wisdom comes from experience. Experience is often a result of lack of wisdom.Terry Pratchett
Despite the rare mishap, Conall remains adventurous, willing to explore and climb new boulders, as today’s run proved.
As we neared the top of the ridge, Conall waited for me, again. He stood beside the trail, showing me where it was (hard to see the flat morning light), crossing a shoulder before dropping down the other side. See that large mound of snow to the right, through the trees to the right of Conall in the next photo? I didn’t notice it as I caught my breath and shot it and the next photo.
I’ve learned it’s always a good idea to turn and look behind you, where you’ve come from, especially if you’ve been focusing on foot placement and ignoring the beauty around you. This was the view I was rewarded with after a long, slippery climb.
Breath caught, I followed Conall’s lead along the trail. We passed that big mound of snow I mentioned. That’s when I realized that it was an enormous snow-covered boulder, with human footprints leading up the side to the top. “If a two-footed animal can do it, Conall certainly can,” I thought. I called Conall back. With phone camera ready, I pointed at the footprints and said, “Up up!”
Conall looked at me, at the prints, the top of the boulder, at the prints again, turned a circle around me on the trail to gain momentum and took a couple of short leaps onto the boulder.
But he stopped suddenly and turned back down. I don’t think he slipped. He simply aborted the attempt. Only Conall knows why. I was surprised, and a little disappointed, but hey, it’s his choice.
I almost put my camera back into my running pack, thinking we’d simply continue along the trail.
But Conall had other ideas. As if embarrassed by his failure, he crossed the trail to a much small boulder on the downhill side and climbed it. And posed.
A few seconds later, with a playful gleam in his eye, Conall turned and jumped off the small boulder.
I assumed he was going to rejoin me on the trail and we would run down the other side of the ridge.
But no. Uh uh. Conall had formulated a plan. He dashed past me and with a better, longer running start, climbed the big boulder! He was so fast I almost didn’t get any photos.
Conall followed the existing footprints exactly, which is smart. I use the prints of other humans in the snow to alert me to where the snow is hard or soft, whether it will support my weight or I might punch through. Clearly Conall does the same.
Once atop the boulder, Conall walked around, checking its contours and the views. At one point I could barely see him through the tree branches, but I trusted he wouldn’t slide off. It would be a big drop if he did. Or so I thought.
Having surveyed this new boulder, Conall started posing for me. That’s when I knew he was proud of himself. Scary mission accomplished.
It was time for us to continue on. I was getting chilled. I figured I’d switch to video to capture Conall running down off the boulder through the snow. As he walked around the “edges” of the boulder’s top, at one point (about ten seconds into the video) he sniffed and stepped away from a spot where snow seemed ready to slide off. Good move, Conall.
Despite my encouragement to join me, Conall seemed unready. He walked toward the left (east) side of the boulder. He stopped, looked beyond the edge, looked at me through the tree branches, looked toward the east again and back at me, thinking, before finally agreeing to join me by running down the way he went up.
I was surprised Conall seemed reluctant, that it took so much coaxing before he ran off the boulder.
I stowed my phone into my pack and followed Conall along the trail, which ran right beside the east side of the boulder. At first I simply marveled at the sheer size of it, but a few steps farther I suddenly understood why Conall moved to that side of the boulder, looking and hesitating before coming down the way he went up: there was a much gentler slope down the boulder’s east side. But no footprints there.
Conall had considered going down that side, but opted to use the known path.
That, or – ham for the camera that he is – Conall decided to make sure I got his descent on video.
Back on the trail, camera stowed and gloves back on my hands, Conall happily led me down the far side of the ridge, prancing proudly, tail held high.
Day made, for both of us.
Conall’s determination, problem-solving and risk assessment skills amaze me. Better than most people I know.
Feature photo, video and all photos except the one from June 2017 were taken today.