Know the fitness level of your canine hiking companions
Note: I think I’ve covered pet fitness before in this column, but with summer approaching, it doesn’t hurt to revisit the subject…
Prudent travelers make a concerted effort to match fitness and skill levels among members of a group on backcountry excursions. It’s common sense, promotes safety and adds to everyone’s enjoyment. But do we use the same amount of discretion with our pets? On an early summer climb in the Chugach Mountains several years ago, I severely miscalculated the endurance of my dog — a two-year-old standard poodle — and put us both in jeopardy.
By the time I started biking along Eklutna Lake at 11 a.m. in mid-June, it was already 65 degrees and getting hotter. I’d run my dog on this trail before, but any dog — no matter how good his or her condition — has difficulty keeping up with a bicycle that’s clipping along at more than 10 MPH. I could tell the heat was getting to him, so I slowed down and stopped frequently to let him drink. Once in awhile I poured water on him to cool him down.
We climbed one of Chugach State Park’s highest mountains, Bold Peak, but the climb just about did my poor dog in. At the top he refused to move and even after an overnight bivouac down at 4,000 feet, he was still wiped out. We slowly worked our way down the mountain. In a relay, I alternated carrying the dog and my pack for about two miles.
Once out to the Eklutna Lakeside Trail, we flagged down a guy on a four-wheeler who drove out and notified the ranger we were in need of help. In all, it was an exhausting nightmare.
On the ride out, the ranger noted that this occurrence wasn’t uncommon. Many people, he said, overextend their pets on the Eklutna Trail, either with bicycles or four-wheelers. He said that he’s had to evacuate several exhausted pets as a routine part of his job.
In retrospect, I think my dog would have endured the 10-mile bike ride, even a return trip to the parking lot. But taking him on a 6,000-foot climb directly after the bike ride was a grave error.
I’m sure some people’s dogs could perform that feat, but mine just wasn’t ready. After a few days of hobbling around the house, my canine friend (I was amazed that he was still my friend) began to bounce back — with no apparent injuries.
Dogs are truly loyal companions, because I’m sure he’d again follow me into the mountains at the drop of a Milkbone. Like us, dogs have limits, or thresholds. But unlike us, they are inclined to push themselves to the very edge of those limits, and then crash. I feel very fortunate to have gotten off the mountain without serious injury to either of us.
It’s not easy admitting to a stupid mistake like this. But if this story helps only one person avoid the ordeal I experienced, and suffering to their pet, then I’ll at least feel like I’ve turned a negative outcome into a positive lesson.
Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River.