Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Ridin' dirty

Now that we're suffering through a hurricane in Minnesota, I've become nostalgic for the very nice weather we had just a few weeks ago. Low humidity, temps in the 70s -- we took advantage by taking Dempsey on lots of outdoors adventures.

I think Dempsey had fun, though all that outdoors time meant we often caught him riding dirty in the Jeep, staring hungrily at his picnic food bowl.

Though he's spent a lot of time in the great outdoors, Dempsey still manages to find things that surprise him:

Obviously, something with nasty, sharp, pointy teeth had been chewing the tree. We explained it was just a harmless rodent, but Dempsey wasn't buying it. After some investigation, Dempsey decided it was ok after all, and he showed us what he learned by pretending to be a beaver fetching sticks:

Dempsey's swimming skills have greatly improved, but he's months away from his wilderness merit badge. Case in point is a 2-mile hike we took on the Grand Portage trail at Jay Cooke State Park.

I admit we started off a bit late, just before sunset, but I figured we could knock off 2 miles in about an hour. The problems started when we were in a dark hollow just after the sun set. I was studying the park map when we heard a screech owl, which really alarmed Dempsey. He jumped up, knocking the map out of my hand, and started looking around nervously, ears back.

"Don't worry, Dempsey," I told him cheerfully. "It's just an owl. Like Woodsy: Hoot, hoot -- don't pollute!"

Dempsey looked back at me incredulously. "That was not a hoot."

It took a few minutes, but I was finally able to get Dempsey to relax, giving him simple tasks with high-value treats. Then I gave him a harder task: I asked him to find the map he had knocked out of my hand. The problem, you see, is that the free park map is printed on yellow paper, a color best described in the autumn as "leaf-colored." In the darkening woods, with leaves all over the ground, I couldn't find it anywhere. When I asked Dempsey to get it, he looked down from his sit, somewhat puzzled, and then back up at me: "Yeah, right."

I let Dempsey sniff around the leaves while I got on my hands and knees searching for the map. Dempsey wandered over to a tree. I heard some leaves rustle, and then a branch snap, and the next thing I knew, I was on my back. Dempsey had spooked something that had spooked him, and he took off so hard, he had pulled me over with his leash.

It was eerily quiet now, except for Dempsey's heavy breathing. Looking up, I saw some big shadowy branches swinging from a tree.

"Don't think about the Blair Witch Project," I told myself. This, of course, only made me think more about the Blair Witch Project.

We were now caught in a vicious loop of anxiety. Dempsey had made something nervous; that thing, whatever it was -- skunk? witch? killer rabbit? -- made Dempsey nervous; Dempsey's nervousness was making me nervous; which, of course, only made him more nervous.

Now, Dempsey was so nervous, he wouldn't budge. He didn't want to drop, shake, or roll over. He didn't even want the tasty treats I offered. With darkness quickly falling, I decided I needed to use the nuclear option: Pretending to leave. I walked about ten feet away and then called him. Afraid I'd leave him alone in the woods, Dempsey came charging, tried sliding to a stop, failed -- and crashed into me.

After dusting the leaves of my jacket (again), Dempsey was finally ready to go, but by now, it was pretty dark. While I looked at the stars to navigate, Dempsey kept his nose to the ground, and we both followed the trail a pretty good distance.

Until we came to a fork.

I was pretty sure the trail veered to the left, but Dempsey insisted it veered to the right. Right was roughly the direction we wanted to go, and Dempsey had been pretty good at sniffing to stay on the trail, so I disregarded all the previous examples of Dempsey's good judgment, and followed him.

We walked for about fifteen minutes, watching the trail was getting progressively smaller and muddier. It was pretty obvious now that Dempsey was leading me down the path of wrongness. We got proof positive when Dempsey stopped at a dead tree, and something gave us a very loud, unfriendly hissssss. Dempsey and I both jumped back about ten feet. There was no way we would be passing by that tree.

I didn't want to backtrack on the muddy trail. Luckily, I heard the hum of some power lines, which I remembered ran back towards the parking area, so we followed the hum back to the parking lot.

My little buddy Gilligan and I returned from our one-hour hike three hours later, wet, muddy, and scared out of our wits. Though Dempsey usually does not like jumping into cars, this night he seem positively elated, and leapt in the car before I even asked him.

It's a good thing Dempsey is going to be a service dog, and not a wilderness guide dog.


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