Away Into The Wilds With Dharma (1/3)

On a recent backpacking trip, my dog and I traveled 38 miles of wilderness. My wild heart’s calling was answered. I was the wild adventure I needed after a rather stressful city assignment. My dog, though some-what small is used to mountain escapades with me. She’s 8 years old now, but since she was a puppy I’ve taken her into the mountains and we regularly take hikes still. Though she had not done a backpacking trip for years, and none so long and as wild as this, I felt she was primed and fit enough to join me. So we set out towards our wild home.

Escapades into the mountains and forests are simply a part of life for me, and while my dog and I often hike together, it is rare for me to take her on longer journeys as this. I often worry that I would miss out on wildlife, wishing to keep the wild wild. But I have pleasantly found this not to be the case at least not significantly.

Instead, her quiet demeanor and low-profile has allowed me to see wildlife first and as they figure out my own present before they do her and they are usually long gone before she can even detect them. Not only does she have a physical low-profile, she’s a schnauzer. Schnauzers are driven by a great need to look down and sniff at what’s closest to their noses. Although she is a strong hiker, she has relatively poor hunting skills, so while she is a domesticated version of her wild cousins, she makes a poor wolf. I love her regardless. In fact its better this way, for our trips at least. This way the wilds still present themselves as such. I am grateful for this.

Humans have traveled alongside their wolf-like companions for around 15,000 years! Today, they are greatly a part of our lives and it is not always possible for me to find someone to care for her in my absence to go on such hikes. As for the risks to myself and to her in the mountains, they are the risks we take every time I set out for the mountains. They are my own.

Day 1: 7 miles

I left the car at a trailhead where it will sit parked for about a week. Our journey’s end will be on the outer edge of the wilderness boundary, north-west from this point. There, my partner will meet us to drive us back to town then back into the mountains again to pick up my car. 

My dog and I will be traveling for 5 days, 4 nights, wandering through a massive ravine with multiple river crossings filled with element-worn boulders, lined with enormous cathrdral-scaped rock faces. Venturing atop un-explored off-trail ridge-lines and through disappeared trails over-grown with thorny locust and wild raspberry; and over trail-less post-burned passes. 

It is everything that a wilderness hike should be. I was home again.

We started our first day casually. I kept her on the leash for the first 2 miles or so, to prevent her from running about too much, becoming unnecessarily tired. After around 4 miles in, she understood. We would not be turning back, “Better follow lead”. She is a good follower. Sometimes following too close.

River crossings were easy enough and are a main feature of this route and so, many, many more crossings were to be expected. The water levels were anywhere from mid-shin to waist high. Dharma did well, as most dogs would. 

At the end of the first day, I had already lost count of the many crossings, as we made our way through the meandering river, from bank to bank. Though I wasn’t really counting to begin with. Why bother? Instead I was lost in the everlasting, stunning scenery. Soon enough we were surrounded by weathered, sheer vertical cliffs. Towering high above us I watched as Black-hawks swirled around disappearing behind the many towers and high ridges. 

I had decided that we would only travel around 5 miles today, so as to ensure Dharma would be able to endure the rest of our journey. Sometime after noon, weather started rolling in and soon after, a gentle, yet persistent rain bathed the entire forest. Hiking in the rain has always been a delight for me, recalling the many times I’ve intentionally gone hiking in times of approaching weather. Getting caught in the rain while hiking trials near home is always an exhilarating experience. We had climbed into the forest away from the river as the rains started. “I guess we’ll be setting up camp early, Dharma”. This was, of course, perfect since we wanted to do little milage today anyway. My concern was, not the rain, but getting a fire started early to be able to keep some embers for the morning. 

Admiring the richness of the forest, I watched as the gentle rains draped all around us as we scouted about for a camp spot. The Stellar’s Jays too, seemed to enjoy the refreshing change. And earlier, just before the rains began, a Gophersnake rested stretched out on the trail as if enjoying the subtle humidity. The entire forest seemed to reflect my own feelings. It was as if the Earth and her creatures were letting out a simultaneous sigh of gratitude for the much needed moisture.It was magical, it’s always magical. Dharma I’m sure, paid no other attention than to her already tired body. Our intended 5 miles ended up turning into 7 miles. Still not too bad, I knew what she could handle. 

As the rains began to pick up, I switched from gathering dry tinder to quickly setting up our tent. Dharma happily went inside to rest. I followed soon after, shielding the dry tinder I had already gathered from the rain. The down-pour lasted for about a half an hour or so. In the meantime, I read little before taking a brief nap. As soon as the rains relaxed, I returned to fire duty. Soon after, we had a nice fire going and I returned to gather more tinder and manageable sized wood which I set nearby. Dharma must have been tired as she was content to stay in our small shelter while I carried on with camp duties. Though I did coax her out a few times to make sure she would drink some water. She needed to be well hydrated for the journey ahead. 

After dinner and some tea, we retreated back into our shelter where I read until the darkness  took away my vision. We then drifted into sleep as we listened to the nighttime drizzle. It was a good day. 

Day 2: 10.2

The coals in the ash were still hot from the previous night’s fire which made starting a new one quick. Dharma explored camp as I made breakfast and tea. In no hurry, sure that we had a fantastic day ahead of us. After breakfast I made several trips to the river to collect enough water to deaden our fire. Performing the ritual I do every time I dismantle my hearth. Mindfully disappearing any remnants back into the earth. It is a practice of mine, to give internal thanks and to leave my camp as if I were never there. 

Much like the day before, the morning carried on with crossing after crossing. River crossings never get old. It is true that, you can never cross the same river twice. Not only do the banks change ever so slightly from year to year. Each crossing is nothing like the previous one. Each possessing it’s own character. From sandy bottoms to rock lined crossings. Some with unique mossy rock islands, some quiet and some rushing; depending on the sharpness of the nearest bend. The dynamic character of nature is found within every crossing. 

Late that morning we came across abundant vines of wild grapes. The grapevines before here, were already picked over by animals. We also came upon a black bear scat who I am sure enjoyed the grapes as much as I. 

Entering each bend, was like entering yet another world. Opening and narrowing, again and again, into something new. I’m afraid words fall short in describing such a landscape. The dynamic twists and turns of the river carry you forward, fanning internal flames of wanting to know more about it’s secrets.

Thick natural crops of watercress provided a tantalizing treat, which I also used to supplement my lunch. After our midday break, I found a swimming hole in the river’s bend. Happily I stripped down and took a shallow dive into the inviting water. At first Dharma was unsure of what I was doing, thinking I had perhaps decided to swim, instead of wade across the river. She jumped in after me, trying to reach the otherside. Which was just a sheer vertical rock face. It was then, that she seemed to realized what was happening. The day carried on like this, finding treasure after treasure. And knowing more was awaiting us on the journey ahead.

Indeed, the early afternoon did bring another wild treasure. As the trail straightened, the thick treed forest opened up before us where suddenly, 200ft or so ahead of us, was a black bear. The bear was sniffing the trail heading in our direction. Some moments passed before the bear looked up and noticed us. And before you knew it, the bear retreated into the forest. Dharma, hadn’t actually seen the bear but sniffed about where the bear had been. How nice, I thought, happy to have seen it for myself. 

It took longer than expected to find just the right place to camp. Either side of the river’s mountainsides, were either too steep or too exposed. My favorite places are tucked into the entanglement of the forest as much as what made sense. And I was also seeking just the right east-facing spot to be able to enjoy the early morning’s sun. Which isn’t always possible when traversing in such a dense route as this.

 When we finally found an area to scout, Dharma curled up beside a tree where she could watch me as she rested. Hiking over 10 miles today, she was quite tired, as was I. The weather was nice and warm, so we wouldn’t be setting up the tent tonight. I focused my energies on finding a good place for our fire and getting dinner started. Again, I read, until the night darkened the pages of my book and we drifted easily, into a much restful night’s sleep. 

Continued on next post.