Following Atticus: Forty-Eight High Peaks, One Little Dog, and an Extraordinary Friendship by Tom Ryan is published by William Morrow. It tells the story of my adventures with Atticus M. Finch, a little dog of some distinction. You can also find our column in the NorthCountry News.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Meeting Old Man Winter on the Tripyramids

In my limited experience in these mountains I find that each hike...each mountain has a story to tell, lessons to teach, gifts to be unwrapped. On Tuesday we hiked the Tripyramids for the fifth time in 20 months but this time we had the opportunity to see them through the fresh eyes of one new to winter hiking. Another Newburyport friend joined Atticus and me. Aaron is new to winter hiking but has long loved the outdoors. Much like TJ, who’d done the Bonds Traverse with us, Aaron was invited along for similar reasons. He’s a good soul, mentally and physically tough, and doesn’t have an agenda other than just experiencing winter in the mountains and he knows that my hikes are centered on Atticus’ safety and comfort.

It didn’t take long to know it was a great fit. For Aaron it was love at first sight as we entered the woods and left the Kancamagus behind. He’d brought his camera with him and couldn’t stop taking photos. What a pleasure to take someone who loves the woods as much as we do and peel him away from his restaurant and downtown Newburyport. He hardly gets to escape and here he was immersed in the wildness of this cold January morning.

Working our way along the Pine Bend Brook Trail we came to the various stream crossings that were not yet frozen and Atticus dropped behind me to watch my foot placement and then emulated me. Since he is a small dog stream crossings are one of the more challenging aspects of hiking in the winter. On a couple of occasions when he stopped to question his ability to get across a stream or to assess the best route, Aaron would scoop him up and carry him across without a squirm of resistance.

Funny thing about Atticus, he never lets anyone pick him up out in the “real world”. I’d never have to worry about anyone stealing him. But on a hike, no matter the time of the year, he understands there is a different set of rules and that those along are here to help him and so he lets them without resistance. He gets it.

As other dog owners know, one of the pleasures of hiking with a four-legged friend is watching them interact with nature and watching them solve problems. There are times on a trail when I’ll stop to help him get up a steep pitch but by the time I’m ready to help he’s already up above me and moving along like it’s no big deal. I am fond of saying that he climbs like Gollum but is as loyal as Samwise. For some reason Atticus understands that we climb until we get to the top, then we head back down. He likes to take the lead. And I’m often surprised by how well he knows these trails and his strong sense of place. A couple of weeks ago, when we did the Carters and Cats there was a moment on the Carter-Moriah trail where he was above me and then just stopped and hung out. He never does this. It turns out he knew we were at the summit so he stayed there and waited because he knows we stop at summits. But how did he know? Then he was off again, down off of Middle Carter and on our way to South Carter where once again he halted at the sign. Amazing.

Not too long ago a stranger contacted me by email. She proclaimed herself an expert in training dogs and she wanted to know what technique I used in training Atticus. She mentioned a few techniques but I had no idea what she was talking about so instead of faking it I responded honestly that Atticus’ training came about simply by us hanging out together. I also mentioned that it is always good to have a dog who is smarter than his owner. I’m sure she cringed at this. (And I'm sure she would cringe even more knowing that this dog who is less than one-twelth my size gets four-fifths of the bed and sits with me at restaurants and eats of his plate while I eat off mine.)

When we entered the Sandwich Range Wilderness and started our climb, Atticus had no trouble. I wish I could say the same. He’s a much better climber than I. Aaron seemed to be doing fine too. But once we reached the height of the ravine after passing through that glorious cathedral of birch trees Aaron started to slow on the up hills a bit and I had some company at my pace. But it’s not like Atticus left us behind. He never does. He simply takes his lead and keeps it. If I stop, he stops. If I take two steps forward, he takes two steps forward. Nearly the only time he comes back is if I fall down, or if I call him back.

In his tiredness Aaron soon grew to understand the joys of stopping often---it gives you the opportunity to look around and appreciate the immediate views and there are always photos to be taken when you take the time to appreciate the beauty around. (This is something I didn’t do during my first time through the 48.)

The ridge walk below the summit of North Tripyramid is my favorite section of this hike and it wasn’t long before Aaron fell in love with this area too as we walked through the narrow corridor of trees that drop off quickly on either side to reveal the blue sky. Walking across the snow with the sky on either side just through the trees was like walking across a crisp, white cloud. Talk of heaven!

It was cold but we were protected from the wind. And I was impressed with the fact that Atticus did not need his Muttluks or his body suit. He seems to be adapting to the cold much more so than he did last winter. Nevertheless I watched him closely but there was only one time he started to shiver and then as soon as we started to move it was over with and he warmed again.

There were many times when I had to stop and wait for Aaron, who is 80 lbs less than me, much healthier, and 15 years younger. It wasn’t because he was tired (although he was), it was due to the fact that he was falling in love with the frosted conifers and the various views through the trees, obscured as they were by the light fog on occasion, and he had to take photo after photo with his camera.

One of the more fulfilling feelings I get during the holidays is when I give someone a gift he or she truly loves. On this hike I got to see the innocence one new to winter hiking grow into enchantment. I got to see our friend’s eyes light up with excitement and wonder with every turn in the trail, with every partial view point, under the thickly iced trees backed by the deep blue sky above. Had we had unobstructed views I’m sure his heart would have burst in unfettered joy. As it was, it was wonderful to see him leave the day-to-day behind as we gained North Tripyramid and then Middle and worked our way back again.

The temperatures were falling and it was hard to imagine that the day could get any better…but it did. While on that magical ridge walk again on our return trip and feeling the cold bite of the season we came face to face with Old Man Winter as he would look like if he stepped out of the pages of a children’s book. There before us on the trail stood a tall man with a thick beard covered in ice with eyes filled with the rapture of the day. I thought it was a mirage at first but it turned out to be our friend Steve Smith. I’m used to seeing Steve behind the counter at his Mountain Wanderer bookstore and I’ve never had the pleasure of hiking with him before but what a joy it was to look into his eyes on this day and see the freedom and love he has for these mountains.

Steve has been very much a mentor to us this past year and a half but this was the first time we got to see him in his true element and I felt like I had suddenly received as much a gift as Aaron had throughout the day. I have seen this part of Steve Smith at times through the words of his books but to it reflected in his eyes, the flush in his cheeks, the total involvement in his surroundings, it gave me more of an understanding of this remarkable man than I’ve had since we first met him in May of 2005. He has tromped through these woods for a quarter of a century and yet his was the face of one who is totally in love with what he is doing. His was the face of a child, fresh and excited and in that short encounter on the trail I felt like I’d met a timeless character so genuine you only meet them in books or dreams.

Each hike I’m fulfilled by watching Atticus, who is very much at ease in these woods and I am equally fulfilled by the joy I feel while up here. On Tuesday I was blessed to introduce a friend to these mountains and then to see yet another friend so happy doing what he loves doing. I often encounter people on my hikes but few seem to have the fresh feeling of unbridled excitement shared by Aaron, the newcomer, and Steve, the old-timer.

No wonder I never felt the cold throughout the day. There were enough things on this day to keep me warm from within.

1 comment:

Dawn Middlestead said...

It just amazes me how much Atticus and hiking went hand in hand. Most dogs don't have the interest or perhaps their owners don't have the interest and they do, but they don't get the chance to experience it. Atticus was a great leader, so confident walking (hiking) along the trails. The reference to "Samwise", so appropriate when describing Atticus. And now you have a new furry friend in your life...Samwise...he is growing into his name.