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.

Friday, February 01, 2008

The Color Of Snow

When hiking with Atticus I pay attention to his every move and the way he responds to various situations. If he stops on the trail to let me go first, there is a reason. Typically it has nothing to do with the way he’s feeling, but with the way he’s interpreting the trail.

For instance, before we even get to a stream crossing he knows whether it is frozen or not. There are times the stream looks frozen but isn’t quite solid and Atticus will stop and let me go first. Then there are other times when the stream looks the same and he moves forward on his own. He’s got a sense for such things and understands what he can and cannot do and where he should and shouldn’t trust his abilities.

So long as I pay attention to the way he reads the trail I can be there for him. It’s part of what makes our relationship work as well as it does.

However, there are times when he needs my help without even knowing it, although these are rare occurrences.

The other day on the beginning of the Bondcliff Trail, about five miles into our hike, I watched his urine output and the snow was darker than I would like. This is one of the things hikers do in the winter; we pay attention to the color of our urine. The darker it is, the more we need to hydrate. In summer it’s easy to remember to drink. In winter that’s not always the case.

During the warmer months I bring a water bottle along for the little bug. He also stops and drinks at streams and rivers whenever he’s thirsty. In winter it is a different story. He won’t drink from the water bottle and he feels threatened by open water crossings so he won’t stop to drink from them.

The winter solution? Snow.

Atticus will not eat snow on the trail or out of my hand. What he does do is pull ice and snow off of his body or boots and body suit and ingests it.

Had his urine been clearer I would have put his Muttluks on in the loose snow of the Bondcliff Trail and the deeper, looser snow of the rest of the hike. When snow is even just a couple of inches deep it balls up on his legs and he ends up looking like a French Poodle with a fancy cut with white, puffy balls on his lower legs. (Although the other day he reminded me of the old cartoon character, Alley Oop, the caveman with the big “cankles”.) But the other day the snow wasn’t wet, it was soft, dry powder. It built up on his legs but it wasn’t a discomfort to him as it didn’t freeze into ice balls. Whenever we stopped he would pull the snow from his legs and eat it. I’m not sure why he does this and doesn’t just let it drop on the ground instead; it’s just the way he does it.

If he had his boots on the snow wouldn’t have attached to them.

The solution to his possible hydration problem was to leave him without boots and let him eat the snow off his legs. Within an hour of doing this his urine started to lighten up and I felt better about his condition.

The other thing I did differently the other day was to feed Atticus up to 15 times during our 14 hour hike. I kept a pouch of small, meaty training bits in my bib and gave him a handful of treats quite often. This appeared to give him undying energy throughout the day and will be something I use more in the future.

The biggest part of hiking with Atticus is knowing that he will tell me what he needs. The smaller part is knowing that there are some things he cannot tell me about and these are the things I have to keep an eye out for, such as his hydration. It’s part of being a team.