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.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Of Rocks and Leaves and Bears

On Thursday, on our way back from a quick four hours spent in Newburyport, we stopped at Chocorua Lake for the signature view up to the mountain of the same name. The water was calm and clear; the skies were blue with powder puff clouds. It was the most pleasant of summer days, the kind you remember from your childhood when being idle was good enough.

Samwise was fascinated with sniffing the woodland path near the water, and the stones placed there for people to sit on. Eventually, he settled next to me and took in the view and the breeze and the scent of summer by the water. Then, in an instant, he cocked his head, his ears rose, and he let out several shrill barks to raise the alarm. I put my arm around him and told him it was okay. I spoke calmly and as I did his ears relaxed and his body was no longer as tense and ready to spring. But he couldn’t take his eyes off what had upset him. It was a large rock, sitting in the lake, with only its top quarter above the water, and it stood only fifteen feet away from shore.

He’s not a constant barker, but if something startles him, or if he doesn’t know what it is and it looks strange to him, he sounds the alarm. He’s done it with leaves blowing in the wind, the Saco River, the cackling crows who loiter in the black ash in our backyard. One morning, we came out the front door, and he let out his shrill bark to let me know there was a deer twenty yards away. Heck, he even barks at people we encounter along the trail when they seem to materialize out of nowhere.

The other day, one good-natured woman petted him and said, “It’s kind of difficult to be afraid of that little bark of yours.”

For Samwise A. Passaconaway, it’s not about aggression, but being surprised. He’s a young fellow learning his way in the world.

This morning, on our woods walk, he met his first bear. He was off leash, as he always is when we are in the woods, and he ran into the underbrush, and his machine gun barking led to some crashing through the trees. Something big was rumbling along, startled by Samwise’s barks.

When I called him, he returned to my side, and I attached the leash to his harness. He continued to be vigilant and continued to erupt with his barking now and then. I sat down next to him, requested that he “please be gentle,” and stroked his wiry fur. He looked at me, then up at the tree where a young bear was trying to hide, and he growled.

Down into the gully we went, but instead of having him walk, I carried Samwise in my arms and whispered to him the entire time. Eventually we stood right below the bear. I explained to my little friend that brother bear is not to be quarreled with. Even further explained that Samwise A. Passaconaway’s last name translates to “son of the bear.”

At first the bear gnashed his teeth. He snapped his jaws a few times. And when he did this, Samwise growled.

I continued to whisper to him and then they both quieted down. Samwise was no longer tense in my arms. He relaxed and looked skyward to the young bear in the trees with curiosity. For his part, the black bear looked down on us, I think, perhaps trying to figure out what we would do next. But as I backed away and apologized to the bear for the early morning ruckus, he too seemed to be at ease.

Eventually, we walked several feet away and I put Samwise down and sat with him. The three of us watched each other, until we left the bear to do whatever a bear does on an early Saturday morning.

I remember, years ago, when we first started hiking, that I was fearful of running into a moose and having Atticus bark at it. For moose have been known to stomp on and kill little barking dogs who get on their nerves. So after our hikes, we drove to the more popular moose hangouts at dusk and whenever we saw one, I’d whisper to Atticus, “Pssst, moose. Please be gentle.”

We practiced that a lot. Whenever we were in the woods, no matter what the stimulation was, I could softly say, “Pssst, moose,” and Atticus would calmly sit down and look around for a moose. We did this especially in trails where moose were known to hang out. I wanted Atticus to be aware, and to be ready to be calm whenever he saw one.

Through the years, it worked. I even have photos of Atticus sitting twenty yards from a moose who is wading in a local pond and looking back at Atti.

I’m not sure how much of this Samwise will pick up. He’s still an excitable puppy of only seven months or so. Time will tell. But starting him on the path of being gentle cannot hurt.