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.

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Some Hiking Dogs Are Being Pushed Too Far

I find myself worrying about the dogs, so I try not to read about them. 

The dogs I'm talking about are those who hike.  Not all of them.  Not even most of them.  Just the ones paired with an increasing number of obsessed hikers.

There have always been obsessed hikers, and most fall under the category of "peakbaggers."  There is a compulsion for these folks to climb every mountain there is on any list there is, and lately, it's gotten rather crazy.  Peakbaggers now have the Internet.  Hiking websites abound, and the self-celebrity that includes solipsistic posts of yourself doing any old thing appears on-line in any number of places.  Whether it's on Facebook sites or those that offer hiking trail conditions.

The idea of hiking the four thousand-footers came from a group intent on getting people to check out other mountains and not just Franconia Ridge and Mount Washington.  It was a fabulous flash of brilliance that sent trampers to each of the four corners of the White Mountain National Forest and introduced them to places they wouldn't have otherwise noticed, or ventured over and through. 

Steve Smith and Mike Dickerman have introduced many to these mountains through their book, "The 4000-Footers of the White Mountains."  Included in every chapter is a variety of ways to climb each peak, what you will see when you get to the summit, and other fascinating tidbits, including history and nomenclature.  I fell in love with this book as I fell in love with the mountains.  It was a wonderful introduction to hiking and who better to introduce the highest mountains of New Hampshire than Smith and Dickerman, two passionate trekkers who made these mountains their lives?  There's not an ounce of ego attached with their writing, and as can also be said about the two authors. 

Many, myself included, have used this book and then went on to explore other mountains in the region. In this way, it goes hand-in-hand with the reason the Four-Thousand-Footer Club was created.  Finish the list (on the honor system), send in confirmation to the Four Thousand-Footer Committee of the Appalachian Mountain Club, and you get a nifty patch and an even niftier scroll.  Do the "fours" in winter, and you get another patch, another scroll from the committee.  Do all sixty-seven of the "fours" in New England and get another patch and scroll.  Do all 67 in winter and get yet another.

That all seemed well and good.  But now independent websites have been set up to reward people who hike each of the forty-eight in one winter.  Eight years ago this totaled about a dozen known individuals. Total.  The idea of getting attention for completing the winter "fours" in one calendar winter and having your name and photograph included on a list had the number of people attempting expanding.  The website lists twenty who finished them all this past winter alone.  In the winter of 2011 – 2012, there were thirty-eight finishers!

Now another website has formed.  It's for what is called the "grid", and it's made up of self-labeled "gridiots."  Hike each of the forty-eight in each of the twelve months, no matter how many years it takes, and you get a patch (not sanctioned by the AMC, I should add) and your name and photo on their site.  Once that website was created, it sent the obsessed down another rabbit hole chasing with the same zeal people once went to the mountains to escape.

These same people came up with yet another website listing all of those who have "red-lined" the White Mountains.  Red-lining means hiking each and every trail there is.  Used to be old-timers were the only ones who accomplished it, or at least those who had been hiking here for decades.  The same is true for those who used to do the "grid."  But that's all changed.  It's the age of the Internet when everyone gets to be a celebrity, whether they should be or not.  Kim Kardashian and Parish Hilton anyone? 

Human neuroses are common.  Let's face it, we're all screwed up to some extent.  No one is perfect.  As long as the dysfunction doesn't go too far, and no one is hurt, it makes for interesting and colorful characters - a wonderful concoction of human life.

And so what if some folks like to go a little nuts when it comes to playing follow the leader and get your name on websites so they can say, “Look!  Look at me!”?  This is, after all, the “White Mountain National Forest, land of many uses." 

But here’s where it crosses the line and borders on neglect and abuse.  It’s the way we treat our four-legged hiking partners. Particularly in red-lining with dogs. 

It’s one thing to march through life with our own mess, but to endanger a dog so you can get attention is just wrong.  There are numerous trails in the White Mountains dogs should not be on.  You can start with the Flume Slide Trail, Huntington Ravine Trail, the Six Husbands Trail (or, as many feel, any other trail that comes up out of the Great Gulf and heads to Madison, Adams, Jefferson, Clay, and Washington). 

Recently, I’m told; the Randolph Mountain Club has contacted Smith and Dickerman, also the editors of the “AMC’s White Mountain Guide," to ask them to educate hikers not to bring dogs onto the Ice Gulch Path because of the danger it holds for the four-legged hikers. 

This column may seem strange coming from me since Atticus and I used to be peakbaggers – three years of the monotony cured me of it.  But from the very beginning there are trails I would never allow Atticus on. 

I’m not sure if he could have done them or not, but the point is not could he have done them, but why would I have risked him doing them?  I can’t speak for anyone else, but I didn’t get Atticus to hike with, I got him to share life with, to share a friendship with.  In the process, I took on the responsibility of looking out for his well-being in a world that is increasingly busy and crazy and created by mankind.  I found that by coming to the mountains it tipped the scale and allowed him to be in charge more.  Hence the name of our book, “Following Atticus."  In a society, I have the final say of how things go.  In the wild, Atticus has more of a say, often the greater say.

I believe we get dogs to get back to basics, to touch our primordial side.  Even as I avoid websites and Facebook pages where there are numerous hikers, I’ve recently been told of puppies being brought up the Franconia Ridge Loop over the rugged Little Haystack, Lincoln, Truman, and Lafayette for their very first hike.  Of dogs doing a twenty-three mile traverse across the Pemigewasset Wilderness (and five four thousand-foot peaks) in winter before they are even one-year-old.  Of others finishing several rounds of the forty-eight by the time they are two or three years old. 

The ignorance of a beginning hiker is one thing.  (Our first summer Atticus and I hiked Flume and Liberty on a day in the low nineties.  Looking back now, I ask, “How did we do it?”  Then I ask, “Why did we do it?”  Ignorance is why.  But live and learn.)

Unfortunately, it seems those who are imposing their obsessions on the dogs they hike with are the experienced hikers.  They are as determined as “Little League Dads” to show how special their dogs are.

This group of people have an interesting way of talking when they push the limits with their dogs. 

On a nasty weather day above treeline they’ll post, “Sparky was fine today, but I wouldn’t bring other dogs up here in this kind of weather.” 

When it comes to long-distance hikes where they push the pace and the mileage, “Finished the thirty-three mile loop in eleven hours and Molly wasn’t the least bit tired!”
And for those who can’t wait until their dog’s bones are mature enough to handle distance hiking, “Max turned one last week and finished the Bonds Traverse.  We stopped a lot, and he seemed fine.  He probably could have kept going.” 
In the winters Atticus and I hiked the “fours," I pretty much gave up my job to make sure we had the best weather days to choose from.  We let the weather and our bodies dictate what we would do.  And thankfully, Atticus never had trouble telling me he didn’t want to hike.  There were several days we showed up at the trailhead where he didn’t want to get out of the car.  So we didn’t.
Since that point,I’ve been asked by numerous hikers if I’d lead the charge to persuade the AMC to change their rule of not offering patches and scrolls to dogs who finish the winter peaks.
I always stayed out of it.
Until now. 
So why am I speaking out now?  Because for years many who hike with dogs have asked me to.  I'm just not speaking out in the way they wanted me to.  I don’t think dogs care about patches and scrolls, so I wish the AMC never started the practice of awarding them for even fair weather hiking to dogs - as they do. 
I’m also speaking out now because the mania has increased, and I believe dogs deserve better than how they are often treated by some.  The best we can do for any animal in our lives is simply to put ourselves in their place and try to figure out what’s important to them. Last I checked, Atticus never once has logged on to Facebook to check for updates or wondered how many peaks another dog “bagged” this week.
We should always speak out for the well being of animals simply because they cannot speak for themselves. 


Donna Jean said...

Good for You Tom for always giving Atticus the choice and never putting him in harms way. I loved that about the book "Following Atticus" as I read it, you never put Atticus in danger and you always made sure he had the medical attention he needed. Many people have dogs (and children) who shouldn't. It is evident in the way the animals behave or misbehave that they would be better with a different home. They are like props and/or accessories some people need to feel good about themselves. I love most animals, dogs & cats especially because they are more domestic. I don't have a dog right now because I don't feel I have the time to show it the kind of time & attention it would need so it wouldn't be fair in my opinion. I do have 2 rescue cats to love and most people know cats are more independent so they are fine with me not being around as much. I can not imagine taking a puppy on a mountain hike. I took my Newfoundland to obedience class when he was 4 months old since I knew he was going to be extra large. The instructor was great and told me when Shadow gets tired he will let you know and you are free to stop before the hour is finished. Once a week we would go to the class where she showed us what to do and then we took our dogs through the paces, Shadow would last about 30-40 minutes and just lay down...ok we're done. We did our homework from week to week. practicing what we were taught and by the time the 10 week course was finished he could make it through the entire class if he wanted to but sometimes he would just stop & lay down. I knew and he knew I knew he was done for that class. It was about respect and love that I never tried to push him for more. He was a great friend to me for 10 years and lived up to his name by being my shadow. He taught me as I taught him and eventually we could go anywhere in my little village without a leash or collar. I totally respect the way you treat your two 4-legged friends and I find myself wishing for another dog someday. The unconditional love of an animal is hard to compare but I also know I have to have the time to devote so I just keep loving Atticus & Will from afar and enjoying your stories.
I'm glad you are going to try to help those dogs who do not have a voice and maybe save a life or two due to over zealous owners trying to be famous. Onward my Friend & thanks for all your great insight!

Unknown said...

Well said. I hope the AMC agrees and complies.
Best to you, Atticus and Will.

Unknown said...

Hi Tom
Was recommended your book by a beautiful lady in MN
I live in Australia and was so inspired I will be visiting your Mountains next year. You are so right there is Dog owners then there is people who have a four legged family member our dogs we feel sick if they are out of sight let alone use them to get a badge or our photo on a web site is very sad, In Australia dogs are band now from all National parks let's hope people smarten up so that doesn't happen to you,
Best wishes
William & Allyse
Charli & Charlie

Anonymous said...

lists are for people. the dog loves being in the outdoors with its people.... leave the list. love the journey. take care of your best friend.

Barbie Perkins-Cooper said...

Again you share the words and beliefs of those of us who treat our four-legged friends truly as best friends...not objects...children...possessions and I thank you for doing so. You always have the consideration, care and health of Atticus and Sweet Will at hand, not the expectations of others. You communicate with them, as I do with mine. I thank you for being such a grand advocate. We are blessed to read your stories. Atticus and Will are blessed, because you are YOU! Thank you. You are such an inspiration, along with Atticus and that precious Sweet Will! Much LOVE TO ALL!

Unknown said...

Thank you Tom for this article.

Unknown said...

Hi Tom,
Only way I can reach out to you.
Big fan of your writing.
My family was in your area in mid July
and encountered you and Atti as you were heading off one day.
My wife is a photographer and she put together a photo book of our vacation.
All shots of the White Mountains in all their splendor.
She and I thought it was a great idea to send you a copy.
It is being held at White Birch Books for you.
Hope you enjoy it.
All the best.
The Combs family.

Candice said...

I'd like to add to your comments about hikers - comments about bikers. I take my dogs mountain biking with me - not the extreme sort, and they're free, not leased - but I always follow my dogs; they dictate the speed, not me. Needless to say, I'm breaking a lot on the downhill. However, I am not the norm. Most people I see who ride with their dogs have their dogs trailing them, trying to keep up. Those are the people I'd like to reverse their position with the dogs and see how they feel. I always am concerned for the heavily panting dog who's a ways behind and wants to catch up but can't. Often, these people also don't have adequate water for the dog either.
So, as Tom feels about hikers, and I agree with him, I have similar feelings about bikers.

Karen Johnson said...


Clara said...

Thank you for speaking up about this Tom. I've noticed the same thing lately when reading the hiking websites. It's sad what some are doing to their dogs. I understand the ignorance part of it because we all learn in the beginning, but for those who aren't new to hiking there's no excuse for bring your dogs on certain trails. It seems selfish to me.

Anonymous said...

Red lining with a dog is as inconsiderate as it gets. How selfish are these people?

Anonymous said...

Good on you, Tom & Atticus! I'm sure it wasn't easy calling out some of your peers in the hiking community. I can't imagine this will be popular with them but what you wrote is very necessary to read. I hope all hikers share it. - Brian & Sue

Anonymous said...

I go on Views from the Top to read about hiking. Couple of years ago we ran into a guy coming off Washington in the winter while we were still going up. He had a big dog. It was nasty out and the guy talked about how the weather didn't bother his dog at all and how the dog loved it. He continued down and we went up. That's when we saw a lot of bloody paw prints in the snow. :(

Carla Fox said...

Thank you, Tom, for speaking out for dogs. As an artist who does art shows & a hiker on the trails, I see lots of miserable dogs places where they really don't want to be. I so appreciate you asking people to stop and smell the wilderness and observe their dogs and see what they want.

M. Barbara Mulrine said...

It always disturbs me to see people using their dogs as an extension of themselves. They don't love their dogs; they love themselves. One night years ago, I was walking down a street on my way home. A man cut through a parking lot with a pit bull pup. He started walking towards me. On the other side of the street was a woman with a mini-poodle. The two dogs saw each other and wanted to go sniff and say hello. The man let his dog move across the street, and when the got close to the woman and poodle, he jerked on the pup's collar and pulled his front paws off the sidewalk, saying, "Sic, sic!" The woman grabbed her poodle. I called out to the man and told him he was a real sick dude. He yelled something at me, but I kept walking. Thanks for all your posts and stories about Atticus. I'm getting close to retirement, and I'd dearly like to move to somewhere down here that I can afford and will allow dogs.

Carter W Rae said...

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you ... Great axiom for all of us especially our little friends that can not actually speak..Probably a good idea to learn how they speak to us Just a thought for ya all Great thought!!

Elizabeth said...

Thanks for wise thoughts. We have hiked quite a bit in the Whites, but not with a dog. We now have a dog (8 years). We would like to start hiking with our dog. We always carefully review trail guides and maps so we know what we're in for - in your view, what trail characteristics should we be cautious to take a dog on, i.e. length, boulder climbing, mossy rocks, stream crossings, etc. I guess it should be intuitive, but I would appreciate some experienced guidance, if you would be so kind...

Bonnie said...

I am very passionate about this, I want to make a flyer to hand out to hikers I encounter with dogs. I have seen men carrying out big fluffy white poodles at East Fork, San Gabriel Canyon....the canyon is in extreme sun, little shade, they don't carry enough water for their dogs...little tiny dogs....please....WHY? i hear others..."Oh how cute your dog hikes" ...not so cute after they collapse.