Meet the Trail Community: Dog
Madigan's a 60-pound mutt who learned to love the outdoors and share trails with people and other pups. Now, his humans are learning how to take an older dog hiking.
For WTA's 50th Anniversary, we're highlighting trail users across Washington state. Hear what hiking means to them, and the future of their on-trail pursuits.
by Loren Drummond
Madigan, a 60-lb mutt with big Eeyore eyes, spent the first couple years of his life in West Virginia, and then another year with a foster family in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. When he came into our lives (and our tiny 500-square foot apartment) he seemed skeptical that he’d get to stay. Three other foster families had returned him; an escape artist with terrible separation anxiety, he had destroyed a few doors along the way. He was sweet, but subdued. Stoic. While he’d cuddle us, we didn’t see him wag his tail for nearly six months.
And then we took him hiking.
Discovering the outside world
First along the trails of Rock Creek Park, the urban greenway running up the heart of Washington, D.C., and then later in the mountains and woods of Maryland and Virginia, we watched as he came alive. Something in those wild places eased his anxieties, replacing them with a goofy delight in the world around him. His black nose went to the trail, coming back up covered in a dusting of loam. His tail, so carefully stilled before, wagged furiously, urging us to move faster or announcing the smell of a creature’s passage before us. On our first backpacking trip together, he found his place at the foot of our sleeping bags, and settled into a deep, contented snore.
It’s the place he has slept—and snored from—for the last ten years of our outdoor adventures together.
The education of a trail dog (and his people)
Madigan settled into his place when we were out on trail, but the truth is we all had a lot to learn. Together that year, we made every mistake in the book. It’s embarrassing to admit now, but we let him charge ahead unleashed with calls of “he’s friendly!” that clearly did nothing to ease the worries other hikers who had no idea he was just running for the joy of it. He had (and still has) a habit of pooping a half-mile into every hike, and we occasionally left those bags there to pick up on our return, not thinking what that meant for hikers who came after us. He dragged us after deer and rabbits. Once, we lost him for ten terrifying minutes, when he bounded off into the woods and got his pack snagged in the brush.
While my wife and I had grown up hiking and camping, no one had taught us the etiquette or responsibilities of hiking with a dog. We watched others around us and made it up as we went along. So we made mistakes.
But over the course of that year, we all learned better. Madigan learned to heel behind us on trail, so that he didn’t pull my shoulder sockets out or drag us down the mountain in his wake. He learned to cross bridges made of open metal grating and narrow wood footbridges. He learned to pick his way carefully after us at river fords.
We learned what to stock in our first-aid kit to treat him when he cut his paw on snow or rocks. We bought a trowel and buried or packed out his waste.
He learned not to chase wildlife.
On a 2014 trip to Horseshoe Basin, Madigan sat near me on a rock a little ways from camp as I cooked dinner, watching the light play in distant clouds as a chipmunk inched closer to us. “No, buddy,” I told him, using my most serious voice. And even though that bold critter got within three feet of Madi, he stayed put, quivering with effort.
He’s become a near perfect trail dog. An ambassador for polite behavior. An example for our younger dog, Lula, who is still learning the ropes of good trail behavior. Except, now, sometimes, we have to leave him at home.
Old dog, new tricks
Last year, we planned a summer of backpacking, taking both dogs to Bean Creek in the Teanaway, on the Pacific Crest Trail north from White Pass, up past Bumping Lake to Blankenship Lakes. We hiked along the Lost Coast and up in the Sierras, camped our way north along Oregon’s beaches and coastal forests. We played as hard as we ever had, driven, in part by the knowledge that come fall, Madigan’s last big backpacking season would come to a close.
Over the years, Madi has grown white in the face. In dog years, he's pushing 90. He’s a spry 90, willing to bound and chase Lula around camp for a few minutes. Still, he’s aging, and it’s changed how we have had to think about hiking with him. We’ve shifted the load in his pack to our own. The woods still sing to his soul, firing up the desire to charge ahead. Now, though, we keep him leashed for different reasons. That thin strip of nylon running from his harness up to my hand keeps him from injuring himself with overexuberance.
We’ve retired him from hikes longer than 3 miles. Where once his thick undercoat kept him warm in the tent, he now wears a coat to sleep in. We replaced his hard foam pad with a cushier Therm-a-Rest I bought off a colleague for ten bucks. When it’s hot, we watch him carefully for overheating. We spoil him with cheese and peanut butter snacks when we stop for water. And sometimes, when the trip calls for something that will push his limits, we leave him in the care of friends.
It’s hard for him to watch us pull out the packs, and then hear, “Sorry buddy, you have to stay.” His head will drop, and he’ll retreat to the couch, where he’ll watch the proceedings with his big, sad eyes.
It’s hard for us, too. We’ve discovered this state together. Nearly every memory we have from the last 10 years, from Ancient Lakes to Hart’s Pass, Lily Basin to Ruby Beach are colored with the shades of Madigan’s company, with his silly joy and antics. We’ve run into llamas, pack goats, elk and more than one bold chipmunk together. We’ve braved thunderstorms and black flies and gnarly river crossings. We’ve gotten soaked, and then dried out, basking on rocks in the sun. It’s strange to leave him.
So, we’re learning again. To hike together differently. To find the best local parks and easygoing rambles with plenty of places to stop and sniff around for a while. To go slowly, and let that be enough. To just be in nature, and let it work on us in the way that it has since the beginning, when it brought us together in the first place.