A couple of weeks ago I wrote a column asking which back country behavior readers most hated (my choice is trail eroders). I got a lot of comments, but most of them were participants in a major brouhaha over dogs in the back country: whether they should be on leash or off leash and when, or even if they should be allowed at all. This got me motivated to write a column, your average dog being one of my favorite and most admired features of all the universe.
My canine ruminations got caught up in a different thread that built up at the same time around a column about the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. This comment thread was a debate about the meaning of wilderness and a challenge to our romanticized notion of wilderness as a pristine thing apart, a challenge that was most notably posed by William Cronon in his landmark essay The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature.
The relevance to dogs is this: dogs are not “native” to the Adirondacks. They have no natural ecological place in pristine wilderness; they are highly bred constructs, walking four-legged artifices. But as Cronon famously asked, is the pristine notion of wilderness not itself an artificial construct, wrought of nineteenth century romantic idealism? Do we gain anything by considering wilderness apart from all things we deem not of the pure faith, dogs included?
Although this sort of philosophical approach calls to me (as always) it is only fair that I begin with the experiential. I have coexisted with family dogs in the Adirondacks for more than five decades. I was too young to remember much of George, a Shepherd/Collie mix with us at Blue Mountain Lake. But from George on dogs were a fundamental part of my Adirondack experience: Corky, in my teens; Berkeley during the college years; Henry, a regal Setter/Golden Retriever mix who was my first dog as master; Spencer and Andy, an ungainly, even ugly pair of mutts; Solo, the most noble Golden one could imagine; and now Henderson, a gorgeous, superbly intelligent and lightning-fast combination of Red Heeler, Collie and Lab. All of these dogs were in heaven in the Adirondacks with me and I with them.
When I was a child our dogs’ Adirondack lives were concentrated in the area of our rental cottage at Blue Mountain Lake. As I passed into adulthood dogs were increasingly my companions on the trail, or off it on countless bushwhacks.
I must confess that taking the sum total of all that time I have spent with dogs in the woods, which comes to months and months, I can only muster up a fair day or so worth of hours that any of them were on a leash. I think it was a boy’s marriage of his concepts of wilderness and of freedom: the wild Adirondacks is a place to be free, to escape the rules and bonds of civilized life… if such freedom is due a boy, then it is all the more due a dog, an animal one howl away from the primeval, as Jack London’s Buck reminds us.
At the cottage there was really no need for a leash, but in the back country it was and is a different matter. Here’s the comment that started the big fight in my previous column:
I don’t mind people walking their dogs, but keep it on a leash. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve almost pepper sprayed somebody’s unrestrained dog because it ran at my kids, barking and snarling, while the owner yells “It’s OK, He’s friendly” from 100 yards down the trail.
This comment provoked some strong reactions, as you might expect. So John Warren weighed in with this:
You don’t have to be afraid of dogs to be concerned about a dog running at you on the trail with an owner trying in vain (or not bothering) to control them.
I am not afraid of dogs. I’ve had them most of my life. However, people with dogs should recognize that if they can’t keep their dog off a hiker coming down the trail, or keep it from barking and snarling at them – which I’ve encountered many times, especially in more popular areas (though the last time was in the Dix Range) – then their dog should be leashed.
It’s simply being courteous to not let your dog jump on or otherwise harass people you meet on the trail – whether or not YOU think it’s harassment, or just a friendly greeting.
Doggone it, Warren’s right, despite my having a personal history that sometimes contradicts his point of view. During my many years with dogs in the woods I thought of myself as a considerate hiker. I never allowed a dog to be off leash when in an alpine zone and if someone was approaching on a trail I would call my dog over and tether him. But of course such an approach could never be one hundred percent effective and more than once my dog greeted a hiker when not under my control. Over the years I’ve become more of a bushwhacker than a trail hiker, thus mostly negating human encounters (except of course for the horrifying risk of some day running into Dan Crane) but that notwithstanding I’ve rethought my previous trail largesse.
Here’s how I see it now. Taking William Cronon’s point I embrace the notion that I and my dog belong in the wilderness, that we can and ought to be part of it, as it is when we are at Lost Brook Tract or on any bushwhack of significance. My boyhood desire for a shared joy in an unfettered connection to nature burns stronger than ever. But trails are not wilderness, even trails through wilderness. Dogs should be no more unfettered on a trail than I should; indeed I am not entitled to proceed down a trail in any manner I wish (I can feel a column on trail etiquette coming).
Bottom line: dogs should be leashed on public trails.
Photo: Henderson at Lost Brook Tract