My dog is the best dog in the world. Now, he hasn’t always been that way. He’s a Springer Spaniel/Labrador or a “Springador” and he was the puppy from hell. He chewed three pairs of reading glasses and the top off of one of my cowboy boots. He didn’t do too well in puppy kindergarten, either. He flunked.
But then my expectations were different from what the instructor had in mind. She wanted to teach dogs to sit, roll over, heel, and be continually obedient. That’s not what mattered to me. I wanted a hiker dog, and that’s what I got.
I wanted a canine companion to walk with me over Utah’s public lands, from mountain peaks to BLM canyons, from national park vistas to game preserves. I sought a dog to camp with, hike with, backpack with, a dog who wouldn’t wander or chase game, though he could flush grouse. That’s what Finn became—the best public land pup I’ve ever had. We can go for hours and I never need to call his name. No leash. There he is out front, running, sniffing, barreling on ahead, but he always comes back to check on me.
Sometimes he gets too exuberant. He bent a brand new hiking pole when he charged past me to the top of a trail in a wilderness area. He loves cross-country skiing, especially on frozen rivers where he dives and leaps into the snow and skids to a stop on thin ice. When it starts to crack, he rapidly reverses.
There’s nothing better than to hike public lands in Utah and to have your dog leading the way, on trail, on point. And when I want him back, I get down on one knee. He sees me, and comes running because he knows I’ve got treats in my pocket. We’ve been everywhere. One of the benefits of being outdoors is to explore with canines, which can smell 1,000 times better than humans. With Finn’s keen nose and acute hearing, he senses mule deer well before I see them.
I’ve told my wife I’ll never climb a scree-clad peak or descend a canyon on a dangerous trail, unless my Springador can get there, too. But what she doesn’t know is that he has four-paw drive. He’ll go anywhere, and he has. And he’s made me a safer climber, too. On a steep canyon wall in John’s Canyon on Cedar Mesa, I tried to inch up to the next higher ledge using a wooden log as a ladder, but it was clear I’d have 10 to 12 feet of exposure. Finn did not like the odds.
He ran off to the side and tiptoed towards me on the perpendicular on a knife-edge ledge. He dared me to go up. As I ascended the log he came closer and I knew he was going to fall. That was his bluff. Finn backed me down and we found another route.
One time we car-camped in a national forest and after a day of hiking without seeing a soul, I finished dinner and crawled into my new tent half an hour after sundown. Almost asleep, I heard a huge commotion near the camp stove. I’d put away my food, but smells lingered.
Finn, inside with me, stood up and went rigid. His lower lip trembled. He stared in the direction of the racket. It was a loud, quick, scraping, clacking sound that stopped. Then dead silence. Full dark. An upright lab, completely alert by my side, emitting a low, almost inaudible growl.
I got out my flashlight. I forgot about the pistol near my pillow. Instead, I turned on the light and blinded myself with the new, bright reflective quality of the tent’s luminescent interior. Then there was another terrific clatter while my eyes recovered. Finally, I unzipped the tent and aimed the flashlight around my campsite. Nothing. Back to bed for me, but my dog stayed alert for hours.
In the morning as soon as I opened my old four-wheel drive, in he jumped and would not come out. Not for breakfast. Not for dog treats. He sat in his seat, staring out the windshield and made it very clear it was time to go home. Later, I realized what had happened.
Just as I drifted off to sleep, a mother bear and her cub wandered into camp. When she smelled me and the dog, she woofed and sent her cub climbing up the tree, which is the sound I heard. When I blinded myself with the flashlight the cub raced back down the ponderosa pine and off they went in the dark. My dog stayed on guard all night while I slept soundly.
That’s why I hike with my dog, but I am limited on national park lands to having him on a leash or in my truck. On national forest lands including wilderness areas we can go most anywhere and that’s been the case on Bureau of Land Management or BLM lands, but lately that’s changed. The BLM in Utah now excludes dogs from some archaeological sites. Amazing! The BLM, the multiple use folks with oil and gas impacts, ATVs running amuck, mining pollution, and too many invasive plants wants to control canines. Doggone it!
The rules have rational reasons, but which species other than humans has done the most damage to archaeological sites? Bovines. They’ve knocked down 800-year-old walls, demolished middens, pissed on petroglyphs, and left their calling cards over most of the archaeological sites in Utah. According to archaeologists with the photographs to prove it, on Comb Ridge in San Juan County, cows have recently toppled historic wooden Navajo sweatlodges which will never be re-built.
I believe in protecting archaeological sites. Cultural resources on the Colorado Plateau are irreplaceable, but I also believe in animal equity. If dogs should be excluded from archaeological sites, so should cows. After all, the Anasazi and Fremont Indians raised dogs, not Herefords. In sensitive areas I’ll have to use Finn’s leash more often. Some sites we’ll never again visit as a team. Mark Twain said it best when he wrote, “If dogs can’t go to heaven, I don’t want to go, either.”
Andrew Gulliford is a professor of history and Environmental Studies at Fort Lewis College and a San Juan County taxpayer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org