When I mentioned to our friend Donna that I was going camping with the sheepdogs, she asked if Sophie could go along with us. I didn’t think it was a good idea. I said there are many hazards connected with camping, and I was uneasy about being responsible for somebody else’s dog. Donna asked what in the world I was talking about. I gave her some examples that came to mind, e.g., bears, poisonous snakes, steep cliffs, dogs running away, dogs getting kidnapped, etc. She thought my attitude was far-fetched, but she didn’t pursue the question further.
Mike, Duffy, and I set off for Miami Whitewater Forest about 11 a.m. the next morning. When we arrived at our campsite, I set up the wooden expandable playpen that serves as the dogs’ miniature house on the campground. It spreads out from a one-foot diameter when closed to eight or more feet when fully opened. The playpen wall is then about 24” high, and the dogs could easily jump out if they wanted to. They did so the first few times that I used it, but now they seem to regard it as their private place, and they make no effort to escape.
After lunch I set my camp chair inside the playpen and joined the dogs to do some reading. The dogs napped, and after a while I dozed off too with the book open in my hands. I’d wake in fitful starts, worried about whether the dogs were still there, find they were, and then doze off again. After our nap we took a hike in the forest to gather firewood. Duffy used to get excited about firewood gathering, but now it’s taken on a more routine feeling. After a while the dogs just sat down together in the path and watched as I roamed about, up the hill, over by the creek, down the side of a small ravine. Even when I was out of sight for a while, they simply sat and waited for my return. I’m not accustomed to the dogs being loose and by themselves. These are city-bred dogs and are on a leash most of the time. I thought back to how the family dogs of my youth would roam free with us in the forest. We never had the slightest concern about their safety or whereabouts. I got more relaxed.
We walked through a grove of tall stiff green weeds that we used to call “Indian Tobacco” in our childhood because the stems were divided into short segments which, when pulled apart, were the size and shape of cigarettes. The dogs didn’t like walking through the weeds because the path was narrow and the stiff stalks brushed against their sides. Suddenly I heard a noise behind me that I took to be a strange growling from some unknown animal. I couldn’t imagine what it could be. My heart raced, and I worried about the dogs being attacked. I walked faster, and the growling got faster as I did. I looked behind us, but saw nothing. It turned out the growling noise was coming from my knapsack full of firewood rubbing against the Indian Tobacco stalks. We were all happy to get out of there.
Back at the campground the dogs started watching me intently at 5 p.m., with a clear message that it was time for supper. I fed them in their playpen and cooked Salisbury steak for myself. I burnt the hamburger, put in way too much water with the cream of mushroom soup, and had forgotten to bring along a vegetable as a side dish. If Katja had prepared this meal, I would have been appalled, but, as a product of my own efforts, I thought it was not too bad.
We had an evening campfire, and about 9:30 we got into the tent. Being in the tent is the dogs’ favorite part of camping. They are not campers by nature. Being in an unfamiliar location is unnerving, and they would prefer to be at home in our kingsize bed. The small, enclosed tent though is a safe place. Because the dogs always head straight for my air mattress, I brought a second one for them on this trip. Mike got onto it, and Duffy lay on the floor. After two minutes they switched positions. I took a sleeping pill and was soon oblivious to the world.
In the middle of the night I was awakened by footsteps right outside our tent. Then it sounded like somebody was rustling our tarps on the picnic table. Then scratching sounds. At first I wondered if the sounds were Mike and Duffy moving around in the tent, and I turned the flashlight on. But the dogs were sound asleep and immobile. My thoughts turned immediately to wild bears. Could they rip through our tent walls? Would they kill the dogs? Kill me? I beamed the light out the side window on the tent, waved it around, and the sounds soon went away. Groggy from my sleeping pill, I drifted off. A while later I was awakened again. The wild creatures were even louder than they’d been before, and it sounded like one was crunching on some sort of container. I’d left our ice chest on the picnic table, and I wondered if they’d broken into it. Resigning myself to whatever fate might hold for us, I just lay and listened to the bumping, scratching, and clawing. Eventually the footsteps wandered off. Only then did it dawn on me that Duffy and Mike had remained completely comatose throughout these noisy episodes. What kind of guard dogs were these anyway?
The sun came sometime around 6 a.m., the light shone through the walls of our white tent, and the birds started chirping. I woke briefly, then drifted off again. I was awakened fully at 7:30 by Duffy who had started pawing me, then climbed on my chest with his front paws, made squealing noises, and licked my face. This was unusual behavior, and I sleepily sat up on one elbow and looked around. What happened next was a complete shock. I realized -- there was only one dog in the tent. I looked all around me. Mike was gone. I looked at the door, and the vertical zipper was open by a foot or two. Mike had apparently pushed through it with his nose. Duffy, good herding dog that he is, woke me up to let me know about this disturbing development. I panicked and wondered if Mike had been gone all night. Had the wild creatures gotten him? Would I ever see him again? I got out of my sleeping bag and peered out the door. What a happy sight! There was Mike, standing by the fire pit, sniffing at this and that. I called his name, and he ran back to join us in the tent. Duffy, who I now viewed as the sheepdog equivalent of Lassie, had saved his brother from some unknown but terrible fate.
I stepped out of the tent to check on what the animal visitors had done in the night to our gear. The ice chest was untouched, but they had torn open a plastic bag with trash and food scraps that I’d suspended four feet up on the trunk of a tree. I decided we’d been visited by raccoons, and I thought it just as well that Mike and Duffy had slept through it. We enjoyed a relaxing morning, I packed up after lunch, and we headed back. The dogs were happy when we pulled in the driveway.
All in all, this was a good trip. I decided that what I’d told Donna about the dangers of camping in the wild was true. We had encountered wild beasts in the night, there were many chances for the dogs to escape, Mikey actually did escape, we could have been pursued by strange animals in the Indian Tobacco, etc. One interesting thing is that the dogs weren’t much bothered by any of this. They are clearly more mellow than I am, I guess because they are wild creatures themselves. The main lesson that I learned from the trip is that the dogs can be trusted more than I’m accustomed to doing. They stick with me, they’re not interested in running away, they respond readily to calls to come, they wait for me to initiate action, and they don’t require a lot of monitoring. If the weather gets better, we’ll go on another trip next week and try to put these lessons into practice.