Sophie came over the other day, so I took the three sheepdogs to Mt. Airy Forest for a hike. They understand when we’re setting out on an outing, and they leap around wildly and bark and are nearly impossible to get attached to the leash. It was a pleasant day in Cincinnati, clouds and sun, a high in the low 70s, and good weather for dogs (though still a little warm for their tastes). I parked the SUV at the oval on Trail Ridge Road, and we set off on the Red Oak Trail. A crew of park maintenance guys was working on the road, and I worried about them noticing me letting the dogs off their leashes, but they drove away, and I let the doggies free. Duffy and Sophie ran ahead exuberantly, while Mikey sniffed around and lagged behind, as is his wont.
Mt. Airy is the largest city park in the United States, surpassing Central Park and Golden Gate in San Francisco. It’s largely untouched forest, and, once you leave the parking area, you might as well be in the wilds of Alaska (at least in my imagination). The Red Oak Trail is the starting leg of a five-mile circular loop that zigs and zags along numerous ravines and hillsides, then winds up back at the opposite side of the oval parking area. By the early summer, Mt. Airy has turned a lush green and it was a welcome change from our concrete urban world.
The dogs are serious hikers. They lead the way, stick faithfully to the path, and move along at a steady pace. Mike and Duffy are usually within ten or twenty yards of me, while Sophie, more independent and adventurous, often runs off ahead. Today she was more liberated than usual, and I had to call her back a couple of times. Overall, though, the dogs are very sensitive to the whereabouts of their human companions, and they stop at any turn in the path or intersection to look for guidance. When they were younger, Duffy, the Alpha dog, was nearly always the leader, with Sophie and Mike following obediently behind. At a mature age 7, though, Duffy has mellowed, and he is relaxed about Sophie being first.
The forest was elegant, and we covered ground at a good pace. There were lots of things for the dog to sniff and lots of pretty vistas for me. I felt good about climbing the hills without losing my breath, crediting the last couple of months at the fitness center for improving my endurance. At one point I tripped on a tree root and lurched forward 6 or 7 steps before catching my balance. I always have in the back of my mind the risk of having an accident while alone in the forest. I imagined how, lying on the ground with my broken leg, I would use my cell phone to call 911 and how I would try describe our location, then struggle from my helpless position to try to restrain the howling dogs so that they don’t run from the scene in panic. Fortunately, I’ve never had to do any of this.
Mt. Airy is over-populated with deer, and I suddenly thought I saw a couple of does coming toward us. I gathered the dogs in, even though in the past they’ve shown no inclination for the chase. Then a tall woman appeared in the path, accompanied by two yellow Labradors running ahead of her. It was dogs I’d seen, not deer. I’d managed to get Sophie and Mike on the leash, but the woman reassured me that her dogs were friendly. Duffy avoided them, but Mike strained on the leash to make contact. Then Sophie snapped at the dog approaching her, and I tugged her away. I thought to myself that Sophie is becoming the most masculine of the dogs. I apologized to the lady, but she wasn’t bothered at all with this minor breach of dog etiquette, and we exchanged friendly farewells.
After 45 minutes we reached the midway point of our journey, a large field with a recreation hut and a water faucet. Duffy had his drink first, while the other two stood back and watched. Then Sophie took her turn, and Mike joined her, their tongues competing for the water at the faucet. Duffy decided he wanted a second swig, and the other two dogs backed off deferentially. We then set out on the last, 30-minute leg of our journey.
Soon we climbed a steep hill and came to a stretch of trail which adjoins a cliff with a fifty or sixty foot drop. Though the dogs are undoubtedly more sure-footed than me, I get nervous about their falling off the edge, and so I put them back on the leash. As in the past, we made it past the danger zone with no difficulty.
Two-thirds of our way into the hike, a blue-shirted and helmeted man on a trail bike suddenly appeared in front of us. Sophie and Duffy were next to me, and I grabbed their collars, pulling them off the path. As the cyclist came upon us, I told Mikey who was right behind me, “Watch out Mikey, make some room.” The man slowed to a near-halt, then maneuvered past Mike and thanked me. I wondered if he were a park ranger, checking out the paths, and whether we had been spared a lecture and a ticket for violating the park’s dog leash laws. If it had been a ranger, maybe he had been impressed by the dogs’ good behavior and decided to let us off.
A little later I stopped and sat on a big fallen log to provide a bit of rest for myself and for the hot and panting dogs. Sophie immediately started rolling in the leaves and dirt, and she immediately looked like a little ragamuffin. Mikey sat down on his haunches and looked around. Duffy nervously paced back and forth, ready to move on.
We got back to the oval after eighty minutes or so. I opened the back of the SUV and put water from a gallon jug into three aluminum pans for the thirsty dogs. They drank their fill, and we packed it in. Sophie jumped into the back seat on her own, but Mike and Duffy waited for me to lift them in. I stopped at the Creamy Whip in Northside for a large chocolate sundae with peanuts, and then we were home again.
A high point of my life these days is taking the dogs to Mt. Airy. I feel good when they’re off the leash and running free in the forest. Mike and Duffy and Sophie spend most of their lives in a civilized human world where dogs are subject to people laws and carefully constrained. Roaming unleashed on the forest paths is a more enjoyable state of affairs, certainly more attuned to the dogs’ ancestral heritage. Plus it’s not so bad for me either.