Outdoors

The Trail Not Traveled: A Trail Tale from Carol Horner

By Carol Horner-

Fergie balked at the sight of the steep Jeep Trail, planted her toed-out front feet and lowered her fuzzy black head to the ground.  If I pulled harder on her collar, it would simply slide off over those floppy ears and leave her sitting there. I had hoped this would be our second weekly hike up Mt. Marathon in May to see how the snow was doing as it melted back and relinquished its grip on our trail through the high meadow.  Apparently, my dog remembered last week.  I let her off-leash and tried to entice her to follow me up the rocky trail into the lower hemlock forest.  When Fergie doesn’t want to follow me, she can find a hundred scents and marks that require close inspection.  Nose to the ground, she moved slowly around the gateposts, carefully avoiding my eyes.  I could almost feel her ear flaps tightening against her head to further block me out.

After all, I didn’t train this mutt; she had come to me ready-made with several entitlements that she refused to surrender.  Fergie has always contested my attempts to claim any sort of Alpha position in our small pack, and one of her assertions of dominance is her refusal to come when first called.  The command, “Fergie Come!,” has been watered down to a wimpy plea to which she eventually ambles my way when she is ready. As the contest goes on, I seem to slowly but surely sink from Alpha to Beta or somewhere even lower down the letters.

Today the sun was shining on the cool green forest at the base of the mountain, beckoning me to climb to snow line. I just wanted to get my hiking poles and boots headed up-trail,  so I took several marching steps toward my goal and looked back to check that Fergie was following. The minute I twisted in a downhill direction, she looked me in the eye with satisfaction, spun and scampered back across the avenue to the car and pushed her wet snout up against the passenger-side door. When she got me to open it, she hopped in with a grin, knowing she had just won another battle in behavior modification. Well, she had, (just this one more time) I told myself, as I saw her claim her co-pilot position, circling  and settling on her purple pillow.    

I closed the car door with the hope that I was negatively reinforcing her disobedience by depriving her of this exciting excursion. I returned to the trail’s start-up gate by myself and began attacking those first steep switchbacks that my short-legged dog refused to climb.

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For a few weeks now I had watched the mountain from below as thin grey lines began to stitch the white patches of snow to the darker rock face of Marathon. The race trail was emerging again as eager runners took to the slopes and scree, sprinting upward and sliding down through rock and ice, to prepare themselves for July 4th.  These were the outline sketches of their mountain masterpiece hung high above Seward for all to see.  It was inspiring: I wanted to add my lowly steps to the very bottom of their picture.

I continued to gain elevation through the lower forest until the trail disappeared beneath a vast expanse of winter white stuff. The foot of the avalanche filled the bowl of our meadow from far up the peak on my left to a rising hemlock ridge on my right.  The fury of its fast descent had grabbed and torn brush and bare trees, and crashed them deep into the wave of snow that beached itself against the wooded ridge. The tsunami of snow crested above the creek and submerged it beneath untold feet of chaotic debris. Ahead of me the familiar trail lay drowned and was replaced by a foot wide trodden path that floated cautiously across the softening surface of the avalanche. My walking poles were useless sticks that pierced the unpredictable soft shoulders.  I missed the security of the customary ropes that should have come with this suspension bridge above the, unseen but imagined, depths beneath me. With every step I was aware that this had become a game of tip-toe over troubled waters, and I was ready to fold. 

Just as I was choosing a  turn-around spot I spied a tiny skier approaching down-trail toward me. Along beside him wandered a dark thing that sharpened into the form of a big-footed German Shepard running wolf-like across the thin crust surface.  If Fergie hadn’t wimped out on the lower trail, she too could have run here on her over-sized feet like a snowshoe hare, albeit a long, black, heavy one.

I turned to watch the retreating man-dog pack effortlessly glide and gambol off the mountain and was shocked with awe by a sudden distant view far out and way down to Resurrection Bay. Fox Island and its nearby hemlock humps rose like emeralds from the azure sea while the eastern mountains sparkled with diamond tiaras against the brilliant blue of the sky. From my eagle-high perch in the winter-white I beheld below me a totally different season:  it was summer down there!  With my phone-camera, I began to make a smooth sweep of video to share with friends (and to make Fergie soo sorry she missed the real thing). I focused on completing the panorama while ignoring several hoots from descending hikers. Instead of the couple of boots I expected, two snowboards swished by within inches of my planted boots. I was embarrassed to have been an obstacle on our one-lane track that now spun out behind their descent like a graceful knife stroke in vanilla icing.  It was so pristine I regretted punching new holes in it as I scree-stepped my way down the last of the snow slide to the dirt track below. The easy trail through the forest was shady and cool in contrast with the reflected heat and glare off the snow field. Fiddleheads were small unfurling and blueberries were tiny buds beginning, with their feet cushioned by a soft carpet of moss doing its low-key mossy thing.

When I crossed from forest to pavement and headed for the car, Fergie started her elaborate show of welcome by scratching on the window, jumping in my pilot’s seat and licking me all over.  Finally bowing to a firm command of Move Over (and some physical reinforcement), she allowed me to enter in her wake as she reclaimed her passenger-side purple pillow. I checked her liquid brown eyes for any remorse or regret about being left behind while I hiked away without her.  I didn’t see any.  She faced eagerly forward as if impatient for me to start driving her car, putting distance between her and the lower Jeep Trail.

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