By Charlene Dunlap
The hurricane left devastation -- and a wonderful playyard for my treewalking Poodles.
"THAT WAY, KEILA," I call pointing towards the left fork. Despite our frequent use in the autumn and winter months, the trail is invisible and the orange ribbons that once guided my way have whitened and withered with age. But, I don't need ribbons. I have Keila. She leads us along the path, her blaze orange vest flashing between the trees like a neon light. She leads us across small streams gurgling with recent rain. She leads us by groves of wild holly whose sharp green leaves soften the starkness of bare winter branches. She leads us around skeletons of fallen oak and hickory trees, and back again to the path. She stops and looks back over her shoulder. When I've closed the gap, she turns and continues leading the way.
Before the hurricane, we often had to leave the trail to look for trees to walk. Now, the along the trail, fallen trees and limbs delay our progress. When we come to a good walking tree, April hops up and walks as high as she dares. Her steps are easy, her balance honed by experience. Look at me, she says as she walks a narrow trunk the height of my head. "Turn around," I tell her, and she pivots on all four feet and walks back down again. Teaching April to pivot in place on a narrow trunk was not my idea. I got it from Daisy.
THE YOUNG SHEPHERD/BEAGLE mix stood in the middle of the road as my husband drove up to the garbage dump. She had a strip of hair from the top of her head down to her bushy, white-tipped tail. The rest of her body was hairless and the tiny blood spots that covered every inch of exposed skin gave her a rosy appearance. The veterinarian would not touch the young dog, but gave us Mitaban to kill the demodectic mange mites. By the time Daisy recovered, we had come to admire her composure, courage and spirit, and she became part of our family.
When we moved to the country, we discovered that Daisy had an innate wisdom about the woods. She explored vegetation in a methodical, relaxed manner, thoroughly reading and analyzing the information. On our walks in the woods she stayed close without being told, her Shepherd heritage giving her a calm, biddable nature. But, it was her hunting hound genes that gave Daisy an extraordinary talent. She climbed trees. In addition to hopping onto and among low spreading branches, she would walk tree trunks that had fallen against a neighbor. She would climb twenty feet above ground, turn around at the highest point she could reach and trot back down again.
Daisy was an adult when Keila, our first Standard Poodle, arrived. When Stoney came a year later, and April a year after that, all three Poodles learned wood lore from watching and copying Daisy. None of them, however, have ever come close to matching her talent for climbing trees.
the trunk several times before we continue our journey. But, it's only once in a very long time that we find a perfect climbing tree -- a fallen behemoth of such size that the dogs and I can walk up its burly limbs. We settle on the trunk like a covey of big flightless birds, serenely enjoying the peace of the woods and each other's company.
The pads of his feet were still baby soft when Stoney came to live with us. Life held few joys for the six-month
HIKING IN THE WOODS with Stoney, April, Keila and Daisy is one of my favorite activities. In my company, but off leash and free to explore, they follow paths, navigate hilly terrain, and wade in cool, shallow streams. Daisy and I first taught the Poodles to walk on trees that were lying flat on the ground. Daisy would jump up, run the length of the trunk, pivot at the end, and then come running back. Baby stuff! she'd say. The Poodles wanted to do what Daisy did. It looked easy enough. They fell off. "Come on, you can do it," I'd laugh. They kept trying. Soon they could walk the length of the craggy, round surface and upon reaching the end, turn slowly in place like wobbling tops. That was a long time ago. Now, any time we come upon a suitable fallen tree, the dogs jump up and traverse its length. At the other end, they pivot gracefully and reverse directions. They go back and forth on
"LET'S GO," I call to my companions. "Stay close." Always alert for circumstances that could harm my dogs, I carefully scan the woods. Although our land is posted with "No Hunting" signs, the land that surrounds ours is not. Deer seeking safety, become more prevalent on our property during the winter hunting season. Usually they stay out of sight, but since the storm we sometimes startle them out from thickets of fallen trees. Perhaps the size of the deer deters them because the Poodles and Daisy do not seem inclined to give chase. That's not the case with squirrels.
Although we rarely see squirrels in the woods, occasionally one does pop up to electrify the dogs' noses. Fortunately, chased squirrels head for the nearest tree and the dogs are left to mill around in frustration. I imagine that most woodland creatures are too wily for us because we seldom see animals or birds of any kind on our walks.
As we turn homeward, Keila leads the way, Daisy lags behind, reluctant to leave the allure of the woods, Stoney follows me like a disattached
long enough. They want to curl up on the sofa in front of the fireplace and dream awhile.
"HOW DID YOU get them to walk on trees like that?" asked the woman watching a videotape of April and Stoney playing on the trunk of a felled oak tree. The trunk was supported at one end by its root structure and at the other by burly limbs that held the tree's trunk up off the ground. The dogs leapt up four feet, ran the length of the trunk, then walked down a huge limb. Upon reaching the ground, both dogs circled back to repeat the process. The videotape was playing at our "Versatility in Poodles" booth at a Central Carolina Poodle Club Speciality and displayed various activities people do with their Poodles. I don't remember how I answered the question, but afterwards I sat watching as glorious Standard Poodles in their exaggerated show coats floated like ballerinas around the conformation ring. Who would guess that dogs like these -- elegant, decorative, cosmopolitan -- would be among the best of woodland hiking companions.
WE WALKED DOWN the old logging road on a mottled carpet of gold and rust colored leaves. Keila trotted ahead with powerful, ground-covering strides. In a sudden burst of exhilaration, she whirled around in her graceful yet clumsy way and bounded back to me with shining eyes. "Keila," I tell her, you are so beautiful!" Stoney, April and Daisy had stopped to savor a peculiar smell by the side of the road. If it were up to them, walking trails would be logically dictated by odors rather than by the mystifying reasons I choose. "Come on Sugarplums," I call, and they hurry to catch up. I'm glad I have Poodles. They seem to enjoy the same things I do: fresh air, the seclusion of the woods, an outing in the company of friends.
It was a few weeks after Hurricane Fran had rampaged through North Carolina, and the woods looked as if a giant had gone berserk with a chain-saw. Shafts of trunks jutted into the sky, rising out of heads that had broken off and fallen at their feet. With scant room to anchor their roots in the rocky soil, trees often settle for a tenuous hold. During the hurricane's high winds, many had lost their grip. Tree after tree lay like toppled candlesticks with their root base stuck in a huge thin platter of dirt. Here and there, tree trunks lay in jumbled heaps as if waiting for the giant's child to continue playing a game of "pick-up-sticks."
'KEILA, WAIT! I call. If I don't watch her, she'll still attempt to walk trees as she did before epilepsy impaired her balance. She thinks she still can. She watches as Stoney and April walk up a thick trunk that arches over a tiny stream. She watches them jump onto a rim of dirt-packed roots to sit above my head. She watches as Daisy leaps from limb to limb and down to the ground. Her face is impassive, her back sags like that of an ancient horse. Epilepsy has stolen more from her than her balance.
old puppy and every new experience was met with a helpless, head-hanging stance. Soon, with guidance and understanding, Stoney's naturally sunny disposition broke free of the darkness that had engulfed his spirit. It was time for his first walk in the woods. With Keila and Daisy gamboling ahead, I hooked on Stoney's leash and we set off on our walk. The leash was unnecessary. He stuck to me like Uncle Remus' Tar Baby. Gradually our walks got longer and I unclipped the leash and let him go. He stayed with Keila and Daisy -- who stayed close to me. By the end of winter he was jumping over logs, crawling under limbs, and enjoying the intrinsically satisfying smells of the forest.
shadow, and golden April, off to the side, dissolves into the autumn colors like a Cheshire cate, leaving only her orange vest to show her whereabouts. The Poodles have been in the woods