snechemias Member, Moderator Posts: 22
edited March 2023 in EXPERT ADVICE

Sure looks like there are developed trails in a lot of this video, right? There aren't. The secret is to follow the dog

There are a myriad of ways to experience the backcountry: alone, with a partner, with a group, but one of my favorites is with a dog, and the unexpected benefits it can bring to an adventurous backcountry traveler.

It seems to me the simplest way to illustrate this is through a recent overnight backpacking trip I took with Special Agent Johnny Utah, a 2.5 year old mutt entering his second year of backpacking. I’d estimate Utah has somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 nights in the backcountry on his resume. In my recounting of our tale (did not reach for pun) I’ll focus on the nature of communication and partnership between me; a descendant some 150,000 years removed from Mitochondrial Eve, and Utah; some 20,000 years removed from the grey wolves that first tolerated close proximity to humans. We’re across an ocean on a different continent than our ancestors, walking through a river canyon in Oregon where the visible geographic scenery comes in layers ranging from 8 to 54 million years old.

And we brought treats.

Which after parking is the first thing I remind Utah of, lest he be tempted to stray too far from his salami dispensing biped. Besides, he’s been a pretty good copilot, with his dead to the world slumber in the backseat on the car ride out from Portland. A few sights and smells get him animated quite quickly though, and after we’ve gone through a small dance of him seeing if he can get out of wearing his pack we set off down a state park trail that follows the John Day River for three miles until it ends, and the real fun begins as we start to move cross country.

In the macro sense, I’m looking for the best way overland from Cottonwood State Park to Devil’s Canyon, in the micro sense I’m looking for the route around a series of places where the shoreline cliffs out into the river. Utah is looking for EVERYTHING. His tail moves fast, his gait is quick, ears in constant motion, his nose to the ground for a bit and then in the air, employing an olfactory scale to gauge the exact level of fun we’re about to have. When I turn my body uphill and begin to climb his energy is infectious, and I’m no longer thinking about any of the normal cares of the work week. Utah reluctantly turns away from the geese screaming at him on the river and follows my course.

In short order Utah is in the lead, which allows me to use his guidance for the best game trails to weave in and out of the waist to head high sagebrush. He easily outpaces me on the climb as I try to combine his game trails with my attempt to stay true to the lowest possible slope angle. Inevitably he weaves left and right of me, as most game trails will cut across a slope instead of climbing it directly, and now I’m forced to wonder if Utah and the other quadrupeds might have the right idea after all. 

In the track above you can see how much effort is saved by following Utah over what could otherwise be some very difficult terrain. As we got closer to the contour the game trail he followed became more and more distinct, until it became apparent to me we were on a long forgotten jeep road. 

Agent Utah on his jeep road find. He'll be writing the USGS to have it added to the map.

Up on the high ground I had smooth sailing with views of the river canyon occupying my eyes, and momentarily Utah's as well as he tried to process the increase in the sweep and scope, the lack of boundaries, the sheer immensity of open space. I watch Utah poke in and out of drainages, wondering if one of them will hold a little seep of water that might be handy to take note of. So far, no luck on that account. I take a break, and it's Utah's nosing for treats that reminds me I haven't eaten anything but gas station danishes during the car ride.

We return to the river level, this time for a couple miles of denser vegetation. Here and there a chukar will flit out of the sage upon Utah's approach, which he'll bounce after briefly. A pair of white tail bound along the canyon wall, he gazes at them longingly but gets a few repetitions of his name that actually signifies "don't chase them, stay with me", and a salami as a consolation prize. I follow his lead, which is in point of fact a swishing tail, through the high sage brush again until we come to our next climb away from the river.

Descent towards the sagebrush sea on the shoreline

This time no magical jeep road appears, but Utah's got a pretty solid game trail heading roughly in the direction I want. The angle of the late afternoon January sun throws shadows all over the canyon, reminding me I have a little more of the unknown in front of me before camp and it might be wise to pick up the pace.

Our unknown in question is what makes for the best descent to the river, you can see here we're surrounded by some gnarly cliffs to the south if the drainage we have our eye on turns out to be a no go:

Utah's decision making here provides me a moment to be the adult in the room, as he's sure that we're going to contour a harrowing game trail around the corner:

Once I convince him that our lives still have promise and good days in front of us, he joins me in my descent of the drainage. The scree makes for slow going, and Utah once again seizes the day by hugging the rock wall skiers left, where lo and behold a skinny game trail with far superior purchase eases our way down to the river:

With our routing tasks done we've got plenty of time to relax before dinner:

I didn't really feel like eating dinner, but in yet another case of Utah's company forcing me to remember to take care of myself, the act of preparing dinner for him reminded me I should eat as well. (It certainly wasn't the kibble mixed with a little Mountain House lasagna topper that stirred my appetite). It was a chilly night in the mid 20s, but we had strong morning sun to help us retrace our steps and see if we couldn't clean up our route a little on the way back. With time on our hands I let Utah wander more, and we actually made a cleaner line with a little less gain on the return trip, as well as finding a high water seep in the cliffside, always a plus to note in canyon country.

Ready to take on the scree again

Looking back on our little overnighter, Compared to hiking with another experienced off trail hiker I got many of the same benefits extra eyes provide on off trail routes, but with slightly better conversation 😏. Obviously there are some caveats here: Utah can't read a map, or if he can he's hiding that ability quite well. He doesn't truly know what our agenda is for the day. He's likely to take the path of least resistance or greatest smell attraction regardless of my goals. Still, those proclivities can be given a little shape to work towards my ends, like locating water, game trails, and good slope angles.

If you venture into the backcountry with your dog, I hope you'll take some time to do your best to try and see their vision of the world, and how it can be beneficially added to yours!

After leading Ohio State to victory over USC in the Rose Bowl, Utah attended the FBI Academy in Quantico Virginia where he earned top scores in marksmenship. After a brief career as a Special Agent investigating bank robberies, he entered into a co-ownership agreement with and