Thursday, June 14, 2012

Lost, if found please call

I had a month on my hands to go anywhere I wanted. I didn’t have enough money to travel overseas to some exotic place like Borneo or Africa, so I decided to load up my dogs and take a road trip. I thought I’d drive down through California, cut over at the Mojave Desert, and then motor through Arizona and New Mexico, but I ended up in my hometown of Roseburg, Oregon where I grew up. I started my vacation with a hike up Cougar Creek on the North Umpqua River. My dogs Jimmy and Will were long-legged Airedale terriers, brothers who loved to shred shoes and eat cardboard. They’re unique in the dog world, being descendants from both hounds and terriers.
We started our hike at Wright Creek, a few miles downriver from where Zane Grey’s favorite fishing camp used to be. I kept one dog on a leash and switched them out every twenty minutes to let each have a shot at running free. We climbed a thousand feet up the trail to where the ruins of the Wright’s cabin still stood, crumbling and weathered from the decades. They were pioneers and had Airedales too. Then we continued another thousand feet to the top of the divide where I planned to follow a different ridge leading back down to the North Umpqua instead of the way I had come, making a five-hour circuit.
After five miles and getting well away from the highway and the trailhead parking lot I figured it was safe to let both dogs go at once. I thought I could do it for just a few minutes and then leash one back up. However, minutes after I let both go, they sprinted up the trail following a scent and disappeared. If you hike with more than one Airedale, or any dog that originated from hound ancestry, like bloodhounds, redbone hounds, beagles, or even basset hounds, I don’t recommend letting more than one off leash at a time unless you are well away from highways, towns, people, and any other place where it would be unsafe or inappropriate for rampageous hounds to come storming through. These types of dogs were bred for one purpose, chasing the scent of animals for hours until becoming blurry-eyed tired.
My dogs had done this before and had tracked me down. When in doubt, I waited where I lost them, however this time I didn't and continued down Timber Creek Ridge. A quarter mile farther, I called out for them, my voice echoing across the canyon and fading into the green labyrinth of giant Douglas firs. I recommend getting your dogs used to coming to a whistle so you don’t blow out your vocal cords, but I left mine in my car.
After two hours I reached the trailhead, but my dogs weren't there so I started to worry. I settled into my car to wait and called my parents to let them know what was going on. As night came the temperature outside dropped to freezing. A man approached with a bright flashlight, so I quickly opened my door to face him. "Forest Service Ranger," he said. "I just come over to check what you’re doing."
"My dogs ran off,” I said.
"People usually don't stay here after dark," he said, not really understanding my situation.
"I can't leave. This is where they’ll come back. Maybe you've seen them?” He shined his light in my car to look around. There was camping gear, clothes, food wrappers, and tarps, but nothing to suggest I was breaking the law.
"What kind of dogs do you have?"
"Airedale terriers," I said proudly. If having dogs who chewed holes directly through the plaster walls of my garage with their incisors and gnawed all the corners off the picnic table while cutting their adult molars was something to be proud of, then I was proud as hell. When owning an Airedale puppy, remove any item from the premises that you couldn’t live without, because he will drag it off, demolish it, or eat it.
"I'm not sure what they are," the officer said.
"They have black and tan wiry fur, floppy ears, and are twenty-seven inches at the shoulder," I said.
"So you’re just going to sit here all night waiting for them?"
"They mean everything to me. I think they got confused back in one of those canyons coming down Timber Creek," I said.
"You have enough warm clothes?"
"Sure, I'll be all right. It's my dogs that need worrying about." I was hoping the ranger would help me look for my dogs, but he didn’t.
I kept my window partly down so I could hear the dogs when they came back. I was too worried to sleep hard and at first light they were still gone. I hurried back up the ridge to where I lost them, motivated by great fear for them. I scoured the trail for their tracks, nothing, just deer. A single track can tell you an entire history, and sometimes not finding a track was just as good as finding one. It could mean my dogs hadn’t gone a certain way and I could eliminate it from my search pattern.
I hiked five miles up to Cougar Bluff where I stood for twenty minutes blowing my whistle and listening for their howls, but nothing, just dead air. I headed back. Then to my surprise I came across five of their tracks, which brought me to an abrupt halt. Encouraged, I examined each one’s crusty edge. They had gone back yesterday the same way I had gone back, probably only a few minutes after me, so where were they?
I jogged down Timber Creek to complete the five-hour loop I had made the previous day, baffled by their vanishing. Somewhere on the way back while following my scent they had made a wrong turn. If your dog gets out of sight and you feel you have to keep moving, walk as straight as possible so he can track you.
I returned to my car late in the afternoon, and the dogs still hadn’t shown up. I drove around posting signs, and then sped back to the trailhead to wait out a second night. I was going to stay in the area while my folks called around in town and I planned to search for them until I found them, even if it took a month. It was my obligation to do right by them; that’s what you do when you get a dog, like you would a human partner.
Heavy, suffocating guilt fell over me. I felt irresponsible for letting them both loose and not waiting where I had first lost them. They were either terribly lost, trapped, or had gotten picked up by someone. They both had microchips implanted under their skin and tags on their collars, so at least I had done that right. If they were okay, they should turn up somewhere after wandering out of the hills.
Under the moonlight, I waited for them to appear. I sat in my car for several hours staring dully at the empty trail as it led out of the eerie forest and onto the road, but all I could see was the outline of branches swaying ghostly in the breeze. The longer I sat there the less my chance of finding them. At five in the morning I headed out to make the five mile climb to Cougar Bluffs and complete the circuit again. If I got high up on the ridges away from the flowing water I might hear their howls in the darkness. I hiked ten hours, searching several different canyons and ridgelines while watching the ground, but all I could find were those same five tracks, so I headed back to my car. The adrenalin and fear had worn off and I felt mostly numb, starting to accept that my dogs were gone forever, missing in the wilds of Oregon.
When I arrived at my car I found a note on the windshield telling me a Forest Ranger had found both dogs up Steamboat Creek and had taken them to the pound in Roseburg. I crumpled the note in relief and let out a huge sigh of joy. “Thank you,” I said. I threw my gear into my car and drove straight there in an hour. I had to wait for the clerk to fill out paper work before I could see them, so I stepped outside to wait. Jimmy and Will smelled me through the thick, concrete wall of the building, and after about a minute started howling like a thunderous contrition. Airedales howl louder than any dog I’ve ever heard, and I loved it man, loved it. They were okay, and that was good enough for me.
The clerk finally finished. "Sign here," she said. After glancing over the document I did. Then we walked around back and opened the enclosure. The dogs shot out and rammed their heads into my thigh.
“Jimmy, Will, where you been. What happened to you guys.” I said. They wagged their tails and threw their heads from side to side like we were getting ready to go on another hike. I took them home where they slept like a pile of bricks. They didn’t move for two days, except to yawn and stretch. They always made a happy little yodel when they yawned, as if they were saying how great they were.
I called John, the man who had picked them up, and he told me the story of how he found them. Apparently they had made their way down Timber Creek Ridge, but somewhere near the North Umpqua River they headed the wrong direction. They crossed the river on a bridge I assumed, turned left onto the highway, crossed on another bridge, turned right, and walked miles up Steamboat Creek Road. I never would have found them if someone else hadn’t. "I couldn't believe it," John said. "I went to use the bathroom, and when I came back there were these two big dogs in the back of my truck." Worn out, Jimmy and Will had jumped in the first vehicle they had found and refused to get out. "I called several times but I couldn't get a hold of nobody, so I had to take them to the pound. I didn’t really want to release them back into the wild. I wouldn’t want anyone doing that to my dogs."
"That's quite all right," I said. “Thank you."
"Funny thing,” he went on. “I was stopped at a light on my way out there and some lady pulled up alongside me," he said.
"Those are great dogs, what kind are they?" the lady asked.
"I don't know," John said to her. "I found them in the woods."
The next day I bought radio collars and new leashes for the brothers so I wouldn’t lose them anymore, and as soon as they arrived by mail, the dogs and I went for another long hike.

The Wright's Old Cabin

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Things I take on an Alaska trek

Here are most of the items I take when I go for a two-month walkabout in the Alaska wilderness. 
Pack, tent, sleeping bag, rain gear, titanium pan, bear spray, lighter, tiny stove, fishing tackle but no rod or reel, needle-nose pliers for pulling porcupine quills from my dog just in case, dog pack, dog food, saw and twine in case I have to build a log raft and float the hell out of there, cigars, a bunch of freaking food, sun glasses, sun block for my fair, delicate skin, one paper pack novel - preferrably a classic, journal, compass, GPS unit, maps, camera to record all the mayham, durable boots, clothes, hooded windbreaker to keep the damn mosquitoes off the back of my neck, mosquitoe repellent to keep the damn mosquitoes of my face and hands, advil in case of tooth ache, and an ice skate in case I have to knock out an infected tooth like Tom Hanks did in Castaway.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

On leash dog aggression

When walking your dog by another dog, don't tense up or pull on the leash if you're trying to keep your dog from acting overly aggressive to the other dog. Don’t raise your voice, act calm like the dog is nothing out of the ordinary. Dogs are acutely aware of your body language and emotions, and if you act like the oncoming dog is something to worry about, it gives them a cue to get worked up. And they feel the need to protect you. It’s often this way when two dogs meet who are on leashes. Dogs that would normally get along fine enough off leash away from their owners might fight when they come face to face while on leashes.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Borneo Express

I leave with my girlfriend in near tears, even though I told her long before I was going for two months, but now she doesn’t seem to remember. “I got to go,” I say. Sometimes I have to go for a long walk somewhere wild so I can recharge my batteries. “You think I should go?”

“Yes, go ahead.”

     On the drive to Portland to catch my flight we pull into a rest area to let my dog Will out. In five years I’ve never left him. He senses something’s up, like he knows I’m leaving. His brother Jimmy died last month of lymphoma – an incurable cancer of the lymph nodes. I think Will is a little lost, and instead of relying partly on Jimmy for companionship, he clings entirely to me. They did everything together. Sometimes when two dogs are close and one dies, the other will not fully accept it and go off looking for him, or become so sad that he can’t go on living. It’s good to keep a close eye on the surviving dog and give him extra reassurance for a while, like you would your own sibling.

     After Will pees on a few trees and scratches the dirt, we drive off. I stop to give a dollar to a homeless man in front of the restroom who’s playing his guitar and singing a Neil Young song. “Hey hey, my my, rock and roll will never die. It’s better to burn out than fade away,” he sings. I don’t want to burn out. I want to see the wilds of Borneo before they’re all gone, maybe climb Batu Lawi or get lost in the dense wilderness that buffers Gunug Murud.

    Once in the airport I feel surprisingly relaxed, free from deadlines and responsibilities for the first time in a year. I don’t bring Will because it’s too hot and too far and I can’t risk losing him, so after knowing he’s in good hands, I leave him behind.      

     The plane lands in Kota Kinabalu, a fairly large city on the island’s north coast, and as soon as the plane comes to a halt and the doors open, I feel the humidity and heat seeping into my pores. While filling out my customs card, I notice that except for two young guys with long shaggy hair, I’m the only westerner in line. They fill out the wrong forms and have to go to the back, but I make it through without a hitch. I grab my backpack off the conveyor belt to take through the security scanners. What if someone planted something illegal in my bag? On the bottom of the customs form it reads. “Warning, the trafficking of illegal drugs in Malaysia warrants the death penalty.” I’m expecting them to take my bag and search it, but they don’t and wave me through with a quaint smile. I’m stunned – set loose to go wherever I please.

     Once I get my bag I go into the restroom to change into my hiking clothes, ditching a few extra items in the trashcan and then heading out the front gates. Instead of turning left and getting a ride into the city like everyone else, I turn right and start walking down the highway toward the jungle, my own version of the Borneo express out of town, which will lead me to the remote interior.    

     In Lawas, the last town along the coast before trudging into the hinterland, I cruise around getting supplies: rice, beans, tea, oats, and a bush knife. Then I get an inexpensive room at the Mexion Inn –fifteen dollars a night. With air conditioning and a shower, it feels deluxe after sleeping on the side of the road and washing out of rain puddles for the last two days. In the morning I go downstairs for breakfast at a cafĂ©, which is just a bunch of shoddy tables with plastic chairs sitting open to the parking lot and the road. Palm trees line the street and swallows dart in and out from under the eaves searching for insects while the air is still cool. And the incessant noise of motor traffic never stops. A stray dog wanders in, thin, hungry, seemingly invisible. No one shoes him away, but no one feeds him either, and he walks with great lethargy. I’ve always had great sympathy for animals, maybe more than I have for people, and I feel bad for him standing there, eyes deadened and body sagging, not comprehending how to make a better life for himself.

     I order breakfast, or at least I try. “Kopi,” I say. The woman rattles off a bunch of words, but I don’t know what she’s saying because I only know a little Malay. Still half asleep and in a foreign culture trying to adjust, I must look mentally impaired. I shrug my shoulders and sit down and she tweaks her head around and shuffles off. Minutes later she brings me a cup of coffee with a glob of sugar on the bottom, but I deal with it, even though it’s not what I want.

Looking around, I see people walking slowly and people sitting passively, thinking about what, I don’t know. Do they know about nature? I know why their teeth are rotting, too much sugar and not enough flossing. I can’t find dental floss in any of the stores around here. I order more coffee. “Satulagi, tidakgula,” I tell her, one more, no sugar. She nods and a moment later brings me coffee with a clump of sugar again. I cringe and drink it without protest since I have to pay for it anyway. It’s so strong and sweet that I’ll be climbing the walls soon.

     I’ve come to the other side of the planet to hike through Pulong Tau National Park in the Tama Abu Range, where some of the last nomadic people live, and by hiring two guides I hope to learn about the tropical rainforest. Some of them have dogs too, much shorter than mine, but since the forest is all they’ve ever known they still hunt with them like their ancestors have done for thousands of years. Gentle, polite to outsiders, and with a vast inherited knowledge of the forest, they believe a good dog is highly prized; capable of tracking down a wild boar and meaning the difference between plentitude and lingering starvation.

     I order eggs and get two brought to me in a bowl, runny and nearly raw. I get the lady to take the eggs away and new ones come back, this time two hard-boiled. “Huh,” I say, now becoming amused. I crack them and peel back the shell bit by bit as a few flies land on the table. They’re runny inside too, a white and yellow swirled gel. Feeling mildly defeated at the moment, I give up, pay my bill, and take the eggs out and give to the skinny dog. He’s a poor old fellow with placid eyes, blotchy brown fur, and a kinked tail - likely a stray. Even if I could get him back to the states, my landlord wouldn’t let me have another dog, so while he’s eating, I quietly stand up to go. “Hope you’ll be okay little guy,” I say. “You deserve a good life.” Then I turn and walk up the greasy stairs to my room and don’t look back. When leaving your dog home alone for the day, place down some nice tasty treats and slip out silently and quickly before he knows what has hit him.

     The equatorial jungles of Borneo are so dense and dark that someone could live their entire life and not get burned by the sun. They’re some of the oldest and most complex forests on earth. Today, despite rampant logging, some pristine jungle still exists up along the mountainous border region between Kalimantan and Sarawak about one hundred miles from the coast, and because I emptied my savings account, I’ll walk the rugged dirt roads to get there instead of flying. I don’t want to leave until I find what I’m looking for, some sense of tranquility and self-sufficiency in this tropical wilderness.

     The next day I check out of my room and step outside to feel the morning light, hoping to give the dog some bread before leaving. Someone has caught a Norway rat in one of their shops and has left it on the side of the road locked in a tiny wire cage to fry to death from the warming sun. The dog is gone, vanished among the slew of smoky cars, grimy buildings, and cracked streets of this urban world on the fringe of a paradisiacal rainforest. In a way I’m glad. It’s heartbreaking to see him hungry, knowing I can do nothing to help.

     I walk around the block twice wondering what has become of the dog. I even ask a man tending his tire shop. “Have you seen an old dog,” I ask earnestly. He shakes his head; I don’t know if he’s saying no or just not understanding, so I mosey on. Realizing there are thousands or more hungry dogs on the island and thinking my compassion can’t really make a difference I give up and head on down the road. But before leaving, I grumble like I do when I don’t like what’s happening to animals. “Why can’t people just leave shit alone,” I mutter. Then in ten heavy, determined strides, I walk right up to the rat cage, click open the metal hitch, and the rat scurries out across the sidewalk in full view and disappears into the ditch. I turn to the shop keepers staring at me. “How do you like that,” I say. Then I turn and walk off.

     As I hike up toward the mountains, I think a lot about Will and his brother who died. Strong, stoic dogs like Jimmy don’t live long enough, and seem to be forced out before they’re ready to go. His eyes, wide and glistening with fear, like all mammals get with their impending doom, told me he didn’t want to die. The short time I’m away might seem like years to Will, but since this is a once in a life time journey, I have to press on despite the hardships. I hope he understands, that as sure as the sun and moon appear to rise, I’ll be coming back for him.

Lawas, Malaysia

Near the Kalimantan/Sarawak Border