Walking down the trail
Today was the day I tackle my second test to become operational with my already operational dog Grom. (He already passed the tests with my husband.)
Today we tackle the trail.
I suit up and plan how I was going to find a missing hiker named Charley. Her dog wandered back into camp hours ago. Rangers know she was planning to hike the High Meadows Trail within the park and never returned to her car. She was well acquainted with the area.
The trail test sounds easy, simply walk down a trail a mile and a half in length without the benefit of a GPS and find your missing person within the allotted time. Trails are often rerouted, new trails built, and old ones shut down, information on the most recent topo maps tend to be nearly 30 years old.
My first task after interviewing my evaluator playing park ranger on the particulars of the search was to figure out my search strategy. I carefully note all of the land features I would come across on my journey. I can use this information to keep me on course.
Confident that I had planned things well, I grab Grom’s search vest out of its bag. Grom yawns and stretches, saying
“Yeah, I see what you got there. I am saving it up until you say the magic word.”
He did not disappoint. I give him the search command and he bolts twenty feet down the trail. Then proceeds to pee on several trees waiting for me to catch up while sniffing the air for scent.
The day was cool with a slight breeze blowing gently across my face. Grom pauses to frolic in a small creek, taking quick bites at the disturbed surface as he leaps. I let him. He revels in the cool water and the wonderful banquet of scents it must carry with it, a deer from an hour ago, a hiker taking a pause on a rock upstream, a great blue heron dipping his long beak in for a drink or a strike at a fish. I can only imagine and continue on.
Grom alternates between dashing ahead of me down the trail or crashing through the brush, back and forth across the trail. He is energized and grins at me on one of his flybys.
Several minutes later I come across a guidepost on the side of the trail at an intersection and read. The trail that intersects the one I am on is several hundred meters beyond where it is on the map. I become slightly confused and note the descrepency. The signpost indicates the road I was supposed to cross is ahead down my trail as it should be, so I continue on.
The road crosses my trail far too soon. I stand on the center of the road looking up, down, and across its width. Nothing is as it should be. I should have been on the top of the hill, and there is no trail on the other side of the road. I walk across the road in attempts to find the trail. Grom trots straight ahead on what looks to be a trail, but peters out within 15 meters or so. I am not where I am supposed to be, I declare and head back to the signpost. Grom lopes down the center of the trail, unconcerned with our backtracking.
When I stop he begins to wander aimlessly around me sniffing here and there at the forest floor, undirected energy. I put him in a down so he will be focused when we move again. I unfold a trail map of the park I wisely picked up at the visitor’s center. I should be following orange blazes, the intersecting trail has yellow and is going in the wrong direction. It is best to go back to where I was sure. We head back to the stream where I find oranged blazed trees marching northward along the stream then stomping westward along the curve of the hill. Grom, innocent of his idiot handler, returns to his play in the stream.
The road greets me once again exactly where it should have at the top of the hill.
Follow the orange blazes I tell myself, DUH!
The lithe black dog sprints past an ancient graveyard and crashes through a thicket of dense brush. I remark to my evaluator this is a place I need to pay special attention to on my way back. A person might hide in there for shelter, her scent trapped among the braches and brambles, the trail and dog upwind of her.
Confident I am on the right path now, I pick up my pace. Grom notes my change in pace and bounds ahead down the trail and out of sight. I follow the sound of the two big red bear bells attached to his vest as my only guide to where he is. Grom often appears only a minute or two later with a look of” hurry up!” Much of the time he doesn’t even pause to say hi. He simply gives me a flyby run.
A few times on the top of a hill he shows interest to the northwest, his entire body pointing in the direction of his nose, a feathered tail arched up over his back in happy attention. His interest lasts only a few seconds, telling me the source is likely too far away to persue from our location or is an animal he knows not to chase.
Grom is doing a great job dashing back and forth along both sides of the trail as we encounter a second, wider stream. After a few splashes in the water, the little search dog begins to circle a small tree, stretching his nose into the air under its branches. I see something bright orange on one of the lower braches.
Has he found a clue? The orange blob ahead could be a glove, a hat, or a bandana, something left by the subject as a clue for me to find on the test. Excitement grows as I catch up to the dog, who at this point is trying to climb the tree. The closer I get the more the orange blob looks like a leaf. Why in the world is my dog trying to climb this little sapling? I pull the baby powder bottle out of my pocket and puff the fine particles into the air, doping the wind.
A slight breeze is blowing from behind me towards the tree. I turn around looking for something on the other side of the trail. There I find a leash caught up in wild rose brambles. It’s bright pink, Charley’s favorite color. I mark the find on the map and immediately begin to circle the clue looking for any body language Grom shows indicating he is in scent. He happily splashes in the water again then hops back into some tall grass biting and flossing his teeth with the yellow dried strands. Is he having trouble working out a scent pool? Grom rarely gets frustrated while I am still moving and there is scent around. We circle back around to the trail and the leash.
Grom begins furiously digging and biting at the base of a young tree near the side of the trail. He scampers backwards pawing at something at the ground then thrashing it back and forth in his mouth. Oh man, I think to myself, he has caught some small creature. Still thrashing the object in his mouth, Grom bucks like a bronco over to a log just to the right of me. He pins the object down with a paw and begins to bat it around like a cat. I ask the dog to “bring it.” His command to bring me whatever it is he has in his mouth. The same command I give when he finds a wayward dirty sock, wash cloth, or other prize and decides to make a game of killing it in the house.
The little troublemaker trots right to me and drops his prize, a pink striped sock, formerly clean and new. This was a second clue. “Where is she?” I think as I stuff the sock into my back pocket. Convinced I had covered the area well enough for now, I decide to head down the trail and check the area more thoroughly later. The trail begins an upward climb. Grom satisfied after some good old sock thrashing trots confidently ahead.
Near the top of the hill, he tenses, his nose thrown into the air and his tail shooting straight out behind him. Before I acknowlege he has caught scent of someone, he bolts into the woods. Seconds later, he rushes back, looks me straight in the eye, and barks. With an excited show me command I run after him stumbling through the woods. Seconds later a blue tarp comes into view with a very comfortable looking Charley lounged atop it.
Grom nudges and leaps by her with expectation of a good game of tug. I hold him back while interviewing my found person, ensuring she is ok to walk out. The evaluator give the ok for her to play with my dog and he gets his reward, a tug toy from my back pocket and a very happy team mate giving him a very good game of tug.