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A tracker's dream

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The boots gave it away.

I bought them about 15 years ago for a hiking trip in the Saw Tooth Mountains of the Montana Wilderness. Rick Herr told me there was nothing worse than wet feet and advised I buy boot made with Gortex. I took his advice and was glad that I had. The rest of me got pretty wet on that 5-day trek into the mountains, but my feet never suffered.

Ollie sniffed them over. He knows these boots and I imagined they triggered recollections of long walks in the woods. Now he was watching me intently, tail slowly waving. The expectation was building and when Carol got out his harness, he knew this would be more than a quick jaunt around the house.

There was a gentle rain, enough for the early spring leaves – upstate New York where we were spending the weekend is about two weeks behind Rhode Island – to be dripping. Yet I figured the pastel vermilion canopy would provide some shelter. I slipped on a windbreaker with a hood, attached the leash and headed out the door. Carol decided not to come.

Without any wind, the patter of dripping trees provided a kind of white noise. There was a sense of enclosure or encasement. We set off on a dirt road, a walk that we have taken many times. Ollie pranced ahead, straining on the leash. He was ready for a hike, not the sniff and pee routines of home. He held his head high, his nose twitching.

It wasn’t long before he was rewarded. Up ahead three deer, their white tails high sprung across the road and headed up the mountain. Ollie let out a howl. He tugged on the leash. I picked up my pace. Soon we were the point of the crossing and Ollie wanted to take up the chase. I coaxed him back to the road. Now he was on the alert. He leaned into the leash pulling me forward, anxious to round the next turn, anxious for another deer.

Soon we arrived at a point overlooking a lake. There’s a stone bench on top of a steep embankment that gives onto the lake’s rocky shore. It’s a spot where we usually turn and head back. Ollie paused, waiting to see what I’d do. When I pushed on he readily assumed his role as the advance guard.

Not far from the point, a path cuts off and heads up the mountain. Ollie was delighted when I veered off the road for the path. It’s not a steep climb, winding between giant oaks and pines. In places where the sun breaks through there are patches of grass and ferns among the fallen forms of trees. There was no sun today and what had been a light rain was now falling steadily.

The foliage was so fresh it offered no protection. The trail, blanketed in fallen leaves from last fall, glistened in hues of black and brown. Rocks had a gray sheen except where dusted with white and green lichen.

Someone had come this way not so long ago, for cut into the dirt was the track of a hoof. The imprint of a horseshoe was clear. Might we encounter the steed and its rider?

Ollie was not interested; amazingly not even pausing to sniff the road apples we came across next. Had we been in Goddard Park such a discovery would have had him glued to that spot. He was dialed into deer, straining on the leash to move on. There were more deer, too. Ollie howled. The deer faded into the woods.

We reached the peak. The view was obscured in fog and the rain. We pushed on. Water filled the crescent moons of the horse tracks. My boots squished. Soon the trail became a stream. My jeans were heavy with water yet the windbreaker kept me remarkably dry.

Ollie was soaked, stopping every so often to shake. But he was onto this, on the scent, tracking what had come this way. He didn’t want to slow down or stop. I kept an eye for hoof prints. The horse had come this way although the signs were fading with the rain.

We were a pair of trackers, although our quarry differed.

Ollie only lingered to drink from a puddle or to freshen his scent. Then he was back on the hunt, straining to move on. We came down the other side of the mountain to rejoin the road we had left and to walk home. I walked the crown of the road as the ruts were awash. Gortex boots are great as long as they’re not fully submerged. Ollie preferred the ditch. Mud stockings coated his white legs.

We arrived home wet. Carol had soup on and a dish of kibble for Ollie. He didn’t delay. After a rubdown to dry off he curled up and went to sleep. I put away the boots and was left to wonder about the elusive horse rider. Ollie, I imagine, was dreaming of deer.

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