My Best Hiking Partner Has Four Paws

My dog is the best dog in the world. Now, he hasn't always been that way. He's a springer spaniel-Labrador or a "springador," and he was the puppy from hell. He chewed up three pairs of reading glasses and nibbled the top off of one of my cowboy boots. He didn't do too well in puppy kindergarten, either. In fact, he flunked.

But then, my expectations were different from the instructor's. She wanted to teach dogs to sit, roll over, heel and be continually obedient. I didn't care about that. I just wanted a good hiker dog, and that's what I got.

I wanted a canine companion to walk with me all over the West's public lands, from Forest Service mountain peaks to BLM canyons, from national park vistas to Colorado Parks and Wildlife game preserves. I sought a dog to camp with, hike with, backpack with, a dog that wouldn't wander or chase game, though he could flush grouse if he wanted. And that's what Finn became—the best public-land pup I've ever had. We can go for hours, and I never need to call his name. No leash is needed. There he is out front, running, sniffing, barreling on ahead, but he always comes back to check on me.

Sometimes he gets too exuberant. He bent a brand-new hiking pole when he charged past me to the top of a trail in Colorado's South San Juan Wilderness. He's beaten me to 14,000-foot-high Handies Peak near Lake City, and he's climbed at least half of the 12,000-foot La Plata Mountains.

There's nothing better than to be out on public lands with your dog leading the way. Whenever I want him back, I get down on one knee. He sees me, and comes running because he knows I've got treats in my pocket. We've been everywhere. One of the benefits of being outdoors with canines is the chance to explore with animals that are 1,000 times more sensitive to odors than humans are. I've told my wife I'll never go anywhere, whether it involves climbing a scree-clad peak or descending a canyon on a dangerous trail, unless the springador can get there, too.

But my wife doesn't realize that Finn has four-paw drive. He'll go anywhere, and he has done exactly that, though he's made me a safer climber in the process. On one steep canyon wall, I tried to inch up to the next higher ledge using a wooden log as a ladder, but it was clear I'd have 10 to 12 feet of exposure. Finn did not like the odds.

He ran off to the side and tiptoed towards me on a knife-edge ledge. He dared me to go up. As I ascended the log, he came closer, and I suddenly knew he was going to fall. That was his way of calling my bluff. Finn backed me down, and we found another route. That's why I hike with my dog.

On national forest lands, including wilderness, we can go most anywhere, but on national park lands I am required to keep him on a leash or in my car or tent. He used to be able to run free on Bureau of Land Management lands, but that's changed, too. The BLM in Utah now excludes dogs from archaeological sites in selected areas. Amazing! The BLM—the famously "multiple-use" folks with their openness to oil and gas impacts, ATVs running amok, mining pollution and invasive plants everywhere you go—the BLM wants to control canines like Finn. Doggone it!

There are rational reasons behind the rules, of course, but I ask you: Which species (other than humans) has done the most damage to archaeological sites? Cows. They've knocked down 800-year-old walls, demolished middens, pissed on petroglyphs and left their calling cards over most of the archaeological sites in Utah. According to archaeologists, who have the photographs to prove it, on Comb Ridge in San Juan County, cows have recently toppled historic wooden Navajo sweat lodges that will never be re-built.

I believe in protecting archaeological sites. Cultural resources on the Colorado Plateau are irreplaceable, but I also believe in equal treatment for animals: If dogs have to be excluded from archaeological sites, cows should be banned as well. After all, the Anasazi and Fremont Indians raised dogs, not Herefords. In sensitive areas, I'm perfectly willing to use Finn's leash more often, and there are some sites I acknowledge that we'll never again visit as a team.

Yet Mark Twain said it best when he wrote, "If dogs can't go to heaven, I don't want to go, either."

This personal essay first appeared in High Country News.