Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Muddy Blurs

Jeremy and Naomi live on a small lake created by a rather interesting glacial-geologic phenomenon. Alas, this is not the day for glacial-geologic photo essays (been there), but it’s rather a day for discussing the area right next to their little beach.

It’s a cute, sandy beach with its own dock and canoe, and to the immediate left, as you look out at the lake, the shore becomes mud—a special kind of rotten leaf muck. Left to his own devices, Gus will take a tennis ball and squish it into the mud with his front paws and then dig it back out, over and over, until he looks like this.

Comet would like nothing better than to be chased by Gus, and he recently discovered that if he grabs Gus’s tennis ball, a chase will ensue. Since is was a dreary, gray day, there wasn’t enough light for dog action pictures. Still, watching them streak across the yard is a pretty blurry enterprise in real life, so why should the photo be any different?

Comet, true golden that he is, loves to end the chase by running into the water for a good, old-fashioned splashing romp. No, they’re not really fighting. Gus is trying to knock the ball out of Comet’s mouth, not bite him. This kind of play-fighting does look pretty ferocious, and it occasionally results in a high “ouch” bark from one dog or the other. Even when that happens, though, the fighting just stops for a moment and resumes pretty quickly. It’s not like a dog to hold a grudge.

Lighting is pretty crucial, particularly as the days lengthen (yes, even in late August), and the light gets less than full as the afternoons wear on. It’s just after 5PM here, on a sunnier day than our trip to the lake, though the dogs are wet in this photo too, and the light coming across wasn’t quite enough to illuminate all of both of them.

Goldens have a double coat, and it’s that two-layered characteristic that gives them their particular look. The longer, shinier “guard” hairs are darker (particularly dark on these two), and they help repel water. The undercoat is made up of fluffy, lighter-colored hair. In direct sun, even when damp, dark Goldens like these two shine in reds, oranges, whites, and golds in all the variations of wetness and the angles of light.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

See Dogs Swim

Blogger isn't great with video, so this is the best I could do in converting the original, much larger video of this photo sequence.

Over the course of a couple of days of dock jumping, Comet made the transition from hesitant, awkward slips into the water to stretched-out leaps as far out as he could. This is about the pinnacle of his jumping.

When he started out, though, it was a bit more like this. We didn’t take pictures of his truly hesitant first jumps, but you can see even here, once he’s had a little practice, that there’s a little bit of worry about crashing into the water and that he’s treating it as as if he needs to have a paw out to land on. Even though this isn’t one of the first jumps, it’s still a pretty impressive difference between the two.

Landings got quite a bit better too, from careful slips into the water....

...to full-bodied crashes into the water, with the eyes focused on the target.

Gus is, as always, a consummate jumping professional, even as he gets older. He’ll throw himself as far as he can, over and over, until he’s exhausted and dazed. Part of taking care of him has always meant knowing when to make him stop.

(Photo credit: Donna Tippy)

Of course, the entire point of the jumping is to fetch the ball, or the toy, or whatever it is that we’ve thrown into the water for them to bring back.

Fetching is the epitome of an action done for its own sake, an undertaking whose entire point is the process itself. The dog doesn’t bring back the ball and then wait to see what will happen. He doesn’t bring it back and then take a coffee break. Once you pick it up, he takes a few careful steps out ahead, waiting for you to throw it, and hoping you will so he can enter into the process again.

A dog takes simultaneous joy in motion, in connection with you over an activity that he’s absolutely sure you want him to do.

Gus is so good at fetching that he’ll get to tennis balls before Comet most of the time, in or out of the water. The solution is to throw a ball as far as you can, which Gus will chase and Comet will immediately write off as a loss.

Then you can toss something Comet likes but Gus cares a lot less about (Gus will prioritize tennis balls over anything else, including treats, things with squeakers, live birds, anything). Then Comet gets to bring this squeaky bumper thing and Gus gets the ball. It’s a nice arrangement for the dogs, but a little complex and wet for the thrower.

As you saw in the video, though, sometimes Comet does get the ball.

Sometimes, though, you just have to share, especially when we think Gus is too tired and we’ve put the tennis ball away. Then, grabbing the floating turtle is anybody’s game.

(Photo credit: Donna Tippy)

Saturday, August 9, 2008

See Dogs Run

Right across the street from the cabin is a protected pine barrens area. They’ve done a controlled burn and what looks like some selective logging in the area over the past few years, so it’s a little bit of an odd, tiny wilderness area, but it’s a great place for dogs.

Now that Comet’s full size, he and Gus will race. We take them on leashes across the street and up the first few feet of the path, and them have them stay while we unclip them. When we let them go, there’s this breakneck steeplechase of twin Golden butts pounding away from us. Once they get around the corner, I whistle them back, and there’s a renewed competition on the way back.

Comet’s gotten as fast as Gus at this point, and it’s an odd thing to watch what was once the fastest Golden I had ever seen get slightly outpaced from time to time. Gus has been suffering from allergies a bit this summer, so it’s possible he’s not putting his all into it. But Comet is a darn fast dog too.

There doesn’t seem to be any way to truly compare their speeds, though, since Gus only runs full-out for tennis balls—regular trail joy doesn’t quite coax out his top speed—and Comet won’t compete for tennis balls, since he never once beat Gus. Now that he has a chance, he doesn’t know it.

I’ve been careful not to put them in direct competition for balls very often, since I didn’t want Comet to decide fetching was pointless, but he won’t try for it if Gus is going too.

So the question—who’s the fastest Golden alive?—will remain unanswered for the time being.

What is it about a dog bounding back on the trail that brings the whole experience to life in a completely different way than a solitary walk in the woods? I’m not knocking a dog-less walk, since there’s a special beauty in being alone in a quiet place, and you certainly see more wildlife when you don’t bring a noisy, snuffling, jangling, sprinting companion (even one that’s trained not to chase birds and squirrels).

A dog lives in the present moment, free from the kind of specific, reflective memory we have and free from the forecasting logic of the future that hovers over us constantly. I hesitate to idealize that kind of mind without reservation, since it is precisely those qualities that enable us to better ourselves, to think morally about our actions, and to appreciate art, pain, and beauty.

However, I do like to share in those qualities when I see them in a dog that loves me in his own pure, limited way and runs back to me with fresh joy when I whistle that particular falling sound (stolen from hermit thrushes and my mother’s father) that Gus and Comet both recognize as a call to attend and return.

They seem to be able to contain the contradiction of wanting to run back to us and wanting to run ahead to new territory. The dogs sprint to return, but as soon as they’re told they’ve come back far enough, they wheel and sprint away down the trail. I wonder if a human being could ever simultaneously want to go backwards and forwards in space or in time without experiencing at least a little cognitive dissonance. Or perhaps there’s no cognitive dissonance when there’s no complex cognition in the first place.

Did I mention I get a stick brought to me on some of those returns? I think the stick brings down my whole reflective metaphor like the Jenga tower it is. A dog makes gifts out of a run back to you, a look, a moment of time, and anything he can pick up on the side of the trail, and he wants you to throw it so he can bring it back to you and give it again and again and again.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

See Dogs Roll

Once I got off the mountain safely, I headed down to New Haven and climbed in a car with Andy and the dogs, and we headed up to New Hampshire to spend the week with my parents at the cabin they’ve rented almost every summer for the past quarter-century. It’s a place with lots of memories for me, and it situated on a gorgeous lake in easy striking distance to the tax-free outlet towns of New Hampshire.

The dogs like it even better than we do. It’s Comet’s first time up, but he took to it just as fast as Gus has during his times here. They swim every day, and they never pass up the opportunity to scratch their itchy, wet backs in the grass after a good romp in the water.

Comet’s just as handsome wet as he is dry, and wet he was, at every opportunity. In fact, the first night we arrived, it was rather late, and it was as dark as only a rural location really gets. As Andy and I brought bags around the side of the house in the dark so we could go in the back door without waking my folks, we heard a huge splash.

We immediately assumed Gus, who had been here several times, couldn’t restrain himself and jumped in, and we threw whispered chides into the dark, “No! Gus! Get over here! Bad Dog!”

Once we got in and turned the light on, however, we realized that it was Comet who was soaked. There’s no way to be sure what happened, but I can only assume he ran out onto the short, narrow dock with Gus and didn’t realize where he was. He must have been one surprised little dog. Well, not so little, I guess.

Rolling is quite an energetic activity for these guys. They go through quite an amazing series of contortions as they try to get exactly the right surface (dirt, grass, gravel) into exactly the right spot (back, shoulders, haunch).

The result is a dirty, satisfied dog.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

College Washout

Today I tried to leave Bread Loaf, but Nature herself conspired against me. The Bread Loaf campus is nestled halfway up a mountain range about ten miles southeast of Middlebury College. Route 7 winds southward out of town, and Route 125 goes east up through Ripton and over the mountains, paralleling a small river most of the way. This morning, the very last morning of classes, I and my two roommates, Jamie and Zach, headed up for our 8:45AM class.

It’s been a particularly rainy summer, and this past week had alternated downpours and thunderstorms with very few breaks. This morning, a steady, overnight rain meant that on our way up, we saw the river at a rather scary height. It was a brown, churning flood, rather than the clear, sedate winder we were used to greeting each morning. In places, the road itself had a couple of inches of standing water, and it was clear that the banks weren’t quite containing the river. Nonetheless, the road was completely passable, and we went to our class without much trepidation.

By the time we tried to leave at 10AM, the buzz on campus was claiming a total closure of Route 125 on both sides of Bread Loaf. Zach, Jamie, and I all needed to get back to the house, so we jumped in my intrepid Jeep and went to see for ourselves.

The first thing we noticed was that the Frost Road, a dirt road which heads uphill, straight as an arrow, north off of 125, had largely washed into 125. That meant rocks from the size of pebbles up to cobblestones, along with enough dirt to surface a road were all sitting on the pavement. We passed this with a few nervous comments but no trouble.

A little further down the road, though, just before the town of Ripton, we were greeted with a number of stopped cars, just beyond which was this scene.

In the ninety minutes we spent learning about Chaucer (or in Jamie and Zach’s case, “Imagination”), the river had jumped its banks and gone running down the road—not just a few inches of standing water anymore. What you see in this photo are rapids several feet deep running down the road itself. I’m estimating the depth based on that black Ford Focus that’s been pushed off into the ditch.

Obviously, we weren’t getting down this way.

We backtracked and turned off down the Goshen/Ripton Road, a dirt road that the atlas showed as an alternate route off the mountain, but about a quarter mile down we came to a section that had been half carved away by a tributary of the flooding river.

While the road was still just wide enough for the Jeep to pass, all three of us suffered through the mental image of the carved edge giving way under the tire and dumping us all sideways down into a roaring waterway.

At this point, Jamie and Zach decided the best bet for them was to go back to the campus and wait for better, safer conditions. I dropped them off, but I was rather desperate to get down, and with more rain on the radar, it seemed as if any more delay could strand me at Bread Loaf for days. I had vacation plans, and I wasn’t about to get held up.

I knew the road to the east of campus was far worse and had washed out earlier, and I knew going up over the mountains and down to the other side was probably impossible in addition to being impractical (it would have taken hours to drive around back to Middlebury). However, to the north of 125 are a series of dirt roads, beginning with Maiden Lane, which eventually wind down to Lincoln, a town to the northeast of Middlebury.

So, I pulled the atlas back out (for those of you wondering why I wasn’t on the iPhone plotting routes with satellite imagery, let me remind you that there is no cell service in these Green Mountain Wilderness areas), and looked for routes down.

My first thought was to take the dirt roads around the washout we had seen. My assumption was that the paved road (125) was still the most likely safe, direct route if I could just get around the one place it was impassable. I successfully got around the pictured washout and all the way to the town of Ripton, which is about the halfway point down the mountain from Bread Loaf. However, just down from Ripton were far more severe washouts, which I never saw, since emergency services had managed to get as far as Ripton to close the downward road.

So I turned around and headed back up the ridge to the north. Every dirt road that turned westward toward Middlebury was washed out or otherwise impassable, and after three fresh dead ends, I finally ended up going due north for almost an hour before I was able to cut over to Route 116 on Notch Road. It isn’t labeled on this map, but it’s west of South Lincoln. 116 brought me down to the end of 125 where it joins up with Route 7 to Middlebury itself.

I got to the house to find another roommate, Liz, who had tried to go up the mountain at about 10AM for her class and simply couldn’t.

Frankly, the weather was more reminiscent of my class last year (Theories of the Sublime in Romatic Poetry by Men and Women), but certain passages in “The Miller’s Tale” from Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales also resounded with the idea of a flood, if not as specifically with the terrifying power of natural forces.