On the nature of trust: Wembley and Inferno in the Mahoosucs

There was a rush of a heaving brown body, a deer bursting from the stream bed right in front of us. Wembley and Inferno in pursuit. I sang and clapped. It was the beginning of seven miles of trail and I felt like I had been calling to them too much already, their energy was so high and their minds so awake. It was Inferno’s first hike, and Wembley has such a strong prey drive. I was on the edge of control. 

Before long, they both zipped back into the trail, having gone barely out of sight.

‘This just might work after all,’ I said to myself.

I have been going for long hikes with the dogs once a week. Throughout the rest of the time, we go for short hour long hikes or bike rides, but those are just for them and me to get some energy out. These long hikes, especially this particular hike I chose on Saturday, are about firming team bonds, facing challenge, and spending three or four (or more) hours on the trail together.

The Mahoosucs are my heart and soul. They are rugged and raw, quiet narrow trails and skinny trees. Thin topsoil clinging to ledge, and so many birds and moose and bears and more. The trails are relentless and steep, ledge and bog and hand-over-hand ladders. There are no buildings, visitor centers, or craggy alpine ridgelines that are screaming with people. To reach these trailheads involves bumping along for half an hour on Success Pond Road, a private logging road with minimal maintenance and a lot of cobbled rubble, washboard ridges, and so many potholes. This is my place to be. The path I chose that day was over Goose Eye, a three-mile steep and ledgy ascent, with a similarly steep descent and then a rolling ridgeline to Carlo Col. It was not a simple out-and-back. It was going to be an adventure.

 

I stood at the edge of the dogyard that morning, deciding who would come. Wembley was a for sure, but the second dog? Bonobo was in heat, as was Vega. Chai was still too much of a risk, Oriana already went this week, as did Victor Hugo and Hyside, and I didn’t really want to bring Foreman or Paolo, and Hilde and Wembley would not get along. Whatever dog I chose, it would be a transformative experience. I wanted, needed to train the dogs, train myself, go through challenge and not just a straight, easy, uncomplicated hike.  

I chose Inferno.

Inferno is a young lead dog, just barely two years old. During the last 100 miles of the Can AM 250 in 2017, Inferno rose to lead with Wembley, albeit not without youthful indiscretion or occasionally reaching his limit. It was his first time in lead, and he crossed the finish line with pure joy. Wembley is my soul dog, wildly intelligent and driven by a thirst for adventure. This past year she led the entire Can Am 250, without doubt and with a drive I've never seen before. Wembley has led me through so many things, over 1,000 miles of races and across glassy windy lakes, twisty trails, open water and from darkness to dawn. This is a unique pair of dogs, natural leaders who can learn from one another. 

At the start, on a gravel road before we got to the trail, I kept Inferno on a leash. Inferno is loose a lot, around the dog truck or in the yard, but I didn’t want to cut him fully loose until we made the turn on to the trail. Wembley zoomed ahead and came back, ahead and back, a perfectly timed recall that I never have to remind her of.

When we turned onto the Goose Eye Trail, I cut him loose and he immediately dove down into the woods, chasing Wembley. I kept an eye on her and an ear out, these first few yards of excitement always the hardest to keep them in check with. I called for them, and Wembley came back, solo and grinning.

I called for Inferno and heard nothing, no rustle of brush or crashing through trees.

‘Have I already lost my dog? How on earth did this go so terribly wrong right away?’

Inferno blew out of the woods, having been distracted by a swamp, a rustle past me and he and Wembley zoomed ahead. Not long after, we encountered the deer that I opened this post with, an explosion that they chased, and circled back, frenzied.

 

We kept going.

 

About a mile in the trail starts to climb, gentle at first among the hardwoods. The scale of gradebecomes much more insistent as we gain elevation, a short and sweet and steep climb, my favorite kind, where we quickly reach the spruce fir forest.

Inferno and Wembley began to mellow and tire as we climbed and the trail grew much steeper. They stayed close and I began to wonder at them, Inferno’s pure joy and Wembley’s drive for adventure.

The breeze moved through the skinny trees, mossy green all around. I felt like I was moving slowly, a plodding and steady pace that matched the steep trail. I didn’t care when I got to the summit, and I knew we’d be there before I’d get hungry. I could see the blue sky through the trees on either side and ahead, a sign of the narrow steep topography.

There is a different feeling in this place, the northern edge of the Mahoosucs. These mountains are so isolated. When I stood still and connected with the land, I could feel the lack of buildings and human intrusion. I feel more wild. The path unfolded beneath my feet (and my hands as I crawled up), no one behind, no one ahead. Silence.

 

We reached the top quickly, the last few pitches sheer ledge. Wembley went up fearlessly, confidently, but Inferno hesitated and paused, and moved behind me. I stood on the ledge, and saw he had doubled back beneath. I didn’t want to go back down and coach him up, I was hoping he would make a choice on his own first.

 

He reappeared at the bottom, and launched up unquestioningly. Trusting those ahead of him, both myself and Wembley.

 

We weren’t alone at the summit, two groups of two, including a young couple who asked about the breed, whether we raced at Laconia, the common questions I field when out and about with the dogs. It was windy and I kept Inferno on a leash while I ate my sandwich, only slightly concerned as Wembley drew too close to the edge. I waited for the other people to leave, give them a head start to create space between us.

 

The ladders, the ledges, the sheer cliffs. Those were next and I knew it.

 

The wooden ladder was first. They both paused, but didn’t double back behind me in fear. Wembley descended easily, uneventfully, a fluid movement that made my eyes grow wide. Inferno I took by the collar and eased him onto the ladder. He tried a few steps and then launched down.

The times I’ve descended this trail with dogs before, I have taken the hands-off approach. Quid chose that method, always preferring to figure things out on her own. Last year with Bayley and Hyside, Hyside flailed and had a hard time being patient enough for me to help him. Knowing that I wanted to build confidence and resilience, I began this section of trail just as I begin tough sections of trail with the dog team, not knowing fully how we’d figure it out, but knowing that we had the ability to work as a team together.

The next section was a ledgy corner with no ladder, but a distance of a full human height between the initial ledge and the next step down. I crawled ahead, saying ‘watch where I go,’ and then reached up to them. Wembley backed away, but Inferno stood patiently and I managed to get my fingers into his collar, and I eased him down, pulling up on his collar as he descended to break the momentum so he wouldn’t crash into his front legs, much as how they emerge from the dog truck.

Wembley came forward next, and let me do the same.

 

We descended one last section in the same manner, a ladder of rebar drilled into the ledge. They waited while I crawled halfway down, easing them carefully.

So much trust passed between all three of us, in that moment, those minutes. It was a problem we solved, together.

Wembley and Inferno resumed the lead after that, charging ahead and then circling back to look for me. We rolled through ledgy ridgeline and open views. I thought about work, about projects, but mostly I let my legs move and my heart followed.

I slid down a ledge, close to the ground with my legs in front of me, and when I squatted at the bottom I called them to me. Wembley came first, circling around, and Inferno second. Throughout that day, I hugged them so much, their heads against my heart and underneath my arms. I was smeared in dog, fur and breath. I felt connected to them, and laughed.

 

In the last few miles of trail, I recognized trail structures I had built, trails I had designed and relocated, trees I had transplanted into impacted denuded areas. Like flipping through pages of an old photo album, the ghosts of so many nights and days spent in that place return to me, still.

At every river crossing, on the way out, I would pause and play with Wembley and Inferno. Taking a slower pace, drawing out the last two miles. Enjoying our time in the wild, together, experiential and not about speed or work. I watched them splash and drink, Inferno often standing to cool his feet. They were always in constant movement.

We returned to the gravel road we started on, and their circles away from me grew further in distance, as the terrain was easier and they could break into a faster run. There was a moment when they returned back to me, running towards me on the gravel, Wembley on one side, Inferno on the other. They were paced evenly. Wembley was focused on me, and her trail ahead, and I watched Inferno, subtly, glance over at her, a slight twitch of his head and a lift of one ear. Wembley was training Inferno. We were training each other.

 

There were more than a few times throughout the day when Inferno would come to me, and I would flop his ridiculous ears, wrap my body and arms around him in celebration. I would stare into his eyes and he would stare back.

 

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘This is a good day.’