August 13, 2008
Hemangiosarcoma is a tumor that occurs in older, large breed dogs, affecting males more than females. It has something to do with blood vessels, but even though Iíve read about it, I canít really picture it. Opinions seem to differ on treatment, but Iíve never read anywhere that you can expect your dog to live more than half a year once this tumor is diagnosed. Itís bad, no two ways about it. Enter Frank, my canine hiking companero for the last 11 years, and carrier of a large splenic hemangiosarcoma tumor. The damn tumor makes Frank tired and anemic, and the prednisone we give to ease the pain robs him of muscle mass while the tramadol he also takes for pain seems to zone him out sometimes, as opiates are apt to do (Iím told). Frankís eagerness to explore the woods is stifled not only by the tumor, but by hip dysplasia, a compromised cranial cruciate ligament, bridging spondylosis, and advanced arthritis in his spine and shoulders. Itís been a long and happy dogís life, and itís winding down. The body that has taken him faithfully over thousands of miles of wilderness terrain is just giving out. Frank was given 6-8 weeks to live at his diagnosis on June 20. So here we are midway through week 7. What do you do with your dying friend, let him ride out his days lying on the couch sleeping, or get him out on the trail to enjoy what has always been his favorite activity? Andra and I lean towards the latter option, which is also the option I hope will describe my last days on this earth. Keeling over suddenly from a heart attack while hiking the Milford Track on my 80th birthday sounds like a pretty good way to go to me.
So here we are, putting on our boots at the Lone Pine Trailhead outside of Red Feather Lakes, a trail chosen because of its lack of extreme elevation gain or loss. Another complication for this trail is that Makenzie, our younger, sophomoric canine hiking enthusiast, has about a dozen stitches in her leg stemming from a lost battle with a barbed wire fence, and weíve been instructed to keep her out of water for 10 days, a nearly impossible request. Youíve never seen a dog so drawn to water. Sheís part porpoise. So, a trail that appears to have only limited water access is a bonus, and that also describes the Lone Pine trail. We stuff some water and food into a backpack and I throw that on. Itís windy at the trailhead as two horsetrailers are offloading their cargo for a trail ride, and this makes it unusually chilly for August. Weíre both wearing long sleeved shirts. Before the dogs can get into any trouble by saying hi to the horses, we hit the trail and the parking lot disappears from view.
The first part of the trail is shaded and cool, with a wonderful mixture of aspen, lodgepole pine and a Douglas fir. One particular Douglas fir stands right next to the trail and is easily 4 times larger than any other tree in sight. We move slowly, making sure Frank doesnít feel the need to walk faster than is comfortable for him. Only 6 months ago, he would have been vying with Makenzie for the lead position, trotting gamely up the trail to be the first to sniff the air and chase the squirrels. Now he walks sedately behind me, never stepping off the trail. His decline has been extremely rapid. I can see a slowing of his walk even from two weeks ago.
Dave, Matt and I attempted to tackle this trail in February of 1997. Foolish. We never even made it to the trailhead in Daveís Ford Probe. I was new to Colorado then, and had no idea how long the snow persisted in the high country. We made it as far as the Level 6 road gate, parked, and slogged up the hill in the snow for awhile before turning back. Driving back to Red Feather Village, we passed an old man stuck in the snow who was trying to dig his high-centered jeep out with no apparent success. We gave him a ride back into town. It seems hard to believe itís been 11 years since that event. Life slips by pretty fast.
I follow the map closely, trying to gauge when we might first encounter water. I make the call a little late, and Makenzie, who is ahead of us on the trail, comes back through a small trickle of water with wet paws. She hasnít dunked in the water, there is too little of it, so no harm is done. Nevertheless, we leash her for awhile since the water runs near the trail. She is profoundly unhappy at this development, and pulls like an ox against the leash, choking and wheezing. She was never great on a leash, but when she lived in the city in 2003, she was tolerable. Since weíve lived in a rural area for 4 years with absolutely no need to leash her while walking, sheís completely forgotten all leash etiquette, and pulls like a dogs whoís never even seen a leash before. At 65 lbs, she can pull pretty hard, too.
The trail passes through a wonderful stand of lodgepole pine, with slanted sunlight shining underneath the canopy to glow on the verdant understory of whortleberry. The creek flows in a liquid ribbon near the trail, lined by wildflowers and less drought-tolerant shrubs like water birch and currant. We cross a logging road that is not on my map, but appears to be an extension of one that is. Then we cross it again. We take the leash off Makenzie, and she rockets up the trail like a rubber band, overtaking Frank and speeding up ahead. Frank seems to be having a good time, wagging his tail and stopping more often to show interest in smells just off the trail. The temperature rises gradually and Andra and I are happily forced to ditch the long sleeved shirts.
We settle into a nice pace, Makenzie in front, then Andra, then Frank and me at the rear. The sky is brilliant August blue overhead, clear and sparkling from several days of heavy rains. In fact, the trail is washed out in the center and scoured clear of pine duff from obvious heavy runoff. The trail snakes its way through the woods and we catch glimpses of the plains to the east through the trees. The trail reaches a high point with several rock cairns set beside it, and we saunter off the trail to rest at a large rock outcropping that offers a nice view of the valley below, and of the bald mountains just a bit further on. Weíve hiked about 3 miles at this point, and Andra suggests that maybe that should be it for Frank. I agree. So, she and Frank hang out in the trees with a good book while Makenzie and I start uphill from the trail towards the summit of North Bald Mountain. I had gotten a good look at the mountain from the rock outcropping, but even then, once inside the dense forest, itís a little tough to tell which direction to take. I head generally southwest, through thick forest laden with downed timber and occasional boulder fields, some of which we manage fine, some of which take a long time to get around. Makenzie is phenomenal on the rocks, leaping from boulder to boulder like a goat. I hardly ever use a GPS unit, but this is one time where it is coming in very handy, and I am happy to know I can get back to my starting point without too much wandering about in the woods. I follow the little compass arrow to the southwest, and eventually come to a false summit that offers a nice view to the south, west and north. Still, I can see the true summit, some 50 feet higher, just to the west, so Makenzie and I plunge into the woods again and get there. A fallen wooden tower of some sort, still anchored by thick wires, lays at the rocky summit, from which one can see in all directions, though the view to the west is somewhat obscured by trees. Middle and South Bald Mts are nearby, as are the permanent snowfields in the Mummy Range to the south. Looking north, I can make out the Sherman Mts near our house, looking very alone out there on the plains by themselves. Makenzie and I donít tarry long, and are heading back down the way we came after just a few moments of snapping photographs.
The walk down goes quicker, though I bang my knee fiercely on a large boulder in my haste. Itís the kind of dull pain that makes you think for a few lingering seconds that youíre going to lose your lunch, but it passes. I find it easier to pick a route down than it was to pick a route up. I can plan my way through the logjams and boulder fields easier with an aerial view of the obstacles. We near the trail, and Makenzie senses it. She races off to the trail, and then up. I call after her a few times, but I know where sheís headed. She possesses a preternatural sense of place, and always remembers where Andra is hanging out. It would be literally impossible to lose her in the woods. Even if I get lost, she never would. Sure enough, when I reach the rock outcropping several minutes later, Makenzie is laying next to Andra and Frank, panting and happy as a dog can be.
We all have lunch, and I feed part of my peanut butter sandwich to Frank and Makenzie. Itís a nice spot to hang out. I am heartened by news from Andra that Frank watched the spot in the woods where Makenzie and I disappeared for a very long time, wanting either to follow us or for us to come back. Itís nice to feel appreciated. The sky is still blue, but bouts of large cumulous clouds overhead suggest afternoon thunderstorms. We start down the trail, and on the downhill slope, Frank finds his footing well, trotting along happily ahead of us, and even exploring off the trail, chasing squirrels and being a dog. Itís good to see. As long as that tail is wagging, I know heís having fun.
At the logging road, we leash Makenzie, and she again starts to choke and wheeze as if weíre killing her by this act. We cross over a small bridge, and stop to rest as Frank takes an interest in the sticks in the water. We toss small sticks into the shallow stream for him, and he trots through the shallows to pull them out to dry land, an old habit that heís never lost. Makenzie looks on with longing. We water her from the creek using a small Tupperware, and she slurps down half a quart of water, at least.
Nearing the trailhead, we let Makenzie run wild, and she and Frank vie for pole position, just like always. We reach the car, and everyone is feeling great. Perfect hike. Perfect hike.
As I helped Frank up into the back seat, I considered this could be his last hike. It was. After 205 days in the woods over 11 years, old Frank could do no more, and just two weeks later we buried our dear friend among the Ponderosa Pines of the Poudre Canyon, where he was always happiest, always smiling. Hiking will never be quite the same without him. I miss him. Thatís far too few words to adequately convey the depth of that sentiment, but when there do not exist enough words, in this world or the next, to convey it any better, then three words suffice.