Over the course of the last 12 years as a dog owner, as I watched my dog quickly grow to be almost 100 pounds, there was always something in the back of my mind: what if something should happen to him on a trail when I am out hiking solo with him, as I usually am, how would I move him? Something else happened quickly over those first few months: he became my best friend, constant companion, love of my life, and my adventure buddy. He went everywhere with me and I would do anything for him. We have done a lot of hiking all over the country over the years, almost all of it solo; from popular trails to urban trails to iconic National Scenic Trails to wilderness. It was my worst fear about owning a dog that size. And that fear became my reality on Labor Day weekend this year.
It was a nice Saturday for a drive, not too hot, not too cool, not too busy, weather was just right. I headed north about 2 ½ hours from my home in Michigan to hike a piece of the North Country Trail I had passed months earlier. The North Country Trail is one of those epic scenic trails that goes on for hundreds of miles through multiple states like the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail, which I have also hiked with my dog, Finn. I was pretty sure, based on the location and map, it was a short section that lead to Lake Michigan and we would be out and back within an hour with a freshwater lake at our turn around point. It was cool out, so I decided not to carry anything with me, no pack, no water, no food, just like when I run trails. I could get water from my car at the end. Sometimes I don’t even take my phone when I don’t have a pack, but I had a pocket I could zip it up into and not have to hold it in my hand so I brought it with me despite not having any cell service, I could use it for photos at least. It was cool enough and a little breezy at the parking area between the woods where the trail crossed the road that I even decided not to put on bug spray, even though I had it in my car.
Finn and I set out on the trail and it was nice, solid, a little rolling up and down, which I like, and he was certainly capable of. As we got into it a little the ups became more strenuous and steeper. I knew at his age he couldn’t do a lot of those, despite running with me most of the summer, he was in good shape but I thought we had to be close, I could see water was close on the horizon, and soon enough I could see Lake Michigan, it was definitely close. The trail began to switchback, like, long switchbacks back and forth, zig zagging and delaying reaching the lake. The ups and downs became more frequent and the downs were putting us in to fern gullies that were humid and full of mosquitos. I was starting to regret my decision not to wear bug spray every time I swatted one buzzing around my ears. We passed one young couple carrying a big camera with them and I almost asked them if we were almost to the lake but didn’t, we just said hello, they oohed at the old gray dog in the bandana and kept going. At times I felt we were close and could hear cars on a nearby road, presumably Lakeshore Drive that went around the lake. I attempted to look on a map to see how much further it might be and without a good signal it was hard to get it to load. It looked like we might even be as close as a quarter mile, maybe less. But I didn’t know where the trail would take us. Maybe it stayed in the woods and went parallel to the lake without ever taking you to the lake. At this point I knew we were over 2 miles in, thanks to some markers on the trail, I knew that Finn could not go any further with all that up and down on the way back. He was doing so well, I needed to conserve what he had left in him. I decided to turn around. Back thru the ups and downs, the switchbacks, the mile markers… when with a little over a mile to go, Finn collapsed to the ground. This had never happened before, but I knew it was his hind legs, as they were the first to go down, then the rest of his body, but he held his head up, panting.
I didn’t panic.
I sat down on the ground with him. I talked to him. “Its ok, Buddy, we will just rest for awhile.” I was 90% sure it was fatigue and hydration, but 10% of me wondered if it was his heart or something else that was undiscovered up until this point. Nothing like this had never happened before. On the outside I didn’t panic, but on the inside my mind raced with my options, if its fatigue and I let him rest, how much time did I have before the hydration became urgent? After a few minutes I picked him up, lifting him from his belly, propping him up and getting his weak hind legs under him. He began to walk. I knew we were close, we had to keep moving. We hadn’t passed any other people since that couple early on, so yelling for help would do me no good. I put him on the leash and held his collar and held onto him on the up hills.
Then he collapsed again. This time on a downhill which made it a little harder to keep him secure. I sat down on the ground with him again, holding him so he wouldn’t slide down the hill. His eyes were almost totally cloudy, and I could see the whites of his eyes as they bulged as he panted. Again, I didn’t panic. I didn’t cry. I had a hard time looking at him, though, knowing I had put him in this situation. I just said, “it’s ok, Bud. You got this.”
I picked him up again. On the hill was much more of a challenge. He weighs 100 pounds and I had to prop him up on a downhill, but I did it and we kept going. Now I looked forward to the trail I could see ahead of us and set goals of where we will plan to stop. If I saw three uphill’s ahead, I would plan to do one then rest. Sometimes he collapsed again before I had planned to stop. Downhills were our friend as they gave him some momentum, but if he wobbled off the trail he had little control to get himself back on. Uphill’s just plain did him in. He collapsed a few more times, we rested, I propped him up and we went a little further, but those distances were getting shorter each time. I knew he was getting weaker. I also knew we were only about a half mile from the trail head and my car. But, more importantly, I knew he needed water urgently.
Through all this I never let him see me upset. I encouraged him, “Almost there, Bud.” But in my mind I thought I would lose him on the trail that day. I had thoughts of throwing away the clothes I was wearing so they weren’t a reminder, and that I never wanted to see that green bandana again that he was wearing. And how would I move his body if he died? I couldn’t leave him in the woods. And how would I ever forgive myself for this? I was determined that this was not how it ended. On his final collapse I knew he was done. I knew we were close to the car and water, but I also was afraid to leave him because I didn’t want him to be scared and give up and die alone while I was gone. I sat with him and contemplated what my options were. No one was on the trail that day.
I stood up, started walking ahead to assess the trail and listen for cars on the road. Do I run out to the trail head and flag someone down and hope they can help? No, I can’t leave him or risk the wait of a car passing. I walked a little, never leaving him out of my sight.
Without much thought I dialed 9-1-1.
I did not have a signal, and I hoped it would go thru as an emergency. I paced hoping I would step into an opening with a signal. It was silent for what seemed like forever. I waited. Then it finally started to ring.
“9-1-1, what’s your emergency?”
“I am on a trail and my dog has collapsed.”
“We are pretty busy right now, are you at your vehicle?”
“No…I am on the trail,” now I began to cry, “and I am alone, he needs water badly, and he weighs 100 pounds, I need help carrying him out.”
“Ok, we will send someone to help,” she said. And I explained what road I was parked on and what direction on the trail I was and that I thought I was close to the trailhead. She was taking me seriously. I wasn’t sure when I called if they would, but I had no options left. She asked for my cell phone number, and as I gave it to her, I told her I did not have service.
I sat and waited, petting Finn to comfort him, unsure of how long this would take. The bugs were still biting but I could no longer feel them. The events up to this point in the day felt like a bad dream.
After a little while a couple appeared on the trail, he was carrying a baby on his back and she was pregnant. They asked if Finn was resting, I said no, he has collapsed, and I have called for help. I knew they were not able to help but I did ask if they had water they could spare. She gave me her water bottle and asked me to leave it by the tree. I was crying again, and the man hugged me, and they moved on. With this I was able to pour and let him lap it up a little at a time. Something was better than nothing.
Several more minutes passed when another couple appeared on the trail, this time with two chocolate labs in tow. They wasted no time in jumping in to help. Not only that they were committed to getting him out of there and safely back to my car, despite knowing I had called for help, they knew time was of the essence at this point. They told their very well-behaved dogs to sit and they just did what they were told and quietly stayed out of the way.
It quickly came out from the woman that her husband was weight training to climb Denali in Alaska and he could handle moving a 100-pound dog. Also, he was carrying 50 pounds of weight in his pack…. the weight was several gallons of water! While he unloaded his pack, she began pouring water into my hands to let Finn lap out of my cupped hands, as they did not have a bowl with them. The water was simply for weight. I could see the color coming back into Finn’s eyes. He unloaded the pack and had the idea that we would slip it under Finn to support him and move him with it like a harness. I knew Finn’s legs were done, though, helping him was not going to involve him walking out on his own four paws. We tried it and now Finn’s front legs buckled under him and his hind legs just dragged, so that idea was quickly scrapped.
The man thought this thru for a minute. He said he could carry him but would need to rest a few times along the way and didn’t want to risk crushing Finn’s rib cage and lungs in the process. He thought a little more, and said their friends had a farm up the road and he had seen a wheelbarrow there, he would run and get it. He immediately started heading out with his two dogs in tow. In the meantime, the woman and I continued giving Finn water out of my hands. He seemed relieved not only for the water, but he also seemed to know he would not be exerting himself again.
Then a woman in a brown police uniform appeared walking towards us on the trail, her radio going off. It was a Sheriff’s Deputy. It was a surreal sight, and it began to hit me that I had called for a rescue. She seemed to have been sent in on her own to evaluate the situation and call for back up if needed. She had several bottles of water and something for him to drink out of, so I began to give him water from that and he lapped it up, lots of it. She said she had passed the man on the trail and knew the plan to move him. She told us that they had to look at where my cell phone had pinged from to find me, and it had appeared that I was much further in than I was when she came upon us.
When the man returned with the wheelbarrow, he wasted no time lifting Finn in. Finn has not been lifted in 12 years, so he squirmed a bit and tried to climb out, when the man said to tuck his paws in, so he didn’t have any leverage. He was an incredibly quick thinker at every turn of this rescue. I decided I should be wherever Finn’s head was so he could see me and not panic. We still had some work to do to navigate the ups and downs of the trail with a 100-pound load. Going up we had to lift the wheel barrow over roots, and going down the man changed direction and backed down while the front of the wheel barrow was on the uphill due to the weight of it with the dog in it, while the Deputy spotted the man’s steps over roots and ruts in the trail. Finn appeared to be enjoying it, but I think it was more the relief of not using his legs and the hydration that contributed to that appearance.
We reached my car and the man lifted Finn into the backseat. I gave him some more water. I hugged and thanked everyone, and the Sheriff’s Deputy lead me out to the road I needed to get home since there was no cell service to look up the directions. What took one hour in before we turned around had taken more than 3 hours on the return. I had not realized how much time had passed.
Through all this I realized I had not had any water either, had not eaten, had not gone to the bathroom, and with adrenalin had lifted my 100-pound dog at least half a dozen times, not counting lifting the wheelbarrow. This would, for sure, catch up with me soon.
I decided, given the improvements in his appearance from drinking water, that if he had to go to the vet, I would take him once we got home so I could be close to home. I made sure he was comfortable in the backseat of the car and gave him more water on a stop and tried to give him treats. He wouldn’t take the treats, which was worrisome. I knew we were not out of the woods yet. The entire ride home I sobbed and wondered what the next few hours would bring. Would he need the vet for an IV for hydration? Would he be able to walk? One step at a time. Just like on the trail; one step at a time.
As we got closer to home, I could see him try to lift himself up in the car, so I knew some strength was coming back to him. When we got home, I put his stairs up to the car and helped him out. He could walk! He peed and went inside and proceeded to drink 3 bowls of water. Then he ate his dinner. Then another bowl of water. Then he slept for awhile. Then I took him out to pee, and he came in and drank another bowl of water. He was rehydrating himself, luckily.
I looked at myself, though. I was a mess. My face was caked with salt from sweat and tears. My ankles had rings of dirt on them and my socks stained with dirt from shuffling around on the ground. My nails had dirt under them from scrambling around on the ground. I had not eaten since breakfast. I was bruised and battered from my worst day as a dog owner. I took one of the best showers of my life to wash the day away and felt the aches in my back and legs coming on strong now. Finn and I went to bed and let the sun set on a terrible day for both of us.
By Sunday morning, all things considered, Finn was moving pretty well. He was eating, drinking and he slept the day away. The emotions of the day before began to hit me as I shared my story with friends and family and spent much of the day sobbing out of relief. My body ached but my heart was still intact. I had my dog with me still. I found myself overwhelmed with emotion and gratitude by the kindness of strangers and how they ended up in the right place at, literally, the right time. Someone was looking out for us that day to have sent that couple down that trail.
The next week was rough. As if the intense emotional strain isn’t draining enough, the sore muscles only added to it. My philosophy has always been if I am sore then my dog must also be sore. And, boy, was I sore! I could barely stand up or sit down I was so stiff. My legs, my back, I realized the magnitude of the adrenalin workout I had. I knew I had to give Finn some time to recover, too. We laid low all week, resting, taking short, slow walks. By Friday he had an acupuncture treatment to help with his mobility and after telling the story to my vet she checked him out and nothing out of the ordinary came up, he was just fatigued, as I suspected. Another week went by and he still seemed stiff. Then one day he just seemed to be moving better. Thank goodness. He is 12 1/2 , though, this was eye opening, and I am realistic about his capabilities now.
It will be a day I will never forget. By far one of my worst. But also, one of the best in terms of reiterating my faith in humanity. There is a lot of good people in the world. I would never count on them to come to my rescue when I am out there in the middle of the woods solo, but man…when the right people do come along, it will make you question why and how and thank your lucky stars a million times over. I never knew their names or how to properly thank them…. but one day, when the opportunity presents itself, I will pay it forward and be that stranger to someone else.
It will be my honor, my privilege, my duty to do so.