The wooded hill rose steeply before us. Carpeted with pine needles and moss, it presented a challenge for my puppy, Juno, but nothing she couldn’t handle. Tugging on her leash and harness, she forged ahead, up and up, to the top of Baker Hill.
As we stepped out onto long granite ledges, a tiny blue butterfly fluttered past. There in the sun, the trail was bordered by pale green reindeer moss, black huckleberry bushes and highbush blueberries. To our right, the view opened up — a landscape of dense forestland, bright with spring growth, and beyond it, the ocean and mountains of Acadia.
It was the perfect hike for my young canine companion. We’re slowly working our way up in difficulty, with the hope that someday soon, she’ll be joining me as I climb mountains.
Selecting the right trails for my new hiking buddy is something I take seriously. A husky-boxer mix, Juno seems to naturally love being outdoors, but that doesn’t mean she’ll necessarily love hiking like my previous dog, Oreo, did. And that’s OK. I’m determined to give her the best experiences possible as I introduce her to the activity.
If she looks like she’s getting tired, we turn around. If she’s panting a lot, we stop so I can pour water into her collapsible bowl. And if she’s intent on sniffing at a mossy tree stump, I stop and give her time to do that — within reason.
Hiking with a puppy takes patience.
When we brought Juno home last December, she was just over 8 weeks old. It was the first time I’d ever cared for a dog that young, so naturally I had a lot of questions. And being an enthusiastic hiker, one of my first questions was: how much should a puppy walk? I was baffled by the answers I received.
Only 10 minutes? Seriously? That wouldn’t even get us to the mailbox. (Granted, our mailbox is at the end of the 0.3-mile dirt road we live on.)
I ran my internet findings past my veterinarian, and she confirmed that puppies need to take it easy. Short bouts of exercise are best. In fact, according to an article published by the American Kennel Club, taking puppies on walks that are too arduous can cause problems with their bones and joints as they develop, especially in larger breeds.
Since learning all that, I’ve been very cautious with my “Sweet June.” As she’s grown, so have our daily walks, from half of our road to all of our road — all the way to the mailbox. Our first hikes were on short trails on even ground. And now that she’s 8 months old, I’m starting to introduce her to hills and small mountains.
Fortunately, Maine has a lot of them.
Topping off just a few hundred feet above sea level, Baker Hill is the highlight of a 58-acre preserve in Sullivan that’s owned and maintained by the Frenchman Bay Conservancy. A 1-mile loop trail travels through a mossy, rock-strewn forest to a stretch of exposed granite at the hilltop. For plant lovers, this is an excellent place to enjoy woodland blossoms such as pink lady’s-slippers, bunchberries and starflowers. The property is also filled with interesting lichens and mosses.
Other easy hikes I’m considering for Juno include Pigeon Hill in Steuben, John B. Mountain in Brooksville and Flying Mountain in Acadia National Park. All include a few steep slopes and rocky terrain, but are fairly short treks.
As we continue to explore the wilderness together, I plan to keep Juno on leash. I wish I could let her run free sometimes (in places where that’s allowed and it’s appropriate), but I’m afraid we’d lose her. Juno especially enjoys following animal tracks and scents, and she has a stubborn streak unlike anything I’ve seen.
A few months ago I accidentally dropped her leash while hiking with her at a local preserve. We were navigating a long stretch of bog bridges through a swampy area. Well, off Juno went, deep into the muck, and boy did she love it. After many failed attempts at calling her back to us, my husband and I had to wade knee-deep in stagnant water and peat moss to retrieve our soggy dog.
It’s easy to become overwhelmed by all the different opinions out there about dog ownership. To keep it simple, I just listen to my veterinarian and the dog trainers we work with in Bangor. Early on, they stressed to me the importance of keeping my puppy on leash. Dogs don’t understand the dangers of getting lost, they said. And at a young age, dogs usually don’t have the discipline to always come when called, especially if there’s a squirrel taunting from a distant tree or a deer path fresh with scent (or a bog filled with water that’s fun to splash in, apparently).
I also have to watch her to make sure she doesn’t dig up moss or rip up trailside saplings. Around our house, that’s OK, but on public trails, it’s important to leave everything as you find it so other visitors can enjoy the seemingly untouched wilderness.
Additionally, I pack a few extra things in my backpack such as treats, extra water and dog poop bags. But all of that is well worth it. Dogs make the most enthusiastic hiking companions. By introducing Juno to the activity early in life — with easy, short hikes — I’m hoping it helps her become more comfortable with the whole process. She doesn’t know the word “hike” yet. But it’s only a matter of time.
Aislinn Sarnacki is a columnist for the Bangor Daily News. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.