The wooded hill rose steeply in front of us. Covered in pine needles and moss, it was a challenge for my dog Juno, but nothing she couldn’t handle. She tugged on the leash and harness and made her way forward to the top of Baker Hill.
As we stepped out onto long granite ledges, a small blue butterfly fluttered past. There in the sun the path was lined with pale green reindeer moss, black bilberry bushes and tall blueberries. The view opened to our right – a landscape of dense forests, bright with spring growth, and beyond that the sea and the mountains of Acadia.
It was the perfect hike for my young canine companion. We are slowly working our way up into difficulties in the hope that one day she will soon climb mountains with me.
Choosing the right trails for my new hiking buddy is very important to me. Juno is a hybrid of a husky boxer and seems to naturally love being outside, but that doesn’t mean she will necessarily love hiking like my former dog Oreo did. And that’s fine. I am determined to give her the best possible experience in introducing her to the activity.
Juno stands at a lookout point on Baker Hill in Sullivan on June 1, 2021. Photo credit: Courtesy of Aislinn Sarnacki
If she looks tired, we turn around. If she gasps a lot, we stop so I can pour water into her collapsible bowl. And if she is interested in sniffing a mossy tree stump, I stop and give her time – within reason.
Walking with a puppy takes patience.
When we brought Juno home last December, she was a little over 8 weeks old. It was the first time I took care of such a young dog, so of course I had a lot of questions. And as an avid hiker, one of my first questions was: How much should a puppy walk? I was amazed at the responses I received.
10 minutes only? Seriously? That wouldn’t even get us to the mailbox. (Granted, our mailbox is at the end of the 0.3 mile gravel road we live on.)
I passed my internet results by my vet and she confirmed that puppies need to take it easy. Short training sessions are best. In fact, according to an article published by the American Kennel Club, taking puppies for strenuous walks can cause problems with their bones and joints, especially in larger breeds.
Since I’ve learned all of this, I’ve been very careful with my “Sweet June”. Just as she is grown up, so are our daily walks, from half of our street to the entire street – to the mailbox. Our first hikes were on short paths on level ground. And now that she is 8 months old, I am starting to introduce her to hills and small mountains.
Fortunately, Maine has plenty of them.
Aislinn Sarnacki and her dog Juno stand together at a lookout point on Baker Hill in Sullivan on June 1, 2021. Photo credit: Courtesy of Aislinn Sarnacki
Located just a few hundred meters above sea level, Baker Hill is the highlight of a 58-acre nature reserve in Sullivan owned and maintained by the Frenchman Bay Conservancy. A 1.6 km loop trail leads through a moss-covered, rock-strewn forest to a section of exposed granite on the hill. For plant lovers, this is an excellent place to enjoy forest flowers like pink lady’s slippers, blueberries, and star flowers. The property is also filled with interesting lichens and mosses.
Other easy hikes I consider 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 hikes.
While we’re exploring the wilderness together, I plan to keep Juno on a leash. I wish I could let them roam free (in places where it is allowed and appropriate) sometimes, but I’m afraid we would lose them. Juno especially loves following animal tracks and scents, and she has a stubborn streak like I’ve never seen her before.
A few months ago I accidentally dropped her leash while hiking with her in a local nature reserve. We drove over a long stretch of bog bridges through a swampy area. Well Juno went deep in the mud, and boy did she love it. After many failed attempts to call her back to us, my husband and I had to wade knee-deep through stagnant water and peat moss to recover our soaked dog.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed with all the different opinions about dog ownership. To keep it simple, I just listen to my vet and the dog trainers we work with in Bangor. They told me early on how important it is to keep my puppy on a leash. Dogs don’t understand the dangers of getting lost, they said. And at a young age, dogs typically don’t have the discipline to always come when called, especially when a squirrel falls down from a distant tree or a freshly scented deer trail (or a water-filled bog that’s fun to splash around in , apparently).
Juno inspects a fungus tree at Baker Hill Preserve in Sullivan on June 1, 2021. Photo credit: Courtesy of Aislinn Sarnacki
I also have to take care of her to make sure she doesn’t dig up moss or tear up young seedlings along the way. This is fine around our house, but on public roads it is important to leave everything as you find it so that other visitors can enjoy the seemingly untouched wilderness.
I also pack a few extras in my backpack like treats, extra water, and dog poop bags. But it’s all worth it. Dogs are the most enthusiastic hiking companions. By introducing Juno to the activity early in life – with easy, short hikes – I hope it helps her become more comfortable with the whole process. She doesn’t know the word “hiking” 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 [email protected]