I love challenge and drama. What better hike on a beautiful, yet cool, summer day in July than the loop over Franconia Ridge with Sam, my standard poodle, my favorite hiking buddy at my side. We left the parking lot at Lafayette Place in Franconia Notch at eight on Thursday morning. The temperature that morning was fifty-three degrees, and would perhaps reach seventy. Cooler in the mountains. No rain or wind in the forecast. Perfect. We entered the woods. At two tenths of a mile, the trail split, Falling Waters to my right, Old Bridal Path, our descent, to my left. Both trails are steep and difficult, but the Falling Waters Trail is a little more challenging, and with all of the rain we’ve had, I’d rather we hiked up a slippery trail than slide down. Sometimes, Sam took the lead; other times, he followed behind, always making forays into woods, then back to the trail. He’s been hiking since he was a pup, trained by Lucy, my older standard, who died this past spring. She was the more avid hiker, bounding ahead, finding the best route up and around a challenging spot of rocky trail. Sam waits until I give him a boost, then scrambles up. Always, he sticks close. I like that.
The climb is rugged, but beautiful, exposed roots, rock stairs, boulders, loose gravel, water making slabs slippery, brook crossings where I managed to find stepping stones, where Sam waded. We stopped as everyone does at Cloudland Falls, an eighty foot cascade sending mist into the air. Soon the trail moved away from the brook, offering a brief respite from the steep, before rock steps began again. Most hikers summit Little Haystack in about two and a half hours. Sam and I made it in three, emerging from woods and onto the summit, Sam summiting before me. He senses opens space, a place to rest or perhaps to stand. He loves finding the height of land, standing and surveying, and I love seeing him there. A standard poodle is an anomaly in these mountains, although I see labradoodles and goldendoodles—but standards, true, regal, loyal standards—not many.
From the summit of Little Haystack, Mount Lincoln is seven tenths of a mile north and Mount Lafayette at 5,261 feet, is nine tenths of a mile beyond Lincoln. The ridge is exposed, a three hundred and sixty degree view. Sections are steep. There is a knife edge where I call Sam back. This is where Sam began to fatigue, looking for scrub in which to lie down, low growing evergreens where he could find cool dirt. I’d peeled down to a sleeveless shirt. No way Sam could shed his thick black fur. We rested. I ate half of my sandwich, gave Sam water, fed him kibble.
Along the trail, we’d made friends, a woman hiking with Sadie, her Golden Retriever, a couple hiking with two labradoodles. They’d kept Sam going. Now, they were no where in sight. I thought about turning back, but by then, the way back was as difficult or nearly as difficult as the way forward, and we were close, so close. I wanted to summit Lafayette, wanted to complete the loop. Loyally, Sam followed. He’d turned eight last March, and he was slowing down faster than Lucy had. Still, he summited ahead of me and was sniffing a backpack, looking for food, gathering both disapproving and approving glances when I arrived. Tired, exhilarated we found a spot of rock where we sat, looking out at mountains and sky.
After about a half an hour, we started down the Greenleaf Trail, a series of rock steps leading to the Greenleaf Hut, its green roof visible in the distance. Sam was reluctant. I leashed him. Not easy to climb down, holding a dog, so I let him go. He doubled back. Usually, after reaching a summit, we go back the way we’d come. I’m sure that’s what Sam wanted to do. He’d had enough. Luring him with treats, I leashed him again. He looked for scrub, lay down. I let him rest, then urged him on. After about forty minutes of stopping and starting, Sam lay on his side, head resting, tongue lolling, side pounding. Here I was with seventy pounds of exhausted dog, about forty minutes from the hut and another three miles down a steep trail. Seeing us, a kind man and his son stopped. He offered to inform people at the hut and ask them to send help. Generally, people at the hut are not sympathetic to people who exhaust their dogs. “Oh, don’t do that,” I said. “They’ll probably call search and rescue and send out helicopters.”
The helicopter line was fantasy. Not the fear of search and rescue. This was my folly. Somehow, we’d get down. After half an hour, I rallied Sam, and we made our way to the hut where we spent another forty-five minutes resting on the porch. No dogs inside.
Sam drank water. He lay at my feet. My goal was to leave at four. That way, I figured we’d be out of the mountains by six-thirty—if we didn’t have to stop too often—and that’s what we did, climbing slowly and carefully, my loyal dog following until he sensed water and the end of the trail. He would and he did lead me out.