Wednesday, 10 October 2012

On the Wild Side for 9 September 2012 by Deborah Greaves:    coping with scree

In my opinion, there’s good reason for the two e’s at the end of the word ‘scree.’
That pair of e’s is an abbreviation of the word ‘ eeeee-e-e-e-e!’ -  generally uttered by a person who is either thrilled or terrified. Scree, as a feature of a hillside, can induce both emotions in human beings who encounter it.    
I can’t recall the first time I heard the word, ( ‘ a steep slope of loose, fragmented rock lying below a cliff or bluff’’ according to the Gage Canadian Dictionary)  but I well remember the first time an encounter with ‘scree’ caught me off guard.  It’s embarrassing to confess that I stumbled onto a steep scree slope in my early days as a West Kelowna resident, and immediately got stuck.
Of course a person who finds herself immobilized on a scree slope is rarely physically stuck.

The truth is, it’s very easy to keep moving on scree, but that movement may not be the kind of locomotion the human has in mind. The hillside is playing a joke on a hapless biped, a creature not well suited to terrain that even Bighorn Sheep and Mountain Goats have the good sense to avoid. The biped instinctively strives to remain upright in almost all outdoor hiking situations, but the scree slope presents the distinct possibility of descending helplessly on one’s derriere or worse.
How do you know you’re close to scree? For the uninitiated, you’ll notice the slope is covered in a million pieces of fist-sized rock, pieces of rock that are dry and naked. Unanchored by trees, shrubs or grasses, these are pieces of rock that look as though a giant dump truck in the sky unloaded them onto the hillside just moments ago.

They move so easily that there’s been no time for the weather to cover them with sand or soil to seal them together and settle them in to the slope. They have landed in an area bereft of solid shelves or old lava folds that would have created steps, small ridges or other civilized features to help the bipeds along. 
My first encounter with Okanagan scree was on the fabled slopes of Mount Boucherie.  I was trotting happily along, intoxicated by the gorgeous view, and then I was in it. Fortunately,  I didn’t have a cell phone with me to call anyone for assistance or advice, which would have proven how helpless I can be while on a foolish impromptu hike no one else knew about.

My show-off athletic dog couldn’t figure out why I didn’t follow her across the scree in a single graceful sprint. Nimbly perched on a sturdy boulder on the far side of the scree, Kiyah gazed at me and waited. Each time I moved a foot, a cascade of rocks careened noisily down the slope and I had to fight for my balance.  Gads, I thought. What if someone sees me? I was both scared and embarrassed.
To be honest, the years since have kindly erased my memory of exactly how I got off that slope. I suspect I sat down and skidded down feet first until I bumped onto some bunchgrass. This was one of my first introductions to the Okanagan’s wonderful native Bluebunch Wheatgrass.

Bunchgrass is beautiful, deep-rooted enough to allow for astonishingly effective regeneration after fire, and very kind to sliding bipeds. I have a dream-like recollection of grasping gratefully onto a large tuft, returning to an upright position, and making the delightful discovery that bunchgrass will allow your carefully-placed feet to use its sturdy clusters for footholds.
I don’t recall who told me or where I first read about tricks for crossing scree slopes, but a few years later I tried some on Carrot Mountain, and they worked. First, stand on solid ground, examine the degree of slope and look for any sturdy shelves or trees or other objects to safely grasp or rest on. Once you’ve decided you can cope with the steepness – and considered aborting the crossing if it’s too perilous- plan your route before you set foot onto the scree, and prepare to run straight across- if possible, on an animal trail.

I confess to cheating a bit-  that day I sent that show-off  dog of mine across the scree first. She dashed across on a barely visible deer track, dislodging hardly any rock at all. I took a deep breath and raced lightly ( as lightly as a somewhat round middle-aged woman can) across the scree, using exactly the same route.  I found myself proudly upright on the other side. Amazed but feeling my luck should not be pushed, I carefully selected an alternate route down. This wasn’t a good idea, but I made it.
‘If you are going to hike up a steep slope,’ states Rocky Mountain explorer and author J. Leslie Johnson, ‘make sure you are comfortable coming back down the same way.’  Sometimes when you’ve climbed over a difficult set of obstacles to get to your destination high on the hill, it turns out there is no alternative route down. As experienced hikers know and foolish novices quickly learn, it’s amazing how much harder it can be to retrace your moves as you descend the same route you went up.

I’ve learned the hard way that Johnson is right. If it’s still in print, there’s plenty of good advice in her Year 2000 book, Basic Mountain Safety from A-Z, by Altitude Publishing. 
Assorted reminders I’ve been provided with lately:

If you’re driving an SUV or riding a horse up a steep hill, drive or ride straight up rather than traverse or cross the slope. Both vehicle and horse could roll down if they stall or fall. If crossing a steep slope while wearing hiking boots or snowshoes, lean into the hill and cut your steps into the slope, pressing down into the trail or snow to secure your hold with each step. Use hiking poles. Traverse rocky slopes when with a group so you don’t roll rocks onto each other.
It’s been a while since I’ve scared myself silly outside. Lately my husband, the dogs and I have stayed at low elevations on gentle terrain. The ridges and hills are calling me again though. Armed with a map and a little caution and accompanied by good friends, I plan to be back up there soon.






Wednesday, 11 April 2012

a dog tale

On the Wild Side by Deborah Greaves  :   The Dark Gold Dog

Many years ago, when our daughters were in the middle of their school years, I found myself wanting and needing more exercise, and realizing that the most convenient time to walk in our neighbourhood was in the evening. We lived in Nanaimo, life was hectic, and we hadn’t had a dog for many years. I approached the local SPCA with an adoption request, and wrote up my wish list for a canine walking companion. 

Since we’d just taken the milestone step of bravely re-carpeting our entire home with carpet of a pale colour, the colour of the dog’s coat was a consideration, as we don’t keep our dogs outside away from the family. I loved shepherd-type dogs, but our purebred long-haired German Shepherd had suffered horrible back problems, so I asked for a dog that would have a shorter spine. I wanted a low-maintenance coat, a pleasant disposition, yet a formidable appearance. It was a detailed list, and the shelter staff likely had a good laugh over it.  

The first dog they called us to see was completely off the description, as was the second.
The third time they called us, though, the SPCA message was urgent.

“ Call back immediately, please. We need you to make an appointment to see this dog within the next 24 hours.”

I was crabby the day I returned the message. I had a column due, the kids had to go in different directions, and it was hot outside. We were set for another mismatch. Nevertheless, two of my daughters agreed to come to the shelter with me, and there she was. A lithe, dark-gold, black-masked, sort-of-shepherd with partially pricked collie ears.
She raised her ears further when she saw us. She had soft, anxious brown eyes.

The reason the SPCA staff were tense was that they’d shipped this animal all the way from the other end of Vancouver Island because they thought she’d fit my request, and someone else had immediately fallen in love with her. Unbeknownst to me, adoption papers had already been started on this dog, and that person was in an agony of suspense, waiting for my decision.

Several hours later, the dog was home with us, anxiously trying to den under the dining room table on an old blue bedspread. Our family in those days was loud and fractious; the three girls were at various stages and so were their parents. My husband looked into the dog’s dark and worried eyes, and declared her too melancholy for his tastes. In the house, the dog we named Kiyah was submissive and quiet, but our youngest daughter soon developed a relationship with her. My husband softened when the dog curled beside him one afternoon for a shared summer nap.

Since we adopted the dog in summer when the girls were out of school, it was a number of days, maybe weeks, before I had a chance to walk with Kiyah in the forest. Away on a hillside, above the town, I took a breath one day and let her off the leash to run free. 
It was then I discovered who Kiyah really was. I saw her wild side.

This lithe, graceful creature had clearly packed plenty of experience into the first year and four months of the life she’d led in the Alberni valley. She had some shocking skills that could have only been acquired while being on the run: she could flip the lid of a garbage can with a deft flick of her muzzle, she could spot a hole under a fence in a flash and she could jump like a deer.

Over the first year, Kiyah astonished us again and again. In the house, she was almost pathetically submissive to our houseful of ‘alphas.’  Out on the trail, she was an amazing athlete who seemed absolutely fearless. She was a hunter who sobbed with passion while on the heels of a nimble Island rabbit or a deer bursting out of the brush. She was a creature of the forest who leapt over tree trunks and plunged down bluffs for the pure joy of doing it, a dog with a powerful nose who often slammed into a scent like we’d hit a wall and a gladiator who fearlessly took on other dogs when she perceived them as competitors. Outside, Kiyah was a powerhouse. We were often in awe as she flashed through the forest like a golden bullet, running in large circles around us.

It was a bit of work managing a dog with a host of wild tendencies, but Kiyah had enough shepherd soul to want to please us, and we’d earned her respect. Over the years she learned to adapt to a wide variety of situations and activities, and often impressed strangers with her obedience and finesse. Much of the show depended on our astuteness; we’d learned which dogs to steer Kiyah away from, when to keep her on the leash, when not to enter a dog park and when to keep the back of our station wagon closed.

Stop, look and contain was the rule for our lightning-fast dog. We used the leash, a slip-collar and our wits to ensure she didn’t get into trouble. Our reward was a wonderfully healthy, strong and loving dog who often took my breath away when we were out on the trail. It was a privilege to share the world outside with this golden creature who clearly experienced natural land on a multi-sensual level, who adored snow, who loved us deeply.

Kiyah had her cultivated side. She often visited downtown Vancouver, rode elevators, traveled with and without a crate in a variety of vehicles, and met the requirements to become a therapy dog with access to hospitals and nursing homes. She rode in power boats and our canoe. She swam and though it wasn’t on her priority list, retrieved when asked to from both land and water. She could be taught to do almost anything, from riding a chairlift to climbing trees.

Though she wasn’t ‘to type’, we learned from a breeder that Kiyah was all or mostly
of a breed that’s not well known in Canada, a Belgian Malinois. These dogs are highly athletic, often intense, and originally patrolled Belgian mountainsides protecting farms and domestic animals from predators. Some aren’t suitable as pets and they’re often trained as canine anti-terrorism weapons. We were lucky enough to accidentally adopt one of the soft ones, the kind that police and military trainers would have rejected.

Kiyah shared thirteen of her fourteen years with us, and I am not embarrassed to tell you my husband and I had this dog privately cremated. We sprinkled her ashes in four of her favourite places, near trails I continue to walk with our new dog beside me.

Kiyah’s feral jubilance was a delight, and inspired me to spend more time out in the wild places.  My life, and the work I do, was altered by this slim golden dog I must have been destined to meet, and I feel richer for it.