The Border (Collie) of Devotion

Constant Companion: Border collies like Mystic can start enjoying scrambles up Colorado 14ers as early as about one year old. Photo: James Dziezynski

From our vantage point on seldom climbed Engelmann Peak, the great plume of dark smoke rising in the east seemed bizarrely isolated, as if a jumbo jet had crashed in the Colorado foothills. The date was September 6, 2010 and the grim cloud erupting on the horizon would turn out to be the beginning of the catastrophic Fourmile Canyon Fire. The inferno, centered just west of Boulder, would go on to destroy 169 homes and cause over $217 million dollars of damage. For now, it was merely an unsettling, smokey mystery on the horizon.

The morning had started off as a rite of passage for my rescued border collie, Fremont (named after the first major mountain I climbed in his birth state of Wyoming, in turn named for the legendary explorer John C. Fremont). The dog Fremont had celebrated his first birthday five days prior. The rule is not to push puppies on tough hikes until they are a full year old, then to gradually expose them to longer outings. I had cheated a bit with Fremont, taking him up a pair of easy 14ers after his tenth month. Anyone familiar with border collies knows they’re overstocked with energy—they’re headstrong and edgy if they don’t get their exercise. Since Fremont had teamed up with someone who made his living hiking up mountains, we considered the premature learning curve part of the family business.

Our goal that day was to ascend from Watrous Gulch, a peaceful and rarely visited gateway to several rolling 13,000-foot peaks including Mount Parnassus, Bard Peak, Robeson Peak and Engelmann Peak. It was a long outing but non-technical, the perfect foray for a guy and his dog. In autumn, alpine grasses turn a deep crimson and the last hearty wildflowers, shaded purple and blue, create a dreamlike landscape. The relative obscurity of these peaks meant we’d have the entire playground to ourselves.

Winds had been fierce and pushy all day but it wasn’t cold. The sky above blazed cobalt blue with nary a cloud. After reaching our turnaround point on Engelmann, I felt tired and satisfied. Fremont was strong and happy, even as the gusts whipped his fur and caused his ears to flop around like a poorly secured tarp. It was on the return as we skirted Bard Peak that I first saw the smoke. What it would portend made me tense. Judging from its location, it might literally be in my backyard in northwest Boulder. Our small moment of joy evaporated and I picked up the pace, rushing over the summit of the previously climbed Mount Parnassus and down to treeline in Watrous Gulch. Stopping for a minute magnified my fatigue and, worn out from the quick pace, I took an uncharacteristic break, sitting down without removing my backpack—something I rarely do.

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Upward Dogs: The author with Fremont, Sherlock and Mystic on Pawnee Pass. Photo: Bart Deferme

Long mountain days produce a distinct and familiar emotion—a blurry mix of elation, exhaustion, dehydration, peace and weakness that add up to something that makes you want to laugh or cry. It’s a raw, simple feeling. Lost in the moment, I felt Fremont get close to me and gently lean against my back. I had never seen him do such a thing and certainly hadn’t taught him to be my mobile backrest. There was a mature serenity to his expression, as if he had stifled his mischievous instincts and was now in working dog mode. Not entirely certain that my interpretation of his gesture was accurate, I gently leaned into him. It turns out I was right—he was offering me a shoulder to lean on. It was one of those corny, bonding moments you might see in a weepy Disney movie and it was wonderful. My buddy had seen my weakness and offered me his support without judgment. For a moment, I felt like I was in the presence of an enlightened being.

This enlightened being also had a tendency to raid the cat’s litter box and continually misinterpret small children as lost sheep, treating them to a scary but harmless nip when they got a little too spastic. Border collies are smart creatures and Fremont had the added element of unpredictability that comes with any rescue dog. It may manifest itself in a ferocious attack on a snow shovel or a seemingly senseless tackle of anyone foolish enough to try to crank out a chin up on the tempting pull up bar hanging in the doorway. Or it may appear as a sophisticated act of kindness, such as now providing a much needed backrest.

I volunteer at Western Border Collie Rescue (WBCR), a dedicated group that takes in border collies from the entire Rocky Mountain region and diligently finds them their forever homes. Had Fremont not found his way into WBCR as a puppy, he was fated to be sold in front of a Wal-Mart in Rock Springs, Wyoming. Likewise, other dogs are saved from death row from as far away as Kansas and Utah. Many border collies end up in the rescue because they either lack the drive to serve as working dogs or conversely, they are too energetic for owners who have been lured in by border collies’ classic good looks and brainy reputation, yet are unprepared for the demanding time and exercise they require. Though there are some sad stories along the way, most of the dogs find great homes here in the Rocky Mountains—what I see as winning the doggie lottery.

Owning a dog can be an intimidating prospect for someone who thrives on independence and travel. It took me almost a decade of living on my own before I felt I could provide an adequate home for a dog and even then, I was worried about giving them the best possible life. I eased into the process by volunteering at a few rescues before taking the plunge. It remains one of the few truly great decisions I’ve ever made.

Of course Colorado has many breed-specific rescues. And there are many shelters that bring in dogs of all shapes and sizes. Countless mountain mutts have been given a second chance in life through these outlets and it is a good idea to visit your local shelter rather than a breeder to find your perfect canine companion. If you are enamored with a particular breed, Colorado has dedicated rescues for nearly every type of popular dog including labs, golden retrievers, German short-haired pointers, Jack Russel terriers and more.

In our years together, Fremont has grown to be a great adventure companion. To date, he has scaled over 50 Colorado mountains and traveled across the country three times. He has hiked to the highest point in three rather random states: Colorado, Connecticut and Missouri. He’s visited St. Louis, Philadelphia, New York City, Boston, Baltimore and even dipped his paws in the icy ocean waters of Maine. More often, you’ll find us jogging up Mount Sanitas in Boulder or romping in any of the local doggie parks.

Getting back to that auspicious day in the mountains, Fremont and I soon made our way back to the truck and began our drive home to Boulder. News tidbits on the radio began to unravel the mystery and, as we got closer to home, the sky was consumed by the black, ashy cloud. As it turned out, our house was literally right on the evacuation line and ultimately—thankfully—spared from the fiery chaos. I gave Fremont a hug.

If you are ready and your heart is open to the experience, you may be lucky enough to bond with a special dog. The events that bring you to bond with a dog are wild cards (or wild fires) and can range from triumph to tragedy. Bear witness to the quiet grace and understanding of a dog and you’ll begin to understand why so many of us “dog people” are crazy about our pets. Writer Gene Hill has puts it eloquently:

“When I am wrong, he is delighted to forgive. When I am angry, he clowns to make me smile. When I am happy, he is joy unbounded. When I am a fool, he ignores it. When I succeed, he brags. Without him, I am only another man. With him, I am all-powerful. He is loyalty itself. He has taught me the meaning of devotion. With him, I know a secret comfort and a private peace.”

Find that peace, it will change your life—or at the very least give you a backrest when you need it.

Elevation Outdoors contributing editor James Dziezynski is the author of Best Summit Hikes in Colorado. Visit his website mountainouswords.com.

 

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