let a dog be my guide

I would like to be lost again. To wander off at will, turning this way and that through the trees until I can't pinpoint my location anymore, until where I am stops being clearly defined in my mind.

I would like to be lost again. To wander off at will, turning this way and that through the trees until I can’t pinpoint my location anymore, until where I am stops being clearly defined in my mind. That’s all it is, the state of not being lost: a thought. A mental image of where I am in relation to my surroundings, in relation to the places I know.

I would like to be lost again with Leshi, my dog who has long become too old for this. We’d follow a game trail here, cut across a wild meadow there, climb up a hill, circle a swamp and bushwhack through the thickest grove of firs where all landmarks would vanish, the sky just a grey smudge straight above.

On our quests of getting lost, I’d stop the careful memorizing of landscape features, wouldn’t add up how far I walked in which direction, wouldn’t scan and compare the area map I have in my head with where I was. I’d keep the compass tucked away below the bear spray and walk like a child, exploring here and there, enjoying little snapshots of scenery without looking at the big picture.

There was freedom in shedding the responsibility of tracking my own movements in my head, in abandoning the hovering watchfulness we keep over ourselves like a mother over a child. I ran away from myself on these walks, abandoned myself to the landscape and the wisdom of my dog. Leshi must have kept track of all of our steps, little pinpricks on the map in her mind that always stayed connected with our starting point.

I loved the moments when I declared myself completely lost, apart from the general knowledge that I was within a one-and-a-half hour walk of our cabin, in a thoroughly roundabout way. In the midst of the thickest tangle of bushes I could find, in the absence of the thinnest ribbon of a game trail, somewhere that wiped out even an educated guess at where north was, I’d entrust myself to Leshi. “Let’s go back,” I’d say. She’d look at me to confirm and swing slowly into the direction of home or wherever we started from and keep walking. No stopping to think about it, no smelling the air or the ground, no listening for sounds.

She must have simply cast an inward look at her mental map of where we were and followed the invisible string that connected our location with where we started from. Actually, she must have done that and also checked for the closest trails that offered the best walking because if there was one, she’d lead me there in a straight line. If not, she’d lead me back home in a straight line, walking slowly and purposefully so that I could follow, checking every now and then that I wasn’t getting truly lost.

She was always puzzled at the praise when suddenly, unexpectedly to me (since I was still lost) the cabin or a trail popped up. Why praise for something this simple, this obvious, she seemed to wonder. Whereas I would wonder how the dog could know where we were when she’d never been there before? She’d lead me through utterly unfamiliar patches of forest, past ponds I’d never seen before and through strange swamps that couldn’t possibly be en route to home, to my mind. To my human, civilized mind that has to build a complicated map by correlating the distances between different objects and calculating in the compass directions.

I’ve stopped getting lost like that since Leshi has become too frail for it. It would be easy enough to take it up again – program some waypoints into a GPS, bring a compass and be guided home by satellite data and the magnetic pole. But it holds no appeal to me since neither the GPS nor the compass spin invisible threads across this wilderness to lead me home. They don’t know the land from the inside, they don’t know me and where I belong.

Of course being lost with Leshi was an illusion, really. I always knew that she was right there and within her, the knowledge of our relation to our surroundings and the places we know.

Lisa Hasselbring is a writer who lives at the headwaters of the Yukon River south of Whitehorse.