Last Thursday I was hiking with Hilde when she got “porcupined” right in the mouth. It’s common in the outdoor community to write up an accident report when something goes wrong, so that your mistakes can help others avoid them in the future. Luckily in this situation no people were in danger, but I figured it would still be helpful for those of you who travel in the backcountry with dogs. Here goes!
Date: September 17, 2015
Location: Walrod Gulch Trail 412, Gunnison National Forest
Names: Alyssa Pelletier, 24f / Hilde, 2f Bernese Mountain Dog
Hilde and I set out for a ~2.5 hour hike / run around 3:30pm. While we hiked, Will would bike the Reno-Flag-Bear-Deadman’s Gulch trail, an ~18 mile loop starting from the same trailhead. After hiking and biking, we would all rendezvous at the Cement Creek Campground, where we’d left the bus.
The start of our hike was wonderful. The aspens are starting to turn, there was a slight chill in the air, and the elevation we gained afforded us some breathtaking views. I hiked rather slowly, as I still have some pain in my left foot, and Hilde zoomed all around. We followed the Cement Creek Road to #406, the Warm Springs Trail, then continued onto #412 and #405.3A, the Walrod Gulch Trail.
I intended on taking the small non-motorized ridge trail from the #412 / #405.3A junction to meet back up with #406 without having to retrace our steps. There was a sign at the junction indicating that nothing with wheels should proceed past the sign, but since we were on foot I thought we were ok. Someone had laid several large downed trees across the junction, presumably to keep the motorcycles from accessing the trail.
Hilde and I hung out at the junction for a moment then decided to proceed down the trail. Up and over one log, no problem. Hilde was two steps ahead of me, and as she leaped over the second log she immediately spun around – something had caught her eye under the log. As she went in to investigate it became clear that that something was a porcupine, and he was not happy to have her nosing into his space. Faster than I could realize what was going on, the porcupine had snapped her with his tail and she was off like a shot, yelping and running to try to escape the pain. I carefully dismounted the tree (no use getting both of us quilled) and called her to me. Luckily she came straightaway; good dog!
I tried to assess the damage to see if I could help, but it was useless. She had quills all over her lips, tongue, and the roof of her mouth. The longer I stood still, the more she thrashed and pawed at her face. The only thing that kept her calm was running. As soon as we turned around, she got the message: get home, ASAP. I would like to say I ran Hilde down the trail, but really I was just trying to keep up. She knew exactly which way to go at each junction and ran as fast as she could, even when I was begging her to slow down.
We passed several people who I hoped might be willing to give us a ride to town, but nobody was able to help. Just before arriving at the bus I talked to a group of men who were sure they could subdue Hilde and pull them out themselves. Reluctantly, I let them try. Three grown men couldn’t hold her down – she’s stronger than she looks!
Finally I arrived at the bus, hastily unlocked the door, and started it up. As the air pressure charged I remembered to turn off the propane, scribbled a note to Will that said “HILDE + PORCUPINE // WENT TO VET, WILL CALL WITH DETAILS” and headed out. I had to turn the bus around on a dirt road by myself, but within a few minutes we had made it down to the regular road.
Embarrassingly, I hadn’t followed my own advice on looking up the emergency vets nearby. Luckily I had service, so I was able to call my sister Amy who got on her computer in San Francisco and found me a vet in Gunnison, about a 30 mile drive.
I hopped on the highway and cruised down to Gunnison. I watched Hilde in the mirror and every time she started to paw her face I used my loudest, meanest voice to startle her into doing something else. We made it to the vet right after closing, banged on the door, and they took pity and let us in. Within 5 minutes they had her sedated, and had all of the quills out within 20 minutes.
After she woke up, we paid ($283, what a deal!) and headed back to Crested Butte. Amazingly, Will had just finished his bike ride plus the additional dirt road ride back down to Crested Butte South and was waiting for me right at the turnoff – perfect timing.
WHAT WENT WELL:
- Learning to drive the bus on dirt roads. Lately, I’ve been trying to drive the bus more so that I would know what to do in an emergency. Bingo! I am so glad the last few days have been spent teaching me to navigate big muddy holes and burly cattle guards.
- Staying calm. I started to get a bit agitated when trying to figure out the plan of action right after Hilde got quilled, and it was immediately apparent that she was picking up on my energy. She started thrashing, pulling on the leash, and smashing her head into the ground. I knew that pulling or carrying her 3 miles to the road was not an option, so I tried to make my voice as level and calm as possible. As we ran out I carried on a steady stream of mindless chatter. I know she can’t understand me, but she was much more responsive when I was calm and collected rather than on the verge of tears.
- Being decisive. From the moment Hilde was quilled to when we arrived at the vet, there was not a second that we weren’t in motion. The vet said this was good because the longer the quills are in the dog the more likely they are to break or migrate to harder to find locations. Not to mention, we barely caught the vets as they were on their way out the door – waiting longer might have meant not finding a vet at all, which would have been devastating.
- Preparing ahead of time. I wasn’t looking forward to taking the bus and stranding Will, but I wasn’t willing to waste extra time trying to hitchhike down to Gunnison. I knew that Will had his credit card & ID, rain jacket, and headlamp, so even if he had to bike a few(~10) extra miles back to Crested Butte, he would survive. Luckily it didn’t come down to that, but it was nice knowing he wouldn’t be totally stranded.
IMPROVEMENTS FOR NEXT TIME:
- Look up the damn emergency vet! I absolutely can’t believe I didn’t look up the local emergency vet ahead of time – it’s my own advice, and I didn’t take it. You can bet that vet lookup will be the first thing we do for all of our travels from here on out.
- Be more aware. I now know that dusk in the fall is possibly the worst time to be poking around the less-traveled brushy areas around Crested Butte – the porcupines are out in force. This isn’t to say that we absolutely should have avoided this trail, but it is a good reminder to brush up on common dangers when you’re visiting new places. Next time, I’ll make a point to ask around to see if there’s anything unusual that we need to be aware of.
I have a hunch that some people might point to this incident and say: this is why your dog should always be on a leash!! The funny thing is that this particular incident would have happened whether Hilde was on her leash or not. Actually, if Hilde had been on her leash (and thus behind me, which is a little easier for me) there’s a good chance that the porcupine would have gotten ME instead of her – I would have come down right on top of it as we went over the log!
However, it’s important to understand that lots of bad things can happen to dogs when they’re off leash, and the more time your dog spends off leash in the backcountry, the more likely they are to encounter a hairy (or spiney?) situation. That being said, 99% of the hikes we go on end happily, and there’s no way I could take this happiness away from my girl for fear of danger in the woods.
Though we do our best to mitigate risk, there’s always the chance for things to go horribly wrong. Will and I acknowledge and accept this risk as a necessary component to being wild and free in the mountains – they just wouldn’t be the same without a little danger. If Hilde could talk, I think she’d say the same. Here’s to future adventures!