Dog Days in the Wilderness

When the brown duck swam close, the dog sat higher, alert and tensed in the canoe. She watched intently as the bird passed only feet from the boat's bow on the Adirondack lake, the surface glistening in afternoon sunshine.

But Daisy didn't jump into the green-black water, still warm in early autumn, to chase the duck, or even bark. Soon she lost interest and relaxed, her backside resting securely against my knee, sniffed the wind and looked around in mild interest as we recrossed Indian Lake.

The upside of taking an 8-year-old lapdog into the northern wilderness for the first time is that she's unlikely to go charging off — the kind of thing that can leave a young pet or hunting dog with a muzzle full of porcupine quills, doused with skunk spray, lost in the woods or excitedly tipping your canoe. This dog also liked the water and seemed to enjoy riding in the boat.

"Many dogs do," Rich Macha said. He rented us the 35-pound fiberglass solo canoe at his outdoor shop in suburban Albany. "But you never know."

Taking the pooch on a wilderness trek can be fun and relaxing or a worrisome chore, depending on the dog, how it's been trained and the owner's advance work getting the pet acclimated.

Some animals bring particular challenges. Cal Welch's German shorthaired pointer, Pumpernickel, a sleek animal trained to hunt birds and not sit, stood the entire time while her owner paddled in a stiff wind a few days earlier on the Mohawk River near his Glenville home.

"You couldn't get much more wind. We've almost got whitecaps," the longtime hunter and outdoorsman said. But he kept the canoe upright and both man and dog returned dry.

The downside of having Daisy, an overfed 20-pound cockapoo, in the outdoors, was her unwillingness to push through the alders and tall grass on the lake's far shore for a short bushwhack in the forest. The beech and birch trees shook softly in the wind, the landscape carrying its first burgundy hues shortly before the autumn equinox, with the first frost expected that night.

Instead she sniffed among the rocks on the sandy beach, walked in the lapping water, and didn't wander off.

The best part was her cheerful, uncomplaining company. It was a 90-mile drive west and north of Albany into the south-central Adirondacks. Daisy slept in the passenger seat all the way home.

For most pets, even dogs trained for hunting, there are two basic dangers in the wilderness, and those are encounters with parasites and other animals, said Chris Van Deusen, an outdoor guide who breeds and trains dogs for hunting and water retrieval. He's had dogs get Lyme disease from ticks, bacterial dysentery from swimming in a pond on a South Dakota prairie, a faceful of quills that had to be pulled out, a leg artery cut open from running into a creek bed.

"You just have to be super vigilant," he said. "They think when you're taking them on a walk in the woods, you're taking them on a bike path. ... That requirement when they're on a trail that they be under control is more for the protection of them than for other people."

Van Deusen, who has had several chocolate Labrador retrievers, said he introduces them to boats on dry land. He invites the dog in to play and get comfortable, rocks the boat for the feel of motion on the water. "Like the first time of everything, the first interaction is going to determine whether they're good or bad in it," he said.

Van Deusen has seen dogs introduced to boats on their first duck hunt, tip over and refuse to get back in. He once yelled at a man who had his dog leashed to a canoe gunwale. "I told him, when you turn your boat over, you'll kill your dog," he said.

The campground at Indian Lake Islands in Sabael, N.Y., open through Columbus Day, has 55 campsites along the 14-mile lake's eastern shore and on islands, most reachable only by boat, and frequently full during the summer. On a recent weekday, three were occupied. While you're supposed to make online reservations two days or more in advance, staff said you can also drive to their headquarters and boat launch at the lake's south end and book an available site the same day. They also rent aluminum canoes at $20 for 24 hours.

The Lewey Lake Campground, headquartered a half-mile south on Route 30, has 206 campsites, including two dozen on the western shore of Indian Lake you can drive into. That's where we put in. Both campgrounds are also open for day use. There were few other people on Indian Lake, no motorboats, which grow scarce after the school year starts, and no other dogs in sight.