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Expat Life

The phantom hound: Making friends in the Blue Ridge Mountains

By Jeff Van Pelt

I lost my German Shepherd, Klaus, at 11 years from a neurological disorder. Any dog owner knows that is like losing a child and a best friend at the same time. Klaus was my camping and cabin buddy in the mountains of Virginia (USA).

Klaus in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

The Blue Ridge Mountains are one of the jewels of the Appalachian chain. The Shenandoah National Park, and Skyline Drive which runs through it, is beautiful but it is akin to a museum. You can look but you can’t touch. No dogs off leashes, no campfires, no vehicles beyond the parking lots, you need to register at a ranger station to camp.

George Washington National Forest is a different story. There you can drive along the mountain ridges and in the valleys beside rivers, and camp anywhere you like. Cut fallen trees for firewood and get a roaring campfire over which to warm yourself and cook your dinner. Let your dog enjoy his freedom.

When I lived in Richmond, I escaped to the mountains as often as possible. Sometimes I camped out in my truck and sometimes I stayed in log cabins maintained by the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club. Klaus always went along. He knew days in advance when I was planning a trip because I started pulling things out of the garage to take with me.

When Klaus died, the loss was palpable. My first camping trip without him was going to be difficult.

At the camp site.

But I finally decided to do it, and I set out alone. Two hours from my home in Richmond, I turned onto a rocky dirt road in the national forest. One needs four-wheel-drive low for these unimproved fire roads. You go at a crawl and the six miles it takes is almost as long as the previous 100. But it is worth it. Down a dead-end branch road is a campsite under a canopy of trees with a view of the mountains and valleys for miles in two directions.

A couple of miles before reaching the campsite I spotted a hunting dog, a hound of some sort wearing a radio collar. He started following my truck, which wasn’t hard to do at the pace I was going. I stopped and spoke to him, petted him, and told him to be on his way. To no avail. He followed me all the way to the campsite.

A friendly hound.

I later learned that this was pre-bear season; hunters were allowed to let their dogs “run” the bears to train them, but they couldn’t shoot bears – until later.

Truck camping means you can bring a comfortable camp chair, fresh food in a cooler to cook over a fire, a cushy bed in the back of the truck, and a chain saw for cutting firewood. I set about arranging camp the way I like it. Meanwhile, the hound, who was hyperactive, kept following on my heels, nudging me, and jumping up on me. He tried to get into the cooler. He hopped into my bed in the back of the truck, and generally made himself a nuisance.

Camping alone means you have lots of time on your hands, so I set about teaching Huckleberry Hound some manners. I had had a number of dogs and knew how to train one. With a little lunch meat and cheese, I taught him to sit, lie down, not to jump on me or get into my stuff. He wanted to please and quickly caught on. My grief over Klaus was temporarily forgotten.

Hunting dogs are generally kept outside in pens. They are not pets and are not coddled – it is thought that that will make them soft, unwilling to hunt.

This dog was starving for affection from a human. We spent a long weekend together, hiking a bit and just hanging out. I cut some firewood and did some reading while he lay nearby and watched.

On the morning I was preparing to leave, a couple of hunters in a big Ford truck were driving by and stopped briefly to chat. I told them about the dog following me. They looked at him and one of them said “He is mighty well-behaved for a hunting dog.” That made my day.

A couple of hours later I packed up and it was time to leave. Sure enough, Huckleberry started following me again. This time, a couple of miles on I encountered a group of hunters milling around outside their trucks, their dogs in cages in the truck beds. I explained the hound’s situation. Someone said “That is old Emmet Conley’s dog. He’s got a bunch of ‘em up here.” They agreed to hold the dog so I could leave without him following me.

I like to think that Huckleberry’s weekend of being treated with dignity and affection made him unfit for hunting, and so he was given away to a nice family as a pet. It was a fanciful thought.