Back in the 1980s and 70s backpacking was one of my favorite outdoor activities and my dog or dogs went along on most of my trips. As a teen I read novels based in the northwestern corner of the US and dreamed many times of living there. In the mid-70s I was introduced to a beautiful back country area in southwestern Virginia, the Mt. Rogers/Grayson Highlands area, and fell in love with the place. It was how I envisioned a small slice of Montana would look. Mt. Rogers had recently been created a national recreation area adjacent to Virginia’s Greyson Highlands State Park so it was not as popular then as now. Hikers and backpackers would just say they were going to Mt. Rogers, which is where this story takes place.
Being an avid backpacker most of my weekends and vacations were spent on the trail, rain or shine. Cold didn’t keep me off the trail either, though the coldest I have ever backpacked, or camped was only -10° F. This particular trip from the mid-80s wasn’t a cold one though late summer can be cool at that elevation.
My sister was out of town and I was dog sitting her dog Cody. Cody and Doc, my dog, were my hiking companions. Cody and Doc were brothers from different litters and spent a lot of time together. Cody was the mischievous one of the pair, but both were well behaved dogs. Each had their own pack carrying food, dishes, and toys for the trip. They had to carry their own weight. I didn’t have room in my pack for their food not to mention not wanting to carry the extra weight myself.
Our trio hit the trail on a sunny Friday morning after driving up from Charlotte. I had planned to set up camp at one of my favorite spots on Cabin Ridge. We had a long steep uphill hike ahead starting at a short easy section of the Appalachian Trail on the northern side of the recreation area. When hiking with Doc I would have him off leash if there weren’t many hikers on the trail. This day was one of those few hiker days so both dogs were running free. I was hoping they’d run off their extra energy.
Taking a trail at the Old Orchard Shelter cut our hike down to five from eight miles, so we made a right turn. After a steep climb through the mixed fir and maple forest up to the alpine meadows of the Mt. Rogers area we reached the site on Cabin Ridge shortly after noon. All packs came off and I set up camp arranging everything just right. Then sitting down on some padding in the tent was the next priority. That led to stretching out on the sleeping bag, a big mistake, when horizontal sleep comes quickly for me. Awakening from my accidental nap there was silence and the thought crossed my mind the dogs were sleeping. Crawling out of the tent I didn’t see any curled up black furry mounds anywhere around the camp.
Glancing at my watch, it was 3:00 p.m., panic began to rise in my gut. The campsite was at the edge of a fir forest bordering an alpine meadow along a ridge. One could see for miles along ridge lines, seas of dark heavily scented firs and late summer tall brown meadow grass. Looking around and calling and whistling for the dogs brought neither a response nor could any black tails running above the tall grass be seen. The panic increased, Doc normally stayed around camp and never ran off. Cody on the other hand was a little more adventurous and had been known to get Doc into trouble before. After a half hour passed I started methodically hiking different trails and back along each compass point. Asking the few hikers in the area brought no luck on sightings. The area was not as well-known then as it is today so there were not many hikers or horseback riders to ask. Returning to the campsite at sunset without success I crawled into the tent and had the most fitful sleep.
That night was spent waking up every half hour or so all night hoping the dogs had returned then trying to get back to sleep. At daybreak I got up and started looking again hiking in all directions calling and whistling for the dogs again and again wondering what my next move should be. Leaving without the dogs was not an option but eventually I would have to make the two plus hour drive home and go to work. At this point desperation set in.
When returning to camp late in the morning a couple of horseback riders were riding by heading down Cabin Ridge back to Massy Gap. Walking out towards them I hailed them to ask the question posed to everyone encountered during the search. “Have you seen two black labs running loose around the area? Hearing them reply “no,” my heart sank even lower. I turned away and walked back to camp then sat down on a log next to the fire pit to ponder what to do next. About a minute later I hear a voice “Hey fella, are these the dogs?” Standing up and looking across the meadow at the distant horsemen I see two black tails sticking above the tall autumn brown grass heading in my direction. They were coming up from the lower elevations of Massey Gap. Who knows exactly where they had been or what they had been up to. My heart jumped for joy, the dogs were returning from their all-night adventure. Now the dreaded conversation with my sister on losing her dog was no longer necessary and Doc was back too! I was so relieved and exhausted we packed up and headed out a day early, all the anxiety, miles of searching, and stress had made enough excitement for one trip. Both dogs stuck right by my side on the hike out, too tired to romp and roam around during our return.