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How to Run Barefoot with Your Dog
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Ankle-deep mud. My family and I were visiting my parents in rural southeastern Iowa over Christmas vacation. There’s a 1,600-acre refuge nearby, Geode State Park, that is seldom visited, especially in bad weather — we had all seven miles of muddy trail to ourselves. A mile down the trail and the dry creek bed that we usually cross in two strides was running five feet deep with snowmelt. A hard rain pelted down on us.

Daisy had tangled with a wild turkey hen the last time we were here (the turkey, protecting her nest, won) and dog paddled across the creek to seek a rematch, allowing for current and playing the angle like a Labrador Retriever — I’d catch up to her when I got across. I began bushwhacking upstream through multif lora rose to find a way to cross without subjecting myself to a hypothermic ford. I found an 18-inch oak log stripped of bark but coated with fine moss, slick as snot on a doorknob. The oak bridged the ad hoc river five feet above its surface — if I fell, there were limbs to hit before I found myself in the drink. I inched gangplank-style to test the log, adjusting my trim with arms outstretched like wings. My feet contoured to the tree like an ape’s. But it was taking longer than I expected. Halfway through the tightrope act, I remembered Daisy, and called to remind her that we were out here together and not to get too attached to tracking the turkey.

Nothing. Just the “whoosh” sound of the swift creek.

I crept out a little farther and tried not to look at the coffee-colored torrent below. “Daisy!” No dog. Then I felt something, a different kind of wet, on the back of my calf. Daisy’s nose. My half-blind running buddy had circled back, recrossed the creek, followed my scent upstream and followed me onto the slick log. Now I worried more about her — if she fell, her 69-in-human-years body would hit a lot of wood before landing in the fast water, and there was a possibility she’d get tangled in the brush being carried along by the current.

She couldn’t turn around. At least, I didn’t think she should. But her claws gave her the advantage of all-paw-drive. Could she trace the log without close-range eyesight? She had to — I couldn’t step over her. We were both committed to the log walk. I don’t like these situations, am not fond of sketchy heights. But there was nothing to do but inch onward. Daisy followed, and we made it to the muddy bank.

We went back the next day and did it again. Then the day after that. The water had receded, but that didn’t matter. What did matter was that I’d found serious joy in running again. With my favorite running partner. And Daisy’s hardly missed a step in her old age, or maybe it just seems she hasn’t since I’ve gone barefoot.

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This article first appeared in The Bark,
Issue 64: Apr/May 2011
Jon Billman is author of When We Were Wolves. He is a former wildland firefighter and seventh-grade teacher; he now teaches at Oklahoma State University. english.okstate.edu

Photographs by Clay Billman

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