Off the Leash


I’ve had Henry, a big handsome alpha dog, for the last two years. People say he’s badly trained. I’m not sure. Like the other members of my household, Henry definitely has a will of his own and yanks me around sometimes on the leash, but I often find him surprisingly delicate and polite in situations where he might be expected to be difficult to control.

In any case, Henry is a big responsibility and requires a serious walk off the leash every day. So he and I generally head to the many acres of woods owned by Skidmore College.

Shadblow adding a rosy glow

Before we got Henry, I didn’t spend a lot of time in the woods. My experience of nature was all about gardening. My family would want to hike on a weekend, and I always would rather be gardening.

Even when my shovel was at rest, I always preferred being in gardens, too, to most woods–unless something really spectacular was happening, such as a waterfall beside the trail. I really like gardens, and the more artificial, the better. Some of my favorite things: hybrid tulips in crazy shapes and colors, shrubs clipped into lollipops and cubes, and outrageous tubers such as dahlias and cannas. I love vegetable gardens in part because even the humblest is intensely geometrical.

But since Henry, I’ve really been appreciating the beauty of a perfectly ordinary second-growth or third-growth scrubby Northeastern wood. Yeah, there are some wildflowers here in spring, but they tend to be of the unexciting kind, trillium rather than sanguinaria. Yeah, there are some mushrooms, but no boletes that I’d bring home for soup.

The details of this place are not very interesting, but the experience is nonetheless very nice.

Crunchy underfoot

I like the way the woods smell and the fact that even on the hottest day, the air underneath the trees is crisp. I like the woods in all seasons–and getting out into them at noon in January or February works to stave off the winter blues. I like the fact that Henry smiles when he’s in the woods.

I also like the fact that I am not responsible for these woods. As a gardener, I feel an odd sense of leisure in a place that doesn’t need me to weed or mulch it.


  1. Well said! And just reading this makes me miss the woodland path that led from my old garden. But there are woods just across the street from me now and I just need to go introduce myself to them. Tomorrow night there’s some pumpkins+spookiness event taking place in the woods, and I go get me some of that, plus the wonderful crunchiness.

  2. Love this post — thanks so much for sharing! I love to walk in the woods — clears my head and the dogs love it so much! I agree with you, before having the dogs, I didn’t even venture into my yard much. But since, I spend as much time outdoors as I can while the weather’s good.

  3. I’m am the opposite. I would so much rather be for a walk in the woods than working in the garden. I live in an urban environment so my garden is my little refuge where I get to listen to the bees. Though I too had issues with the northeastern woods at first. I grew up in the west where there are vistas and you can see through the trees to everywhere else. Here I found it claustrophobic. But I eventually got over it and now enjoy the green tunnels. Or the yellow, red, and brown tunnels.

  4. I’m lucky in that 20 steps from my front porch is a patch of state owned property that looks just like those photos. Twice a day, no matter what the weather is doing, the hound and I have to “go on patrol”. This time of year the only problem is illegal deer hunters. I’m not against hunting and the local herd could use a good thinning – its just that I hate having to wear the neon orange to keep from getting shot.

    My dog is similar to yours, more the color of those fallen leaves and a “she” and she’ll be 14 next Spring. I have warned everyone that the funeral, when it happens, will be in those woods somewhere along our favorite trail and that within hours I will be heading to the pound for my next hiking partner.

  5. I miss being able to walk my dogs in the Michigan woods. We could let them off leash and they would tear down to the river, jumping in immediately, even when they had to crack through the ice in January. They would chase deer up and down the hills. They loved every minute of it, tails wagging and tongues lolling.

    There is nothing quite like a long walk in the crisp autumn air mixed with the smell of downed leaves.

  6. I have, somewhat grudgingly, come to appreciate the North Carolina woods. They’re not the kind I grew up with in Oregon, and they seem very…dead…by comparison. Hardly a fern to be found! All this leaf-covered ground with nothing GROWING.

    But they possess a certain elegance nonetheless, and in fall I warm up to them even more.

  7. I love the scent in redwood forests. In the Bay Area, we have access to many.

    I just am not sure I want to live across the road from one, as we do get fires. When we were looking to buy our first house, I was shown
    •a shingle-roofed house
    •shedding pine trees all around
    •little non-filtered light
    •across the highway from a redwood forest
    •damned uuuuhhhhgly and dim interiors (SAD here)
    •only one way out of that neighborhood, and it went to the highway between that cluster of houses, where you might flee a fire safely if you went south on it. But only “might”.

    The realtor didn’t understand why I didn’t like it, until I listed all the safety issues. Due to allergies, we needed to be at least two blocks away from any ewwwwcalyptus and the local acacia (which smells foul to me, along with the ewwwwcalyptus and St. John’s Bread/carob trees, and some ornamental pear my dorm had planted).

    I’d love a property where I could safely-away-from-the-house plant a copper beech, a Cedar of Lebanon (my mother’s side of the family), and a large circle of redwoods. Of course, I might need a walled garden to prevent the rodents on hooves from eating my garden.

  8. “I also like the fact that I am not responsible for these woods” I understand this completely. I have always been taken with Venice. Only recently did I rea lize that its because there are no green spaces. Nothing about it reminds me of work.

  9. I love walking, and running and biking in the woods. I love having my little dog run with me on his leash. I understand that dogs need lots of exercise, but after having my leashed dog mauled by an unleashed dog, and myself being bit last week by two dogs who were happily enjoying disturbing the very wilderness that we are trying to maintain, well….I am not a fan of the unleashed dogs. I love dogs, I have always loved dogs, I am now at the point where I am fairly terrified of any dog not on a leash, or even on a leash, because there are owners who can’t control them even then.

    Last weekend while happily running through the woods, a snarling Weinmaraner came flying out of the underbrush, looking ahead on the trail we spotted the owner, not calling his dog, we continued, nearly got to the owner, and then was bit on my left buttock. He had two dogs that he was not controlling. We were also walking my dog in another nice wooded area when a “happy” dog came up to us. The owners came along eventually, but the dog decided that he would start playing with my dog with his teeth. Not okay. My children have been attacked on their bikes by unleashed dogs on trails. Somehow people think their dogs have a right to freedom, over the rights of other’s safety.

    I’m not saying that your dog isn’t friendly. He might be, and he might not be when he is excited. Some of the attacks that I have had are a very big surprise to the owners.

    There are also many animals, and birds (nesting and not) in the woods that the purpose of the wild area is trying to maintain. When you let an unleashed domestic dog, many of which were bred to hunt, loose in a wilderness area, it disrupts populations.

    Sorry to be such a party pooper, because I do understand the joy of it. But it really isn’t the responsible thing to do.

    • Lisa,

      I have to agree with you on your post.

      I am the owner of 2 small dogs who are always leashed because–guess what–they do NOT like most other dogs. They will attack other dogs if suddenly confronted.

      It isn’t that they are “aggressive”, it is that they are terrified and feel like they have to defend themselves. You really can’t fault a dog that weighs less than 20lbs trying to defend itself from 80lbs of jumping, bouncing Labrador.

      I hate off leash dogs in public areas because I am always scared they will run up to my dogs and my dogs will attack them. Then I will be the one to blame, I will be accused of having viscous dogs, when really I was the one being responsible.

      I guess my point is: To the off-leash dog owners, you have no idea what other dogs are out there on the trail. Those dogs could be aggressive. If you do not have a close handle on your dog, it could be attacked in another area and you will not be able to help it. If your dogs hurts another person or dog, you might be legally responsible and your dog could be put down as a result. Don’t risk it!

  10. I grew up surrounded by this sort of woods. There’s something soul-quieting about being in a place that requires nothing of you, and every day offers discoveries big & small around each bend in the path. Think I need to go find some woods around my adopted home that offer the same experience.

  11. Lisa, I have to agree. I have a big dog who doesn’t get along with other dogs. She’s always on a leash and usually heeling at my side. I hate when we run into an off-leash dog. I understand people want their dog to have some freedom and exercise, but who knows what they’ll encounter.

  12. Lisa: Thank you for sharing your experiences, though I’m sorry you’ve had to deal with so many irresponsible humans and their uncontrolled dogs. I am in favor of off-leash areas in parks. My taxes help support several such areas in Seattle, where I live. However, in forests, on beaches, in the mountains, if dogs are allowed, they should always be on a leash. There is so little habitat left for wildlife (compared to the areas now used for buildings, roads, airports, mines, sports fields, farming, etc.) that wild creatures need to be free from harassment and predation by humans and our companion animals. I applaud my many friends who have benefited greatly from their daily dog walks (using a leash) and my friends whose feline companions live indoors. I’ve put chicken wire over my vegetable garden beds to protect my food from cat poop. Competing agendas area a real challenge.

  13. I can understand the comments about unleashed pets. There used to be a time when those animals were under voice command from their owners. Now we have too many people who haven’t taken the time to properly train their dog and mayhem ensues.

  14. Reading this made me sigh with pleasure thinking of all the wonderful hikes I’ve had in the woods with my dogs. In the midst of a frustrating day, a good hike can get everything back in order in my mind. And having a canine companion can increase the pleasure of feeling at peace with the world. Somehow as you’re going along noticing the wonderful changes in the seasons and the weather, you know they are noticing these things too. Having the dogs tired is great, and makes the rest of the day more manageable. Having my dogs with me also makes me feel safe from all the human weirdos out there. I don’t think I’d ever hike alone without them. I’ve also nearly been attacked by a very scary pit bull whose owner thought it was so funny her dog had to prove his “alpha dog”ness by pinning my dog to the ground. So many themes here: wilderness vs cultivated garden, unleashed and natural (and wildly fun, and great exercise) vs. leashed and controlled (and conscientious and safe). I suppose the best thing is to take the dog to a place where other dogs aren’t and make sure s/he stays within sight and comes when they’re called.

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