Walking the Dog

Capper Nichols

EARLY SUNLIGHT SLANTS across the St. Croix River in Afton State Park. The wind tosses the tops of the silver maples along the water, then slides through the bur oaks marching up the steep bluffs. Near the bottom of the bluffs, on the Minnesota side, an old man and his dog stop in the path and the old man reaches out to lean against a tree. He's seen me heading down and he's waiting. When I come alongside he says, "This damn hill," and I stop.

"It's getting a bit harder lately," he tells me, shaking his head. But the hill doesn't keep him from the riverside, not just yet. The dog provides part of the incentive. "He insists on coming out here," the man says, gesturing at his companion, an ancient animal as high as his knee, with the thick, rectangular body of old dogs. The two of them match, both strong and slow, the man 82, the dog no doubt at least the equivalent in canine years. When the old man points at him the dog gets up and wanders off a few steps, as if embarrassed. He looks none too demanding.

That was the first time I met the old man, and since then our paths cross frequently. A small person, he always wears old bell-bottom jeans and cheap hiking boots, a baseball cap and windbreaker. His face is deeply furrowed, his movements sure and deft. He visits Afton daily, driving out from his home in Woodbury, and hikes about 30 miles a week in the summer, 15 in winter. When the snow's heavy or icy he and the dog settle for a few turns around the edges of the plowed parking lots.

He likes to occupy himself during their walks. When they started coming to the park four or five years ago the man was struck by how much trash lined the trails. He began to bring a plastic bag and collect the trash as they walked along.

"When I started," he tells me, "I filled that bag every day. Potato-chip bags, pop cans, candy wrappers--lots of Milky Ways for some reason. But after a couple years there was hardly ever anything to pick up anymore, mostly just cigarette butts and not even too many of those. Sometimes now I come back with not a thing in my bag." He looks almost annoyed. "I have a theory about this: When people see trash, then they think it's OK to throw trash themselves; but if there's no trash on the ground, then they won't litter." He gives me a firm look that says I should remember this bit of empirical science. Then he repeats his theory, and has continued to repeat it each time we meet.

He always has a lot to say about Afton, a 1,700-acre patch of river bottomland, high bluffs, and rolling prairie just a half hour east of downtown St. Paul. The park is home to scores of deer, and popular with birds, especially in the spring when the warblers and other passerines come through. But any time of year the hills, glens, and fields are busy with wildlife.

"You wouldn't know it now," the old man told me in our first meeting, "but there used to be a lot of foxes in the park--until wild turkeys crossed over from Wisconsin a few winters ago. The rangers were all excited at first, but I told them the turkeys meant the end of the foxes. I know all about turkeys and foxes. After I retired in 1965 I bought a campground down on the Zumbro River--300 acres and 40 sites, when I got it, but 300 sites by the time I let it go, which was right after my wife died." He paused, a ghost of surprise on his face. "Anyway, the DNR asked if I wanted some wild turkeys and I said hell yes, figuring the campers would love that. Now, there'd been a lot of foxes down there, too, but after the turkeys came they started showing up dead. What happened was this: Foxes like eggs, and when they'd raid the turkey nests, the big gobblers would jump on the foxes and with those sharp spurs of theirs rake their backs from head to tail. Those foxes would just lie down and bleed to death. You'd find them later with two long grooves carved in their backs." He nodded once hard, to punctuate the image.

I saw the old man and dog again a couple weeks ago, down along the river. We paused beside a big cottonwood and launched into the usual conversation. I listened attentively while he told how he comes out daily, how the dog insists on the walk, how he picks up trash as he goes along, how he likes the craggy bur oaks. I could tell he remembered me, but just felt compelled to go over the important info again each time we met. Afton, the dog, the cleaning up--these provide shape and pattern, focal points for his open days. After he finished explaining the trash theory, he described his new work. "I've been cleaning dead leaves out of those plastic tubes, you know, the ones for saplings. They get clogged up. It's taken a couple weeks, but I've done the southern part of the park. Now I've got to get up into the northwest corner, and that's more of a trick. Takes me a while to get all the way up there." I pictured the man pushing through the tall and rattly prairie grass, the dog ambling in his wake, the two of them pausing at each tube.

"The thing is," he continued, "I don't want to waste my time while I'm walking him"--he jabbed a thumb toward the dog, who turned away to sniff at some fading poison ivy. "So I look for something useful to do." He gazed down at the path, his eyes searching the ground for stray cigarette butts. We stood together like that for a long, silent minute.

"Well," he said finally, and turned to the dog. The dog made eye contact. "All right, all right," the old man said, and they turned together and walked slowly away.

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