From the beginning, Pacha was going to be an adventure dog. As a four-month-old pup, she was accompanying us for short walks on trails. After a year, she went on her first trail run with me. From that time, she’s climbed more mountains in the Philippines than the average Filipino — she’s climbed Mt Ugo from every side, Mt Ulap and Mt Pigingan. She’s hiked across rice fields in Uhaj, Banaue, Ifugao, run across mountains in Sagada and Besao, jumped into the rice terraces of Maligcong and even, on one occasion, run with the race leaders of a local trail run up to the summit of Mt Ugo. And last year, she ran her first full 15km trail race with me in the mountains of Rizal, where we placed 12th.
A year after Pacha came into our lives, my wife, Candy, created an Instagram account to chronicle Pacha’s new outdoor adventures — @pachathemountaindog. Soon, other dog owners were asking us through the account for tips on where to go and what to do or if they could come with us on our trips in the mountains.
Last year, we decided we would take a few dogs for a sunrise hike up to our local mountain behind our house. Most of the dogs and dog owners were city animals who lived in the concrete jungles of Manila, where their long walks were taken on the paved streets of Bonifacio Global City. For a majority of the dogs, this would be their first time outdoors on the mountain; this was the same for the owners as well. Pacha is off-leash 99% of the time — something most other owners are too afraid to do with their dogs. But that’s not how dogs are meant to live, and in the mountains, they are presented with the freedom to run to their hearts’ content.
So, with Pacha taking the lead for her city counterparts, the dogs almost literally dragged us up the mountain to roam free. The pack ran with Pacha to the peak while we, their humans, walked at our own pace and caught up later to find them happily panting and waiting for us at the end of the trail.
The process of getting to know wild spaces is often the same for both dog and human. It is a beautiful thing to see: First there is hesitation, and then their first cautious steps into the wild open space. And then you see them find it: this joy that seems to exist naturally in all of us no matter what background we may come from — the joy when the first rays of light hit the dewdrops on the grass; the joy in the smell of earth as the dawn lifts the air from the soil. It is the same for the dogs, as they connect with their instincts and, within seconds of being let go from their leashes, go from being prim city dogs to creatures that are unbound and full of joy. For the humans that accompany their pets on these experiences, it is an eye opener to find how freedom changes their dogs; how being out and about opens up this whole new world for them to explore and unlock a sense of play that did not exist for them in the city.
Calling Pacha’s new (ad)venture Ruffguides, we’ve taken over fifty dogs now to the mountains — and the effects, with one or two exceptions, are the same for all. It is life-changing for both dogs and humans, as they’re both reminded that the wild is both free and freeing.
A tribute to Snowy
I wasn’t exactly your typical dog-loving person in the beginning. For many years, I was that errant cyclist or runner that dogs would automatically chase down and bark at. To me, dogs all had to serve a purpose — they had to be guard dogs generically named Bantay. I’d never formed any emotional connections with any of the many dogs who had guarded our home.
This was my view of our furry friends until I went on a trek with Candy through the Dientes de Navarino mountains in the Antarctic region of Chile. We met a dog that changed all that — a white mutt that followed us as we walked out of the small town of Puerto Williams into the Dientes mountain range. Despite our attempts to shoo him away, he just trotted behind us at a respectful distance, just happy to be outdoors.
Once we crossed the tree line, we realized that we were in for an adventure. It started snowing and pretty soon we were caught in a blizzard and could only see a few feet in front of us. This was one of the remotest treks we’d ever done, and the blinding snow could have had us walking around aimlessly for hours.
But then a furry white tail popped up in front of us, and we followed that friendly sight. It was the white dog, who soon led us into a wooded grove sheltered from the storm where we were able to safely set up camp for the night.
The next day, we walked to the next camp a few hours away in what can only be described as four seasons of weather in a few hours. The dog — who we had now started to call Snowy in reference to Tintin’s dog in the comic books — walked with us. At the camp we met a few other hikers, some of whom were heading back down because of the bad weather. We asked if they would take the dog, as we did not have enough supplies to feed him. But no matter how much we tried to coax him away, Snowy wouldn’t leave my side and would follow me everywhere I went in camp. That night, as it snowed heavily again, we had Snowy sleep in our tent.
The next morning, we decided that we would head back down as well, but by a different route through the forest and lakes. This time, I completely trusted Snowy’s trail guidance. I walked where he walked, followed where he led. Hours later, we walked out of the forest and found ourselves on the edge of town. Instead of walking straight back into town that night, we decided to camp out with our guide, Snowy, for the last time on the edge of the forest. That night we (Snowy included) ate all of our remaining rations — it was as good a feast as we could manage.
The next morning, we walked slowly back into town with Snowy beside us, and we wondered whether we should try and follow him home or just let him go — he was our guide and our savior on the trek. But as we stepped back into the first row of houses of Puerto Williams, we looked beside us, and he was gone.
That hike with Snowy changed how I saw dogs, so when we got back to the Philippines, I decided that I wanted a dog like Snowy. Someone that would accompany me in the mountains, be my guide and train with me. And so, more than a year later, Pacha entered our lives. Pacha’s name is a tribute to Snowy; “Pacha” is short for “Pachamama”, which is the name for Mother Earth in the languages of the Andean people.
And so Pacha has lived up to her name, and to the memory of Snowy. She’s our ambassador of the outdoors, making the idea of going out amid nature much less daunting for city folk. She’s been so successful at it that it’s exceeded our expectations.
On one occasion, we had what can only be described as a “salon dog”. The owner, a hairstylist, came in with a Pomeranian named Hershey. Hershey was perfectly prim, hair groomed and washed, and wearing a cute collar. And he had never been outdoors — even in the city, he was walked in a stroller. Yet, off-leash up on Mt Yangbew in La Trinidad, he ran as if he knew this was his home. It wasn’t even a matter of relearning how to run this way: All dogs already know how to be outdoors, and all they have to do is find themselves on a mountain off-leash and be given the freedom to roam.
Often on our Ruffguides tours, we get one or two dogs that are unsocialized — dogs that commonly do not play well with others — or owners, for that matter, who are unable to let their dogs go further than their leashes will let them. One of those dogs was Manny, a Samoyed from Manila. A day before our hike, Manny was aggressive and didn’t play well with other dogs. In the morning, walking through the fog, you could almost see him change into an entirely different animal altogether. On the leash, he was like an aggressive fighter trapped in a corner; untethered, he ran free playing with all the other dogs on the hike, even being the first to roll around playfully on the grass.
Likewise, the humans who accompanied the dogs would also show a slow shift as we climbed the mountain. At the start, they would keep their dogs close, often pulling on the leash, or being pulled as they want to keep their dogs within a small perimeter. As the mountain often breaks their invisible barriers, the humans also learn to let go little by little, even as the mountain forces them to let go of their dogs and trust that they will come back. Later on, they find that the leash was never needed on the hike in the first place, and both dog and human are rewarded; the latter as they see how happy their dogs are freely roaming the open spaces with their new friends.
I often take for granted how easily we can access the wild spaces here where we live and forget that this is a gift that needs to be shared. And now, with Ruffguides, Pacha is sharing this gift of the outdoors to many who have yet to reconnect with nature. Sometimes, all it takes is learning to let them go, and they will discover that they’ve always known how to be free.
This article first appeared in the April 2019 issue of Smile magazine.