Amazing dog guides – a 2 100 mile long trek!

Narrated from: Dog Stories

Can you trust a dog?

Well, it depends on the dog of course. However, if you believe that dogs are not worthy of your trust, then here is a story to prove you wrong!

There was once a person called Bill Irwin. He had a simple dream – to walk the Appalachian Trail!

Do you know what the Appalachian Trail is? It is a marked hiking trail extending from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine – that makes it over 2 100 miles long! The Appalachian Trail takes you directly through the wilderness, generally sticking to regions at an altitude of about 900 meters, and reaching more than 2 000 meters in some mountainous regions.

The trek is deemed relatively safe, though it is rather long – navigation is quite easy, since the whole track is marked with white paint blazes, usually painted on trees. And of course, there are similar blue blazes, indicating nearby shelters, viewpoints, etc.

Piece of cake, eh?

That is, of course, if you can see the markers.

Which brings us back to Bill Irwin, who, sadly, was deprived of the ability to see the markers – or anything at all, for that matter. A disease had left the man with only basic light perception, and no visual acuity.

However, in 1990 this blind man, who was aged 50 at the time, decided to brave the Appalachian Trail in its full length. And it was a brave thing indeed, for he started the trek all by himself – if you do not count his guide dog, of course!

Bill Irwin entrusted his life to his loyal companion, a German Shepherd dog called Orient. Orient would help Irwin to negotiate the difficult terrain, and Bill’s loving son had tried to solve the navigation problems by making a guidebook recorded on audio cassettes.

However, it turned out that Orient quickly picked up the basics of hiking. "Orient developed a sense and feel for the Trail," noted Irwin. "Many times he would get us back on the Trail when we got lost by picking up the scent of other hikers.” Irwin even believed that halfway through the journey, Orient was already able to recognize the significance of different hiking markers.

The duo was truly a sight to see for their fellow hikers, and of course, everyone rooted for brave Irwin and his dog. Naturally, people started calling them “the Orient Express”. They were quite famous, and there were always comrades willing to assist them in the rare cases when Orient lost his orientation.

Of course, it was no easy journey. Several times Irwin became hypothermic, as at higher altitudes the temperatures got really low. “There were times when I could not untie my shoes, take the cap off my head, or feed Orient. At times I lost total control of my hands because I was so cold. Had I been alone, I would not have made it," Irwin recalls.

Orient faced problems of his own – the rough, snowy terrain was really bad for the dog’s feet, and sometimes the duo had to camp for days while his wounds healed.

However, they managed to do it. Through rain, wind and weather they walked one of the longest hiking trails in the world, and on November 21, 1990 – the day before Thanksgiving - arrived at the base of Mount Katahdin in Maine's Baxter State Park. The journey had taken them more than 8 months.

Later on, in his book, Bill Irwin would unveil the secret of his incredible accomplishment.

"There were times when Orient lost his footing and I could steady the leash attached to the dog's guide harness before he fell and there were other times when Orient helped to prevent me from falling."

“It was truly a team effort."

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