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I picked Tessi up so Helen could take a picture of us against the blue sky and the green tapestry below. As Tessi held me tightly, her nails dug into the back of my neck, one fiercely piercing my skin. I let her stay that way as I kept a smile on my face for the camera. When I looked at the picture later, I noticed how huge Tessi's eyes were. Maybe I shouldn't have taken her up the 31 m (100 ft) tower, though she had started the climb enthusiastically. Once we reached the bottom - I had carried her as we descended the last half of the staircase - she was happy to receive plenty of attention from others passing by; the climb was forgotten.

At the Dorset Fire Tower Park, the lookout tower looms 142 m (466 ft) above lake level, giving a memorable 803 sq km (310 sq mi) viewing radius of tree carpeted hills dotted with lakes. The park was one of the first places we explored during our visit to the Huntsville area of the Muskoka region of Ontario.

The Arrowhead Inn

We stopped at the Arrowhead Inn, owned by Herta and Tristan Thomm, on our arrival in Huntsville, so we could unload the car and get settled into the room we would reside in for two nights. We were then ready to delve into discovering what was hidden in the unending forests.

Before leaving, however, I had a chat with Herta. She and her husband are dog-friendly people, owning two themselves. Included in the response to my email sent for information was "no extra charge for the 35 lb mix and also very welcome at our location."

Herta told me how she and her husband generally allocate a couple of rooms for people accompanied by dogs. She said that out of 40 canine guests, maybe three prove to be a problem. Throughout the year, agility events can bring 20 or more dogs at a time to their motel. Herta has excellent cleaning equipment for the rooms, so people coming later wouldn't know an animal had been there. For extra sensitive guests, she'll make sure a couple of rooms get aired out for a month or so.

Canines are to be leashed at the sides and front of the motel. There is a generous area out back where they are allowed to run free, if they have good call-back. Garbage pails and poop baggies are conveniently placed at the sides. I let Tessi have some off-leash freedom before we headed out to find the Dorset Fire Tower Park.

Scary Heights and Steep Slopes

The park was easy to find and after paying the $4 charge, I drove the car up the hill to the parking area. Andrea, the woman working at the park store, stopped us to take a picture of Tessi. She loves dogs and likes having pictures of the ones visiting. I spent some time chatting with her before we headed to the tower. She told me she had lived in the Yukon for five years, which she loved and misses immensely. She and her pooch, Caden, used to enjoy amazing nature walks on endless trails in and outside of Whitehorse, from the lower to upper benches into the high country and sometimes to the top of the surrounding mountains.

Somehow our conversation led to a discussion of the problem of discarded broken glass, which seems common everywhere and easily found by naked paws. I was surprised when Andrea told me it was even an issue in the natural region of the Yukon. I found that out when I told her Tessi has cut her paws a few times on broken glass hidden throughout the village where we live. Even at the tower, Andrea often picks up glass shards.

I talked to her again after the tower climb. She gave me an alcohol swab for the wound on my neck. I felt like such a mean mom for taking Tessi up the stairs; however, I'm used to her willingly joining me on my adventures. Andrea said that most people leave their dogs below when they climb the tower. Some of the dogs then spend the time whining while their family is gone. I've since found in my research that only 60% of human visitors climb the 128 steps to the top of the tower. Hurray for Tessi for reaching the top.

She was very happy once we were hiking the park's 2.3 km (1.4 mi) trail. It reveals the area's precious array of trees and plant life, offering various types we don't see in the scattered Carolinian forests at home. An interesting variety of ferns and fungi littered the forest floor, shooting up from twisted tree roots and old fallen trees. I was inspired to make almost constant use of my camera while we walked. (I used to love taking close-up pictures in nature, but hadn't done so in years.) Holding a leashed Tessi in one hand and taking steady pictures with the other proved a challenge, especially on some of the rougher terrain. I noticed Tessi loved the change in scenery as well; she was eager to sniff most of the plants we passed.

In compliance to the sign over the store's door, I kept Tessi leashed. I didn't want to chance her going after bears anyway. I would like to think we'd have seen any if they were around, as the trees were spread out. The trail gradually worked its way downhill. A section of large rocks was tricky to climb over, with the blazes being the only indication we were still on a trail. We came close to a highway before the trail turned to head back up the hill. The information on the map wasn't lying when it said that part of the route was very steep. We struggled our way up to get back to the tower area.

Tessi, in her usual impatience, spent most of her time during our hike at the other end of the stretched leash. This actually helped keep me stable as we went over the rocks and up the steep hill. I'm not sure if I agree with the classification of the trail I had read, which said it is moderate in difficulty. Maybe it was averaging out the steepness of last section with the ease of the first. We questioned the definition of moderate during our hike, though it was an enjoyable challenge and well worth the effort.

Peek-a-Boo Rock, a lookout we happened upon once we returned to the tower area, took us down a few easy steps to a chain link fence blocking a sudden drop. The view was another of the lakes and trees. By this time the sun was low in the sky, treating us to beautifully lit forested hills.

Oxtongue Rapids and Ragged Falls

The next day, we searched for a couple of picnic areas with water features, which were indicated as being right beside Highway 60 (the main highway between Huntsville and Algonquin Park) on our tourist's map. As we drove, first looking for Oxtongue Rapids, we eventually saw a sign stating "Oxtongue Rapids Park Road" on a paved side road. When the road turned to dirt, I realized we were heading to another destination that seemed to be in an obscure place. I was reassured we were heading the right way when the road met up with a lively river. We soon saw a picnic table under a shelter and a portable toilet. If all those names weren't etched into the shelter's posts, I'd wonder if anyone ever went there.

A row of trees divided the river and road. Making sure Tessi stayed on the river side, I let her loose. I didn't want her wandering into the woods on the other side. She stuck close to either me or Helen, who wandered upstream a bit. I also didn't want Tessi to be tempted to go in the water for a drink, as I didn't know how strong the currents were. She must have sensed the river wasn't safe to wade in since she took a drink while standing on the bank.

After many pictures taken by Helen and me, we left the rapids to find Ragged Falls. Once back on Highway 60, we continued east toward Algonquin Park. We passed another Oxtongue Rapids Park Road sign, giving me the feeling the long road would have eventually come back out to the highway if we had followed it through instead of coming back the way we came.

We were very close to the water churning and rolling...

Ragged Falls turned out to be in a provincial park, where a trail meanders through the woods, partly skirting the bluff overlooking Oxtongue River. Our first sight of the falls was at a distance and blocked by trees. Eventually, we were treated with a better view as we moved closer, though trees still tightly framed the vista. At this point, the cliff's edge was safely fenced.

The trail led us to a compelling outcrop along the top of the falls. In this section, fencing was nonexistent. I kept Tessi leashed, as I had so far, while we climbed around the outcropping. We were very close to the water churning and rolling its way around and over rocks, before escaping to the bottom of the cliff. To be so close to the tempestuous river was thrilling.

Our hike continued to hug the river. The water ran quiet most of the way, with the occasional rapids. We walked until we saw a "hunting in progress" sign. Not knowing if it was still valid, we turned back. We returned to the car with the satisfaction of enjoying another hike where we continued to see a wide diversity of foliage - and smells for Tessi.

Memorial Park Trail

After a lunch break at the motel, we stayed in Huntsville to hike one of the many recreational trails in the area offering a variety of lengths. We chose the shorter 1.2 km (less than a mile) Memorial Park Trail. It starts off following the Muskoka River on one side and an old railroad track on the other. I found the directions the tourism pamphlet gave us to be confusing. We took a couple of wrong turns before we got our bearings. We knew it led to Lion's Lookout, which we eventually found. The walk from the lookout was on even terrain through the woods, except for a 300 m (984 ft) steep climb (a warning was stated in the pamphlet). The pathway then opened to a playing field hemmed in on two sides by walls of jagged rock. An opening in the trees on the other side of the field got us back on the path, taking us to a secondary road. A hike down the hill led back to the starting point in time to find supper.

Who is Having the Accidents?

We decided to try Chinese takeout from the Kings Buffet restaurant. Back in the motel room, while carefully cutting my crispy sweet and sour chicken balls, I was thinking about how Herta had mentioned to me that she wishes when a dog does have an accident that the owner would tell her.

Just then, one of the chicken balls slipped under my knife and went flying across the table and unto the floor, leaving a bright pink saucy trail. Luckily, I cleaned it up before it stained. Just as I mentioned to Helen to be careful, one of her chicken balls went flying across the table and down the curtain. We were lucky to erase that pink path, too. It would have been sadly ironic to tell Herta we made a mess, not Tessi.

Happy Tails Camp and Resort

Tuesday morning, I had planned a visit with Lisa Brooks from Happy Tails Camp and Resort, located about eight km (five mi) outside of Huntsville. I had met her at Woofstock and was interested in learning more about her facilities. Though I never like to leave Tessi anywhere, if I did this would be the place. Dogs have a freedom here they probably only imagine in their dreams. The camp features a wooded lot where they can freely sniff through grass or chase squirrels. A spring-fed pond gives the dogs a place to swim. Inside, doggy bedrooms lead into a common area where a snooze can be enjoyed in front of a fireplace.

Tessi and I accompanied Lisa to the top of a knoll overlooking the pond. Lisa called to her canine guests, which brought them rushing outside with wagging tails and excitement. We could observe them hang out without them knowing we were watching. Lisa's own pet, a pug named Stella, followed us, along with some of Lisa's free roaming chickens that unintentionally enticed Tessi to constantly pull on her leash to go after them. Since Lisa's own dogs ignore the chickens, they have no fear.

I get the impression that Lisa is very proud of Babe, a 16 year old lab/collie mix. The dog seems to be a fine example of what Lisa has been able to achieve with her camp. Babe came to Lisa two years ago, because the owners couldn't take care of her anymore. The dog's quality of life has since improved exponentially.

"She runs, drops down on her front to invite me to play her favourite game of catch-me-if-you-can...and then scoots and runs loops around me...to show me how fast she is...," Lisa comments.

Lisa offers long-term pet care for those who have to be away or are indisposed for an extended time, such as a serious illness, a job out of the country or Armed Forces duty.

Once our chat was finished it was time to head home. I was surprised that it took only five hours to reach London, where Helen lives. I had only another hour beyond London until I was home. I appreciate that the Muskoka region, with its mass of parks and trails, all celebrating the beautiful scenery, is not far from home.

For More Info

Andrea informed me that the issue of the rocks on the trail at Dorset Fire Tower Park is being looked into.

(c) Cheryl Smyth, 2008

February 2013 - The admission price has since gone up to $6 per car.

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