Kyle Rohrig knew it was not going to be an easy feat bringing his 8-year-old Shiba Inu, Katana, on the Florida Trail.
The 1,100-mile hike was challenging enough to be completed alone — but with a blind dog — it would even harder.
“When I brought Katana out here it was either to sink or swim,” Rohrig shared with The Dodo. “The only catch being, I wasn’t going to let her sink.”
Katana was already an advanced hiker when she began to lose her vision. Both she and her dad had completed the 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail together and were in the middle of a 2,650-mile hike of the Pacific Crest Trail when glaucoma clouded her left eye.
The two were then forced to leave the wilderness so that Katana could have surgery but returned once the vet cleared her to finish the trail together.
But when Katana lost vision in her right eye a little less than two years later — her personality shifted.
“At first she was very cautious and timid about doing anything,” Rohrig said. “She seemed unsure of herself.”
While Rohrig knew Katana could memorize the layout of a house and live out the rest of her days comfortably, he did not want to accept that their adventures were over. As Katana started to get acclimated to the dark — Rohrig then came up with a plan to build up his dog’s confidence in herself and her abilities.
“I had my eye on the Florida Trail for a couple of years, but never made any official plans to hike it,” Rohrig said. “After Katana went blind, I thought it would be the perfect trail to help her really come to terms with her new circumstances.”
“We’d been eating and sleeping her blindness for months,” he continued, “but out there on the trail, we’d be breathing it as well.”
The pair began their hike on January 8th at the trailhead in Big Cyrpress in the Everglades. He estimated it would take between two and three months to make their way across the state to Fort Pickens.
The trail was mostly flat but it was not all peaches and rainbows.
“It was very wet, muddy, buggy and at times we were wading through water, mud or swamp for miles … sometimes up to my waist,” Rohrig said.
“It was a tough, wet year to hike this trail.”
The two faced alligators, snakes, highways, blown-down trees and occasionally, a trail that vanished into the overgrowth over the course of 72 days.
“The Florida Trail was about as monotonous and grueling as it comes,” Rohrig said.
Katana was able to hike on her own everyday — even if it was just for a mile or two. And whenever the trail conditions were a bit rough — Rohrig would pop the 21-pound pup over his shoulders and backpack.
“It was a great system that worked incredibly well.” Rohrig shared.
“She loved every second of the freedom out there and getting to explore new places,” Rohrig shared. “I truly think that’s every dog’s dream.”
In total, Katana hiked more than 200 miles of the trail herself while Rohrig carried her over 800 miles.
In late March as they reached the state line — Rohrig could tell the fearful dog he started out with was not the same, confident pup who led the way towards the end.
“I don’t know exactly how she did it, but she could lead me down the trail perfectly, without hitting a single obstacle while accounting for every twist and turn in the trail,” Rohrig said. “Katana went from cautious and timid to confident and curious.”
The experience affected Rohrig in a life-changing way as well.
“It was emotional seeing her do so well,” he said, “as if nothing had changed since our nostalgic days when first getting into long-distance hiking.”
While Katana is now at home — she is busy applying all the skills she learned on her adventure to her everyday life.
“She’s not just dealing with her new circumstances — she’s thriving, and she’s thriving wherever she goes,” Rohrig said. “We have many more adventures planned, and I’m going to keep taking her until she ceases to enjoy them. We’re both living the dream.”
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