Kyle Rohrig knew it would be risky to bring his 8-year-old Shiba Inu, Katana, on the Florida Trail. The 1,100-mile hike was challenging enough to complete alone — but with a blind dog, it would be the greatest test of patience and perseverance he’d ever known.
“When I brought Katana out here it was either to sink or swim,” Rohrig told The Dodo. “The only catch being, I wasn’t going to let her sink.”
Katana was already an experienced hiker when she started losing her vision. She and her dad had gamely 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 forced to leave the wilderness so Katana could have surgery, but returned as soon as the vet cleared her to finish the trail together.
However, when Katana lost vision in her right eye a little less than two years later, the ever-confident dog’s personality changed. “At first she was very cautious and timid about doing anything,” Rohrig said. “She seemed unsure of herself.”
Rohrig knew Katana could memorize the layout of a house and live out the rest of her days in comfort, but he didn’t want to believe that their adventures together were over. As Katana began to get used to the dark, Rohrig formulated a plan to build back up his pup’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 added, “but out there on the trail, we’d be breathing it as well.”
Rohrig and Katana started their hike on January 8, at the trailhead in Big Cypress, in the Everglades. He estimated it would take them between two and three months to make their way across the state to Fort Pickens.
The trail was mostly flat — but that’s where the ease ended. “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.”
Over the next 72 days, the two braved alligators, snakes, busy highways, blown-down trees and sometimes a trail that simply vanished into the overgrowth. “The Florida Trail was about as monotonous and grueling as it comes,” Rohrig said.
Katana hiked on her own every day — even if it was only for a mile or two. Whenever trail conditions got too tough, Rohrig would loop the pup’s agile 21-pound frame over his shoulders and backpack, where she would recline as if resting on her couch at home, Rohrig noted: “It was a great system that worked incredibly well.”
“She loved every second of the freedom out there and getting to explore new places,” Rohrig added. “I truly think that’s every dog’s dream.”
All in all, Katana hiked more than 200 miles of the trail herself, while Rohrig carried her for more than 800 miles.
As they reached the state line in late March, Rohrig could tell the fearful dog he set out with was not the same as the strong, self-assured pup leading the way toward the finish.
“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 was life-changing for Rohrig 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.”
Now back at home, Katana is applying all the skills she learned on her adventure to her everyday life. She runs in and out of the doggy doors to patrol the large backyard at home, and she jumps on and off the couch and bed without giving the leap a second thought.
“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.”