Living in NYC is rarely associated with having an active, outdoorsy lifestyle. High stress levels, too many hours spent hunched over a computer screen, not enough time to exercise or eat healthy — a general lack of work-life balance. And yet, we’re in relatively close proximity to nature. We’re surrounded by water on all sides! We’re less than an hour away from the nearest beach, an hour and change from the nearest hike!
There are plenty of people who live in Brooklyn, but have found ways to engage daily with, even make their livelihood from this nature that feels so elusive to most of us. For some, it’s within the bounds of the borough: they may work on the Brooklyn waterfront, or atop a rooftop farm, or in city parks. Others go a bit farther: wilderness guides taking New Yorkers on overnight trips, graphic designers building tree houses upstate every weekend, for fun. Our idea was to talk to some of these folks and ask them how they do what they do, not only to satisfy our own curiosity, but also to find inspiration to get out there more, ourselves.
Brooklyn Wild is our new series where we tap the more rugged residents of Kings County and ask them to share some of the adventure. Every Friday, we’ll post a new interview that will hopefully inspire us, at the very least, to have a more active weekend, even if it’s just cutting down on the Netflix intake and fitting in one trip to the green space closest to our apartment. Up first is John Bingaman, founder of Doggie Day Trips.
The 38 year-old Fort Greene resident takes dogs on full-day hiking trips upstate every day of the week, for his job.
“Growing up in Vernon, New Jersey, I spent a lot of time out hiking with my own dogs and I wanted to be able to offer that same experience to city dogs,” he told us.
After working as a veterinary technician in the city for 14 years, happily treating animals but fighting the itch to pursue a more active life, he finally quit his full-time job and founded Doggie Day Trips in 2007. Clients pay him $85 a hike to take their pups on nature walks.
“I can’t imagine my life any other way,” he said.
We asked Bingaman about what it’s like spending all day, every day in the wilderness with a bunch of dogs (as many as seven or eight at a time), his safety tips for dog owners who want to take their dogs hiking, and his favorite places to go with his own dog, Boo, when they’re back in Brooklyn.
Where do you typically take the dogs hiking? Any favorite trails/swimming holes?
We generally spend the day in Harriman State Park, which is beautiful. It’s definitely worth a visit and you can easily get there via Metro-North, if you don’t have a car. And a bonus, Metro North is dog-friendly. With or without a dog it’s a great place to spend the day. Lots of trails to explore and swimming holes to be found. (We’re keeping our favorites a secret. Swimming holes are meant to be stumbled upon.)
What’s it like, mentally and emotionally, spending all those hours every day just with dogs? At the end of it, are you reinvigorated to interact with and talk to humans?
For me, living in NYC is the best thing ever, and the worst thing ever. The best thing ever, because I have access to pretty much anything I can dream up. The worst thing ever, because of the pace and the noise and the crowds. I am so lucky to spend time in nature and with a crew of happy dogs every day; I feel like I have the best of both worlds. And yes, a day spent in the woods with no human interaction makes the city just that much more exciting. Most nights I come home, take a power nap and then I want to go do something with other people – a show, a bar, dinner, etc.
What are some safety tips for dog owners who want to take their dogs out to the woods or mountains in New York? What are some of the risks? Any advice for avoiding ticks?
I was a veterinary technician for a number of years. My father is also a veterinarian in New Jersey and I essentially grew up at his practice. Growing up hiking with him and our dogs, I learned a lot about dog behavior and safety.
I think the number one thing that he instilled in me that I try to pass on, is to be calm, be confident and be consistent. Those three things can be applied to anything you do with your dog.
For people who haven’t had their dog off-leash in a big space like a hiking trail before: take your time in letting them go. Start by walking them on leash and occasionally drop the leash from your hand. Don’t make a big deal out of it. Just drop the leash and keep walking. When they run back by you, if they’re being good, give them some love and then let them walk on their own again. They’re going to want to explore and that’s OK — when you’ve had enough good experiences dropping the leash, you’ll start to trust that they won’t go far.
Another tip specific to New Yorkers and those in the Northeast: we live in an area of the country where there are ticks; prepare for them (both for yourself and your dog). I always recommended using a tick preventative for your dog and I myself always wear long pants and socks – even in the summer. Beyond that, give a good check for ticks immediately after the hike (before you start driving home ) and again when you get home.
Finally, regardless of time of year, make sure you have more than enough water for you and your dog. On hot days, make sure you have a plan for cooling your dog down: taking them swimming in a lake or a stream is perfect.
For the majority of dog owners in NYC, getting their dogs the exercise they need is a real challenge. Any general advice on that front?
If at all possible, some off-leash time is the best exercise your dog is going to get. City parks have off-leash hours from 9pm to 9am every day. Take advantage of those hours. Outside of that, I’m a big believer that mental stimulation is also very important in keeping your dog happy and tired. Explore new areas or streets you don’t usually walk and let your dog sniff as much as he wants. Everyone wins when you check out new neighborhoods. Find an empty basketball court on an early morning and throw a ball around. I also advocate taking your dog with you as much as you can when you’re off work – the farmer’s market, the bank, etc.
What are your favorite local Brooklyn spots to take dogs to: dog runs, off-leash hours, dog bars, etc?
Prospect Park is a favorite of mine. The park is so big and has so many nooks and crannies – I take my dog there all the time for off-leash hours. Sometimes he just runs around in circles by himself in a field, and sometimes he feels like hanging out with other dogs – and the park is big enough that even when it’s crowded, there’s room for him to do either. My dog is in Fort Greene Park almost every day, as well. It’s a manageable size for morning’s before work.
In terms of bars, Mission Dolores is a go-to; it’s bigger than some other dog-friendly bars, which is nice. Also love Pinkerton, on one of the few quiet (and tolerable) corners left in Williamsburg – they have outdoor seating and some great, dog-loving bartenders. This is a tough question to answer – I have a couple of other places on my list, but I don’t want to get anyone in trouble!
Tell us more about your dog!
His name is Boo, otherwise known as the Fort Greene Park Tennis Ball Bandit. He’s really an embarrassingly terrible tennis ball thief – I think he’s learned that if he can get a ball that’s been thrown for another dog, we’ll try to get it back from him. He thinks it’s the greatest game now.
He’ll be a year-old next week. We got him from North Shore Animal League, and have no idea where he came from before that. He’s a mutt through and through – I think if you looked up the word “dog” in the dictionary, Boo’s picture would be there. He’s a good guy. And if you run into him around town, ask him to “raise the roof” and he’ll put on a show!
What’s your favorite part about your job?
It’s hard to pick a favorite part, but I will say that it’s very difficult to have a bad day when you show up to someone’s home and you hear a dog on the other side of their door who can hardly contain herself because she knows you’ve arrived to pick her up. Or, when a dog is waiting patiently in the window for you to arrive, then sees you from the window and their owner lets them greet you in the hallway – I really love when the elevator doors barely open a crack before there’s a nose squeezing its way through and a dog jumping up to greet me. Mornings are pretty fantastic.