Jenna Woginrich is author of Made From Scratch, homesteads in Vermont.
Dog's Life: Travel
April 30 2012
I’m fairly certain there are few experiences that compare to a campfire, a good guitar, close friends and a great dog. A clear night with wood smoke circling up into the trees while your dog lies at your feet beats Walden Pond any day, hands down. Getting away from the office and streetlights and spending a few days as nomads under the Milky Way grants us dog owners a perfect summer vacation option — a chance to slow down and spend a lot of time with our favorite animals.
Camping is the original dog-friendly vacation. Unlike hotels and busy sightseeing jaunts, the great outdoors always provides respite for people who want to get away and bring the dog as well. Camping is also inexpensive, relatively close to home, and with a little planning can be pulled off without a hitch. Most owners used to traveling with their dogs are already hard-wired for the sort of preparations needed to jump into the wild. But there are some extra precautions one should take before letting Lucy off the leash.
First, make sure you can let Lucy off the leash. Some campers are shocked to discover that the dog-friendly campground they found online doesn’t allow their 15-year-old Golden Retriever off-leash, ever. It doesn’t matter if he’s a CGC-toting therapy dog or Cujo’s succubus — all dogs must be on leash at all times. If you planned on letting your dog leap off the docks into the lake, chase balls on a beach or sprawl in front of the campfire, you may end up with a pouting Les Miserables extra on a time out. So call ahead and make sure the park or property’s idea of camping with dogs matches your own.
Second, be aware that while some parks and campgrounds may not mention any prerequisites for canine reservations on their land, they may make certain demands when you show up. Make sure you have proof of rabies vaccination (vet documentation, not just tags) and any other paperwork that proves your animals are sound. Some parks demand it and will turn you away without it.
Most of all, enjoy this time with your dog. You may not realize it in your nature-loving haze, but by choosing to camp you’re giving your dog the gift of you. He can be around you all day—hitting the trails or cooking dinner back at HQ. The constant quality time, undistracted by cell phones and Facebook, will be savored by your companion. I have a hunch it will be savored by you as well. A little escape is good for the soul and great for your dog. After all, nothing comes between you and that tennis ball now.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
The how [and why] of teaching dogs to carry packs
April 26 2012
In Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums, a spirited young Buddhist named Japhy takes his domesticated friends for a crash course in what he calls “mountain smashing.” While it sounds destructive, mountain smashing is really just a colorful euphemism for climbing to the summit. It’s choosing to spend a day outdoors instead of glued to the television, and Japhy makes it his life’s work to share such choices as a better way of living. He teaches his friends about the roar of the wilderness, the stillness of forests, and how a few miles on your boots and some basic camp food can convince you that you’re the luckiest person alive. Though I don’t have my own personal beatniks to take me outside and teach me to pay attention, I have even better guides: dogs.
With their red and blue packs, my dogs look like mountain smashers. They no longer resemble the goofy and good-natured Siberians who take my spot on the couch during movie snack breaks—they look like kind wolves, my personal escorts into the wilderness. Though dogs aren’t wild animals, they are not as foreign to the forest as we humans are. They’re the perfect link between the worlds, and with their packs on, they seem like my own personal sherpas—experienced guides showing me the world of wolves bubbling in their Husky blood.
The packs they wear are light, extensions of themselves; in them, they carry extra water, wool sweaters, biscuits and trail mix. They sport them proudly as they leap over fallen trees and dash after the smells of deer and porcupines. Having saddlebags on the backs of the dogs is convenient, too. I can access things I need quickly, instead of stopping to wrestle off my own backpack and root through it. The whole experience of dog packing makes our time outside together richer.
I adopted both of my trail-mates as adults when they were four years old; neither had carried a pack before they met me, but the training came quickly and easily. The trick was two-fold: First, making sure I had packs engineered for canine athletes that fit them perfectly. Second (and perhaps the secret to pack training), making sure those packs were only slipped onto their fluffy backs if we were going to have fun. When I first purchased Jazz and Annie’s packs, I’d lash them on for every trip to the dog park or walk around the block. The idea was to associate that weird new harness with action and adventure, even if it was only put on to chase a ball around the yard. Within short order, they associated the light panniers with time spent with me outdoors. Incidentally, so did I.
Over the next few weekends, I slowly added gear and distance to their pack walks. Soon, they were joining me on jaunts to the local co-op for some light grocery shopping. I’d secure them outside in the shade with water and take their packs inside as my eco-friendly shopping bags. When I returned with the heavier loads, I’d harness them up and we’d walk home together, all three of us smiling. They were getting exercise and smelling busy sidewalks, and I was saving myself a car trip for milk and eggs. It feels good to know you’ve done this good work together.
Within two months, the dogs and I were hiking the trails, and by the end of that first summer, the dogs were carrying all of our supplies for an entire day trip. When it was time for a meal, we’d find a clearing by a stream or a lake and have a grand picnic. Liver treats and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich never tasted better (they got the treats, I got the pb&j). I’d pull a tattered old paperback out of Annie’s pack and the dogs would snooze in the sun. I cannot imagine being in the wilderness without them. They’re my Dharma bums, and as a team, we smash mountains with the best of them. I think Japhy would approve.
Good Dog: Activities & Sports
An adventure in the winter woods
I love snow. It makes sweaters warmer and coffee tastier. It makes homes feel cozier. It makes a book and a fireplace seem like everything a reasonable human being could ever need. My reasons for wanting snow tonight had nothing to do with hibernation, though. I was hoping for a quick inch to touch down and cover the ice on the road behind the house. I wanted to be out in the snow before it froze. I’m not crazy. I just live with sled dogs, and we had an appointment.
By three in the afternoon, it was almost dark (Sandpoint has the pleasure of being not only at the northern tip of the state, but also as far east in the Pacific time zone as possible; daylight is a fairweather friend at best) and I was getting excited. I peered out the office windows again: the lights in the parking lot illuminated a steady snowfall that was already covering the cars with a healthy layer. People groaned and grumbled around me. I thought, You’re in North Idaho . . . how could this possibly surprise you? and clicked away at my mouse, trying to finish up so I could get home as soon as possible.
Driving home from work, my tires slid out from under me, trying to show me the best way to go about getting off the road. Giant plows passed me by like steamships passing a tugboat. I gripped the steering wheel and forged ahead. Truth is, even though the road was a horror, I was excited that it was being covered up so quickly. What makes awful traction for cars just so happens to make wonderful conditions for mushing. The fresh powder was all the traction my Siberians’ paws would need to get across the ice, and the runners of my kicksled would sink onto the layer of ice below, sliding effortlessly like pucks on a shuffleboard.
One of the real perks of moving here was this weather. I grew up dreaming about dogsledding. I wrote short stories about kids who took their teams to school and kept them in a barn with a woodstove during classes, harnessing them up and taking them down the lantern-lit trails back to their family farms after school got out. I romanticized the stories of Jack London. And every now and then, even as an adult, when I push a shopping cart around the frozen-food section of the grocery store, I pretend the handlebar is the grip of a wooden sled, ahead of me a team of dogs.
I finally pulled into the driveway, past the big birch tree and the rusted green truck from the 1940s. After running inside and greeting the dogs with the usual hugs and ear scratches, I dashed into the bedroom to change into heavy pants and a few thermal layers. I grabbed my red parka, fingerless mittens, and musher’s hat—an old, hideous leather hat with earflaps lined with rabbit fur.(There’s nothing warmer.)
Ready to go, I called the dogs into the garage and harnessed them up to our humble bispecies transport. Our ride was a small Norwegian kicksled—basically, a glorified snow scooter. It has a basket (the part of the sled where you stow gear, cargo or a passenger), handlebars, and six-foot-long runners, but weighs a mere 20 pounds and folds flat for storage. The perfect portable dogsled for our small team. These Nordic wonders work on snow just like a wheeled scooter does on concrete. The rider gives a kick and, on level ground, it slides along for a yard or two before it needs another push. With just two dogs, it’s perfect. We can go on runs a three- or four-dog team can make, because I do half the work. Which I prefer. If I’m going to go outside in a snowstorm to be pulled around by wolves on ropes, I should at least burn some calories.
I opened the garage door and stood behind the sled. I saw nothing but darkness and the snow falling around the entrance. Already, the tracks my car made were disappearing. The dogs barked and lunged in place, dying to run out into the night. I gave them the go-ahead.
“Hike! hike!” I yelled, and they took off. In the wrong direction. They headed for the road to the highway instead of the service road to the field trails behind the farm. There was no changing their minds and I had to stop them and manually coax them around. After some convincing, they started to head into the wilderness. With the smells of coyotes and elk in their noses, they picked up the pace.
When we’re mushing, the dogs are harnessed with a single lead-section gang line and are kept together by a neck line. Jazz, my older dog, used to lead on a recreational team back in Tennessee. (Yes, there are dog teams in Tennessee. They run with wheeled carts most of the year.) So, when he’s in harness, he’s serious. Head down, shoulders taut, gait as steady as a metronome. Annie is a different story altogether. As far as outdoor sports go, she’s more like a sorority girl in a brand new Patagonia jacket. When given the call to take off, she bolts as if we were on a sprint line. Jazz can barely keep up with her. I always search around with my headlight, trying to find the deer she’s chasing, but there never is one; she just loves to take off.
I worked up a sweat jogging behind them. Then we came to a road with a slight downhill. That’s when it happened. They took off, using the grade for momentum. For half a mile or more, I was just along for the ride. At first I held on for dear life. When I had gotten used to the speed, I relaxed, stood back on the runners, and closed my eyes. Time and space seemed to disappear. The whole world was just the snow that passed us in the glow of the lantern. Everything around us was dark and still. There was no noise in the world but the padding of the dogs’ feet on whiteness and the slide of the runners on ice. No one cheered. No one barked.
I opened my eyes to see their heads bobbing in the yellow light as they loped ahead of me. The road forked and I yelled out a “Gee!” and Jazz, ever the professional, turned himself and Annie to the right. “Home for treats!” I yelled, and they picked up speed as they headed toward the garage. They slowed to a trot and I started kicking again, all of us panting and exhausted. We trudged back into the light of the garage and went through the business of stepping out of harnesses and shaking the melting snow out of our coats.
Together, the three of us made our way into the kitchen. The dogs lapped water from their big blue bowl and I put on a pot of coffee. The rest of the evening was devoted to hot beverages and library-borrowed documentaries— perfect. Annie fell asleep at my feet, and Jazz joined me on th e couch with his head on my lap. I scratched his ears while listening to Shelby Foote talk about Harpers Ferry, and tried to understand what anyone does with a cat.
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