Dog's Life: Travel
A magical late-winter carnival in Rottweil, Germany.
Cradling mugs of ale and sporting goofy grins, the citizenry of Rottweil in southwestern Germany weave through the streets, planting kisses on one another’s cold cheeks and hooting in a cartoon falsetto, like crazed owls: “Hu-hu-hu! Hu-hu-hu!” I clutch a cup of steamy, sweet glüwein (mulled wine) and join the tradition, hu-hu-ing until I’m hoarse, relieved that, for the moment, my lousy German doesn’t matter.
I’m here for Narrensprung, or Fools’ Jump. In this storybook town at the edge of the Black Forest, Swabian rituals of Carnival have changed little over the centuries—handily holding their own against the commercial spectacles of big cities.
Founded by the Romans in 73 A.D. as a military outpost and trading center, Rottweil’s heritage shows in its tidy prosperity; ruins of temples and baths; and famous export and namesake, the Rottweiler, a sturdy canine descended from herding dogs bred by Roman cattle farmers. As the settlement evolved, so too did the role of Rottweilers, who became draft animals and butchers’ shop companions.
“Ich bin ein Rottweiler” is the bumpersticker of choice. Garlands of yellow and black, the official town colors, are draped across storefronts and lamposts. Lifesize plastic Rottweilers guard doors, plush toy Rotties stare from windows.
Narrensprung’s pagan roots are augmented by Catholic pre-Lenten fervor. Winter and its cold spirits must be expelled, and so after a formal declaration, the icy cobbled streets fill with celebrants eager to witness a grand procession of narren, or “fools,” in kaleidoscopically colored costumes and hand-carved masks, most of which have been handed down through generations of families.
Each narren does his part: the Benner Rössle prance astride hobbyhorses; the Gschell toss candy and clank their bocce-ball-sized metal bells in a thumping rhythm. The Guller, a lone strutting rooster, represents fertility.
I’m temporarily blinded by a mass of stinky-sweet horsehair dangled across my face. Grunting lecherously, a Federahannes dusts my winter away with a long tufted pole. Just as suddenly, he balances on the pole and vaults above us all, feathered cape flying: a jumping fool.
There are Boxers, Beagles, Labs and Bernese Mountain Dogs among the spectators, but curiously, no Rottweilers. Outside the Konditorei (pastry shop), a clutch of revelers disguised as rabbits and frogs chat with a woman swathed in fox who’s tethered to a giant Standard Poodle.
“Where are the Rottweilers?” I chance asking this stranger.
We discover that we share the name Erika, and are immediately comfortable. Her English makes my German unnecessary, allowing us—encircled by a frenzy of hu-hu-ing—to talk. “Shouldn’t Rottweilers be part of Narrensprung? Can I meet one not made of plastic?” I ask.
Erika pauses, then leans toward me and whispers, “There are puppies.” Soon, I’m a passenger in her car, circling Rottweil’s outer reaches on a quest.
We find the house, festooned in yellow and black and with an etched profile of a Rottweiler on the door. Eminent breeder and trainer Bernhard Schwabe’s place is chockablock with Rottie statues and Carnival regalia, not to mention dogs. Two stately canines snooze by the fireplace; their eight fuzzy offspring, squirming under heat lamps, are already promised to families. One of the Rotties approaches and rests his blocky head in my lap.
Over coffee, Erika translates as Bernhard expounds about the history of Narrensprung, and his beloved dogs. He shows us his Federahannes mask, but seems most proud of a faded photo that captures him parading in a butcher’s costume, flanked by a Rottweiler pulling an antique cart of yellow flowers.
For this moment, issues of breed discrimination, overpopulation and rescue societies are a world away.
Back in town, Benner Rössle prance and crack their whips into the night as the ritual winds down. Masks are lowered and folks retreat to the warmth of the gasthaus (inn). The old magic must have worked, because spring arrived in the Black Forest soon afterward.
Dog's Life: Travel
Volunteering at Hetta Huskies in Finnish Lapland
It’s hard to believe that this time a year ago, I was fumbling in the pre-dawn darkness, pulling on multiple thermal layers to face the Arctic weather and more than 100 spirited, vocal sled dogs. I never knew what each day would hold–breaking up fearsome fights, marking trails, checking stock, giving medication or butchering fresh meat for evening meals. I’ve held demanding jobs in my life, including time as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Central Africa, but tackling a three-month volunteer stint at Hetta Huskies high in Finnish Lapland pushed me to my limits. However, despite the daily mélange of euphoria, anxiety, pride and anger, I emerged victorious. And I brought home a Husky to prove it!
My time with Hetta Huskies was part of what turned out to be an almost two-year-long backpacking trip around the world with my husband, Steve Aguirre. Our bold decision to undertake a shared epic journey was precipitated by a year of loss. In 2011, my best friend was viciously murdered, and our beloved dog was hit and killed by a car. Every two months, it seemed, there was a new trauma. We finally realized that life really is too short; if we didn’t leave soon, we may not have the chance later.
Before we knew it, we had walked away from our jobs and said goodbye to friends, family and favorite San Diegan locales. We started in Guatemala and wove our way overland through Central and South America, flew to New Zealand, then up to Thailand, Dubai, Turkey, Georgia, Armenia and the Ukraine before zigzagging through Eastern Europe, up to Finland and over to the Netherlands. We rounded out our trip by wending through the UK. In total, over the course of 20 months, we visited 27 countries and five continents. We also relied heavily on Workaway opportunities, in which hosts provide full room and board in exchange for daily volunteer work. As the Workaway site describes it, the swap was simple: “a few hours honest help per day in exchange for food and accommodation and an opportunity to learn about the local lifestyle and community, with friendly hosts in varying situations and surroundings.”
All 19 of our Workaway experiences were transformational in their own ways, but the one that had the most impact also happened to be the most grueling and beautiful. While still in San Diego, I clicked through possible Workaway experiences and happened upon a sled dog farm in remote Finnish Lapland. One of the pictures accompanying the lengthy list of volunteer expectations and requirements was a close up of a blue-eyed puffball of a Husky puppy, which I promptly emailed to Steve with the subject line “This is what you could be looking at instead of spreadsheets…” We’re both wild about dogs, and we knew that a stint with Hetta Huskies was definitely in the cards.
Thus, in September 2013, we found ourselves in the tiny reindeer herding village of Hetta, 130 miles above the Arctic Circle, after 17 hours of travel via train and bus. Hetta Huskies is owned by two former professional athletes and explorers, Finn Pasi Ikonen and Brit Anna McCormack. Our bosses expected a consistently high level of professionalism and perfection.
At 32, Steve and I were among the oldest in the group, which consisted of as many as 16 volunteers living dorm style, sleeping in bunk beds and sharing a toilet, shower, living area and kitchen. Cooking and cleaning duties were unofficially rotated, and every night, four to five dogs from the farm would spend the night with us for either medical or socialization purposes.
We were in charge of 116 howling, furry, excitable powerhouse work dogs (and 86 at Valimaa, a second farm) who needed daily care. Our work days were at least 12 hours with a half-hour lunch, and we worked between six and nine days in a row before we had a day off. Daily tasks included administering medication, prepping, delivering and cleaning up the dogs’ food, groundwork maintenance (refilling holes, raking running circles near the kennels, making sure there were no tree roots to tangle the chains), heat checks for the females, cage repair, taking sled teams on practice runs, giving tours to tourists, data entry and a litany of other tasks that seemed to spring up daily. Because this work is so serious, Hetta Huskies has systems and trainings that rival those in any corporate setting.
As mentioned, we also spent time at Valimaa, which Hetta Huskies had been contracted to oversee for another company. The setup there was a bit more primitive and remote, and the dogs themselves needed a little extra love and attention, since they were a bit wilder and more likely to be afraid of humans than the Hetta dogs.
At Valimaa on one memorable evening in February, I spotted a pulsating green aura and my heart jumped into my throat—it was the aurora borealis, the northern lights, live and in otherworldly greens! As Steve and I lay on the frozen ground, inhaling the frigid night air and looking up at the amazing sight, a sonorous canine chorus rose up and enveloped us in the moment. It was pure magic. For more than a half hour, we were transfixed by the celestial show.
The night before we left Hetta, Steve and I took out the first sleds of the season. We flew across the frozen tundra under a fiery sorbet sunset behind exuberant teams of canine dynamos—dogs who love nothing more than the feel of snow under their feet. That single moment made the aching bones, stress, lack of sleep and paltry food all worth it. In fact, our time in Hetta so defined our world trip that we decided to go for the ultimate keepsake in the form of a three-year-old female named Theta. Her Dalmatian-spotted ears and black mask had charmed me at first sight. When we learned she was available for adoption, we did the research and discovered that it would be neither expensive nor complicated to bring her home.
After departing Hetta Huskies and making our way through the UK for a few more months, we finished our adventures back in Helsinki, where we collected Theta and boarded the first of three planes that would take all three of us back to Colorado. Theta adapted quickly to her new situation, which included everything from a name change (after seeing her run and pounce in the snow, we re-christened her Naali, which means “Arctic fox” in Finnish) to playing with toys for the first time. And during a road trip to San Diego, she took her first dip in the Pacific Ocean—a big step for a dog who had never seen open water in her life.
Nowadays, our little family indulges in a group howl before work in honor of the pack mentality, and we delight in taking Naali to the dog park (where she gravitates toward other Huskies) and giving her lots of belly rubs after long runs on a skijoring line to simulate her sled-pulling days. Though Naali has decided that laughter and the television aren’t threats, the jury’s still out on parked cars and the sound of compressed air. She’s also learned that cute behavior leads to more cuddles and treats. As we work on our own re-acclimatization to post-trip life, she’s proven to be a welcome distraction.
We’ve never had a moment’s regret about our decision to throw caution to the wind and embark upon the most epic adventure we’ve shared to date. I’m also reminded of our adventures by the best trip memento we could have asked for: Naali, our very own living slice of Arctic Scandinavia.
Dog's Life: Travel
For the ultimate road trip, set your GPS for Patagonia via the Pan-American Highway
For those who cannot imagine a vacation without their canine companions, a road trip is the obvious way to go. And when it comes to roads, the Pan-American Highway is the mother of them all. Stretching 30,000 miles from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, to the southernmost tip of Patagonia in Ushuaia, Argentina, it traverses almost every type of terrain imaginable, from deserts to rain forests and tropical beaches to snowy mountains. If you’ve exhausted local options and have time for a more far-reaching adventure, you may want to give it a whirl. Here are some tips on planning for and enjoying a road trip with your dog through Mexico, Central America and beyond.
Can I really take my dog all the way to Patagonia?
Yes! The Pan-American Highway is a well-traveled route, and you will be sure to meet countless people touring with their much larger, much smaller or even multiple dogs (not to mention cats and the occasional bird). Traveling with a dog has many advantages. We all know that dogs provide us with a great way to meet people, and they can keep homesickness at bay if you plan to be on the road for a while. Having a dog around can also contribute to your own and your vehicle’s security when you’re camping or in an unfamiliar place.
That said, you know your dog best. If she has health or behavioral issues, or gets carsick, you might want to find a friendly place for her to stay while you’re away.
What kinds of dog-related supplies do I need to bring?
Any special medications your dog may need and proof of an up-to-date rabies vaccination are critical. Otherwise, people keep dogs as pets in all of the Americas, and you will be able to find dog food, accessories and common medications like flea and tick treatments almost everywhere you go. Although rabies is the only required vaccination, it’s a good idea to also have your dog inoculated against kennel cough and parvovirus —boosters can also be renewed along the way.
Is it difficult to cross international borders with a dog?
It depends. Experiences at border crossings vary by location and by the inspectors who happen to be working that day. It is always a good idea to be prepared: check each country’s entry requirements a few days before you plan to cross. Most countries ask that you obtain a health certificate for your dog three to 10 days in advance and make this certificate available for inspection at the border, along with vaccination information. Vets are plentiful and will produce this document for free or at very little cost, although many will insist that it is not needed—and in most instances, they’ll be right.
Chile has the most difficult pet-related border crossing requirements. A health certificate from the previous country’s agricultural inspection agency (such as Argentina’s SENASA) is required; to get this, you’ll need to make specific office and vet visits, both of which come with small fees. If heading all the way south to Ushuaia, the Chilean border must be crossed at least twice; if you plan to do it in a short period of time, special transit paperwork can be arranged— just ask at the corresponding agency.
What health concerns do I need to look out for in the Americas?
It’s always a good idea to drop in at a vet facility periodically to see what the local issues may be. Heartworm is not a problem in South America, but intestinal worms are. In some parts of Central America, dry spells can lead to a proliferation of ticks, which can transmit ehrlichiosis, fatal but treatable if identified early. Additionally, South America has a problem with screwworm, a fly-like boring insect that can infect animals through open wounds and orifices. Stay current with your dog’s flea and tick treatments, and be sure to groom them regularly for ticks; when in doubt, visit the nearest vet.
How dog-friendly is Latin America? Will I find places I cannot visit with my dog?
In general, it is much more dog-friendly than the U.S. That being said, dogs are not permitted in most national parks, historic sites and anywhere with protected wildlife. When visiting these areas, make arrangements ahead of time to leave your dog in a hotel or kennel for the day—or, on the fly, have a local shopkeeper watch your pet; a small tip is usually appreciated. Depending on the area, you can always ask park staff to make an exception, as sometimes more flexibility is granted to visiting foreigners with well-behaved dogs on leash.
In terms of lodging, smaller, family-run campsites, hotels and hostels are your best bets; it’s a good idea to call ahead if possible. Many places are not used to travelers with well behaved dogs, so a simple display of canine obedience is often enough to gain your dog entrance into a place that may otherwise prohibit them. Demonstrate that your dog can sit and lie down on command, and learn how to say in Spanish that your dog is housebroken, doesn’t bite or bark, and will sleep in his own bed—if you have one, show the innkeeper a dedicated dog blanket or even a travel kennel.
How about crossing the Darién Gap?
Right. Crossing from Panama to Colombia means negotiating this stretch of jungley, roadless swampland. While a simple car ferry has been planned for some time, it doesn’t exist yet; most overland travelers ship their vehicles as cargo, cross either by boat or air, and meet them on the other side. With a bit of research, you may be able to find a passenger boat willing to take you and your dog to Colombia, with stops in the San Blas Islands. However, if you decide to do this, be prepared for a 30-hour, open-sea crossing that can be quite rough. The other option is to fly. High temperatures ground dogs between July 15 and August 15, however, so plan accordingly.
What else can I do to prepare for a trip like this?
The best resources for up-to-date pet and travel information are other travelers. Always check in with those you meet on the road to see what their experiences have been, as rules and management change frequently.
Dog's Life: Travel
Leaf-Peeping with Pups
Fall is go time. Sunny, crisp days and aromatic leaf piles inspire dogs to leap into the season. Why not follow their lead on a leaf-peeping adventure built for two?
Black Hills, South Dakota
Eastern Upper Peninsula, Michigan
White Mountains, New Hampshire
Hocking Hills, Ohio
Taos, New Mexico
Cascade Mountains, Washington
Dog's Life: Travel
Golden State Getaways
When thinking about summer getaways with your dog in California, think cool. Think water. Think spectacularly scenic and away from bright lights and big cities. Here are a few special places that will surely put a smile on your dog’s snout.
North Coast. The redwoods are fat and the North Coast beaches are often leash-free and cooled by a blanket of fog. Take an unleashed hike on the wild side at the magnificent coastal 62,000-acre King Range National Conservation Area in Shelter Cove, and stay at the Halcyon Inn Bed & Breakfast in Eureka. And don’t miss the Avenue of the Giants, a 31-mile route through some of the biggest redwoods in the world (including Luna, made famous by Julia Butterfly Hill’s extended stay).
South Lake Tahoe. Your dog can swim in the sparkling blue waters of Lake Tahoe and fish with you on a charter boat. Spend the night at the cozy cottages of Holly’s Place, with its leash-free 2.5 enclosed acres, and dine outdoors at the very hip and dog-friendly FiRE + iCE, right under the Heavenly gondola.
Mono County. A visit to the strange and ancient Mono Lake is about the closest you’ll come to exploring another planet. It’s an otherworldly must-see, but far too salty for dog paddling. Save the swimming for the nearby beautiful Eastern Sierra lakes, Lake Mary or June Lake, for example. Like ghost towns? Sleep at the lovely, super-dog-friendly Edelweiss Lodge, in Mammoth Lakes.
Cambria. A seaside haven, Cambria opens its sandy arms to the canine set. Cambria is home to a very popular dog park, but if you like more space, head to the 440-acre Fiscalini Ranch Preserve, where dogs can trot around off leash along one mile of heavenly oceanfront.
Big Bear Lake. The lakeside mountain resort community Big Bear Lake in southern San Bernardino County boasts crisp, clean alpine air year round—a real boon in these parts. You and your dog can hike, swim, rent a boat and ride right behind horse heinies on a Bear Valley Stage Lines stagecoach. Dog-friendly lodgings abound. Try Big Bear Frontier Cabins & Hotel, right on the lake, or Golden Bear Cottages, where each cute, pet-friendly cabin sports its own little fenced yard.
News: Guest Posts
Surfers get furry
We were first introduced to Jedi through our Smiling Dog submissions, and we think Jedi Seja may be the next worldwide furry celebrity. Born on a puppy mill farm and surrendered to a rescue, Jedi had a rough start. Luckily he was then adopted by his parents Katie and Patrick Seja, and they’ve turned his life upside-down. His surfing career started in 2011, and has taken him across the nation for many surf competitions. Jedi’s interests include surfing, being an advocate for animals, working with charities, and smiling while having fun.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Gear for you and your dog.
Dogs and bicycles aren’t meant to mix. At least, that is what I thought until I met Zoa, a dog-crazy, bike-loving girl from BC. Somehow our cycling-with-dogs experiment developed into longer rides around town, which developed into weekend excursions, which developed into us quitting our jobs, selling everything we owned, and embarking on an epic 10,000-mile bicycle adventure through Europe.
Along the way we experienced our share of joys and challenges, and learned a few tips to make cycling with dogs fun and safe.
Putting the Paws to the Floor
If your dog is reliable and there is no danger from traffic, then letting your dog run off-leash while you cycle is one possibility. But with an unpredictable dog or where traffic is involved, you will want your dog safely harnessed and leashed to the non-traffic side of your bicycle.
Specialized bike/dog leashes are the safest way to protect your dog from pedals, wheels and traffic. The leashes attach to the seat post or the rear axle of your bicycle leaving your hands free for steering, while coiled springs act as shock absorbers, significantly reducing the force of an unexpected tug. (springeramerica.com, petego.com)
Keep in mind that hot, rough or asphalt roads may be abrasive to paw pads, so start slowly and, where possible, ride on trails or along grassy or sandy shoulders. Also remember that cycling/running can be thirsty work, so carry a good supply of water and a bowl for your dog to drink from. Water bottle carriers that screw into your bike frame can accommodate 20-ounce water bottles or common plastic bottles up to 48 ounces. If you are going off the beaten track or on tour you may want to consider a water bladder (MSR Dromedary) or a water filtration system (Katadyn).
Dogs on Wheels
With a growing interest in sustainable transport, the full potential of the bicycle (and indeed the tricycle) is starting to be realized. Recreational toys are being turned into practical tools, and more and more ways of carrying children, pets and cargo are becoming available. Here are some of the dogfriendly options:
• Baskets and carriers are suitable for carrying smaller dogs, and usually attach to the handlebars or back rack of a regular bicycle. (cynthiastwigs.com, solvitproducts.com)
• Specialized dog trailers are suitable for carrying medium to large dog: Quality, prices, features and weight capacities can vary widely. A good indication of trailer quality is the warranty, which can vary from 30 days to a lifetime. (burley, cycletote.com, doggyride.com)
• Longtail cargo bikes are similar to normal bikes, except the back wheel has been moved back about 15 inches. The extended area behind the seat allows for more storage options, a bigger basket and a bigger dog (up to around 30 lbs.).
• Trikes often have the advantage of a cargo area in front of you, allowing you to keep an eye on your dog. The heavier frames are more suited to flat and undulating terrain. (Bakfiets — available through U.S. dealers)
Which option you choose depends on your budget, where you plan to ride, the terrain you will be riding on and your dog’s size and personality. Some dogs hate the feeling of being confined, while others find it secure and relaxing.
To ease your dog into life with a bicycle, start with short trips somewhere fun. Add a favorite blanket, reward them with treats and make it a positive experience. Harness them in safely, so there is room to move, but without any danger of falling out. Maintain patience and a desire to experiment.
Why Cycle with Dogs?
Good Dog: Activities & Sports
A dog with a job makes the perfect hiking partner
Trying to hitch a ride from Kennedy Meadows to the Pacific Crest Trail trailhead at Sonora Pass in the eastern Sierra, we didn’t see our handsome dog Ely as liability. Who wouldn’t want to pick up a nice couple—freshly showered, with laundered clothes—and their fuzzy, backpack-sporting dog?
Every car that passed, that’s who. Cars sped by, but still, no one stopped.
Finally, a pick-up truck slowed down. Three happy dogs vied for window space. The driver told us to hop in. “Good looking dog,” he said, pointing to Ely.
My husband Tom got in the back with Ely, and I sat up front with the driver and his dogs. It turned out that the driver had picked us up because he liked the look of our dog. So Ely really had been an asset, not just hiking the trails, but also, hitchhiking the highway.
At the Sonora Pass parking lot, I walked to the back of the truck to grab my pack and we started our 80-mile hike home to Tahoe. We continued up the pass, past the snow-patched, volcanic Leavitt Peak and granitic Tower Peak etched into the southern sky. When the trail crested the saddle, we could see aquamarine Wolf Lake nestled in the rocks below; the forested Carson-Iceberg Wilderness stretched beyond. Clouds had already begun to form on the horizon.
At home, Ely barks his head off at any sign of bear, coyote, squirrel or human. If a stranger happens to try to walk up our driveway, Ely springs into protection mode, barking, and eventually, if the warning is not heeded, biting. These are the kinds of things that we see as bad-dog behavior, antisocial problems that have resulted in complaints from neighbors and visits from animal control and even the police. These same behaviors become good-dog behaviors when Ely is on the trail.
Ely would never show aggression to a passing hiker, but once he’s tied up at our campsite, watch out. He stays up all night protecting us from all manner of bear and chipmunk. Though we bring a bear canister, no bear has ever gotten close to our food with Ely around. And strange humans elicit the greatest response, with is fine by me, especially if I’m hiking alone.
Ely was a rescue, formerly known as Buddy. And before that, Yeti. And before that, possibly Cujo. He had cycled through at least three households—places that we have since learned must not have been very nice to him. My husband and I had been trolling Petfinder.com separately, and we each came to the other, saying we thought we may have found “the one.” We showed each other pictures of the same dog, a smiling Chow/Shepherd/Elk Hound. He was scheduled to be at an adoption fair at the Petco in Carson City. “Let’s just go down and check him out,” my husband said. “We need running shoes anyway.”
We both knew that neither of us could just go “check out” a dog without bringing him home, but the people at Petco said this was a very special dog. They said we would have to fill out an application to get on a waiting list, and we wouldn’t be able to take him home right away.
The lady at Petco asked about my elderly dog, Riva, whom we had brought with us to make sure the dogs got along. When she found out that Riva had undergone TPLO on both legs—a $7,000 expense—she told us, “You can take Buddy home!”
“But I thought there was a waiting list.”
“You’re at the top,” she said, looking down at smiling, 14-year-old Riva. “He’s yours. You can take him home now.”
We didn’t buy running shoes that day, but we did end up with a dog.
On the car ride home, the newly named Ely squeezed himself out of the car window. I grabbed his hind legs and dragged him back in as we sped down the highway. Then my husband and I decided to stop at the dog park on the way home. To this day, I am not sure why we did this. With all the trails and open space in Lake Tahoe, there is no real reason to ever visit a dog park. Having a new dog apparently muddled our thinking.
Neither dog seemed interested in socializing with the other dogs. However, Ely trotted over to a seven-foot-tall man in a motorcycle jacket and leather riding chaps. He circled the man, then lifted his leg and peed on him. Proud of his efforts, he did a celebratory after-pee kick, showering the man’s urine-drenched pants with wood chips. We apologized, telling the man that we had just gotten this dog, that we didn’t really know him—he was just barely ours. This did nothing to appease him; he scoffed at us as he tried to wash off in the drinking fountain.
This was just the beginning of Ely helping us make friends.
Ely quickly showed signs of food aggression and guarding, so we fed the dogs separately. Full of wanderlust, Ely taught himself to scale the roof of my two-story A-frame and slide down the other side to the unfenced part of the yard. Once he attained freedom, he took himself for a long walk by the river. When I saw the movie Marley and Me, my first thought was, That’s nothing! Ely makes Marley look like a furry saint. Riva would just look at Ely and shake her head.
But put a pack on Ely, and he is the best hiking companion we could ask for. Ely looks forward to wearing his pack, and once it’s on, he’s all business. Passing hikers exclaim, “He has his own pack. How cute!” but Ely marches by, logging 20 miles a day without complaint. Depending on the terrain, we put his hiking booties on, too, and then he’s a real showstopper. “That dog’s wearing shoes!” people will say. One PCT thru-hiker even said in earnest, “I love your dog. No, really, I love him,” while another thru-hiker whose trail name was Train and who wore a wedding dress (one of the 26 he brought with him on his journey) featured Ely on his blog. While Ely doesn’t exactly love his shoes, and if he wears them too long, he’ll get blisters (like we do), they save his pads on shale and sharp granite.
With his backpack and booties, he’s not only cute, he’s a dog with a job. And as my friend Sandra says, “A dog without a job is a bad dog.” We often forget that dogs are animals. Their affinity for humans has helped them survive on an evolutionary level, but they are still animals with animal instincts. As we have learned from Ely, a questionable puppyhood will hone instincts that clash with household rules. But give a dog a job and those instincts will work for everyone. The behaviors that make Ely a very bad dog—his tirelessness and desire to protect us—make him the perfect hiking partner in the backcountry. Aside from offering us his protection and packing our trash (along with his own food), Ely helps us live in the moment. Backpacking is, after all, a metaphor for life: many miles of slow progression punctuated by moments of excitement and epiphany, beauty and bliss.
We descended into the valley of the East Fork of the Carson River, where we stopped for a splash in one of the many pools along the way and enjoyed a creek-side lunch and nap.
After a few days along the Carson, the trail then climbed again along a wildflower-decorated ridge, offering views of the granitic valley below. In another couple of days, we reached the Ebbetts Pass area, where Kinney Lakes offered good camping. Our route then climbed through another surreal volcanic landscape, craggy cliffs notching the Sierra sky. The trail clung to the edge of this ancient volcanic flow, with its rusty pinnacles hovering above like the spires of gothic cathedrals; Indian paintbrush, pennyroyal and mule ears scattered flashes of orange, purple and yellow across an otherwise rocky landscape.
We followed the trail back into the forest, passing a chain of alpine lakes that we all enjoyed swimming in. At the Forestdale divide, we entered the Mokelumne Wilderness, and leashed Ely to comply with wilderness regulations. We traversed the edge of Elephants Back, catching views of the appropriately named Nipple to the southeast and hulking Round Top Peak ahead. The afternoon sun drained us all, especially Ely, who struggled to find shade in the treeless landscape. There would be no place for a belly soak until we reached the saddle and arrived at Frog Lake, so we took off his pack and Tom carried it. I poured the rest of my drinking water over him, hoping it would help. Still, he didn’t want to get up and hike. Sitting there in the sun wasn’t going to work either.
“Try giving him treats,” I said.
Tom took the treats from Ely’s pack and set them in front of him. He ate a few and looked up at us.
“Give him some more,” I said.
Tom gave him a few more, and Ely ate them and then picked himself up off the ground and continued walking. I was relieved; it is one thing to carry his pack, another thing entirely to carry him. But Ely wasn’t overheated, just low on energy, which happens to us all when we spend the day hiking. Considering the exposed ridge of Elephants Back, we were lucky to have the sun. We would not have been able to safely cross the ridge in a lightning storm.
At the saddle, we stopped for a late lunch and a dip in Frog Lake before continuing across Carson Pass. The trail skirted along the side of Red Lake Peak through granite, aspen, juniper and wildflowers until it reached a small pond. Beyond it, we caught our first glimpse of Lake Tahoe—in Mark Twain’s words, “The fairest picture the whole earth affords.” Seeing the lake made us feel like we were already home. At Meiss Meadow, we turned off the PCT and followed the Tahoe Rim Trail toward Round Lake and Big Meadow.
Every day, we hiked as many miles as we could until the afternoon storms forced us to find shelter. Some days, we found a safe spot in a strand of trees, where we would sit on our packs and wait out the lightning. Once the skies cleared, we’d continue hiking until dusk, locate a campsite, feed Ely, then feed ourselves. Ely slept until we got into our tent and then woke up for his all-night patrol duty.
Each afternoon storm seemed more violent than the one of the day before, but the reprieve that last afternoon made us think that maybe the weather pattern had changed.
We woke up at Round Lake and headed for home, more than 20 miles away, hiking the easy three miles to the highway before breakfast. We crossed Highway 89, ate granola and then started up the grade to Tucker Flat. It was still early, but gray clouds tumbled over the pine-swathed horizon.
I asked Tom if he thought we should keep going.
“What are our choices?” he asked.
“I don’t know … turn around? Call someone to pick us up at the Big Meadow parking lot?”
“No way,” Tom said. “I want to hike home.” Ely seemed to agree.
So we continued up the pass. Clouds laddered the sky, shadowed by the first roll of thunder; white flashes ignited the sky. The rain started, and I said, “We’d better find cover.”
The trail clung to the edge of the ridge, exposed. The distance between thunderclaps and flashes narrowed. The gray sky fell as rain, then hail, soaking and then freezing us.
“Here,” Tom said, pointing to a small outcropping of rocks. We crawled under the granite and sat on our packs. The boulders had fallen down the side of the mountain and leaned against one another, creating a space beneath just big enough for the three of us.
The hail bounced into our small cave, but for the most part, we stayed dry. I looked down at Ely, who saw this as the perfect opportunity for a nap. I wanted to be more like him. We couldn’t do anything other than what we were doing—sitting on our packs in what we thought was the safest spot around—so what good would panicking do? Dogs live in the moment, not fearing the real or imagined dangers of the future. This is probably why we love them so much. They teach us how to be happy where we are, even if where we are is squatting in lightning position, rain and hail soaking our skin and fur.
“Is this safe?” I asked.
“Safest place around,” Tom said.
“But we’re right under that giant red fir,” I pointed. “And what if lightning strikes the granite above us? Won’t we get ground splash?”
“We’re okay,” Tom said. Really, we were in the best place within a terrible set of options—the front had moved in too quickly for us to make it back down the exposed ridge. Hovering under this outcropping of rocks was better than standing out on the trail, but just barely.
Rain seeped into the cracks between the granite and fell in curtains around us. That’s when it occurred to me that the water might dislodge the boulders, which would crush us. I tried to concentrate on the smell of wet minerals and earth, of pine sap and sage, but I could smell only my own fear—a mixture of sweat, salt and insect repellent. I pulled my legs up so I wasn’t touching the ground. I tried to see the situation through Ely’s perspective—we were just taking a nap break. Tom had managed to learn a thing or two from Ely; he too had fallen fast asleep. I took out my journal and began to write.
Tom opened an eye and said, “Does it calm you to write?”
I agreed that it did, even though the rain smeared the ink.
That’s when a clap of thunder accompanied a flash of lightning directly overhead, and I yelled, “Frick. Frick. Frick.” Though frick isn’t what I said.
“Stop yelling,” Tom said. “I thought you said writing calmed you.”
“I am calm. This is as much calm as I can manage.”
“Are you sure we’re safe here?”
“Well, there’s nothing we can do, so you might as well get some sleep,” he said, and nodded off again. Ely adjusted his position under his pack and let out a sleepy sigh.
Water pooled beneath my pack. The hail had turned to rain, blurring out the forest with its gray veil. Even the air held a smell of burning things, of fire and ash.
Nothing reminds you of your own mortality like a lightning storm—a sky cracking open. Unless, of course, you’re a dog. Then life is here in the present tense, where even if there’s imminent danger, there’s no reason not to be happy. I worry so much that I’ve practically reached professional status, and I am here to say that worrying has never saved me from anything, except maybe happiness.
The hail started again and lightning flashed so close that I could see the after-image in the sky. Tom woke up and said, “Another front moving through. We’re probably going to get some close hits.” This is not something anyone hovering under a pile of rocks in a lightning storm wants to hear.
I counted between the flashes and the claps of thunder. Each one less than a second apart. “Frick,” I shouted again.
“Shhh! With love.” I have always hated being told to be quiet, so this is the way we have come up with for Tom to tell me when I’m being too loud. Which is often.
“I can’t help it.”
“Keep writing,” he said.
The creek bubbled with its white noise. The dog remained unbothered, curled in a ball, asleep. Unflappable dog, unflappable husband. Panic-stricken me.
A mosquito landed on my knee, also seemingly unbothered by the storm as she looked for a way to drill into my skin with her proboscis. I admired her fearlessness as I brushed her away.
The worst of the storm rumbled off into the distance. “Let’s go,” Tom said. We got our packs on and climbed the ridge toward Tucker Flat. A soaked chipmunk lay twitching on the trail, had perhaps fallen from a lightning-struck fir. I could not help but think, That could have been me. The blackened trees charted a history of fire and storm. “I think we should pick up the pace,” I said. I am famously slow except when lightning is involved.
Dusk fell, and we followed the yellow spray of our headlamps. The forest hunched over us, and I jumped away from a bullfrog in the path, an animal I had never before seen in Tahoe. I thought of something E.L. Doctorow said: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” This has gotten me through writing books and now it would get me through hiking home at night in the rain. I could see only a few feet in front of me, but I knew that after enough dark steps, I would reach the front door of our house. Ely ambled along, wagging his tail. If Ely could make the choice to be happy, so could I.
“I love hiking with you and Ely,” I told Tom.
“I love hiking with Ely, too. And I love having you in my life.” Rather than to try to decide if this was Tom’s way of getting out of telling me he loved hiking with me, too, I told my mind to Shh! With love, and like Ely, accepted everything for what it was.
Dog's Life: Travel
From Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico—river life with a dog.
Tischer’s travel plans were solidified the moment my feet hit the beach. She had gained more than 10 pounds, spending much of the previous 97 days lying in the sun behind wooden bars, taunted by squirrels on my parents’ deck instead of running, swimming and cuddling with me.
She had been staying with my family because there was no way she’d ever sit still in the back hatch of my sea kayak for 1,200 miles. My 2010 expedition on Lake Superior wasn’t meant for a canoe, and a medium-sized dog wasn’t meant for a sea kayak.
Still, she was jaded, and it showed my first night back when she snubbed me, opting to sleep on my brother’s bed instead of mine. I promised her that on the next big trip, she was coming with me.
The Mississippi River is barely as wide as a 16-foot canoe when it leaves Lake Itasca in northern Minnesota. It was an especially shallow stream in early September 2013 when, for our first two days from the river’s source, I walked, dragged and lugged our heavily loaded canoe over beaver dams and through thick beds of wild rice. Tischer waded inquisitively between the banks, rock hopping and investigating long strands of vegetation curving gently in the soft current. As she explored, she only once looked up as she stood beside me midstream in only four inches of water, to see me sweating and exhausted.
Our goal was the Gulf of Mexico, 2,320 river miles downstream. Between here and there, we would paddle through a cross section of American culture. The river’s volume and use would increase; the distance between her steep, muddy banks would eventually widen; and the occasional bass-fishing boat would give way to barges the length of 5 football fields.
From the moment I started planning this trip, my main focus and concern was Tischer. Her experience would be different than mine. Life on the river was more likely to include long naps, big meals and lots of watching.
In the last of the fall warmth, Tischer eventually settled into the routine of being on the water. After two weeks of eating, sleeping and paddling outside, she began to adjust—or maybe she was just too exhausted to resist the program any longer.
She was my guard dog, instinctively spending her nights sleeping lightly, on alert for threats in the forests where our tent was tucked. Luckily, naptime came often during the many hours of paddling each day.
For the first 500 miles, the river, flanked by homes and docks, was frequently shallow and calm enough for her to wade alongside me. Below the Twin Cities, she found segments of uninhabited, vegetation-thick shoreline, and would run parallel to me, climbing over stumps or briefly swimming around thickets that extended into the river. After St. Louis, when the flow tripled, low water conditions presented miles-long sandbars, perfect for camping and unhindered running.
When hunter’s guns were silent and it wasn’t raining, her favorite spot in the boat was on top of the deck cover, which spanned the width of the bow. She rested here on her personal hammock, watching the changing landscape and feeling the rhythm of my paddle strokes. (She also took an accidental swim from this perch, flopping into the current as the result of an ill-placed paw at the 1,000-mile mark.)
She was normally calm and quiet, so when she started squirming or staring at me, I knew she needed a break from the boat. One time, in a hurry to get ashore, she launched off the bow seat toward the mud, punching a hole through the seat’s cane weave with her paw.
As reward for her tolerance and enthusiasm, whenever I ate out, so did she. At a riverside brewpub in Iowa, an unsympathetic server wouldn’t let me order a cheeseburger from the kid’s menu for her: “If you aren’t ordering it for your kid, then you can’t order it!” I begrudgingly relented and asked for a second burger special. Like the rest of the meals we shared—cheesy hash browns, egg sandwiches, pasta dinners—it was worth it, and it was our way of celebrating our effort together.
Tischer’s surrogate mother and my partner, Natalie, joined us two months into the trip, just before Tischer’s seventh birthday. Natalie’s seat as the bow paddler moved Tischer to the duff position, in the dead center of the boat. It was roomier than the bow and allowed Tischer to curl into the contours of the canoe better, but also meant that Natalie and I constantly had to counter her weight by shifting to the opposite side of the boat.
I cursed the cold and the wind often on this trip. When the waves got big, the barges too close, or I badly needed to use the bushes, so too did I curse Tischer back to the middle of our canoe. More often than I’d like to admit. Maybe extending her head over the side was her way of dealing with my stress. Unfortunately, in those moments, it only created more.
Mostly, though, our time on the Big Muddy was relaxed and full of adventure. Natalie first noticed the scratching, but Tischer was the one who excitedly discovered the stowaway mouse in a coiled rope; the mouse found itself relocated 11 miles downstream. To keep Tischer warm, we cuddled closer as a family in our sleeping bags during the below-freezing nights. Routine also dictated that when we landed on a sandbar to stretch, within seconds, we’d all be peeing side by side. It was river life.
We went through 29 locks and dams, and Tischer’s discomfort with them grew with each passing. The operator at Lock 5 sent down two dog treats, which she gobbled up, but she wouldn’t be seduced so easily. The final lock was the worst, eerily creaking and groaning as we dropped nearly 40 feet within its massive concrete chamber. Not knowing how horrifying it would sound but realizing Tischer’s anxiousness at this point, I had moved my large dry bag and slid her back between my legs for the 30-minute lowering. My closeness didn’t help much, unfortunately.
To boot, the Old River Lock led us away from the Mississippi and into the Atchafalaya River Basin, the largest swamp in the U.S. It was dark and I was suddenly paranoid, worried about alligators lurching out of the shallows at Tischer. Easy domestic prey, I figured.
My fears subsided over the next few days, as the temperatures remained too chilly and cloudy for gators to be active. Three days before we reached the open ocean, however, that changed. Natalie spotted the first one, barely four feet long, sunning itself on the steep bank. I stared, open-mouthed. It was my first gator sighting, and although Tischer didn’t notice it before it slid back into the water, all I could think about was the possible danger to her.
Within 30 minutes, another one—this time bigger—lay camouflaged in leaves and mud. By the time we spotted the next gator (thoroughly dead and longer than our canoe even with its head cut off) my anxiety level was through the roof! Natalie could sense this as, time after time, I suggested we just pee from the canoe instead of stopping on shore. “We can’t not get out of the boat until we reach the Gulf,” she offered, which was hardly reassuring.
The trip’s last days turned out to be gorgeous and gator-free. Finally, the Louisiana weather delivered what we had expected and our skin again felt the sun’s warmth. Passing Morgan City, we had many on-water visitors from other motorized boats, surprised to see a canoe with a dog among ocean-going vessels.
Our last campsite, five miles from the mouth of the river on the only spot of solid land left, was covered in seashells. It was December 18, 102 days since leaving the headwaters. We wrapped a strand of Christmas lights around our paddles and before the battery pack died, I snapped a photo of Tischer sitting in their glow while the sun set on the ocean behind her.
I have no doubt that she enjoyed her time on the river. From sand dunes to winery tours, it was wildly packed with new smells, scenes and people, and allowed her to play unhindered for three months. She became a complete river dog; short of joining a coyote pack, she couldn’t have been freer. More than these things, though, she loved the river life because she was with me. I knew that because I felt the same way about her.
After our brief post-trip time in New Orleans, we hit the road for the winterized northland, Tischer snug on her blanket in the back seat. It was obvious that she was mesmerized by our speed and looking for a gunwale to rest her chin on.
We arrived at a Christmas Eve gathering to the surprise of family and friends. As we walked in, my mother exclaimed to the filled room, “You guys! This dog just canoed the entire Mississippi River!”
Bemused, Natalie and I looked at each other, and then joined in praising Tischer’s accomplishment.
Dog's Life: Travel
Tower Hill Botanic Garden, in Boylston, Mass., has launched their 2014 Tails ’n Trails program, which encourages dog lovers to hike with their leashed dogs on Tower Hill’s splendid woodland trails. Their theme this year is health and wellness and, as Kathy Abbott, executive director, observes, “What better way to experience the outdoors than a walk with your dog?” Their dog-walking trail includes a beautiful one-mile loop past the Wildlife Refuge Pond and Inner Park that features hundreds of species of trees and plants and a variety of birds. For times and dates, see towerhillbg.org.
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