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.