On a sunny June day in 1998, a man and his dog took the first steps on a walk that would, by the time they finished it, cover 2,200 miles through some of North America’s most thinly populated landscape. Following the path of the grizzly, they and their team tested a dream against reality. In Walking the Big Wild, Karsten Heuer and Webster, his Border Collie, shared a grand—and sometimes terrifying—adventure.
Bark: You mention in the book that Webster was your “model for resolve.” Aside from bears, bugs, and burrs, what sorts hazards did he contend with? Did you find that you’d anticipated and prepared for most of them, or did you have to improvise as you traveled?
Karsten Heuer: The rivers in northern British Columbia were tough. No trails meant no bridges, and the water tumbling through the rapids was usually glacial melt. But Webster swam them with great courage. He got tangled up with a porcupine one day (which wasn’t pretty), and his paws got sore during a particularly rough section of sharp limestone (we protected his feet with makeshift booties until the going got softer), but other than that, he was self-sustaining. Oh, except for the time I felt sorry for him shivering in a cold rainstorm (sleet was more like it). I cut a piece of red nylon into a temporary raincoat for him. It worked but he looked ridiculous and he knew it. A sheepish sheepdog. And then sure enough, a few corners later, we ran into a pack of wolves! Talk about having your wild ancestors look down their noses at you. He was pretty embarrassed.
Bark: Had you and Webster done any sort of endurance hiking together before you started your walk to the Yukon?
KH: No, but once you added up all the things his co-owner (whom I’ve always shared him with) and I had put him through, I knew if he hadn’t abandoned me by then, he never would: being tipped out of a canoe and swimming whitewater rapids … strapped to my chest as we rappelled down a 1,500-foot cliff. The list goes on.
Bark: Did this trek affect your relationship with Webster?
KH: Well, 2,200 miles is a long way to travel with companion. We had our trying moments (Webster loved the goose-down sleeping bag and was reluctant to give it up if he got in the tent first). We were very close before leaving, but the trip certainly deepened that bond. We shared some pretty special moments and some pretty scary ones as well—everything from swimming rivers and staving off a charging bear to just drinking in the view from a mountaintop while he lay looking in the same direction with his chin on my knee. And although I probably didn’t show him much he wouldn’t have otherwise seen, he certainly pointed out a lot of things to me. When he froze in that I-see-a-cat crouch, there was always something looking back at us through the trees: a moose, a deer, even a couple of bears.
Bark: Is it possible to make any overall observations about the behavior of a domestic dog (or at least, about a Border Collie) in the wilderness?
KH: I’m always cautious answering these sorts of questions because, as we all know, no two dogs are alike. Having said that, I think it’s extremely important to have a very well-trained dog if you’re thinking of having them off-leash in wild areas. Otherwise they can do a lot of damage (disturbing or even killing ground-nesting birds, for example), or get you into problems (like chasing a bear and then having that bear turn and chase your dog right back to you). When Webster wasn’t on the leash he was always on a heel.
Bark: The encounters with wolves were particularly interesting. At the time, did you have an emotional, or a purely pragmatic, response?