You love to canoe and camp. Your dog loves to be with you. So why not go together? Picture it: You and your best canine pal, swimming, meandering along sparkling waters and sleeping under the stars. For paddlers, the arrival of summer means getting outdoors, and if you’re thinking about taking a dog or two along for an overnight trip, a little planning will ensure a safe and happy journey.
First and foremost, consider whether your dog will enjoy canoe-camping. Will he tolerate the tedium of sitting in a boat, be at ease in and around water, and sleep soundly in a tent? For your maiden voyage, opt for an easy daytrip close to home rather than a hardcore back-country expedition. Most dogs will hop into a canoe out of curiosity, especially if treats are involved, but allow yours plenty of time to feel secure.
Before launching, take a swim, roam the shoreline or play a game of fetch. “Don’t forget that your pup has been watching you pack up at home, sat patiently for a long car ride, and is in a new and exciting place,” says Kathryn Howell, owner of Dog Paddling Adventures, a Canadian travel outfit offering wilderness excursions for people and their dogs. “To [expect] her to sit still like a good pup for an hour in the boat may be too much to ask.”
Lazy-water journeys are just right for Maggie and Truman, our black Labs. With the timeworn Mad River canoe my husband, Brian, has paddled since childhood, we head for the Housatonic River in Ashley Falls, Mass. The dogs know this place well, and at a quiet spot where the river curls between cornfields, they’re off like a shot, racing ahead as we lug fishing poles and camping gear.
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The launch is a moment of excited anticipation, but Maggie sits regal as a queen as we move upstream, unfazed by the river life Truman finds utterly fascinating. His forehead wrinkles with concern when the canoe bumps past submerged rocks, and the hairs along his back stand at quivering attention when a beaver slaps its tail on the surface. “Oh, Truman,” we often say in mock exasperation, although his antics reveal what we’d otherwise miss, from sun-baked turtles to wood ducks poking around in the backwater eddies.
“Every dog,” the 18th-century satirist Jonathan Swift once said, “must have its day.” I think of this famous aphorism as we paddle under a glorious cobalt summer sky to the rhythm of the current and our whims, gliding beneath low-slung branches and past drifts of purple loosestrife. Maggie and Truman trot along shore as we portage around rapids, and flush frogs out of the shallows while Brian fishes the riffles. After a few casts and no strikes, we whistle for the dogs and move on.
Let’s face it—water is never-never land for many dogs. Our Labs would take “just one more” swim all day if we let them. That’s why a lifejacket is essential, even for bona fide water dogs, as they can be affected by fast river currents, cold water, or a disorienting fall out of a capsized canoe. Doggie personal flotation devices (Ruff Wear makes a great one called a K-9 Float Coat) provide security for puppies, seniors and timid swimmers; they also keep wet dogs warm after a swim, or cool by trapping moisture and blocking the sun.
At camp, good canine manners are a must (well-behaved around fellow campers and mellow during quiet hours), while you should be well-armed with a tick remover and other grooming tools. Our trips usually entail wet dogs rolling in sand, with tongues lolling and paws pointing skyward, but letting dogs be dogs pays off later. “By the time dusk settles in, they are fast asleep,” Howell says of her canine clientele. After dinner, we kick back by the fire and listen to owls call out and coyotes yelp in the distance. In front of us, the river is an inky ribbon beneath a sky white with stars. Critters scurry in the darkness, but Truman is snoring and Maggie is content watching embers shift and fall. Later, we scrunch into our sleeping bags and try to sleep through the twitching and groaning of dogs slipping in and out of dreams.
If canoe-camping with your dog isn’t postcard-perfect on the first try, don’t give up. Skip the campout, perhaps, and take a relaxing low-key afternoon paddle together. Most dogs would rather do anything than be left behind, and with patience and time, you’ll be rewarded with a seasoned traveling companion.
Our reasons for taking the dogs boil down to simple truisms. They love the river, anything we do is more fun when they’re around, and there are lessons to learn when we pay more attention to them than to ourselves. It’s possible, like Maggie, to be wet and muddy yet act like a lady. And, like Truman, it’s good to wag your entire body with joy now and then.
In the morning we break camp and point the bow downstream. We’ll return to witness the fiery pageant of autumn, and again when the river comes alive in spring. For now, we watch our Labs flick their tails back and forth as they drift along with the slow-moving current. As the thought crosses my mind, Brian says it aloud: “It’s a good day to be a dog.”