In 2007, with their two year- old son Zev and pup Willow in tow, the couple undertook a third excursion, this time to see the venerable writer and environmentalist, Farley Mowat. Heuer has said that it was through Mowat’s books—Owls in the Family, The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be, Never Cry Wolf and A Whale for the Killing among them—that he learned about Canadian wildlife and threats to it, as well as gained a better understanding of his country.
When Mowat extended an invitation to visit him and his wife Claire at their Cape Breton farm, the couple—along with Zev and Willow—literally launched themselves on what turned out to be a five-month trans-Canadian odyssey, setting off by canoe from their home in Canmore, Alberta, and following a route that took them through the settings of some of Mowat’s iconic stories. From this, Allison created a feature-length documentary, Finding Farley, and Heuer is working on a book of the same name.
In 2005, we talked with Heuer about his Yellowstoneto- Yukon (Y2Y) trek, and when we learned that he had made yet another incredible dogenhanced journey—with a two-year-old child, no less— we made it a point to find out more.
Bark: On your 1998 Y2Y expedition, you were accompanied by Webster, a Border Collie mix. Is Willow his successor?
Karsten Heuer: There was a bit of an overlap. When Webster was about 13, he started to deteriorate cognitively; the vet described it as canine dementia. We knew his time was limited, but we really weren’t thinking about getting another dog while he was alive. Willow kind of came into our lives rather than us searching her out. At the time, we were living in a fairly remote part of British Columbia, surrounded by mountains; Willow was part of a litter born on a nearby farm. One day, a friend dropped by with her dog and this sixweek- old puppy. We went walking with Webster and her dog, and we’re holding the puppy, who’s nuzzling inside our jackets. Before we knew it, she was ours. She chose us rather than us choosing her, but it worked out well. Poor Webster was kind of overwhelmed by this puppy, who was constantly grabbing onto his tail and whatnot. But he was very tolerant.
B: How does Willow compare to Webster as a trail partner?
KH: They’re quite different characters. Webster was very mellow for a Border Collie—unbelievably quiet and very patient. Though he was active, he could also just lie down for hours. Whereas Willow, partly because she’s younger but also because she’s just wired differently, is high strung, with more typical Border Collie traits.
GET THE BARK IN YOUR INBOX!
Sign up for our newsletter and stay in the know.
B: What kind of relationship does your son Zev have with Willow?
KH: The two of them are about the same age. We acquired Willow about the time Zev was born, and they’re very familiar with each other. I think it’s great for a baby or young child to grow up with an animal. Like most small children, Zev needed to learn how to interact with Willow, and she taught him a few lessons in respectful behavior.
B: In retrospect, what would you say was the primary benefit of traveling as you did?
KH: Leanne, Zev, Willow and I were together 24 hours a day within the very close confines of a canoe and a tent, in every kind of mood and weather. Zev was so intuitive and instinctual, in tune with his true animal nature. At the time, it was hard to see what he was getting out of it, but now, we notice that he has a sense for movement on water and a tolerance for the elements that he wouldn’t otherwise have; he understands that being wet or cold is temporary. Ultimately, the trip built an incredible foundation of shared experience that we constantly draw upon, whether through memories or what we learned or the people we met.
B: From the philosophical to the practical, tell us how you taught Willow to ride in the canoe, and how she occupied her time while she was in it.
KH: We didn’t actually teach her. Even to this day, she’s a little bit nervous in the boat, but she had a vested interest in staying with us, and as the trip went on, she settled down. All of us did, really. We’d been on a few day trips together but none of that was any benefit when we set out to “find” Farley. The routine with Willow was that she would hop aboard as we were leaving shore, then try to get as close to the front as possible—sometimes hilariously so. She’d have all four paws on the tiny front deck and be balancing precariously on the gunnels of the boat, leaning as far forward as possible. Then we’d find a more workable location for her, usually atop the load amidships. If there were waves, she’d get excited, leaning over the edge of the canoe and snapping at the water. She’d also snap at flies and mosquitoes; when bumblebees came by, she’d badger them, then go flying off the boat—she’d fall in, not purposefully jump in. We discovered that she’s a pretty amazing swimmer. Sometimes, when we were in appropriate areas—on public land and when birds weren’t nesting on the shoreline— we’d put her onshore for a bit of a run. She’d lope along, glancing back at us and watching us come down the river. Then she’d choose a good spot and swim out to us, and I’d haul her back onboard.
B: What would you say was the most challenging aspect of the trip? KH: Managing Willow and Zev. They’d be clambering around—he’d be stepping on her or she’d be stepping on him. Sometimes all Leanne and I wanted was just some peace and quiet, but that wasn’t usually an option. The bugs were another challenge. When the flies got bad, we couldn’t do much for Willow. Some of the travel arrangements were also an issue. For the maritime section— 30 hours from one land mass to the next—we lucked upon a perfect guy who was willing to take us on board. He was a total dog lover and didn’t object to having Willow on his ship, or to the accommodations we felt she needed. We made little bouquets of spruce branches and grass and left them in out-of-the way places so Willow would have something familiar to go on if she needed to.
B: Were you surprised by anything that Willow did?
KH: One thing that particularly impressed me was the role Willow assumed as Zev’s guardian. We didn’t train her to do that, she just took it upon herself. For example, on occasion, Leanne and I had to portage the canoe past rapids; we’d put Zev down in the safest place we could find, and Willow, of her own free will, would park herself right alongside him. They were never out of our sight, but we were sometimes many hundreds of meters away, and that was bear country. Willow’s a Border Collie crossed with a livestock guardian dog, so she has some of those guarding attributes along with her herding instinct.
B: Did having Willow along enhance the trip in other ways?
KH: Dogs really enrich the experience of these sorts of trips. Besides companionship, which is high on the list, their senses are much wilder and more acute than our own. They’re able to alert us to things we wouldn’t otherwise see, smell or hear. Willow was also a great early-warning system. One night, we were inside the tent and heard Willow growling. I looked outside and there was a black bear rooting through our stuff. We chased him off before he got into our food. Since we were about six weeks from our next cache of supplies, it would’ve been pretty serious if he’d cleaned us out.
B: How would you compare the Y2Y experience and this trip?
KH: Y2Y was completely different, partly because I was on foot most of the time rather than in a boat, but largely because I was usually alone with Webster. Those quiet, pensive moments that we all kind of imagine happen in the wilderness are rare with a two-year-old around. You find your mind drifting for half a second and then you’re pulled up by an emergency. On the Y2Y trip, I felt like I could go deep. On this expedition, I had a few of those moments, but they were infrequent.
B: Tell us about Farley and dogs.
KH: Throughout his life, from his first dog, Mutt, Farley’s had at least one dog— he’s just crazy about them. He mentioned that he has some unfinished manuscripts; one involves a Lab, Albert, who was apparently a great water dog. His current dog is named Chester, and Farley was always speaking to Willow on Chester’s behalf. Chester was mildly interested in Willow, but much more interested in Zev. At the beginning of the trip, we got quite a bit of media. One of the stories was a front-page article with a color photo. We sent him the clipping along with a letter to let him know we were off. We’d been exchanging letters for a few months before the trip, but he didn’t know what any of us—including Willow—looked like. In his next letter to us, which we couldn’t pick up until we reached Saskatchewan six weeks later, Farley said Willow reminded him of Mutt. “This could be the dog that would be,” he said.
B: What’s next? Are there more “incredible journeys” on the horizon?
KH: Our trips have all come about pretty organically—we tend toward experiences that have good stories and promote causes we believe in. Essentially, these longer trips are part of who we are. So we’re not searching out new ones, but if a good opportunity presents itself, we’re open to it.