"What on earth have we gotten ourselves into?" I asked myself, my stomach churning with a bad case of nerves as I piloted the truck north out of Prince Albert, Saskatchewan early last Saturday morning. And beside me in the passenger seat, I know my friend Alexis was wondering the same.
We'd driven 1150 miles to remote rural Saskatchewan over the last couple of days. Now we'd arrived, and we had a long day of work ahead of us and a twenty hour drive after that. All told, it would be forty hours until either of us saw a bed again.
And before that, there would be dogs. Lots and lots of dogs.
Jesse told Alexis he knew there were dogs in need of rescue in northern Canada, but he wasn't able to bring them to southern British Columbia due to airline flight restrictions during the pandemic.
Sensing the opportunity for adventure and to do something good in the middle of these turbulent times, we (half-jokingly) offered to drive out to the dogs and bring them back with us.
Much to our surprise and delight, Jesse agreed, and a month or so later, we found ourselves arranging a dog-sitter for Lucy (thanks, Steph!) and packing up my truck with dog kennels and supplies, setting out with equal parts trepidation and excitement for the Little Red River Reserve just north of Prince Albert, Saskatchewan.
We took the outbound drive easy, crossing the mountains to Canmore, Alberta, on the first day and making Prince Albert the next evening, with a short stop in Calgary to jam my truck full of a pile of donated dog food to hand out on the reserve.
The drive was pleasant and the weather nice, and the only acrimony came when I denied Alexis a stop at any of the myriad Dairy Queens we passed in small prairie towns along the way.
(I would get my comeuppance, though; the Dairy Queen in Prince Albert had a line of cars around the building and literally halfway down the block when I finally caved to Alexis's Blizzard addiction.)
In the back of my mind, though, I was worried; we'd never done a rescue before, and no matter how Saturday went, we'd still have to drive our cargo of dogs all the way back to Vancouver in one fell swoop, an 1150 mile straight shot through the mountains that I knew was bound to be gruelling and would probably test our friendship.
We missed the turnoff to the reserve, doubled back and found the band office, where we masked up and met the volunteers from local area rescues who'd coordinated our visit. And we met with members of the Lac La Ronge Indian Band who'd arranged to show us around their land.
I should say now that none of what we accomplished would have been possible without the gracious welcome we received from the band and their members.
I had some apprehension about rolling onto the reserve and scooping up a bunch of dogs and fleeing into the night, but the band and our volunteer leaders, Christina and Mack, made sure we were pulling only stray dogs and those who were willingly surrendered.
We passed out bags of dog food to those families with pets, and the local volunteers took five dogs to be spayed or neutered by a local veterinarian and given health checks and proper vaccinations free of charge before they returned to their homes on the reserve.
The members of the band with whom we interacted seemed by and large happy to have us helping their animals, and they were a great help when it came to identifying and capturing problem dogs.
We were thrust pretty well into the fire right away. Our guide brought Alexis and me, and local volunteers Tracey and Bobbi, to a house with a couple of dogs lying on the dirt road in front and a litter of puppies in a corral around back.
And there were more dogs in the house, four or five of them at least that the owner wanted to surrender. Armed with slip-leads and bags of meat scraps (and trying not to be distracted by the super cute puppies), Alexis and I waded in.
There was obviously a learning curve. We discovered we were good at cradling the puppies but less good at coaxing the older dogs close to our leads. Luckily Tracey and Bobbi knew what they were doing.
Somehow, Alexis got her hands on a wily little scamp named Matilda, who struggled and squirmed in her arms until I took her, whereupon she relaxed and snuggled into me as calm as could be.
My cold heart melted a little bit as I ferried her to a kennel in the back of my truck; little did I know it was the start of a beautiful friendship.
We spent the day on the reserve, patrolling for dogs, passing out food and talking with the band members. At one point, Alexis and I broke off to corral three dogs with the help of the local citizens, and proudly drove back to the other volunteers with our truckload.
Finally, it appeared that we'd found all the animals that we possibly could, and after a fruitless search of the local dump for strays, we met up at the community hall and began to divide the dogs between the two rescue groups.
My truck, we'd discovered, could fit seven kennels of various sizes, plus a carrier for a lovely orange rescue cat named Jesse that Christina had brought for us.
So after some Tetris and some texting with Jesse at Raincoast HQ, Alexis and I got the truck filled with seven pooches and prepared to set out for the west coast again.
Among our cargo was an adorable little pupper who'd bonded with Alexis almost immediately, and who would spend most of the trip in her arms.
Also onboard was Matilda, who we would learn was a little bit of a howler...
We pulled out of the reserve, and back onto the blacktop, at 3pm local time. I set my GPS for the ferry terminal south of Vancouver, and we resolved not to stop for anything but gas and pee breaks until we could see tidewater again.