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Avalanche Country

"Well, here we go," I thought as my rescue copilot Alexis and I pulled out of the gas station and back into the northbound lane of the snowy, two-lane mountain highway. "This next 100kms could be the toughest stretch of driving I've ever done in my life."

No more than ten minutes later, we were stopped, parked between snowbanks amid a fleet of other stranded travellers at the last outpost of civilization before the desolate stretch of high-altitude road between us and the town of Lillooet, on the other side of the mountains.

The highway--the only road out of British Columbia's Lower Mainland open when we'd left Vancouver that morning--was closed. Avalanches. A three-hour delay, possibly longer.

And a litter of nine puppies waiting for us to come get them on the other side of the mountains.

We settled in. Checked our phones for updates. Watched the daylight start to slowly fade, and the outside temperature drop to -10, and then further.

Rescue, I thought. Never a dull moment.

If there's one thing I've learned while volunteering with Raincoast Dog Rescue over the past couple of years, it's that rescue missions often come out of nowhere. I'd not expected to be spending my weekend white-knuckling my Tacoma over snowy mountains and back again, but when word came in to Raincoast that nine baby pitbulls were in urgent need of rehoming, I quickly re-arranged my plans.

The dogs were located with our rescue partners near Williams Lake, BC, some 500+ kilometres from Vancouver. But our partners needed them out ASAP, and I'm never one to shy from a rescue adventure, so I volunteered to get them, with my best friend and rescue partner, Alexis, joining as copilot and road mama.

Complicating matters was the fact that nearly every highway out of Vancouver was closed, due to damage sustained by heavy flooding in the fall, or avalanches more recently. Our only path across the Coast Mountains lay over the Duffey Lake Road, a treacherous, sinuous stretch of high-altitude adventure driving with no settlements for a hundred klicks, and no cell reception for about the same distance.

I'm usually pretty confident in my driving ability. I have a good truck and solid tires, and I take things slow when the weather turns greasy. It wouldn't be my first trip through the mountains in the name of animal rescue.

But I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a little bit apprehensive as we hit the road.

Alexis and I left Vancouver around noon on Friday. Our rescue partners from up north had offered to meet us in Cache Creek, saving us about two hundred kilometres in each direction, but we would still need to drive the toughest stretch over the mountains--there, and back.

I figured it couldn't hurt to build in as much extra travel time as possible, to account for unforeseen delays. And soon enough, I'd be glad that I'd had that foresight.

Cache Creek is a refuelling stop at the junction of two major provincial highways. I've stayed overnight there a bunch, and never in my life have I needed to make a reservation to find a bed at one of the six or seven motels that line the roadside.

This time, though, as Alexis looked up our accommodations for the night, she discovered that there was apparently only one hotel room left in the entire town--and the innkeeper was charging a premium. With no other option, we quickly booked the room--nonrefundable, a fact I'd be all-too-conscious of an hour or so later, when avalanches closed the road.

We found the highway in good shape as we headed north out of Vancouver, though as we drove further into the mountains and away from sea level, conditions began to deteriorate. We hit a patch of black ice near Whistler, but managed to keep our footing, and picked our way north of the ski resort on less-well-traveled road, doing a fraction of the speed limit and staying thankful for blue skies overhead, at least.

We gassed up in Pemberton, near the head of the Duffey Lake Road. And it was just beyond Pemberton that we were stopped by the avalanche closure, and where I wondered how we would spend the advertised three-hour delay in the frigid cold, and at what time, if ever, we would arrive in our nonrefundable motel room in Cache Creek.

But fortunately, Alexis kept her eyes on the Duffey Lake Facebook page, and after a 30-40 minute delay, she reported that the road was open again...for now. Knowing it could be closed again at any instant, we quickly shifted into gear, and four-wheel-drive, and set out into the true mountains.

The Duffey begins and ends with steep, winding, hair-raising hairpin sections as the highway quickly gains/loses altitude. It's these first and last sections I was most afraid of, even with good tires and the back of my truck weighted down for extra traction.

I had nightmarish visions of us not even managing to get up that first stretch of hill, but as we motored past the first avalanche gate and past the point of no return, we discovered that the road was actually in pretty good shape. Snowy, sure, but recently plowed and sanded; traction wasn't an issue, and as long as we kept to a reasonable speed, we could actually drive fairly worry-free.

The road was mostly empty, too, and I was grateful to not have braver folks breathing down my neck as I picked my way up toward the subalpine. What we'd feared would be a horror show instead turned into a beautiful, peaceful, meandering drive through absolutely stunning terrain, with the sun setting into the mountains behind us, and the roads mercifully clear.

At the last light of day, we picked our way down the last section of sharp turns and steep descents to the Seton Lake lookout, just outside of Lillooet. We treated ourselves to the spectacular view and to a feeling of accomplishment; we'd covered the trickiest part of the journey, and only about ninety kilometres separated us from Cache Creek's last motel room.

We covered that last stretch in darkness, on icy but not terrible roads. It was pitch black at about 6PM when we pulled into Cache Creek, having covered the 340kms from home in roughly six hours. I pulled up to the motel and Alexis jumped out to check us in...only to discover that there was actually no room at this hotel after all.

I'm glad I was in the truck for this, because I probably would have freaked. The desk clerk at the motel blamed Expedia and told Alexis she'd been trying to contact her. They'd booked us into another hotel a few blocks up the highway; it turned out there was more than one room available in Cache Creek, after all, thank goodness.

We found our room at the Riverside Motel, and after settling in, picked our way across the highway on foot to the town's Chinese restaurant. Food options are pretty limited in Cache Creek, but our dinners were quite delicious, and the warmth of the tea so welcome as the temperatures outside approached -20.

After dinner, we scampered back to the motel, whereupon I quickly fell asleep embarrassingly early while Alexis stayed up to get some work done. I slept more or less like a baby, waking up to sunlight and a beautiful view from our room's front door.

We had a couple of hours to get our bearings that morning, as our meeting with the puppies wasn't set for shortly after noon. So we hit the local Tim Horton's and I went looking for trains at the tracks in nearby Ashcroft, and then we headed back to Cache Creek and fuelled up and prepared for the puppies and their rescuer, Ashley, to arrive.

Alexis and I had worked with Ashley before, on a similar mission to Cache Creek for three more adorable pittie pups who quickly found homes with Raincoast. These frontline partnerships are the lifeblood of rescue, and we were glad to see Ashley again when she and her mom pulled in beside us in the parking lot of the local Husky station, and opened their back doors to show us the pups, who were just as cute as advertised.

We chatted for a bit, and introduced ourselves to the pups, but with both parties having long drives ahead of them, there wasn't time for too much socialization. Soon enough, we were back on the road, the puppies divided into two crates in the backseat of the Tacoma, making their presence known.

Alexis usually names the pups we transport, with some input from me, and this time we wanted unique names that would commemorate the long journey these puppies were taking to their new homes.. We kept our eyes out along the roadside for signs and geographical features that would make for suitable puppy names.

And so, the legend of the Cariboo Country Litter was born. We picked our way back along the icy highway to Lillooet, stopping again just past town at the Seton Lake lookout to give the pups some food and water and an opportunity to pee.

They ate like champions, and drank what they didn't spill out onto the snow, but we couldn't convince them to do any major business. And with their very thin coats, it wasn't long before they'd start shivering, so we piled them back into their crates with pee pads and towels, cranked up the heat in the Tacoma, and set back out over the Duffey.

We didn't make it far before a telltale smell began to fill the cab of the truck, and when Alexis looked back into the crates, she could see that a mess had been made...and stepped in, repeatedly. So I pulled over at the next safest place, and while Lexi did the dirty work cleaning out the crate, I towelled off the puppies near a snowbank, and then snuggled them for good measure.

Once back underway, the pups fell quickly asleep, and the drive back over the Duffey was nearly as painless as the day before, although as we made our way back toward Pemberton a snow began to fall, first in light flakes and then heavier, and steadier, until we found ourselves descending the final hairpin turns in the middle of a squall.

The snow stayed with us through Pemberton and over the highway toward Whistler. Which was fine; I kept the truck in four-wheel-drive and didn't hurry. We had plenty of time, and with nine more precious lives onboard, I really didn't want to take any risks.

Alexis kept busy in the shotgun seat coming up with names for our pups, and by Whistler I think she'd pretty well got it narrowed down. We had Milo (Mile'O), Seton, Cerise, Duffey, Hurley, Kane, Cayoosh, and our smallest member, Lillo.

I would have adopted them all, though Hurley caught my eye especially because she looked a little bit like I imagine my own Lucy would have as a puppy. I adopted her when she was a year old, so I missed her teeny-tiny stage, and I've always wondered.

Poor Hurley, though, is missing half of her tail due to frostbite, where Lucy's tail is fully intact, and dangerous as a whip when she gets excited.

It was dark by the time we reached Whistler, and it was here that our trouble really started. As the snow continued to fall, traffic, too, backed up to a halt. The ski hills had closed for the day, and the highway was choked with folks trying to get home to Vancouver.

Moreover, with the traffic and steady snow, at least two accidents had further snarled the situation. We sat helpless in the truck and watched the snow fall, staring ahead down the highway at a long, endless line of brake lights.

The stretch between Whistler and Squamish should have taken less than an hour, in ideal conditions; it took three hours that night. Luckily, the pups stayed asleep and achingly cute, and Alexis had brought numerous treats for us to snack on. I won't say my morale was the highest as we inched our way slowly over the mountains, but it could have been worse.

In Squamish, we pulled over for a rest and feeding break for the puppies within a stone's throw of the Pacific. It was still snowy here, but much warmer, and the pups seemed as grateful as we were for the break in the drive. Once they'd fed, and drank, and did their business, we packed everything back up in the truck and pressed on over the last sixty kilometres or so to Vancouver.

The drive back from Cache Creek would take us about nine hours in total to cover the 340kms. And though I've regularly driven double that nonstop on our Raincoast rescue missions to the prairies, I was absolutely exhausted by the time we pulled up outside of Lexi's apartment in Vancouver.

The crummy weather and the traffic were a constant drain on my attention and energy in a way that driving flat-out across open Saskatchewan highway won't ever be. I was ready for a hot meal and bed as soon as I stopped the truck.

But our work wasn't done. We still had our nine puppies onboard, and they needed fosters. Alexis would take five of the pups overnight at her house before we ferried them to their foster in the morning; I would take the other four to their foster that evening.

As quickly as we could, we organized the pups and supplies for the fosters, and then I said goodnight to Lexi and her five, packed Lucy up in the truck with my four, and drove them across town to their wonderful new foster family.

With the pups dropped off, I was running on fumes. I got home and heated up some dinner and crawled into bed, completely wiped out.

The next day, I headed back to Alexis's place to pick her up and drive the five remaining pups out to their foster in Chilliwack, about a hundred klicks outside of Vancouver. Along the way, we had to make a couple of stops for more supplies and food, and on the way back, we had to deliver those supplies to the first foster.

Which made for another solid day of driving, though with puppies onboard it's never really work, and we were rewarded with snuggles and kisses, and a visit with one of our Raincoast alumni, Olive (formerly Natalia, from our first Pet Rescue Pilots mission) in Chilliwack.

With the puppies and their supplies distributed at last, Lexi and I both headed home to finally recuperate a bit. We'd said goodbye to our puppies, but the goodbyes were easier knowing it wasn't forever; puppies need lots of food, and *lots* of pee pads, and we knew we'd be seeing them all again soon.

In the meantime, it was home to sleep, to cuddle with Lucy, and to prepare for the next rescue mission, which is always coming up sooner than you think.


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