"Do you think we'd have been so eager to do more rescue missions," Alexis asked, somewhere near the end of our three day, 4000km, 15 dog odyssey, "if our first mission had been as hard as this one?"
I thought about it.
"Yeah, I do," I said finally. "But maybe we wouldn't have been so naive when the second mission came around."
Every rescue mission is different. This was my sixth venture across the Rockies for Raincoast Dog Rescue Society since late May of last year. After staying home for the last two missions, Alexis was joining me for her fourth trip.
Our first mission featured our fewest number of dogs (and one cat), pleasant summer weather and a pretty relaxed schedule. By contrast, some of my winter missions with Jesse Adams, Raincoast's founder, included perilous high mountain snowstorms, minimal sleep and many more dogs.
Lexi and I had both learned a hell of a lot about dog rescue since that first journey to northern Saskatchewan. But for some reason, this latest mission seemed extra tough.
It wasn't the weather. We left in early March and were blessed by unseasonably high temperatures all the way though the mountains and across the prairies. It wasn't the sleep schedule; sleep's always at a premium on these adventures, but we did our best to each get sufficient rest time, and I've certainly been more tired on dog drives before.
The dogs themselves, though, are always the wildcards. And on this mission we sure had some spirited pups.
But more on them later.
Lexi and I left Vancouver late in the evening on Sunday, February 28th. I'd taught an online class at a writing school called SMUT University that morning, and then napped the rest of the day, so I felt like I was in great shape for the 1800km or so drive to Prince Albert, Saskatchewan.
Our first test was the crossing of the summit of the Coquihalla highway, just a few hundred kilometres from Vancouver. This area is known for treacherous winter weather, but we lucked out and snuck through with relative ease.
Our route then took us north along the Yellowhead Highway and across the continental divide at Jasper, rather than the southern and more difficult Trans-Canada route through Banff, and again the roads stayed clear and the driving straightforward as we crossed into Alberta and stopped in Jasper just after sunrise.
There, we switched drivers, and Alexis took over while I caught a few hours' sleep in the backseats. I woke just before Edmonton and we continued east, making excellent time except for our many caffeine-induced bathroom breaks.
One wrinkle in this particular itinerary was that we needed to head down to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, before we arrived for the night in Prince Albert. This detour would add an hour or two to our driving day, and an extra dog to our roster; we were set to pick up a beautiful rescue pup named Mouse and transport her to Vancouver Island on behalf of Saskatchewan rescue Hanna's Haven.
We made Saskatoon by dusk and met our contact in a big box store parking lot at the edge of town. There, we met Mouse, a very spirited and very cuddly little sparkplug who would spend the night with us at the hotel in Prince Albert, and spend most of her time before and after on Alexis's lap.
We've always had excellent luck staying at the Coronet Inn in Prince Albert, whose staff are extremely friendly to dogs and dog rescue teams, and our visit this time was no exception. Mouse quickly made herself at home as Alexis and I grabbed a hot meal and an adult beverage, and then I quickly fell asleep while Mouse kept Lexi awake for most of the night with puppy machinations.
Unlike our previous rescue missions, where we've met our dogs around noon on departure day, we had an early start on Tuesday morning as our friend and frontline rescuer Bobbi-Lyn Kirton was set to show up before the start of her workday with a mother pup and her litter of six.
I woke up early, having logged eight hours of sleep but wishing for many more, and set to work setting up the back of my truck for our precious cargo. Bobbi-Lyn arrived and introduced me to Winnie and her weeks-old pups, and it soon became apparent that Winnie was a lovely, affectionate girl who'd eat anything she could root out, and who didn't much appreciate being in a crate without her babies.
Unfortunately, Winnie was too big and full of energy to ride with her litter full-time; we tried to set her up in a big crate with the pups and it was clear immediately that she could easily trample or suffocate them inadvertently while in transport.
Losing a puppy is the absolute worst nightmare on these trips, so we made a comfy space in a smaller crate inside the cab of the truck for the litter, and promised Winnie that we would stop often so that she could see and nurse her little ones.
She was mollified, but just slightly.
From Prince Albert, we had about an hour's drive to the northeast to pick up the rest of our cargo at the home of another wonderful frontline volunteer, Tracy Butterfield. The dogs who waited for us on Tracy's property were a mix of injured, vulnerable and needy dogs collected by Gayle Yungwirth and the rest of the angels at North of 54 Frontline Dog Rescue.
They included another mother (Cleo) and her abbreviated litter of two pups:
A very spirited young dog who'd suffered some sort of frostbite or burns on her back and hindquarters (Cora), but who didn't let her injuries stop her from being a bouncy, squirmy, bundle of love:
A young pup we named Theo who'd had some sort of injury to his left forepaw, though again this didn't slow him down in the slightest:
Another young pup named Bear-Bear, who might well have actually been a bear:
And my new best friend, a sweet two year old yellow lab named Loki, who'd been surrendered from his previous home because he was being bullied by other dogs.
Loki would ride in the backseat of the truck, just behind me, and spent most of the ride either sticking his snout out the back window to feel the wind in his face, or resting that snout on my shoulder as I drove, scheming for scratches and snuggles.
I did not have any complaints about this arrangement at all.
Nor did Lexi have complaints about the puppy (either Mouse or Theo) who would ride in her lap for the duration of the voyage.
We packed up the truck, thanked Tracy and bid her goodbye, and were back on the road and headed west toward the Pacific Coast a little before eleven am local time. Because we had nearly newborn pups onboard who would need to nurse, we would have to pay attention to our rest stops and make sure the mother dogs got sufficient time with their babies every 4-5 hours, which would lengthen our trip but, again, give us more peace of mind than letting the pups ride with their mothers the whole 24 hour journey.
Our first stop was in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, where a mother and daughter noticed our precious cargo at the Petro Canada pumps and hurried over to give Raincoast an impromptu cash donation, and to chat about rescues and rescue dogs. (Thanks so much, Heather and Coral!)
We got the dogs out for exercise, food, water, bathroom breaks and time to nurse. As always, the first stop on the mission proved to be the most disorganized, as Lexi and I struggled to find our rhythm and get all of the dogs properly cared for.
It was clear that our three girls in the back--Winnie, Cleo and Cora--were a headstrong bunch who didn't much like their imprisonment. They were all of them extremely sweet once out of their crates and in the fresh air, but they were a loud bunch in transit, with Cleo the most agitated of the lot, trying extremely hard to chew her way out of her crate and howling her displeasure whenever she wasn't chewing.
In addition, we noticed some worrisome patches of blood on Cleo's blankets in her crate and a little more bleeding while she was nursing, and worried she might be injured somehow. After communicating with the Raincoast team back home we decided to keep going and monitor the situation as our trip progressed.
We tried our best to make sure the dogs were comfortable and knew they were safe and loved, but we knew that the only real solution to their anxiety was to get them back to Raincoast as quickly and carefully as we could, so that they could begin their new forever lives and finally know some peace and stability.
So we packed up and got back on the road, enjoying clear sailing westbound back across the Alberta border and pulling into Edmonton just before dusk. There, we made a quick stop at the home of our friends Phill and Ashley, who'd graciously fostered a wonderful 12-year-old retired sled dog named Kodiak for a week on Raincoast's behalf and who'd put Kodiak on a plane to Victoria that morning.
They still had a bunch of fostering supplies, so we added those to our payload and kept moving, making another care and feeding stop after dark in a deserted office park on the west side of Edmonton.
Here, Winnie revealed herself to be Lexi's true nemesis, chewing through her harness as Lexi walked her and more or less resisting any and all overtures to calm down and behave herself. She was very eager to nurse her pups, though, and her pups eager to eat, so as Lexi handled the maternity suite, I took a bunch of our lower maintenance dogs out for some walking, some eating and some pooping.
With all the dogs cared for we were back on the road again, bombing it westbound with a new destination in mind: the Dairy Queen in Edson, Alberta, which was set to close at 10pm that evening.
We made it with just minutes to spare, and enjoyed delicious Blizzards in the DQ parking lot while the temperature dipped below zero outside. With the ice cream consumed, we continued on our way, stopping again in the foothills of the Rockies for fuel and McDonald's, and then attacking the mountains in the full dark of night.
Again, the weather cooperated beautifully, and it wasn't long before we were on the other side of the Rockies in Valemount, BC, pulling off at a truck stop to tend to our cargo again. By this time, Lexi and I had pretty well found our rhythm, even if the dogs still weren't totally onboard with the whole road trip idea.
We got our dogs fed and watered and nursed, changed out their pee pads and any soiled linens, cleaned up their crates and gave them plenty of pets, scratches and words of affirmation. Then we hit the road again.
Somewhere along the line, at around three in the morning, we swapped drivers, and Lexi took over while I napped in the passenger seat with a puppy on my lap. I think Lexi took a 5-Hour Energy Drink, which she hated, and my sleep was fitful but certainly better than nothing.
We pulled off at dawn in the town of Merritt, on the Coquihalla Highway, to gas up again. Here, upon checking on the dogs, we discovered that Cleo was still working very hard to escape from her crate, so after letting her out for a feed and some exercise we doubled up on the zap straps that secured her crate in position and hoped it would be enough to contain her.
It was around here, I think, that Lexi wondered if we'd have been eager to do another trip. Certainly Cleo and Winnie had both proved themselves to be challenging dogs to manage, and I had nightmares of either dog somehow getting away from us.
Both mamas were just big and strong enough and dead set on escape to require us to really battle through the rest stops, taking care to make sure each dog had enough time with her babies and to feed and water by herself before getting them securely stowed away again.
Compared to more easygoing pups like Loki, or our small batch (Theo, Bear-Bear, and Mouse), the three ladies in the back took up a lot of our emotional and physical energy, and by that morning, we were both pretty drained.
I took over the driving again as daylight touched the mountains around us. It was around 7 or so and the rest stop had invigorated me; we had about three and a half hours' left of driving to get to the ferry terminal in Vancouver, and an 11 o'clock ferry awaited, so I stepped on the gas and prayed the Coquihalla was still clear.
Luckily it was, and we made excellent time coming out of the mountains and across the Fraser Valley. Loki kept his nose out the window for his first sniff of the rainforest, and then the salt air of the ocean. We made the ferry in time and even had enough extra time at the terminal to get some of the dogs out for a little walk.
Then it was time to board and we were driving onto the Spirit of British Columbia, accompanied by our Greek chorus of Winnie, Cleo and Cora in the back.
The crossing to Vancouver Island takes a little over ninety minutes, and Alexis and I spent that time getting the dogs out for one last feed and water before we handed them off to Jesse and his partner, Jodie, on the opposite shore.
Our efforts attracted a lot of interest from other passengers, nearly all of whom were forgiving of the racket our dogs were making and the mess they (and we) made of the vehicle deck. The BC Ferries staff was wonderful, too, and the empathy of everyone onboard really made a difference on this challenging last leg.
Toward the end of the sailing, I took a few last moments with Loki, who'd been my snuggle buddy on the drive and who seemed to have really bonded with me. There's always one dog you bond with a little more than the others on a rescue mission and Loki was my guy; I knew I would miss his snout on my shoulder, but I knew just as well that he was headed to a wonderful new life on the island.
The boat docked on the island a little before 1pm, and we were meeting with Jesse and Jodie near the ferry terminal shortly thereafter. Also waiting for us were Mouse's new family, who'd followed her journey eagerly and were so happy to meet their new pup.
Mouse's new family renamed her Takaya, and you can follow along with her journey here.
Lexi and I got the dogs introduced to Jesse and Jodie. We said our goodbyes to the pups and our rescue partners and watched them depart for their new foster homes. Then Lexi and I drove back to the ferry terminal, where we caught the next boat home and caught a few zees onboard as the ferry took us back toward home.
We still had a fair bit of driving to do; Lexi's dog Bentley, an alum of our first Raincoast mission, was in a boarding camp out in Abbotsford, and my Lucy was waiting for me in downtown Vancouver. It would be late in the evening on Wednesday night before either of us made it home to our beds, but we could be satisfied, anyway, that we'd transported our precious cargo safely toward their new lives.
For me, this pack of fifteen pups made for more than a hundred dogs that I've transported since the end of last May, not including the unborn puppies who rode along with our three pregnant mamas (I think there were 25 puppies born after our missions).
It is exhausting work but it is also exhilarating and immensely rewarding. I only need to check out the pictures of our dogs snoozing happily and comfortably in their new foster homes to feel that the effort is worthwhile.
I'm learning that there's an addictive quality to rescue, an adrenaline rush that comes from being so focused on helping these animals that you find hidden reserves of energy you never knew you had, and that draws you back to help more dogs once you've seen your pack to safety. The amazing rescue accomplishments of my friends Jesse, Jodie, Gayle, Tracy, Bobbi-Lyn, Leslie Beck, Christina Pfeil, and my partner-in-crime, Alexis, are true testament to that.
So would we have been so eager, if our first mission was more like this last one?
Yes, and maybe even more so. Because it's the toughest roads that lead the coolest places, and it's the dogs who are the most scared, injured or vulnerable who always take my breath away the most when I see how they flourish in their new forever lives.
These rescue missions are funded entirely by donations! Check out Raincoast Dog Rescue Society for information on how to contribute, or to learn how to foster or adopt one of our mission alums!