"How many dogs do you have in that van, anyway?" the lady asked, leaning across from the driver's seat of her car to peer out at the motley assortment of crates, food bags, linens and cleaning supplies we'd spread out across the scrub grass beneath the closest thing to shade we could find in North Battleford, Saskatchewan.
I swapped a glance with Alexis, my best friend and rescue partner, both of us already occupied trying to convince our dogs to eat, or pee, or drink a little water before we packed them up and got on the road again.
"Twenty seven dogs," we told her. "Heading all the way to Vancouver Island."
The lady made a face. Sucked her teeth. "Seems awfully hot for those poor dogs."
Yeah, I thought. Tell me something I don't know.
We'd arrived in Saskatchewan the day before, finishing our 1800km outbound leg of the May/June Raincoast Dog Rescue Society mission to the prairies in Prince Albert, after enduring a suspect rental van and a roadside stranding in Nojack, Alberta, courtesy a poorly-patched tire and our van having, you guessed it, no jack.
The drive out had been gruelling enough, all the more so because of the stress we were carrying with us. Outside the van, the prairies were experiencing an early heat wave, and Lexi and I both knew that keeping our cargo of dogs cool would be priority one on the drive home.
We spent the night in PA at the Coronet Hotel, and set out eastbound the next morning to pick up our dogs at the home of frontline rescue volunteer Tracy Butterfield, who heroically fosters entire armies of dogs on her farm about an hour's drive out of Prince Albert.
Along with Tracy, we'd be meeting North of 54 Frontline Dog Rescue head honcho Gayle Yungwirth, who'd made the four-hour drive down from Flin Flon, Manitoba, the night before, and had dogs of her own to pass onto us.
We've done a fair number of missions at this point, and it's always a highlight to get to spend time with Gayle and Tracy, who give so much of themselves to every dog they help. Our meetings are always too brief, and hectic, and focused necessarily on the animals, but it's a real joy to see these wonderful women nonetheless, and get face-time with folks who we normally only communicate with online.
Among the dogs that Gayle and Tracy had waiting for us were a number of dogs who'd come down by train from remote Pukatawagan in northern Manitoba. This community is accessible only by train or plane during the summer months, and thus the dogs had ridden down in the baggage car.
If you know anything about my love of trains, you know I'm chomping at the bit now to do a rescue mission up there.
With the sun shining and the morning heating up, we worked to get our kennels set up and organized for our dogs, who ran the gamut from Hennessy and Toblerone...
...to raucous Girlie and wise Bella...
...to sweet Cocoa and shy Serabi.
With the dogs loaded and the kennels Tetris-ed into the back of the van, we hugged Gayle and Tracy goodbye, cranked up the air conditioning and set out back down the road toward Prince Albert, where we were set to meet another friend, Bobbi-Lyn Kirton.
Bobbi-Lyn would round out our load of twenty-seven with Princess Gracie and her nine two-week-old pups, and a cutie named Havana we'd agreed to transport to BC for Hanna's Haven Rescue in Saskatoon.
Despite our best efforts to get the dogs loaded quickly, it was well into the afternoon by the time we pulled out of Prince Albert again and set our course west for the ferry terminal south of Vancouver, 1800kms away.
Weighing on our minds was the fact that we'd never transported this many dogs before, and our regular service stops would necessarily take that much longer. We try to stop every 4-6 hours to get the dogs fed, watered, peed and pooped and exercised, and you can imagine how much work it takes to get a full twenty-seven dogs cared for and packed back into the van, compared to, say, half that number in my trusty Tacoma.
So, time was of the essence. And so was a cool van. Which meant we kept the air conditioning blasted on full and donned toques and gloves and winter coats as we drove, while outside the temperature settled comfortably in the high twenties, and the sun beat down on the van.
Keeping us company in the driving compartment of the van was sweet Flo Rida, a rascally little pup with a big personality who quickly endeared herself to us both--and even more to me when she peed on Alexis on the side of the highway, a little while later on in our journey.
We made North Battleford in the late afternoon, and found a meagre patch of shade in which to set out the crates while we cycled through the dogs. We had some howlers in the bunch, and attracted no small amount of drive-by attention from curious onlookers as we wandered our pups around and exhorted them to do their business.
There are always dogs that you bond with a little more on these missions, and it was here that Lexi and Daisy first seemed to really connect.
For my part, I fell in love with Rocks' gentle, soulful, stoic nature. The big guy was still an adolescent in age, but was clearly an old soul at heart.
Clay (so called because he was so dirty when he was rescued) also captured my heart. A wise, gentle giant, he just wanted to snuggle, and I tried to oblige him at every opportunity.
After we got the dogs taken care of, and the van packed up again, we drove a few blocks to the Canadian Tire, where Lexi hurried in to pick up a couple of portable fans to help cool the rear compartment of the van. These fans did seem to help, though only until Flo Rida began chewing through cords...
We'd taken two hours in North Battleford, where normally our stops take at most an hour. So it was already into the evening when we set out on the highway again. We stopped in Lloydminster at the Alberta border to grab Subway for dinner and then carried on, pushing toward Edmonton as night fell outside and the temperature, mercifully, began to drop.
It was somewhere around here that Flo Rida peed on Lexi. Lexi getting peed on is becoming a tradition on these missions, although I know by writing this I'm sealing my own fate. I'll bring waterproof pants on the next one.
We stopped again in Edson, Alberta, during what must have been the only two hours of full darkness that night. We were so north, and so close to the summer solstice, that I could still see remnants of daylight in the sky at midnight, and the first hint of dawn only a couple of hours later.
Our stop went a little quicker and we set out on the road again toward Hinton and Jasper National Park, and the Rockies. Normally, I'm still going strong at this part of the drive, but I could feel fatigue already starting to set in, which worried me because Lexi hadn't yet had much sleep in the passenger seat.
I pushed on into the mountains and over the continental divide, and then as we came down the west slope of the Rockies and the dawn lightened the sky above us, I decided I'd reached my limit.
There's always a temptation to try to be a hero on these missions, and keep driving past the point of sanity, but the risks are too great for that kind of a gamble. It's not only my life I'm endangering, but Lexi's, and twenty-seven dogs', and whoever else we might find on the highway.
So I pulled us into the Mount Robson parking lot, and after we'd admired the almost-cloudless peak of the highest point in the Canadian Rockies, I gave Lexi the driver's seat and curled up on the passenger side for a nap.
The nap did the trick; I was out, and when I woke up, my bestie had capably piloted us more than 250kms to the town of Little Fort, BC, on the North Thompson River and about a hundred clicks up from Kamloops.
There's a lovely rest stop here where we've let the dogs out before, and we pulled off again to give our cargo a break and some food in the fresh morning air.
Our efforts attracted the attention of a wonderful municipal worker who was tending to the rest stop facilities; she chatted with us about the dogs for a bit, and then bid us goodbye--only to come back a few minutes later with pastries and coffee from a local store, as well as a box of Milk Bones for the dogs.
Our hearts warmed by this kind stranger's thoughtfulness, we carried on tending for the dogs and then piled them back into the van for the last push for the coast.
I took the wheel again over the Coquihalla Pass as Alexis worked in the passenger seat to coordinate the details of our arrival in the Lower Mainland. In addition to ferry schedules to work out, we were set to meet up with our good friends from Fur Bae Rescue, an incredible local organization who'd agreed to take on a few of the dogs we were transporting.
We stopped one more time before we met Fur Bae, at the Canadian Tire in Chilliwack, outside of Vancouver, to replace the fan that Flo Rida had destroyed with her sharp puppy mandibles.
Then we hauled ass for the town of Ladner, close to the ferry terminal, where we met an all-star team of Fur Bae representatives and fosters, including co-founder Jenni, and Sabrina and Nick from Living On Breeze, who would be fostering my good buddy Clay in their badass Sprinter van.
We said goodbye to the Fur Bae dogs, and to our Fur Bae friends, and then hurried to Tsawwassen to catch the 5pm ferry across to Vancouver Island. Here, we faced the last big potential hurdle of the trip, at least in my mind, and one that I'd been stressing over since we'd rented our van:
Commercial and overheight vehicles are often transported on the lower deck of the ferry, where people aren't allowed to remain during the 95-minute crossing. The lower deck is enclosed, while the upper deck, which is open to fresh air, is also open to people during the sailing.
I did not want to leave 20+ dogs alone in a crowded van in the sweltering heat for an hour and a half. I also didn't want to get into any awkwardness with any BC Ferries employees. So I was stressed as we drove up the causeway to the terminal, wondering what we could do.
But! Luckily, our rental van maxed out at 6'11 above the road. And the height restriction for the upper deck is seven feet, flat. We made it up top with no more than an inch to spare, and I could breath a sigh of relief...once we'd made it onboard without scraping the top of our van on the ferry's ceiling.
We spent the crossing relaxing, tending to the dogs as best we could without unloading the whole van in the confined space of the parking area. And then we'd docked on the island and were driving to our meeting point at Island View beach, where Raincoast's Jesse and Jodie were waiting with a whole host of excited new foster families.
Just like when we load with Gayle and Tracy, the unloading process is equally hectic and chaotic, except with more dirty linens and soiled pee pads to deal with. Lexi and I did our best to help introduce the foster families to their new charges, and tried not to gush too much about how wonderful each of our dogs was.
We were glad to see that the fosters were just as enthralled by the dogs as we were, and said bittersweet goodbyes knowing they were heading off to be spoiled, and loved, and eventually welcomed into someone's family forever.
Once all of the dogs were unloaded, we let out our breath, hugged Jesse and Jodie goodbye and climbed back into the van to hurry back to the ferry for the 9pm sailing. Since leaving Prince Albert the morning before, we'd been on the move for nearly forty straight hours, with only brief naps and caffeine to sustain us.
Naturally, we were beat. And after scarfing down Triple O burgers and watching the sunset from amid the Gulf Islands, we drove the van through Tsawwassen and Delta and into Vancouver, to where my apartment waited, and sleep at long last.
Tomorrow, we'd clean up the van and return it to the rental agency. And then we'd head out to pick up our own dogs from their caretakers. But for now, finally, we could close our eyes and relax; our cargo was delivered, and the mission was done.
Coda: This was a mission that truly showed us the highs and lows of rescue. Shortly after landing in a foster on Vancouver Island, Pinky fell ill and died, despite the best efforts of Jesse and Jodie and a team of veterinarians.
Pinky and her siblings were in extremely rough shape when they came off of the train from Pukatawagan. Of the four pups who made the trip, another brother (Arvy) passed away before we could arrive to transport him, despite Tracy's love and herculean efforts to save him.
We mourn Pinky and Arvy both, and wish we could have done more to help them.
But even with the challenges come surprising moments of grace. We thought we'd brought twenty-seven dogs back from Saskatchewan on this mission. But it turns out we were carrying thirty-eight.
A few weeks after arriving in British Columbia, lovely Cocoa gave birth to eleven puppies! This was a bit of a surprise, as we'd had no inkling she was pregnant on the journey, let alone with so many youngsters.
But as I write this, Cocoa is doing a rockstar job of raising her litter, with the help of an incredible foster, and soon enough those eleven puppies will find their own forever homes, and Cocoa will be spayed and given time to recover before she's adopted herself.
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.