"We have to keep those dogs cool," Jesse warned us. "We can't have them overheating, so blast the air conditioning the whole way. I don't care how much it costs us in gas."
And that's how I wound up driving across the prairies in a toque and winter gloves in the middle of an early-June heat wave, shivering uncontrollably so that twenty-seven dogs could ride in air conditioned comfort in the cargo compartment behind me.
Truly, it's anything for the pups in the rescue business.
Transporting rescue dogs is an exercise in stress and stress management. At the top of the list of stress factors is, obviously, keeping the dogs alive.
Whether that means keeping them cool in the summer or warm in the winter, making sure you stop enough for adequate food and water breaks, checking on newborn puppies so they're not smothered underneath their mother, or just maintaining control of them in pit stops so they can't break loose and run away, a rescue mission is essentially a race for survival, and a constant anxiety that you'll mess up somehow and disaster will occur.
It's a race against time, too, and the hazards of sleep deprivation. Every wasted minute on the road adds more risk to the mission. We've read horror stories about animal rescue crews drifting off behind the wheel, losing control of their vehicles. The results are a nightmare, and they're constantly in the back of your mind.
You want to get your animals to their destination as quickly as possible. But you absolutely have to know your limits, and you can't overtax yourself. It's a delicate balance, and eventually even the fear of failure isn't enough to keep you awake.
For our May/June rescue mission to Saskatchewan for Raincoast Dog Rescue Society, my bestie Alexis and I had an additional cause of stress. Usually on these missions, we take my truck, a hardy and capable Toyota Tacoma that I've owned since new, and that I take care to maintain fastidiously.
I know my truck; I trust my truck; and I trust my truck with the lives of the animals I'm transporting. It's just one less thing I have to worry about.
But this would be our most ambitious mission yet. We were targeting more dogs than usual, bigger dogs than usual, and my Tacoma's modest cargo area wouldn't be sufficient to haul the payload we'd committed to. So we rented a van instead. And there went my peace of mind.
Lexi and I picked up the van from the rental agency on Sunday, May 30th. And from the hop, things were a little askew. For starters, this agency wouldn't confirm our van's availability until a few hours before we were meant to pick it up.
More importantly, the van they gave us had a broken interior door that effectively blocked off the cargo area from the cockpit. And the cargo area reeked strongly of gasoline.
Since we were planning to keep nearly thirty dogs in that cargo area for more than twenty-four hours, we needed a well-ventilated space that would function as adequate life support. This van very clearly didn't offer that.
So we swapped out the van for another. This one had no such gasoline smell, and easy access to the rear compartment. If we blasted the air conditioning like Jesse suggested, we should have been able to keep our dogs sufficiently cool on our journey.
But this van had its own problems. First of all, the tire pressure sensor was on, which I only noticed after I'd driven away to load our kennels and supplies. Fortunately, I own a portable air compressor, so the first thing I did after we packed up the van was inflate all of the tires to their recommended pressure.
The other issue with this van--which we'd rented because the agency offered unlimited kilometres, Canada-wide--was a suspicious indicator on the display that seemed to suggest the vehicle needed service. And even if it didn't yet, the sticker on the windshield gave us 600kms before it was due back at the dealership.
We'd planned a 4000 kilometre cannonball run. Our schedule called for us to drive overnight to Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, about an 18-20 hour drive, grab a good night's sleep in PA and then pick up our dogs and drive home again. Four days, three nights, no margin for error. Especially not once the dogs were onboard.
I had nightmares of the van breaking down somewhere remote, of the logistical challenge of trying to keep 27 dogs comfortable while stranded on the highway. I'm not someone who sets off on a road trip without making sure that my truck is in good shape for what I'm going to ask it to do, and I plainly just did not trust this van, or the people who'd rented it to us.
I packed the air compressor onboard, and we checked the fluid levels before we set out. And I made a plan to get the oil changed, at least, somewhere on the road ahead. And with that Lexi and I hit the highway as sun set on Sunday night, retracing our now familiar route out of the Lower Mainland of British Columbia and into the mountains.
The van itself was actually pretty decent. It was a Ford Transit 150, and as we raced over the strenuous Coquihalla Pass I was really impressed with its handling and responsiveness. The engine and the transmission didn't seem strained at all, even as I kept us at the posted 120kph speed limit, and though the driving position wasn't quite what I was used to, it wasn't absolute torture, even as the hours and kilometres racked up.
By three in the morning we were well north of Kamloops, and to my surprise, I could see the first hints of daylight between the mountain peaks of the Monashee Range. I guess I hadn't expected the days to be quite so long, even at this time of year and at this northern latitude.
But I wasn't complaining. By the time we stopped for fuel just before the Alberta border it was pretty well morning, and we had a lovely passage over the continental divide with the sun rising ahead of us. We passed through Jasper and saw the requisite roadside elk, as well as bighorn sheep further into the park, where we stopped by a beautiful lake for a pee break.
At Hinton, just outside of the park boundaries, I gave Lexi the wheel and built myself a makeshift bunk in the cargo area for some shut-eye. I managed to snooze for a couple of hours, before all the caffeine I'd consumed on the overnight drive caught up to me, and I asked Lexi to pull over at the next rest stop, a little highway pullout named, of all things, Nojack.
In twenty or thirty years when I look back on this mission, I'm absolutely certain I'll never believe that it was here that we happened to stop. It just won't make sense; it's too perfect. Because it was here, in Nojack Alberta, that we discovered our van had a flat tire. And worse, that our van had, you guessed it...no jack.
This time, even my air compressor wouldn't help us. I could hear the air hissing out of the stricken tire, and Lexi mentioned that we'd driven through a construction area a while back and passed over some rough road.
As it turned out, the tire had been patched, sloppily, before we collected the van from the rental agency. I'd been able to stave off the leak with the compressor the day before, but now that patch was shot. And we were marooned.
I can change a tire. Lexi can change a tire. The van had a full-sized spare, and all of the tools we would need to change the tire and keep going. Except a jack. It didn't have a jack.
What it did have was a roadside assistance number, so Lexi called and after we'd waited an hour or so, a nice young man drove out from the nearest point of civilization and changed our tire for us. The whole fiasco had cost us a few hours on our schedule, but I wasn't taking any chances.
We drove to the outskirts of Edmonton, where we stopped at a tire store and had our lug nuts retorqued and the spare looked over to make sure it was good for what we were going to ask of it.
Then we got an oil change, which garnered us more than a few curious looks, given that our van was emblazoned with the logo of the rental agency, and as the shop manager observed, "Not too many people get an oil change in a rental car."
But we explained our situation, and how important it was that the van not break down. And the manager was a dog-lover with a tattoo of his rescue pit bull on his calf, and he gave us an awesome discount. So huge shout-out to Stuart and the staff at the Great Canadian Oil Change in Stony Plain, Alberta.
They got us taken care of and sent happily on our way, and I felt a heck of a lot better about the long drive ahead.
We made good time across the rest of Alberta and into Saskatchewan, and by evening we were pulling into Prince Albert, where we made a quick stop to pick up dinner and an adult beverage or two before we checked into our usual haunts at the Coronet Hotel.
This was the first time we've stayed at the Coronet without a dog staying with us, which made our suite seem oddly empty, but we knew we'd have more than enough dogs on our hands the next morning.
I hit the rack almost as soon as I'd finished my dinner, knowing the next morning would come quickly. We were scheduled to meet Gayle and Tracy, our frontline rescue connections, outside of Prince Albert fairly early (by BC time) the next morning, and we would have to figure out how to Tetris all of the dogs into the back of the van before we hit the road, too.
I fell asleep almost right away, grateful to be fed and in a warm bed, although the stress lingered as I drifted off. The weather forecast called for heat. The drive would be long. Our pit stops would be longer than usual with so many dogs.
And then we would have the ferry to contend with, at the end of the road. I wasn't sure our van would fit into the upper vehicle deck of the ship, which is open to fresh air on both ends, and where drivers are allowed to stay with their vehicles. I was really concerned a how we would ensure the dogs got enough cool air on the 95-minute boat ride to Vancouver Island.
I worried about keeping the dogs cool all the way across the country. I worried about staying awake at the wheel, and I worried about making it to the ferry in time to meet with Jesse and Jodie and the Raincoast fosters.
I worried, period. Because that's what you do when you're driving dogs across the country. And even as I drifted to sleep, exhausted, after our 1800km drive, I knew the really tough part of the journey was only beginning.
To be continued...