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#ProjectPuppies: Maternity Ward

Dusk, somewhere outside of Saskatoon. A hellacious winter storm had just pummelled the province of Saskatchewan less than a day earlier, and the highways across the prairies were still treacherous. I drove slow, mindful of black ice and dwindling visibility--and of Lily, the rescue lab in the backseat we'd picked up in Alberta that morning.

Beside me, Jesse shifted in the passenger seat. Pointed out the window to a cluster of emergency lights along the highway median. We slowed to a crawl as we passed, peering out into the snow at a group of police cruisers, ambulances and tow trucks, and one very mangled vehicle. Beside the wreckage, a firefighter was crouching next to a generator.

"Jaws of life," Jesse said. "I hope they're okay."

We'd been driving since late the previous evening. We still had a couple more hours to go. But as much as I was looking forward to a hot meal and a warm bed in our hotel in Prince Albert, the sight of that accident reminded me to keep cautious. We had eighteen more dogs waiting for us in Prince Albert the next morning, and it would do nobody any good if I couldn't get us there safely.

This first Raincoast Dog Rescue Society mission of 2021 began with as much promise as a 2000 mile return trip across the Rocky Mountains and snowy prairies in the dead of winter could offer. The weather report was clear through the mountains in both directions, and we seemed set to arrive in Saskatchewan well after the storm had passed.

We'd budgeted more time for sleep on this mission than the last, and arranged to meet in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, which would make for an easier route through the mountains than the highway through Kicking Horse and Rogers Passes, which we'd found to be pretty darn gnarly on our last mission.

We'd loaded my truck with an absolute pile of donated food and supplies from both Raincoast and our friends at Thank Dog I Am Out dog rescue in Vancouver; the rear of the Tacoma sagged under the weight, and I figured we would have no problem keeping traction even if the snow started to fly.

Raincoast's founder, Jesse Adams, met me and my rescue partner Alexis at my place in Vancouver on the evening of Jan 13th. We packed our belongings into the truck and bid Alexis goodbye and set out into the night, destined for Carstairs, Alberta, where we were scheduled to pick Lily up the next morning.

Lily was a spay-and-return from northern Saskatchewan who'd been a guest of the folks at Pawsitive Haven Animal Rescue in Carstairs and was now heading back to her family. We'd volunteered to ferry her from the Calgary area to Prince Albert.

Our overnight drive through the mountains was pretty unremarkable. Aside from a few spots in the mountain passes, the roads were clear and we made good time. By dawn we were driving through Banff National Park, spotting elk and foxes on the side of the road as the first rays of sun lit up the mountain peaks above us.

We made Carstairs mid-morning on a beautiful sunny winter's day, and after grabbing a quick bite at the local Subway we located Pawsitive Haven Rescue, where a volunteer named Hannah introduced us to Lily.

Lily was just as sweet and lovely as advertised, and Jesse and I both fell in love with her instantly. We piled her into the backseat of the Tacoma and set out across the prairies, on a road that seemed to stretch arrow straight to the horizon and beyond.

My GPS helpfully informed me that my next turn would be in 550kms, so I turned up the music and enjoyed the beautiful day as Jesse grabbed a nap between calls with prospective foster families for our latest rescue pups.

We were slated to take two litters of newborn puppies and their mothers, plus at least two other pregnant dogs, and whatever else we could fit in the Tacoma, so finding fosters willing and able to deal with so many needy pups was practically a full-time job for my copilot. I was glad I just had to keep my foot on the gas and not make any tough decisions.

By nightfall we were driving through Saskatoon and north toward Prince Albert. Another accident had closed part of the highway, and there was black ice everywhere, so despite my fatigue I drove slowly and carefully until we'd pulled into the parking lot of our hotel.

Alexis and I had had good luck at the Coronet Hotel in Prince Albert on a previous rescue mission, but when Jesse called them this time for a room they told us regretfully that they were sold out--until he mentioned Raincoast, and our rescue mission.

The Coronet is renowned as a pet-friendly establishment, and at the mention of rescue dogs the desk clerk was able to find us a suite--and only charged us the basic room rate. They even had treats waiting for Lily when we checked in.

I was exhausted, so I collapsed into bed pretty much immediately, waking only to scarf down the food Jesse brought back from Boston Pizza for me. Then we both fell asleep again, and Lily curled up on the floor at the feet of our beds, and we all grabbed some much-needed shut eye.

We were scheduled to meet our frontline rescue angel, Gayle Yungwirth from North of 54 Frontline Dog Rescue, at 10am the next morning across the street from the Coronet, but the storm had made her drive down from Flin Flon, Manitoba, a little more difficult than normal.

So Jesse and Lily and I had a relaxing morning, despite the bitter cold outside, as we tried to anticipate how we would fit all of the incoming dogs in the truck. We'd had some last minute news overnight; our new Lily had been surrendered by her owner in northern Saskatchewan, and was in need of a new home.

Jesse, already quite smitten, quickly snapped Lily up for our caravan, though whether he would be able to give her up to an adoptee once we got back to the coast remained in question. Either way, she would be riding with us.

Around noon, we parked the truck in our meeting spot across the street from the Coronet and set to unpacking the mountain of food and supplies we'd brought for Gayle. We were a bit daunted by how much we'd packed into the truck and wondered what we would do if Gayle couldn't fit it into her van, but we needn't have worried; once she'd taken eighteen dogs out of her backseat there was plenty of room for food.

Gayle arrived pretty quick with a whole collection of pups, including some destined for another rescue down in Saskatoon. Among those we couldn't take were an absolutely lovely, spunky young staffy named Tina, and a handsome and friendly German Shepherd, both of whom I fell for immediately.

But our truck would be packed as it was. Our cargo this time around included a mama named Pretzel and her seven newborn pups.

Another mama named Buffy, and her seven newborn pups.

A cattle dog named Cinnamon who certainly looked pregnant.

Our lovely Lily, of course.

And the undisputed social media favourite, Pudge, our stubby little sweetheart with a sparkling personality who captured my heart the moment she crawled into my arms, tail-wagging, for a friendly cuddle.

In fact, all of our dogs on this mission were wonderfully friendly and well-tempered, even Buffy and Pretzel, who at first were a little protective of their babies. They would all turn out to be a joy to take care of over the next twenty-four hours or so as we high-tailed it back to tidewater.

We packed up the dogs and helped Gayle pack the food, and then bid Gayle goodbye and safe travels and hit the road out of Prince Albert around 2:30 in the afternoon.

Our first stop was North Battleford, about two hours away, where we ducked into a Canadian Tire a laundry basket for Buffy's litter. The nightmare when transporting newborns a long distance is that a mother might inadvertently smother her puppies in transit, so we wanted to make sure we gave Buffy a break when her pups weren't feeding.

Of course, the truck was already jammed full of dogs and supplies, so our laundry basket full of pups got the VIP treatment...and Jesse didn't seem too broken up about the arrangement, either.

As night settled in we stopped for dinner in Lloydminster, on the Saskatchewan/Alberta border. Here, Lily reminded us of her tendencies to a) leap for the exits every time a truck door was opened, and b) scavenge for any food that wasn't safely stowed away the second we left her alone in the truck.

Luckily, we prevented both an escape and an adventure in canine indigestion (and saved my Doritos), and after we'd dined, and gassed up the truck again, we set off westward into the night. It was clear and cold, with temperatures dropping below minus fifteen, but the roads were clear now that we were on main highways, and we made great time through Edmonton to the foothills of the Rockies.

We stopped just before midnight to let the dogs out again. Here it became apparent that traveling with newborn puppies is much, much easier than traveling with six week old puppies, who not only require actual puppy food (as opposed to just nursing with their mother), but also seem to make a tremendous mess that requires a major cleaning at every service stop.

On this trip, cleaning and feeding of the puppies was handled capably by Buffy and Pretzel, and our other dogs were a joy to feed, water, and exercise. I spent the most time with Pudge, Buffy and Cinnamon, and fell for each of them in turn.

The hardest part of each service stop was putting them back in their crates for another few hours of driving; they were all just so cuddly and friendly that I wanted to hang out with them longer.

Probably my favourite stretch of the drive between Prince Albert and Vancouver is the segment after Edmonton going through the Rockies. The speed limit is 110kph until you hit the mountains, the roads are nearly empty, it's usually nighttime and the kilometres just seem to fly by. And then you're in Jasper Park and even if it's dark, it's an interesting road to drive, but not as windy and treacherous as the southern crossing of the continental divide.

Here, we ran into some snowfall and icy roads coming down from the divide into British Columbia, which required a bit of focus and caution, but we made it through without incident and stopped again around two in the morning in the town of Valemount, on the other side of the Rockies.

Just after Valemount we encountered two moose on the shoulder of the highway, looming out of the darkness and into the glare of my high beams with more than enough time for us to dodge them. They didn't seem bothered by our passing, but I was glad we were paying attention; you don't want to run into a moose at highway speeds.

One thing I'm especially aware of when I'm driving on these missions is just how many lives are depending on me. If I do something dumb or get careless, or, god forbid, fall asleep at the wheel, it's not just me who pays the price but Jesse, and our cargo of dogs--not to mention any other drivers who might be involved.

There are terrible stories of rescue missions gone awry, where someone has pushed themselves too far and fallen asleep at the wheel, causing just horrible tragedies. As I piloted us through the early morning hours I was thankful we'd allotted enough time in our schedule for a good night's sleep in Prince Albert, and thankful that Jesse was beside me to take over when we needed a driver change.

I wound up giving Jesse the driver's seat in Merritt, just south of Kamloops, at sunrise, and grabbed a quick couple hours of sleep on the passenger side before we pulled into the Fraser Valley, a hundred kilometres from home, for our last stop with the dogs.

Here, I played in the grass with Pudge and Buffy some more, suddenly all too aware that in an hour or so I would be saying goodbye to these dogs and would likely never see them again. I'd developed a closeness with Pudge in particular, and with Buffy and Cinnamon, and even though I knew they were all headed to good fosters and eventually happy homes, the ends of these missions are always bittersweet.

These dogs in particular were just so quick to trust, and to love, that it seemed painful to have to say goodbye. Fortunately, Pretzel and Cinnamon were destined for Vancouver foster homes, so I knew I would be seeing them again. Meanwhile, Pudge, Lily and Buffy would go with Jesse to fosters on Vancouver Island.

Around mid-morning we arrived back in downtown Vancouver, at my apartment. And after transferring the dogs from my truck to Jesse's, it was time to say goodbye. Jesse still had a full day getting the dogs to their various foster families, but my part in the mission was over. I parked my truck in my parking stall, gathered all of the crap we'd accumulated on our journey, and went upstairs for a shower and a long nap.

As I write this, I've just come back from delivering pee pads to Pretzel (now Star)'s foster family. She and her pups are doing wonderfully. Cinnamon has become Charlotte, and there's some question as to whether she and Pudge are actually pregnant, but we'll know those answers soon enough.

Lily, meanwhile, is already destined for her forever home, while Buffy and her pups have a great foster family on Vancouver Island. All told, that's nineteen more dogs transported from the wilds of northern Saskatchewan to better lives, making ninety dogs total I've played my small part in rescuing since beginning these missions in May.

I still follow along with many of their lives on social media, and I feel a tiny sense of pride when I see how well "my" dogs are doing in their new homes. I only know these dogs for a couple of days at the most, but they imprint themselves on my heart nonetheless, and I'm grateful to have known every one of them.

Check out Raincoast Dog Rescue's website for information about how to apply to adopt or foster, or to donate money or supplies to support missions like these.


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