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#ProjectPuppies: North Star

We were just leaving Edmonton when things started to go sideways. Literally.

The weather had been wonderful all the way from Vancouver to Prince Albert, Saskatchewan the day before. And we'd had a beautiful drive back west across Saskatchewan and eastern Alberta that afternoon.

Edmonton, though, was a wasteland. Where my rescue partner Alexis and I had been in tee shirts loading our cargo of dogs into my truck in Prince Albert, the Alberta capital had been waylaid by an early spring snowstorm. The air was bitterly cold, the ground covered in snow...and the roads, we would soon discover, were ice.

It was dark when we left Edmonton. Warned of even worse weather waiting for us on the approach to the Rockies, I took things slow. I was probably driving 20kph under the speed limit, but it didn't matter.

Before I knew what was happening, we hit a patch of black ice and the truck began to slide. I felt the back end slip out and start to get away from me. I must have sworn, or said something, but I really don't remember. Beside me, Alexis gasped.

The truck swung in toward the middle of the highway as I tried, gingerly, to regain control, fully aware that my next actions would determine the success of our mission--and the well-being of the twenty rescue dogs we carried with us onboard.

The truck continued to slide. I looked out at the snowy median and prayed we'd find a soft spot to land.

Let's backtrack a little bit.

I've been worrying that by writing these blogs I'm taking up too much of the spotlight and maybe making it seem like the minimal work I do in rescue is bigger than it actually is. My goal with these stories is just to illuminate a fascinating and fun and dynamic facet of animal rescue, but it's really just a brief little blip in the journey these animals are taking.

Frontline folks like Gayle Yungwirth at North of 54 Frontline Dog Rescue have the tough job of identifying at-risk dogs in remote northern communities, whether strays or owner surrenders or whole abandoned litters of puppies.

Gayle and her team work more or less nonstop in northern Saskatchewan and Manitoba, rescuing dogs from bad situations, finding temporary foster homes while they wait for transport, overseeing emergency vet care, and nurturing the relationships in those remote communities that allow them access and trust them with their animals.

Gayle's stories of frontline work are just incredible, heartbreaking and uplifting in equal parts. She and her team are tough, tireless, and the absolute angels these dogs need to survive.

On the other end of our drive are Jesse Adams and Jodie Evans, the heartbeat of Raincoast Dog Rescue, who more or less work around the clock to find and interview potential foster families for the dogs we transport, wade through mountains of adoption applications, coordinate veterinary visits and care, provide on-call support to fosters and adopters, and also coordinating the rescue of a ton of other dogs and cats from other tricky situations, both local and worldwide.

These folks on either ends of our missions, as well as the incredible foster families who take strange, scared dogs into their homes, work so much harder for so much longer than I do. And I hope that these blogs don't come off as me trying to do anything more but relate the excitement and craziness of the brief window of time when the dogs are in my care, and I have to get them from a parking lot in Saskatchewan to a ferry terminal in British Columbia as quickly and safely as possible.

The last time we met, Gayle observed that everyone in rescue thinks everyone else has the harder job. I thought she was crazy for thinking anything was tougher than the frontline work, but there you go. I just hope folks who read this realize that there are plenty of people who do so much more than I do, and who maybe don't get to be as visible--including my bestie and rescue buddy, Alexis, who works just as hard as I do on the road but doesn't get nearly as much glory.

Raincoast Dog Rescue Society's April 2021 mission to Saskatchewan began in Ladner, British Columbia, on the evening of April 8. In Ladner, I picked up Star, a beautiful, lively dog who'd come west with her litter of seven puppies on our January rescue mission.

Now that her puppies had grown and been adopted out, and Star had been spayed and had time to recover with her wonderful fosters, Alexis and I would ferry her back to Saskatchewan to rejoin her family, who we were told were anxiously awaiting her return.

With Star onboard, I drove out to pick up Alexis and organize the truck for our incoming load of dogs. We were expecting nineteen on this mission, which meant kennel space would be at a premium, so it took a bit of Tetris-ing to get everything loaded properly.

We were also taking out a load of food and supplies donated from the kind folks at Thank Dog I Am Out, a Vancouver rescue, to pass along to Gayle and her team on the frontlines. So the truck was quite full by the time we pulled out onto the Trans-Canada Highway at around 11:30 that evening.

The drive went smoothly over the notorious Coquihalla Pass, and through Kamloops and up along the North Thompson River...until we hit a hiccup.

I'd imagined that the town of Clearwater--the only town of consequence along the highway in a distance of about a hundred miles--would have an all-night gas station.

I was wrong.

We pulled into Clearwater at roughly four in the morning, with about 80kms left in the tank and 70kms of road ahead of us to the nearest (open) gas station. All of the pumps in Clearwater were closed for the night, which boggled my mind but whatever.

We decided that instead of backtracking 40 mins down the highway, we would nap in the gas station parking lot, and so Alexis, Star and I all caught some winks until the pumps opened at six.

Then we were back on the road again, heading north over fairly clear roads into the Rockies and across the Alberta border into Jasper.

The sun came out on the Alberta side of the mountains, and we made good time out of the foothills and toward Edmonton, stopping now and then so that Star could have a pee and some exercise.

I hadn't had a chance to really commune with her on her outbound trip in January; she'd been protective of her pups and understandably quite stressed, but with her puppy responsibility gone she seemed so much younger and carefree than I remembered. I think Lexi and I were both glad to have her along, and really charmed by her playful spirit.

The temperature climbed through the afternoon as we passed through Edmonton and then Lloydminster on the Saskatchewan border. We'd been told it was 22 degrees in Prince Albert that week and were prepared for spring weather and clear roads.

Luckily, we got what we expected, and after one last stop in North Battleford we pulled into the parking lot of the Coronet Hotel in Prince Albert a little after dark, laden down with dinner from Montana's and a couple of adult beverages.

In the hotel, Star immediately made up for all the time she'd spent cooped up in the truck, zooming around the suite and leaping from bed to bed like a crazy woman. And also trying to mooch our food. Lexi and I were both glad our traveling companion was heading back to a loving home, but a bit wistful, too; we'd fallen for her.

Anyway, after driving for eighteen hours or so, I was wiped. I collapsed into bed and didn't wake up until about ten the next morning, when Lexi and I began to prepare for our meeting with Gayle and Tracy Butterfield, another friend and frontline hero who fosters and cares for a ton of rescue dogs on her beautiful rural property.

Luckily our meeting spot was just across the street from the Coronet, so there was time to introduce Star to the (very dog-friendly) staff of the hotel, and grab some breakfast from Tim Horton's besides. Then we headed over to set up our kennels, unload the dog food, frolic with Star and wait on Gayle and Tracy.

Both Gayle and Tracy arrived a little after lunchtime with vehicles bursting with dogs, and not all of them for us. Gayle works with a number of rescues, and Tracy would be continuing on to Lloydminster with a cargo of pups for a rescue there.

So we sorted out which dogs were ours, introduced ourselves, and began the task of trying to fit them all in the vehicle.

When all was said and done, we had with us:

Pippa and her litter of nine puppies.

A handsome young fella we named Duckie.

A lovely and possibly pregnant lab we named Daffodil.

An endearingly scruffy and also possibly pregnant little lady named Missy.

A brother and sister duo who would become Daisy and Yoshi.

Casey and Finnegan, two adorable small breed boys.

Jewel, a small-but-fierce spitfire who would ride in a kennel on the centre console.

And Brody, a rambunctious and handsome pup with whom Tracy had fallen in love as she'd nursed him back to health following the removal of a fish hook from his side.

That made nineteen dogs, which is what we'd come for. But after Tracy left to continue on to Lloydminster, we found a straggler; Knight, a shy but sweet pup who we figured we might as well take along with us, even if it meant Lexi would have to have a dog ride on her lap for the duration of the journey home.

(Lexi didn't seem to mind.)

We packed the dogs up, said goodbye and good luck to Star, and wished Gayle safe travels until we met again. And then we set out, in the mid afternoon, bound for the British Columbia and the ferry terminal at Tsawwassen, some 1800kms distant.

The weather was warm, verging on hot. My concern was that the dogs in the bed of the truck would have enough fresh air to stay cool and comfortable. I had no idea that I'd be piling blankets on top of them by the time that night fell.

We made our first stop in North Battleford, a couple of hours west of Prince Albert. Here, we tackled the task of organizing each of our twenty dogs for feeding, watering, and a bathroom break and some exercise.

Amazingly, we pulled off this first rest stop without much of a hitch--except for the discovery of a fish hook matted in the fur around Duckie's hindquarters, which Alexis carefully cut out and stowed away.

We now had *two* fish hook dogs, and our other one, Brody, would be the focal point of our next major event.

In Lloydminster, a couple of hours down the road from North Battleford, we stopped at a Subway for dinner, just across the provincial border that runs through the middle of town. We left the pups in the vehicle, and as we returned to the truck with our sandwiches, I heard Alexis exclaim urgently and dive into the front seat.

At first I thought Brody had somehow found his way into some improperly-stowed people food, or some other such mischief; he'd proved to be a pretty rambunctious guy as he rode from Prince Albert west on Alexis's lap. But the reality was much grosser.

Despite our recent rest stop, Brody had stored up a big surprise for us. He'd made two deposits on my passenger seat in the brief interval that we'd been in the Subway--and poor Alexis and her fancy Raincoast hoodie bore the brunt of the aftermath.

We tidied up the truck, Brody, and Alexis as best we could in the parking lot of the Subway. And then we swapped Brody into a kennel for Knight, who seemed like he would make a much calmer riding mate for Alexis--and hopefully less prone to accidents, too.

With the remnants of Brody's accident taken care of, we pointed the truck west again, out of Lloydminster as the sun set ahead of us. By the time we hit Vegreville, about a hundred kilometres out of Edmonton, night had fallen and the temperature was dropping, too, as a cold rain began to fall around us.

I pulled off the highway and we stopped at the Vegreville Dairy Queen anyway, figuring Lexi needed a reward for enduring Brody's shenanigans. We ate our Blizzards in the parking lot of the local Ford dealership and then got back on the road again as the air outside dropped toward freezing, and the rain began to look suspiciously like snow.

By dawn, I hoped, we'd be on the other side of the mountains and back in warmer weather. But we would have to endure the long, cold night, first. And we had no idea yet, but there was a patch of black ice waiting for us, just a hundred or so kilometres down the road.

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!


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