#ProjectPuppies: Snow Dogs
I must have let out the breath I didn't realize I was holding, because beside me, Jesse stirred awake in the passenger seat.
"You good, bro?" he asked, no doubt double-checking that I was still awake after driving for a good eighteen hours.
"I'm fine," I replied. "Just--" I gestured out the window. Through the swirling snow, the highway seemed to drop away from us, disappearing precipitously into the night. We were atop the Coquihalla Summit, one of North America's most treacherous highways, staring down at five relentless kilometres of a steep eight-percent grade, in the middle of a blizzard.
It was nearly five in the morning, and we'd already crossed two high mountain passes since sunset. We might have stopped for the night, or to wait for better weather, but there were twenty-two dogs crammed into Jesse's truck with us, and we had to get them out of the cold mountains fast and down to warmer weather.
There was no question of stopping. But I wasn't going to be the guy who crashed a truck full of twenty-two puppies, either. I let my foot off the brake and slowly--and with Jesse offering encouragement and coaching from the passenger seat--I began to guide the truck down the grade.
Ahead of us, the night was coal black. The road was slick with snow. Truckers filled the rearview, barrelling downhill at a suicide pace. They didn't have puppies in the car. We did. I took it extra slow, and prayed for the road to flatten.
Our trip had begun just forty-eight hours earlier, when Jesse departed Raincoast Dog Rescue Society headquarters on Vancouver Island and met me outside my apartment in Vancouver at around nine-thirty in the morning on Monday, November 23rd.
Our destination was Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, where sometime on Tuesday morning we were scheduled to meet our frontline rescue angel, Gayle Yungwirth from North of 54 Frontline Dog Rescue.
Gayle had amassed two litters of puppies, their mothers, and four other rescue dogs from shelters and communities in northern Saskatchewan. With winter already in full swing in the Canadian north, all of these dogs were at severe risk due to cold and predation, and we knew that many would not survive the winter if we were unable to find them homes.
Fortunately for us, the weather report for our nearly two-thousand mile return trip looked promising, and not even particularly cold. So after a brief hiccup where we discovered the cargo capacity of my Toyota Tacoma did not come near to matching Jesse's GMC Sierra, we piled kennels, dog food and other supplies into Jesse's truck and set out east.
The weather cooperated through the day as we chugged steadily over the Coquihalla, Rogers, and Kicking Horse mountain passes to the Alberta border. We hit Calgary at around 11pm that evening, and with Jesse driving, I assumed the role of navigator to get us through the night to Saskatchewan. I relied on Google Maps, which would prove ultimately to be foolish.
Our directions set us down a pitch dark, deserted country backroad. Soon an icy fog had set in around us. We could barely see the road, much less any lights of civilization; fortunately, over the next five hours, only one other vehicle appeared.
Visibility remained miserable, and Jesse slowed the truck to a crawl to try and keep us on the road. At one point, the GPS set us down a steep hairpin grade into the Red Deer River valley, and with the dirt road iced over we were glad Jesse's tires were good.
We white-knuckled it back to pavement and continued crawling toward the provincial border as the hours steadily passed and our chances at any sleep that night dwindled. Finally, we arrived in Kindersley, SK, just across the Alberta border and about two hours from Saskatoon.
Here, we finally called it quits, taking a room at the Travelodge to sleep for a few meagre hours before our alarms were ringing and we were back on the road again, setting up the kennels for our precious cargo before covering the last miles into Saskatoon.
Gayle was waiting for us in a strip mall parking lot on the outskirts of Saskatoon when we pulled in around mid-morning. She'd slept in her van after driving down from Flin Flon the night before, so suddenly our few hours in the Travelodge didn't seem worth complaining about.
Joining Gayle in her van were the aforementioned rescue dogs. These included Daisy and her litter of nine.
Roxy and her litter of seven.
Two roly-poly fuzzbutts named Grizzly and Polar.
Luna, our resident beauty queen.
And Ember, our senior member.
The dogs were all in good spirits as we introduced ourselves, let them out for a pee, and packed them Tetris-style into the truck. Then, with no time to waste, we bid Gayle our fond goodbyes and thanks and turned the truck west again toward warmer weather.
It was my turn to drive, as Jesse turned his attention to the day-to-day operation of the rescue agency. As I motored us along the snowy prairies I marvelled at how many dogs--and people--clearly depend on this heroic man and his equally heroic partner, Jodie.
Raincoast is truly a labour of love, and both the labour and the love part were evident as Jesse fielded calls and texts more or less nonstop, from foster families and new adopters, veterinarians and other medical professionals, and folks who just needed dog advice and had happened to dial his number.
I truly had the easy job, keeping the truck moving west as afternoon turned to evening and quickly to night. We stopped for gas and a quick pit stop at the Cactus Corners Truck Stop, outside Hanna, Alberta, though with temperatures well below freezing there was no sense in keeping newborn puppies out of the warmth for very long.
Our adult dogs, though, seemed to enjoy the respite, and I enjoyed getting to know Daisy, Roxy and Ember a little more while Jesse wrestled with Luna, who we were quickly realizing had a stubborn streak to match her good looks.
Once again, we rolled through Calgary after dark, and as we pressed on into the foothills and the Rocky Mountains proper, snow began to fall ahead of us on the Trans-Canada Highway. By the time we'd crossed the provincial border back into British Columbia, we were slowed by icy roads and hampered visibility; just outside of Field, BC, we passed an overturned semi trailer and the Mounties who were attending to the scene.
We traversed Kicking Horse Pass carefully, and pulled into Golden, BC, around 9:30pm on Tuesday evening. Here, we let the dogs out to eat, drink, pee and get some fresh air, and we tried to do the same ourselves, though the local Tim Hortons apparently stops serving hot food an hour before close, torpedoing Jesse's dreams of something warm and reasonably healthy to eat. (I had McDonald's.)
From Golden, the Trans-Canada climbs over Rogers Pass, which at 1,330m above sea level is always gnarly in the winter months. Soon, Jesse was getting a text update telling us the highway was closed ahead, and as we rounded a corner we found ourselves slowing at the tail end of a long string of parked semi-trailers, red brake lights lit up amid the falling snow.
There was no update as to when the highway would be open, and no viable detour. In the backseat of Jesse's truck, Roxy's fluffy pups were awake and vocal, and as we stared out at the snow I wondered if we would be parked here all night, and whether the dogs in the back of the truck would be okay.
I'd packed a sleeping bag, stove, camp fuel, water and plenty of food, so I figured we could survive in case of emergency. But I had worries about the pups, and I refreshed the highway authority's update page constantly, hoping for answers.
Fortunately, after about 30-40 minutes in line, a first responder coming in the opposite direction informed us that the highway was now open again, so we joined the long line of semis and settled in for a crawl over the Selkirk range.
After the summit, the roads (and truck traffic) mercifully cleared up a bit, and we made pretty decent time to Revelstoke and then onward toward Kamloops. The puppies in our backseat were still making their displeasure known, so we stopped a couple of times to check in on them and see that they were properly watered and fed, though there was nothing we could do about the drive.
It was well past midnight, Wednesday morning, and we still had roughly three hundred miles to go.
We stopped again at a snowy truck brake check area outside Kamloops at around three in the morning. It wasn't the best place to feed and water twenty-two dogs, being as there seemed to be a constant stream of massive trucks rolling past just feet from where we had the dogs, but by that point, the dogs were making it clear they needed a bathroom break and we couldn't afford to be choosy.
Our surroundings notwithstanding, I really enjoyed watching Daisy and Ember frolic in the snow, and cuddling up to our chilly pups as we tried to get some water into them. By four in the morning we were back on the road, and though Vancouver was getting closer and closer, we still had the most treacherous stretch of road waiting for us.
The Coquihalla highway is notorious for bad weather and bad accidents. It's featured on the reality show Highway Thru Hell for good reason, and is, frankly, never my first choice for driving east from Vancouver, whatever the season. But it's the fastest route by far, and speed was our objective. So with Jesse catching some intermittent zees in the passenger seat, I guided us through Merritt and high into the mountains.
And then, in a blink, we were at the summit, and Jesse was shifting awake beside me and looking out at the snow--wondering, no doubt, if he'd made a mistake by entrusting his prized truck (not to mention the dogs!) to my hands.
I think we averaged 30kph down that five kilometre stretch of steep, though it felt like we were flying and the grade sure seemed a lot longer. Jesse coached me from the passenger seat as I focused on moderating our speed and keeping the truck pointed in the right direction. Now and then I even remembered to breathe.
It seemed to take hours, but at some point the road flattened out, and I could use the gas pedal again. We motored into Hope at around six in the morning, stopped for gas and then set out across the Fraser Valley with less than a hundred miles separating us from Vancouver.
By that point we were both exhausted. I'd been up for probably forty-five of the last forty-eight hours and driving in gruelling winter conditions through the night, and Jesse had logged similar hours, if not worse. And though I wanted to be the hero behind the wheel for the entirety of the homeward trip, I couldn't risk the dogs' lives, or ours, for the sake of my ego.
I tapped out in Chilliwack and asked Jesse to take over for the last hour or so into Vancouver. It was coming light, and rainy, and traffic was heavy. We inched our way over the last few miles and into the city.
Sometime around eight in the morning, Jesse dropped me off at my apartment and I quickly unloaded my stuff and bid my goodbyes to the dogs. He had a race to get the 9am ferry back to Vancouver Island, and had a whole day of delivering our cargo to their foster families with Jodie.
He wouldn't get much sleep until later that evening, while for me the hard part was over; I packed my stuff upstairs to my apartment, dropped everything on the floor and climbed into bed. I slept, and I didn't wake up until the evening.
It wasn't until I'd woken up again, and Jesse had texted me to let me know all of the dogs had found their way to foster families and the starts of their new lives, that the gravity of what we'd done really sunk in for me.
It's funny with these missions; you're preoccupied with the minute-by-minute demands of keeping a truckload of dogs healthy and safe and pointed in the right direction, and you don't really think about the broader scope of things.
But the truth is that many of those dogs would have frozen to death, or been eaten, or shot, had Gayle and Jesse and their rescue partners not been there to coordinate this mission. Now, 3500kms later, our dogs are being spoiled rotten by their foster families, sleeping on couches and getting epic cuddles, living lives that are just worlds apart from what waited for them in the northern winter.
I got less than twenty-four hours with our pack of dogs. That's how she goes. Odds are I'll never see any of them again, except for the odd social media update. No matter how much I bonded with Daisy and Roxy, or cuddled their little pups to warmth outside some nowhere truck stop, the role I'll have played in their lives will ultimately be little more than a footnote in what, with any luck, are long, happy stories of love between our truckload of dogs and each of their forever families.
As I write this, though, I'm preparing to help transport my 70th and 71st dogs this year for Raincoast tomorrow.
And oh, what a privilege to be even a footnote in that many lives.