Not Quite the Worst Case Scenario

I was leaving for Nashville in less than 12 hours, so it was unsurprising that we found ourselves at the vet – Gwynn had gone from limping on Monday to having trouble getting to his feet on Thursday.  A thorough exam later and we were sent home with the diagnosis of ‘strained muscle in back’, some muscle relaxants and instructions to come back next week.

I headed out to Nashville (awesome place!) safe in the knowledge that my family had it covered in the Dog department.  Frequent check-ins reveal they’re still only taking him on short walks, but the meds are doing their trick.

Almost exactly a week later, I’m on a bus somewhere in the US and getting a frantic series of texts.  With pictures (that I’m not going to share with you because you’re welcome).  In the winning submission for most traumatic belly-rub ever, Doodle discovered that Gwynn’s “back issues” were actually from an oozing, swollen and painful wound fully hidden in the thick fluff of Gwynn’s armpit.  From what we can tell, he must have hit a tree branch at speed when we were last out in the woods.

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This was his ‘stoned Cindy Lauper Lamp’ phase.  

Painting by numbers:

10 days the dog was in pain before we properly identified the issue

6 hours and a border crossing away from him when he’s checked in to the vet.

4 days at home during which time I could have identified the issue before it became so terribly infected

2 days at the vet with the worst blunt-force injury my vet had EVER seen, requiring a great deal of surgery to remove infection.

4″ of stitches along his arm-pit, that, because it had been sitting for so long, still had a huge amount of infection.

6 pills spread out throughout the day to combat pain, swelling and infection

7 days before he could semi-comfortably make it around the l

10 days during which the wound oozed nearly constantly, requiring the living room to be coated in a constantly refreshed layer of towels.

To add insult to injury we got the stitches removed yesterday at the same time as he was diagnosed with a skin infection on his nose.

It’s not the worst case possible, I keep telling myself, but it came far too close for comfort.

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On a more positive note, Gwynn has been thoroughly enjoying the freedom I’ve given him from leash during his lamp-phase.  That and the food – I don’t think the dog will willingly go back to kibble.  He’s eating better than a university student home for the holidays.

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Children

I recently had an experience that reminded me how important it is to be a parent.  I am not a parent, just to be clear.  I just spend a lot of time in parks, and in the neighbourhood so I have plenty of opportunity to judge them.

You (in general), as a parent, are responsible for teaching a brand new person the ins and outs of life, and interacting with the world.  That’s a big thing!

Scene 1:

I was walking Gwynn through High Park after he’d gotten his spring hair cut this year.  Right out of his haircut, he looks like the most delightful teddy bear on earth to cuddle and squeeze and pet.  Beautiful day, tons of people around, and I was on my way to the dog off-leash area to let him run around a bit (and, as is inevitable, get some mud on the wheels, as it were.).

With that many people around I pay a lot of attention – make sure to keep Gwynn close when walking past that person who is looking nervous of him, or that kid holding an ice cream cone at dog-level, etc.

So I noticed when a girl – probably about 10 – locked on to Gwynn and began speed-walking away from her mother and directly towards Gwynn (from behind him), hands already outstretched.

Gwynn is friendly.  But He. Is. A. Dog.  And coming up behind a strange animal and surprising him with a random pet from a stranger?  Nuh uh.  And this is where I judge the kid’s mom, and intercede in the teaching of life-interactions.

Placing myself between Gwynn and the little girl, I told/asked her, “You know you always need to ask permission before going near a strange dog?  Right?*

I got a blank look in response to this, but at least she’d stopped moving forward.

“You have to ask, because the dog might be scared of people, or mean, or sick, or not like kids or surprises, but if you ask, I might say yes,” I add, when it becomes clear that Mom isn’t taking advantage of this teachable moment.

I get through to her.  “Can I pet your dog?” she asks.

“Absolutely!  He’s very friendly.”

End scene.  I really hope I got through to her, but frankly, I. Am. Not. Her. Parent.  or friend, or relative, or teacher/person of authority in her life.  There is just as much chance that she will go off and complain with her mom about that weird rude (possibly even that B word) who tried to lecture her about dogs, when her dog isn’t even not-friendly, so why? why?  And if her parents aren’t bothering with agreeing with me on this, then why would she?

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Why yes, he is friendly… but I’m friendly too until a stranger surprise-touches my butt

Scene 2:

Gwynn and I are walking through the park near me last weekend, on a pretty high traffic multi-use trail.  Enter a little boy on a bicycle going the opposite direction to us.  I moved off to the side, but that wasn’t necessary, because he came to a stop, dropped his bike and says, “Hi,  my name is (Let’s call him Timmy), can I pet your dog?”

Delighted, I said, “Yes!  And thank you for asking!  His name is Gwynn.”  And we spent the next few minutes talking about Gwynn, and bicycles.

Younger brother caught up, asked the same question, and, getting another enthusiastic YES-and-thank-you, started walking with his bike towards Gwynn.  Mom shows up on her bike at this point, and immediately says, “Stop and put your bike down, you’ll make the dog nervous.”

Brilliant.  As I walked away, I overheard the older kid telling his mom about how “That lady with the dog thanked me for asking if I could pet him!”

It warms the cockles of my heart, it does indeed.

directly after grooming

directly after grooming… everyone wants to touch him

In conclusion:

Parents: teach your kids proper animal etiquette.  Always ask, and always be gentle with animals are the rules they need the most.  And try not to pass your own fears of animals on to them.  Also, you are doing a fantastic job, in general (not that my opinion matters, here, but still.), at raising children and handling the screaming and the constant energy and the many MANY ‘Why?’ questions, and oh god, it just seems exhausting.

People with dogs: also educate kids if they don’t seem to know about the ask rule… and if they do know – make sure to let them know that them doing the right thing is AWESOME.  Because sometimes hearing something from a stranger can reinforce good behaviours that parents are teaching.

*Blog readers – you know this, yes?  If you didn’t before, you know now.  “Is your dog friendly?”, “Can/May I pet your dog?”… “Is it ok for my (child too young to speak coherently especially to strangers) to say hello to your dog?” And, regardless of what size a dog is, how happy he seems to be to see you, and how experienced you are with dogs, if the owner says ‘no’, then give them space!

Skunked or Bamboozled

With the warm weather, the skunks in my neck of the woods are emerging from their winter sleep.

The other week, my coworker got sprayed just outside the front door of our office – this led to the entire office reeking of skunk for the next two days, as a blast of skunky air swept through every time someone opened that damn door.  It’s not his fault, though, I blame immigration for failing to alert non-North-Americans of the key difference between Pepe and Penelope upon entry into Canada.  He’s Scottish, and they don’t have skunks.  If my nose weren’t so angry with him, I’d suggest that it’s kind of sweet that he was going out to find out what was wrong with the cat hanging out beside our front entrance.

Poor guy thought he was safe even if the cat were mean, since it had its back to him.

For future reference of people who’ve never seen a skunk.  If it’s between late evening and mid-morning, and it’s got white markings on it – even if it isn’t a skunk, it’s a skunk. Skedaddle.  If you want more particular details, they kind of look like a long haired black and white cat from a distance, but they waddle.  They stamp their feet when they’re angry/anxious, and the end you should fear most is the tail end.

I’ve had a few close encounters with skunks and their smell, but have not yet been skunked myself.  I’ve got a dog, though, and nearly everyone I know who owns a dog has, at one point or another (or, in the case of my neighbour with a beagle, 5+ times) gotten skunked, or at least had to deal with a skunked dog.  And, if your dog gets sprayed – there isn’t a chance in hell that you’re getting him clean without long exposure and contamination.

I know it’ll happen, though I do my best to fight the odds.

With all of this in mind, when I was out in my back yard this morning getting ready for a dog walk, and heard a strange watery spritzing noise right beside me, it’s no surprise that my response was a low wail of “Nooooooooooooo” and a Mr. Bean-esque retreat.

Adrenaline pumping, I ran right out of the  yard, unleashed dog close on my tail, with the sole purpose of getting out of the line of fire.  Panting and wild eyed in my front yard, I, bloodhound, I sniffed suspiciously at the air… the dog… my knees… before throwing the leash around Gwynn and quick-stepping out into the road.

From the safety of the middle of the road, I more securely fastened the dog and acknowledged that skunks probably don’t make a noise like someone charging a water gun before or during their spray.  And that, if our sump pump pipe had frozen almost solid, it would probably make just that kind of gurgling hiss.

If you see this view of a skunk then, well… it’s probably already too late. “Image by Ken Bosma under Creative Commons license

Algonquin in Winter

This past long weekend, I finally made it out skiing.  Not just any old skiing, but a trip to Algonquin.  I love Algonquin – not even just the park… the whole area.  Anywhere from Algonquin to Northern Ontario (anyone who’s been to Sioux Lookout knows Algonquin Park isn’t in ‘Northern Ontario’… not really), give me wilderness.  The woods, the trails, the lakes the rivers, the rustling of the leaves.  If I could live in the woods and commute a reasonable distance to my work (or just not work at all), I wouldn’t even hesitate.  If I could live up there, but couldn’t take technology with me, you all might just be lucky enough to get a brief final note from me.  “Gone forever to woods, bye”, maybe.  

My hermit-type habits are a discussion for another day, though, because I wasn’t solo on this trip.  I didn’t even sleep in a tent!

My friend S (my friend who does cross-country skiing too), Gwynn, and I stayed at the Motel 6 in Huntsville.  If you’re looking for a dog-friendly place to stay in that area, I cannot recommend them enough.  They don’t charge extra for (or make a fuss about) dogs, they actually welcome them!  They might have really weird motel-6 sheets, but just look at what they gave Gwynn when we got there!

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poop bags (gentle reminder, I’ll take it), a ball, and an assortment of cookies. The last place I’d stayed at with Gwynn before this tried to claim that they had no ‘pet friendly’ rooms available, and that their records didn’t show that we’d called and booked and said we were bringing the dog. it’s a nice change

We drove up Saturday morning at some unholy hour, stopping on our way up at Henrietta’s – this amazing bakery between Huntsville and Algonquin.  Try their Muskoka Clouds, or their bread… or anything, really.

We spent our morning attempting to ski one of the ungroomed trails.  It was a learning experience, and what I learned was simple:  A trail I remember as being flat-ish in summer is not necessarily a good trail for skiing!  It was lovely, though.

When we stopped by the front gate to get a day-permit to the park, we were told of three spots where the trails were groomed.  And no-dogs-allowed.  Well that’s just no fun, though I could understand it.  It put a bit of a cramp in our plan until I remembered the Rail Trail.  For those of you not often in Algonquin, it’s a bicycle trail (in summer) that runs along where there used to be a lumber train through the park.  Even ungroomed, that trail would be guaranteed to be flat!

My suspicion about why this trail isn’t advertised as groomed is that, having an access right in Mew Lake Campground (one of the few that remains open in the winter), they expected the trail to get at least partly ruined by all the people walking on it.  I feel no guilt about bringing the dog out on that trail, especially not after witnessing the number of walking groups that came out and almost on purpose walked directly on the ski lines.  For those of you who don’t cross-country ski – if you see those perfectly spaced ski-trail lines?  Don’t walk on them!

I also had a chance to take out a coworker’s snowshoes.  Gwynn was unimpressed at my ability to completely block the trail when he was trying to get through, but I definitely appreciated them on the steep parts of the trail – they had a lot more grip than my boots would have, and I didn’t need to slide down on my bum or clamber up hoisting myself from tree to tree.

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We also had pie and deep fried foods and were asleep before 10pm, so you just know it was a good time.

Unfocused

Gwynn and I have been working through some issues recently.  Despite being 4 (!), he’s apparently decided to try out that doggy-teen-angst thing that usually strikes sometime between turning 2 and 3.  He’s a late bloomer, I guess.

He’s started barking at people, and attempting to run towards them (fun! not.) on our walks, and is developing dog-park-bully tendencies (ditto).

I know pretty much everyone says you never just reach a point with your dog where you can stop training, but I kind of assumed that I’d be able to keep adding tricks, agility moves and general improvement on his recall and sit-stays and call it a day.  I wasn’t expecting new things.  Behavioural things.

New things like suddenly, other dogs are really really interesting – in a hard-eyes and rigid posture, jumps over the barrier separating us (mid-agility run) from another dog (ditto, but also with fear-of-dog-issues, of course) like it wasn’t a foot and a half taller than the jump height we’re working on, spend 10 minutes yipping hysterically until I just get the fuck out 20 minutes into class kind of way.

Awesome.

What does all this mean?  Well, apparently the bullying might be a mixture of the herding and poodling (poodles were originally hunting dogs, so I’m not quite sure what instinct it is here, other than… being bouncy) instincts kicking into high gear from his ancestry – lots of darting in and back, barking and general over-excited-not-listening-to-other-dog’s-discomfort-cues.

And his complete loss of interest in running the agility course with me when he could instead go cry and run the fenceline?  Lack of focus combined with the whole over-excited-at-dogs thing.  His groovy ‘do means that his eyes are a thing I don’t necessarily see when training focus-work, and apparently this is an issue, because it means that I’m rewarding the wrong thing.  He’s, more often than not, getting rewarded for face-pointing in my general direction, but actually looking at the treat in my hand/pocket/whatever it is I’m trying to get him to stop looking at.  Instead of actual eye-contact.  Yup, 100% luring, not actual training.  Mea culpa.

Yes, also I high-pitch my voice to try and make him more interested in me… but when that fails… well…

My agility instructor has recommended that I cut all the hair around his eyes, but he’s already got a bit of a mullet thing going on from the trimming I already do, and I love his hair, so I’m going to try out a few alternatives for the interim (until it’s warm enough out that I can get him fully groomed).  What are your thoughts on his style?

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She also said she thought we’d be fine continuing with agility and just adding a dog obedience class (one that focuses on, well, focus, and working on newly developed issues), but frankly, I don’t give a flying… rice-cake… about whether Gwynn and I succeed at doing 6/8/10/etc weave poles, I just want my friendly/happy/not crazy dog back.

All this over-excitement directed at people (barking/lunging), and dogs (bullying, and hard eyes/stiff posture), to my mind, means that Gwynn is not feeling safe, he’s not sure how to act in a given situation, and, for these reasons, not happy.  

this is not a dog moping about and writing emo poetry

this is not a dog moping about and writing emo poetry

On a deeper level, I mean.

He’s also on a bad track towards possibly developing aggression issues (if you don’t already call his occasional barking and bullying a form of aggression), and, well NO.  If you’ve got experience in this type of thing, feel free to link me to useful stuff on the web or leave your best tips.  I’ve already been trolling back through old posts at SUCCESS JUST CLICKS and other dog trainer blogs, but repeated information isn’t bad information.

So I’m going all Mr Miyagi on his poor confused self, and we are going to get focused, and get happy.

Wax on, Wax off.  Click, Treat.

Taking out the Trash

Dear Parks Staff,

I really hope you don’t have video surveillance in the park.  If you do, let me explain.

It’s not what it looked like, I swear.  I mean, yes, I did kick that garbage can.  Okay, I’ll admit, I kicked it three times.  I meant it for the best, though.  You saw my dog getting all interested in it, jumping up and basically just being all over that trash receptacle, right?  I couldn’t just let it go.

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Why three times?  Well, the first time, I could have sworn I heard something, but that could just have been the hollow thud distorted by plastic.  The second, though, nada.  The third, I thought I heard something, only it was fainter, but the dog was still freaking out.

You work in Toronto.  You know what’s out there. R.O.U.S., we have them.  Full grown raccoons that outweigh my dog do exist.  They are the reason our trash-pickup compost bin is kept hung up on the wall with bungee cords holding the lid shut.  Possums – basically demonic characters from a Tim Burton movie sprung to life.

On a side note, We are really big fans of the gigantic new garbage cans the city implemented – 5 feet tall with a big heavy lid, we no longer need to bungee our bins shut, and the raccoons seem to get the idea that pulling the lid up enough to squeeze in would be a bad life choice.  I’m not so sure it was a good idea to modify the lids of the ones in parks to include a big permanent opening for easy waste disposal, though.

I think the book 1984 stuck with me in unusual ways, because I was torn between “some poor animal is TRAPPED in the garbage can” and “There’s a raccoon in there, and if I get too close, it’ll latch onto my head with its creepy little child-fingers and chew my face off.”

Which is why I tried poking the lid open with a stick, while holding my arm over my face like I was dracula.  It makes perfect sense – the raccoon latches on, but my arm is in the way and can push it off.  Science, that’s what that is.  Though the stick was less scientifically effective.  in order to get the lid high enough, I’d have been almost fully suspended over the bin, and in full danger of face-attack.

We retreated, temporarily, to discuss options.  With Gwynn tied up far from the bin of doom, I came around behind, and pulled the lid open, bracing myself for the explosion of bandit-faced doom.  So, yeah, nothing came out but an ominous hissing noise.

Part of me, at this point, was thinking “Oh thank god, it’s a cat!”, but the instinctive part of me was saying “Oh crap, it’s angry, run away!”  Don’t judge – you weren’t there.

Speaking of, Doodle suggested calling you guys, but I figured that at 7pm, in the rain, you and animal control would be indifferent to the plight of a garbage-can beast.  But you could thank us for doing your job.

We retreated – what might have appeared to an outside observer to be us conferring about how next to abuse the garbage can.  And waited, but nothing emerged.

Just to be clear, I wasn’t attacking the garbage-can beast, I was trying to give it an out.  But unfortunately I think the stick I threw (from a distance) into the garbage can probably just beaned him in the head.  It was meant to be a freedom stick, though, i swear.

We were still not entirely sure whether there was something in there.  Actual leaning over the garbage can was necessary.  Doodle and I pulled up our hoods, which might have appeared to be us trying to belatedly hide our identities, but was in the hope of reducing the things the beast would have to hold on to.  Dracula arm up, and prepared for face-attack, I leaned in.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt’s too bad I didn’t have my phone, because there was the cutest little (cat-sized) raccoon in the nearly empty garbage bin.  Completely unable to get out.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd looking really really pissed off while non-stop hissing.  Reach my arm in?  HAH.

It’s at this point, I know, that any footage of our behaviour would have gotten a bit strange (like tentatively attacking a garbage can wasn’t strange enough, I know).  It’s just that we didn’t want it taking its wrath at having been soundblasted with garbage can kicks and then thwacked with a stick out on us.

So we pushed the can over on its side and ran away.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhat?  We gave it enough time to theoretically get out and scramble up a tree, and then checked.  Unfortunately, by then, it was full dark, so we couldn’t be sure that there wasn’t anything in there.

In conclusion, dear park staff, while there are plenty of jerks who knock over your garbage cans for fun, that was not our intent.  We knocked it over for freedomAnd didn’t pick it up afterwards, also for freedom.

Yours truly,

Concerned citizens willing to fight and defeat dragons garbage cans in order to rescue fair maidens potentially giant beasts of the night.  Trashy freedom fighters.

**Update – I completely forgot to mention that the artwork is by my fabulously talented sister and comrade in arms, Doodle!**

Mob Life

<– Previous story section || Next story Section –>

“Hey, boss, you sure they ain’t on to us?”

“Of course, they’re not on to us, Julius.  How could they be on to something.  I’m just a nice old guy living in his new house, just doing retired guy things.  Ain’t that right, Jimmy?”

The third man looked up from his perusal of the comics, all six feet and two hundred and fifty pounds of him awkwardly curled into a small wingback chair.  “Sure thing, boss.” He rumbled agreeably, “You’re a real old guy.”

Julius snickered from his post by the window.  Tony bristled, but chose to only snap his newspaper straight and go back to reading.  After a few moments of silence in which Julius didn’t move away from the bay window, hand carefully pulling the blind away from the wall to peer out, Tony gave in.

“Why you want to know, Julius?”

“Just that kid, boss,” The wiry man stepped aside to allow Tony access to the wall beside the window.  “I don’t like the look of him.  Or the dog.”

A teenage boy in jeans and a Blue Jays T-shirt stood on the sidewalk in front of the house, holding the lead of a cartoonish dog.  The boy was staring blankly up at the house, and the dog was unnaturally still, like it was a statue of itself.  The boy kept waving his closed hand in the air in front of the dog, like he was reminding it to do something.

As the two men watched, the dog abruptly reanimated, lunged for the boy’s hand, and started walking.  The boy’s eyes became more focused, and he looked right at Tony’s hiding spot behind the blinds.

Tony stepped back, out of the line of sight to the sidewalk.  “Huh.” He said.

“See, boss,” Julius exclaimed, “see, he’s watching us.  I saw him by yesterday, too, twice!”

“He’s just some dumb kid walking some dumb dog,” Tony said, trying to convince himself of it.  “Ain’t nobody caught on to what’s goin’ on here, ain’t nobody gonna.”  He hesitated a moment before resuming his seat for his after dinner snack and added, “Find out who he is, Julius.  Just don’t let on that you know anything.”

***

This is a continuation of the Rhododendrons story.  I’m working on it, along with assorted short things, working towards the goal of 50000 words for Camp Nano.

Rhododendrons

The elegant Afghan Hound stopped dead in his tracks, his silky hair swaying to a halt a few moments later.  He looked at his surroundings – green, lots of green.  And a spiky and frightening piece of green that swayed in the wind.  With other colours in the green, bobbing madly and erratically.  He stared intently at the large white building across the vast expanse of green.  He turned and stared up at the man on the other end of the leash with an expression that wavered between general uncertainty and mild panic.

If his mind were to form coherently human thoughts, they would be along the lines of who are you?  Where am I?  Who am I?  And perhaps, am I being abducted?  Should I be frightened?  Should I bark?  would start to creep to the fore of this whirligig of confusion.  And then, cookie? Cookie!  Mmmm… cookie. 

***

The dog wagged his tail tentatively, and then faster, rebooting the system, coming out of his confused paralysis.  He grinned up at Jamie and licked his lips, hopeful of another cookie.

Jamie sighed and wondered if the hound was wilier than he appeared to be.

“There, there, Asimov,”  Jamie patted the lanky dog on the shoulder and, with a last look around to try and figure out why this particular spot always caused the animal to go into mental lock-down mode.  Big white house, grass, flowers, basically the same as any other garden they’d walked past.  Maybe it was the rhododendrons planted right beside the sidewalk.

If ever there was an example of why dog breeders should focus less on beauty and more on brains, it was Asimov the very ironically named Afghan Hound.  The tiny little brain tucked in behind those lovely doe eyes could only run so many functions at once, so Asimov regularly forgot who Jamie was when he had to deal with all that complicated walking while wagging his tail and breathing.  By the time his owner returned from her usual week to ten days away, Jamie suspected that Asimov had nearly completely forgotten her too.  Luckily for everyone involved, he didn’t require much more than a cookie to reassure himself that, whoever he was with, that person was clearly a good sort of fellow.

Jamie had quickly learned to keep a bag of treats by his bed for those times when Asimov awoke in the night (having forgotten what he was doing, perhaps, and very uncertain of what the lack of light could mean), and proceeded to bark hysterically while racing frantically (but elegantly) around the condo.  The first time he’d house-sat for Mrs Grady, the condo board had sent him a firmly reprimanding letter of notice.

The young couple down the hall had left him a note explaining the memory situation, attached to a Ziploc baggie of dog biscuits.

These aren't rhododendrons... but it was the only picture I've taken recnetly of flowers that are even remotely shrubbish.

These aren’t rhododendrons… but it was the only picture I’ve taken recnetly of flowers that are even remotely shrubbish.

Winter Camping – Wilderness Survival

I know my last post on winter camping might have lead you to believe that our trip was mostly ‘being too cold and then fixing it’, but that was only really our nighttime routine.  We did tons of other things.  Like roast marshmallows… and pee in the woods.

Our instructor for the weekend has tons of experience teaching wilderness survival skills.

After breakfast we started off with a hike in the woods.  When asked what we needed to bring with us, he smiled and said, “oh, nothing.”

It’s lucky one of the other women ignored that and grabbed her hiking bag, since, once we were far from our tents and cars, he told us to make a fire.  With what we had on hand.  Lesson 1 – even if you’re just going for a short hike in the woods, bring your first aid and basic survival gear.  Matches come to mind.

We got a decent fire started in about 20 minutes of work, including brief periods of shooing flammable dogs away from the fire area.  About half of that time was gathering, and half was getting the fire going steady.

our fire turned out pretty well, in my opinion

our fire turned out pretty well, in my opinion

Our fearless leader then gave us instructions to gather a variety of different sizes of kindling and wood divided into piles.  Once we had the appropriate piles of wood, had a fire twice as hot going in under five minutes, using a fire steel and the back of his wicked looking knife.  We then got to use a fire steel and a striker to start our own fire.  Lesson 2 – weirdly, the back of a good quality knife works WAY better as a striker for the fire steel.  Also, the super cheap Canadian Tire fire steel is, well, super cheap, and less effective.

various sizes of twig in different piles... so you're ready to keep the fire going once you've got the tinder lit

various sizes of twig in different piles… so you’re ready to keep the fire going once you’ve got the tinder lit.  His kind of fire might have been faster… and much much  higher… but it wasn’t as pretty.

He showed us how to determine if branches were already dead, what types of trees had excellent sap for burning without harming the tree, and how to collect tinder from birch trees without killing them.  I’m not going to lecture you or anything, but don’t peel the bark off a birch tree!  How would you like to have your skin peeled off?  The little dried scrunchy bits are easy to crumble off the tree without exposing any of its under-layers to the elements, and highly effective in fire starting.

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Gwynn stole the tupperware of example tinder he’d brought… mmmm… plastic

We learned about a few different types of shelter, some of which are good for a short-term survival situation, and others of which would be better suited to a situation in which you might be stuck for a while.  We also learned how to tell what direction is north using the sun, and a few ways to ensure that, while walking without a trail, you continue to head in a straight line.

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We had a lesson in making emergency fire-starters as well.  Apparently the key is to take Starbucks straws.  They are, according to our skilled survival guide, the ideal diameter.  The firestarters, though – you cut about an inch long piece of straw.  You grip near the end with a pair of needlenose pliers, and melt the end to seal it.  You then take a small piece of cotton ball and mix it lightly with some Vaseline, stuffing it into the open end of the straw.  Seal the other end of the straw, and you officially have an easy-start fire-starter that you can pack in any coat or pocket.  All you need to do to start it is slit the side and pull a small piece of wick out – the entire thing will take over a minute to burn, enough time to light a proper fire.

We made a tiny Quinzee hut – large enough for one person, somewhat uncomfortably tucked in.   The snow that we had was all quite solid and packed down, so it was hard to get a very big pile of snow created.

When I crawled in (feeling horribly horribly claustrophobic, Gwynn tried to follow me in.  That caused me to basically freak out, because... well... TOO SMALL A SPACE, you can't come in too!  HELP!

When I crawled in (feeling horribly horribly claustrophobic, Gwynn tried to follow me in. That caused me to basically freak out, because… well… TOO SMALL A SPACE, you can’t come in too! HELP!

Doodle is considerably braver than me... and Gwynn joined her comfortably and with a look of smug satisfaction

Doodle is considerably braver than me… and Gwynn joined her comfortably and with a look of smug satisfaction

The entire trip was a great learning experience, and a ton of fun – I’ll have a lot better idea of what to do next winter for some camping.  highres_215673252

Winter Camping

I love camping – any chance to go into the woods for a few days and disconnect is OK by me.  And yet, the few times I’ve been winter camping, it’s been in a yurt.  Not quite glamping (*shudders*), but going up for a weekend and staying in a yurt is the equivalent of renting a really tiny cabin with a separate cabin a 20 minute walk away that has the toilets.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s excellent – go up to Algonquin in the winter, stay in a yurt, spend your days playing in the snow, skiing, snowshoeing, building a snow fort, maybe sit in a chair on a frozen lake, extra chilly beer in your mitt-clad hand, watching the sunset.  Camp in the winter.  Whatever gets you out there, whatever extras you need to take, bundle up for the cold and go. 

we couldn't get a very clear shot of the canvas tent all lit up at night,  but it still turned out pretty fantastic

we couldn’t get a very clear shot of the canvas tent all lit up at night, but it still turned out pretty fantastic

And, when you are given the opportunity to spend a weekend learning wilderness survival skills in the winter… also go.  Just… bundle up wayyyy more.

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Doodle, Gwynn and I went up near Bracebridge near the beginning of March to participate in an Intro to Winter Camping and wilderness survival clinic organized through the Muttley Crew Meetup Group, a weekend at a private camp where the dogs could be off-leash at all times.

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Gwynn and one of the German Shepherds, Sabre, had a bit of a romance all weekend – Sabre would follow Gwynn pretty much anywhere, and I think he’d have followed him into our car at the end of the weekend if he could have.

Leaving the balmy +5C temperatures of the city, I was pretty sure I had seriously overpacked on gear for keeping warm.

Arriving in the -10C temperatures, in the woods near Bracebridge… I was glad I’d packed so many sleeping bags.

By the end of the evening, there were 7 people total, and 7 dogs.  Two very large german shepherds, a Bermese, an enormous labradoodle, a Great Dane, Gwynn, and one wee little white dog.  Gwynn looked like a small dog compared to all but the little one.

We lucked out, in finding ourselves with a group of dogs that all played nicely together.  No ganging up or bullying, all the roughhousing was very clearly being enjoyed by all parties, and all in all, the dogs were great.  It was like the most ideal version of a dog park visit, ever.

our great dane buddy needed a bit of extra help keeping warm, but she still had a great time out there.

our great dane buddy needed a bit of extra help keeping warm, but she still had a great time out there.

On to the winter camping and fun!  Before I start with that, though, I want to make something clear –  I am not a professional (in anything related to camping, winter, or survival), and I’m not writing a how to winter camp blog post.

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We packed my regular three-season tent and put a folded tarp underneath the tent.  According to one of the leaders from our trip, the winter camping tents are slightly better at releasing the humidity from sleeping, but aren’t really all that necessary for a few days of camping in the winter.

We packed three regular three season sleeping bags (not down… and not at all compactable… oldschool Coleman sleeping bags), and the heavy old down sleeping bag my mom kept of her father’s.  We layered one coleman bag underneath us (on top of sleeping mats)  and two on top, with the heavy down bag on top of all that.  Clearly, this method of keeping warm wouldn’t work if we weren’t camping within a five minute walk of our car, but for a drive-up and camp situation, it worked.  If I were to go on an interior trip in winter, I’d be buying or renting a good quality four-season bag that would compress down small and light.

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under this blanket was the great dane – the shepherds were shocked EVERY SINGLE TIME the blanket moved, unable to remember that she was under there.

We couldn’t get Gwynn under the blankets.  I think that’s very much dependent on the individual dog, whether they’re cold or not.  Gwynn in March is Gwynn pre-hair-cut, so, frankly, sleeping on our legs, outside of the warmth of sleeping bags, was probably the most comfortable temperature of sleep he’s had since January.  The Great Dane would burrow under blankets at night, and had a coat on during the day.

Our first night was not pleasant at all.  We didn’t bring all our sleeping bags in that night, and Gwynn’s curling up at the foot of our bags successfully pulled off most of the heavy-duty bag, making it hard to stay warm.

I find it just about impossible to sleep if my feet are cold.  Even with a fresh pair of wool socks (you want to change your socks every day and evening, even if you don’t change anything else – the socks compress down in your boots and absorbe humidity, so they’re less effective by the end of the day), wasn’t warming me up enough to get to sleep.  It went down to -16C, and I swear, I woke up every fifteen minutes.  Lesson 1: Even if you feel fine now, bring extra warm stuff down to your tent for bed anyways!  Next time I winter camp, I think I’ll layer a tarp on top of my tent right from the start, and not feel any qualms about extra extra sleeping bags.

One of the other women there gave us the wonderful gift of HotHands hand warmers on Saturday morning, though.  They were magical, and made a huge difference on our second night out. It went down to -20C, but we were able to get under the covers and spark some initial heat with hand-warmers between two layers of sock (they say not to have them directly against skin if you’re not paying attention to them), slept soundly and completely restfully through the night. Getting warm at the beginning of the night – even doing some jumping jacks and jogging on the spot before getting into the tent – is a good way of ensuring a warm and restful night sleeping outdoors.  If we’d had more nights sleeping there, we might also have had to worry about the condensation buildup in the sleeping bags (damp bag = less warm).

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Sit tight, and I’ll be back in a few days with tales of the wilderness survival side of our trip!