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!
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.
An icy waterfall – in summer, this is just rocks that are sometimes damp
Gwynn, having a blast and relieved not to be in the car anymore
Gwynn, wanting to go adventure off-trail
S and I
The lookout on the Bat Lake Trail
I’m thinking positive ‘we’re on the boardwalk’ thoughts while crossing this particular marsh
Gwynn isn’t a fan of walking on this sink-in-ey surface
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!
Mysteriously, the rail trail isn’t on the Algonquin park site or front office list of ‘groomed trails’ (and therefore not on the ‘no dogs list’), but had lovely ‘natural’ grooming.
the turnaround point
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.
We also had pie and deep fried foods and were asleep before 10pm, so you just know it was a good time.
Tamnen slipped silently through the woods, the sound of his steps muffled by the snow. The trees were frosted white, each leafless limb delicately outlined, each plump conifer draped in a glowing blanket. The moonlight caught on each snowflake as it fell, a disco-ball of iridescence.
If he weren’t so distracted by the cold, he might have been able to appreciated the evening’s beauty.
“All a scarf really does,” he huffed, breath misting, “Is remind you that your head and torso are naked. What the hell kind of tradition is it, really? Might have been practical back in Greece, but I doubt our ancestors would have trotted about this exposed to the elements they’d had to experience frostbitten nipples.”
It was useless, of course. He’d tried the same argument, minus the reference to nipples, with his father that very morning, but it was hard to have a proper debate when your opponent’s only response was a growled, “This is the way it has always been, and always will be.”
Tamnen supposed he ought to be grateful Tumnus and leave it at that – before that Lewis fellow’s chance encounter in the woods, even the scarf would have been ‘an affront to the ways of our ancestors!’ Tamnen wondered if Tumnus’ father had been as obsessed with keeping to the old ways.
His own father had been too outraged at Tamnen’s temerity at comparing himself to the great Tumnus to give any real answer. It seemed to Tamnen, however, that the great Tumnus had had the temerity to be caught out by a human, and was only revered because his image, wearing non-traditional clothing, had been inscribed into children’s books everywhere, the first of their kind not depicted as naked.
An unexpected dip in the ground sent him tumbling into deep snow with a loud yelp. He leapt to his feet, brushing frantically at the clumps of snow clinging to the hair on his chest and head, his entire body trembling with cold.
He snapped his scarf out a few times, cursing, to shake the cold from his only protective covering.
The muffled silence of the woodlands was broken by a surprised gasp. Tamnen whirled with a yelp of alarm, tripped and tipped back into the snow with only a momentary glimpse of a red hat, brown ringlets and a pair of wide blue eyes framed by icy branches.
“OH! Oh my gosh, are you ok?” the rapid-paced crunch of snow under boot grew closer, interspersed by the whoosh of her breath as she stumbled through the undergrowth. Even as Tamnen scrambled out of the shallow defile, his skin bright pink with cold, her mitten-clad hand closed around his arm and pulled. They tumbled down into the snow, and once again, Tamnen found himself covered, scrambling to his feet and shivering. He reached out and hauled the girl to her feet before shaking himself off.
Steadying herself on his arm, her eyes widened, taking him in. “Oh. My. Gosh.”
Uh Oh, Tamnen thought. Is not being seen rule one, or is freezing one’s ass off in honor of the ancestors?
“You must be freezing! What do you think you’re doing out here with no shirt on?” She yanked a mitt off and tossed it aside, pressing her plump hand against his chest. “You’re cold as ice! Hang on.”
The girl stripped off her thick coat and shoved it at him. Hardly daring to believe his luck, Tamnen slipped it awkwardly around himself, the residual heat from her body shrouding him delightfully in warmth and the summery smell of peaches. He surrpetitiously shuffled a few steps until the snow came up to about the girl’s knee level.
“I’m Amanda,” she said, gesturing impatiently for him to lower his head. He obliged and she plunked her hat down on his curly hair, pulling it down as far as it would go. Tamnen re-adjusted it, tucking his ears safely out of sight.
Amanda stared at him expectantly, their breath clouding out between them, her cable-knit-sweater pulled tightly closed. “Well?” she demanded.
“Um, Tamnen.” Tamnen said, rubbing his arms through the delightful wool of the coat. Amazing, absolutely amazing. It’s like having upper body fur.
“Well, ummmTamnen, that answers one question, but more importantly, why are you wandering around in the woods at night, in the winter, and naked?”
“I have a scarf,” he offered weakly. “And what are you doing out here so late?”
She lifted the camera that hung around her neck. “And weird fur-pants, yeah, I can see that. Not exactly winter appropriate, though, is it?”
“Right?!” Tamnen exclaimed, happy to hear someone finally agree with him. “It’s ridiculous – it’s winter, below zero, snowing! and yet, we go around dressed in the traditional garb of our ancestors, ancestors who never experienced anything like this kind of cold!” his voice deepened in an immitation of his father, “This is how our ancestors dressed, who are you to think you’re better than generations of Fau-” his voice cracked, “F-fausts before us?”
Amanda hadn’t paid attention to his slip-up, however, her eyes were locked on the hard-packed snow patch he’d created with his energetic pacing.
“Ohmygosh!” she gasped, one mitten-clad hand pressed against her mouth, the other pointed at his completely visible cloven hooves.
“Um…” Tamnen wracked his mind for an explanation. A hand raked through his hair pulled the hat loose, to further delighted exclamation from Amanda. The small horns previously hidden by hair were now poking through.
“Ohmygosh, no-one will ever believe this! It’s like I’m in freaking NARNIA! Are you real?!” Amanda did a little jig of excitement.
Narnia, Tamnen thought, suddenly feeling elated. His ears perked up, and Amanda squealed excitedly.
… who am I to not emulate the great Tumnus?Tamnen smiled, and said, “Haven’t you ever heard the expression, a picture’s worth a thousand words’? And… can I borrow your gloves too?”
My goal this year is to write more fiction than just prompts. Prompts are great, but they don’t often open you up to going over 500ish words. I like including pictures that either (as now) were drawn particularly for my story, or that I see and either inspire a story or suit it. So if you want me to write something inspired by your artwork… drop me a line (in comments, or at lexy3587 (at) gmail (dot) com). I love a good challenge, and having your art featured on my blog will lead to fame and fortune… or at least fame… or some renown… amongst the people who read my blog. The important thing is getting your art out there, really.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
Sit tight, and I’ll be back in a few days with tales of the wilderness survival side of our trip!
My drive in to work today was terrible. I mean, quadruple the length of time, three lanes down to two down to one down to what the hell is that guy doing, cars sliding into and out of my ‘lane’, holy cow gentle on the brakes, come-on-car-let’s-survive-this, gee I wish my windshield wipers were doing more than spreading the slush on my windshield, TERRIBLE. At least I wasn’t stupid enough to get on the highway.
Toronto really doesn’t get much snow. We’re in Canada, so you would think that we’d get a fair bit, but Lake-effects+location means that Toronto winters are grey, occasionally slushy, and gross. So, despite the terribleness of my drive this morning, I am definitely not complaining.
We have snow.
The kind that drowns the city in soft white fluff, covers the mud, the dead grass and the neverending discarded Timmy’s cups. It rounds the hard edges of buildings, makes every tree look like a confectioner’s dream, and muffles the noises of living.
When I was younger, I loved to bundle up in as many layers as possible to keep myself warm and sit in the snow. Preferably the deep fluffy banks of it that let you sink in like a lazyboy sofa made specifically for me.
Now, with at least as many layers of warming clothing, I like to walk in it. I love the crunch of snow under boot. I love my morning walks when the snow is falling so heavily, the roads are untouched by tire tread, and the world is covered in a blanket of white. Before people have had much chance to go out and shovel, layer the inevitable and hated coating of salt down, and start churning up dirt.
Gwynn likes to stick his whole head into piles of snow, shoving it in there as though the snow is the downy pile of fluffy white feathers it resembles. On mornings like this, I can’t resist letting go.
Gwynn treats snow like a reason to be on his best behaviour. Any other morning, if I were to drop the leash in the neighbourhood, he’d be up on peoples’ porches, worming his way into their back yards, and generally causing a huge pain of himself. With the snow thick on the sidewalk, he sticks close, dashing forward and back and rooting through the snow in search of smells.
Tonight, we’ll go out for an extra long walk through the snow-lit woods. Even after dark, the snow glows, like it stores the sunlight for later use.
I got Gwynn in the fall, at 6 months. My neighbour, longtime dog owner, asked me if I would be getting Gwynn some boots for the winter.
I scoffed. I proudly informed her that I would never dress my dog up in silly and unnecessary people-clothes. He’s a dog. I’m letting his hair grow long to keep him warm in the winter, and mid-October he was already deep into his transformation to wooly mammoth. Wooly mammoths don’t need boots or hats or coats or vests.
You know what else wooly mammoths are? 55 lbs of dog whose feet are being burnt and cut by the massive amount of road salt my neighbourhood is coated with in winter. 55lbs of dog is A LOT to carry home, having made it 4 blocks before he refused to budge. And in winter, my hands were unimpressed at their new use as de-icer of dog-paws.
I also discovered that the fur between his toes, no matter how I trimmed it, still collected clumps of snow until his toes were splayed painfully and a wad of ice was applying pressure to his palm. Yet another painfully-cold hand-melting of puppy paws on the side of the road.
I ate my words.
The boots I bought him that first year were useless. Within days of first purchase, the straps were fraying. If I’d left them as they were headed, the boots would have been strapless by the end of the month. Velcro, by the way, does NOT hold up to being covered in snow. Nor does it work to re-velcro once there’s snow in the tines. The leather sole to the boot also started coming unwound within a few uses – yet another sewing project for me. The damn things didn’t stay on at all well, either – they flew off no matter how well I’d snugged them on his feet.
Uninformed about other types of boots (unwilling to just refund/exchange the damaged boots every few weeks), I stuck with them, adding snaps, sewing repairs and turning them into frankenboots that still… really didn’t stay on adequately. We ended up using hockey tape at the ankle every time we went out skiing. We still played the 1-2-3-4 game, and I carried spare hockey tape in my pocket.
Last year, I contacted RuffWear and asked if they’d be interested in a review of their Polar Trex boot. It looked like it already had a lot of the things I’d added to the frankenboots, without any handiwork on my part. I’d read some good reviews of their other projects by You did What with your Weiner, so I had hopes that this product might also be good. They were nice enough to send me a set.
It was fate – that (and my own purchase of new Sorels) would explain why Toronto’s winter last year consisted of a low of just about freezing, no snow, no de-icing salts and a whole heck of a lot of rain.
This year, however, do I got a tale to tell! We had snow for a little while, we’ve had some bloody cold temperatures, and my neighbours are putting salt down like it holds the key to spring arriving on time.
Gwynn and I have finally had a chance to give these boots a thorough workout, and I’m ready to give you all my honest opinion of them. I’ll be posting that this week, so stay tuned!
Follow the link to see the picture, hear the song, read the submissions, or submit your own.
Having never been to Iowa, the song made me think of the prairies – rolling low hills and vast expanses of emptiness, and farms, of course, because isolated homesteads are the kind with candles flickering in the window, a light you can see for miles.
She looked in at the flickering candle-light with a kind of longing.
Daddy figured she was probably attracted by the food-smells. He took to carrying the old shotgun when he went out to the barn in the early morning hours.
Momma stood vigil at the kitchen window, watching her through the chintz curtains. She had this look in her eye, predatory and ferocious. Daddy treated Momma like she had to be protected, but I knew better. Grizzly bears don’t need protecting.
She never came past the fence-line, like she knew she wasn’t welcome. To me, she seemed worn down by the weight of the world, weary and too-thin. In a distant way, I knew that a drought-filled dust-bowl summer and an early, bitterly cold winter were to blame. With her sad golden eyes tugging on my heart-strings, I tied it all back to the things Momma and Daddy talked about late at night, whispered conversations about money, bad crops and our best milker running dry. Me and Momma had done the canning in half the time this fall – and that wasn’t a good thing. Times were hard, for us and for her.
An old stew-bone here, a carefully hoarded egg there, I did what I could. She didn’t exactly fill out, but I could see a new spark in her eye.
Will to live, Daddy called it.
Orneriness, Momma said. I didn’t tell her that that’s exactly what Daddy said Momma had sometimes.
I just smiled and made sure she got that last biscuit, and a bit of cold stew. Something to keep the spark alive.
Desperate and starving, men came from the woods when Daddy was two days gone on a trip to town. We didn’t have much, but it was more than they had.
Momma’s eyes glinted grizzly-bear fierce as she loaded the shotgun, smooth and confident as Anny Oakley. I hid in the cupboard. You didn’t back-talk Momma when she had that look in her eye.
She said desperation makes a devil of a foolish man, but her Daddy taught her to shoot. Men never expect women to put up a fight, and that’s their mistake.
I guess they didn’t expect the wolf, neither. Between the crack of buckshot and the hair-raising growls and evilly glowing eyes in the darkness, we ran them off.
Daddy came home, wagon rattling with the few things he’d been able to barter for, hopefully enough to get us through the winter. He was pretty rattled to hear about the incident, snarling about yellow bellied curs, eyes glinting with rage.
I made a nest of blankets for her on the deck, but she wouldn’t stray close.
Daddy said she was a wild animal, and while she liked us, she liked her freedom more.
It was a hungry winter, but she never lost that spark, we made sure of it. She left with the spring, off over the low hills.
Momma just rolled her eyes when she saw that she took a chicken.
I really, really want to complain about the cold. SO. MUCH. It was -12 Celsius (10 F… according to google) on Saturday, and windy, and holy cow, itwas cold!
But it’s -27 Celsius (-17 F)(NOT factoring in wind-chill) in Calgary today, so really, I believe the phrase that applies to me is ‘buck up, sissy-girl’.
The other reason that it isn’t reasonable for me to complain is this – half-way through January, and this is the first time it got this cold? I am spoiled in winter weather this year, and I should shut up before Murphy catches up with me. This time last year, I was a month and a half into a royally unpleasant season of icy winds and freezing rain – a world of sloppy slushy, gloomy grey standard Toronto Winter. Last week was the first time they salted the sidewalks (they being ‘everyone other than my one crazy neighbour who just layers down the salt so heavily all winter that I walk on her lawn to avoid the gravel-like dog-foot-doom she creates’). This winter, apparently the road salt industry (in Ontario, at any rate) is having serious issues – they aren’t selling enough salt, and the people being paid to salt the roads – they aren’t getting paid to salt the roads.
There’s a whole industry that is going into decline.
But HOLY COW, it was COLD out!
I think the real problem was that it went from +10 C down to -12 C in the course of hours. Friday evening, it was chilly – like, around freezing ‘chilly’ – Saturday morning, it was bitter. Also, going for a three hour walk that went down through the trails by the brickworks, and then back up Yonge street to St. Clair (where I parked my car)… that might not have been the wisest choice. Not to mention that this walk started at 4pm, with only a brief pause in a doggy boutique (to defrost) on the way back.
Plus side – Gwynn loves it. This kind of weather is the reason I am letting his coat grow out until spring. He is completely insulated, and completely ecstatic at any opportunity to roll around in the cold white stuff, even when it’s a windy 12 below, and my face is so cold that my words slur from the numbing effect the wind has on my lips and jaw muscles. He bounced along beside me, beard crispy with icicles, while I wished I hadn’t let my face freeze into a smiling position. My teeth hurt from the cold.
The other plus side is that my reason for driving across Toronto to go for a walk was to join a good friend I don’t see nearly often enough for a walk in the woods. She is my only friend in the GTA whose idea for ‘what should we do?’ would be (in the winter) ‘go for a long walk’, instead of ‘go to a movie/restaurant/bar’, and I am so grateful for that. Much as I like movies/food/alcohol, I really think I spend an unhealthy amount of time watching TV, I prefer cooking and trying new recipes, and I really don’t drink all that much (not to mention the ‘past my bedtime’ factor of going to bars or clubs).
I really can’t complain about the weather, especially now that the temperature is back up to +4 Celsius. Though, now that it’s warm out, I want to complain about the fact that all the snow is melting into sodden heaps of mush.
Despite the fact that winter has returned in full force, I’ve really been enjoying the weather, and the walking that comes with owning a dog. The ferocious storm we had on Wednesday might have cancelled our trick class, but without Gwynn, I wouldn’t have found myself out in the heart of the storm, and that would have been a shame. In heavy snow and howling winds, we walked along the spit of man-made land that protects a small harbour, frozen-over even now. The docks are empty and make ominous groaning noises as they shift and creak in the ice. Not that you can see them, with the thick snow filling the air. The waves crashing into the rocks on the outside edge of the spit were deafening and huge. Even 10 feet away from the water’s edge, we were still getting hit by the spray. When the waves got close to shore they swirled black and purple, picking up the dark silt and sand from the lake-bed.
With Don Quixote’s fervour, Gwynn attempted to battle the waves, running towards the lake with a great show of ferociousness. Luckily, he isn’t nearly as courageous as he’d like to be, and he ran equally quickly away from the lake every time a wave crashed to shore. The walk was not without some terrifying moments of me running desperately towards the spot on the rocks where I had last seen him, shrieking his name and knowing that the wind was whipping my voice away in the wrong direction. Knowing also that if he did get in the water, I’d never see him again. But there he’d be, entirely dry, on a rock just out of my line of sight (and nowhere near the scary pounding waves), grinning and sniffing at the frozen ground.
Canadian coral (a brilliant and descriptive term used by a determined man with a camera who was braving the weather with camera in hand) lay in frozen and glistening splendour along the shore. Grass and scrub perfectly outlined in clear ice, slowly built up by the spray and the wind. Did I have my camera through all this? Of course not! We attempted to bring some Canadian Coral home, but the arm-length branch was reduced to a bare stub by the time that Tall Sister and I had reached the safety of home and found the camera. I think, in her artistic mind, she was considering dragging me back out into the teeth of the storm, camera in hand, to capture it on film. However much I enjoyed my time out there, though, there wasn’t a chance in hell of me repeating that drive or that walk, when my legs were so numb that I couldn’t feel my seat when I got into the car at the end of the walk. Oh yes… we wimped out of the half-hour walk to get to the park, and settled on driving there and walking out to the spit and back as the full walk. It might have been less of a walk than usual, but I know we wouldn’t have made it out to the park if we’d tried walking all the way there. I’m now determined to bring my camera on every outing, because it is always the camera-less trips that have fantastic photographic opportunities.
With that in mind, I brought my camera this weekend, when Gwynn and I went back to this area, for a nice long walk. It was entirely different from the stormy night, with hardly any wind and a perfectly clear sky. The calm cold lake was so crystal clear that you could pick out the individual pebbles on the bottom. Everyone else had the same idea as me, but with better equipment – the real photographers were out in force, the enormous long lenses of their fantastically expensive cameras waving gently in time with their strides, and being carefully tuned as they took photos of distant ducks – photos so close up, you could count the feathers on their faces. My photos were less intense, but my subject was far more personal.
With a far less terrifying foe, Gwynn went forth into battle. He padded forward, predatory, following the bare trickle of water pulling away from shore. He danced back out of harm’s way as the water changed course and lapped back up the shore. He repeated this at various spots down the rough sand and pebble shoreline, as the water charged towards him and then retreated just as gently and abruptly. Apparently waves are not one of the things dogs instinctually understand. Then he fumbled – a hesitation that was enough to give the water an opening – before he knew it, he was wet up to his dewclaws. Skittering back a few feet from the water, he looked at me in absolute horror, as if to say, “How is this even possible?!”
With fierce determination, he ran back to the water. With lion-like courage, he smacked both front legs down, from toe to elbow, aiming for a death-blow. He smacked his forearms down where the water had been. Where it would have been, had the waves not been going out. He smacked his forearms down on the soggy sand and then danced back out of the way of the water’s immediate retaliation.
He tried this again, and again, skipping backwards less and less until he had all four feet in the water and was splashing about with gusto. The battle was begun. He spun, he clapped his paws down, he trotted and skipped and bit at the water. He lashed out with his hind legs, digging at the sand beneath the water and bounding up onto partly submerged rocks.
He didn’t get fully submerged, only soaking himself from the belly down. This made him look kind of like a furry muffin, and kind of like a very very fat dog with scrawny legs. The mighty warrior eventually grew bored of his foe, and pranced off to the grass to thoroughly shake himself off. Triumphant, he trotted home with me, his Sancho, head high and tail up and waving banner-like.
A walk yesterday reminded me of my pre-Gwynn dog walking experiences. Gwynn is normally very quiet (a fact for which I’m very grateful), and his barking usually consists of a high-pitched whiney bark at other dogs in the park when they won’t play with him, or when he can’t catch them. He’s a big wuss. Yesterday, he brought out his deep manly bark, jumping and darting backwards on the leash, half playful, half thoroughly spooked, leaving me 100% baffled. What was he barking at? A friendly couple I ran into in front of their house, a few blocks from my home. He runs into plenty of people who don’t have dogs with them but still want to pet his rock-star hair-do, and get a good close look at his pink nose while showering him with compliments. This time, however, instead of grinning his big goofy grin, wagging his big goofy tail and soaking in all the attention, he twisted and jumped backwards to avoid being touched, and he slapped his paws on the ground, bum up, tail flagging, like he would if he was encouraging another dog to play. And he barked his deep bark, the one I rarely ever hear, the one that makes him sound grown-up and far more intimidating than you’d expect of a dog with his goofy-cotton-ball appearance. He acted, simultaneously, like he was terrified of the people, and like he was trying to play with them as though they were dogs. I’m pretty sure it must have been because they smelled like other dogs(their own), and it confused him that they didn’t have the dogs with them, because I wasn’t getting any creepy vibes from these people. And I’m a very paranoid person – my imagination brings up the worst possible situation I can think up on a regular basis. So, while I think Gwynn’s spidey senses have not yet been refined enough to entirely trust, yesterday’s encounter brought to mind my walks with Sadie, the sweet blonde mystery-lab.
I walked her twice a week (and still do), pretty much rain or shine, and learned A LOT about dogs, and about my own commitment to my future dog’s well-being. If you’ve never had a dog before, and are unsure about your commitment (to walking your new dog in all kinds of weather, to dealing with poop-pickup, to the less fun aspects of dog ownership)… I highly recommend taking care of other peoples dogs. But that’s not what I wanted to talk about.
I wanted to talk about walking Sadie in the winter. It’s dark when I get home from work and darker when I drop her off at the end of her walk. Her owners live about 10 minutes away from an access to the creek-valley, which is a great place to go for letting a dog run around a bit off-leash. Great, except that, in the winter, it is pretty dark, very isolated, and kind of ominous. It isn’t the kind of place I would walk through alone once it starts getting dark, but being with a dog makes all the difference.
Having a dog with you is like having a security blanket. As sweet and gentle as your dog might be, people around you don’t know that, unless they’re people you already know. Rather like carrying a realistic looking fake gun, you’re holding the leash of a dog that may or may not be fierce and protective. But without the likelihood of someone calling the cops because there’s a nutcase with a gun walking through the neighbourhood.
Walking with a dog is also kind of like having a divining-rod that tells you whether a person is a good or bad-egg. Now, I know I had some pretty disapproving words for Red, and his smarmy “My dog is a good judge of character” comment, but it is true that dogs have an entirely different perspective than people do.
Walking through the dark creek valley with Sadie off-leash and ghosting quietly through the woods, most of the people I ran into were dog people. The rest of them were just walking through, having, for whatever reason, chosen to take the dark and ominous route to their destination. Sadie never reacted with anything but cheerful exuberance when we crossed paths with a dog person. These are people we’ve met before, with dogs she’s played with before, and nothing to be worried about. With most of the people without dogs, Sadie was cautious (because they were strangers, and she is a fairly timid dog), but not concerned. They just weren’t all that interesting, since they didn’t have treats or dogs with them. And then there were the very very few people she picked out as ‘the enemy’. This quiet, sweet natured puppy would circle those people, hackles up. She didn’t growl or bark, she didn’t snap at them, but I can only imagine how creepy it would be to have this ghostly dog circling you until you were past her owner (owner is what I’d look like to them, since I don’t wear a neon sign saying “just walking, don’t own”).
I have an over-active imagination when it comes to things going wrong. I get uncomfortable if a person appears to be following me, especially when it’s dark out, or if they’re doing anything I’d consider unusual. I have, at my most paranoid, fumbled with my keys while walking up a random driveway, and I have taken some very convoluted paths in order to establish whether or not someone is following me. Fine, sure, you took the same left as me, but will you take the next left as well? And the one after that? You just circled a block with me – AAARGH! STALKER!!! Picture that with me walking and someone in a car, and you can see why my attempt at early morning jogging in high school was abandoned so quickly.
So, when this dog I’ve already known for over a year changes from friendly puppy to silent warning, I get a bit uncomfortable. And when she circles a person in that way, clearly warning them to stay away – “Yeah, keep moving, buddy!” – I don’t say anything. I don’t call out, “don’t worry, she’s friendly”, or “Hi, how’s it going?”, or “Nice night”. I don’t say anything that might make Sadie stop doing this thing that she’s doing, because my imagination has grabbed hold of the reins, paranoia ramped to 10, and I don’t want to find out why Sadie doesn’t like this person. The world isn’t always a friendly place, and so I let them walk past me in silence, and keep a sharp eye out in the woods for the remainder of my time on the trail.
This is just a glimpse into my crazy-paranoid side. The part of my mind that assumes that people really are out to get me. Before the criticism about judging people based on their appearances starts, let me just say… it isn’t like the only people I get this vibe from are tough-looking or hulking. Sadie did react poorly to an intimidating biker-looking gentleman while on leash once, but he said himself that his dog (not present) was vicious, which kind of says something about the person who trained it. But the people we run into in the creek valley are a wide assortment, and the people she has given the circle-treatment to (very few people), wouldn’t fall into the ‘typical movie bad-guy’ category. And she has, happily, sat leaning against some pretty intimidating looking guys while they coo over her and scratch behind her ears.
It’s entirely possible that I’m nuts for reading so much into a dog’s opinion of a person, but it is comforting to know that I’m the only one in that kind of situation who knows that I’m just carrying a realistic looking water gun.
What are your thoughts about this? Can dogs tell more about a person and their intentions than we can? Or am I just a nut-bar who lets my dog get away with circling an innocent stranger in the dark woods?