By Mitch Mode
The dogs spent an uneasy week; luggage unsettles them. A small bag or suitcase carry weight as a dark cloud; heavy and foreboding, menacing. An open carry-on bag; cavernous and dark as if a bottomless well.
A canoe trip to the Boundary Waters takes gear, mounds of it. And it takes luggage. It requires time to sort and pack, evaluate the trim of each pack bag; unload, sort, repack. Do it right and it spans the days, fills the week.
This week the house filled with baggage and packs; the dogs were on edge.
One does not pack casually for a multi-day canoe trip. Gear is brought from storage and inspected. Small, easily misplaced paraphernalia are unboxed, open to the light as a spring flower in bloom. Sleeping bags unfurl; tents are shaken loose; faint scent of pine and woodsmoke in the air. Cook gear rattles, down jackets stuffed tight into waterproof bags, fishing tackle examined. Large packs and heavy bags fill the backroom.
And the dogs do not like this.
There are three dogs; Riika, Thor and Fenway, and they show little in comparison to the proverbial three peas in a pod. At the same time they are all share the some common ground of a pack.
Riika is the eldest at thirteen and the most complex emotionally, a confounding mix of sometimes aggravating neurotic behavior driven by a focus that is narrow and hot. She is a brilliant hunter, a lovable companion, coy with strangers, prone to anxiety attacks. In the past year she has gone stone deaf. Now she watches the world with her deep amber eyes but unless a sound is startling loud she is unaware. She cannot hear us call her, she cannot hear the other dogs bark, she does not hear the birdsong on a spring day.
Riika does not like change and uncertainty; travel preparation holds both. The briefest glance at a suitcase puts her on alert and her eyes track us, worried. She follows us from room to room and there is sadness about her. In the past she has taken things from Sally’s suitcase and run off with them. When Sally travels she often moves her suitcase on the front porch on the night before she leaves, the better to hide it from Riika.
On this week past Riika has slept on the floor in the room next to the packs and the gear and when she senses our footfalls she raises her head to watch with worried eyes.
Thor has heavy eyes. A slightly goofy dog Thor goes through life seemingly unaware or unconcerned with most of what goes on around him. This week he has looked uncertain about life, wandering among the packs as if in a maze. He senses Riika’s state of heightened anxiety, knows from that that something is afoot. As if to honor Riika’s issues Thor lies down on a pile of duffle as if to guard it.
Fenway, all seventeen pounds of him, sees the mound of gear as a new playground. We took him to agility class a week ago; dogs in all stages of training leap over barriers, scamper up and over teeter-tooters, scoot down a tunnel, running to daylight at the other end. Fenway did well enough; he has potential. The only thing that limits a dog is the trainer and we are not on the top rung of that ladder.
This week Fenway finds great fascination in the piles of gear; so much to chew on, so little time. Plastic buckles dangle from packs; enticing as baubles to a child. He has strong jaws; plastic is no match. Straps from backpacks lie like snakes, worthy adversaries to tug and snap.
But Thor and Fenway both are sensitive to Riika and both know that if she finds cause for concern then they best be on high alert.
So it has not been a restful week for the dogs.
The dogs see each pack bag as a dark, bottomless abyss into which the future descends. We place the carefully wrapped tent, fragrant with scent of earth and smoke, into the short, squat Duluth-type pack. The dogs watch, taste the scent; memories stir. Then the tent is gone into the dusk of the bag.
Cook gear and rain gear, sweaters and fleece, socks and shirts, dishes and tarps and, oh yes, food by the bag-full, all take center stage, draw the dogs’ attention, then all secreted away in dark bags that hide the light and steal away the future for the dogs.
They do not like this. This is out of the norm. This is all change to their lives. This, to them, is ominous and mysterious and they know only one thing: From this, nothing good can come.
When we travel and leave the house empty the dogs do not know that we will ever return. You cannot tell the dogs, “We will be back in an hour;” “We’ll be gone for the afternoon.” The dogs cannot understand this. And when you pack large bags and carry them outside for all the dogs know you are abandoning them forever.
Dogs can do many things. But they cannot understand separation. They do not know that there is an end date to it all. For this they are ill at ease when we pack for a trip. And this week past has seen a lot of packing. The dogs watch it all.
We carry the large packs one by one to the garage while the dogs are distracted. We set the packs on the floor; the pile of gear grows. Canoe and paddles; fishing gear; the food pack; two backpacks full of clothing and cameras; the large Duluth-style pack burdened with tent and tarps and cook gear.
We load the car in the morning. We feed the dogs, tell them they’re good dogs, push them back from the door; feel the guilt build behind their sad eyes. See them at the window as the car backs out, sad dogs, watching us leave, not knowing if we will ever return.
An assortment of outdoor products is available at Mel’s Trading Post downtown Rhinelander. Call 715-362-5800. To comment on this story, visit starjournalnow.com.