January 7, 2019
On Monday it was raining in North Vancouver. In January it’s always raining in North Van.
I climbed into my rain gear and hiking boots, and collected my lunch, phone, travel mug of coffee, and wallet. With the phone attached to the dash, and the day’s first podcast lined up (the Archers, a long-running BBC soap opera) I checked my schedule and pulled my indestructible Ford Ranger pick-up truck out onto the road.
Like most writers I have always had a day job: I co-own a dog-walking company called Four Legs Good, and take groups of dogs out for off-leash trail hikes in the mountains outside of Vancouver.
It was 8:30 a.m., which is when I tend to get rolling. Over the course of the next hour I worked my way through the Archers, the NPR “Up First” Newscast, and most of “The Daily” from the New York Times and criss-crossed North Vancouver picking up dogs.
Milly is always the first dog to be picked up, and today she was eager to go. She’s middle-aged Ridgeback hound owned by a pair of medical professionals, a nurse and an anaesthetist. They have three pre-school-aged kids so it’s a big help to them to have Milly go out with me. They can enjoy a mellow, tired dog without spending an hour in the rain. Like most of our clients, they were gone by the time I arrived, so I pulled up at her house, punched in the door code, and made sure that Milly had her raincoat on. We were out the door, and she was into the back of the truck a couple of minutes later.
We drove across Frederick and 29th, then over Queens Avenue past the town hall to pick up Ballard, an older yellow lab who’s as affectionate as his owners. Happy owners create happy dogs, and Ballard was waggy-tail happy to see me, happy to see Milly, and was even happy to be out for an hour and a half in the pouring rain. Ballard’s greatest talent is eating dirt, and he’s been known to backtrack a half a mile to get to any especially yummy mud hole.
Fredo was next. He’s a Wheaten Terrier who, like all Wheatens, has heath issues, skin conditions, needs constant grooming, and is just a bit neurotic. Fredo was actually designated as “dangerous” last year by the local animal control officer, so he stays on leash. I don’t think Fredo is a threat to anyone; he’s “annoying and barky,” but I’d hardly say “dangerous.” A couple of years ago I walked three Wheaten terrorists, but now Fredo is the only one left.
Alphonse is a big rescue dog, probably half Ridgeback, who I’d describe as the canine equivalent to the guy in high school who was a big loud jock, a boisterous friendly bully, and who always thought it was terribly funny to push around the little kids. Alphonse is actually harmless, and all of the other dogs know him well enough to run and play with no issues.
The last dog I collected was Freddie, a giant Samoyed sled dog who drives everyone on the hike crazy, including me. Freddie is big, and bouncy, and happy as anything, but he always bangs your leg when he runs past you, always cuts in front of you when you’re crossing a stream, always pulls on his leash, and always, always winds up covered in sticky black mud. As usual, Alphonse growled and snapped before Freddie even got in the truck. With some dogs this would be a worry, but Alphonse always tells off Freddie, and then they’re fine.
By about 10 a.m. we were all on the trail and most of the dogs were off-leash. They’ve walked and played together for years, and mostly they all stay close to me and know how to get rowdy without getting out of control. Monday is my best group, and the bunch I measure every other dog against. Even so I watched them constantly for the whole hike, because that’s what the job involves.I occasionally counted off the dogs to make sure one hadn’t disappeared, and to order everyone to “Chill” if it felt like their energy levels were getting out of hand. A decade of dog walking has taught me to always watch for the subtle body language that might suggest someone has a bit of problem. After a while you develop dog radar that lets you pick up on things that ordinary people would never see. Today, there weren’t any signs: it was a relaxed time in the forest.
Here’s my secret: The hours I spend hiking with the dogs each day is also time I spend writing, All through the hike I was assembling sentences in my head and developing arguments and narratives. Some people can sit down at a typewriter and churn out perfect text, but I always do better when I’ve thought it through. When I’m walking dogs, my brain can interact with the unconscious part where all of the good creative stuff happens. Today, though, it was a bit more of a struggle than usual.
After about three-quarters of an hour we’d hiked up the mountain bike trails above Millstream Road, and over a couple of bridges. While driving up to the trail I’d looked at the other dog-walkers’ vehicles that were parked nearby and had decided that my rowdy dogs should be kept apart from other groups. I trusted my dogs, but some other walkers have less predictable dogs, or just didn’t have a clue about how to keep them all under control. Ten years ago I would have said “It’ll likely be OK.” Now I’m more cautious.
We turned east at the switchbacks below the well-travelled Baden Powell Trail and headed off into the bush on one of the unofficial hidden trails that people have created over the years. The trails are well-marked if you know where to look, and mostly offer easy hiking, and I knew that we would be unlikely to run into anyone else. That gave me more mental space to think about words.
I walked and watched the dogs charge around between the trees. Sentences began to sort themselves out in my head. By the time we returned to the truck at 11:30 the dogs were tired and I was ready to put pen to paper, but I faced the biggest job of the day: cleaning up Freddie.
With four-inch white fur, and a love of mud, Freddie invariably eats up a half hour of every Monday (and Thursday) as I hose him down, towel him off, and generally manhandle him into some form of clean dog. Once he was clean enough to go back into the house I left a note for his owner (“Freddie had so much fun today!”), closed his garage door, and headed out to drop off four more dogs.
Monday is the day when I most appreciate short-haired dogs that just let the dirt fall off. Ballard and Fredo needed some work, but Milly and Alphonse were quick – just a swipe of their feet and they were fine. By the time that they were all back home and asleep, and by the time that I had listened to most of this week’s “Car Talk,” it was time for lunch, and time to sit down and write.