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Dog Days on the Mackenzie

Dog Days on the Mackenzie

Remembering an impossible friendship.
By Daniel Campbell
Mar 31
From the March 2015 Issue

My hands slipped with sweat over my paddle as we came off the Mackenzie River at Wrigley, NWT, last summer. It was about 30C that day, and humid, so my canoe partner, Karen, and I paced ourselves as we ascended the steep, grassy banks towards the town of just over 100 to fill our water jugs. It was our first destination on a 1,000-kilometre, seven-week odyssey to Inuvik—we had a long way to go.

A grey-white hound approached us as we walked back down to our camp near the shore that evening.

The town was quiet. A wood barbecue still smoked next to the Pehdzeh Ki band office, evidence of the afternoon’s Canada Day festivities. We wandered the dusty streets until we met a young couple sitting on their porch. The man, the town’s water truck driver, offered to fill our jug from the truck sitting in his driveway; his wife came out with chunks of ice in a Ziplock bag. I quickly dropped one in my mouth to cool off.

A grey-white hound approached us as we walked back down to our camp near the shore that evening. He was one of the many strays that roamed town, but he eyed us as we passed while the other dogs rambled by. He bowed his head when I looked at him—I made a “tsik tsik” noise with my tongue and crouched down. He was skittish at first, but eventually came over and got a cool piece of ice to chew on for his troubles.

Wrigley—what I imaginatively called him—wasn’t the prettiest dog. He had some lumps and sores and chew marks in his fur where the bulldogs (big flies) got him good. He chomped at the bulldogs that tried to land on me, so I let him hang around.

Of course I couldn’t feed him. He looked half-starved, but I didn’t want him getting dependent on me, since we were only staying in town for a few days and there was certainly no room for a dog in our canoe. Wrigley stuck around anyway. I’d hear him rustling outside our tent at night, see his shadow project across the wall as he patrolled our perimeter for bears or any other unwanted intruders, before he finally circled around to the ground, curling up, nose in tail.

One night, he snuck up behind me as I was eating my dinner and scarfed down a couple mouthfuls from my pot. I called him some names I won’t repeat here and kicked some rocks in his direction, hoping he’d learn to stay away. But he didn’t.

The day we left Wrigley, Wrigley was waiting by our canoe. The weather wasn’t good. Rain poured to start the day and wind whipped up the river from the north. I tried to ignore Wrigley’s whining from the rocky shore, as he watched us pack our canoe.

“Try not to look at him,” I told Karen. “It’ll just make it harder,” I said, although I didn’t know for whom.

We paddled hard against the wind and rain. Wrigley followed, crying and yelping along the shore, sometimes jumping into the water and swimming out to our canoe.

“Do you think we could take him?” Karen asked. I wasn’t sure if she was kidding, but a quick look at our gear spilling over the gunwales of our canoe put that thought out of our minds.

After nearly two hours of paddling against the wind, we pulled the canoe over, exhausted, only about 10 kilometres downriver.

And there was Wrigley, waiting for us on the shore, panting and exhausted too. As I’d do again and again throughout the summer, I napped the rainy, windy weather away. Wrigley sat upright beside me as I slept and maybe wondered if he could fit in our canoe too.

Yet he tried, thrashing his way into the water. Unable to swim around the cliffs, he went back to the shore. He howled. Oh he howled.

When the weather started to let up, we got ready to leave. The shoreline ahead gave way to granite cliff. I knew Wrigley couldn’t follow. Yet he tried, thrashing his way into the water. Unable to swim around the cliffs, he went back to the shore. He howled. Oh he howled.

I remember a tingling feeling in my nose, and those may not have been raindrops on my face. I heard a whimper out of Karen too.

We’d come into contact with a lot of dogs in communities along the river: there was the husky mix who would roll over for belly rubs from Karen in Tulita; or the months-old shepherd mix that wouldn’t stop nipping my hands in Norman Wells; and the shaggy terrier that quietly loitered outside the community centre in Fort Good Hope. They all seemed content, roaming in their packs around town.

But not Wrigley, who sniffed us out and followed us down river until he couldn’t any longer.

The howls got farther away. Eventually, we could no longer hear them.