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Getting "Pack" to Nature with Dogs

by Darrell Hookey

    "Dogs are closer to nature than we are."

    Ned Cathers admits this sounds silly on the surface. But he is trying to explain why guests of his familyís adventure company enjoy hiking with pack dogs.

Ned Cathers with a couple of his Husky pack dogs in the Yukon     This past season, 20 hikers were less encumbered with heavy backpacks as their more-than-willing canine porters bounded alongside while rooting out interesting smells and barking at squirrels.

    "Thereís a happiness in the way they move," says Cathers. "Itís nice to see."

    Guests of Cathers Wilderness Adventures want to forget about the stress and obligations of everyday life. Cathers finds it takes about a day for them to shift gears and begin relaxing.

    Just being around the dogs on the one to seven-day hikes helps. "Dogs are down-to-earth beings," Cathers explains. "They deal with what they have to deal with; they carry their burden and happily take it off at the end of the day to jump in the lake."

    The pleasantly rugged and affable outfitter isnít given to poetry. Yet the words he chooses resonate with the love and respect he has for his dogs. The family business was built on the desire to be around dogs. It is a lifestyle enjoyed by his wife Mar, daughter Jeninne and son Brad at their secluded home on the east side of Lake Laberge.

    The idea came to them 12 years ago and it seemed the ideal way to keep the dogs exercised between dog sledding seasons. It became part of their brochure and is now on their website, www.cathersadventures.com

    Of all the adventure companies in the Yukon -- North America even -- it helps make their company stand out. Adding dogs to a hike adds an element appreciated by dog lovers and those who want to travel a little further with more comforts. And the dogs love it.

    When 10 to 20 of them are lined up by the cabin and they see the specially designed dog packs brought out, itís like Dog Christmas. Some get so excited the guides have trouble putting the packs on as they wriggle nose to tail.

    Any of the guests, who may have had concerns about turning manís best friend into a beast of burden, are quickly reassured and canít help smiling at their excitement.

    Cathers says sometimes, at first, the dogs forget the packs are on and tend to bump into each other.

    The guides can help as each pack is weighed to ensure it doesnít exceed one third of the dogís weight. It is a ratio that applies to humans as well. The packs are filled with soft items on the inside for the comfort of the dog and are balanced side to side. Moss or rocks are added on the trail if needed to compensate for an item removed from one side.

A Husk pack dog in the Yukon     Each item in the pack is double wrapped and water tight in case the dog jumps into a lake ... as they often do.

    When the hike begins, the people climb the first hill and stand where the dogs can see them. Then the pack dogs are released one at a time to follow in the established heading.

    Hiking with 10 to 20 dogs is easier than walking a dog through a neighbourhood. Cathers says he seldom has to call them to stay close to the hikers.

    They always stay within ear shot -- or eye shot, or nose shot -- of the hikers because they like to be close. If the hiking party takes an unexpected turn and a dog loses track, it will head back to the last place it saw them and sniff out the trail. Some will walk alongside a hiker and then take off for an explore while others are always on the move.

    Whenever they stop for a break, there will be dogs hovering around for some affection. Upon reaching camp for the night, they will lie down for a nap until the humans have finished their evening meal. But if someone even just clinks two dog dishes together, they will jump up for their turn at dinner.

    Some guests will help feed them, wanting a closer relationship with the dogs. And perhaps showing gratitude for a job well done.

    "Domestic dogs are like perpetual teenagers," says Cathers. "A working dog likes to be useful."

    Following the meal, the dogs will throw back their heads for a group howl into the night. If the guests are lucky, there will be a wolf pack close by to respond. On and on it will go.

    Cathers says he still doesnít know how they do it, but even at home with 86 dogs they can all stop howling on the same beat to await the response.

    Guests, who live in neighbourhoods with yappy dogs, can be forgiven if they expect a noisy night to follow. But Cathersí dogs donít bark for no reason. They will bark at meal time and they will bark if a bear gets too close, but a verbal rebuke is usually all that is needed to maintain quiet.

    Cathers says he and Jeninne both have their own core of dogs they hike with. Each will add a couple of new dogs to the group. Lessons, such as not barking, are learned from the other dogs.

    The end of a hiking trip is sad for many of the guests. Those who adopted a favourite pack dog will find it in the kennels for one last visit before leaving.

    And tears will be licked.

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