“It’s five o’clock AM,” my alarm told us in a Cortana voice while it played a high pitched tune. The day before, we rented a rowboat from a local outfitter in Jasper, Alberta after securing a campsite at the far end of Maligne Lake. This narrow, winding lake is the second largest glacier-fed lake in the world and is home to iconic Spirit Island – a must stop location on our Trans-Canada itinerary. We considered taking a ferry to the island, but that option was neither dog friendly nor allowed enough time to capture late evening’s ideal light. We also wanted to do some backcountry camping, so we opted for our own means of transportation and timeline via rowboat.
Maddy and I woke up early to cook a hardy breakfast. A handful of extra calories would be necessary for the nine mile paddle ahead of us to Spirit Island followed by an additional five miles to our campsite at Coronet Creek. After breaking camp, driving an hour to the boat launch, and loading our 12 foot rowboat with waterproof bags filled with camera and camping gear, we rowed away from land shortly after 8am. Also in our load were four 12 volt batteries and a small electric motor to aid in the return trip…28 miles round trip over two days in a rowboat without a motor sounded like a combination of blisters and awful. We decided to save our batteries for the lengthy return to the boat launch the following day.
Rowing with Japhy. PC: Madeline Berry
Early morning fisherman in his canoe. PC: Madeline Berry
About two hours into the paddle, we stopped to stretch our legs on a rocky shore. We had traveled roughly three miles by this point – pretty fast for a rowboat, especially when battling the strong wake of passing ferries every 20 minutes! One of these passenger-laden vessels cruised by and its wake caused waves to splash in our boat and cover the deck with a few inches of water. After bailing with a small cup and exchanging pleasantries with people in passing canoes (and some shared harsh words directed at the ferries), we were back on the lake and heading southeast to Spirit Island.
Japhy stretching his legs on shore.
Our rowboat tied ashore.
Rugged, tree-covered slopes blazed by at 1.5 miles per hour while we could see glaciers in the distance. Occasionally a vast bare patch of terrain would tell of a massive avalanche that ripped everything in its path to the water below.
While we didn’t see any wildlife from the boat except for a few diving loons and jumping trout, the area is home to bears, moose, mountain goats, and bald eagles among other smaller critters. Aside from being tossed around by ferry wakes now and then, we enjoyed easy paddling through calm water into the early afternoon.
Japhy watching a canoe pass us. PC: Madeline Berry
Opting for lunch on-the-go, we dug into bags of cheddar and caramel corn as well as some protein bars. I obviously needed help, so Maddy fed me while I rowed! Japhy enjoyed a few naps in the sun throughout the day.
Cheddar cheese fingers.
Japhy enjoying one of many naps.
Not my hand. PC: Madeline Berry
While we rowed, Japhy cautiously watched the lake pass by a few inches away. Although he swims well and has become much more confident without any…uh…assistance getting in the deep water, he is still wary of anything deeper than his chest. He occasionally leaned over the boat for a drink, causing us to heel to port or starboard. He also wanted to be seated next to either Maddy or I while we took turns rowing which made using the oars awkward. After pausing for a few moments to give him some attention, we would place him back in his seat behind us and keep rowing.
Japhy watching the water. PC: Madeline Berry
Six hours after departing the boat launch, we finally rowed ashore to a beach between Spirit Island and the ferry docks. A tour group greeted us and snapped photos as we approached, and for the rest of the afternoon a constant stream of ferries and their curious passengers became the norm until the final one departed nearly five hours later.
Finally made it! Spirit Island is right behind us. PC: Madeline Berry
Japhy had his 15 minutes of fame with each ferry group as many people petted him, commented on his backpack, and took his photo. As a site rich in First Nations mythology, we did not step foot on the island but were able to paddle around it and hike the trails above. Besides, if the vast number of visitors who visit Spirit Island every day were allowed to stroll around the small landmass, its natural, untouched appeal would be destroyed in no time. While the docks and trails were crawling with people, we opted to have a meal and wait for the crowds to depart.
More caramel corn. We also had real food PC: Madeline Berry
When the final outbound ferry’s wake dissipated as the sun was beginning to set, we were excited to have the scene all to ourselves – that moment of solitude is what we woke up early and rowed six hours for! We took advantage of the serenity for a photo op of Maddy piloting our trusty boat near Spirit Island with Japhy as her lookout!
Final passenger ferry departing.
Maddy and Japhy rowing around Spirit Island.
Japhy making things difficult for Maddy.
Japhy could finally be off his leash without us worrying about him becoming too friendly with strangers as some of the visitors we encountered were obviously not dog people. Finally uninterrupted by anyone or anything, we began to photograph every angle possible of Spirit Island and the surrounding mountains reflecting perfectly in mirror-like water.
Enjoying the view. PC: Madeline Berry
The scenery around us truly was awe-inspiring as we rushed from one vantage point to the next as the light got better and better. Aside from a couple forced photo ops for his Instagram, Japhy happily followed his nose through the woods, sprinting up and down the trails and pausing only briefly to sniff where a chipmunk crossed his path.
Japhy sitting with Spirit Island and our boat behind him.
Maddy and Japhy on the dock.
As we usually do when out photographing, Maddy and I went our separate ways to capture our own unique scenes. Those few pristine moments came to an abrupt halt as Japhy’s blood-curdling screams shattered the silence. Japhy is not a vocal dog. He rarely barks, growls, or makes noise other than the occasional long sigh after a nap. I have only heard him cry out in pain once before when the barbed hook of a fishing lure lodged in his ear…but even that incident paled in comparison to his screams at Spirit Island. Neither Maddy nor I could see him, but his noises and trashing were so violent that my initial thought was he was tangling with a bear. I arrived to the scene scanning for any type of weapon I could use to fight the beast, but was relieved to find no bear. My relief quickly gave way to horror when I found Japhy jerking uncontrollably around a broken branch about four feet in length. The sharp end had impaled his abdomen – my only guess is he was sprinting down the trail and didn’t quite clear the branch as he jumped over it. I had to physically restrain him and take as much pressure off the branch as possible as the the gnarled end opposite the puncture was twisted around his legs. Every time he moved, he jammed the other end farther into his stomach and ripped the wound more.
Final photo I took before Japhy was hurt. A beautiful moment can change so quickly…
Realizing the emergency, my mind raced through various wilderness first aid techniques I had learned in the past. I held Japhy down with one arm and steadied the branch with the other. Maddy had been much farther up the hill photographing and arrived shortly after to assist. Japhy calmed down a bit, knowing we were helping him. Unsure how deep the branch had penetrated, I knew forcibly removing it was not an option as I did not want to cause additional internal damage. I also knew leaving it in place was off the table as Japhy would not be able to remain calm with it in him. My plan was to cut off as much of the branch as possible before stabilizing the remaining protrusion with bandages prior to finding help, but first we needed to get his back legs untangled from it. The surrounding brush was too thick for us to work on the ground so Maddy held Japhy in the air, bracing him on her knee while I continued to steady the branch and untangle his legs from it. In his frantic state between screams, Japhy bit both of us quite a few times – even drawing blood on my hand. To my immediate relief and after one last yelp, the branch dislodged from Japhy’s stomach as soon as his hind legs were free from it.
Japhy's wound shortly after the branch dislodged.
Japhy relaxed significantly at that time – probably in a state of shock – as I carried him to a clear patch of beach while Maddy ran to the boat to retrieve our first aid kid. I sat down and cradled him between my legs on his back so we could easily see and dress the wound. Fortunately the quarter-sized hole wasn’t bleeding much while we applied sterile gauze and wrapped it to keep dirt out. Japhy apologetically licked our hands and bashfully wagged his tail as we hurried to construct a sturdy bed for him. Our gear bags served as walls while the floor was lined with lifejackets and my rain coat to keep him dry from below. We covered him with my puffy and Maddy’s rain coat so he’d stay dry and warm. After shoving off to deeper water, we started the electric motor and were on the way to find help. Japhy fell asleep nearly the moment we laid him down, exhausted from the ordeal.
Japhy laying injured at the bow.
We left Spirit Island at 8:00pm and motored northwest at roughly 3mph – twice the speed of our rowing pace, but entirely too slow given Japhy’s condition. Just over two hours of daylight remained, so we dug our headlamps out in preparation for darkness. As much as we wished the motor would pick up speed, we knew it was maxed out under our load.
Maddy took the first shift steering.
An incredible sunset ignited the water all around us and cast its golden rays on the steep mountain faces behind us. That moment could never be fully captured in a photograph – iridescent orange and blue water was interrupted only by our wake and the occasional surfacing fish while loons sang their haunting song to one another in the distance.
Sunset an hour into our return. PC: Madeline Berry
The beautiful, natural splendor outside the boat was sharply contrasted by the somber scene at the bow where Japhy lay motionless in his cradle of bags and jackets. We wanted to do more for him but knew the priority now was to get him – and us – safely back to the car.
Steering while Maddy kept a close eye on Japhy. PC: Madeline Berry
The temperature dropped with the sun, and halfway back, our calm water became choppy in a stiff wind. Japhy was warm under my puffy jacket, but I was shivering at the motor. After retrieving my sleeping bag for me to bundle up in, Maddy fired up our Jetboil to cook dinner while I kept us pointed toward the boathouse lights flickering on the horizon.
The Canadian Rockies get chilly, even in the summer.
I chucked at myself in my blue cocoon as I reminisced about my not-so-distant sea-going days in the Navy. I poured through memories of navigation, ship driving, and various rules shared among vessels at sea…none of which seemed to matter anymore as we were the only boat on the lake that night.
Reaching the launch at close to midnight, we unloaded our gear from the boat and reloaded it in the car. We redressed Japhy’s wound in preparation for an expedited drive for nearly an hour until our phones could connect to a cell tower. Once there, I pulled over just outside Jasper to assist Maddy in finding a nearby emergency veterinarian phone number. Japhy seemed comfortable in the back seat while I woke up Dr. Jones from Jasper Veterinarian Clinic and explained the situation. We discussed our first aid efforts combined with Japhy’s desire to eat dinner after hobbling around to pee on things – as well as the fact that his intestines weren’t spilling out through his wound as Dr. Jones had treated before – all meaning he’d be okay for the night. She agreed to meet us first thing in the morning to explore and rinse the wound in order to determine further treatment options. I thanked her and hung up, turned to Japhy to tell him he’d be okay, and twisted the key in my ignition to head to camp for a brief night’s sleep.
Click. The unmistakable sound that a dead battery makes quickly told of my error. A combination of exhaustion and adrenaline from the past 19 hours must have been my reasoning for leaving the key in the “accessories” position with the headlights on while Maddy and I scoured the internet and talked to vets at 2am. Even if we wanted to go somewhere that night, we were positively stuck. I popped the hood and left the emergency flashers on in hopes that someone with jumper cables would stop by. With as many "no overnight parking" signs we saw along the highway and our proximity to Jasper, I rested knowing a police cruiser or Parks Canada vehicle would stop by, investigate our illegal “parking,” and render assistance. But none did.
Dawn’s light awakened me to heavy condensation on the inside of the windows from our few hours in the car. My emergency flashers had quit working sometime during the earlier morning hours, but Maddy and I waited outside attempting to wave down morning commuters. I found a scrap piece of paper and Sharpied “NEED JUMPER CABLES” in bold letters on it. A dozen or more vehicles passed – some slowing while most of their drivers craned their necks to read my sign…but none stopped. If only they knew we had a hurt pup and needed to get to the vet in just over an hour! Almost ready to give up hope and call the local towing company to jump my car, a man in a white pick up slowed, U-turned across the highway, and pulled up to the open hood of my car. A minute later my Subaru was running like new. I shook his hand and offered to buy him dinner that night. He politely declined and excused himself so he could make it to work on time. We waved goodbye and drove into town.
We arrived at the veterinary clinic early, anxious to get Japhy the care he needed. His bandages mostly held through the night, but were by no means sufficient. Dr. Jones welcomed us inside and began jotting down requisite notes and then asked for assistance sedating Japhy so she could feel around inside his wound. Shortly after the injection, Japhy drifted off into a restless sleep and twitched on the table while the doctor explored the large pocket he tore under his skin. To our relief, she confirmed his abdominal wall was intact and rinsed the wound of any debris before administering the sedative-reversing injection. She opted not to stitch the wound closed as it would need to heal internally and drain over the next few weeks. Japhy slowly regained consciousness as he made eye contact with us followed shortly by a tail wag or two. A few minutes later he was able to stumble out the door as if he was leaving the bar after too many beers. We were definitely laughing with him as we helped him into the car and slipped a flexible blue cloth cone over his head. This makes him resemble a Shakespearian actor when it is turned downwards over his shoulders. With a bag full of his pain killers and antibiotics, we headed to our campsite in need of another big meal and a nap.
Japhy isn’t a fan of his new swag.
Back in camp along the Snaring River, we gave Japhy his first round of medicine disguised in a piece of colby jack. He then snarfed down his kibble and drank a full bowl of water. Nearby, two pre-teen boys threw a tennis ball back and forth with their lacrosse sticks and chattered to one another in French. Each trying to one-up the other’s pass, they began to kick the ball back and forth across their corner of the camping field. One kick sailed the ball toward us and it bounced a few feet away from where we were cooking. “Holy shit!” one boy exclaimed to the other in perfect English as he grinned at us. “Holy shit!” the other agreed and retrieved the ball. Japhy watched them unenthusiastically for a moment and returned his full attention to a Great Dane at the next campsite over, leaning as close as his leash would allow in hopes of a play date. That’s when I knew Adventure Pup was going to be alright.
I can’t help but blame myself for Japhy’s injury. Had he been on his leash, Maddy and I likely would have continued weighing the pros and cons of photographing Spirit Island until sunset…just to row the remaining distance to camp by headlamp. But I firmly believe a dog like Japhy does not belong on a leash while out enjoying nature miles away from other humans. This freak accident could have happened anywhere or at any time as Japhy has spent significant time in the backcountry during his two years with me. Anyone, human or dog, is at risk when traveling deep into the woods – hours from cellphone service or help. Getting away from it all and exploring those wild places is exactly what so many of us yearn for…but before you go, make sure you have a plan and always bring your first aid kit. Learn some basic wilderness first aid and share your adventures with someone if possible. You never know when your fun trip could take a turn for the worse.