It was a last minute decision. I don't do well with last minute decisions. Anxiety kicks in and my fight or flight response always turns to flight... and worry. But for this, how could I turn down the opportunity.
It was an opportunity to go to Whistler. I had a ride there, a place to stay, a fun travel companion... sounds amazing, right?
Except this wasn't a tour to see the sights, go to spas and live the outdoor life that you see in the glossy magazines.
It was to photograph and help promote the remaining sled tour dogs that the Whistler Sled Dog Co. and Whistler Animals Galore (WAG) were trying to find homes for and to watch my friend and devoted animal rescuer, Penny Stone, in action again while she volunteered her time to help with the process.
I'm not sure what I expected when we first got to the kennels. I've met a lot of former retired sled dogs during my time volunteering at the Victoria SPCA, but this felt different. To see the dogs in the same place where their running mates were killed just after the 2010 olympics was, well, powerful.
Over the course of three days I spent hours there visiting with the dogs, trying to learn all of their names, photographing them, cataloguing them, strategizing and taking it all in.
The first day we arrived, I had noticed a bluff which overlooked the kennel area. I knew from there I'd get a good vantage point of the kennels. A place to take it all in and perhaps get a photograph to show the layout of the kennel area. So, on day three I passed through two sets of latched gates, locking them behind me, and made my way up to the hill. It was hot, but there was some shade. A dog named Sun kept his eye on me and made sure the other dogs knew I was up there. The others didn't seem to care, but Sun did. From this vantage point it was possible to see the scope of this place and even though the area isn't small, I couldn't visualize that there were 300+ dogs living there during the Olympics - tethered or not.
There are more kennels now and new sunshade covers them. The vista beyond this area is as impressive as it comes. Mountains and trees and peacefulness. Beyond the main kennel area, a gate separates the dogs from the area where the remnants of the days of sledding are now stored. I went beyond those kennel gates to explore. It was a blazing hot day, up about 40 celsius and as I wandered in the quiet the only sound was the click of my shutter and the odd bark of a dog. It seemed eerie, desolate and far away.
Buckets and piles of rusted chains - the chains the dogs used to be tethered to when they weren't sledding. Dog jackets, plastic igloos that belonged to dogs who are no longer there. The lucky ones having been adopted. Every igloo has been chewed around its opening. Some of them have names written in pencil on the front. Names of dogs I've met - Owl, Tuba, Arctic. Old trailers being used for storage. Used and dented metal food dishes. The sleds all piled up on top of each other - some old and wooden, some newer, more modern ones. Carriers that would transport the dogs from the kennels to the operation headquarters where the dogs would get harnessed up to take tourists racing through the snowy wilderness.
An empty dog house still stands on the hill. Perhaps it was for a special dog as it was much bigger than the igloos. Outside of it is a tree stump with a chain bolted to the top. The chain extends about 10 feet or so and its rusted. Wire fencing is attached to the tree stumps - seemingly as some sort of deterrent. There are burrows under stumps and holes covered over with rocks and fencing where the dogs would dig holes... to try to escape, to get warm, or to cool down as I saw them do while I was up there.
It's a wasteland. A graveyard of discarded things which mark the lives of another time.
What's left are dogs. Sentient beings who can think and feel. 43 dogs who are the leftovers. Beautiful, smart, loving and who have a lot of adventure left in them. Dogs who are in need of warm, safe, dry places with people who will have the patience to help them assimilate into home life... They've had the backs of humans for years... Now it's our turn to work for them. So, with a handful of committed, passionate people on the front lines working to spread the word and find homes for them, these dogs now have a chance at moving on to the next chapter in their lives.
Let's be sure that at the end of this all, what's left is the fact that we did all we could to do right for these incredible, deserving dogs.
For information on adopting or fostering a retired sled tour dog, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit their facebook page.
With extreme gratitude and thanks to Penny Stone, Shannon, Sue, Kim, Shelley, Angie, Jess and all 43 of my new four-legged buddies.
Please see images below...