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July 2022

Banff National Park: Exploring Lake Minnewanka

Guest Author: Katia Mordak @mor.wild

Before you read on, know that we received one of the hardest pieces of news about our sweet dog… fortunately and unfortunately it was while we were in one of the most beautiful spots in all of Canada.

We have been looking forward to this canoe camping trip for months. It would be our littlest’s first canoe camp/backcountry camp. She is now two months old.

We packed up early in the morning and hit the lake as soon as we could. Now it wasn’t actually that early because it was quite interesting trying to ready two adults, a toddler, a newborn, and a doggo for 3 days in the backcountry. Particularly when all five of us are currently living on the road out of a 17ft trailer (1977 Boler). Nonetheless we still made it there before the parking lot filled up with empty bellies and excited hearts. Those excited hearts were particularly important to be able to tackle the choppy, teal waters that gradually filled the bottom of our canoe. At times, the wind sent waves up and over the gunwales on this cold and windy day. The rocking waves put both littles to sleep but our dog was on edge. It’s easy to say that this pup far prefers her feet on the ground than in the canoe even on a calm day.

The moment we arrived at our campsite we set up our tent on a woodchip tent pad and our tarp over the cooking area so we could settle and have lunch. Rain was in the forecast and storm clouds were looking down at us throughout our paddle. As it goes, we prepared for a dump of rain with our Cotopaxi Cielo Rain Jackets and it only sprinkled. Had we not, surely it would have down-poured.

As we cooked our lunch we had come to realize that our fuel was low and we were missing utensils. When you think you can stop using a backcountry checklist… you’re wrong. Or at least we were wrong. We have the added piece of consolidating down to two backpacks from an already consolidated trailer with items in all sorts of Boler hiding places and packing while parenting. So next time and all times may we go back to the checklist. However, our fuel was surely enough for a few more meals and our toddler was absolutely stoked to use “rock spoons”. So we just went about the rest of our day and enjoyed the moment. We built a fire and all hung out keeping warm near the pit as the wind beat our backsides. And went to bed with a seemingly clever idea that Michael, my husband, was going to hike out early the next morning with our doggo for more fuel and utensils while myself and our two littles slept in and enjoyed a quiet morning in order to live out our planned stay of two nights.

Our sweet dog is named Maisel, she’s nearly three years old and has been full of energy and love during every breath she’s ever taken. She was acting differently. Eating poorly, grumbling at others in the backcountry, hiding in tall grass, and was having the runs. We were attributing it to her anxiety of a new place and the rocky canoe ride. Looking back, she had been off for a little while but it was far more apparent on this trip. It’s difficult when there is so much to attribute changed behavior to when you have a highly sensitive being… packing up our home, labour, a new baby, moving, and road tripping. We had high hopes that the hike with Michael the next day would lift her spirits and reset her appetite.

This was our second night ever in our new tent. Being backpackers, a 4 person tent feels like an absolute mansion. The space we had was glorious. We also snazzed it up with a new sleeping pad. We now have two Exped duos which are really quite luxurious in a small package, I must say. We have one winter and one regular. We thought it would be handy to have a winter in order to help keep our newborn warm and open the potential of a cold camp here and there. Also of note is that they are easy to repair! We bring Maisel in the tent with us, and she has now put a hole in one side of each of them. But no matter… they have sealed well with the repair kit that Exped offers. So all that being said, we slept well, warm and comfortably with our littles in down Morrison outdoor sleeping bags and us in down Marmot bags.

Michael and Maisel were already gone when we woke. We were expecting them back around 10am. So we just went about our morning and kept our eyes out for Michael’s red Ambler hat and the sound of Maisel’s bear bell. I had sent a text message around 11am to check in but service was poor and I never heard back. So I tried calling. Believe it or not calls were going through but not our text messages. Michael was telling me that he had Maisel at the groomer and had assumed that I received his text message updates, but I hadn’t. He thought her long nails were hurting her on the hike. He told me that he had to carry her for the last 1km and that she now wasn’t eating anything at all. Not treats. Not wet food. He was searching for anything to perk her up. Sometimes our hope blurs our ability to see the worst. We discussed how she had to visit the vet. It didn’t matter if it delayed their return. We had enough food to make it by just fine and rock spoons were working. So off to Canmore they went.

Michael called shortly after to update that after a visit and blood work at the Canmore Veterinary clinic they found Maisel to be beyond their abilities and referred her to a Pet Hospital in Calgary to pin down more information. So again, we agreed a further delay to their return was important. At this point it was the early afternoon and I was finding it tough parenting a toddler and a newborn in the backcountry by myself with the added stress of Maisel’s wellness so I declared a nap time for all of us. They slept well in our sun bathed tent.

I jumped to the sound of my phone ringing. Michael had an update. It was delivered through his raspy, broken hearted and tear heaving voice. She has a terminal heart condition. With or without heart medication her heart will fail. They were discussing euthanization vs medication. I don’t think that either of us have ever felt so helpless. We cried together and apart. It nearly broke me that I couldn’t leave the backcountry given that I was with two kids, two backpacks, and a canoe on my own to be with Michael and Maisel as they navigated this unwellness together. It nearly broke him to not only receive this news about Maisel alone but to not be able to get to us easily to tell us in person. We agreed that Maisel, at the very least, was going to do the night on medication and he was going to come back to us and bring us to reunite with Maisel the next day.

Sometimes and seemingly often bad news comes at difficult times. It felt impossible to be where I was. It was the one time ever that I can recall thinking, “I wish I wasn’t here”. Here being in the mountains just steps from a stunning teal lake, lush green grassy forest floors and beautiful swaying Alder trees. However, I also remember thinking, well at least I have this to look at as I process this hard news; At least I have this to look at as the memories of Maisel flood my mind. Further, the sun was shining, when rain was expected.

On top of all of that, and what I possibly needed even more than the view and sunshine was the incredibly kind family who adopted us in, entertained our toddler, fed us and kept my mind busy and far happier than it would have been. It’s not often that we find other families with littles in the backcountry so it really felt like it was meant to be that this was the trip that we did. The kids were being kids, backcountry kids that is, having fun balancing on logs, walking the paths, squatting in the grass, collecting firewood, learning axe and fire safety, gathering water from the lake, exploring new fun camp foods together and creating memories. All of which would have felt too overwhelming to offer my toddler, Kismet, on my own as I navigated my feelings and cared for a newborn. The trip would have been different without this family.

Meanwhile, Michael found himself head to head with the most difficult hike he’d faced to date. Not physically of course, but mentally. This hike led him back along the very same trail that may have been Maisel’s last. He walked past the landmarks where, only hours earlier, he’d carried his ailing friend. He noted each spot where she’d lost her step or stopped to rest. Realizing now the look in her eye had been one of discomfort and pain.

He made it back in the evening just as everyone readied for bed. We embraced and let the tears flow. We went to bed earlier than we normally do as we were drained emotionally and physically.

We paddled out early the next morning after we made use of the fuel and utensils he went out for and drove to Maisel as soon as we could. She is doing far better on her medication. The x-ray showed her heart as three sizes larger than it should be. Which, as horrible and life altering as that is, seems fitting that if anything were to challenge her it would be a big heart. So now we are off to slow it down for a little while to share the last bit of the time we have with our big hearted and loving Maisel.