One beautiful summer weekend in northern Saskatchewan, Julia decided to take her two young children out canoeing. Being somewhat of an experienced outdoors person, she assembled all the necessary items: waterproof matches, knife, axe, snare wire, tent, extra clothing and rain gear.
Her kids were happy and excited, chattering together as they made sandwiches to pack for lunch. “Can I paddle in the front?” asked four-year-old Holly. Her brother Thomas, two years older and always the peacemaker, answered, “Yup, and then we can take turns, right?” Their mother joined the conversation. “How lucky can I be to have a whole paddling team! Of course you can take turns, as long as we remember to change places safely.” They reviewed together exactly what that meant.
Finally everything was ready. Just before leaving the house, Julia called her parents to let them know of her plans. Her Dad answered, and after hearing about the day trip, he asked, “Are you taking the .22?” Julia answered, “Not this time; we’re starting from the resort dock and going to Apsis Island, so I won’t be needing the gun.” Apsis means “a little bit” in Cree, and the island got its name from being so tiny that once you were up on one side, you could see the water on the other, and everyone knew that nothing larger than a squirrel ever called it home.
The sunlight sparkled on the clear water of Lac La Plonge Lake as the little canoeing party headed out. Thomas graciously let his sister paddle the first half of their journey, and settled in to try his young hand at trolling. He already knew how to tie a leader and hook onto his fishing line, and soon had a five of diamonds trailing behind the canoe. Julia sang a funny old song in rhythm with her paddling strokes, and it was a fine day to be alive.
About an hour later, Apsis came into view. A wind had come up behind them, blowing straight into the steep, rocky shore, so Julia steadied the canoe as Holly and Thomas carefully climbed out of the front one by one. She tossed the gear after them, and then hauled the canoe up with her as the waves were too strong and would have kept dashing it against the rocks.
The kids were happily unpacking the lunch from their perch above the lake. Julia noticed that their clothes had gotten wet from the splashing waves on their way up the shore. She cleared a spot out of the wind behind a large rock and instructed, “You get the lunch ready and I’ll go find a little dry wood for a fire to dry out your clothes”.
As usual, she could see water straight ahead on the other side of the island, so turned left into a thicker stand of trees to search for firewood. After being in the bright sun all day, her eyes took a while to adjust to the dim light of the underbrush, and soon she was stooped over, collecting an armful of kindling.
She made her way in a small circle, eventually facing the direction she had entered the woods. Then she heard it – a low, menacing growl that made the hairs of her neck stand on end. Could she have been imagining things? No! A second growl, this time louder and even closer sent Julia’s heart racing “Oh my dear God,” she thought with a feeling of utter dread, “…my kids.”
Without glancing behind, she threw her load of wood over her shoulder and ran back towards Thomas and Holly. Her feet barely touching the earth, she screamed with all her might, “Kids, GET IN THE CANOE!!” She could see their faces turned towards her in frightened confusion at the strange sound of her voice. They were stunned and frozen in their tracks. Julia yelled a second time, “GET IN THE CANOE!!” Thomas grabbed Holly’s hand and the two of them jumped awkwardly into the boat.
With one swoop, Julia threw the backpack in behind them, and then placing one hand on each gunwale, lifted the canoe and literally threw it into the water below. Miraculously, it stayed upright, and into it she jumped from the top of the rocks, grabbed her paddle and with swift, strong strokes, attempted to manoeuvre the canoe straight away from the shore.
But, something was wrong. Though she was paddling with all her strength, the canoe was not moving. For the first time, Julia looked back, and saw what it was that had growled at her. Two huge dogs, with the fur around their necks standing up like a fanned collar, were standing poised at the top of the rocks. Their heads were low and weaving back and forth as they stared with wild eyes at the humans in the canoe. They looked more like jackals than dogs, and one of them was foaming at the mouth, the bits of froth blowing away in the wind.
With a sickening feeling, Julia saw the reason the canoe couldn’t move. The bailer jug, a cut out bleach bottle, had flown out the side when she threw it down, and was now wedged in between two rocks. “Thomas”, Julia called firmly, “I need you to do something really important now.” Thomas stared at her, pale and motionless. “We need to cut that line that’s holding the bailer, okay, my boy? But I need to keep paddling against the waves, so I can’t use my hands. Come carefully and reach into my pocket for my knife. Pay no attention to anything but staying low in the middle of the boat.” Thomas nodded and started moving carefully towards his mother. Julia prayed that the dogs would not jump.
Then she glanced at Holly, sitting frozen in the front of the canoe, her eyes large and fixed terrifyingly at the spectacle behind them. “Holly, you’re our captain now”, Julia called out to her daughter, “Captains know the way home, so you turn around carefully and look for the path Mommy’s going to paddle us out of here, okay?” Holly snapped out of her fixation and slowly turned around to face the front.
Thomas finally reached his mother’s side. He reached into her pocket, took out her jack knife, and with Julia encouraging him, crawled back to where the bailer string was tied to the gunwale. As Julia kept paddling to keep the string taut, he slowly and surely sawed until it broke free. “Way to be, Tommy! We’re out of here!” Julia cried.
It was a long time before anyone said anything. The sound of the waves beat reassuringly against the canoe as they steadily made their way home. The wind eventually calmed, and Julia finally stopped paddling. Thomas was the first to speak. “It’s a good thing we listened to you, Mom”, he said quietly.
Julia’s eyes filled with tears. She wanted to gather her children close and hug them, but had to wait until they got to shore. She told them how brave and strong they were, and how proud she was that even though they were scared, they had all worked together like real teams do.
Wanting to make sure no one else ended up in the same situation on the island, Julia stopped in at the village office to report the dogs and their desperate condition. The town administrator was surprised to hear her news. “They were obviously starving to death,” Julia explained. “I never would have expected to find them there. An island that size would never support two big dogs like that. Why are they there?” The administrator explained that they were probably sled dogs, abandoned for the summer. They both agreed it was a cruel and inhumane thing to do, and he promised to track the owner down.
After tucking her children into bed that night, Julia gazed out at the moon and thanked God for bringing them home safely.
She thought about the dogs, their innocence, and hoped they too would be saved from a fate they had not asked for. She thought about her Dad wisely asking about the .22, and her decision not to take it. Who would have ever thought that the greatest danger out in the wild would be a pair of dogs that belonged to humans? She would never make that mistake again.