740 Miles with Bunji the Blue Dog

April 2022. T-minus three months until the start of our Northern Forest Canoe Trail thru-paddle. I had always dreamed of having a dog to be my best friend and adventure buddy.  I dreamed of a rugged working dog who could crank out miles on the trail alongside my wife, Ashley, and myself, then cozy up in our tent at night, perfectly happy with a thru-tripping lifestyle. But tonight as we lay in our tent with our snarling maniac of a dog barking and lunging at us at 3 am, intolerant of being inside our tent with us, inside her own tent, or even outside in no tent, I wasn’t sure if our plans would pan out.

Bunji is an Australian Cattle Dog, and she is tough as nails. She can run for miles and has seemingly unstoppable energy and drive for learning. She is also deaf. She was found wandering around ranch land in Texas where she stumbled onto someone’s property who took her in and got her connected with a rescue in Connecticut. From that rescue, on Nov. 30, 2021, she came into our lives.

Ashley and I were both immediately drawn to her athleticism and intelligence. As former educators, we felt up for the challenge of training a special needs dog. Really, she wasn’t special needs at all — she can move and learn the same as any other dog. She just required a different form of communication. Ashley and I put in thousands of hours of consistent obedience training, using American Sign Language and desensitization to her many triggers.  Her recall, using frequent check-ins and a vibrating collar, is impeccable and has been tested on deer, bear and the most irresistible of all, friendly neighborhood children. Bunji was crushing it with her training!  Why then, couldn’t this tough little cattle dog who loved everything about the outdoors settle into any sort of outdoor sleeping situation? We had already desensitized her to the tent and the dark significantly. We had some work to do!

As soon as we got home from that restless night, we set up our tent in the gear room of our house, and there we slept from April until July when we departed on the NFCT. Early on, there were lots of sleepless nights of spinning, barking and agitation, and there were several times where we returned Bunji to her crate halfway through the night to finally get some rest. However, after a couple of weeks — or months — she started to get the hang of it and we realized there was hope.

Bunji is a tricky dog, with some serious touch sensitivities that developed in her adolescence, especially when sleeping. We built an understanding in our tent: hands off unless Bunji asks for it, or unless it is absolutely necessary. Bunji sleeps on top of us; she insists on physical contact, probably as a way of keeping track of us when her eyes are closed. However, she does not want to be touched by hands or shifted too quickly by the body beneath her, and she will say so with a warning snap at any hour of the night. No matter: our tent sleeping compatibility was growing stronger by the day. We were ready for the NFCT!

My wife Ashley and I have been together for 13 years and over that time we have traveled quite extensively, including thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail and mountain biking the Great Divide Route (GDMBR). While on the particularly dry southern section of the GDMBR, we had decided on the Northern Forest Canoe Trail as our next thru-trip. What could be better than trees and water after riding through the hot and dry desert? Plus, it would complete what I call the “US Thru-Triathlon.” Hike, bike and paddle the classic routes in the country — something that has always been a dream of mine. We planned our NFCT trip the same way we plan out other thru-trips, which means we didn’t plan all that much. We don’t usually see much point in looking at the nitty gritty before we depart, because there is so much variability in a thru-trip, and we’ve always been able to figure things out as we go. So with the maps and a melange of mostly secondhand and borrowed gear, we were ready!

“You’ve got to be kidding me, there is a portage through the city of Plattsburgh!”

Over the first week of our trip, Ashley and I had quickly figured out that traveling with a dog — at least our dog — closely resembled traveling with a child. We packed toys, took frequent breaks and cut back on our miles if she hadn’t napped or was unusually restless or cranky.  Bunji, however, had settled very well into boat life. She absolutely loved open water. The expansive views and gentle undulation of the windswept waves provided a rhythmic relief that rocked her into a deep sleep. She chose a perch in the front of the boat for most of her waking hours. It was the best lookout point to guard against red buoys and flags on the distant shores. We kept a healthy collection of sticks in the boat, not for kindling, but for Bunji to play with and chew on. And we devoted ourselves to a game that I dubbed “Reverse Fetch.”   Bunji would drop her stick overboard from the front of the boat, I would catch it in the water mid-paddling and toss it back up to her. Ashley gained many battle scars in the crossfire, but the game never got old.

Even though she adapted marvelously to riding in our boat, Bunji is a cattle dog through and through, and she needed to get her exercise too. Often it came in the form of swimming/wading after the boat (ahem, Spencer Stream). Other days there were lunchtime fetch games and camp obstacle courses across downed trees.

Yet another form of exercise for Bunji, and the biggest challenge of our whole trip, was portaging! Bunji loved pulling the boat, or at least walking next to me “pulling” Ashley while I pulled the boat. And she loved off-leash portages through the woods, a favorite of course being the Mud Pond Carry. But Bunji hated cars. And all our work desensitizing to cars in parking lots before the trip didn’t help one bit when crossing roads like Route 3 in New York.  So we got creative, planning our portages for off peak driving hours and cooler pavement.  We arranged shuttles and hitchhiked on some high traffic road walks. We pulled our boat up many dried up rivers just to avoid walking on roads. And when it came to Plattsburgh, 1.5 miles of portaging through a city, we called our very first Uber!

Camping with Bunji was the best. She never left our sight so she could be off leash without any issue. At camp she would walk a perimeter several times over and then either play with sticks some more or act as a guard while we set up and made dinner. Bunji always ate first of course. Our tent practice really paid off because oftentimes when we were cleaning up before getting in the tent, Bunji would already be in the tent waiting for us to slip in so she could sleep on Ashley’s legs.

Bunji developed a great sense of adventure. Dogs truly live in the present and Bunji was always ready for whatever was next. She would often bark at the hawks and eagles as she learned to do at home to protect the chickens. However, she never once reacted to the many geese she saw, which we told her were her “water chickens” to protect. (Hand signal: “Be nice to the chickens.”) In one instance in Vermont, we came around a river bend and there was a large black bear on the opposite bank. Bunji went berserk and scared the bear away so quickly I thought the poor thing had vaporized. Subsequently, that night at camp across from that same bank, we found fresh bear scat all around. I was confident that the bear had no intention of coming back to bother Bunji and deal with another one of her outbursts. One of Bunji’s most amazing feats was napping on the boat, stick in mouth, while Ashley and I lined the boat down heavy rapids. She napped for hours this way on the Nulhegan!

Bunji is an incredibly capable creature. She listens with her eyes and her heart. She is relentless and tenacious. She is the most loyal and attentive dog I have ever met. She is always ready to go and never says no to activity. Traveling with Bunji taught me that anything is achievable when you put the work in. That restless night camping in April had me worried, but my worries were quickly washed away whenever I caught a glimpse of Bunji taking in the lake air, focusing on the ripples in the quickwater, or passed out by the campfire. On the NFCT she thrived and grew in ways we never imagined. She learned to eat with us and her resource guarding around food completely subsided as a result of sharing food at camp daily. Now she pulls us into the tent when she decides it is bedtime, rather than snarling. She is a better Bunji for having done the NFCT. I don’t know how many dogs have completed the Northern Forest Canoe Trail, and as far as I know she’s the first deaf dog to do it. But what I know for certain is that Bunji, Ashley and myself cannot wait for our next adventure together.