Canine Camping in the Smokies

Outfitting your dog for the trail may be trendy, but what can we learn from our unfettered pets out in the wild?

We demand a high standard of behavior from our dogs when we take them outdoors: to mimic the monotonous pace we've chosen, to resist aggression against other animals, including humans, to refrain from barking and whining, and to generally not raise a ruckus when we're trying to relax. We teach them how to catch a Frisbee, how to complete an obstacle course, how to flush a covey of quail. Rarely do we consider how the pet might want to spend its time outdoors, nor do we contemplate what we might learn from them through simple observation.

With this in mind, I took my German shepherd Norman along on a canoeing/camping trip to Calderwood Lake. Norm had never been camping. He'd been on two short canoe runs, both in the daytime. My new thing is to paddle at night.

To get to Calderwood Lake from Maryville, where I live, you drive south on Highway 129, over what is known as the Tail of the Dragon, a switchback mountain pass popular with motorcyclists. Blocking my rear view, Norm stood in the back of the Subaru, swaying with the curves, his head out the window, ears laid back, spit flying. He wasn't fretting about the speeding bikers, as I was, but he did sniff longingly at the "Boob Zone," as it is labeled on the pavement, where dozens of brassieres hung like fruit from the branches of a roadside tree. My first failure: I did not accommodate my dog's wishes to stop and investigate the lingerie tree and the whereabouts of the human females who had donated their underwear for the beautification of the wilderness.

Norm Lesson #1: Be spontaneous.

The campground on Calderwood, located just over the Carolina line below Cheoah Dam, was occupied by a couple of RV's, one with a roaring generator that powered the televised UT football game, the other occupied by two German shepherds in a pen. With his head out the window opposite from the dog pen, Norman missed a great opportunity to do some serious barking.

A family from Asheville was fishing at the end of the road, a flat spot with a fire pit, a picnic table, and some broken white plastic chairs that the RV folks told me should stay there. Norm and I stood there waiting for the Asheville family to leave so that we could set up camp. I assured them there was no hurry.

"Does he bite?" asked the mom. I said no and earned Norm some pats on the head.

"Does he like the water?" asked the dad.

"He hates the water," I said.

"He'll really hate it here. It's frigid."

After the family left, I removed Norm's leash and let him meander. He sniffed the trash in the campfire ring. He ate some grass and gagged. He watered the bushes, the picnic table, and the fire ring. Finally he lay down with a huff and watched me string my hammock, spread a tarp and an old sleeping bag for him, and unload the canoe.

Lesson #2: Let the human do the work.

Lesson #3: If it looks good and tastes good, eat it, even if it makes you gag.

Lesson #4: Stop and smell everything.

Lesson #5: Urinate often.

I had brought along Norm's Zoinks, a hard plastic ball with a light inside that blinks when he bites down. Norm cannot resist the Zoinks. I tested his aversion to water by tossing the ball into the shallows. This was against the spirit of the trip, but I succeeded in getting Norm to retrieve the ball in six inches of water, a record for him. When I tossed it 15 feet out, Norm seated himself regally on the tarp and watched me wade out and retrieve his beloved Zoinks.

Lesson #6: There are limits to loyalty.

Norm's tastes are simple, the Zoinks his only toy. He doesn't require a dog tent, hiking boots, a fanny pack or any of the other accoutrements you might see on his contemporaries. On the other hand, it wouldn't have been a bad idea to have a life jacket for Norm since I'd never seen him swim.

It had to be flat dark before we started out in the boat. This was my rule. I also had a goal: to find Slickrock Creek, part of the Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness, on the left downstream bank, and paddle up it.

I grew impatient waiting for dark. I worried about Norm capsizing us in the cold water. I worried about the leaves floating downstream, the current generated by nearby Cheoah Dam a force I'd have to paddle against on the way back to camp. Norm curled up on the tarp and slept while I worried.

One might wonder, why canoe at night, especially when the daytime weather had been ideal, the air cleansed and sharpened by the week of rain that dropped nine inches in Blount County. Here's why: Paddling at night changes everything. Deprived of daylight, your sense of distance is distorted, and perceiving the components of the landscape becomes a guessing game. Bushes loom like long-armed swamp monsters. Sounds are amplified; frogs belch so loud you'd think they're the size of donkeys. You feel your way around a lake or a swamp or a river as if in an unfamiliar room, and you measure each paddle stroke with the deliberateness of a tightrope walker. It's creepy and it makes me a little scared to be on the water at night. I like being a little scared.

In this extravaganza of the senses, how would Norm, of a breed known for sniffing out bombs and narcotics, behave? What would he hear and smell that I wouldn't? How would he let me know? Would he freak out in aromatic frenzy?

Norm weighs 85 pounds, more than my canoe. Not only does he get agitated about dogs, but also squirrels and cats and just about every other mammal. I wanted him to enjoy the ride, and I wanted to learn from the way he perceived the night paddle, but I hoped he didn't get excited enough to tip the boat over. The shoreline, steep between 500-foot ridges, did not afford many landing zones. It would be a serious matter to capsize on this lake with a dog I'd never seen swim.

The first time Norm and I went canoeing, he stood in the boat and fidgeted and whined for two hours before he settled down. This time, he lay down on a towel near the middle of the boat and appeared to go to sleep. I tried not to be disappointed, but I felt he owed me some kind of reaction. Was he bored? Did he want me to return to camp after only a few minutes? Should I turn around? Did he know something I didn't? I'd heard of horse sense, something my grandfather said I lacked. Was there such a thing as dog sense that humans like me should pay more attention to?

Lesson #7: Relax and lie down in a tippy boat on cold water.

Behind us a waxing gibbous moon rose above the ridge and cast my spindly paddling shadow on Norm's prone body. Pale gray boulders the size of dumpsters pulsed in the light. The head of Keanu Reeves as Neo appeared on one of them. (I'd recently watched The Matrix.) The water glistened with globules of light in the wake of my paddle strokes. On the left, where Kilmer's old-growth forest grew thick and tall, came the soft, faint roar of a waterfall I thought I remembered from paddling here a few years previous. Norm propped his chin on the gunnel and stared toward the ridgetop.

A half mile past the waterfall, a beaver plunged his tail twice, and Norm perked up at what I thought must be Slickrock Creek murmuring behind a dark barrier of brush. Inward, toward oblivion, we paddled, away from the moon's eerie light into the unknown. My headlamp revealed a small bank of rocks sluicing a series of rivulets, much too tiny for Slickrock.

We continued following the bend that took us out of the moonglow into the shadow of a ridge. Far above us, small powerful engines whined mosquito-like, bikers throttling through the pass. It was a lonely and forlorn sound, out of place in all of this unlit wilderness. A shooting star streaked across the sky. After two hours of paddling downstream, I asked Norm if it was okay to turn around, even though we had failed to find Slickrock.

On the way back, I turned into the cove where I thought I remembered the waterfall. I couldn't see the waterfall. I couldn't see anything because heavy foliage blocked the moonlight from the narrow passageway and had us groping forward toward a roar that grew louder and louder. I realized that this was not some waterfall I'd seen before. "This is Slickrock Creek," I said to Norm. He glanced my way and reassumed his position, chin on the gunnel, head tilted toward the hidden moon.

Lesson #8: The moon is interesting. Stare at it.

The white noise of shallow moving water filled up the forest and the sky. We ducked under a low limb and came to an opening where a rocky stream poured through a slanting field of rocks 20 yards wide. Patches of moonlight, filtered by the trees, flickered on the moving whitewater. Below the barrier of rocks, we sat in the canoe, the eddy holding us in its spinning embrace.

Back at camp at midnight I started a little fire, and we ate a meager dinner. Despite the successful night run and Norm's impeccable behavior, I thought it best to tether him to my hammock with a six-foot long tie I used for my boat. Norm had been so good I didn't worry about tying an elaborate knot.

I woke up a few times. When the lake rose, my boat made a slapping sound in the small waves ruffled by the night breeze. Falling acorns hit a variety of surfaces: concrete, water, my car. It was a comic campsite to try to get a good night's sleep, but the night was cool and I felt snug in my sleeping bag, happy that my dog was smarter than I'd thought.

Then, just before first light, Norm made me yell at him the only time of the trip. I don't know what it was, but he went after something that should be glad it wasn't caught. He yanked the knot at his collar so hard it came loose, emitted one growl near the campfire pit, and flushed whatever had the temerity to encroach upon our territory. Satisfied, he returned when I called him in a more reasonable tone.

Lesson 9: Forgive humans for yelling at you for things they don't understand.

An hour later, we set out to retrace our route to the creek and back. I was anxious to complete this part of the trip and get on the road before the motorcyclists woke up and revved their engines.

The morning paddle revealed stark differences between the dammed reservoir and the creek that fed it, the water flashing in the early sunlight, alive like it should be. At night, it talked to us, and now it opened up in all its glory. As we eddied below the tumble of boulders, Norm did not make a sound of complaint, but he did stand in the boat, ears up, gazing upstream, as if enraptured. Following his lead, I looked in the same direction, unmoving, trying not to think, until he turned to me, a signal, and we paddled back to camp for the drive home. Perhaps, after a few more trips, Norm will have me completely trained.

Lesson 10: Savor beauty for as long as possible.


If You Go

Camping is free, first come, first served. There are roughly a half dozen sites with picnic tables and fire rings. Amenities include a porta potty, a dumpster, a boat ramp, and a fishing dock. Generator not included. On Slickrock Creek and on Calderwood proper on the right side about three miles from the boat ramp are some primitive campsites.

To get there: Stay on 129 at the bottom of the Dragon's Tail where the road splits. Go toward Robbinsville and the Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness. You'll see Cheoah Dam on your left as you descend toward Calderwood Lake. Before you cross the bridge, look for a turnoff on the right.