Can I trust you?

In the wilderness, a woman, man and dog learn the fine art of interdependence.

Published June 15, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Sophie, my 7-year-old Newfoundland, gets more anxious
and alert the farther north we drive, and the route is
nearly straight north -- out of Iowa City, Iowa, across
the entire length of Minnesota toward the Boundary
Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. She sniffs the August
chill as we pull into a motel parking lot late the
first evening, stands up on the back seat of the
borrowed van and inquires with an earnest black nose
about this new place and the unexpected pleasure of
cool air in summer. My husband, Andy, and I are
stupefied from the drive but she is eager: Water is
very near now, and outside town there were deer running
so close to the road that she cried for them. Going
into the north, Sophie is becoming more alive, and as
I stagger upstairs with my backpack I draw on her
panting energy.

Tomorrow we will drive out to North Country Canoe
Outfitters, load a 17-foot canoe with a week's
waterproofed supplies, drive deep into the north
woods, coax Sophie into the middle of the boat and
paddle away from leash laws into a wilderness where we
will compulsively keep her tethered. The risk is too
great should she chase something and get lost: Any
large animal could finish her off, and even coyotes,
far smaller than my 120-pound bear of a dog, are
capable of luring her away from camp and taking her
down as a pack. And wolves -- let's not even get into
wolves. My great, lumbering pup, whose presence
ensures my security among humans, will be ironically
dependent on me in the woods. Perhaps she could
survive without me, but afloat for a week with no one
to rely on but we three adventurers, we are stronger,
faster and safer together.

That, whether we admit it or not, is what has brought
us here to the jumping-off point of civilization.
Andy and I have been married less than two years and
we adopted Sophie at the age of 5. By taking this
rash leap into a wilderness that could devour us -- no
guide, no cell phone, no safety net -- we are asking
how much we can trust each other. Modern life offers
so few opportunities to answer that question; there
are always hidden agendas and ulterior motives.
Basically you cross your fingers when you get married
and hope that the weaving of the years will show a
good pattern in the end. To find out what someone
will do when rain starts pouring into the tent at 3
a.m. or you can't find the trail is valuable information that you can't get easily in the information age.

The first day is sunny and easy. At the first portage
we forget our fishing poles and have to go back, but
the second, through marshy, uneven ground, we complete
with professional efficiency. In our practice paddles Sophie developed the
habit of jumping in one side of
the canoe and out the other into shallow water, but
portaging teaches her new lessons. This time when she
jumps out the other side it's into black water that
swallows her completely and leaves her gasping and
scrambling while we laugh ourselves limp. For the rest
of the week Sophie climbs obediently into the canoe
and sits. Forget the theories about repetition and
reward: When it counts, she learns instantaneously.

As the days pass, I learn new things about my
companions. For example: Sophie is inexhaustible at a
steady trot. With a fully loaded backpack, doing a
2-mile trail three times because we must carry the
heavy aluminum canoe separately, Sophie leads the way
as if we were Lewis and Clark depending on her
guidance. She is businesslike in her pack, less
likely to sniff or wander, and extremely careful to
stay between us and the other parties we encounter.
The backpack, I imagine, returns to her some ancestral
sense of duty and I am touched when she pauses at a
bend in the trail or comes back to get me so that we
are never separated, even by sight.

My husband's woodsmanship is a revelation too. I knew
he could do remarkable things with a computer, but now
he's telling stories about Boy Scout merit badges and
suspending our gear from trees with elaborate knots.
When he gets tired he grows exasperatingly patient and
quiet until, if I whine, I hear it echo back out of
the stillness and feel ridiculous. Andy takes all
this very seriously: He does not take chances, and he
watches over me and Sophie with a manly strength and
self-assurance I haven't seen in him before. There
are things that he can lift and I can't; my small
fingers manipulate gear that his fumble with. He
pulls the canoe along powerfully; I steer and navigate
with increasing skill. We are separated naturally,
against all egalitarian principles, by what our bodies
can and cannot do, and these complementary roles are
inexplicably reassuring as we go farther from
civilization, deeper into utter interdependence.

As we rinse out dirty socks in the lake at an isolated
campsite at dusk, Sophie joins us in the water for a
long, relaxed swim. She moves confidently away from
shore, her long, dark body a vessel in smooth water,
watching birds, clouds, the shoreline, us, paddling in
the element she owns so certainly. This is my aging
girl with the beginnings of cataracts, and at the same
time a creature of places and times wilder than
anything I know. The water loosens our bond
distressingly; at last I swim out to her just to feel
her lifesaving instinct turn her toward me, to see how
she cares for me in water, even though she knows by now
that I don't need rescuing. She circles me, scratches
me in long whip marks in an attempt to nudge me toward
shore until I acquiesce and she and I swim in
together, reunited and content.

The most telling moment, as always, comes in crisis.
We are on Bald Eagle Lake one afternoon, foolishly
striking out in unreliable weather for a campsite on
the far shore. A hard, sudden wind catches us
port-side and we must tack. I navigate, terrorized,
from the stern with my limited sailing skills, keeping
the bow into the whitecaps just enough to prevent us from capsizing while making some small progress toward shore.

Other than death, Sophie is my greatest worry. Before
she became accustomed to the canoe, she had a habit of
standing and shifting her weight alarmingly if
anything upset her. Now, sitting flat on the cold,
wet bottom of the canoe for stability, I talk softly
to her under the wind's slap and cry: "It's okay,
Sophie. Shhhh. Stay, Sophie. Good girl."

I imagine her jumping up and spilling our fragile
craft, or panicking and leaping overboard in the
middle of the wide, deep lake where we can barely help
ourselves, let alone a shipwrecked Newfoundland. I am
steering with all my strength and Andy is paddling
hard, glancing back at me occasionally with wild,
determined eyes, but Sophie's reaction will decide our

My girl holds steady. In the rocking, pounded canoe
she lies still and tense, watching me as if I had a
steak strapped to my forehead. Whatever I do will be
her sign, so as long as I sit tight, so does she.
Because my dog is watching, and because she, or all
three of us, may die if I give her reason to panic or if I
pilot the boat astray, I beat down a fear that has
become almost asthmatic and steer, stroke after cement
stroke, to the island where we will take refuge for
the night.

As we beach the canoe on steep rocks and stumble
ashore, Sophie obeys with a clarity of motion that a
thousand obedience classes never would inspire.
Tonight we are bound, my dog, my husband and I, by
the most primitive survival instincts. We are all
quiet as Andy and I work sweatily, bumping and
dropping everything, to get the tent up and make
dinner before the storm attacks for real. At last
there is food on the Coleman stove: pasta eaten from
the pot with spoons. Sophie, usually ambivalent about
dog chow, has developed a wilderness habit of wolfing
her food the instant it appears in her bowl, and
tonight our common hunger and nervous exhaustion
compels all three of us to snatch and gulp at our meal.

Each of us has felt exactly what the others felt in
these last few hours -- consuming, inundating rushes of
fear, companionship, panic, trust, relief, hunger.
The species boundaries have fallen, and I doubt that
they will ever be fully intact again. Today we have
saved each other's lives. It is the only and ultimate
thing anyone can really know about another person or
animal or about oneself: Could I trust him with my
life? Can she trust me with hers? And there is no
way to get to the answer without first offering up the

This essential need to identify our pack, the ones we
can really trust when crisis strikes, is what takes
people into extreme wilderness situations in an era
when we no longer need to put our lives at risk this
way. In the tent tonight under wind and storm -- so
worn out that we ignore the basics of hygiene and fall
together sticky and smelly -- woman, man and dog are
unable to sleep without the comforting contact of the
other two, a melange of flesh and fur and Thermarest
that is the only safety.

By Carrie La Seur

Carrie La Seur has one last summer in Iowa before beginning at Yale Law School.

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