This weekend would normally have seen me traveling with my dogs from my home in central Idaho to the central part of Washington state. It’s a long drive, eight or nine hours each way, a trip I would only undertake for a special reason.
My dog camp is why I make that taxing round-trip every year. Maian Meadows Dog Camp is the weekend-long camp experience for dog-loving people and their canine companions that I created in 2002 and have been hosting – usually twice each summer – ever since.
But not this summer. Damn the pandemic and all its horrors, disruptions and inconveniences.
Here’s why missing dog camp this year is especially hard, on top of all the social chaos and uncertainty. Unbeknownst to me, back in 2002 in addition to starting a “hobby business” I also created a special sense of family that has grown and evolved over the past two decades into something I’ve cherished and relied upon. My dog camp family is my “family of choice,” a group of people and dogs united and bonded by the happy circumstance of stumbling upon my camp, signing up, showing up, and sharing their abiding love for and enjoyment of dogs in a relaxing, fun, and beautiful natural setting.
With lots and lots of good, old-fashioned comfort food. That’s important, too.
In a year of necessary social distancing, even introverts like me are feeling the loss of connection with those we enjoy being around. I really, really miss my dog camp family.
I have had the privilege of getting to know so many wonderful dogs and people over the years of dog camp. Some come once or twice, then disappear. (The cabins are rustic, not for everyone.) Most attend year after year, often both sessions each year (June and September), a few coming almost since camp’s inception. I refer to them as veterans, the core of the dog camp family. Each year we get to know each other a little bit better, share more of ourselves while sharing our love of dogs. We become friends on social media, staying in touch throughout the year.
Because of this core of dedicated campers, I don’t market dog camp. I rely on word-of-mouth referrals and those who are intrigued enough with the idea of dog camp to find me through their own online sleuthing. A “full” session is 20-25 people and their well-socialized dogs, which keeps things intimate, giving everyone a chance to get to know each other over the course of the weekend.
With Longevity Comes Loss
After about a decade of hosting camp sessions I learned that the camp’s success and longevity had some sad aspects I hadn’t anticipated. Some of the veteran dogs got too old to enjoy the rigors of camp, or died from age or, worse, cancer, so they and their people stopped attending. Then, some of the human veterans became too ill, also with cancer. First Anita, with breast cancer. Then Shauna, shockingly and oh-so-suddenly dying of ovarian cancer in her early forties, just three months after attending dog camp, not knowing she was sick. Most recently, Ginny, loud and bossy and beloved Ginny who always had a twinkle in her eye, who introduced her daughter to camp and in the past couple years sent me boxes full of dog toys and handmade dog blankets for game and contest prizes because she enjoyed shopping for the dogs. Ginny, too, died of cancer this year, on Mother’s Day. When Ginny couldn’t attend camp in 2019 because of her treatments, she paid the fee for another veteran who was unemployed and couldn’t afford to attend. At that session, campers bid on Ginny’s handmade dog blankets to create a scholarship fund for future attendees who can’t afford camp, a legacy named for Ginny and her beloved Jack Russell terrier, Cross Tie.
I named dog camp after the two female Alaskan Malamutes I had at the time: Maia and Meadow, which I combined to Maia ‘n’ Meadow’s Dog Camp because they were my inspirations, but that was too tricky for marketing so I smooshed it all together as Maian Meadows Dog Camp. Both girls ended up with cancer, not long after their last camp attendance in September 2012. Maia was diagnosed with lymphoma at age 13 in January 2013, which with chemotherapy went into remission so that when she passed at age 14 that June, it was from the natural effects of old age. Right after that awful event, I learned that Meadow – two years younger, age 12 – had bone cancer. After a few weeks of palliative care, I said goodbye to her just six weeks after Maia’s passing, in July 2013.
So yeah, fuck cancer.
Some lessons learned from all this? Live today as if it’s your last day. Make it count. Make your dogs happy. Be in the moment (like our dogs): don’t dwell on the past and don’t fear the future; focus on the here and now and what you can do rather than what you can’t do. Take some leaps of faith. Keep it simple; you don’t need half the stuff you think you do.
Despite all the sadness and losses, the dog camp family keeps returning every year to celebrate life together, and more precisely, life with our dogs. Some members have departed while others begin the journey and join the family. Those of us who have lost dogs to old age or cancer eventually find we have room in our hearts for another dog or two and they join the camp family.
And so it goes.
There have been times when I wonder how much longer I can keep hosting camp. The administrative details (website; insurance; managing registrations; creating welcome bags and making sure there are plenty of gifts and prizes for games and contests; directing said games and contests) have become so rote that I hardly notice anymore, and campers step up to help. I do always wish the drive wasn’t so long; it’s hard, leaving before dawn on Friday and returning just before midnight on Sunday. My introverted self thoroughly enjoys the weekend of intense togetherness with 15-20 other humans, but I’m an exhausted, contact-avoiding noodle for days afterward.
Still, the intangible “big” rewards of camp always outweigh those transient inconveniences: the joy writ large on all the dogs’ faces when they arrive, knowing exactly where they are and what’s in store; the equally big smiles on the faces of their humans and the hugs we exchange upon seeing each other again after a year’s absence; getting to introduce new campers to the whole experience, watching them go from shy and wary to total converts; seeing the dogs run, play, swim, retrieve, or just chill; the early-morning hikes to a nearby alpine lake on Saturdays and Sundays; the great, guilt-free food (as in, LOTS of bacon which in my case is liberally shared with the boys); watching the dogs and their humans laughing and bonding as I put them through silly games and contests over the course of the weekend; the totally pooped (pun intended) dogs and their people loading up and saying goodbye on Sunday afternoon, thanking me for the awesome weekend and vowing to return next year.
I had no idea I was creating all that, back in 2002.
I couldn’t be happier (or honestly, more surprised) how my little “hobby venture” has turned out.
I’d be a fool to not keep hosting camp for as long as I’m able.
Which is why I’m especially sad that I won’t get to enjoy my “dog camp family reunion” this year. Each year is a gift. There were three new puppies I was anxious to meet! And an impromptu memorial to hold for Ginny, which will have to wait until next year. The only previous year I didn’t host camp was 2009, the summer my father was gravely ill and eventually died. It took this damn pandemic to cause the camp’s second cancellation in 19 years.
Soon after I notified campers of this year’s cancellation, a camper who came last year for the first time reached out to me. Michele and her chihuahua-mix Tom were great additions to the camp family, and Michele had inquired in early spring about the dates for the 2020 camp. I was looking forward to seeing them again. But when Michele emailed me in early September, it was with devastating news: she had late-stage ovarian cancer. [Fuck cancer!] She said she was so impressed with the other campers she met in 2019, how they were with their dogs. She wanted to try to find someone like that who would adopt Tom “when the time comes.” Could I help?
Three veteran campers came to mind, with one at the top of the list. I reached out to Stacy, who Michele hadn’t met because Stacy had missed the 2019 camp session but she’s a long-time veteran. Within a day, they had connected, spoken on the phone, and let me know that Michele and Tom would soon visit Stacy and her dogs for a few days while Michele was still feeling good enough to travel.
This is the magic of the dog camp family. When a camper is in need, we’re there. We get it; we know how important our dogs are to us. We mourn the losses. We celebrate the new additions. We step up if we can and support each other.
I makes my heart sick to think of Michele and the cancer she’s fighting, but I’m glad I could play a small role – a bit of matchmaking, if you will – that assuming it works out (and I’m pretty certain it shall), will allow her to worry less about Tom’s future while she focuses on her own health, letting Tom give her the comfort and therapy only a beloved dog can.
I’m healthy. And while I intend to stay that way, who knows what the future holds? Like Michele I’m single without biological family I would trust with my dogs. As this bit of matchmaking played out, I was comforted knowing that should I ever need the sort of help Michele does, my dog camp family will rally ‘round me and make sure my dogs are taken care of.
That’s better than gold.
As I reflect on all that dog camp has been and has provided over the years, to me and all who attend, I realize that my initial motivation to create camp was selfish, but in a good way: I wanted to hang out with other dog nuts for an entire weekend in a safe, off-leash, natural environment, and since no such opportunity existed west of Chicago at the time, I took a leap of faith that others would want to join me in such an endeavor. Little did I know the long and wonderful path that leap would start me on.
They say “Follow your heart!” and “Follow your passion!” In this instance, I did, and to my surprise, I ended up with an amazing family-of-choice who are a blast to hang out with once or twice every year, and who are always there for me and for each other, in sickness and in health.