» Ruffwear Dispatches from the Potomac

Words and Images from Ed Felker

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One Dog Short on a Three Dog Night
and Other Adventures

Not since the first day I met each of my dogs when I drove them home to Virginia from Illinois — Winnie as a pup during Hurricane Ike, and Finn as a 3-year-old a few years later — have I asked them to join me on a longer journey. And they have never been away from home for an entire week. But months of planning, preparation and waiting were behind us, the truck was packed, and we were ready to go. The plan was two nights of roughing it, camping in a couple of Virginia’s state parks, then a few nights in a fantastic cabin in Bristol, Tennessee. Fall foliage, crisp air, fishing, exploring, relaxing, recharging. But it’s funny, you put two dogs in the back seat of the truck and they don’t know if they’re going to 7-11 or Montana. All road trips start exactly the same to them. So I felt the weight of the responsibility. Obviously they need me to take care of them, to provide for them, to not put them in danger and to not do anything stupid.

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Our first stop was a lakefront campsite in Virginia’s Douthat State Park. The forecast was for a very cold night, and I’m not a very experienced camper. I got plenty of firewood, warm clothes for me, Winnie’s winter coat and two warm sleeping bags zipped together. We set up camp, fished a little in the stocked lake there, went for a hike, took pictures, lit a fire, cooked, ate, opened a beer and relaxed. But as soon as the sun set, the cold pushed down from the cloudless sky, and I wanted to get settled while we were all still warm from the fire. We all got in the sleeping bag and I just waited for the temperature to drop. I did not have to wait long, and only slept in fits and starts. I kept checking Winnie, who is more sensitive to cold than Finn. She wore her coat in the sleeping bag at my feet and seemed plenty warm. During the night, however, Finn hooked a leg outside the sleeping bag and as he moved, the bag unzipped. His restlessness woke me up and when I figured out what happened, I could feel cold air just pouring in on him. I got him zipped back up and we slept a little bit, but by 5 a.m., we had all had enough. The inside of the tent was covered in ice, and all the warmth saved in the sleeping bag was gone the instant I unzipped it. After a quick and cold bathroom break (it was 20 degrees), I turned on the truck, put the dogs in the back seat and turned on the heat. After a while we ate some breakfast to warm us up. I sat there between them as they ate and their tails wagged as I talked to them. We had made it through a pretty uncomfortable night, but we were all fine. I felt the temperature dip a bit, as it always seems to before dawn, and I looked up to see more stars than I can ever remember seeing in my entire life.

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The plan for the next night was to camp at an even higher elevation with a similar forecast, setting up a tent that is now lined with ice, over a wet sleeping bag and air mattress. We held a team meeting and decided we would not do that. Instead, we would push farther southwest, go for an afternoon hike, and find a warm place to stay that night. We hiked to the Great Channels of Virginia, a vigorous, 6 mile out-and-back with a big elevation gain, beautiful and well maintained trails through steep and rugged terrain, and a hand written sign on a kiosk at the entrance announcing bears had been seen in the area. Every blind curve in the trail had the potential of surprising a bear, so I talked to the dogs the whole time to make some extra noise in the wind. They must have been thinking, “has he lost his mind? Yeah, we get it, we’re good dogs. We heard you the first four hundred times.” It’s also archery season there, so my deer colored dogs tried out the Ruffwear Track Jackets I ordered especially for this trip. I am really impressed with them. Walking, climbing, running, shaking, leash, no leash…these vests never budged from their intended position.

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After that first frigid night, somewhere between two and four hours of sleep and a strenuous hike, all three of us were pretty happy to cancel our camping reservation near Mt. Rogers and camp at the Days Inn Bristol, VA instead.

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The next day we stopped and talked to the fine folks at Mountain Sports Ltd. I wanted to see some beautiful scenery but none of us were in the mood for a big hike that day. The staff there recommended a pretty stretch of the Virginia Creeper Trail near Damascus, VA. What a gem this trail is, 35 miles of former railroad bed transformed into a trail for hiking, biking and horseback riding.

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There are definitely trout in the beautiful Whitetop Laurel River that parallels the Creeper Trail, but I had my hands full with the dogs, camera and tripod so I didn’t bother trying to fish.

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With the exception of the first night being twenty degrees colder than I was really prepared for, the weather the entire week was simply spectacular. Fall foliage was stunning everywhere I went.

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Speaking of the Days Inn Bristol and Mountain Sports, Ltd., where the dogs were welcomed, I want to acknowledge the other establishments along the way and in Bristol, Virginia and Tennessee that welcomed the three of us. Starting on the top left, Shenandoah Valley Brewing Co., Staunton, VA; Queen City Brewing, Staunton, VA; Redbeard Brewing Co., Staunton, VA; Burger Bar, Bristol, VA; Holston River Brewing Co., Bristol, TN; Bristol Brewery, Bristol, VA; State Line Bar & Grill, Bristol, TN; and the brand new Cabelas, Bristol, VA. I am always very appreciative of businesses that allow and welcome dogs.

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Walking around Bristol was fun. It’s a cool town best known as the birthplace of country music. I stopped to admire one of the many murals on the sides of buildings there and the dogs sidled up close to me as they do on city sidewalks. Then Winnie stood on my foot. I include this photo here because I love moments like this, even though I can’t really explain why.

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It was time to check in to the cabin where we would be staying for the rest of the week. And oh my, what a cabin it is. I unloaded the truck, spread the tent and sleeping bag out to dry and then we just relaxed. More perfect weather, a few tasty local beers, a great local pizza and an early night made for a perfect evening.

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The next day we met Orvis fishing guide Patrick Fulkrod who took us out on the beautiful Watauga River. This was an amazing day that I chronicled in more detail in my previous blog post, Brown Trout, Orange Dogs.

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I love my dogs, obviously, but one of the main reasons I genuinely enjoy their company in all sorts of situations is that they are well behaved and under control. We don’t do any formal training anymore, but every day is filled with “teachable moments,” and spending the time required to have dogs that listen and respond to commands is absolutely one of the most rewarding things I have ever done. Reflecting on the trip so far, it has been neat to watch how differently they each respond to new situations. Sometimes predictably, sometimes not, but always differently. Finn typically wants to know what is on my mind, what I expect of him, what we are going to do together next, while Winnie is usually off dancing to the beat of a drum only she can hear.

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The cabin at dusk. Shortly before this photo, I was leaning on the tailgate messing with the timer on my camera when the dogs barked. I had been seeing deer all day so I didn’t give it much thought, and just told them to stay. When I looked up, just off to the right of the chairs in this photo was a Momma black bear and two cubs. The dogs had never seen bears before, and even I was impressed that they stayed. But, safety first, if you haven’t gathered yet by now, so I put them in the back seat of the truck, quickly went back to the camera and tried to get a photo. But it was too late. Literally every setting on the camera was wrong — manual focus, timer, long exposure, low ISO — so I just watched as the mother turned back toward the woods and left, cubs scampering quickly behind. It was exhilerating to see them so close, and another proud moment of dog ownership.

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I didn’t get to fish the South Holston on this trip, but before we hit the road home I walked down to take a photo in the morning mist. Next time, SoHo.

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We had all day to get home, so when I saw a sign for Hungry Mother State Park, a park I’ve heard a lot about, I decided to swing through and check it out. It. Is. Stunning. What a beautiful, serene lake. I really want to come back here with the kayak and camp for a few nights.

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Still feeling like we were approaching the end of the vacation too quickly, I detoured off the mundane, terrible Rt. 81 and enjoyed a stretch of the Blue Ridge Parkway from about Roanoke to Lexington. My God, the foliage was astounding. The best I have ever seen in Virginia, in fact.

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But it’s a good life, I think, when home calls as strongly as the beautiful new places we discover, and we were all anxious to get there. Back on the highway, I put the windows up and the hammer down. I turned music on for the first time in over 300 miles, never having noticed its absence. And from the back seat, dogs smelling of wood smoke snored, and dreamt their very different dreams together.

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Brown Trout, Orange Dogs

During the planning phase of this trip, which started over eight months ago, I knew I wanted to fish with veteran guide Patrick Fulkrod. Patrick was named the 2014 Orvis-Endorsed Guide of the Year and has worked hard to earn the reputation as “The Man” in the area of Tennessee’s South Holston River. All summer long I’ve been admiring the stunning brown trout he was putting his clients on. But having my two dogs with me was the most important aspect of this vacation, so I told Patrick maybe we could just wade fish somewhere. He said nonsense, the fishing is much better from the drift boat, and told me to absolutely bring the dogs. I gave him many opportunities to change his mind on this, but he knew it was important to me, and insisted. On the morning of the float, the flow on the South Holston was less than favorable, so Patrick opted to take us out on the nearby Watauga River.

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Finn and Winnie are good dogs who tend to take new experiences in stride, but I had no idea how they would react to a drift boat. They kayak with me regularly, and from those experiences I had a concern. I can not fish with Finn in the kayak. He gets so excited when he sees a fish, he just loses his mind. So I had visions of Finn jumping out of the boat, and Patrick having to row downstream after him, stirring up fish in the process. My dogs wear Ruffwear Float Coat life vests while on the water for safety, and also for ease in lifting them back in the boat if they do end up in the water. So I got their vests on and headed to the boat. Winnie couldn’t wait to get in, and immediately settled into her spot to my right in the front of the boat. Finn is kind of clumsy and awkward and bull/china-shoppy, but we got him situated to my left, and were ready to launch.

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Before long, the first test arrived in the form of a little rainbow trout. Patrick showed the fish to Finn and explained the custom of kissing the fish. Finn was excited but gentle, and from that moment on I knew I didn’t have to worry about the dogs. They were having as much fun as we were on this picture perfect fall day.

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When I caught the first brown trout of the day I couldn’t take my eyes off it. Browns are my favorite, and these are the most beautiful I’ve ever had the privilege to see and hold.

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Underwater photos are hit and miss, and the ratio is extremely heavy on the miss side. So I was thrilled with this, the only underwater shot of the day, of Patrick releasing a beautiful brown trout into the cool waters of the Watauga.

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Finn and Patrick spent a lot of time admiring each other, and we weren’t ten minutes into the float before the bond was permanent.

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Winnie, being Winnie, spent the float by my side, leaning on the gunwale, soaking in the sun and the sights. Observing. The personalities of these two dogs are so very different, they complement each other in ways I never could have anticipated. They were an absolute joy to have along on this vacation.

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One of the many things about Patrick as a guide that I admire and appreciate is that he understands how important photographic memories are to clients, and he works hard at making sure he captures quality images for every angler he guides. When the drive home is behind you, when you’re back home in your routine and the alarm starts going off early for the office instead of the river, when the colors of Tennessee trout have faded in your mind and the azure blue sky and water of autumn shift to the cold grey of winter, all it takes is a photograph like this one to bring it all back.

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Brilliant sunshine and brown trout go beautifully together. These are just stunning fish.

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I don’t know anything about rowing a drift boat. But I do know that this is a lot of weight in the front of the boat, and I’m not talking about that fish on the line either. But Patrick was focused entirely on making sure I was happy and the dogs were comfortable. If the rowing was made more difficult as a result (Hint: It most certainly was), Patrick never gave me the slightest indication.

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At one point, Patrick pulled the boat to the shore so the dogs could go pee. I don’t have photos of the goat rodeo that ensued so just admire another brown trout as you try to imagine it, but it was comical. As is their way, Finn was clumsy and Winnie was odd. Together at one point Finn was doing that thing you’ve seen in cartoons where his front legs are on shore and his back legs are on the boat, of course pushing it farther and farther away. Meanwhile, Winnie is in the water, swimming an orbit around the boat. We aborted this attempt and opted for a more friendly shoreline downstream, but not before those Ruffwear Float Coat handles were effectively utilized. I was able to easily bring the dogs back under control, securing Finn and lifting Winnie straight out of the water and into the boat. Ruffwear puts a lot of practical thought into the design of their products, and I will not trust my dogs to any other life vest.

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Taking dogs out of their normal routine is very tiring for them. So Finn and Winnie slept hard every night, whether in a freezing sleeping bag, a dumpy hotel room or a truly wonderful cabin in the woods. In between they napped in the truck, on the floor of several brew pubs, in front of campfires, on sunny leaves and shady porches, and even here in the boat. It meant the world to me to be able to have these dogs with me on this float, and I can’t thank Patrick enough for his hospitality in that regard. It was easily one of my all time favorite float trips.

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To book a truly enjoyable, memorable float on the South Holston or Watauga River with Patrick, contact Mountain Sports Ltd. in Bristol, TN by clicking here.

To learn about and order the Ruffwear Float Coat, click here.


Bring Me a Dog

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A couple years ago I walked around a festival in Richmond with my friend Jay and my dog, Finn. We had all run together in a mud run/5K thing and were enjoying post-race beers and people watching. I started noticing it for the first time then, that people gravitated toward Finn. Sometimes seemingly without knowing it, they would veer slightly as they walked toward us, close enough to absently run fingers down his back as they passed, or they would rest a hand on his head as he stood next to them in a beer line. He was popular, and countless people asked about him or complimented him, but these subtle gestures were somehow more special.

At a local festival this spring, a young girl with Down Syndrome knelt in front of Finn in the grass. He sat quietly as she hugged him and whispered to him for a long while, finally separating and yelling to her Mother, “Mommy this dog loves me!” She spoke the truth.

This summer the young son of a friend met Finn out in public and put his hands on the sides of Finn’s head and said quietly, not for me to hear but just for Finn, “I love you, too.”

I am not, despite whatever my presence on social media seems to suggest, a people person. But the more time I spend with this dog, the more I realized how selfish it is for me to keep him all to myself. If ever there was a dog perfectly designed from scratch to be a therapy dog, it is Finn. We studied, we took the test, we filed the paperwork, and Finn became a therapy dog.

I chose a nearby facility that is already familiar with the therapy dog program we are enrolled in, and today – National Dog Day of all days – was our very first official visit. Half of us was nervous.

The staff could not have been more welcoming, and knowing they were aware this was our first visit put me at ease. I can’t take photos of patients and don’t want to discuss even in vague terms the types of afflictions and disabilities we encountered today, but it warmed my heart to see that dogs are blind to everything but a person’s heart and soul. We visited with ten or twelve residents, and what I saw and heard tonight made me more proud than I can ever remember being of anything my whole life.

He stood quietly as we waited, moved out of the way in hallways and elevators. He sat next to people in wheelchairs and moved closer when they could not reach him. He refused food offered to him despite being inches away from a bowl of fruit. He laid his head down sideways on laps and stayed there for easy petting. He sat still patiently when one woman could barely move her hands enough to rub the back of his neck. He shook hands to the great delight of one resident, who made him repeat the trick for those in the room not paying adequate attention. He filled the room with curiosity and laughter and conversation, about his name, his breed, his handsomeness, his disposition, his eyes. He started people telling stories about dogs in their lives, dogs long gone.

I don’t know what the future holds for me. But if I live far longer than I think I will, and one day find myself in a dining hall like the one I was in today, for the love of God, someone, please, bring me a dog. Bring me a dog that sits still for a pat on the head and reminds me with a nudge when I forget to keep patting. Bring me a dog that leans in my lap and wags his tail with the slightest touch or softest word. Bring me a dog that somehow makes me feel more loved than anyone else in the room, then moves to the next person and makes them feel it too. Bring me a dog that makes me remember what it feels like to share years with the very special dogs that warm my feet and fill my heart this very moment.

Bring me that, and I can go in peace.


Paddle Upgrade – The Werner Shuna: Hooked

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I’ve been kayaking for quite a few years now and, as in any hobby, the more time I’ve spent doing it, the more my needs have changed. I have upgraded my kayak a couple of times to accommodate first the need to fish comfortably, then to accommodate a couple four legged passengers from time to time. I have a decent PFD for myself and very nice ones for the dogs. I’ve added GoPro attachments, non-slip decking material, fishing accessories and more. But my paddle hasn’t changed since the day a friend gave me a kayak and I went to the closest store that sold paddles and bought one. Paddles were more expensive than I thought they would be, so, having spent more than I wanted to on one, I assumed it was a good paddle.

Time passed, my paddle served me well in that it gave me all I asked of it: when I put it in the water and pulled back, my kayak went forward. But making new friends in the kayak fishing world and seeing more and more on social media got me thinking. So many anglers out there were intensely brand loyal not just about their kayaks, but about their paddles. What’s the deal? Don’t they all do the same thing?

While kayak fishing with my friend Cory Routh of Ruthless Outdoor Adventures recently in the Virginia Beach area, I asked him about his Werner paddle. I had seen the Werner brand a lot among kayak anglers, and was curious. So I asked him what the difference was between an “okay” paddle and a really good one. He started by trading with me. Then as we paddled, he explained some of the features of a well made paddle, and some of the shortcomings of mine, which he was now burdened with.

Cory is a member of the Werner Fishing Team, and uses the Werner Cyprus: Hooked paddle. I had in my hands the very best kayak fishing paddle Werner produces, and I could tell. In no more than ten paddle strokes I could see a world of difference. I expected it to be lighter, in fact weight was the only real difference I expected. And it is light, just over 23 ounces. But the carbon blades just have no flex at all. They really dig into the water and don’t give when you’re paddling, and they are incredibly buoyant too. The Cyprus feels like it’s spring-loaded, popping easily out of the water, eagerly awaiting the next stroke. Within fifty yards I knew I would soon own a Werner paddle.

But at $400, I also knew it would not be the Cyprus. I talked with Cory, as well as Werner Pro Staff angler Richie Bekolay about a good compromise — a substantial upgrade from my existing paddle without breaking the bank — and we came up with the Werner Shuna: Hooked. Like the Cyprus, the Shuna has a lightweight carbon shaft that is oval in the area where you grip it, making it extremely comfortable. The Shuna has fiberglass blades which add four ounces or so to the overall weight. And for $125 less than the Cyprus (MSRP $275), it’s a great combination of light weight, stiffness and durability. If I had made the decision down in Virginia Beach, I would have purchased it from Wild River Outfitters, where I bought my kayak. But Appomattox River Company had the paddle in stock, and free shipping sealed the deal. The paddle arrived in a couple days and I immediately took it out for a trial run.

I love the look of the Shuna, the pattern reminds me of a cross between fish scales and desert camo. But maybe that’s just me. I do not notice the extra four ounces at all, it’s still extremely light weight compared to my old one. And while the blades are not quite as ‘springy’ as I noticed the Cyprus blades to be, they are still very buoyant and feel efficient pushing water. I paddled upstream for quite a while on my test run, and the oval shaft is incredibly comfortable.

There are some other good reasons to love the Werner brand, by the way. All Werner paddles are handcrafted in the USA, and the company supports our Veterans through Heroes on the Water. Those things are important to me, but so is a great product, especially if it’s not exactly inexpensive. And I couldn’t be happier with this paddle. If you have been kayaking with a run of the mill paddle, do yourself a favor and see what a difference a great one can make. If every single stroke is noticeably more efficient, more powerful, imagine what that does for you over the course of a full day float. And if you’re going to spend the money on a nice paddle, I can’t recommend Werner highly enough. Cory puts it best: “If you want to convince someone that Werner is the best,” he says, “just put one in their hands.”

Thanks Cory, I’m glad you did!


First Float of the Season

The Potomac River was well above flood stage just a couple weeks ago. And while she’s still a bit swollen, and her waters still murky, Spring doesn’t give you too many beautiful Saturdays with float-friendly water levels. So when you get one, you take it.

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The river was shrouded in mist early. I tried to get some photos quickly before it burned off. Here my friend Chris goes hunting for smallmouth.

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Anna casts to the bank on the Maryland side.

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And before we were a half mile from the put-in, the day was bright and clear. Thanks Anna for this photo. That is actually my house over my right shoulder.

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You may have noticed from that last photo that I have kind of a lot going on. I’m trying out a GoPro for the first time, mounted on the bow. Then I have my Wirehaired Vizsla, Winnie, in the boat. And I decided that wasn’t challenging enough so I brought my fly rod along.

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I loved this row of canoes on a little island I floated past. I should have anchored here and taken my time trying to capture the scene. With the water in sun and the canoes in deep shade, it was just too complicated a photo to snap quickly as I went by.

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My other dog, Finn, stayed home today because he just gets too excited when he sees a fish. Turns out he wouldn’t have had many opportunities to get overly excited today, but I did catch a couple sunfish. As you can see, Winnie is appropriately unimpressed with my fishing prowess.

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If you feel like you need to get out and stretch your legs a bit, then odds are the dog in your boat does too. Be mindful of canine passengers if they get fidgety in the boat. Here Winnie gets out for a break.

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Thanks Chris for this photo of me taking Winnie’s picture.

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This Float Coat from Ruffwear Performance Dog Gear is beautifully designed and constructed. Winnie is not a strong swimmer, but she likes the water. This vest fits really well, whether she’s running around on shore or lying down in the kayak.

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It doesn’t restrict her movement while swimming, either, and seems to give her a confidence boost when venturing into deeper water for a swim.

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Even if your dog is a strong swimmer, please consider using a PFD for your companion if you take him along in the canoe or kayak. The handle makes bringing aboard a wayward dog a much easier task, and if things do go wrong on the water (and they eventually will), the high visibility of a coat like this one from Ruffwear can make it a lot easier to spot a dog in the water in any light conditions.

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But, apart from not catching many fish, nothing went wrong today. It was a stunningly beautiful Saturday to get out on the water with a few friends and take some pictures.

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And as we headed toward our take-out ramp, to bookmark our trip that began with a layer of fog on the river, hundreds of trees on the bank decided to give up their seeds all at once, filling the air and blanketing the water. I’ve never seen anything quite like it, like snow flurries on a beautiful Spring day.

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