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adventures with dogs

#MyDogIsMy Backcountry Buddy

Ruffwear Ambassadors Kate, Ty, and Zorra love to ride on their whitewater cataraft, fly in their airplane, nap on stand up paddleboards, lounge in canoes, and more. Follow their adventures @ADVENTURESOFZORRA.

Coming out of the pandemic, we had big plans:  first we would adopt a dog, then we would show her the world.  

Your husband has a detached retina. He needs major eye surgery now or he’ll lose his eyesight.” Those are not the words you expect to hear when you are a healthy, active, 30-something couple. This certainly was not part of our epic post-pandemic adventure plan. Nevertheless, there we sat, shocked and bewildered, in an eye surgeon’s exam room. And unbeknownst to us, this would be just the first surgical interruption to our plans. Only a few months later, I would find myself in a different surgeon’s office learning that I would need knee surgery.  

Fast forward to now: we just returned from our first post-surgeries backcountry expedition. Was it beautiful and therapeutic? Yes. Did our rescue dog Zorra have the time of her life? Absolutely. Did Zorra show us the meaning of backcountry joy? She most certainly did.

Zorra posing in front of the mountains.

From Shelter Dog to Adventure Dog

Zorra had puppies when she was only 9 months old. She was a stray, and she gave birth outside in the middle of winter. Fortunately, a local woman found them all, fostered the puppies until they were old enough to be adopted, then took the pups and Zorra to the Yakima Humane Society. The puppies quickly found homes. When we saw Zorra’s online shelter listing, we knew she was meant to join our family. We hoped she would join us on all our adventures, from camping and road trips to backcountry rafting expeditions.  

The day we brought Zorra home, we took her shopping for gear for her new adventure life. We got her a Ruffwear backpack and dog life jacket. In our first months with Zorra, we introduced her to camping, hiking, rafting, and spending time working on our remote off-grid cabin. But being Millennial “helicopter parents”, we didn’t want to take Zorra on any major backcountry expeditions right away (she was only a year old and exuberantly untrained). We went on river trips in close proximity to road access and took her hiking on-leash. We planned to introduce her to true backcountry adventures the following year. Of course, life had other ideas. 

Return to the Backcountry 

I’ve been fortunate to raft many iconic rivers, from the Grand Canyon to the Middle Fork Salmon to the Rogue — I even have a whitewater rapid tattooed on my ankle. But one river in our Pacific Northwest backyard long eluded me: the Owyhee.  

Known as “the Grand Canyon of Oregon” for its towering canyon walls and majestic rock formations, the Owyhee flows through the southeast corner of Oregon. It’s a finicky river to raft, with a limited range of navigable water flows and a narrow window in the spring when snowmelt and weather conditions (hopefully) align to allow for an enjoyable river adventure.  

This spring, after more than a year of injuries, surgeries, and complications, we decided we were finally healthy enough to return to the backcountry for a river expedition. I started tracking Owyhee river levels. By May, conditions looked promising, and we decided to go for it.  

Zorra and Ty on the raft.

As we rigged our cataraft at the Owyhee launch site, my excitement was matched with anxiety. What if my husband had another eye emergency at the bottom of a canyon hundreds of miles from medical care? What if I re-injure my recently operated-on knee?  

When we were ready to push off, Zorra jumped into her spot at the front of the boat, tongue out and tail wagging. It struck me in that moment that although she had no idea where we were going or what the trip would entail, she was excited about whatever lay ahead. Her enthusiasm was the reminder I needed to let go of my anxiety and embrace our adventure.  

Our Backcountry Buddy

A few miles after the launch, as the Owyhee’s river banks gave way to steep canyon walls, the civilized world disappeared from view and from mind. Zorra’s nose wiggled as she breathed in the desert air, and her huge ears rotated like satellite dishes with every sound. 

Ty and Zorra enjoying the view.

Watching her, I remembered why I love backcountry adventures. She was completely present in every moment. She took each whitewater rapid in stride. On flatwater stretches, she enjoyed lazy naps in the sun. When we stopped for lunch, she delighted in splashing around in the water and then shaking off onto our trailmix.  

The scenery of the Owyhee was stunning. The rapids were fun and challenging. The riverside hot springs were a treat. But the best parts were playing with Zorra and laughing at her over-the-top zoomies.  

Zorra with all the gear on the raft.

We went into this trip hoping that just being in the backcountry would be therapeutic after a tough year. As it turned out, it was being in the backcountry with Zorra that was the best therapy. With her, this trip wasn’t just an adventure, it was five days of nonstop fun and play. It was silly, sweet, and joyful.  

As it turns out, it’s impossible to dwell on the past when you get splashed in a rapid and your dog happily starts licking the water off your face.

Zorra and Kate on the raft together.