This road is unlike any I have been on before. Colorfully modified buses overloaded with excited passengers snake they way down the mountain road, narrowly missing rocky outcrops that are within arms reach of the passengers inside. Wood decks, much like boat docks over water, cover the entire roof of the buses; rafts are stacked and secured three high. These buses would never pass under a bridge of any height which reveals the utilitarian nature of their existence and minimal distances they travel.
There is a nervous excitement in the air. An excitement normally reserved for the line of a roller coaster in a suburban theme park. Its seems out of place in this wilderness of sorts. It’s commercialization in the outdoors like I have never seen. It’s a new day on US Highway 64. The business is adventure, the product is rafting trips on the Ocoee River and the customers are students packed onto buses on there way to have have promises of exhilaration and excitement fulfilled. As for us, today we are simply passing by; observers of this mayhem. But for the next three months, this river becomes our way of life.
The summer of 2000 was to be a summer like none other. My wife Becki (fiancé at the time) and I made our way from Ontario, Canada to the Ocoee River in Tennessee to work for a whitewater rafting company based out of a nearby camp. For three months we had plans to enjoyed the people, culture and recreational opportunities of the area; spending time on the rivers and in the mountains, exploring the nearby towns and making new friends. This was going to be one final summer of travel and adventure before we were to be married upon returning home to Canada in September.
The first half of the summer involved long hot days working in the sun; hauling rafts, belaying first time rock climbers and tending to the endless needs of the camp guests. The nights were equally long and tiring as heavy rain and dramatic thunderstorms rolled through the mountains just about every night. It was a phenomenon that we couldn’t understand. Beautiful blue skies by day and dark and stormy by night. Although the work was hard and sleep was minimal, we were happy. We were together in the mountains, doing the things we loved to do.
Halfway through the summer, two small puppies appeared at the camp. One was black and the other golden brown. Rumor had it they were from a litter of eleven, these two being the smallest and last to find homes. They were “mountain mutts” the locals said, a term given to the lab and hound mix of dogs that seemed prevalent in the area. Their medium size and boisterous howl came from the hound side and their gentle, playful temperament came from the lab side. During our trips into the mountain towns of Ducktown, Copperhill and Blue Ridge we would see these mountain mutts hanging around town, playing with kids and searching for scraps of food.
Shortly after their arrival, the black pup was tried to a tree with a handwritten “take me home” sign on it. It seemed someone felt it was time to work a little harder to get these pups a new home. The puppy sat there patiently for a couple hours, people oohing and awing at the astounding cuteness of the situation. Eventually it was freed, once again to enjoy the life around camp that it was starting to get use to. For a day or so it ran around the camp, enjoying the company of the daily groups of rafters that would come and go each day. Endless pats on the head, scratches under the chin and belly rubs were enjoyed between playful jaunts through the nearby creeks and fields. When meal time came around, the puppies would head to the open air dining hall, where they would sit on the floor next to the river drenched Teva sandals of hungry adventurers, batting their eyes until scraps were tossed into their salivating mouths.
I certainly enjoyed the company of these dogs around the camp. They added a special touch to the experience for our guests. Becki began to become a little too friendly with one of the pups. It happened quickly but subtly. She liked the black one with the little white spot on her chest. She made her a leash out of some old of some old yellow climbing rope. A collar was secretly purchase at the Dollar General in Copperhill while I waited for our laundry to be done at the nearby laundromat. A water bowl was found and filled with fresh water to the pups delight. Dog food we couldn’t afford was purchased with money we didn’t have, but it was neither needed or wanted because she was getting her fill three times a day at the dining hall.
Eventually, the time came to have “the talk”. Becki really wanted to keep the dog. I on the hand, could not figure out how we could possibly keep the dog. Would the camp management be ok with another camp dog? How would we get it back to Canada and is it even legal to bring a dog into another country? I mean this wasn’t just a dog purchased from the pet shop. This was a true mountain mutt from the backwoods of Tennessee!
The biggest question of all was whether or not we even want a dog to worry about as we return home to get married? There seemed to be enough to worry about already. But, eventually, with a lot convincing, I reluctantly agreed to take ownership of the dog. She was now ours. This would be first of many times Becki’s spontaneity would overshadow my attempts to bring logic and order into our relationship.
The first thing you have to do when you get a new dog is name it. There were the usual suspects like Skippy, Buddy and Rex coming to mind, but we quickly agreed that we could do better. We loved the name Ocoee, the name of the nearby river that we had spent the summer rafting on, swimming in and hiking around. But unfortunately, a big German shepherd that was owned by one of the raft guides had that name. That was rather unfortunate, especially considering Ocoee was a very mean dog. I remember one time walking alone with that dog across a field after belaying some guests on the ropes course for an afternoon. The entire time I was fending it off as it was jumping up on me, seemly trying to bite my face. It was an exhausting walk and a disappointing reality that we could not name our new puppy Ocoee.
At one point in the summer, a friend from the camp invited us to spend our day off floating down the Toccoa River in tubes. The Toccoa is actually the same river as the Ocoee, but the river changes name as it crosses the Georgia and Tennessee state lines in Copperhill.
We had a great day on the Toccoa. We rented some old beat-up tubes for a couple dollars from an waterfront shack next to a bridge. A part of the rental agreement was a shuttle back up to our parked car when we were done downstream. We had a great time splashing through the rapids and meandering down the river to meet our awaiting shuttle. After about three hours on the river we saw on old rusty van with a trailer full of tubes. This was our ride. We climbed out the river, threw tubes in the trailer and held on tight for the return trip in a vehicle that should have been in a junkyard years ago.
It was because that trip and our experiences on the river that lead us settle on the name Toccoa for our newly found friend. It wasn’t the name Ocoee, but maybe for good reason. As mentioned, the other dog named Ocoee was, at times, feisty and unpredictable just like the Ocoee River itself. On our first training run down the Ocoee with a group of other want-to-be river guides, we found ourselves stranded on “Whiteface Rock,” a large pale colored rock 100 yards past Ocoee Dam No. 2 where rafters have easy access the middle section of the Ocoee. Whiteface is a landmark on the middle Ocoee because it is legendary for reeking havoc on newbies just like us. In our case, the “guide” failed to steer far left of the rock as instructed and our raft was t-boned against Whiteface, dumping us into the river. Becki and I clung to Whiteface while our raft and raft-mates were sent 100 yards down the river. We sat clinging to each other as class three rapids surrounded us on both side. We waited for someone to toss us a throw rope and drag us to the shore. Curious tourist parked their cars and gathered to watch the spectacle from the nearby road. After reflecting on this experience, Toccoa was the perfect name for our dog, as she turned out to be far more peaceful and pleasant like the Toccoa River and nothing like the mighty Ocoee.
After the naming was done, I declared that I would be the one to train Toccoa. I never had a dog before but I was confident that I could do it. So every evening after work I would grab the leash and head to a quiet place in the forest for our training sessions. The first thing she learned was how to sit. This came easy for her. After giving her the command to “sit” and forcing her rear-end to the ground several times, she caught on quickly to the routine. “That was easy” I thought to myself.
Next, I would have her sit and then I would take a few steps back. At my command I would tell her to “come” with the hopes she would walk to me. This is when we started to have some problems. I would tell her to sit and she would comply with ease. I would then slowly take three or four steps back, working hard to maintain eye contact and control of the situation. But without fail, she would turn and run. She would run as fast as she could, always in the direction of the dining hall. It doesn’t matter where we were on the camp property, she always knew where that dining hall was. No matter how discrete and isolated I tried to make our training sessions, I would eventually find myself running through the camp, dodging excited rafters, hopping over piles of wet life jackets in pursuit of that hungry young pup. This would not be a habit we would break until we left the camp and returned to Canada.
In spite of the training difficulties, the last month or so at camp with our dog were a lot of fun. Toccoa, spent our work days napping in the shady areas next to the ropes course and climbing wall. In the evenings, she would assist me in my duties around the camp, tending to the needs of our guests. If there was a toilet to be fixed, she was there. If help was needed at the horse stables, she would run around the giant hooves of those horses, narrowing dodging a kick to the her curious little face on numerous occasions.
We spent days off with her exploring the Ocoee Olympic Whitewater Centre and swimming at nearby Blue Hole. When I had to leave camp for 5 days to lead a boy scout troop on Appalachian Mountain backpacking trip in the Nantahala National Forest, I was assured that Becki would would have a constant companion in Toccoa during my time away.
As kids started to head back to school in late August, we were relieved on our duties and the three of us made the long trip home to Canada. Before leaving, to ensure we wouldn’t have any trouble getting through customs, we took Toccoa to a vet to get all her first set of shots. She was ready and so were we. We wound our way along the Ocoee River on US Highway 64 one last time, Toccoa sleeping blissfully on the car floor. The colorful buses, the excited rafters and the curious tourists were long gone. From the road we saw a river that was quiet and serene; nearly opposite of the amusement park atmosphere we experienced upon arrival almost three month earlier. Our summer adventures were over and new adventures awaited back in Canada.
Back home, Toccoa quickly settled into life as a Canadian. She was there on our wedding day, posing for photos with Becki, her shiny black a striking contrast to Becki’s beautiful white dress. She was not impressed with our tiny one bedroom apartment in the middle of a busy city, proving the point by running into traffic and taking a bumper to the back side as I watched in disbelief. But she was fine and life got better for all of us. Shortly after the bumper incident, she once again got to enjoy the camp life as we spent the next 12 years at working at summer camps. She was a loyal dog, rarely leaving my side as I conducted my duties around camp. She meet thousands of kids over the years, patiently being chased around the camp by kids from inner-city Toronto, hopelessness trying to pronounce her name and in a state of disbelief that a dog could be left to roam freely without the need for a chain or leash.
She curiously greeting our daughter and three sons as they were born over the years accepting each with the peace and tranquility of the Toccoa River. As each child was born, Toccoa slowly lost our more and more of our attention and affection, but she was never forgotten. She was always there, watching and following from a distance.
Years of adventure and misadventure began to take a toll on the old mountain mutt. Sore old legs and dismissing sight and hearing made life difficult. The decision was made to let her go. But the memories live on. Memories of a new life begun on the shores of Ocoee and Toccoa Rivers.