Skip to main content

Writer Katie Hewitt with husband, Graham McCarthy, and their Wheaten terrier, Charlie, in front of the Saamis Tepee in Medicine Hat, Alta.Graham McCarthy/Handout

Snow-capped peaks cradle Lake Louise. I shiver in my light jacket and look over at Charlie’s thick coat. My travel companion has never seen mountains before.

“Well … what do you think?” I ask.

Charlie doesn’t reply because he’s a Wheaten terrier with a stubborn streak.

We’re in Banff, Alta., on the last leg of a nine-day westward migration that has taken us through five provinces during our move to Vancouver from Toronto, partly for my husband’s work and partly to live in a place where nature is more than a novelty. I hope Charlie is impressed by the Canadian Rockies and glacial lakes because we stayed grounded for him, driving more than 4,700 kilometres to our new home.

Flying is scary for humans with basic knowledge of aerodynamics. Charlie is a 10-year-old skittish terrier with separation anxiety. And at 20 kilograms (nearly 45 pounds), he’s too big for the cabin. He’d have to fly in an airline-approved crate, like a checked bag, in a pressurized – but not necessarily temperature controlled – compartment. (Service dogs are allowed in the cabin but Charlie isn’t that helpful.)

Hewitt and Charlie at Lake Louise.Graham McCarthy/Handout

The flight to Vancouver from Toronto takes about five hours, not including sitting on the tarmac for an indeterminate amount of time, and we signed a lease for July 1 – the season of hot asphalt. Air Canada implements heat restrictions for pet travel on domestic flights when temperatures exceed 29.5 degrees. WestJet does not, its website stating: “We love Canada but, sadly, heat is not an issue.” We moved just after British Columbia’s extreme heat wave, the deadliest weather event in Canadian history, during which temperatures in the province reached 49.6 C.

Both WestJet and Air Canada websites specify that the airlines “assume no responsibility for the care or feeding” of pets while in transit. I wondered who was responsible. To us, Charlie is sweet-tempered but defiant, a restless furball who loves Black Forest ham more than I’ve ever loved anything and tends to trip over his own leash in a strained effort to sniff every tree he passes. To an airline, he’s cargo.

Fortunately, airlines don’t misplace animals as much as they misplace bags, but even one instance is enough to rattle pet owners.

In 2013, Larry the greyhound died in transit with Air Canada. In 2017, WestJet put Cooper the labradoodle on the wrong plane. And early this year, Air Canada lost Dewy the cat during a layover at Toronto’s Pearson airport; he was missing more than three weeks before he was found, emaciated. Dewy’s owner had first booked a direct flight, but it was switched by the airline.

Travelling with Charlie, pictured in Medicine Hat, meant scrambling to schedule vet appointments, rent a car and confirm dog-friendly hotels.Graham McCarthy/Handout

Those are just the issues faced flying with a pet in normal times. But we were moving during the pandemic, and COVID-19 has not been friendly to the skies. Travel restrictions, labour shortages and fewer flights lead to overbooking, last-minute cancellations, changed departure times and even aircraft switching without warning. What if we made our flight and Charlie didn’t? What if our aircraft switched to one without temperature controls?

Good thing Charlie loves car rides.

My husband and I flew to Vancouver in July to get settled, leaving Charlie with my parents and their big backyard. We flew back in October to drive him home, leaving plenty of time to plan our great Canadian canine road trip.

Logistics proved complicated.

“I’m like the dog’s executive assistant,” my husband quipped as he scrambled to schedule vet appointments, rent a car and confirm dog-friendly hotels.

The trio at the Centre of Canada sign on the Trans-Canada Highway east of Winnipeg.Handout

It’s much, much cheaper to fly if you don’t own a car, so we decided to make a proper trip out of it – as best we could with COVID-19 restrictions in place – since I hadn’t seen much of Canada.

Pre-pandemic, I’d travelled often, mostly internationally. I figured Canada would always be there, vast and stalwart, waiting for a retirement road trip after I’d seen the world. I was in no hurry to explore this huge country, perhaps taking it for granted.

So if not for Charlie, I might never have seen the Terry Fox Memorial in Thunder Bay, deserted in the predawn hours except for dog walkers. I might have missed the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg, and the iconic Lake Louise with its idling tour buses. In no other circumstance would I have seen the World Famous Gopher Hole Museum in Torrington, Alta., with its taxidermy gopher dioramas that helped solve a rodent problem for local farmers and turned a small town into an international destination.

When we finally arrived at our new home, exhausted and smelling of gas station bathrooms, Charlie took a few tentative steps onto our balcony, which has views of the North Shore Mountains. He sniffed, turned and trotted back inside, unimpressed.

For the next while, we’re all staying put.

Keep up to date with the weekly Sightseer newsletter. Sign up today.