Reviewed by Wendy Hawkin
October 17, 2017. Burnaby Library. The room is packed.
“Do you have a dog?” author Chris Czajkowski asks each person who queues to buy her latest book, Harry: A Wilderness Dog Saga. She autographs a copy from her and her dogs, signs it to you and yours. Old friends appear; laughs and memories are shared. Three decades of her life in the Canadian wilderness is neatly laid out in piles across tables at the front of the room. Before she begins her slideshow, Chris introduces each of the eleven books, always leaving us with a smile and a chuckle.
Chris’s latest book is narrated by Harry, a street urchin, who arrived in 2009 at the age of two. It begins like this: “The first time I met Chris I was wearing a diaper.” Many of Chris’s dogs are rescues destined for the needle or a bullet, but after a week or two at one of her cabins in the B.C. wilderness, their lives are resurrected.
Her canine characters are archetypal. Badger (who is now twelve and accompanied Harry and Chris on this book tour) is the wise old man, the Dumbledore of dogs. Taya is a poet. Sport, a chicken-chomping hunter. Nahanni, a princess:
“Nahanni was a very pretty girl—snow white with a long pink nose that she kept quite firmly in the air. She was a purebred, she immediately had me know—a designer white Husky born in the Arctic. She really could not be expected to associate with anyone of lesser ilk.”
The book is sweet, charming, poetic, and practical, told in the viewpoints of many dogs who’ve lived with Chris, some for briefer times than others. There are moments of tears, terror, and laughter. For example, Taya, a bearish husky, leaves an eccentric smoking spinster who trains packs of sled-dogs in the Arctic, to join Chris and Sport when Lonesome must retire. (Chris always keeps a pair of dogs, sews them large backpacks, and trains them to carry her hiking supplies.) They arrive at the cabin by floatplane and will winter there alone for three months, occasionally hiking through the snowy mountainous terrain. Taya seems poetic in these moments: “Our enormously elongated shadows stretched smoke-blue in front of us on the pinkish ice. Our legs were like enormous trees tapering to a vast distance; our heads were no bigger than pieces of dog kibble.”
Chris jokes that there will be special guests this evening, but not until the end of the show. “When they come in, everyone stops listening to me.” And, this is exactly what happens when the door opens. Harry walks calmly down the centre aisle through the tangle of outstretched hands; while, Badger collapses on the floor to have his belly rubbed.
In this historic moment, when there seems to be no place unknown to man, Chris Czajkowski and her canine pack, explore a barren and beautiful world, threatened only by the forces of nature. Fire is the worst threat. Prompted by lightning strikes and weather change, summer fires have threatened her cabins since 2004.
I will admit, Chris is one of my heroes. She built her cabins. “It was the only way to get what I wanted,” she says. And, because she suffers with food sensitivities, she grows her own food. “You can’t get organic food there.” She shops in bulk two or three times a year; the first item on her list being dog kibble. How did she manage to build cabins, raise dogs, run an eco-tourism business, and become a published author? The answer is in her books.
Harry is a charming book. Chris has included a hand drawn map (she loves to sketch), several black and white photographs (she is a wonderful photographer), and a canine timeline that reflects the building of her six cabins in the West Chilcotin. Chris’s life is not measured by clocks or jobs; her moments sync with nature and survival.
Harry: A Wilderness Dog Saga is published by Harbour Publishing.
Wendy Hawkin writes urban fantasy with a twist of murder. To Charm a Killer and To Sleep with Stones are the first two books in her Hollystone Mysteries series with Blue Haven Press.