Running the Gunwales with Coyote George
We met at a bar in the dying Mississippi river town of Oquawka, Illinois. I had been on the river for nearly two months by then and was in desperate need of some companionship if I was going to make it all the way to New Orleans. The kitten acted like he was looking for an adventure, climbing his way out of a farmer’s milk crate to do a little exploring while his brothers and sisters stayed behind in a huddled, whimpering mass of fur and claws. I knew immediately he was the one. That little 5-week-old orange tabby with adorable white socks would prove that cats are just as well, if not better suited as paddler pets than dogs.
The legend of Coyote George the Riverpig was born.
Coyote George started off his impressive canoeing career by walking straight off a gunwale and into the current. At least I learned early on that he’s a pretty good swimmer. Maybe my zoology teacher was right when she said that all animals are natural swimmers, except for the lowly armadillo whose prehistoric armor apparently prevents it from floating like the rest of us.
My cat does not like to swim, but he can, and that’s all that matters. His stroke is basically a modified “dog” paddle, with those tiny white paws pumping frantically up and down until a claw eventually finds its way into my skin. As one can probably imagine, we do not hold swim practice often. Even so, he seems to really like the water. Coyote wades into rivers up to his knees for a drink, chases frothy waves up and down any beach, and even climbs directly into the shower with me.
He’s one cool kitty.
There are many advantages to paddling with a cat rather than the ubiquitous black lab or golden retriever. Weight, size, cleanliness, and general temperament are definitively pluses in the cat column. Have you ever tried to steer a canoe with a 100 lb dog jumping from side to side in a seemingly endless battle with a non-existent fly? Or pull its wet and wiggling body back into the boat without tipping after the idiot mistook a lily pad for a tennis ball? Please don’t label me a dog hater. I really enjoy being around the dumb dopes most of the time. Just not in a canoe.
Cats, I am convinced, are perfect paddling companions. They never jump out of the boat, especially not at the most inopportune times. They can run up and down the gunwales all they want, even jump from one clear across to the other, without affecting the balance or performance of the boat. And they even seem to instinctively know how to sit on the bow and sun themselves like mermaids on a pirate ship. Somehow, a slobbery, smelly dog just doesn’t have the same effect on me.
My cat goes everywhere I go, does everything I do, doesn’t talk back, rarely whines, cuddles like a cat, goes for walks in the woods like a dog, and brightens up even the darkest moments. I could not dream up a more perfect paddling pet.
In response to the throngs of curious people out there who have asked me for tips on raising a paddling cat of their own, I’ve compiled a list of things Coyote George taught me in our first 1200 miles together. Additional information is also available in Coyote George’s autobiography, Running the Gunwales with Coyote George.
Okay, okay, seriously folks, here are…
Coyote George’s Keys to Raising a Canoe Cat:
. Unfortunately, your old, cranky Siamese probably wouldn’t like it if you exchanged his couch for a canoe. Take your young kitten out on the water with you from the very beginning and do so as often as possible.
Line the gunwales.
Your cat will walk, run, and climb on the gunwales – it is just in the feline nature. In order to give claws firm footing, all gunwales should be lined with ¼ inch thick foam tape (found at any hardware store and normally used to connect fiberglass caps to the beds of pickup trucks) and then covered with duct tape for durability.
Hold swim practice.
Throw your kitten in the water a few times to make sure it can swim. But do yourself a favor and wear long sleeves and gloves.
To a cat, a riverbank is one enormous litter box. Take advantage of it. Each time Coyote George and I got out of the boat I would dig two holes in the sand. He’d see me using mine and would oblige by using his, followed by an endearing need to cover up both of our messes. No litter box cleanup there. There were times, however, when getting to shore was an impossibility. So I made sure to carry a Tupperware full of sand to act as a litter box in emergencies, as well as when we found ourselves in civilization.
Create a safe haven.
Just as people do with dogs, crate train your cat. There are many nylon travel cages on the market that are perfect for cats, especially when lined with fuzzy fleece. It won’t take long for the kitten to voluntarily climb in the box when it’s tired, or even on those rare occasions when it gets scared. And when a motorboat is about to run you over while your kitten insists on playing with your toes, all you have to do is zip the little guy up in the cage and you are free to concentrate solely on saving both of your lives.
Recognize cat traps.
Kittens are notoriously curious animals and can get themselves into all sorts of trouble in a canoe. Be aware of dangerous situations, like when your cat attacks a squirming fish with a treacherous hook still sticking out of its mouth. Or when it insists on jumping over to each and every boat that you pull alongside – little paws have a habit of getting caught in between the banging gunwales of boats in rough water. Learn to anticipate such situations.
Leash train your cat.
I know it sounds strange, but teaching your cat to walk on a leash will open up a whole new world to both of you. Coyote George goes to the park, takes me for walks down rural roads, plays with dogs in campgrounds, and uses the bathroom at highway rest stops. He safely goes wherever I go, without worry.
Choose captivating campsites.
My cat loves to camp. As long as I find a campsite with trees to climb up, leaves to chase, and/or bugs to hunt down, he is in heaven and generally keeps himself occupied for hours at a time. Of course, when we camp at developed campsites he has to stay on his leash, but he still seems to enjoy the activity more than I do. Please be aware of wild animals, for both of their sakes.
Bring the old tent
. If there is a way to keep cats off of tent walls, I have not yet found it (a water gun simply does not work as a deterrent to a cat that likes water). Coyote George absolutely loves to climb on my tent, particularly early in the morning when he has made a habit of hanging upside down from its ceiling until I show the first signs of waking. Then he drops onto my face.
Yep, that’s my Coyote.