Disaster Zone Gun Dog

By Dan Adams, Owner of Wildrose Boca

Hurrican Ian, just before landfall on Sept 28th.   Our place on Don Pedro Island is the red marker.

The Storm

The likely or even inevitable arrival of a hurricane is part of what you agree to when you buy a house on the coast of Southwest Florida.   My wife, Mitzi, and I bought a place in 2018 on Don Pedro Island, also locally called Palm Island or Little Gasparilla, about 11 miles north of Boca Grande Pass and Cayo Costa.    Cayo Costa was the called center of landfall for Hurricane Ian on Wednesday, September 28th.   It was a devastating storm of historic scale, even for a state used to them.    For two days we did not know if our house had endured, but with great relief, a drone flyover photo on Friday revealed indeed it had its roof and four walls.   We could also see our boats had survived and were still on the lifts!    We were aware of reports of severe damage to friends and neighbors’ homes, and of a massive amount of cleanup of trees and debris lie ahead.  Power and Water service were out indefinitely.   

I packed the truck Saturday with what I might need to address damage and start to dig out – two generators, tools, chainsaws, tarps, zip ties, duct tape, K-rations, etc.   I anticipated this would essentially be a demanding camping trip combined with tons of work.   However, the most important thing I brought along was an indispensable companion – Wildrose Boca.  Having a well-trained, reliable, and friendly companion with me in that environment made the experience much more pleasant than it would have been, both for me and the neighbors who were beginning to make it back onto the island.   

Our first challenge was encountered as soon as we arrived after the 16-hour drive.   Don Pedro is accessed only by an 8-car ferry, which was not yet back in full service.   My neighbor, Mike, had returned the night before and offered to take me over in a 2-man Kayak.   The truck and tools would have to wait on the mainland overnight.   “You brought a dog?”  he asked seeing Boca with obvious alarm.   He was concerned she wouldn’t tolerate a Kayak ride across the gently moving 200-yard wide Intercoastal Waterway.   I assured him she would be steady and once we were both seated, told Boca to LOAD UP.   While we glided across the channel in the peaceful sunset light, he told me how impressed he was with her.   I explained that as part of her early training, I had exposed Boca to everything I could think of in a process called DE-SENT, part of training the Wildrose Way.   

Once on the island, the extent of the storm’s impact was visible everywhere.   Most of the homes built recently fared pretty well.    Some, however, were a total loss.   It was a dangerous environment for a dog, so keeping Boca at HEELat all times was required for her safety, as was strict adherence to STAY.  (I use the word “JAIL”).  She certainly understood that something was wrong on the island and acted more subdued and cautious than normal.   

Above – Boca sits on the roof and some of the second floor of a house on Don Pedro Island.   Below left, this 26 footer was tossed upside down and off its lift by Hurricane Ian.  Below Right, rail, siding, decking material, and wet carpet and padding were everywhere.   

Watch Dog

After the storm, the humidity and temperature were relatively comfortable.   A light breeze usually blew at night, making for excellent ‘camping’ weather.   Boca and I slept outside on the porch, where we could look west and see the painted ‘just after sunset’ colors each evening over the now-peaceful Gulf.   I had a patio couch, and she had a simple bed – which became PLACE for the week.  With consistent, early place training, no crate is necessary.  I simply tell her ‘Place’ and she is there all night.  Place may be the most important thing you can teach a dog.   In the absence of electricity, the stars were beautifully bright.   The only missing element was maybe a campfire.   I have to say I felt some kinship to all those who have camped alone, with just the night sky and a great dog for company.  I was of course aware of the ugly possibility of looters, and so when Boca awakened me about 3 am on our 2nd night with a low growl, she had my full attention.  Sneaking to the edge of the overhang and shining a flashlight 20 feet down revealed the Bobcat we knew to be living nearby had returned.    We do not train for this behavior, but I like to think that the urge to be protective is always there, teased out over eons of human-dog synergy as a benefit of mutual trust.   Either way, I slept better knowing her fantastic nose and those ears would wake us long before any real threat was nearby.

Our Campsite for the week and Boca’s PLACE

Coconuts and Cleanup

The wind blew literally thousands of coconuts to the ground, as well as mountains of palm fronds and limbs and even entire trees.   Several of us teamed up and cleared roads and access to neighbors’ homes.  After watching us awhile, I noticed Boca picking up debris.  Hold conditioning came in handy, as I would ask Boca to HOLD some of that debris and pitch in by dragging it to the piles we were making.   Turns out Boca likes to eat a Coconut also.   Splitting a coconut with a hatchet, I would let her have one every afternoon.   Should I forget, she would find one and bring it to me, of course.

Cooler Heads and Better Days

I suppose one of the first orders of business when arriving to your home after a hurricane is simply a careful assessment of what may be damaged – or just missing.   I found parts of railing spread downwind for several hundred feet.   A friend who is an excellent fishing guide in the area and I found most of those pieces.  We set about putting railing sections back together.  One item that turned up missing was a white Yeti 65, with a Wildrose Mississippi logo on it.   I use it in the skiff as kind of a mini tower to sight fish for Tarpon, and so certainly wanted it back.   I was lucky to spot it hung in the mangrove, about 300 yards downwind from the boat lift.   It required a kayak ride and long pole to retrieve it, and Boca was again happy to come along, steady in the boat as always.  

I understand from folks who have lived in the area much longer than we that while this was a severe hurricane strike by any measure, the recovery started immediately and was extremely organized.   I was impressed by the attitudes, cooperation, and determination of the people I met.   To a person, seeing a well trained and even helpful dog in that environment was a positive.  All the time and effort invested in her training paid off, but in ways I could not have anticipated when she was a pup.  Having her with me made the experience almost pleasant.  

It will be a good while before the Boca Grande area is back to its beautiful, idyllic self.  The tarpon for which the area is famous never left.   I was not surprised to see a pod working just off the beach in the crystal-clear-again Gulf one morning during that long week.   They are such a part of the area that Boca has learned to notice them.   She will even indicate their presence by suddenly acting ‘birdy’ in the boat.  Oblivious to the damage just over the beach, they were hunting as if nothing had happened.   Watching them, I wondered in the species’ 100 million plus years how many times this same scene had played out after a hurricane.   Their presence was a reminder of the certain recovery to come.   I am glad Boca and I got to see them. 

Boca perched in the skiff looking for tarpon off the beach near Boca Grande, June 2022.   A reminder of Better Days to come again, below.
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5 Responses to Disaster Zone Gun Dog

  1. shelley theise says:

    A fabulous tribute to man, dog and the Wildrose way.

  2. Susan Wilson says:

    I love this story! I live on Boca Grande in the winter and have a young Wildrose black lab. Maybe they could meet this winter.

  3. Bess Bruton says:

    Thanks for sharing !!! A great article…with a wonderful ending. Can’t wait to go Tarpon fishing with WR Irie…she loves fishing. 🙂

  4. Thank you, Dan Adams, for this lovely article and for all the indispensable, hard work you and Mike did to open our roads, clear my driveway, and protect my home here on Don Pedro from further damage! Boca is the best, and I look forward to her swimming off my little beach here on the bay soon again.

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