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A Dog’s Life on Comfort Island

Surely there are enough 1000 Islands dog stories to fill a dozen books. Few places on earth are better suited to the endless variety and unique canine personalities that romp in fellowship, with those of us that own and care for them. In the case of the Clarks, we are not the only ones that have enjoyed lazing, carefree in the sun on Comfort Island.

Just about every dog that has come to Comfort Island, even for a brief visit, has become acquainted with the beach. The beach offers a spot where a dog can wade in for a drink, advance a little further to cool off on a hot day, or take a swim with a safe place to get out afterwards. I have never heard of or seen a dog try to swim to shore or another island because the distance is considerable and the current is strong near the island, with the exception of the area fronting the beach. The younger pooches unabashedly frolic on the large lawns and thrive on being allowed to run loose. There is no dogcatcher on Comfort Island and leash laws don’t apply.

It takes a bit of training to convince a new arrival that chasing ducks is a dangerous folly. We have watched closely to be sure a novice avoids falling in the river in places where it is hard to get out, and sometimes it is an instructive experience if they do fall in and sample their predicament, before being pulled out and returned to safety.

The first dog was Cap Thomson’s “rent-a-dog” dating back to the 1880s. I met Cap Thomson in his mid-eighties. He boasted, seventy years after the fact, about renting his dog to Great Grandfather Clark. Cap demonstrated the value of industry, diligence and just plain hard work. Unlike many bits of lore that have trickled down to me, regarding Comfort Island history, I never heard any stories about the traits and peculiarities of Cap’s “rent-a-dog.” Nonetheless this was the first Comfort Island dog, and a testament to synergistic shrewdness on the part of both Cap and Great Grandfather Clark.

“Jack” was another famous Island dog. He arrived on the scene somewhere around 1910. He was a brown Water Spaniel with fur that was so curly that people thought he had just returned from the beauty parlor, after getting a “permanent.” He devised a clever way of ridding himself of fleas before the advent of powders, sprays and pills. My dad witnessed Jack’s ingenuity as he would slowly back down the rowboat slide giving pesky fleas time to scramble up his back onto his neck. He’d wait patiently as the critters made their way onto his head and finally onto his nose whereupon he would dunk his head underwater to unload his unwelcome passengers.

He was known to jump off the dock and swim after departing boats in hopes of getting a ride; and many rides he did get, particularly with my great uncle Alson Clark of impressionist-painting fame. We have photos of Alson and Jack pulling away from the dock in the 15-foot sailboat, Mabel, with Jack looking both confident and content standing on the bow deck, where he was vulnerable to being pitched into the water, if the boat swerved suddenly. Jack and Alson sailed on extended excursions to the area near Gananoque. Alson carried a small alcohol stove to heat coffee and soup along the way.

The parade of island dogs continued with other deserving pooches, including Sandy, Andy, Topper and Hal. Andy had a fetish about sailboats;  he would race from one end of the island to the othe,r at great speed, barking orders to the crew in a language only other doggies can understand. Topper was a loose-skinned Cocker Spaniel with oversized floppy ears that rose and took on an appearance of wings, when he’d stick his head out into the wind, as he and Dad rode to town. He was one of the laziest four-legged creatures I ever encountered.  An active afternoon for Topper was watching fish swimming, below the surface in the boathouse.

In 1995 my wife Kira and our kids mounted a campaign to acquire another family dog, following a lapse of several years without one. They teamed up against me after an island neighbor began selling a litter of Yellow Labrador puppies. I held out while they sold most of the puppies, but when the owners offered to give us one late in the season, the pro-dog crusade picked up steam, with all the classic rhetoric, “Please Daddy, pretty please! We’ll take care of it. We’ll feed it and take it for walks. We’ll brush him and give him baths. You’ll see you won’t have to do a thing.”

The team was relentless and finally I said, “Okay.” Because I’d made and broken the same promises when I was a kid, I had no doubt that it wouldn’t be long before the responsibilities would be Kira’s and mine.

Unfortunately, I never had a chance to see if my children would live up to their promises, because our new dog had ingested some twine before we owned him, and a few weeks later we were forced to put little “Sunny” to sleep. It was a very sad experience for the whole family, and we were all in agreement that we’d have to replace Sunny with one of his relatives.

We contacted a breeder in Wiscons,in whose Labs had lineage to Sunny, and several weeks later “Woody” arrived at the Asheville air terminal where I picked him up. He was only eight weeks old and groggy from being sedated for the flight, when I aired him on the grass adjacent to the terminal. I thought to myself, “What a calm and mellow puppy.” I have seldom been more wrong in my initial assessment of any critter before or since.

It turned out that we had just become the dumbfounded owners of the most energetic dog I ever owned. I theorized that he could run the Iditarod Dogsled Race all by himself without the usual fifteen teammates to help pull.

We called him “Woody, the wonder dog” because we wondered why we got him. Woody wasn’t mean and he didn’t bite, he was simply enthusiastic. It wasn’t really Woody’s fault that he was so hard to control. He was bred to be a hunting dog, and we simply didn’t have a year-round facility to provide him with the level of exercise he needed.

Searching for some relief from this canine dynamo, we took him to obedience school.

The class instructor was still gaining experience, and I have a vivid memory of the evening when she said, “Tonight is our off the leash training session.”

In the interest of full disclosure I replied, “This is not a good idea. Woody will not come back when I call him, and he’s sure to create chaos for the dozens of dogs in the other classes.”

The instructor reassured me she could handle the situation, so I turned him loose to join his classmates. Off he went at warp speed across the armory before executing a flying moun,t of an unsuspecting show dog, that was being groomed at a remote corner of the building. All five classes of dog owners had taken up the chase before we finally managed to get Woody back in harness. When it came to testing for his obedience certificate, Woody began the proceedings by jumping forward to give the registration volunteer a hug. It was no surprise that Woody produced the lowest score in the history of the 90-year-old armory.

We knew Woody would be a challenge at Comfort Island, and we got a remote control shock collar in advance. Allowing Woody to freewheel, without easy intervention was a prescription for disaster. He took his handy electronic gadget swimming a hundred times or so in the first week and the antenna fell off first, before it stopped working altogether.

Woody’s first visit to the island each summer was occasion for him to scramble out of the boat as soon as he thought he could jump to the dock. He’d run along the seawall and hurdle into the cool water adjoining the beach.

He was great with the kids and more than content to join them in island activities, including boating, fishing and picnicking. A particularly memorable Woody mishap occurred one morning when our son Coty picked up his fishing pole and headed for the dock. Woody spied the triple-barbed lure and grabbed it with his mouth. A host of visitors sprung into action to help me restrain Woody while another member of the group used wire cutters to free the lure that had pierced Woody’s tongue. It was one of those “whew” moments that left each of us shaking from such an adrenaline rush.

He liked to greet folks by jumping up on them, and it was necessary to vigilantly restrain him when elderly guests came to visit. He would sometimes try to jump on or into a boat that arrived at the dock, which was scary when it was a valuable wooden boat. It was no wonder that during Woody’s tenure most callers came in their workboat rather than their Sunday-go-to-meeting boat.

Last on my chronological list of extra special Comfort Island dogs was our Pomeranian named “Brooklyn” (2004-2012). He was a predominantly black tri-color with white markings mostly around his neckline and two little brown eyebrows. He weighed about fourteen pounds. I’d chuckle as I announced, “He’s the first good dog we’ve ever had.” He chased the geese, shrank the rodent population, and terrorized squirrels and chipmunks alike.

Brooklyn was at Comfort during the later days of Woody’s era, along with another Black Lab mix we had at the time named “Pudge.” Woody weighed ninety-three pounds and Pudge was bigger than Woody. Pudge distinguished himself by standing sentry at the beach, thus deterring the flocks of geese that had intentions of adding unwanted fertilizer to our lawn.

When Pudge and Brooklyn were both young pups, they would tear around the lawns, playing catch-me-if-you-can. Brooklyn was as quick as lightning, scampering one way then dodging another. Around they’d go, and maybe once or twice a day Pudge would manage to catch his smaller tormentor by the tail, whereupon he’d sling the little fella like a Frisbee.

When we’d leave our trio of dogs alone, they developed the unwelcome hobby of turning over the trashcan and scavenging for choice leftovers. Brooklyn would greet us as we returned from shore. He’d strut up the hill to the kitchen where we’d discover Pudge and Woody wallowing on a floor covered with garbage. The two culprits would hang their guilty heads while we scolded them.

One day I said, “Let’s pretend to leave and then slip around to the back porch, to see just how these four-legged miscreants work their operation.”

We peeked through the back screened-door. To our surprise Woody and Pudge were nowhere in sight, only Brooklyn was casing out the trash receptacle. Suddenly he sprung several feet up into the air and hooked his front paws over the top of the plastic container, thus toppling it to the floor. He sifted through the debris picking out choice morsels. When he’d had his fill, he demonstrated his real genius, by going to fetch his two buddies to clean up the dregs. Pudge and Woody had been taking the rap for Brooklyn’s handiwork from the start.

Brooklyn had a knack for making friends and when it came to convincing a neighbor or a complete stranger, that he deserved a treat, he had no equal. Brooklyn suffered from a heart murmur that became an enlarged heart. He died prematurely at the age of eight, but I must say he got the most out of life. He had “personality.”

Dogs are a reminder of our own mortality, because their lifespan is relatively short. Dogs that spend some or all of their life in the 1000 Islands are as lucky as their owners who likewise have the opportunity to enjoy this special setting. 

By Tad Clark

Tad Clark, a fourth-generation, summer resident, has been a tennis coach for over 35 years. His growing interest in freelance writing includes commentaries for the TI Sun, the history of Comfort Island: and several articles for TI Life – including the importance of Boat Shoes!   When not in the Thousand Islands Tad and his wife live in Asheville, NC.  -

Posted in: Places, Nature, People
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John Peach
Comment by: John Peach ( )
Left at: 6:48 AM Tuesday, July 15, 2014
Tad.Another great article. I remember most of your dogs. There have been some great ones.
martha hosey
Comment by: martha hosey ( )
Left at: 10:26 AM Tuesday, July 15, 2014
As a loving dog owner, I thoroughly enjoyed Tad's article and the vivid descriptions of his dogs' antics! We once had a black lab whose activies were very similar to Woody's and still love telling stories about him some years later.
Comment by: Laura
Left at: 2:34 PM Tuesday, July 15, 2014
Enjoyed thoroughly,thanks for the chuckles.
Coty always said
"Brookie was the brains and Pudge was the muscle", haha!
John McCullough
Comment by: John McCullough ( )
Left at: 7:43 PM Wednesday, July 16, 2014
Great story, Tad. Woody was quite a character, fit right in at the river...