Not All Dogs Chase Mail Carriers

Tavish at the National Postal Museum

Intrepid Pup Tavish made a treasure-filled visit to the Smithsonian National Postal Museum to encounter a peripatetic, 19th-century celebri-dog named Owney and also to learn a bit of postal history—from the days of Benjamin Franklin to the onset of airmail! Tavish even donned his Doggles® and cultivated an aviator look for posing with the Stinson Reliant and deHaviland DH-4 (on loan to the Postal Museum from the National Air and Space Museum).

Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stayed Intrepid Pup Tavish from the swift completion of his appointed rounds at the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum. Housed in Washington, DC’s historic City Post Office building, this bastion of all things philatelic and related to postal service history welcomes approximately 400,000 people annually. It’s safe to say that dogs are very much not among the standard visiting public. But, with the goal of viewing and sharing the story of another intrepid pup from the annals of post offices past, Team Tavish was granted special permission to visit. How exciting! So, on a recent Friday morning, we timed our arrival for well before the museum would fill with schoolchildren and tour groups. Tavish was on his best behavior and seemed to know that even though he sees a lot of historical sites, it’s a rare treat to be allowed inside. We were met at a special entrance by a friendly and extremely knowledgeable member of the museum’s staff, processed through security, and ushered into the galleries.

Tavish with Owney

Time Warp: 21st-century Intrepid Pup Tavish meets 19th-century intrepid postal pup Owney.

It was here that we took in one of the highlights of National Postal Museum’s collections: Owney, mascot of the Railway Mail Service (see photo at left). Owney was a mixed breed dog whose escapades began in an Albany, New York, post office around 1888; he was clearly a dog that bucked the caricature of not liking mail carriers! It’s believed that Owney originally belonged to one of the mail clerks, but the dog’s adventurous spirit compelled him to explore first the mail wagons and then the mail trains, and before you knew it, he had logged a lot of miles throughout the United States and Canada. The novelty of Owney happily riding the rails caused a media sensation. Indeed, Owney could be considered one of America’s earliest celebri-dogs. His travels were well-chronicled by journalists of the day, likely fueled by the fact that Owney seemed to be a bit of a good luck talisman in that no Railway Post Office train he rode ever wrecked while he was on board. In 1895 Owney further broadened his horizons with a 132-day, round-the-world trip from Tacoma, Washington. He took mail steamers to the Orient, through the Suez Canal and on to New York City. The final cross-country leg back to Washington state was via train.

Now while Intrepid Pup Tavish has his very own virtual passport denoting his travels, Owney’s “passport” was a tangible (and very heavy!) one in the form of folks attaching to his collar commemorative tags and trade checks (tokens that could be used much like coupons). Owney’s collar quickly got so unwieldy that U.S. Postmaster General John Wanamaker presented Owney with a custom leather harness to better accommodate all his hardware. Even so, postal workers would periodically lighten Owney’s load and send some of his tags back to Albany. The National Postal Museum estimates that Owney collected as many as 1,000 tags during his lifetime!

When Owney died in Toledo, Ohio, in 1897 he was eulogized in many newspapers. At the urging of mail clerks throughout the country, Owney was preserved by taxidermy and presented to the Postal Department headquarters. Even posthumously, Owney continued to travel the country for various exhibitions, including the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. He was eventually donated to the Smithsonian Institution in 1911. A century later, the U.S. Postal Service issued a “Forever” stamp memorializing Owney and several of his tags. As part of the museum’s outreach surrounding Owney, the National Postal Museum has developed a whole suite of online materials, including a free e-book, a map of his travels, an activity guide and educational lesson plans.

It’s hard not to be impressed by Owney’s power to captivate the imagination as well as convey so much about how mail moved about the country in the late 1800s. Tavish then turned his attentions to the rest of the atrium where he was wowed by the Concord-style Mail Coach and the three airmail-related planes overhead. There’s so much more to see at the National Postal Museum: stamp art, philatelic rarities, changing exhibitions. . . you owe it to yourself to pay a visit and get fresh insight on the stamps and mail service you’ve probably always taken for granted. Tell them the Intrepid Pup sent you!

Owney's Tags, Images courtesy of the National Postal Museum

Just a few of the custom tags bestowed upon Owney during nearly a decade of traveling with the mail. Approximately 90 tags can be seen on Owney’s harness. Images courtesy of the National Postal Museum.

Dogging the Details

Click to see what a "1" on the Wag-a-meter means

38°53′51.24″ N,  77°0′29.39″ W
National Postal Museum
, Washington, DC

A stamp of approval and a “1” on the Intrepid Pup wag-a-meter—the National Postal Museum really delivers! It’s relatively easy to get to by multiple means of transportation. It’s Metro-accessible, plus (unlike its sister Smithsonian museums on the National Mall), nearby street parking and all-day paid garage parking at Union Station next door are ample and convenient. The museum is open 364 days a year and has free admission. While entering the museum with your dog is not an option (unless it’s a service animal), this museum has lots to offer in a space where it’s manageable to see it all without having museum fatigue set in.

Should you wish to extend your postal-themed adventures and bring a dog with you, here are a couple options:

 

Tavish at Air Mail Marker

38° 52′ 53.11″N, 77° 2′ 36.40″ W
Airmail marker, Washington, DC

If you’re up for a walk in the park and specifically Washington, DC’s National Mall and Memorial Parks, check out this little-known marker on Ohio Drive in West Potomac Park, bordering the Potomac River. Across from the present-day ball field is the spot where on May 15, 1918, the world’s first airplane mail started as a continuously scheduled public service. The 230-mile route accommodated transportation of 150 pounds of mail from Washington, DC to New York City via Philadelphia aboard a Curtiss JN 4-H airplane in approximately three hours.

 

Tavish with Ben Franklin

“B. Free”! Tavish channels postal history giant Benjamin Franklin in both Washington, DC (above) and Philadelphia (at right).

Franklin Court

39° 57′ 0.15″N, 75° 8′ 47.67″ W
B. Free Franklin Post Office
and the Franklin Court Complex, Philadephia, Pennsylvania

As Intrepid Pup Tavish was departing from his specially-arranged visit to Washington, DC’s  National Postal Museum, he spied a statue (see photo at left) of Benjamin Franklin in the lower level foyer. Franklin is essentially the “patron saint” of the postal service in America. He started out as the British Crown Post-appointed postmaster in Philadelphia in 1737 with responsibility for surveying post offices and post roads. In 1775, the Continental Congress made Franklin the first Postmaster General with oversight over all post offices from Massachusetts to Georgia.

To be “frank,” seeing Franklin jogged Team Tavish’s memory about visiting the B. Free Franklin Post Office in Philadelphia a few years ago, and you can visit it, too (see photo at right)! This fully operational U.S. Post Office branch is open Monday through Saturday and is within the National Park Service’s Franklin Court Complex (part of Independence National Historical Park) that includes the Franklin Museum, a museum shop, and the Franklin Court Printing Office and Bindery. The B. Free branch is a colonially-themed post office and the only one in the United States that doesn’t fly a U.S. flag—because there was no United States yet when Franklin was serving as its postmaster. You can still get your letters stamped here with “B Free Franklin,” which was Franklin’s not-so-subtle way of signing a letter in support of American independence from England.

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Tavish for President

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Decision 2016: Tavish for President! Left? Right? Something in between? Intrepid Pup is a new breed of candidate to make America sane again. What do you think of his qualifications? Vote November 8, 2016.

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A Day at the Bay

St. Michael's collage

Glimpses from around the 18-acre campus of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels, Maryland. Clockwise from left: a) Goofing around with the cut-outs in front of the museum; b) In the boat building workshop; c) Surveying the shoreline with the Hooper Strait screwpile lighthouse in the background; d) A tasty view of the harbor from atop the 1879 lighthouse; e) Catching some rays on the pilothouse of the buy boat Thor; f) Exploring the history of Maryland’s crab fishing industry.

It was a beautiful spring day, and we decided to head to Maryland’s eastern shore to do some exploring in St. Michaels, a town known for its Chesapeake Bay breezes, traditional Maryland fare (think:  blue crab and Smith Island cake, which are the official state crustacean and state dessert, respectively), and history (more about that later). To reach St. Michaels, you head for Annapolis which is a pretty snazzy dog-friendly stop in its own right, go over the Bay Bridge, and about 50 miles later (less than an hour, if the traffic gods are smiling upon you) wind up at your destination.

We didn’t set out with a real plan this time other than to savor the sights, the day, and okay…maybe some crab cakes. We followed Route 33/Talbot Street about a half mile into St. Michaels’ downtown and turned right to park in the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum’s lot.

Tavish at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum

What!? Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum is dog-friendly. How cool is THAT?!

We of Team Tavish were trying to figure out where along the fence line was the best spot to photograph Intrepid Pup Tavish with the museum’s signature lighthouse in the background, when…. whaaaaat?? Wait. A. Minute. Just on the other side of the fence we spied a Mutt Mitt Dispenser! You wouldn’t have one of those planted there if dogs weren’t welcome, right? So we stopped into the museum’s Admissions Building and inquired.  “Yes, of course!” the visitor services attendant replied. “You’ll need to keep your dog on a leash and clean up after him, but otherwise he’s allowed anywhere on the campus, except in buildings that have carpeting.” With that, we happily shelled out our entry fees (Tavish was free) and ended up spending nearly three hours there!

The museum was a real treat:  unexpectedly dog-friendly and far more extensive than we’d imagined. There were only four carpeted pavilions Tavish couldn’t go into. For those, we just took turns while one of us waited outside with Tavish, who did his share of rolling in the grass and watching the passing boats. Tavish even spied a beautiful tabby keeping an eye on us from a scrub pine. We later learned she’s a former stray who is now the museum’s resident salty boatyard cat, Ms. Edna Sprit! As for places Tavish COULD venture into, there were many! We wended our way through the Small Boat Shed housing the nation’s largest collection of Chesapeake Bay watercraft. We explored a dredgeboat to learn all about oystering and clambered out on the wharf to the working waterman’s shanty, where we got to check the eel pots and clumsily experiment with using oyster tongs.  And a real highlight was navigating a narrow spiral staircase and crawling through a hatch to reach the top of the 1879 Hooper Strait Lighthouse!

Tavish with Chesapeake Bay Retriever

An homage to Maryland’s state dog: Tavish sizes up this cast iron statue of a Chesapeake Bay Retriever outside the “Waterfowling” pavilion.

A bonus for dog lovers is the museum’s waterfowling exhibit chronicling a key element of bay heritage. While Tavish couldn’t partake of the fascinating display of hand carved duck decoys and tools of the trade, there was a stolid cast iron Chesapeake Bay Retriever statue outside with an interesting story (see photo at right).  It just so happens that in 1807, Marylander George Law was sailing home from England aboard the Canton, when he intercepted a sinking British vessel and rescued its crew and two Newfoundland puppies. When Law arrived safely at port, he purchased the puppies from the captain and brought them home. He named the male Sailor and the female Canton. Since Law ultimately had to go back out to sea, he gave the dogs to two men who allowed them to breed with local dogs, probably coonhounds. Their progeny had dense dual coats, took exceptionally well to the water, and were prolific in their versatility and ability to retrieve waterfowl. The Chesapeake Bay Retriever as a breed was born, and in 1964, it was recognized as Maryland’s official state dog.

 

Click to see what 2 on the Wag-A-Meter meansDogging the Details

 38°47’14.35″N,  76°13’13.73″W
Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum
, St. Michaels, Maryland

St. Michaels ranks a “2” on the Intrepid Pup’s wag-a-meter for being exceptionally dog-friendly and offering plenty to do for pup and person alike.

 

Tavish at the Crab Claw Restaurant

Hmmm. . . lobster I’m familiar with from living in Maine. You? Not so much!

If you’re spending the day in St. Michaels, you’ll need to grab a bite to eat, and fortunately there’s a quintessential Maryland-y option that’s also dog-friendly: The Crab Claw Restaurant. This is definitely fair-weather casual dining, because with your pup in tow, you’ll be eating outside on the partially covered, spacious deck. Be prepared to wait a bit for your picnic table, since lots of people will have this very same idea on sunny weekends. It’s worth it, however, for the good food and spectacular view of the bay. Truth be told, the people-watching is equally entertaining, as folks pull up in boats of all shapes and sizes. After noticing a young couple a few tables away too full to finish off their dozen crabs, we decided to order the less messy and labor intensive option: crab cakes. Tavish was acting particularly winsome that afternoon, and it wasn’t long before the woman from the couple came over to pet and take pictures of Tavish.  And. . . somehow we ended up with the remainder of their steamed crabs! Tavish is a shameless charmer and seemed both intrigued and pretty smug about this turn of events (see photo at left). Unbelievable.

Tavish at the Broken Rudder Doggie Bar

Talbot Street in St. Michaels caters to dogs with this complimentary, walk-up watering hole: the Broken Rudder Doggie Bar.

You’ll want to walk off your lunch, and St. Michaels’ Talbot Street/Route 33 is lined with plenty of shops, including a pet boutique named Flying Fred’s. If you pause to read historical plaques along the way—or fancy ducking into the St. Michaels Museum at St. Mary’s Square—you’ll learn that St. Michaels was where young Frederick Douglass lived as a slave from 1833-36. You’re also bound to hear how the resourceful residents of St. Michaels “fooled the British” during the War of 1812. With the British fleet approaching in August 1813, townsfolk hung lanterns high in the trees at the outer boundary. The British fell for the ruse and aimed their cannons such that most overshot the village, ultimately sparing it from a worse fate. We encountered many dogs along our walk, and several local businesses had treats for dogs and bowls of fresh water outside.

At this point, you might have worked up a thirst of you own, so a stop at Eastern Shore Brewing is in order. This local microbrewery opened in 2008 and operates out of a historic mill complex right on South Talbot Street.  They have a couple of year-round offerings and a half dozen seasonals on rotation. We tentatively poked our heads into the entrance just to survey the scene, assuming we’d have to come back another time minus our dog. No sooner had we done so, however, than one of the brewery staff spotted Tavish and hurried over to greet us.  “No, stay!” he said. “If your dog’s friendly, we’re dog-friendly. Heck, most dogs are better behaved than some of our patrons, so come on in!” And with that, we were swept inside to where a live band was playing and there was already a healthy crowd gathered for mid-Saturday afternoon. The bartender immediately brought over a bowl of water for Tavish, who promptly settled himself into a care-worn overstuffed leather chair (and got his photo taken by a few smartphone-wielding guests), while we tried a couple pints.

From there, we crossed Talbot Street and headed down West Chew Avenue to San Domingo Park, scenic green space that overlooks San Domingo Creek. If you bear to the right, you’ll see a trailhead and a covered bridge. The short paved trail runs more or less parallel to Talbot Street but through residential neighborhoods. A fifteen-minute walk will deliver you to Railroad Street, and you can hang a right to re-connect with North Talbot Street again.

On our next visit, we’ll definitely take the narrated, 70-minute sightseeing cruise aboard the two-level, 149-seat Patriot. We simply ran out of time that afternoon to fit this in, but in talking to the Captain dockside, we learned that the cruise is pet-friendly at his sole discretion. We’ll be back! Also nice to know is that even though ours was just a day trip, St. Michaels boasts several pet-friendly lodging options, from motor lodges to inns to vacation rentals.

Summer Fun: 5 Dog-Friendly OBX Destinations

Tavish on the beach by Jennette's Pier

OBX:  three little letters stand for North Carolina’s Outer Banks and a summer full of fun for dogs and people alike. Many locations along the Outer Banks are denoted simply by their milepost number along U.S. Highway 158.  At Whalebone Junction, the road becomes a decidedly less-congested N.C. Route 12 and is the gateway to Cape Hatteras, designated the country’s first national seashore in 1953. Beaches are dog-friendly, with regulations varying by town and season. Here are the Intrepid Pup’s picks for the top five scenic and sandy spots at this east coast playground:

Bodie Island Light Station

After wandering the grounds, be sure to follow the 1/8-mile boardwalk through the marsh for a picture-perfect view.

35° 49′ 5.30″ N,  75° 33′ 51.53″ W
Bodie Island Light Station
, Bodie Island, Cape Hatteras National Seashore, North Carolina
Open March – December

Throughout the centuries, the storms and shoals defining this stretch of coastline have wrecked more than 600 ships. Were it not for the area’s lighthouses and lifesaving services, this Graveyard of the Atlantic would have claimed even more. Don’t miss Bodie Island Light Station, the 164.4-foot black and white striped beacon whose light is visible from 19 miles at sea. Constructed in 1872, it’s actually the third light station to occupy that approximate location. Since 2000, it’s been maintained by the National Park Service, and you can even take a ranger-led tour up the tower.  While dogs aren’t currently allowed inside the light station, that wasn’t always the case. A Chesapeake Bay Retriever named Chess used to climb the tower every day, accompanying his master Vernon Gaskill who served as Bodie Island’s last civilian-era keeper (1919-1939).  According to Elinor De Wire’s book, The Lightkeepers’ Menagerie—on sale in the light station’s gift shopChess had no problem with the heights but apparently drew the line at entering the lantern room, because he didn’t like the odor of kerosene!

Tavish at the Lost Colony

The emptiness here adds to the mystery and kind of proves a point. After all, it is the Lost Colony.

35° 56′ 9.79″ N,  75° 42′ 35.35″ W
Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, Roanoke Island, North Carolina
Open year-round

A newly renovated visitor center at this National Park Service site interprets the history of Roanoke Island, from Algonquian homeland in the 1500s to a refuge for runaway slaves during the Civil War. But the spot is perhaps best known for what it wasn’t, namely a successful English colony. In fact, no one knows for certain what became of the English settlers who’d arrived in 1587.  When Governor John White returned to check on his transplants to the New World three years later, the 117 colonists plus White’s ill-fated granddaughter Virginia Dare (the first Christian baby born in Virginia) seemed to have vanished into thin air.  An abandoned fort and the word “CROATOAN” carved into a post are the scant clues in this unsolved mystery.

You, too, can explore the grounds of the lost colony. Pass a reconstructed version of the original earthen fort and join up with the Hariot Nature Trail for what amounts to about a 20-minute walk. We came upon a flock of ibises unhurriedly picking their way through the clearing. The wooded trail is slightly overgrown in spots and is punctuated by markers identifying types of trees and habitats. Sprinkled in are quotes drawn from accounts in Old English affirming the myriad challenges that the colonists faced. The trail provides a  picturesque view of Albemarle Sound before circling back to the Visitor Center.  Let us know if you happen to make the separate 2.5-mile round-trip hike on the Freedom Trail out to Croatan Sound—we were unfortunately thwarted in our attempt by a severe thunderstorm!

NagsHeadBeach

The Intrepid Pup officially “off duty” on the beaches of Nags Head.

35° 54′ 36.32″ N,  75° 35′ 43.77″ W
Nags Head Beaches & Jennette’s Pier, Nags Head, North Carolina (milepost 16.5)

Cape Hatteras National Seashore and the towns of Duck, Kill Devil Hills, Kitty Hawk, Nags Head, and Southern Shores all permit dogs on their beaches with varying degrees of seasonal access and leash laws. Team Tavish and the Intrepid Pup particularly like the beaches in Nags Head, because dogs are allowed on the beach year-round and at any time of day so long as they are on a maximum 10-ft leash and owners clean up.

Jennette's Pier

A bronze sea turtle stands watch by the pier house on Jeannette’s Pier.

While Tavish loves the water, he isn’t big on swimming, and that’s actually just fine here, because one does have to be mindful of the dangerous rip currents that can lurk offshore. But the beaches are clean and wide…perfect for an Intrepid Pup to snuffle the sand, poke at shells, crabs and seaweed, and skitter through the foamy surf. Walk the beach at sunrise and you’re sure to catch glimpses of skimming pelicans and playful porpoises offshore. Hard to miss at the heart of the beach’s Whalebone District is Jennette’s Pier (see photo at top). It’s been at this location since 1939, and  its current iteration is all concrete and extends 1,000 feet  into the Atlantic Ocean. Dogs aren’t permitted in or beyond the pier house, but you can get as far as the oversize bronze sculpture of a sea turtle. From that vantage point you can watch all the anglers heading out onto the pier to catch bluefish, cobia, skate, pigfish, mackerel, sea mullet, and more.

Tavish at Jockey's Ridge

The dunes at this state park are very cool…just be mindful of your dog’s paws, because the sand can get hot, hot, HOT!

35° 57′ 50.37″ N,  75° 37′ 59.38″ W
Jockey’s Ridge State Park
, Nags Head, North Carolina (milepost 12)
Open year-round

Did you know that this 420-acre state park represents the eastern United States’ largest natural dune system? It’s open to the public year-round, though park hours vary by season. Parking and general access are free. Dogs are allowed, so long as they remain on 6-foot leashes. From the visitor center, you can stroll a 360-foot boardwalk to a dune overlook, set out on the 1.5-mile “Tracks in the Sand” interpretive trail, take a mile-long walk on the “Soundside” nature trail…or simply scale the dunes. The shifting sands create a ridge that varies in height from 80 to 100 feet, providing spectacular views of the Atlantic Ocean and Roanoke Sound. With fairly steady prevailing winds, Jockey’s Ridge is a favorite destination for kiteboarders and sandboarders. On the morning of our visit, hang gliding lessons were just getting underway, and the park was also gearing up for a big kite festival. We’d been forewarned that the sand at Jockey’s Ridge can get anywhere from 10 to 30 degrees hotter than the air temperature, so Tavish came prepared wearing his Ruffwear Swamp Cooler™ vest (a real godsend that made all the difference in his comfort in the dry heat), and he had his protective paw booties at the ready.  A word to the wise:  try taking off your shoes. If it’s too hot to walk on the dunes barefoot, it’ll definitely be too hot for your pup!  When we reached the ridge, the radio announcer for the kite festival approached us to pet  Tavish. Taking stock of all of our water bottles and gear, he remarked, “Wow, I can’t tell you how many people I see come up here with no water for themselves, let alone for their dogs. Big mistake.”

Tavish Wright Brothers National Memorial

The sky’s the limit at the Wright Brothers National Memorial!

36° 0′ 51.20″ N,  75° 40′ 4.40″ W
Wright Brothers National Memorial
, Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina (milepost 7.5)
Open year-round

Modern aviation is indebted to two Ohio brothers who journeyed to what at the turn-of-the 20th century was a remote patch of dunes. Carefully chosen for the winds, lack of distractions, and sandy landings, Kill Devil Hills was where Orville and Wilbur Wright first achieved powered, controlled, and sustained human flight on December 17, 1903.  You can follow in the brothers’ flight path with a visit to this National Park Service memorial. With Tavish in tow, we covered a total of approximately 1.5 miles walking the grounds. A pathway with stone markers traces the trajectories and landings of the Wrights’ first four powered flights. Trek uphill to get a panorama of the site, topped by a 60-foot granite memorial; it’s the same promontory from which the Wrights had earlier experimented with glider flights. Before turning back to further explore the informative Visitor Center, head downhill beyond the memorial. At the apex of the trail loop is a bronze and stainless steel sculpture group entitled, December 17, 1903. It captures the same instant of first flight as the iconic photograph and makes for a pretty nifty photo opp all its own!

Dogging the Details

Click to see what 2 on the Wag-A-Meter meansYou see a lot of dogs on the Outer Banks enjoying outdoor activities a-plenty. So at first we were puzzled by the fact that dog-friendly lodging and dining weren’t as abundant. It turns out that many dog-owning OBX vacationers rent beach houses by the week (Sunday to Saturday) so they’re not needing as many hotels and always have the option of cooking in.  That being said, there are approximately a dozen pet-friendly overnight accommodations. We stayed at the Dolphin Oceanfront Motel (milepost 16.5), finding it to be minimalist but functional, with its key attribute being that it had a primo location right on the beach. By no means inexpensive, it was still comparatively less pricey than the pet-friendly rooms at the national hotel chains and some of the local B&Bs.

Tavish at the Front Porch Cafe

Chillaxing at the Front Porch Cafe

Foodwise, we stopped at a couple places with patio dining only to discover that dogs weren’t allowed.  We hit the jackpot, though, in finding the Front Porch Cafe for breakfast. We ate at their locations in Nags Head (milepost 10.5) and Kill Devil Hills (milepost 6). In addition to making a good cup o’ joe, they have a wide assortment of muffins, pastries, and breakfast sandwiches. We sat outside in roomy Adirondack chairs, and the staff was quick to offer Tavish dog biscuits and a bowl of water.  Pigman’s Bar-B-Que was our other find. We took our order out to their picnic tables, and Tavish happily sampled our Carolina-style Que, hush puppies, fries, slaw, baked beans, and cornbread. OBX ranks a “2” on the Intrepid Pup’s wag-a-meter for providing enough canine fun in the sun, sand and surf to blow Tavish’s ears back! Grab a leash and go!

Oh Shenandoah, I Long to See You

Brown House at Rapidan Camp

In visiting Rapidan Camp, Herbert Hoover’s presidential retreat in Shenandoah, the Intrepid Pup follows in the footsteps of such luminaries as aviator Charles Lindbergh and inventor Thomas Edison. Here, Tavish lounges on the porch of Brown House, the Hoovers’ personal cabin, at the terminus of the 2-mile Mill Prong Trail.

Rapidan's Outdoor Hearth

Rapidan Camp’s outdoor fireplace provides a good backdrop for photos, just as it did in Hoover’s time.

From 1929 to 1932, President Herbert Hoover and First Lady Lou Henry Hoover relished their rustic fishing camp in Shenandoah. Fortunately, three of the 13 original buildings constituting their Rapidan Camp have been preserved, and you can enjoy it, too.

One option is to board a shuttle bus at the Byrd Visitor Center for a ride down a fire road as part of a three-hour, ranger-led tour. But you can’t bring your dog. And that hardly seems sporting when the second option is a moderate hike that’s dog-friendly. The trail to Rapidan winds through the very forests that so appealed to the Hoovers as a presidential retreat just 100 miles from the pressures and summer humidity of Washington, DC. The Hoovers built the camp with their own funds, the design largely influenced by the First Lady’s own experience in working with the Girl Scouts. Their personal cabin, known simply as The Brown House, had a comfortably open floor plan, welcoming hearth, and Navajo rugs. The president maintained a separate bedroom/office so he’d not disturb his sleeping wife when White House business kept him burning the midnight oil. Meals were eaten in a communal mess hall to promote camaraderie. Days were spent fishing, horseback riding, and entertaining a steady stream of official guests.

The Hoovers' Norwegian Elkhound Weejie

The Hoovers had several dogs, but it’s their Norwegian Elkhound named Weejie who most often appears in Rapidan Camp press photos like this one from 1932. This particular AP image is part of the onsite interpretive exhibit at Rapidan’s Prime Minister’s Cabin.

Hiking into Rapidan affords you the opportunity of getting the lay of the land. Outdoor signage marks where the other buildings used to stand, and the Prime Minister’s Cabin (so dubbed for Ramsay MacDonald’s visit in 1929) now contains a comprehensive exhibit about the Hoovers and how their presence shaped development in the region. In addition, a park volunteer is on hand most of the year to answer questions and provide hikers with impromptu tours of the Brown House. Our arrival was met by a very personable and knowledgeable history Ph.D. graduate student named Jonathan who was living onsite in the Creel House and serving as Rapidan’s resident caretaker for the summer. From him we learned that Hoover gifted Rapidan Camp to the government upon leaving office, and the camp was incorporated into Shenandoah National Park in 1935. The camp enjoyed use by the Boy Scouts up until 1959, when the Park Service removed all but the existing three structures. Rapidan continued to host senior U.S. officials into the early 1990s, although Maryland’s Camp David had long since supplanted Rapidan as the official presidential retreat.

The grounds and buildings underwent a full restoration in 2004 to return them to how they appeared during the Hoovers’ residence, and they remain a fascinating time capsule of a bygone era.

Dogging the Details

Click to see what 2 on the Wag-A-Meter means38°29′26.49″N, 78°25′10.93″W
Rapidan Camp, Shenandoah National Park, VA (trailhead at Milam Gap)

The Intrepid Pup wag-a-meter registers an emphatic “2” for this excursion. It requires a modicum of  pre-planning, but the pay-offs include a good workout and a unique historical destination.

With more than 500 miles of hiking trails and only 10 trails on which pets are not permitted, there’s a lot for you and your leashed dog to explore at Shenandoah National Park. If you’re coming by car, there’s a $15 entrance fee per non-commercial vehicle (slightly less if it’s December – February), and your pass is good for the day of entry and the next 6 days, so you’re definitely getting your money’s worth. Road and trail maps are available at any of the ranger stations, and you can download a map for the Rapidan Camp area here.

Mill Prong Trail

Tavish at one of three stream crossings en route to Rapidan Camp

Begin your journey by parking at the Milam Gap pull-off just shy of mile marker 53 along Skyline Drive. The Mill Prong Trail is the most direct route to Rapidan Camp, and the trailhead is just across the street from the parking area. The path is shady, well-groomed and well-marked with tree blazes and concrete posts at trail junctions. It’s two miles downhill on the way in. There are three water crossings, but unless the streams are running high, you can easily ford them by stepping from boulder to boulder. With the last water crossing at Big Rock Falls—a distinctive but gentle cataract flowing into a shallow pool—you’re on final approach to Rapidan Camp.

Nature-wise there were butterflies, huge millipedes, and a couple of chipmunks. Ultimately we encountered more gnats (note: insect repellent is helpful) than hikers and saw no other dogs…but we suspected that it gets more crowded on the weekends. Hiking in took an hour but included several photo stops. For the return trip, we hiked out the same way we came (for a 4-mile round trip total). But if you’re up for a longer circuit hike (7.4 miles total), the alternative is to pick up the Laurel Prong Trail at Rapidan Camp and follow it until it intersects with the Appalachian Trail, which turns northward over Hazeltop Mountain and ends back at the Milam Gap parking area.

Pet-friendly lodging:

Team Tavish enjoys camping, but for this particular trip we had sought a night’s stay in pet-friendly accommodations and were pleased to find a few choices. There are a limited number of in-park, pet-friendly rooms at Lewis Mountain Cabins, Skyland, and Big Meadows Lodge.  We opted for a traditional room at Big Meadows, as it was closest to the trailhead for Rapidan Camp. It was reasonably priced and offered adequate amenities: coffee maker,  double beds, and a small bathroom (no phones or TVs, but there is wi-fi and a TV room in the main building, if you’re so inclined). While dogs aren’t allowed inside the main lodge where the dining options are, you can get pub fare from the Taproom restaurant and eat on the terrace with its none-too-shabby view of the sunset over the Blue Ridge. We saw probably a half dozen dogs being walked on the grounds the next morning, so clearly we weren’t the only ones availing ourselves of the pet-friendly lodging.

Tavish sees a snake

From a safe distance, Tavish observes what was by all accounts Rapidan Camp’s resident non-venomous snake.  We’d read that snakes can strike at a distance up to half their body length. Had this been one of Shenandoah National Park’s pit vipers—identifiable in part by their more triangular-shaped heads—Intrepid Pup wouldn’t be posing for a photo.

Special considerations:

Mosquitoes and ticks are almost givens in any woodland excursion, but hiking in Shenandoah presents two additional cautions (yay!): snakes and bears. Poisonous copperheads and rattlesnakes do reside in the park. Read up on dog-versus-snake encounters, and you’ll be sufficiently freaked out. Dogs usually weigh less than people and thus are more readily “incapacitated” (to use a euphemism) by snake venom. That being said, the snakes in Shenandoah aren’t exactly out trolling for hikers and dogs and would much rather be left alone. In the end, Team Tavish concluded that basic avoidance was going to carry the day, and our modus operandi was hyper-vigilance about not letting Tavish stray from the main trail so he could literally let sleeping snakes lie.

Shenandoah National Park also has one of the densest populations of American black bears in the United States, and pretty much any piece of park literature you’re apt to find includes information about bear safety. They’re purportedly “skittish” and tend not to pose any threat so long as you give them a wide berth, keep food out of the equation, and don’t run away. Another oft-repeated piece of advice is to “let the bear know you’re human” (i.e. wave your arms, make noise, speak in normal tones, etc.), but our travel companion—a close family friend and fellow blogger—joked that in the event of a bear encounter she would also be readily enumerating her other human attributes like, “I can read, I have opposable thumbs, and I have relatives that care about me.” As it turns out, we were glad to have reviewed bear basics because while hiking the 4-mile Rose River Loop Trail the next day, some oncoming hikers alerted us that they had just seen a bear not 200 yards ahead. They said it had shuffled off into the woods when it heard them approaching and, indeed, we never saw it.  We did, however, catch a glimpse of a bear standing at the side of the road as we were driving out of the park.

Special gear:

While you can count on temperatures being cooler in the mountains, you still need to keep hydrated, so bring plenty of water for yourself and your dog. Team Tavish used a CamelBak for water and snacks, and Tavish carried his own water and gear in Ruffwear’s Palisades Pack™ (be on the lookout for an upcoming product review in the near future). Remember to keep your dog on a 6-foot leash as the park’s leash policy is enforced for the safety of dogs, visitors, and wildlife alike. Finally, beautiful scenery is at every turn, so don’t forget to pack a camera!