How these cycling dogs are delighting Islanders during COVID
‘We're living in such a singular moment in history, people actually need something to smile at’
Yarra and River have been turning heads and stopping cars in Charlottetown all summer.
The Rhodesian ridgebacks belong to Stratford resident Sunny Hartwig. In an effort to decrease her carbon footprint and spend more time outside during the pandemic, she's been cycling around Charlottetown, dogs up front.
"I initially had gotten this bike for Yarra, for my dog, and in this wonderful way, as things turned out, it ended up being the most profound gift of life to me," said Hartwig.
She initially noticed that Yarra was having a hard time keeping up on their runs, as well as having some difficulty getting up and into the car. Hartwig wanted to be able to get outside with her dogs, without putting stress on Yarra.
She did some research and ended up settling on a Danish bike that's meant to carry cargo. From there, she found a Canadian distributor of the bikes, and it was delivered to her door in June.
'This way of connecting with people'
The cargo hold is big enough to fit both of the large dogs and has a weight limit of about 90 kilograms. Once Hartwig lays down some blankets, loads in the dogs and puts on their goggles, Yarra and River are good to go.
"It's been an absolute game changer, so we go out pretty much every day. We do dog training, we do our grocery shopping," said Hartwig.
"It's gotten me outside and I've had the sun on my face and not being stuck in a car, and it's made it a joy to actually just be outside, even commuting is fun."
Much larger than any dog you'd conventionally see in a bike basket, Hartwig said the trio get a lot of stops and stares, double takes from passing cars, and people approaching wanting to meet the dogs.
"It's been really wonderful to see the joy that's been reflected in the people who see the dogs on my bike … we're living in such a singular moment in history, people actually need something to smile at," she said.
"In a time in history where we felt, you know, in some ways forcibly disconnected from one another because of COVID, it's been such a beautiful, quiet miracle that through the bike with the dogs, it's been this way of connecting with people."
A great gift
Hartwig's dogs have always been very important to her.
She said their breed were originally bred to protect women and children from lions. They are rambunctious and mischievous, but also very gentle and great with people.
"When my life fell apart, and it really did, it was an absolute catastrophic destruction of everything that I held dear … River, who is the puppy that I got at the time, was one of the great gifts in my life who helped put me back together," she said.
"The river of life and of healing was going to flow through River to me."
Yarra is River's sister from another litter of puppies, and came to Hartwig in a serendipitous moment when she called up River's breeder.
"The breeder told me, she said, 'it's so funny that you're calling me on this night because we've just decided, my husband and I, that we're not going to keep Yarra and we'd never sell her, but I feel I ought to give her to you as a gift.'"
Yarra is coincidentally named after a river in Australia.
"The Yarra River means everlasting, so together I have an everlasting river of life that has flowed to me in ways I cannot even put into words the gratitude that I feel," Hartwig said.
Coping through COVID
Hartwig is a professor at the Atlantic Veterinary College and grew up in Toronto. Like many people, she has struggled with being away from her loved ones during the pandemic.
"When COVID hit, it was catastrophic for many of us on so many different levels," she said.
"My whole family is in Toronto and my parents are elderly, and as everything was unfolding as it was and we had so little information, just not knowing how they were going to eat, how they were going to actually be able to get the necessary staples, it was really worrisome for me."
For Hartwig, the bike — which has allowed her to ditch her car and spend more time outdoors with her canine companions — has been a saving grace.
"Being able to be outdoors, under big sky on this beautiful Island, in my bike, has absolutely been so essential for my mental health, my mental well-being. It's been a very practical way of self caring, and it was so unexpected," she said.
"In order to be deeply human, I have really needed animals to help me on that journey.
"Our animals teach us how to be human."
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