Cape Shore Water Dogs, Bough Beds and Leaving No Trace

Cape Shore Water Dogs, Bough Beds and Leaving No Trace

The Cape Shore Water Dog

Last week was the first night in the bush for my new Cape Shore water dog Saku. I picked him up from Branch, NL last month and he is now a mere 11 weeks old. The little guy is a warrior and I can’t wait to watch him lay his roots. This breed of canine is genetically wired to spend long periods of time in the woods and the waters. Their iconic trait is a keen sense to retrieve freshwater ducks and sea ducks. I can notice his urge to do this already. They are also known to be very smart and versatile pups who show plenty of affection to others. In Saku’s case, interactions with people and other dogs have been going smoothly. Generally, he is just a big sook.

The origin of the Cape Shore dog is an interesting, yet unclear story. For over 50 years now on the Cape Shore this particular strain has been bred. To keep the bloodline from becoming inbred, since the number of Cape Shore Dogs has been declining, other retrieving breeds have been bred into the Cape Shore water dogs to keep widening the gene pool. Nowadays they have a fair bit of Labrador retriever ancestry, some Chesapeake Bay Retriever and even small amounts of English Setter. That is the reason why Saku looks so much like a Black Lab, his curls from the Chesapeake, and maybe the longer ears that of the Setter. He is a common ancestor of all. But still his own. (2020 Update – An owner of a CSWD recently had genetic testing done and it revealed the breed is 85% Chesapeake, 8% Black Lab & 7% English Setter)

So where did the Cape Shore dog come from? From my research they were derived from the once abundant St.John’s water dog. They were introduced to our native province by Basque fisherman and whalers who came from Spain and France in the 16th century to harvest from our waters. They would visit St.Pierre Miquelon to stock up on supplies such as breads and liquor and then head to the southern shores of Newfoundland to dry their catch of cod. Sometimes they would leave a few dogs for the locals. It is said that these talented pups would not only retrieve different species of birds for hunters but they would also jump from the fishing vessels and retrieve cod that they had been lost near the surface. They were brave animals and feared very little.

Now back to the St. John’s water dog. This is basically another name for the Cape Shore Dog which gradually migrated from the south coast to other parts of the island as a fisherman’s friend. The ones who stayed on the Cape Shore kept that name. This St. John/ Cape Shore breed is an ancestor to many of the modern day retrievers. They were a “landrace” (working dog) on the island and were eventually exported to England during the 18th and 19th century where they were cross bred with other dogs to create the retriever family. Golden , Labrador, Flat Coated and Chesapeake Bay retrievers to name a few. It is also said that the classic Newfoundland dog is a lineage that came from the breeding of the St.John’s water dog with a Mastiff which was brought to the island by the Portuguese. It goes to show that our island has loved the presence of dogs for as long as anyone alive can remember. Now, there are question marks with some of this history. Some of it has gaps that I have pieced together. Although I have done some preliminary research, if anyone knows more, please come forward. I am super interested in the history of this dog.

One of the main characteristics of the original St.John’s breed was a white patch on their chest known as a “medallion”. Saku has this special patch and to me it adds a whole lot of character. It sort of looks like a tuxedo marking where a black tux shows the white of a collared shirt near the chest opening.

Young “Saku”. His medallion is barely visible in this picture.
Brother and sister in their favourite environment
Curiosity was everywhere on this day
It wasn’t long before a nap and a cup of “special” tea was in order
Dinner time
If it wasn’t for the collar some would mistake Bear for a fluffy wolf. She loves the wilderness

Properly Harvesting Boughs:

Similar to my last overnight outing, I used only a tarp and boughs for my shelter. One exception was that I took along my sleeping bag so Saku could sleep in it with me. Last trip You Don’t Need Much for a Night in the Woods I just used a woollen blanket. I also forfeited my foam sleeping pad. Overall we had a relaxing evening and I spent some quality time trying to show Saku the ways of the wild. I think there is no better way to create a close bond with him. It also helps that Bear is around to guide him as well. She never strays to far from me and has plenty of experience trampling through the sticks. It is now less than 8 months until I make a certain long distance trek with Saku on my side. Every trip to the bush is going to progressively prepare him for the journey ahead. I found it interesting to watch him and see how he reacted to new stimuli like me swinging the axe, Bear swimming, or the fire burning bright. When the night set in he curled up by the glowing flames and seemed content as could be. It was as if he had done it before.

One thing I wanted to draw attention to from this outing was the making of my bough bed. This is a traditional method of providing flooring to a wilderness establishment. It has been done by Aboriginal people across the Boreal forest for years.

The bed can generally consist of two types of boughs. Balsam Fir or Spruce. Either works fine. On this night I chose Balsam Fir because they were more abundant in the area. The art is fairly simple but some things must be kept in mind.

The flat, smooth needles of a Balsam Fir
Now, if you look closely, you can notice the more rounded needles of the Spruce
Spruce again. The age old test for telling the difference between Spruce and Fir is to put the needles of each between your thumb and forefinger. Spruce needles will roll between your fingers while flat Fir needles will not.

First, you should realize that by gathering these boughs we are harming the tree. To minimize the damage you should only remove the tips of the bough. Doing so leaves some of the limb left to rejuvenate years down the road. It also means that no axe is necessary to cut the branch right where it intersects the truck of the tree. I usually just snap about 50 percent of the bough off with my fingers and leave the other half.

Secondly, you should know that the boughs can be slapped on the ground in a pile to lie on, but it is more beneficial to knit them together by digging the broken tips into the ground or snow (depending on the season) and continuing that trend by pointing all tips in the same direction.  Doing this allows you to slowly overlap each bough. This insures full coverage of the ground and a better chance that the tips will not be driving into your back. They should also be laid upside down so you get the bend in the branch which gives a natural spring for added cushion.The goal is a nice fluffy mattress that resembles your couch. If done properly a sleeping pad is not necessary.

The third tip is to make sure your bed is thick. Preferable 4-6 inches. The latter being more suitable for colder winter grounds. The reason for this is to provide insulation as well preparing for the compacting of your bed as you lie on it all night. By the morning you will notice that it is thinner and maybe not a comforting as it was the evening before. That is why the Aboriginal people would continually add to their beds every few days to certify its comfort. I would like to note that some boughs would also die due to the heat of a fire pit or wood stove drying them out. This was mostly the case of a bough floor in a canvas tent, Wigwam or Mamateek to name a few aboriginal shelters. So they would also need be replaced. Not only would the boughs provide coziness and protection from heat loss, but they also gave off a pleasant earthy aroma.

The start of my Balsam Fir bough bed
Snapping the tips of a Balsam Fir bough near the halfway mark of the branch
A bundle of Balsam Fir bough tips ready to be laid
Knitting the boughs


This one has now been slid in place
Jesus, what more do ya want!?

So there it is. By no means am I an expert at making these memory foam bough beds, but I think if you abide by my advice above you may be well on your way to wilderness luxury. You will also be doing good to the environment and prolonging the life of many a Spruce and Fir.

In short, I believe that the more you utilize materials from nature the more you can reconnect with its mind numbing features. I hope you enjoyed reading. Until next time, get out there and live your adventure.

I would say a few readers are drooling right now. I’m a capelin addict.
My Kelty REDCLOUD 110 Litre pack. What a great piece of equipment. Not necessary for this small outing but I loaded it with gear and weight for training purposes. It tipped the scales at 65 lbs.
LEAVE NO TRACE. Since I will be back to this spot I left my boughs down, wood piled, and fire pit visible. The main objective here is to have no garbage left behind whatsoever. I burned what I could and packed the rest out with me. This is essential for preserving our land and keeping it as natural looking as possible. Also note the rocks around my fire pit. When you are staying at a site long-term it is good to do this to prevent the fire from spreading out from its original area. If I were not returning I would generally cover the pit with dirt and moss to hide its existence. All steps above will create a better experience for those who travel the woods after us and are also looking for that remote and disconnected feeling. As soon as you see garbage the natural connection is lost.
The by’s were gased on the way home”


I’m very interested in cape shore water dog I hike and do a lot of duck hunting. Would anyone be able to help me get in contact with a breeder I can’t seem to find one I’m located in southern Michigan.

My self and my boyfriend just got our new cape shore water puppy he’s 8 weeks old just wondering when we can take him in the woods ? Thanks

Hi Kayla! I brought Saku in for his first walk in the woods at around 2 and a half months. Take it easy with him at first. 30 mins is probably enough. Work your way up from there. Every dog is different though so it is always a judgement call by the owner. Hope it goes well! Let me know if you have anymore questions. Cheers

My Son and Daughter got a Cape Shore Water dog he is 4 months old and came from Branch as well, he became very sick and with a hefty Vet bill we found out that he has Addisons Disease and which I also found out he is not the only Cape Shore Water Dog that has it. Long term medication for life ! Overall he is a wonderful family member and wouldn’t part with him !!!
Be interesting to see how many others are out there .

That is very interesting Jeannette. Thanks for sharing. I can’t imagine going through that. So far so good with Saku. Knock on wood… what were the signs and symptoms of Addisons?

Boots was drinking a lot of water and peeing a lot that I thought was normal for a pup but soon after he was sleeping most of the time not very active and then as a few days went past he was not eating or drinking or wanting to go pee and worse could not walk his legs were limp so we rushed him to the Vet in Bay Roberts after 3 nights stay and on prednisone and Florinef he is doing much better thankfully and that they discovered he had Addisons Disease.

Hi Jeannette wow what a sin I got my little guy a few weeks ago from branch he’s 9 weeks old knock on wood he is doing wonderful ! Hopefully your son and daughters little puppy is getting better soon!

Hi, I have a cape shore water dog as well. She is 5 months old. We take her in the woods for walks all the time and she loves it! Beautiful breed of dogs. We are so happy with her. Her name is Willow! Would love to hear from other owners and possibly meet Willows siblings.

Hi Melinda, thanks for sharing that. Saku is a great pup as well. I’m really impressed with his listening skills and athletic abilities. The Cape Shore water dog is a fine specimen that belongs in the woods and on the waters!

Hey Peter you can get them in Branch, NL. You’ll have to search ” Shane Mcgrath” on Facebook and send him a message. Let me know if you have any troubles. Justin

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