|A Trip to Dog Heaven - A Roving Reporter’s Journey to the Dog Chapel and Back
St. Johnsbury, VT. High up in the hills of Vermont sits a tiny white chapel—like any you might see in an old New England town. The first clue that things aren’t quite what they seem is the winged black Lab flying from atop the steeple. The second clue is the black notice board out front with the following words in gold: “All Creeds, All Breeds, No Dogmas Allowed.”
Welcome to Dog Mountain, where artist and champion of the dogs Stephen Hunick (pronounced Hyoonick) and his wife, Gwen, have built an empire around the relationship people have with their dogs. For those who aren’t able to make the trek to Vermont, you can get a good taste of Huneck’s vision in his book The Dog Chapel, which features his distinctive woodcuts and carvings. Me? I wanted to see the Dog Chapel first hand. After all, I’ve been living in Vermont for eight years. I really didn’t have an excuse.
As luck would have it, the weekend I chose for my visit was the same weekend that Huneck was hosting the 10th Annual Dog Party—just a bit of lagniappe. I drove up Saturday afternoon, through several blinding squalls, and finally entered the hill country of Northern Vermont, known as the Northeast Kingdom. It feels like a different part of the world, with fine, white clouds resting lightly between high, green peaks.
Finding the pet-friendly Maplemont Inn was a piece of cake for someone so accustomed to getting lost that she adds an extra hour to every journey. But the road was so beautiful I drove right by, to check out the farms beyond, the fields with Black Angus, and the random horse tucked behind a village home.
At the Inn, Sherry Tolle met me on the wrap around porch that hugged the yellow farmhouse. I walked past the carefully tended garden and a stone that proclaimed: Maplemont Farm –1906. Soon after, a young couple with a rambunctious black lab came in after a day of hiking and swimming nearby.
I am missing my dog, Estée, who died last year, about this time. For 16 years she’d been my hiking and travel companion and I was still getting used to her not being visible in my rear view mirror. I decided then and there that, even if I no longer had a dog of my own, I would stay at pet-friendly inns. No more antiseptic atmosphere of petless places with their unnatural silence. Why didn’t I think of this before?
Sunday morning I awaken, after a night of dog dreams, to the sound of crickets and soft light. A meadow outside my window stretches up to the sky.
I begin my pilgrimage to the Dog Chapel. Spaulding Road leads up and up and up and at last I see pasture fencing and a large black sign with gold lettering: Dog Mountain. This is the entrance to the 400-acre estate that Huneck calls home (although, technically, he and Gwen live further up the road).
The first thing you see are five small-scale Grecian columns, each topped with a carved dog’s head. In front of the gallery and store, where I write this, are two benches, supported on either side by hand-carved black and yellow Labs. They are good company. In fact, I notice throughout the day that I am constantly having to do a double-take as real and hand-carved dogs mingle together everywhere. (Huneck is always pleased when a real dog takes a good tail sniff of one of his sculptures. I’m not quite sure what he’d make of the rude poodle who lifted his leg on a yellow lab of wood.)
Though the wildflower walk and promises of wide vistas and forest trails beckon, I decide to visit the Dog Chapel first. The whole building, while at first traditional-looking, is, on closer inspection, hand-crafted to the smallest detail. Begun in 1997, several years after Huneck had a near-death experience, the chapel was meant to be an expression of his gratitude for a second chance and for the devotion of his dogs throughout his ordeal.
Like the benches out front, the four pews are flanked by dogs, but these face backwards, toward the door and the visitors just entering. The seven stained-glass windows feature images of dogs. under which are recorded the words: “love,” “faith,” “peace,” “joy,” “friend,” “play,” and “trust.” Native American flutes play over the speakers. A battery-operated remote on the front pew gives visitors the opportunity to sit in silence if they wish.
On the hand-carved table in the foyers are stacks of colored paper and pens for creating memorial notes. There are more than a thousand remembrances lining all four walls. There are photographs, drawings, and collages that reflect an extensive history of dog-love. Some are just notes expressing gratitude for time on earth together and some express hope for an after-death reunion. All are heartfelt:
“To CoCo – who always thought (or knew) she was smarter than us.”
“Buddy – Beloved friend, dear soul. Well done, my friend.”
“Schnitzel 1985-2001 – the best weenie dog ever.”
Nearby, a couple working shelties, Flip and Piper, show their stuff as a man whistles orders in code, calling, “Piper, here to me…walk in.” In Franklin, Massachusetts, Flip herds ducks and geese off golf courses, a job he took over from Piper, now retired and obviously a little more choosy about which orders she’d like to obey. She gives the impression that this visit to the Dog Chapel is her vacation and she’s damned if she’s going to do a lick of work while she’s here.
Although it is a big crowd, with mixed ages, there is a kind of reverence that pervades the place. There are no squabbles among the dogs or children. Later in the afternoon, Huneck himself comes to a table in the gallery to sign books and pieces of art. A staff of 20 works in the production studio and the galleries. Several young men and women make sure party-goers have everything they need and keep Huneck stocked with pens and cold drinks.
The atmosphere of good will that infuses the place, and emanates from Huneck, is infectious. It has drawn a couple from Chase, Maryland to Vermont after reading an article in the Washington Post. It even draws the author of that article back, with her family and dog this time. Since the Post and the New York Times has featured the Dog Chapel, thousands of dog-lovers flock to Dog Mountain every year, not because it’s something else to do in Vermont, but because the chapel has become a kind of mecca in and of itself.
When he’s signing books and art, Huneck gives each visitor his complete attention. Each has a story to tell him. He must have heard similar stories over and over again, but no sign of impatience or boredom ever crosses his face. His signature is never a quick scrawl, but usually includes a slowly drawn sketch of a dog that’s being described as he works. His dogs Arty and Mollie hang out under the table, watching the excitement that surrounds them.
Huneck and Gwen moved to the area 25 years ago. He’d been in San Francisco, where he picked up his first dog, Max, at a dog pound. The couple met at art school on the East Coast. He’d made money making furniture for quite awhile and, on a whim, carved a kind of folk-art angel which he left in the back of his truck. A Madison Avenue art dealer saw it in the truck and made an offer Huneck couldn’t refuse. Thus began his new career.
The Dog Chapel was started in 1997 and took about five years to complete. There wasn’t a grand opening, just the slow expansion of fans by word of mouth. “It really captivates people’s imaginations,” Gwen explains. “Now that the physical building is done, he’s working on the landscaping around it, which will have all kinds of places for people and their animals to commune.
“That’s Stephen’s thing,” she continues. “He likes to create whole environments.”
Huneck works every day, choosing and gathering the wood from his land, designing, carving, painting, or printing. If he needs to refuel he naps, or walks the forest trails of Dog Mountain with one of his four dogs. Born in Ohio, Huneck is part Blackfoot Indian. He doesn’t dismiss the idea that his Native American heritage has had something to do with his appreciation for nature. But he doesn’t ascribe to any Native American creed any more than he acribes to any another. “No dogma is no dogma,” he says. “It’s who I am.”
According to Huneck’s experience, “dogs bring us closer to nature, and I think nature is very important to connect with.” The bottom line is that connecting with nature humanizes us, gives us perspective, and provides inspiration. Our current culture conspires to sever that connection, especially through television, he says. In keeping with his counter-cultural instincts from the 60s and 70s, Huneck is still a rebel. Ironically, people sometimes connect with his vision through the purchase of his work. (In fact, I lost a struggle with myself to maintain professional boundaries and ended up bringing home two ceramic dog banks for gifts.)
I saw no signs of philanthropy except a lab’s head cookie jar on the counter with a sign for a local shelter. So I asked Huneck about this. Turns out, in response to 9/11, he carved and sold a woodprint of a dog standing in front of a flag with the words, “United We Stand” underneath. This raised $25,000 for the New York City ASPCA to help support the hundreds of animals left homeless. More astounding is the $2.8 million he raised in three weeks for the PetSmart corporate foundation.
Huneck is currently focused on creating woodcuts for a new book, which will be released in the spring, called Sally Goes to the Vet. He’s also working on a series featuring golden retrievers. He’s also developed a new technique for portraiture and is working on several commissions using wax crayon on very rough French watercolor paper. Neither he, nor Gwen, entertain the notion of calm seas any time in the future. “There’s always something around the corner,” Gwen says.
Just before I leave, Sherry from the Maplemont Inn shows up with her husband Tom, and Yuri and Angus, their Bernese Mountain dogs. They meet up with two other Bernese and it’s a party within a party. In keeping with the weather of the past week, the clouds open up and its starts raining, well, you know…cats and dogs.
More information about Stephen Huneck and the Dog Chapel can be found at www.dogchapel.com. All animal lovers are invited to send their memorial notes, poems, photographs, and collages to the Dog Chapel. Huneck said he will personally post them in the foyer. “It really helps to bring closure,” he said. Send memorials to: Dog Chapel, 1356 Spaulding Road, St. Johnsbury, Vermont 05819. If you’d like your photograph to be considered for inclusion in a future book on the Remembrance Wall, include your name, your dog’s name, and a street and email address.