Homeless James and Muck raise awareness for homeless people and their pets

James and Muck. Submitted photo.

If you are lucky, you may just have passed by a world-famous author these past few weeks. If you are even luckier, you got to pet his best friend, Muck.

James Caughill, who goes by the pseudonym Homeless James, has been walking across the country since 2016 to raise awareness for homeless people who live with pets. These last weeks, James has made his home in Trenton, Tyendinaga, Napanee, and the surrounding area on his journey eastward to Newfoundland. Caughill is the author of a series of six published volumes entitled Walking to the Rockies with Muckwah. The series tells the story of his journey with his dog Muckwah, beginning in 2016 in St. Catharines, Ont., and heading towards Vancouver, BC.

Anyone walking up to James’s current campsite can expect to be greeted by a big, beautiful Siberian husky-Alaskan malamute cross, affectionately known as Muck, who greets visitors with an enthusiastic sniff before settling back down nearby. The man himself is probably singing classic rock songs with gusto; James says his playlist is one of the things that keeps him entertained on his “days off” from their journey.

And what a journey it has been. Homeless James is an old-school storyteller; sitting in front of his tent, cross-legged, he drops bits and pieces of his life casually, unashamedly, and with enthusiasm. His Irish surname, Caughill, suggests he might be someone with the gift of gab, and he does not disappoint with his ability to evoke laughter from the listener.

Growing up in St. Catharines, James may have been a bit of a wild child. He says he “took tenth grade three times” despite his high IQ, and he compares his younger self to Jeff Spicoli, Sean Penn’s stoned-surfer character in the 1982 cult classic Fast Times at Ridgemont High. He also mentions a stint in a military academy, where boys were sent to toughen up by canoeing through Algonquin Park and portaging 80-pound canoes for kilometres at a time. He still feels high school is like a prison for teenagers.

After that, for 20 years, “I built houses as a framer. It is honest work, and it is tough… [but] it was not my passion: I would rather be under a car with grease in my fingernails,” he explains. He went back to school at age 38 to finish his Grade 12 equivalency and attend Niagara College’s Automotive Service Technician Apprenticeship Program, graduating second in his class with an overall 97 per cent.

James and Max in younger days pose at a cottage north of Cloyne. A friend’s dog keeps an eye on the lake. Submitted photo.

Eventually, James’s father asked him to move in with him and James’s mother, to help care for her. James jumped at the chance to help, and he and his then 18-year-old dog Max moved in with them.

A friend and neighbour, Al, adopted a purebred Alaskan malamute puppy about a year later; this was baby Muckwah, a name which means ‘bear’ in the Ojibwe language. The little female pup quickly befriended Max and captured James’s heart. 

When Max died, James says, it was Muckwah who got him through the pain of it.

“I got Max when he was eight weeks old, and I lost him when he was 20 years old. I cried myself to sleep for six months. Muckwah was the one that got me over him,” James shares, noting that Al let him be a kind of “surrogate daddy” to her. 

When his friend developed lung cancer, James spent a great deal of time caring for him and looking after Muckwah. When Al died, James got a call from a lawyer.

“He asked me to go to the reading of the will, and I was like, what? I’m not even a relative,” he says. 

It had all been arranged; James inherited Muckwah, with a note from Al indicating that she should be with someone who loved her as much as Al had.

That was wonderful, until a circuitous set of circumstances brought on a fresh nightmare. No longer able to work due to asbestos exposure earlier in his life, James cared for his parents until his mother passed away. A short time after, his father, a Korean War veteran, was in need of oxygen, and the apartment they lived in was not insured for oxygen use.

His father went to a nursing home, and James found a bachelor apartment for himself and Muckwah. He had saved up first and last months’ rent, and signed the papers — but, he says, “So did ten other people.” The landlord was a crook who took deposits from all of them for the apartment before moving out and running off with the proceeds. He wasn’t even the owner of the building.

That’s when James became ‘Homeless James’ for the first time. He went to social services to apply for housing; he explained what had happened, but got very little assistance.

“There were 80 people ahead of me on the list,” he says, “and to keep my welfare cheque, I had to have an address. So this lady told me to go to a homeless shelter in St. Catharines.”

That’s when insult was added to injury: “She says, ‘But you’re going to have to get rid of that mutt.’”

James expresses himself using various expletives here. Suffice it to say that “Muckwah was not a mutt,” and the social worker got a verbal lesson in where welfare cheques might fit into the human anatomy.

James and Muckwah lived for three months in an unused dumpster on the edge of a wooded area in St. Catharines. The place was “full of crackheads… I was a crackhead too,” he admits. He didn’t want to continue to live that way, but when he researched online at a dog-friendly library, he was vexed to discover that “there was not one homeless shelter in all of Canada that took pets.”

That was when inspiration struck. Enough was enough. He needed to make the public aware of the importance of pets in the lives of the homeless, and his ultimate goal was to create his own shelters that would welcome both. He was determined that he and Muckwah would walk across Canada together, to raise awareness about homeless people with pets. 

In September 2016, they packed their gear and headed west, leaving St. Catharines and crack cocaine behind. Little did he know it would take six years to reach the west coast, walking about 15 kilometres a day. That incredible story is encapsulated in the book series Walking to the Rockies With Muckwah.

There have been many positives along the way: viewing amazing scenery, meeting thousands of new friends, growing his Facebook account to 17,000 followers, seeing 35 Canadian shelters now taking pets due to his advocacy, and achieving record-setting book sales in the Canadian travel book industry. James has also developed strong opinions as to where the best corn is grown (“Ontario Peaches and Cream”), where the best burgers are made (“Manitoba has the best hamburger, oh yeah… that is what they do in cattle country”), and who makes the best ice cream (“Kawartha Dairy has the best ice cream in Canada — no really… the best ice cream in the world”).

Muckwah was no mutt. In fact, James says, she was a purebred descendant of an Iditarod winner. Submitted photo.

James and Muckwah were living homeless by choice now, able to take winters off and stay with friends, and restarting where they left off in the spring. 

Not everything has been easy, though.

In the winter of 2018, Muckwah, now nine and a half, was sick while the pair overwintered with a friend in Washago, Ontario.

“It was uterine cancer,” says James. “She had to have her uterus surgically removed, but then the cancer had already spread. It was too late.”

Muckwah died. The dog that started it all, saving him from depression during the hardest times and inspiring him to hit the road and leave the drugs behind, his best friend on Earth — was gone. James was devastated.

“I had an uncashed welfare cheque in my pocket, and was ready to catch a bus back to St. Catharines, look up all my old crack cocaine connections, and just give up on everything and everybody. I was in that dark of a depression. It was a very dark place,” he says.

But James’s roommate and pal, Steve, didn’t let that happen. He quickly did some investigating and, on the day James was about to leave, Steve offered to take him out for breakfast. Instead, he took him to the Orillia Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (OSPCA). James says, “He makes me get out and tells me if  I want to keep a roof over my head, I better get my ass in there and take a look at what they got.”

As James describes it, “They got those cages where they put the ones to adopt up front. And when I opened the door, this is the first face I see,” he says, indicating Muck, who perked up as if he knew he was about to join the story.

Muck supervises as James packs his gear in the Canadian Rocky Mountains. Submitted photo.

“It was like a bolt of lightning hit my heart, and I just knew everything was going to be okay. It was like that dark depression just vanished,” James marvels. “Dogs are magic. They can not only save your life; they can save your soul.  And I’ve had my soul saved twice: once from drugs by Muckwah, and then from depression by Muck.”

There is much more to the story.

A pandemic was certainly not expected. The pair spent 17 months living in a small farm town of about 300 people called Cypress River, Manitoba, because of the COVID-19 pandemic. James says, “It wasn’t that we couldn’t [continue our walk]; that’s not an issue. It was [that] nobody was open, so there was no place to get supplies, no campgrounds, nothing like that. So we just stayed where we were, right? We had a nice 34-foot house trailer we were renting… We had air conditioning for the summer and heat for the winter, so why not just stay.”

James and Muck made it across the Rockies last summer, and this spring they finally got to Vancouver. So, what to do next?

“St. Catharines to Vancouver is only two-thirds of the country, don’t ya know?” says James.

So they took the train back to Ontario. The journey east began earlier this summer from Washago and will end for the winter in a few weeks in Westport, where the pair have a cottage to stay in with friends.  

When a friend offered to put James and Muck up in a bunkie on their property in Tyendinaga Territory for nearly a week this past month, James gratefully used the time to finish volume seven of the book series. It has now been sent to the publishers. 

Homeless James takes only 10 per cent of the sales of his books to live on. The other 90 per cent is kept in trust to go toward the ‘Muckwah Memorial Shelters for the Homeless and Their Pets,’ shelters where families won’t be separated.

“That’s what pets are,” James emphasizes, “they are family.”

Homeless James and Muck were treated to refreshments roadside in Napanee by some strangers who saw them passing and became friends. Submitted photo.

And, what’s more, a Netflix deal is on the horizon, but that is a tale for a future story.

For now, the walk continues. 

James figures next summer will see them arrive in Quebec, looking for the world’s best poutine. Eventually, “just for the world’s best mashed taters, we are gonna walk across the Confederation Bridge to PEI.” Then, “It’s on to Newfoundland, yes siree, b’y.”

He thinks it may take him a full four more years, a decade in total, to complete the cross-country expedition.

The six complete Walking to the Rockies with Muckwah volumes are currently available on Amazon.ca, with volume seven soon to be published. You can follow the pair on their Facebook page. Better yet, you just might see Homeless James and Muck locally, heading from Napanee to Westport in the next few weeks.

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