Dog Mountain: Doesn’t that have a particularly beautiful, serene, and welcoming quality in reading those words? When I first learned of “Dog Mountain” in Vermont, I knew it would sit high atop my bucket list. After all, a gal with over 20 years of dog-friendly travel under her belt/collar would have to visit a place as stately as “Dog Mountain.”
Lately, I’m not sure if visiting the picturesque canine-welcoming property would fill me with serenity or bring me to tears.
While working for a fledgling dog magazine a few years ago, I stumbled across the artwork of Stephen Huneck one evening. The picture of two Labrador Retrievers cushioning their pet parent in bed gave me pause for thought and invited me to learn more about his works. Artist, sculptor, and iconic lover of all things spirited in dog, Stephen Huneck’s vision is reflected on Dog Mountain, I would learn.
Situated on 400 acres of land in St. Johnsbury, Vermont, Dog Mountain is an escape, a dream, a playground, and one couple’s version of hope for all. At the age of 61 and struggling with depression, Huneck took his own life not far from the retreat he shared with his wife, Gwen. Reports surfaced that he became despondent after being forced to lay off employees of his studio and the famed Dog Chapel.
I interviewed his widow a few years later, and I find myself reflecting on what she told me during our conversation. A soft-spoken woman with a timber of solace in her voice, her joy for all things dog and the mountain she called home were evident.
“People come to Dog Chapel from all over. They leave remembrances of dogs loved and lost in the chapel or simply come to sit in peace,” Gwen shared. “For many, there is no sense of closure when a dog suddenly dies. Coming to the chapel gives them peace. They can come and enjoy nature and find serenity here.”
Serenity indeed. Well known for his angel dogs, Dog Chapel is built in the style of a small Vermont village church and dogs are welcome. Atop the white steeple, a Labrador Retriever points his wings to the wind. Stained glass windows inside the chapel as well as all woodwork, carvings, and prints are reminiscent and crafted at Stephen’s talented hands. The sign outside the chapel summarizes the lore and lesson of the mountain and Stephen’s legacy: “Welcome all creeds, all breeds. No dogmas allowed.” So says the word of dog.
This would be the year, perhaps in the fall, that we would visit Dog Mountain and place a photograph of my late Cocker Spaniel, Brandy Noel, on the walls of Dog Chapel. I would meet Gwen, as she told me to call upon her when I was visiting the area. I received the emails from Dog Mountain, took joy in seeing the different activities and dog-friendly get togethers occurring, and recently started talking about taking our pilgrimage to the mountain of canine with my family.
Now I’m not so sure. Now a veil of sadness covers both me and Dog Mountain.
Gwen Huneck, the head of the Dog Mountain art gallery and dog park in St. Johnsbury, passed away this week, an apparent successful suicide. She was 61.
My heart is broken for the Hunecks, for their loved ones and community, for the tears and emptiness they felt, and that it came to this. I cannot pretend to imagine what they felt, but I feel anger, sadness, sorrow, and ultimately emptiness for this tragedy.
I never met the Hunecks, I spoke for a half hour to Gwen, but I felt like “they got it,” that sense of loving dogs so very much that you vacation with them, make them a part of your family, open your hearts to them, and maintain a mountain in their honor.
According to the Burlington Free Press, where my deepest concern was realized, Gwen took her own life. The art gallery stated earlier this week that “Gwen never got over the loss of Stephen and missed him terribly every day.”
On the Dog Mountain website, Stephen Huneck left a legacy with his words:
“As you walk inside the chapel you will be bathed in the light of my stain glass windows. Dog carvings surround you, music plays, all reaffirming the connection between art, nature, and spirituality. I look at this chapel as the largest artwork of my life, and my most personal. It is my desire to make this a place both magical and transforming.
When you visit us, walk the land and enjoy the spectacular views yourself. This is a very private spot. Being on the end of a dead-end road where all land on both sides of the road are part of Dog Mountain. The 400 acre mountain-top farm is rich with wild life and trout filled ponds.
The sculpture garden in front of the chapel is wonderful to exhibit my artwork in such a breathtaking setting. I have created a beautiful light-filled gallery, where of course, dogs are always welcome.
There will always be a good supply of treats on hand, a small gesture to thank dogs for all they give us and for connecting us to nature, something that is getting more difficult in our high tech, paved over world.
Everyone is welcome at Dog Mountain, but it is my hope that dog owners will bring their dogs with them. It is a wonderful experience to go on a walk with your dog through an old forest, you will see how the dog becomes fully alert, your guide and protector. There they have no doubt who is the leader.”
I hope that the peace they lacked on this Earth finds them wherever they are. My heart is broken for those they leave behind and the lives they have affected.
If I find the strength to take that pilgrimage to Dog Mountain, it will be with a heavy heart, but no dogmas, no judgments, and no doubt, plenty of tears and a dog by my side.
Rest in peace, Stephen and Gwen.