Looking Back

4 May 2017       3.00PM       59 F    Cloudy

As slowly as it arrived, our sledding season was also slow to depart. We could still run on sleds out of here until early April – without it being truly horrendous as it has been at the tail end of some winters. Our plentiful snow gave us a nice base and the strong winds we had endured for a spell had packed our home trails well.

But now, it’s all gone. The very last snow disappeared this morning from the sheltered, shady spot it had been hiding in and the days are already appreciably longer and warmer. It’s time to start thinking about the list of chores that need done before we can start training dogs again in the Fall. We have trees and shrubs to plant, maybe a spot of vegetable gardening, some new dog houses to build, a few dogs to be spayed and neutered, the list seems to grow daily.

Break up was perhaps not quite as bad as we feared, given how much snow there was to melt. The re-grade of the driveway following the rebuild of the house after the Sockeye Fire definitely helped carry away a lot of the water. A few of the dogs had to endure a number of very splashy days, as despite 5 sump pumps running in their pen, the icy waters continued to rise and gave them plenty of experience of running around in “overflow”. Now, the yard is dry and sandy again and the first holes have already been dug, some several feet deep as the dogs switch from sled dog to pet dog mode for the next few months. The transition period, as they no longer get to go running with the team, can be a bit little crazy. Fit, strong dogs really need to be able to burn off some that energy and ours are always happy to get turned loose every day in the exercise yard and tear about, chasing, wrestling and playing. As the temperatures increase, they tend to spend more time sunbathing than chasing.

northern lights
Northern Lights play over the kennel late at night.

Once again, this winter we didn’t quite manage to get to the targets we had set. We missed making the races we were aimed at, and we also ended up short of the training mileages we had scheduled. On the plus side, we integrated the new dogs we bought in January and we still managed to get out and enjoy a whole lot of the Alaskan countryside behind a dogteam. We had visitors to stay, amazing northern lights to view, deep cold to deal with, and a whole lot of dogs to love, look after and worry about.  We have always said it is the dogs that drive everything we do.

team snow 2016
Lots of snow makes for hard work the dogs. Breaking trail.
team norna
Taking my sister out with a team in January 2017

As we look back at another season, we have made more memories that we will cherish for ever, and we have made plans to make even more. Of course, nothing is guaranteed and we are painfully aware of that, but suffice to say, we’re looking forward to the seasons to come and being blessed to have the dogs that we do.

In years past, and as recently as last year, we debated having a handler to help with the kennel chores and to assist with the running of the dogs. In the end, our usual reluctance won the day and we didn’t actually make any attempt to find anyone. There were quite a few times this winter, as I shoveled snow from gates and doghouses that I would have happily revisited that decision. I sometimes wonder if the fact that we only think about looking for a handler at some point in the summer, means we have forgotten just how much my back hurts from digging snow and how much work is involved in caring for all the dogs when it is cold, snowy and dark. So, this marks a departure from our usual deliberations. We have “decided” that we will actively look for a handler for next winter. To be fair, having decided to look is still quite a distance from actually looking, but it is a start.  I guess the next step will be to write an advert. I wonder how long I can put that off.

Silver Linings

10 May 2015    1.00PM       62 F   Cloudy

It’s May already.  The last of our snow has just gone, it was clinging on stubbornly in a few sheltered spots out in the trees, but otherwise we have transitioned from winter, through break up into Spring.

The Serum Run trip I was supposed to be on, was this year’s cunning plan to avoid having to deal with break up. With my damaged knee being the reason for missing out on the trip, I was able to safely skip the worst of the mud and water due to being housebound because of that injury. Silver linings and all that !

Normally, I would have felt terrible at the prospect of my wife having to deal with all of the dogs and the thaw on her ownsome. But this year I didn’t feel so bad.  Not because I’m a horrible person but because she actually had help.  Her brother and his girlfriend had already arranged to fly over from the UK and spend the 4 weeks I was supposed to be away, with her here in Willow. Robert’s a very handy guy to know, not only is he a qualified general contractor, but he’s also real problem solver and hates sitting about doing nothing. So, he got stuck into the daily dogcare routine, and he also tackled my ever growing list of projects that I dream up and never quite get round to starting, never mind completing.

First, he had to find all the sump pumps and hoses that got put away somewhere safe last Spring and haven’t been seen since. Then it was a game to work out which ones still worked and which ones should have been thrown away. Next step is unravel the spaghetti tangle of the multiple hoses that somehow managed to have melded into one giant knot. Honest, I very carefully laid them out individually when I finished with them last year. Maybe. Oh, and I might have forgotten to mention to him that one or two of the hoses had been squished and had greatly reduced flow through the pinch point – which greatly irritates me and leads me to throwing them in jumbled pile in the corner- or cutting them up to make bucket handles. And then the fun task of placing the pumps in a good spot to get lots of water, but not where they, the hoses or the power cords can be reached by any of the dogs.  It usually involves moving dogs around, and then taking all the equipment out of the pen each afternoon when the dogs get their free run time. I’m assuming all went well, I haven’t seen any chewed stuff and I never heard too many complaints, other than how wet and muddy it was.

After wrestling with that task, I’m sure Robert was happier when he got the chance to turn his attention to actually building stuff. In his time here, he built 12 dogs houses, 7 decks, a dog apartment complex and best of all, he renovated our “dog room”.

The dog room is in our workshop and was intended to be an unheated indoor space for our original dogs to continue their loose living habits that they were used to when we lived in the UK. Those dogs were very well behaved and the dog room survived untouched for the first couple of years.  However, the inclusion of some of our younger American bought dogs soon changed that. Ciara was definitely the main culprit – well, at least she was the one that I continually caught, eating the walls ! It’s a pretty fair bet that she wasn’t alone in the practice – some of the holes were way out of her reach – so it would appear that she had accomplices, much taller accomplices, in the vandalism.  I had the thought to redo the walls with GRP panels. Enquiries at various hardware stores merely resulted in puzzled looks – apparently the stuff I was looking for is actually FRP  – oh so close, just the one letter out. Even with the proper name, I wasn’t able to track down a supply locally – and by locally, I mean within 50 miles.  However, I knew a neighbour had used the stuff in his own dog barn so I asked him where he got his from. Turned out he had lots of panels left over and we worked out a very reasonable trade and Robert was now able to complete the transformation, from badly abused space to super clean, functional dog room again.

Entire lower half of the room is clad in FRP, same for the doggie apartment complex.  Tough and easy to clean.
Entire lower half of the room is clad in FRP, same for the doggie apartment complex. Tough and easy to clean.
Yuri inspecting the second batch of new dog houses.They all passed the sniff test and most of them were christened by him.


The new decks getting put in place. Zury and Jak seem to have got the idea.
The new decks getting put in place. Boof, Zury and Jak seem to have got the idea.

Silver Linings

21 May 2014       6.00 PM       65 F       Cloudy

Regular readers will have been poised on the edge of their seats awaiting the “Spring Break Up” edition. Occasional readers will be much more of the “meh” , he’s going to whine about break up again. And any new readers who have happened to stumble upon this are doubtless wondering what the heck I’m babbling about.

In the interests of clarity, break up is the period of time between a lovely, happy, cold, snowy winter and the endless weeks of daylight, sunshine,  fire risk and mosquitoes. It refers to the time where daily life is judged by how many times you fall through the rapidly melting snow crust into a pool of frigid water, or find yourself up to your knees in the stickiest, gloopiest mud known to mankind. It’s not much fun for us humans, and I suspect that most the dogs don’t enjoy it greatly either.

6 boys 2014
Snow, mud, water and holes.

We are quite fortunate here in that our dogyard has been well designed, has been graded to a gentle slope and is predominately sand. These factors all help move the water that a winter’s worth of melting snow generates. However, it’s never quite as simple or easy as that, and some of the areas are a bit more of a challenge. The natural mess is often further complicated by some of the dogs’ predilection for creating a lunar landscape everywhere they can. We try to fill the worst of these holes (or caves in some cases) before the ground freezes and the snows fly, but sometimes they get dug back out as quick, if not quicker, than they are being filled in.  This usually means that the guilty parties have swimming holes during break up . This is also a good time to remember where that hole actually is before finding it feet first.

Those of you who experienced this year’s winter in Alaska, or followed the Iditarod will be aware that we actually had a very mild winter and fairly low (or none depending on where you looked) snow fall. We also had our usual January thaw which managed to make quite a dent in the snow levels at that time. So, by the time Spring arrived, we were quietly hopeful of surviving break up without tears or tantrums. And so, it proved to be.  There were a couple of weeks where we had sump pumps running to move the water from the girls’ pen, but generally it went by quickly and without too much fuss. We had lovely warm sunny days and crisp, cold nights – the perfect combination.

And now, we have had weeks of sunshine, the ground is completely dry and the dogs are back to digging holes and playing in the sand.  So, I could either moan about how poor our winter was, or be happy that break up was a bit of anti-climax and definitely over far quicker than in previous years. As I said, silver linings and all that.

It’s May, You Say

2 May 2014      6.00  PM     70 F   Blue skies and sunny

Normally the first post following the “end ” of winter is set aside for me whining about break up and mud and water. And I fully reserve the right to go back in time and wallow in said mud and water (not literally of course, because I’ve already been doing that and quite frankly………….  ooops, got a bit carried away there)

Anyway, I just wanted to share this photograph and my outrage at what it displays.

Yes, it really says the temperature is 70 F
Yes, it really says the temperature is 70 F
2 may snow
Temperature gauge, Hop and snowbank in 70 F weather

Aided by my able assistant, Hop who was equally incredulous about the reading) so much so that I managed to get her to stand there and lean the gauge against her nose. What a well trained dog ! The yard dogs are not quite so impressed with the sudden and unexpected heat. Apparently this is 10 – 15 degrees warmer than normal and it certainly feels almost tropical to us and the dogs, seeing as we are not quite fully out of winter mode yet. Just to reinforce that point, the gauge is actually sitting on a snowbank in the back garden. The dogs have barely made the transition from their snow packed circles to dry sand again – and usually, they get to spend some time just digging for fun before the height of summer hits. The last couple of warm days have seen some of them start the excavations for their summer tunnels – which has caused a couple of issues for one or two of them as the surface sand is dry, but get down a foot or two, and there’s still a lot of water bubbling back up.  I guess it’s going to be a busy time for me too as I still have to groom the undercoats out of most of the dogs. The birds are already flying around the yard and swooping down to collect the wool for their nests. It seems I’m going to get a tan whilst doing that this year.

Winter in Alaska

26 January 2014     3.00  PM    36 F      Cloudy

Cold and covered snow. That’s usually what most people say when asked what Alaska is like in the winter. And generally, that would be a fairly reasonable assumption or guess. However, if that is your guess too, then I’m afraid that one  would be failing to take into account the infamous “Pineapple Express” and it’s traditional visit to Alaska at some point in January.

A weather pattern seems to settle over large parts of the State, which sucks in warm, wet air carried along by the temperate winds from Hawaii, bringing the average temperature far above it’s winter normal. The effect seems to have been magnified for us here in Alaska and the Yukon this year, because of the Polar Vortex that has been making it’s presence felt so dramatically in the Lower 48. Every day we seem to be getting news reports of regions in unexpected places recording temperatures lower than we are experiencing. 37 F in Fort Myers, Florida was colder than the 39 F we saw in Anchorage.

As you have come to expect, it is now time for my moaning and groaning about how dreadful it is, how this isn’t why we moved here, and what an impact it’s having on our training and the dogs.  Consider yourself moaned at !

That pile of snow should be on our roof, not concealing the body of an unfortunate delivery driver
That pile of snow should be on our roof, not concealing the body of an unfortunate delivery driver – if only he hadn’t slipped and drowned in that pool of icy water.
One large section of snow is hanging on, waiting for a passing stranger to sneeze at the wrong moment.  Mild temperature, as evinced by the open back door.
One large section of snow is hanging on, waiting for a passerby to sneeze at the wrong moment. Mild temperature, as evinced by the open back door and the collection of idle snow shovels.

We have had quite a pleasant winter so far, good snow fall, and the trails have all been good shape, thanks in great part to the many volunteers that devote their time and efforts to groom, build snow bridges and carry out trail maintenance. Of course, the warm wet weather has been playing havoc with that. The snow that fell in the early winter came mostly in large, concentrated dumps. It was very pretty and encased the landscape and trees in a delightful white blanket. Enter some warmth and wetness, that lovely fluffy snow absorbs a lot of the moisture and becomes increasingly heavy. Where it lies on nice solid stuff, like the ground, all is well. That’s not so true when things like trees and powerlines are involved. Large areas of the Matanuska Valley have been suffering from prolonged power cuts due to the sheer weight of ice and snow bringing down the power cables by themselves or by colluding with the trees.  The trees have gone from being vertical – as trees should be – to either bending over until they lean on something that will support them or just giving up completely and breaking. I should hasten to add this is not true of every tree in Alaska – it only seemed to be true of every tree that neighboured a winter trail. My Facebook feed was full of photographs of mushers wielding axes, bow saws and dull butter knives while their teams waited patiently for the trail to be reopened.

Health & Safety man has heart attack.  Chainsaw, check, safety chaps, check.  carrying running chainsaw above your head, check.
Health & Safety man has heart attack. Chainsaw, check, safety chaps, check. Carrying running chainsaw above your head, check.

Recently, someone bribed a group of us with the promise of cookies if we went out and smashed through some of the snowdrifts and opened up a couple of the well used connector trails. The snow drifts were fun and I only rolled the machine once – and it wasn’t even a proper roll, my passenger barely screamed.  However, the trail opening was a different story. We split into two groups and agreed to attack the problem from either end, meeting on Tank Trail when we were done. 4 hours later, our other group phoned to say they were finished, (literally and physically) and where were we ?  Good question.  We were somewhere on Sweet Cream, having run 2 chainsaws dry of fuel and were now reduced to trying to hack our way through the gazillions of fallen trees blocking the trail with an old bowsaw that had seen better days, a hatchet, a small folding saw and a pair of branch loppers. Add in the fact that it was getting dark (of course none of us had thought we’d be out there long enough to need to bring a headlamp), we were hungry  (cookies long since run out) and thirsty (only one of us had brought anything to drink……… smug, me……..  surely not), we were alternatively hot and sweaty, then cold and wet, we were tired and most remarkably of all, we were still having a good time.  Mushers are strange people.

Just as a footnote,  yesterday the high temperature of the day here was 37 F.  On that day last year, we saw a temperature of -36 F.  Somewhere in between those two extremes would be lovely.



Just Because

8 June 2013     2.30 PM        69 F       Sunny

My last entry reminded me that I had failed in my duty to whine extensively about how dreadful break up had been this Spring. And you know how much I hate to disappoint, so here goes.

Some of you will doubtless be saying – oh how dull and predictable – but I prefer to think of it as solid, reliable and reassuring. Yes, break up was awful. The end.

Exclusive resort, detached bungalows complete with en-suite swimming pool
Exclusive resort, detached bungalows complete with en-suite swimming pool

Actually, looking back on it, it wasn’t as truly bad as it has been in previous years. We certainly had less snow – and we even still had a little of it left in sheltered corners at the end of May. So there wasn’t quite the same volume of water to be moved. However, lest you think it was all sweetness and light, I have to take this opportunity to correct that very false impression.

I think it would be safe to say that there is no such thing as a “normal” winter in Alaska. Nothing seems guaranteed except for an unpleasant Chinook driven thaw at some inconvenient point in January. True to form, this year we had an early, harsh , deep cold start to winter. November brought temperatures colder than anything we saw the rest of winter and the snow was late to arrive and initially rather scarce. Fortunately, plenty more did eventually fall and we enjoyed many wonderful days dog sledding in the very pleasant days of January and February – not a phrase you’ll hear used very often to describe those months.

The concern for Spring time with this weather pattern is the fear that those early deep frosts, without an insulating blanket of snow, got deep into the ground and that would mean that once the snow started melting, it would be unable to percolate downwards as much as we would like. Thoughts of raging torrents of meltwater cascading everywhere in the search of somewhere to disperse are always a concern, for water truly is an amazingly destructive force.

Fortunately, days of bright Spring sunshine and nights of freezing temperatures meant we were almost able to keep up with the daily melt, at least initially. And I have also finally figured out that actually pumping the water away before it is deep enough to paddle a canoe in, is a good thing. This year, I was more organised and had 4 pumps running in different spots and that made a huge difference. I did feel a little sorry for our friends and neighbours whose yard is right next to ours, but ever so slightly downhill – so they get a lot of our run-off …………  let’s just say they could have done with that canoe to get into their dogs each day for a while.  I know they were running 2 sump pumps each with a 20 gpm capacity, 24 hours a day, for nearly 2 weeks and they still had a knee deep lake at their gate.

By contrast, we seemed to go from snow cover, via a few days of punching through an icy crust, to a couple of days of swamp and then, voila – dry sand started appearing. The 6 Dog Pen is always the first to be worst – but equally it is also the first to give us hope that break up is not forever. Overall, the kennel fared pretty well this Spring, with the notable exception of The Girls’ Pen.

Ruby is not a water dog.
Ruby is not a water dog.

It suffers from being a late afterthought – most of the heavy construction machinery had left our place and we weren’t able to completely break up the clay layer and mix it with sand. This means the water really doesn’t drain away from that pen as you can see from the photos and it was still a pretty nasty mud hole long after everywhere else was back to looking like a beach.

The puppies really didn’t seem to care what the conditions were like during their walks and play times. They splashed through little rivers, swam across across puddles as deep as they were, rolled in the last of the snow and enjoyed digging in the newly appeared moss and mud.

Just exploring and playing
Just exploring and playing

So, break up remains my least favourite time of year in Alaska. By quite a large margin !


28 May 2013     5.00 PM       80.6 F   Sunny  (ya reckon)

This afternoon, Federal Authorities finally gave the stand down order to all military and emergency service personnel. These poor souls have been on a high state of readiness to deal with a severe, unexpected emergency ever since Monday afternoon.

It had been reported that a searing bright light and intense heat had burst onto sensors in Alaska. Rumours that N Korea’s missile had found enough of a tail wind to actually make landfall abounded along with other theories such as alien invasion, volcanoes or an explosion at the Yeti factory.

The truth is much more mundane.  The sun has finally come out and has done so with a vengeance.  It’s hard to believe that on the 18th May we had a couple of inches of fresh snowfall, to go with all our break up melt water – and now, only 10 days later, we’re baking in 80 degree sunshine and the dogs are all digging holes in the sand to find shelter and coolness.

And the searing bright light ?

Peely wally
Peely wally

It’s the first time these legs have seen the outside since we arrived in Alaska nearly 4 years ago !