Big Furry Rodents

19 April 2017        6.00 PM     51 F  Sunny

Alaska is a great place to live. There are no snakes, no biting creepy crawlies – well excluding the one wee spider that isn’t even supposed to be that bad, no need to check your boots before you put them on in case some sneaky scorpion has decided to have a nap in there, and no need to send an armed patrol into the bathroom to check the toilet for venomous reptiles lying in wait.
We do of course have some natural pests, namely the mosquito. But, as it’s late April and we haven’t actually seen any yet, it’s easy to forget just how fierce they can be.  We are also a little less intimidated by them after a few summers of zapping the area with our Skeeter Vacs – we may not have reduced the overall State population by that much, but we’ve certainly decimated the ones around our kennel – and that’s what’s important !

The other animal hazards tend to be of the big variety. Moose and bear. Happily, we’ve not had many dealings with Yogi and his kin, bar one, a couple of years ago, that took a late evening stroll down the drive, past the front of the house and then ambled off into the trees. Moose however are a very different ball game. For a start, they are either mean or stupid – or stupid and mean. In the winter, they constantly seem to want to play chicken with cars on the Highway. If they’re not doing that, they’re standing in the middle of the dog trail refusing to budge despite a variety of entreaties suggesting that they really should be elsewhere.

This winter, we’ve been delighted to have had pretty decent snowfall. This has made the trails a delight to be on, it has also made life for the moose a bit more difficult than in the past couple of winters where the low snow made it much easier for them to travel and graze on the trees and shrubs they like to eat. With deep snow everywhere, the moose really don’t want to get off the hardpacked groomed trails – they also find it harder to get enough to eat. This makes them even meaner and more ornery. The State Fish & Wildlife Department actually came out early this Spring and said the moose were especially grumpy and that people should be aware that getting between them and wherever they wanted to be was not a good idea. Given the size of them, it’s probably not a good idea at any time !

Moose and willows. Apparently a match made in heaven.

As you may recall, this area was devastated by the Sockeye wild fire in June 2015. A large swathe of the countryside was burnt and has just started to recover. Due to the nature and structure of willows, they are remarkably resilient and had already grown several feet since the fire. Moose like willows.  Moose LOVE young willow shoots that are still succulent and juicy. Moose seem to have realised that we have a lot of said willows on our land. By February, in the depths of winter, we were having a moose or two visit every day to graze on the new growth. Of course, they started on the outer edge of the parcel and slowly worked their way closer to the house and dogyard. Of itself, that doesn’t seem to be so bad, however, it has to be said,  the dogs really don’t like moose. To be fair, the moose aren’t all that impressed by the dogs either – however they seem to have figured out that dogs on tethers, behind a fence are not an issue. the dogs on the other hand are very vocal about their dislike of the situation. What makes this even worse, is that it usually seems to occur at 3 in the morning. There is a particular bark that as soon as you hear it, you know exactly what is going on.
As there are so many mushers in Willow, all going through this same issue, a lot of thought and discussion has gone into ways to mitigate the moose problem. Our friends who live just the other side of the Highway, explain one of the methods they’ve had success with here.  Without spoiling the read, we tried that and had mixed results. maybe I’ve just not got enough crazy in me.

2 moose
Great, let’s invite a friend over.

Our biggest fright came one afternoon, when Ciara, our blind Siberian, could be seen scenting a moose that was wandering about. Ciara, obviously had no idea what this thing was that she could smell, but it was apparent that she didn’t like it and she proceeded to issue some kind of canine/moose challenge – which unhappily the moose accepted.  Ciara weighs about 35 pounds and the moose must have been around 600 pounds – and all that was saving Ciara (or stopping her, in her mind) was a chainlink fence. When moose get mad, their ears flatten, their nostrils flare and they start stomping the ground with their front hooves. As we dashed/floundered through the snow to rescue Ciara, the checklist went, ears – yes flat.  Nostrils, – yes, definitely flaring. Stomping – oh heck yes. If we weren’t so concerned about Ciara ( and the fence), it would have been quite the sight to see this little blind black dog squaring off against something quite so large and mean. Fortunately, once we got a hold of Ciara and dragged her away from the fence and into the safety of the house, the moose gave a few more stomps for good measure before getting back to eating.

at the fence
She really couldn’t be any closer to the fence .

With the onset of Spring, and the snows starting to melt, we have seen a reduction in the numbers of moose visiting – something we are truly grateful for.  And whilst technically, moose are members of the deer family, they are a long way from the lovable Bambi.

ignore it
The girls have all turned their backs to the moose. If we can’t see it, it’s not there !

Happy New Year

11 Feb 2017        6.00 PM     3 F     Clear and sunny

Tradition has it that I post a photograph of our Happy Crew at their gate, taken on New Year’s Day. I can’t quite recall how this particular “tradition” started, and unfortunately, I forgot to take one this year.

In part, that was because the snow level was so poor that it was a little depressing.  This season has been the latest that we had to wait to get on sleds. Our previous latest was Dec 4th, this year, it was Dec 19th. Given that much earlier in the season, we had briefly considered entering a race in McGrath to be held on the 18th, it was perhaps just as well we decided we’d probably not be ready for a 200 mile race in mid-December. (And as it happened, the race was cancelled due to a lack of snow anyway.)  However, since then we’ve been blessed with mucho snowfall – almost too much on occasions, but let’s not be ungrateful, seeing as we spend most of the autumn praying and doing snow dances.  So here is the traditional photo for 2017. For comparison, you can check out previous years’ entries.

Some of the Gealach Mor Happy Crew 2017

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.

Roar for Joar

24 March 2014       2.30 PM      37 F      Sunny

It’s hardly been the winter we had planned for ourselves or our dogs.  In saying that, it’s hardly been a season that could be described as winter for most of us here in Alaska. We’ve been inundated with images and reports from all over the US and Canada about extreme cold and copious amounts of snow. It has served as a stark contrast to the conditions we have been experiencing, where marginal snow and warmer temperatures than normal have combined to make every day living quite easy, but have made running dogs a bit more of a challenge.

In fairness, a fair number of our little pocket of trails survived and saw lots of traffic, with teams seen on them that don’t usually frequent our neck of the woods. As one of the few trail networks that remained usable, it was a rare occasion indeed not to encounter another team on our travels. Quite a number of these teams were in training for this year’s Iditarod, and as the race drew closer, there were many concerns raised about the trail for the actual race and the lack of snow cover over much of Interior Alaska. With a couple of weeks to go to the race, a decision was made by the organisers not to switch the start to Fairbanks, as had been under consideration, but to depart as normal from Willow.

The Ceremonial Start takes place on the first Saturday in March, the teams leaving for a short 12 mile run through the streets and parks of Anchorage, in front of an amazing number of spectators. As crowds are not really my thing, I have always avoided being in Los Anchorage, if I can possibly avoid it, however last year, our friend/neighbour Joar Leifseth Ulsom was running his first ever Iditarod and has asked me to drive the tag sled during his run on the Ceremonial. Joar is part of Racing Beringia and we’ve been fortunate to spend a lot of time in the company of the RB crew. I obviously brought him good luck, as he finished in 7th place and was Rookie of the Year.  This year, he had entered again, and was obviously mindful of the positive impact my presence had on his previous result, so he once again asked me to be on the tag sled. Having survived last year’s run without dumping the sled or falling off, I was reluctant to risk my impeccable record of not trashing anything whilst in the public eye, but Joar insisted that I was the perfect anchor to slow his strong team down…………….  thinking back, that’s perhaps not the compliment I imagined it was at the time.

Downtown Anchorage, Joar, his Iditarider, and me draped in the Norwegian flag.
Downtown Anchorage, Joar, his Iditarider, and me draped in the Norwegian flag.
Joar Me Irod 14
Joar Leifseth Ulsom and Me. He’s the good looking young guy and I’m not.

Those of you who followed the race as they travelled across the Interior and up the coast, will have winced and worried with us as we saw an ever increasing list of scratched, damaged and broken mushers and equipment. This year’s race will live long in the memory and as time passes, more and more stories of the trail will doubtless appear. One of the things that has been indelibly marked on my memory, is the sheer number of mushers who have all said, with remarkable calmness, after the event, that they had never been so scared, ever and that quite a few of them felt sure they were going to die or at the absolute least, be very seriously injured. Some of the videos and images that are out there from this year’s race are extremely frightening and make me thankful that all of the people I count amongst my friends, running this year, all made it home safely.

Of course, I’m delighted to be able to claim some degree of credit for Joar’s wonderful result.  He finished in 4th place and I like to think that my presence made it all possible.  I like to think that, but of course, it is purely down to the amazing efforts of Joar and his wonderful dog team, not just during the race, but in the many months of training leading up to the start, as well as the care and attention he lavishes upon his dogs, all year round.


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.




11 January 2014    3.00 PM      17 F    Overcast

“Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like. – Lao Tzu”

I will confess to having struggled with the acceptance of my fate and circumstances over the last few weeks. One of the main reasons for our move to Alaska, was the desire to run our dogs greater distances and to explore new trails. Generally, we’ve made steady progress each year and I feel that we’re developing a good solid base on our dogs from which we can build and improve.

Things were going well this Autumn/Fall, mileages were up, the dogs were looking good and we even managed to get onto sleds in mid November. And that’s where it started to go in a different direction. In Alaska, we usually get a horrible, warming rainy spell for a few days in January. This year it came early and the trails got a bit treacherous and exceedingly icy. When the trails are like this, my major worry is hurting dogs so we usually take a few days off until conditions improve. It was right around then that Takeo became ill, followed by Junior.  As previously blogged, Junior died after a short but severe illness but happily Takeo continues to amaze, astound and grace us with his presence. He gives very little indication of just how serious his condition is and if it wasn’t for his frequent power naps, you could easily be forgiven for thinking all was well.

All of Takeo's belly fur was shaved by the vet. I'm guessing that must be the furriest dog ever squeezed into a Katahdin dog jacket.
All of Takeo’s belly fur was shaved by the vet. I’m guessing that must be the furriest dog ever squeezed into a Katahdin dog jacket.

Emotionally, I found it impossible to think of running a team and leaving him behind when at any moment, he could pass away. Logically, I was aware that there was nothing I could do that would change that, but knowing it and dealing with it, are two very different things.

It was a difficult period, I wanted to run the dogs but felt that I couldn’t. I felt frustrated but also guilty that I could feel like that. Our aim here is always to take the best care of all our dogs that we possibly can. It took a few days for me to come to an acceptance that contrary to Spock’s statement, the needs of the many do not always outweigh the needs of the few.  The reality is our dogs have a full and happy life, they get free exercise every day and they don’t “need” to go for a sled run. They might enjoy it, they might love going new places and meeting new teams, but they don’t need it.

Of course, my serenity was almost immediately put to the test as no sooner had my wife left Alaska to fly back to Scotland for Christmas, than Seven decided that she would need some vet attention after arguing with a stick, resulting in a large hole in her gum, a swollen face, a drain tube and several stitches – which meant she had to come into the hospital ward, otherwise known as our house. Introducing a new dog to the existing horde that live indoors can be a little daunting. Dogs like Hop and Oak are not always the most welcoming which has created a degree of tension in the past. Fortunately, as they have matured, and possibly (hopefully) as a result of our behavioural training with them, they are much more forgiving now. With Seven safely established, my next drama involved Dawson, who developed an infected sore on his throat, which was weeping and causing a pretty horrible matted mess on his neck. Of course, the freezing temperatures didn’t help this either – so the obvious solution was to bring him inside too. Cue much rumpus and playing around, Dawson is a very boisterous young lad who still needs to work on his manners and learn that just because he can reach things, that doesn’t make them his. Fortunately, I was able to clean up his wound, dry it and get him on the mend and back outdoors before he stole everything that wasn’t nailed down.

As we are fond of saying here – it’s not that hard a life here looking after 50 dogs and living in Alaska, until something goes wrong – and then it’s really hard.

With other minor dramas thrown in, like no power for 4 days, temperature swings from – 35 F to plus 33F and a few snowfalls that required some digging leading to my old man back syndrome rearing it’s ugly head again – I did my best to recall the words of Lao Tzu and let things just flow.

Takeo accompanies me on a walk to investigate our electricity failure. If I zapped myself, I was hoping he would do a "lassie"
Takeo accompanies me on a walk to investigate our electricity failure. If I zapped myself, I was hoping he would do a “lassie”

Now, my wife is back home, Takeo is still wonderful, Seven is fully healed but somehow hasn’t quite been removed from the ranks of the house dogs yet and there are still many weeks of snow for us to get those dogs out on the trails and go exploring.

Loving sisters, Tiree and Tanera always share a box.
Loving sisters, Tiree and Tanera always share a box.

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 !