Goodness From The Land

It has been hot, hot and hot here in the Interior of Alaska, with temps in the 90s. I reach my heat tolerance limit at about 70 so the heat and humidity has been pretty miserable. It reminds me of the sweaty summers of my childhood. Prior to the heat it was in the 60s and raining – hard – which creates boot sucking mud in the dog yard. Oh Mother Nature, could we please just have sunny days with temps about 70 degrees? A day of rain here or there to keep the summer fires away. Perfect.

This afternoon was partly cloudy and the blueberries were calling me. They are ready early this year and I have my sights set on homemade blueberry jam and freezing some of those berries for a taste of summer when it’s 40 below. The raspberries have also ripened at the same time. Oh the bounty!!

Blueberries just waiting for me to pick them.

Blueberries just waiting for me to pick them.

Raspberries right at the back of the house.

Raspberries right at the back of the house.

Bella, Sasha and I set out down the lane way next door to pick blueberries. It was a perfect afternoon – warm, breezy and few mosquitoes. Sasha and Bella romped around in the swamp just behind the blueberry bushes. The swamp I diligently tried to avoid. The swamp I fell into.

Picking berries is good for the belly and for the soul. You become aware of the sweet smell of the plant, the buzzing of various insects, the aroma of the damp earth in the wetlands and suddenly you aren’t thinking about much else.

Sasha, aka Pumpkin, decided on an impromptu run after our friend John when he drove by with his truck, heading to his dog yard. She has selective hearing where following John is concerned. I wasn’t worried – I knew he would tie her up while he was down at his place and then bring her back my way. Bella ignored the temptation to follow and was instead content with picking her own berries.

Bella learned very quickly how to pick her own blueberries.

Bella learned very quickly how to pick her own blueberries.

We are still getting used to each other and she is so sweet and a constant shadow, but sometimes I get the feeling she wonders what weird thing we could possibly do next. This is the look that makes me think that.

DSC01081

In addition to the wild bounty, the garden is thriving. I know I have said it before, but I am always amazed that, against all genetic odds, I somehow manage to grow things. Like corn! I may only get 2 cobs but I am growing corn!

This one is my favorite. It has character and needs a name.

This one is my favorite. It has character and needs a name.

My potatoes have taken off. This is an earlier shot. The pots have already been completely filled with dirt and now cages have been made with a straw lining and more dirt added. We may have plenty of spuds this harvest!

Tater goodness!

Tater goodness!

My experiment in growing a variety of hot peppers seems to be succeeding as well. The late peppers are starting to grow. How is this even possible?

The beginning of a Beaver Dam pepper.

The beginning of a Beaver Dam pepper.

Soon there will be a flurry of canning and drying and all sorts of goodness. The land gives us just about everything we need. So grateful!

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

She Will Always Dig Me Up

This is Bella, my new puppy and service dog in training. She is a 9 1/2 week old, Lab and totally awesome! The breeder, Jeana, did such a fabulous job preparing her for her trip from Oklahoma to Alaska.

DSC01024

As you know, we have sled dogs – Alaskan Huskies and Malamutes. I’ve been a musher for almost 30 years and have loved and been loved by many dogs. The majority have been born in the kennel and drew their last breaths here too. And of course there has been the occasional rescue and it’s been a joy to watch these frightened, abused creatures find their home here and a place on the team.

And then there was Caleb. I found him in a fish tank at a flea market. Yup, a fish tank. The lady selling him was sketchy and I couldn’t bear to see that sweet pup go back to wherever he had been born and so I went home that day with a puppy, when I had gone there for vegetables. He was that one-of-a-kind dog and my shadow for 10 years. He’s been gone 8 years, 6 months and 5 days. Even writing this paragraph hurts my heart. I believed there would never be another dog that could steal my heart and soul so completely, but now I am beginning to wonder.

Bella is her own girl. She is not a Caleb replacement but I think he may have had a paw in choosing her for me. Bella is very laid back and we have bonded quickly. My first indicator was her insistence on sitting on my head while I was on the couch. That isn’t going to work for long I don’t think. She follows me everywhere and sleeps on my feet. She is quick to learn and to please. Bella is also sassy and demanding. Water dish empty? Just toss it up in the air and let it clang on the floor. Hungry? Stare intently at human and bark in a tone that hurts the ears.

We finally had a break in our miserable, rainy weather and Bella “helped” me to do some gardening. Today’s mission was to transplant my ridiculous number of hot pepper plants into larger containers. Bella and I turned into a Laurel and Hardy skit. I lined up a few pots and filled one, gently patting down the dirt before moving on to the next one. When I got to the end I stood up, stretched out my back, turned around to view my work with satisfaction only to be met by adoring eyes and filthy paws. Bella had dug up the dirt from each pot. Yup that’s my helper!

Almost all of my pepper plants were transplanted, even with Bella’s help. Here’s the pepper greenhouse:

DSC01054

And this:

DSC01053

Forty=three hot pepper plants. Yup, 43. Also some basil, potatoes and corn. That doesn’t include the 10 large pepper plants in the house that will have their own little greenhouse tomorrow. It also doesn’t include the tray of plants I have for my friend Becky.

Hi, my name is Peg and I need an intervention.

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

The Evolution of a Garden

I love dirt. The feel of it as I plunge my hands into rich soil. The smell of it after a summer rain. The sight of it covered by vegetables and herbs tapping into its nutrients. I have a connection with dirt that is deeper than what can be found under my nails, or ground into the callouses on my hands. The instant that I am working with dirt something otherworldly, spiritual if you will, begins to happen. It’s like I grow roots and I am grounded.

I suppose that does make sense because what is dirt but the remnants of all living things that have gone before? Ashes to ashes and dust to dust and all that. Working with dirt is like having the Ancestors talk to you.

DSC01016

When I was a child we lived close to one of the most fertile lands in Canada, called the Holland Marsh. My dad used to load my sister, mom and I in the car and just go for a drive on the rambling country roads in that area. The fields are irrigated by a series of canals and the soil is so rich it is black. My dad convinced me that “sharpie fishes”, aka sharks, lived in the canals and my mom would scold him and say, “Mac, don’t tell her that!” I am pretty sure that, to this day, I still believe there are sharpie fishes in that dark water.

In high school I was friends with one girl whose family farmed part of the Marsh. There were two types of people there – Dutch and Italian. She descended from the former. Her dad was stern and chose to hardly speak English but he always had a twinkle in his eye. Her mom had an easy laugh, an apron covered in flour and a hug that left me breathless. Being a town kid, I marveled at how dinner came from the ground and the coop, straight to the table.

I grew up in a tiny neighborhood of a small historic town. Marg, a woman who lived across the street, had a wonderful backyard garden that she puttered around in. I can still taste those tomatoes 20 years later. Our next door neighbor, Mr. Hope, converted his entire generous backyard lot into a tiny version of the farm he once owned. He was persnickety and a pain, but also generous and treated us to a variety of vegetables. Corn never tasted so good. Mrs. Bell, whose own lot backed onto his, loved to grow lilacs and other flowers. Their smell was intoxicating. She and Mr. Hope were usually at war over the property line and one day the air was blue when she discovered he had hacked a good part of a lilac bush that had overhung their mutual fence. I had no idea an old lady could cuss like that.

Four years ago I made the decision to have a garden. Now, the Billingsley family and its members by blood or marriage, are known for a few things, most of them infamous, but they are not known for possessing green thumbs. Undeterred I pressed forward and with Darrel’s assistance, an 8 X 8 ft raised bed was built. Our property is located in the Tanana Valley, home to the land of silt on permafrost. Even in the middle of the summer frozen ground can be located less than two feet down. Most excellent for black spruce, swamps and mosquitoes, but not for gardens.

IMG_4610

We had to haul in two loads of garden soil which was the first time in my life I have paid for dirt. I was like a pig in, ahem, dirt when the soil arrived. Darrel, not so much – “We are buying dirt?”

I carefully planned out the map and planted my seeds. And waited. And waited. And waited. I learned that waiting for vegetables to grow is sort of like watching water boil. It rarely happens when you are looking. Sure enough though, seedlings emerged and things, including weeds, actually began to grow. I don’t think I will ever tire of the marvel. I make a small hole in the dirt, or a shallow trough, drop a seed, keep the dirt moist and something good grows.

DSC00570

Gardening here has not been without its challenges. Moose like vegetables. Mine is a low budget kind of operation and electric fence was out of the question. No problem. With a little ingenuity I put four corner poles in and strung four strands of carpenter string around the garden. Then I tied short pieces of flagging tape on the string which flapped around. Thankfully my neighbors are richer than us and have actual electric fences that local moose have had encounters with. And thankfully moose aren’t very bright and assumed my McGyvered fence was the real thing.

IMG_4303

Rabbits, or more accurately snowshoe hares, also like vegetables. Peas and beans in particular. Last year my trellised peas and beans looked so healthy. I was so excited to see the blossoms and then the start of the veggies. Darrel has become very accustomed to me coming into the house and being over the moon about something vegetable related. Then came the evening I stomped into the house declaring war on rabbits.

My vision is pretty challenging and has been for a couple of years. I have severe double vision which is turning into quadruple vision. The result is that I miss a lot of things like, oh, the bloody rabbit had eaten my peas and beans. I think he knows I can’t see well because he started the buffet about four inches above the ground, right where the bottom of the dark trellising started and then ate as high as he could reach. I don’t know how long it was like that but long enough for me to see, on a hands and knees inspection, that he had taken a number of rabbit dumps while enjoying his dinner.

Aphids like gardens too. Last year was bad but I discovered the miracle of soapy water sprays. I tried introducing ladybugs into the garden but that doesn’t work well in the land of the midnight sun. The idea is to release them just before dark so that your garden is their home. Ladybugs come in packages about the size of a small lunch sack and there are approximately 1,500 of the aphid killers in each package. I have tried the ladybug thing twice with the result being I have set 3,000 ladybugs free to roam Alaska. My neighbor was so excited one day because she said she had ladybugs in her garden. I just gritted my teeth.

DSC01028

Weather is another opponent. Our summers are becoming as unpredictable as our winters. One summer it was so hot and dry we were on standby evacuation because of fires. The next summer was so rainy and wet we had ducks in the low spot of our yard. Last year I had somehow managed to successfully start cucumbers – I am a cucumber killer – and had carefully hardened them off. I checked the weather and sunshine and warmth was predicted. I lovingly transplanted my baby cukes and then it happened. In one instant the sky blackened like it was the end of times and the heavens opened up with wind, rain and hail.

This year I have two greenhouses. Well greenhouse might be a bit too formal for what I have. Getting back to the lack of money theme, Darrel and I were able to get creative and use mostly what we found or already have here. There is now a hoop house over the raised bed made of 2 x2’s. PVC pipe, plastic sheeting, zip ties and used dog snaps.

My expansion this year is hot peppers and apparently I have an addiction. I have a ridiculous number of hot pepper plants – jalapeno, beaver dam, serrano, scotch bonnet, padron, anaheim, hungarian hot wax, tobasco, habanero, ancho, cayenne, serrano and probably a couple I forgot. Peppers need heat, more than we are definitely getting this summer of rain and chill. So, the unused 6×6 kennel has been turned into a pepper greenhouse with plastic sheeting, zip ties and baling wire. Ugly but functional. There is a lesson in that to be sure.

019

I love this dirt. It grows the vegetables I will get to can in the fall. It is a place of peace when the storm of my health threatens to drown me. This dirt grows good things.

DSC00639

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

The Song of Your Heart

I am not entirely sure where I heard this phrase, but it struck a chord and has stayed with me for years. We all have a song in our heart; it’s the thing that drives us and renews us. Since I was just a young child the song of my heart has been the land.

At first it was just lying in the grass on a warm summer’s day, watching puffy clouds and listening to the buzz of the various insects. Some days I would be found, fast asleep in the middle of the park just steps from my front porch – the rest of the innocent. As I grew older I explored the woods near my home; sometimes alone and sometimes with friends. I loved it in there! Forts. Hide and seek. Digging clay out of the creek. Little campfires and lunch (sorry mom, I did have the matches!). Solitude.

My first “alone” to the real wilderness was as a sophomore in high school. Five friends, Leasa, Chris, Roger and Derek and, on what was supposed to be a weekend canoe adventure in Algonquin Park. There was a ton of adventure but not a whole weekend. Gear and teenagers were packed into every available space of Leasa’s Mercury LTD and we were off on the 2 hour drive to the launching point where rented canoes awaited. Our trip started innocently enough but as the day wore on; as the temperature rose; and as hunger increased; the first hints of discord became evident.

Those were the days when campsites weren’t reserved and as we studied the map and agreed on what appeared to be a good site, we were disappointed to find other campers had beat us there. In the spirit of naive Voyageurs we carried on – and passed camp site after camp site. Some were empty and mutiny began with us girls; who possessed the sound judgement of just stopping because the light was fading; being overruled by the boys who insisted the best site in the world was just ahead. (LOL…..Chris and Derek, who are friends on here may have a different version but this is MY blog!).

We finally landed at a nice and empty (key word!) spot and tense muscles relaxed as camp was set up. I remember the night being so clear and beautiful and Leasa came up with the idea of skinny dipping – girls only. As we floated in that wonderful cold water the sudden cry of “bear!!!” split the silence. Sure enough there was the black bear…in our camp….heading straight for the backpack of food that had been diligently hung between trees. The boys jumped in the canoe, sans paddles, and pushed off shore, gliding towards us.

We watched by flashlight as that bear made several attempts at the food pack, finally tearing it off the metal frame. He scampered into the woods with it and we all headed to shore. It was a long sleepless night as that bear hung around the edges of camp all night. The wondrous silence of an Algonquin night was shattered with us banging whatever was at hand and yelling at the bear whenever he would reappear.

At first light we followed his trail through the bush, picking up bits and pieces of food containers. The only thing he left us was a bag of carrots! I really don’t like carrots. Bone weary we headed back to the boat launch – paddling all day on almost empty stomachs, except for carrots and a little bit of food we scrounged from another camp site.

That adventure only served to fan the flames of my love, my heart song, my need to be on the land. There have been some spectacular expeditions – almost all not involving a raiding bear. I’ve hiked and paddled most of Algonquin Park. How do I adequately describe the thrill of floating in a canoe on water so flat it’s like ice, with fireflies dancing all around and the heavens filled with stars? Is it possible for you to see through my mind’s eye that crisp fall morning, when I was sitting on the shore of a small pond, fog rising from the water, when suddenly a moose strolls to the water’s edge for a drink?

I’ve laid in my sleeping bag, tucked in my dog sled and watched a sunrise so beautiful it took my breath away. I’ve walked through the jumbled sea ice of the Arctic Ocean – the air so cold it burned my face. I have heard the beautiful language of hundreds of roosting ravens raising their young. And once I listened to a polar bear tear apart the pantry of a kitchen I worked in; wondering if, once he was done, would he breach the “bear proof” door I was standing behind.

I’ve sat in the ancient camp sites of the Thule people – now long gone – and heard the murmur of their daily lives. I’ve driven a dog team and rounded a corner one fine spring afternoon, surprising a lynx sunning himself on the trail.

So many more adventures – too many to recount in this post. All however became part of my song. We need people or other living things to sometimes sing our heart song when we’ve lost our way.

For many, many years – decades actually – there have been the sled dogs and one very special, neurotic Border Collie cross, who would sing that song for me. When I would lose my way as I sometimes do, they were always there to remind me of who I am and they were always up for the next adventure! Losing them has always been one of the hardest parts of the journey on this side of the veil. There was always a selfish part of me that would wonder who would sing the song of my heart, while at the same time I would be reminding them of all our grand adventures together and giving them my all, as they had given me theirs, until their last breath.

Tonight on the other side of the continent, one of my dearest friends is struggling with her heart song as she and her children surround their beloved dog in love. Gabs, as she is endearingly called, has tumors – a lot of tumors – and she is being loved on by her humans until she takes her leave. Gabs was horribly abused during the first part of her life and my friend Lisa, rescued her. Then the tables were turned and this beautiful canine rescued Lisa and her kids.

My dear friend has been sick and battles a debilitating and painful illness. This dog has made her laugh when there wasn’t a lot to laugh about. Gabs has heard a lot of heartache whispered into her big ears. She has known when to just be there when it was needed. It is a bittersweet and wondrous thing to have this kind of time with your loyal dog.

Having a creature you love so dearly run ahead to where you can’t follow yet is a painful thing. And yet to be able to love them until the end and whisper “until we meet again” is a pretty comforting thing – for all involved. We should all be so lucky.

So my dear Lisa (and Eilish and Kier), keep on singing the songs of your hearts and of the heart of that beautiful dog. And when it’s time for her to leave, understand that she really isn’t gone. She will be there when you need her. Trust me.

1390755_758878944142890_7098406768263740399_n

Gabs….love wrapped in fur.

 

 

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Trail Mysteries

Today was a beautiful spring day and I was in serious need of some trail time. I figured that Polar, Wooley, Sasha and I would go down the trail and see if the access gate to one loop has been closed yet. The farmer who owns the field typically plows the lane right down to dirt this time of year and closes his gate. I decided to take a quick loop first through Woody’s property to see if mama moose was hanging out – last time I saw her she was heavy with a calf and I wanted to make sure snowmachiners weren’t hassling her.

I parked the ATV in the sun to let the dogs romp around and all three made a bee line for a particular spot and the arguing began. Here’s the field:

Woody's field...where peonies will grow this summer.

Woody’s field…where peonies will grow this summer.

Now there is no water near here, unless you count the puddles. No streams. No lakes. No rivers. The closest waterway is a good mile away. So then can somebody explain this?:

Do you see it?

Do you see it?

Maybe this is a better picture:

Yup, that's a salmon.

Yup, that’s a salmon.

Yup….a salmon. In a peony field.

I decided to take the fish home before going anywhere else because I was pretty sure I was going to run over one of the dogs who were making valiant attempts at jumping on the front of a moving four-wheeler. One the way back we ran into Dave and Karluk. Wooley and Polar think every dog loves them. Karluk thinks the opposite. We passed by with no problem but I decided to scrap my original plan and take another loop – one I hadn’t been on at all this winter.

This pretty piece of trail passes through some swampy grasslands (still frozen) and then into a thick stand of spruce and birch. After a couple of miles there is a 4-way “intersection.” And what does one find at a wilderness intersection? This:

A Christmas tree!!

A Christmas tree!!

The first time we saw this tree decorated with ornaments, it was getting dark and Darrel and I were running two dog teams. I thought I was seeing things because back then there were also battery operated lights on that tree! I have had more than one occasion to give directions to a musher or snowmachiner about how to navigate this trail and I love the dubious looks I get when I tell folks to take a left at the Christmas tree. I don’t know who does this but that tree has been decorated for a least the past 10 years.

The sun was just right so I took a couple extra pics.

Bush selfie

Bush selfie

And in case you missed the first one!

And in case you missed the first one!

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

The greatest mystery

One of the greatest mysteries of life is not the pyramids. Or crop circles. Or UFO’s. Nope, THE unanswered question is how the dogs know what I am going to do even before I do. This afternoon while I was eating lunch, I thought I would take a few of the dogs for a free run with the ATV. The morning had started badly with symptoms from a medical issue I am dealing with, but after several hours rest I was feeling better and wanted some fresh air. No sooner had I finished the thought, when the dogs, who up to this point had been napping, started to pace. And pace. And pace.

I finished lunch, checked email and read a chapter in a new mystery book. The dogs finally settled down until I made the decision to get my outdoor gear on and you guessed it, instantly the pacing began. How did they know? My parka is on a hook in the bathroom so I could have been needing to pee. Somehow they knew.

It happens all the time. I can be sitting at the kitchen table making a list of which dogs are going to be run that day and the entire dogyard suddenly starts going crazy. Darrel says that about 5 minutes before I get home. which isn’t the same time every day, Polar and Wooley start looking out the window.

Amazing creatures these dogs! Anyway, here are some pictures from today.

The warm temps and a little freezing rain over Christmas have made the trees heavy.

The warm temps and a little freezing rain over Christmas have made the trees heavy.

There was a moose just ahead of us. The eat the ends of the willows.

There was a moose just ahead of us. They eat the ends of the willows.

One of my favorite parts of the trail. After winding through spruce forest it opens into this field where moose often hang out.

One of my favorite parts of the trail. After winding through spruce forest it opens into this field where moose often hang out.

Another photo of the field looking the other way.

Another photo of the field looking the other way.

A fog had started to settle on the trail.

A fog had started to settle on the trail.

Sasha is our wannabe sled dog. A rescue from the streets of Anchorage, she is bossy and strong-willed and has captured our hearts.

Sasha is our wannabe sled dog. A rescue from the streets of Anchorage, she is bossy and strong-willed and has captured our hearts.

A view of the Little Chena River.

A view of the Little Chena River.

 

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

The finish line

This is a post I wanted to write on Tuesday but some cooties sidelined me and I was only capable of laying on the couch and moan. So here it is, a celebratory letter to my friend.

Dear Kristi,

I clearly remember THAT text. It will forever be etched in my mind and heart. Normally texts are just words, but you know how sometimes you receive a message from a friend and it is filled with emotion? So much so you can almost hear their voice? Well that is what THAT text was for me. More than your voice, I heard fear, relief, agony of spirit, determination – all wrapped up in the words “It’s cancer.” I cried when I read it. Not because I didn’t believe that you were going to survive, but it was because I knew the terribly rough journey you were about to begin.

You weren’t surprised and neither was I. The radiologist couldn’t tell you what she saw but she told you that you needed to be prepared for bad news. And then it was the weekend. Remember how pissed I was? What kind of medical professional left a person hanging like that? And you told me the kind that gave you her cell phone number so that you could call just to talk.

The whirlwind of appointments began with the news. Scans, biopsies, x-rays, consultations and then finally a plan of treatment. Through it all you came to work every day and didn’t dispatch a single student when they were rude and disrespectful to you. I wondered how you did that until I was told that my own time is limited and those same kids have become a connection with normal.

Along came your absolute meltdown in the dentist’s office. Your poor dentist may never be the same!

Summer showed up and it was time for the surgery to put in your port. While it was a bit surprising that you ended up in ICU because of your weird anatomy, on the other hand it really shouldn’t have been that shocking. You are a wonderfully different person.

The days went by and chemo was underway. Jim cut your hair and let me tell you, if he ever gives up working with us, he can pick up those scissors! The second text I will remember is, “My hair is falling out.” Just like that. Cancer takes so much doesn’t it?

The summer rolled on and I think God sent the record rainfalls in order to keep you indoors and resting! Otherwise you would have been working in the garden or on some other outdoor craft project. You can’t even argue with me. We only have to re-visit you being so tired trying to do something outside that you just sat down in the driveway!

School started again and there you were rockin’ the doo-rags! I tried to help and offered many times to draw eyebrows on you with a Sharpie. I still can’t believe you didn’t take me up on it!

As the chemo took its toll on your feet and hands you limped around the school. Thankfully we don’t have runners! Who can forget the story of your toenail falling off? I still say you should have saved it – it would have been an awesome prank!

Chemo was done and then came surgery. I need to set the record straight that they did not put you on the pediatric ward, which is locked, because I was threatening to come and draw those eyebrows on you while you were still drugged! There was no room in the big people rooms so you got put into the monkey room. After you healed a bit from surgery the radiation treatments began. Ugh.

I don’t think we will ever forget that school assembly. As soon as you found out I was willing to shave my head if I was the female staff member with the most donations in my jar, suddenly you became the fundraising queen. I don’t think it was fair however to threaten to write kids up if they contributed to any other staff’s jar except for mine.

I was happy to get shaved because it made you happy and being bald has me saving a buttload of money on shampoo! Our students did such an incredible job and it was an amazing afternoon!!

Now my friend, you are finished. You crossed that finish line. I know you are hurting from those stupid radiation burns but heal from those and that’s it. It’s over!! You did it!! I am so proud of you!!

Love,

Peg

P.S. I may need a lung.

Peg and Kristi

Peg and Kristi

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 2 Comments