Northern Lights

One thing I will never tire of is the Aurora Borealis, otherwise known as the Northern Lights. I have fed dogs under them. I’ve laid in the snow at 40 below and watched them until I began to stick to the ground. I’ve seen them from the comfort of an airplane seat. And I’ve mushed dogs while they danced and swirled above me. It has taken my breath away.

One winter night I was stalled on an Arctic lake. My team and I had had a very challenging day trying to find the hard-packed trail buried under a foot of fresh snow. I felt like I had said “gee” (right) and “haw” (left) for 10 hours straight as I attempted to keep the team on the trail. Apparently they felt the same way because they suddenly and most definitely went on strike. We were at a standstill.

Moments like these are a mental game and the fault lies with the musher. I should have trusted my sure-footed leaders Mobad and Scotty, to find the trail on their own. Some things though, I have to learn the hard way. We had of course stopped a few times for rests and snacks but this pit stop was unplanned. When a team does this there is not much a musher can do except wait it out. The dogs need some TLC and profuse apologies. I burrowed into my sled and grabbed the snack bag. I walked up the line and tossed each dog a generous portion of frozen fish. Then I made my way back down the team and removed booties so they could tend to their feet. I grabbed liniment from the sled and massaged the healing balm into each dog’s wrist, feet and shoulders. Eyes closed in ecstasy and after the massage each dog curled into a tight ball for a nap.

Then it was my turn for a snack – dry meat and hot tea. I chastised myself for my mistake and settled in to wait for my team to be ready. Suddenly the sky was lit with the Northern Lights. They were a curtain of green, red and purple that looked like it was waving in a breeze. I don’t imagine I will ever forget that night.

There are many tales associated with the Aurora Borealis. In almost all Northern cultures the Lights are spirits. They may be playing games or foretelling war. They were dreaded demons pursuing lost souls or Valkyries leading fallen warriors to Valhalla. One of my favorites is that the Lights are part of the circle of life and are the souls of those we have loved who have gone on before us. My other favorite is a more recent legend that the Lights are the flashing harnesses on the dogs we have loved.

We have had a few awesome displays of the Aurora Borealis this week. Darrel has stayed up late to capture some images. I am astounded that he can get such good photos with his small point and shoot camera. All these images are his and taken right in our yard!

Green is the most common color, but it is no less beautiful.

Green is the most common color, but it is no less beautiful.


What we see in our own backyard!

What we see in our own backyard!

We never get tired of the beauty!

We never get tired of the beauty!


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A walk in the woods

Sunny. Calm wind. 10 degrees F. What to do? What to do? Get on the ATV and head to the woods of course!

I spent a good part of the time exploring the almost 1,000 acres I will be trapping on this winter. The land is mostly flat, frozen and game trails are every where, which makes for easy walking. Thank you moose and bears! This is one of the areas I will be working this winter. I have to wait a bit to get on the other because it features a river, some sloughs, a few ponds and muskeg.

It was so nice to just stroll through the woods and look at how busy all the animals have been. Bella had her nose to the ground the entire time – sensory heaven for a lab! Sasha wandered here and there and I would have to whistle for her every now and again. Spud, the fattest husky in the world was always just 10 feet or so off my side. He is a worrier and concerned about safety – his own. We had a small crisis when his fattiness fell into a midden (an underground squirrel nest). I had to put a leash under his belly and lift his butt up and onto the trail. Spud seriously needs to get on a diet!!

Bella digging for squirrels.

Bella digging for squirrels.

I was strolling along and the woods opened up into an area about the size of the average living room and it was full of Labrador tea! It is good to remember these places because they can provide medicine in times of trouble. Labrador tea is a plant whose leaves were and are used to make a tea that is good for cold, arthritis and digestive upset. Too much of the spring and summer leaves can actually cause a bad gut, but the fall and winter leaves have the opposite effect because the juice has gone out of them. Labrador tea has a very strong smell and there is no doubt when you are standing in the middle of a patch of it!

A patch of Labrador tea. It has been imprinted on my memory and marked in my GPS.

A patch of Labrador tea. It has been imprinted on my memory and marked in my GPS.

Bella the Lab surrounded by Labrador tea.

Bella the Lab surrounded by Labrador tea.

There was also a lot of false tinder conk on the trees. Knowledge of this fungus could prove to be lifesaving. Cutting a thin slice off the fungus trama or flesh (the cinammon colored interior part) and using a knife to “fluff” up the trama results in some tinder that readily catches a spark from a flint and steel or a fero rod. The result is a long lasting smouldering. A false tinder conk can also be hollowed to the trama layer and an ember placed in there. The conk can then be carried for several hours and a new fire started easily and quickly. This is a way first peoples carried fire.

False tinder conk.

False tinder conk. Who knew a tree can come with it’s own fire starter?

After exploring it was time to head to the bridge and check on the river. The thin ice is already a highway for the local squirrel and rabbits!


The river today. Hello winter!

The river today. Hello winter!

P.S. Still no grouse in Alaska! LOL.



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The Depth of Friendship

In May 2005 I took in a little sled dog named Oni who had terrible confirmation and was hardly socialized. Her back legs are weirdly angled – they fold underneath her at her knees at pretty close to 45 degrees. She has a small head and a super pointy nose. Her tail is fused and only the very tip wags when she is happy – which wasn’t very often at first. Her “deformities” lead to her being cast aside by the owner and she was scheduled to be put down. I don’t exactly know how I heard about her but she ended up at the kennel I was temporarily calling home before my move to Alaska.

Oni about 8 months into our adventure together. Her distrust is obvious.

Oni about 8 months into our adventure together. Her distrust is obvious.

I knelt down by the crate she was huddled in and was greeted with trembling and growling. Truthfully, I wondered what I had taken on and my mind flashed back to another little white rescue who mauled my arm in seconds about 5 years before. I had sustained 7 deep and ugly punctures and tears, with one missing the artery in my wrist by a hair.  And here I was again, facing a terrified, growling dog.

I prayed to the mushing gods that her collar was snug and secured. I also prayed she wouldn’t chew on my un-gloved hand. After opening the kennel door a crack, I was able to put my arm inside and snap a leash onto her collar. Poor little Oni kept growling but I maintained a gentle conversation with her and she darted out of the crate.

The kennel I was staying at had a terrific dog yard set up with small fenced areas inside a large fenced area. I put Oni in the area with quiet, older dogs and let her settle in. Over the next few days it was clear she loved her own species but was absolutely terrified of humans. She would skitter away from me, growling whenever I approached her.

We were off to Alaska soon after her arrival to work on a glacier. In harness was where Oni really shone. Even though she weighed a mere 30 lbs – much smaller than the rest of the dogs – she out-pulled and outworked them all. She was what mushers call an “honest dog.”

Oni and Loup on a short run. Loup is a big Malamute and Oni looked pretty small next to him!

Oni and Loup on a short run. Loup is a big Malamute and Oni looked pretty small next to him!

Setting up dog camp on an Alaskan glacier.

Setting up dog camp on an Alaskan glacier.


A few winters ago, during a deep cold snap, Oni looked like she wasn’t doing well and so she came up to the house. Our place in the winter often seems like it is wall to wall dog, with mostly older dogs curled up in various spots as close to the heater as they can. For some reason, Oni just became a house dog. A really nervous one. At first.

Fast forward to now and Oni can be persistent in her need for affection. She seeks out contact with us and is not subtle about it. Ignore her and she is in your lap and nose to nose with you. Her favorite thing is a nose to tail doggy massage.

Her poor early socialization meant that she never learned to play with other dogs or people. She has taken to Bella who of course loves to play. Watching them together is an interesting study and it melts my heart to see Oni actually having fun. Her movements are stiff and awkward but Bella doesn’t care. It cracks me up to see the tip of Oni’s tail moving furiously. It is amazing what a little puppy love can do.


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It finally snowed today – almost three weeks later than it normally does here. When it was all over, there wasn’t much on the ground, but it’s a start! It was Bella’s first snow and she was pretty excited. We headed out onto the trail as usual and she was jumping, then rolling and then running with her nose right to the ground.

Of course I had to take a picture of the river. Here it is two nights ago:


And here is the river tonight, just 48 hours later:


Notice the new ice and how much darker it is? These river pics are all taken at about the same time. At this time of the year we lose close to 7 minutes of daylight every 24 hrs. While it’s true that some creatures settle into the long sleep of hibernation, the tracks in the new snow told another story.

On the bridge, a snowshoe hare curiously ran back and forth. His stride was normal so he wasn’t being pursued by a predator. It was as if he just couldn’t believe it was snowing and his winter highway was freezing up. The red squirrel who has his home, called a midden. underneath the huge spruce tree at the far end of the bridge had also been running all over. He however was stuffing snacks underneath the boards and on top of the girders. A squirrel can never have too many secret stashes!

A moose had gone down the trail not too long before me which left me on alert. A few years ago I had had an encounter with a very angry cow moose who came charging out of the bush as I passed by. She had a young calf stashed in the tall grass and she came after me with death on her mind. I was afraid I was going to run out of trail before she gave up the chase, but thankfully she suddenly whirled around and went back to her baby. The worst part was that I had to go past that same area in order to get home. I was singing and yelling and howling like a lunatic all the way back down that trail. She had no doubt that I was coming!

Various bird and vole tracks also crisscrossed the bumpy trail. The only tracks we didn’t see, thankfully, were the ones belonging to the neighborhood grizzly. He is likely stuffed full of berries and fish and counting whatever it is that bears count in order to drift off to sleep.

Here is a pic of what I call the moose swamp from two nights ago. To the left is where the cow moose came after me. The moose like this muddy, stinky little low spot. Bull moose will pee in it and then wallow – apparently it’s super sexy to the cows. The dogs love it too of course and if I am not quick enough, they leap gleefully into the disgusting muck. Now though, it’s frozen. It still smells so the dogs love to lay on the ice and wiggle and roll.


Tonight, with the inch of snow, the ice was covered. Bella chased Sasha onto the pond and was pretty surprised when she slid right on by her quarry. It took her a few minutes to figure out that there was ice underneath the white stuff.


Those white dots are snowflakes! Here is Bella holding still – for a second. She was waiting for Spud to pop out of the woods so she could tackle him. Spud is a weirdo. He rarely runs on the trail, preferring instead to bushwhack about 20 feet from the clear path. We have a blinking light that attaches to his collar so that when it’s dark, I don’t lose track of him. Silly dog.





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24 Hours Later

It was a chilly ATV ride this afternoon. We’ve had some pretty strong winds and I was paying close attention to the trees around me as I rode through the woods. The ground underneath us is mostly permafrost – frozen ground and ice just a couple of feet down. Trees adapt by spreading their root systems out instead of down, which means in strong, gusting winds, they can topple over rather unexpectedly.

The temperature was a lovely 24 degrees but the winds were gusting to 45 mph which meant the wind chill was 5 degrees F or -15 Celcius for my Canadian and NZ friends.

I checked out a couple of potential areas to find marten, found two beaver slides and started the ride back home. The ground is pretty frozen right now and the tussocks (an area of raised ground about the size of a basketball) made for a very bumpy, slow drive. Here is a photo of the river today:


And miracle of miracles, I somehow got a decent picture of Bella and a stellar picture of Sasha’s butt!



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The Story

I am always looking for the story the land wants to tell. A lot of it happens at ground level . Tracks. Trails. Scat. Fur. Feathers. I love these stories – they bring me great joy. During the winter, it’s pretty easy to read nature’s book because of the snow. Here is a photo of one of my favorite stories – he was very good at batting clean up!


The most common tracks and trails are from the little red squirrels. The red squirrel’s presence is betrayed by the mound of spruce cone debris at the base of a tree. The red squirrel is active all winter so he has to store a great deal of food in his underground house, called a midden. It is amazing to follow the various tiny, hard-packed trails of these industrious creatures – a super highway for squirrels!

Another story is told by the snowshoe hare. Pure white and difficult to spot against the snow, their trails are easy to find. They are creatures of habit, as most animals are, and I like to stroll next to the tracks seeing where the hare has stopped to nibble on a tender shoot that was somehow overlooked.


The image of the raven’s wings definitely has to be one of my favorites. I have gone to the dogyard on a moonlit night and caught the beautiful sight of of wings that have just dusted the sparkling snow.

Similar stories are told this time of year of course – it’s just harder to see them. You have to slow down and watch. There’s a game trail over there and it looks like moose. Near the berry patch is a wider trail – a sure sign the grizzly enjoyed gorging himself. If you have any doubt just look at the piles of poop filled with blueberries. A pile of feathers tells the story of a grouse who just wasn’t fast enough in getting away from a fox.

And then there are the human stories. The one from today had a ring of familiarity to it because I’ve been there. Our colder temperatures the past couple of days meant I was able to get further down the main winter trail. It’s important to bear in mind though, that what appears to be frozen just may not be.

One part of the trail dips gently down and crosses about 50 feet of swamp. The thing with swamps is that there is a lot of decomposing happening – leaves, grass and other plant life. The decomposing process creates heat and even gas and ice on a swamp isn’t to be trusted even if it looks fine.

So this little dip and water crossing had a tale to tell and it wasn’t a happy one for the person who was driving the ATV.

See these ice chunks. They look nice and thick don’t they?


Where did the ice chunks come from? Why here:

dsc01333Somebody misread the ice and went through. It wouldn’t have been dangerous here; just miserable. The driver would have had to slog through thigh deep water with the winch line and get it attached to the nearest available tree. Then he would have had to slog back through that water, get on his machine and winch himself out. Been there, done that. And this is why I always carry a little kit with me that has, among other things, a flint and steel to make a quick fire. At 30 degrees this is just cold and miserable. At 30 below it’s deadly.

And finally, I took another picture of the river today. Just a week has passed since the last one and look at the ice that is forming!



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Almost Time

It never ceases to amaze me how the land will change from day to day at this time of the year. On the trail, the dogs and I, cross a bridge over the Little Chena, a small tributary of the Chena River that snakes its way through a good portion of the Interior, before joining the Tanana River.. Yesterday there wasn’t even a hint of ice. Today if you look at the edges of the water, there is the beginning of ice.


I like to play with the panoramic feature of my little camera. Here is a view of the bridge and the river.


It is time to start running dogs – with the help of Darrel and my jet pack! We have a couple of short run options for now, which is fine, because the dogs need to stretch their muscles and just get back into the groove. I decided to check out the damage done by moose hunters to the main winter trail. This is a multi-use trail which means ATVers, snowmachiners, skiers, hikers, mushers all share the same ground. Mushers have the right-of-way and I’ve never had an issue with those who use their ATVs or snowmachines to get around in the wilderness. However, every fall there are those who head out for moose hunting and absolutely tear up the trail with their vehicles.

We had a really rainy summer so the trail, which normally passes through wet black spruce country, was super muddy. The center of the trail is full of deep ruts and the hunters made even more of a mess by driving around some of the boggiest areas, creating more ruts. It is unfortunate that they forget their trail etiquette. Here’s a short video of the mess:

This is Bella’s first winter and ice is new and exciting. After a couple of faceplants, it didn’t take her long to figure out moving slow is best. She will also skirt the edges where the frozen mud gives her more purchase. When we got home she snuggled right up to our heater in the living room. If she thinks it’s cold now, she is in for a surprise come November!

P.S. There are no grouse in Alaska.




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Spirit Dog

I like to hunt after work. In truth, I’d like to hunt during work time too, but my employer likely wouldn’t approve the daily leave. The hours of available daylight are waning but I can still get in a good 120 minutes of searching for the ever elusive grouse and the crazy plentiful squirrel.

This is my absolute favorite time of year. The ground is finally freezing which means the mud and dog poop are too. The hard frost laid down during each night never completely disappears in the shade of the trees and scrub. Bird and beast have a spike of energy as they are compelled by instinct to finish filling their storehouses for the winter. Our dogs are practically vibrating with enthusiasm. I can smell winter.

While slowly cruising down the trail on the ATV (slow because of Spud, the fattest husky in the world), walking in the woods or just sitting and watching the dogs run loose through the tall swamp grass, I start to think about manyof the dogs now gone.

Caleb, the sweetest, silliest, most loyal dog I’ve ever known. He was my heart for 10 years.


Spot who was completely deaf and not a bad lead dog – he took his cues from the dog he was paired with. He was a shy dog and saved his love for the few he knew and trusted.


Jewel, a true dog yard dog. She never left the yard wherever we lived despite having the freedom to roam. After retirement, she would wait anxiously at the entrance to the yard for any team that had left and she would diligently check each dog house when all sleds and gear were put away to ensure all dogs were accounted for.


There are so many more of course but I have to finish with Scotty, my first lead dog. She was fierce in harness but a gentle soul who didn’t exactly bark but made a sound like “woof.” Scotty humored me – a lot – but if she was bored with a trail she would suddenly drag the entire team and me off into the woods. The air would be blue as I untangled the ensuing mess and she would just sit there, tongue lolling, and a satisfied grin on her face. I whispered my love to her as she took her final breath at the ripe old age of 17. This is one of my favorite pics of her.


Scotty has been gone for 11 years but today I saw her again. And yesterday too. As I drove down the trail I looked behind me and there she was, trotting along. Funny thing is, that I didn’t think it was weird at all. I’ve seen her before. I wonder what she wants or perhaps what I need. Either way, it was good to see her again.









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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.


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!



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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.


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:


And this:


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.



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