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:

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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!

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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.

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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?

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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And this:

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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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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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