Thursday, December 30, 2010

Here's Poop In Your Eye

Stalagmite definition - a conical mineral deposit built up on the floor of a cavern. Trust me - it's important for you to know the defintion.

One of the daily tasks of a musher is to scoop poop. It's a great opportunity to check in with your canine crew and it's also a time to ponder life's problems and mysteries. Sometimes I find myself thinking about racing, or a trip, or how blessed I am, but sometimes I just think about poop. Today was one of those days.

Anyone who works in a dogyard learns a fundamental rule very quickly - there are times when it's important to keep your mouth shut. Scooping poop is one of those times. A few of my dogs are, well, fastidious I guess. They go to the bathroom in the same spot and while the yard is cleaned regularly little stalagmites greet me every day. They usually have to be chipped at depending on how much they've been peed on. Gee, aren't you enjoying this blog?

The thing about chipping at frozen poop is that if you don't hit it just right with the shovel then little chunks fly off in every direction, including into an open mouth.

And this of course leads me to another kind of stalagmite. The one that builds up, literally, in the outhouse hole. Their sizes vary depending on the depth of the pit and how long the poor unfortunate soul who drew the short straw waits to tackle this nasty chore. If any of you reading this have plans to come to Alaska and live a wilderness lifestyle please heed this most important piece of advice. Never, ever, ever, try to use a chainsaw on your poop stalagmite. Chainsaws tear, they do not cut. And the surest way to be covered in little bits of rapidly thawing crap is by using the chainsaw. Stick to a hatchet or a pick.

Now that we've covered number 2, let's move on to number 1. Particuarly the glacial number 1.

Boy dogs like to lift their legs and pee on their posts, houses, nearby trees and even the dog running beside them. We have a couple of males with issues who continue to pee like girls but I digress.

A pee glacier builds up where they lift their legs and we like to chip those away. It looks nicer and in the spring the dogyard doesn't smell like urine. Two of our boys, Bart and Glacier, have their chains around trees instead of on swivels and so today I decided to free their chains so they'd spin freely around. Bart in particular loves to run in wide circles, jumping on his house and leaping off in seemingly one motion when he's excited. It's fun to watch.

So there I was with my little hatchet in one hand and using the other to keep these super friendly dogs away from the blade. Now wrestling an 80 lb dog with one hand also involves reprimands and admittedly a few cuss words. And since I'm not a ventriloquist that means my mouth was open. A lot. Right at the time a few of those blows from the hatchet resulted in pee-sicle chips landing in my mouth. Yup, I gagged. If they weren't landing in my mouth they were flying into my eyes, my hair and down my shirt. I need a shower!

Here's a couple of pictures. No not of poop. I'm not that hard up for blog material. The pics are of our monster Malamute Solo at 9 weeks on a camping trip and then at 16 months in front of the same tent. I figured you might want to see one of our poop producers.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Warm Days Are A Comin'

People, the ones who don't live in Alaska, often ask me how we live when it gets to 30 below and colder. During a mercifully, brief cold snap last week I was thinking about how different it really is when the mercury drops and so I thought I'd share. This is most definitely not "Sarah Palin's Alaska."

First there's the vehicles. Our oldest is the Chevy pick-up, affectionately named Charlotta, who is nearing 30. The newest is the Cavalier which is a mere teenager at the age of 15. In between are the van and Betsy Ford, the dog truck, who are both 16.

A rear seal on the van cracked during the last 30 below temps and it hemorrhaged oil - took 6 quarts to cover the 14 miles from Fred Meyer to home. For now the van is on the injured reserve list.

The timing was good because of the school holiday so we don't need to worry about my transportation to work right now. Darrel drives the car to work and I drive the pick-up when I need to get to town. Which brings me to the next point. Charlotta is old - very old and requires special handling. I have to plug her in for at least 3 hours before starting, cycle the glow plugs twice and then warm her up for at least 20 minutes.

It usually takes me 2 or 3 tries at getting out the driveway because everything is so stiff and when I do get out we clunk, clunk, clunk down the road until the tires have warmed up and resumed their normal round shape. The heater doesn't really work all that well so one is wise to put some handwarmers in their gloves in this kind of cold. And try not to breathe too hard because you'll frost up the inside of the window.

Deep freezes also mean that the propane for our stove no longer flows and meals are cooked on the Coleman camp stove. Ever try to cook a Christmas dinner on 2 burners? Challenging indeed.

We live in an old mobile home built in California for California weather. Hopefully it's our last winter in it. The walls are 2 by 4 and insulation is apparently not a necessity in that part of the world. My slippers are an excellent gauge of the temperature. If they're stuck to the floor in the morning it's at least 30 below.

I can't mop the bathroom floor in the winter because I create an ice rink if I do. We have to use the hair dryer to thaw out the trap from the bath tub so we can shower and the hair dryer also thaws out the hose running underneath the kitchen counter to the outside tap for the dog water.

Ice builds up on the inside of our windows when it's really cold. The hair dryer comes in handy for that too. We put plastic up on the inside of the windows which helps a bit but it's still drafty.

(Darrel melting ice on the kitchen windown)

And the surest sign that it's really cold outside is when I wake up unable to move. Am I suddenly stricken with some sort of paralysis? No. Spud, Snoop, Candle and Solo are all on the bed. This must be what it feels like to be in a puppy pile.

(Snoop is not a morning dog)

Working outside at 30 below requires layers of clothing. As long as I'm moving in that kind of cold I find myself wearing just my Carhartt bibs, long underwear and a heavy sweat shirt. Any more than that and I start to sweat which is dangerous - as soon as you're stationary you cool rapidly and are prone to hypothermia. The trick is to find a good pace that keeps you warm but not overheated. And when you're going to be less active it's time to add the layers.

I guess in the end you just learn to live with what you have. Me, I don't mind the cold. Sometimes it would be nice to be barefoot on the floor, or not have to thaw something out before you can use it but the stuff I get to do here in Alaska and the things I get to see make it all worth it.

Saturday, December 25, 2010


B.A.R.K. - a sound a dog makes but it also stands for Buy A Round of Kibble. My friends Claudia and Lee Nowak, from Traverse City, Michigan came up with this awesome way for mushing fans to help support their favorite teams. We have the B.A.R.K. logo on this blog and I thought I'd explain how it works.
Having a kennel of sled dogs is an expensive proposition and dog food is a big part of that. We're serious about nutrition and feed a high performance food which means our dog food bill alone runs about $9,000 a year. This is just for kibble. We have awesome friends who provide meat and fish for our crew. Our dogs enjoy moose and caribou scraps and salmon and white fish during the cold winter months.
Last year a woman generously donated her aged mule to our kennel. Daisy was 36 years old and worked her whole life. The woman didn't want her to be put down and buried, but she felt that by giving her to a kennel Daisy would continue to make a contribution. We made sure her death was swift and humane and she provided our dogs with nourishment and strength last winter. Sometimes a musher will be called upon to put down a horse that is either old or has broken a leg. The meat is never wasted. That is just part of how life is lived in this part of Alaska.
In addition to the food bill we spend money on veterinary care, harnesses, sleds, lines, booties, nursing the dog truck and race fees. I'm pretty sure the IRS must shake their heads in wonder when we file our tax returns. Whoever reviews ours probably spends a lot of time googling expenses like "S-hook tool", "QCR plastic" and "ganglines." They are probably also stumped by why we spend $250 on dog collars, $2,000 on dog booties, $1,500 on harnesses and $800 on rope.
We have met so many wonderful dogmushing fans over the past few years and have often been asked what they can do to help. I was never able to really give a good answer. I didn't want to say "Well how about buying 80 new harnesses at $25 each?"
But now there is B.A.R.K. How it works is that a person can call up Cold Spot Feeds, our supplier, at 907-457-8555 and purchase a bag or two of food for our dogs. We feed Red Paw 30/20 and we also supplement with a high fat product called Energy Pak (40 lb bag) in the winter. The Energy Pak is a powdered supplement we add to their food. Cold Spot will know if we already have the Energy Pak we need. You can also get onto their web site at and order food. It's important that you mention this is for Tailwaggers Kennel. Email us at and let us know if you've purchased something so we can pick it up and more importantly, thank you for your support!
Now when folks ask what they can do to help I can tell them about B.A.R.K. It's a great way for a mushing fan to support a kennel when they can and I can tell you that the dogs definitely appreciate it!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Three's A Crowd

Since the really cold weather showed up, left and then showed up again we've had a few more visitors in the house. They have pretty much figured out the pecking order so life is relatively peaceful even with upwards of 9 dogs in the house depending on how cold it is and who looks at me with sad puppy dog eyes - which is always a complete Oscar winning performance I might add!

The picture above is what made me laugh this afternoon. This is the dog couch which of course holds dogs. Usually it's just two but today they managed three.

Snoop is on the left. Her body decided she was quite pregnant (which she isn't) and so she stopped eating and started lactating. When it dropped to 40 below it was definitely time to bring her inside. Our dogs consume an enormous amount of calories in the extremely cold weather and so we load them up with kibble, fish, lots of warm soupy broth and plenty of straw so that they can live outside quite comfortably. But if a dog isn't eating they get cold, burn more calories trying to keep warm and lose weight rapidly. So in came Snoop.

She is a very easy going mutt where other dogs are concerned and is super affectionate. Her one trick is that she knows how to "high five."

The dog in the middle is Sneakers. He's been in the house for about a month now. Somehow he managed to wrap his chain around his leg which then froze. Normally when our dogs have a problem with their chains all the other dogs start barking frantically. In a dog yard there are barks that mean food is here, then louder joyous barks when the harnesses come out and then barks that mean "holy-crap-there's-some- major-stuff-happening-here!" In this case not a single dog made a peep. The whole yard went nuts the other day when Bart got his tongue stuck to some metal but they didn't so much as woof when Sneakers has his leg tangled in his chain.

The leg was eventually amputated just below the knee once it was obvious where the viable tissue was and for now he is a happy, albeit, 3-legged house dog. And yes he can move quite well thank you very much, especially when he gets away from me and I am chasing him.

It took Sneakers a bit to figure out where he fit in the chain of command and he finally decided that for now he's low male on the totem pole. Which gets me to the white dog. His name is Colonel.

Now Colonel is a retired leader who sounds like he's a 5-pack-a-day smoker when he howls. It's horrible really but we don't tell him that. Colonel is also a lump and lays in that spot on the couch pretty much all day except when Kiah growls at him and he moves over. Sometimes you have to look closely at Colonel to see if he's still breathing.

Colonel has also been a bit snappy with other dogs, particularly males, during his life so I was pretty surprised to see that he was tolerating Sneakers. Maybe it was that whole "dude, I'm missing part of my leg" ploy. Or maybe it's the Christmas spirit. In any event they lay like that for a while - until Sneakers fell off the couch and landed on Kiah who definitely did not demonstrate warm and fuzzy Christmas feelings!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Malamute Grudges

Well, a canine relationship has gone south here at Tailwaggers Kennel. This is how Kiah, and daughter Solo, started out. All warm and fuzzy. Protective mama. Silly puppy. That puppy is now huge, way bigger than Kiah and way over 100 lbs. And she's inherited her mama's strong will.
Kiah has pretty much moved into our house now. She's a senior citizen and doesn't handle the cold very well anymore. We wondered how having two dominant female Malamutes in the house would play out and for a while it went very well. Each respected the other. Neither one threw out a challenge. We seemed to have peace....until Darrel was playing with one and the other got jealous. I'm not sure who started the fight but it was on. We broke them up and after a few stern reprimands they resigned themselves to sideways hostile glares.
The next day their relationship was tenuous but peaceful. The truce was quickly broken when I came in from outside and they wanted to go out at the same time. This time it was a knockdown, drag out brawl which took the two of us to break up. Kiah, despite her age, seemed to gain the advantage when she grabbed onto Solo's lip and simply wouldn't let go. After using a broom handle as a pry bar we got them apart and sent Solo outside. Each has a few minor wounds on their face.....nothing major but there will be scars.
The thing about Malamutes is that they tend to hold grudges. They are incredible dogs - loyal, strong, brave and smart. And their memories are long. We'll continue to work with them but it's unlikely they will ever really get along again.
Even as I type this, Kiah is in the room with me having her supper. Solo is outside enjoying hers. Both will continue to enjoy life inside the house but in seperate rooms.