Sunday, we took Ashlee and Macgee with us to run errands in town, then took them to the Spit to run around on the beach. Last time, it was covered in ice, but this time it was just really really rocky. And cold. Very cold.
Skippy took Macgee’s leash and walked around while I took pictures. The sun is still at about a 40° angle from the horizon most of the day, so the pictures are super contrasty.
I think I need to go down and take pictures later in the day, maybe just before and during sunset. If I don’t do it soon, I’ll have to wait until after midnight to capture a sunset.
Macgee even crept out into the water, and he’s usually apathetic, if not outright aquaphobic sometimes. He actually enjoyed it this time, pouncing on kelp and nosing under rocks for new smells.
This is my attempt at describing what it’s like for me in Alaska. I’ll take a typical day and break it into separate posts, so you aren’t overwhelmed by text. This is the fifth post, covering the sled dogs. Don’t miss the other posts: Mornings, Afternoons, Evenings, and Nights!
We have a lot of dogs here. Thirty-nine, to be exact. Out of those thirty-nine, nine are retired and don’t run the sled, four are puppies and don’t run the sled yet, two have congenital defects that affect their breathing so they can’t run the sled, leaving twenty-four to run, with a range in age from 2 to 13 years old. They are all Alaskan Huskies, which really have no overarching visual characteristics, so they all tend to look different. Alaskan Huskies are bred more for physical traits (non-webbed toes, brains, strength, speed, etc), and sometimes other breeds are mixed in to add some variation or boost specific traits. We do have a neighbor that runs full-blooded, gigantic malamutes, which basically looks like a pack of bears pulling a sled.
As any pet owner knows, every animal has its own personality. Sled dogs are no different. Each individual dog has a distinct personality, with all the features that go along with that. Some dogs are easy-going and get along with any other dog, some are aggressive with only certain other dogs (usually other dogs of the same gender), some take commands better than others (we call those “lead” dogs), some are kind of dumb but are extremely strong (we call those “wheel” dogs), some just love to run but aren’t so beefy (we call those “team” dogs) and some are lazy and don’t pull the sled as much as the others (we call those “get your lazy butt up there!” dogs).
Having worked almost daily with these dogs for over 6 months now, I can easily rattle off any number of habits or hang-ups for each dog. Meadow is a little nervous, and barks at anything she doesn’t agree with, like me moving faster than a walk. Ace is dumb and happy, and tends to follow around any other dog placed in his pen, much to the other dog’s annoyance. Whistler does a happy dance every time I start to put food in his can. Ghost will stand up and wrap his forelegs around you, staring intently into your eyes, hoping you either have more food or time enough to scratch his ears. Lu ran the Iditarod for another musher, but had to be dropped from the race because she wouldn’t eat. Now, she eats anything she can find, and has to be on a perpetual diet so she won’t resemble a hairy sausage with legs. Yes, I could probably go on forever, or at least a lot longer than most of you are willing to read.
Many of the dogs are related, and a good number can trace their ancestry back to Iditarod racers. The sibling sets here are: Boogles, Ghost, and Gusty; Motley, Goblin, Monster, and Beauty; Hunky, Icky, Ringo, Alex, and Rocket; Iceworm, Whistler, Moose, Chopper, and Stinky; Skyler, Indigo, Redoubt, Underdog, and Cindy; Noodle, Ace, and Picard; Mouse and Tiger; Can Can and Pumpkin; Rosie and Meadow; Feather, Shaman, Diggity, and Farmer. Match them to the pictures below for fun and genealogy!
As I mentioned, there are nine retired dogs who don’t pull the sled now. They are Skyler’s sibling group, Noodle’s sibling group, and Hunky. Skyler’s group is the oldest in the yard, turning 16 this year. Noodle’s group is next, turning 15. Hunky is 13 this year, and just wasn’t into running much anymore. Since we’ve been here, age and its related sicknesses have claimed three dogs: two from Noodle’s group, Buffy and Xerox, and a dog we think was 17 or older, Sister (who, despite her name, wasn’t related to any of the other dogs in the yard). Alaskan huskies live anywhere from 14 to 17 years, like most dogs their size.
Our boss takes great care to socialize the dogs, which some kennels neglect to do. These dogs are all very friendly, though they get excited to see new people and tend to all bark at once at first, which I’m sure can be intimidating to anyone who is nervous around dogs. But they are all very well behaved, and only bark on a few occasions: 1. Feeding time, 2. Hookup time, 3. Neighbors taking their dog teams out, or 4. Something unusual is happening (moose near the yard! strange car coming up the drive! loose dog!).
Okay, time to meet them. I’ve posted some pictures before, but consider this the high school yearbook of the sled dogs. All the dogs are pictured here, except Beauty, who was absent for picture day. I’ll add her in as soon as I get a make-up picture taken. Beauty has been photographed and added!
I’ve started taking pictures again, after a couple weeks off. There have been too many good scenes to resist!
First, a moonset and sunrise. Both of these images were created using an HDR plugin for Aperture, made by HDRsoft. I take multiple exposures of the same scene, and use the plugin to combine them into one superphoto, and then tweak the settings until I get a satisfactory image.
Before sunrise, the crescent moon was hanging over the mountains, surrounded by purple sky. This photo consists of 3 separate exposures.
Then, the sunrise began. This photo was made from 6 separate exposures.
It was foggy most of the day Wednesday, and the resulting moisture froze overnight, leaving a coating of ice over everything.
As I was preparing to feed the dogs last night, the sky lit up with one of the most amazing sunsets I’ve seen here. We’re on the downward slope of an east-facing hill, so we missed the full effect, but here’s what I could capture.
Too bad we don’t have a more scenic foreground, but it’ll do for now.
Xerox was 15, born here in Alaska while I was still in my junior year of high school back in Indiana. He was an excellent lead dog, and sired many of the younger dogs in the yard. I first met him when I visited last May, and he had dug a massive hole in his circle. The hole was big enough for several dogs to lay in, and he would drag his food bowl down into it and eat in relative peace, below all the ruckus generated by 30+ hungry dogs.
He would dance for pets, running around his circle and hopping, then coming back for more. He got sick a couple of months ago, and eventually stopped dancing during his slow decline. We kept hoping he would rally back and be fine, like some of the older dogs tend to do, but his downward spiral was irreversible.
This is my attempt at describing what it’s like for me in Alaska. I’ll take a typical day and break it into separate posts, so you aren’t overwhelmed by text. This is the fourth post, covering my nights. Don’t miss the first post, second post, and third post!
In the depths of winter, daylight begins around 10:30am, and ends around 4:30pm. That means both feedings take place in the dark, for about 2 months. I finish up the evening feeding around 6:30 to 7. On the occasion of a full moon, snow cover, and cloudless skies, it’s bright enough to walk around outside without a headlamp.
Socialization occurs on those rare days where we don’t feel like we’ve been hit by a truck. We’ve made a few good friends here, and enjoy their company, but seeing most of them requires a 30 minute drive into town, on questionable roads, in unpredictable weather (most forecasts for our elevation include phrases like “variable winds,” “gusts up to 50mph,” and “accumulation of 1 to 15 inches possible.” “Beware of drifting snow” is also popular). It’s not uncommon to pass one or three cars that have fallen into the massive ditches that, if you’re lucky, line the section of road you fall off of. If you’re unlucky, you fall off the side of the hill into a bunch of trees. I’ve been down a significant section of the road sideways in my car once already, after the first big snow, and am not keen on repeating the experience.
Only one of the bars here is non-smoking, and we definitely grew accustomed to not smelling like an ashtray after leaving the bars in Bloomington. Anchorage has a smoking ban, but that hasn’t made it’s way south to Homer yet. The two times we braved the smoky bar scene, we both ended up sick.
Homer does have a movie theater, which plays films a couple of months after they have been released. Movies usually run for 3 to 5 days, and we occasionally muster up the energy and cash to go to one.
Homer has a number of restaurants, some good, some bad. They’re all expensive. Some are very expensive. Pizzas that don’t come close to Avers or Pizza Express cost twice as much. Ethnic restaurants are: 2 Chinese, 1 Mexican, 1 Thai. We avoid most of them, fearing the cost or the gastric consequences or both.
There is a broomball league, which I initially thought I would join, but the reality of a 6-day manual labor work week brought that idea crashing down.
Another diversion is a weekly “game night” at one of the cafes in town. Mostly consisting of Scrabble players with electronic dictionaries crammed into a small room, it was nevertheless fun the one time we went. The cafe happens to also be one of our favorites in town, and the chef, Maura, always has a few game night special meals. Our budget for prepared meals being what it is ($0), and our self-control being what it is around Maura’s food (what is self-control? nom nom nom), we have decided to avoid the temptation altogether. Instead, we’ve instituted a monthly game night with some friends in town, and we all bring food.
So, most nights involve fixing dinner, watching whatever we’ve received from Netflix, stretching out sore muscles, and falling asleep.