The Bucket List, Part 3, Evenings

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 third post, covering my evenings. Don’t miss the first post and second posts!

Around 4:30-5 (or later, now that we’re getting more light than 10am-3pm), I head back out and scoop the yard again, while the puppies run around. If it’s really cold, before I scoop I’ll carry around an old kitty litter bucket full of frozen beef fat scraps, and give all the dogs a snack. Then, I fill those three 5-gallon buckets with food, and carry them around the yard to feed. Finally, I take a small bucket of water around to the older dogs and give them extra water for the night, even though it will probably freeze before they drink much of it.

The morning and evening dog feeding shifts happen no matter what. The fogDogs don’t care if you’re sick, if the weather is crappy, or if you’re just feeling really tired. I’ve been out feeding in pouring rain, impenetrable fog, sleet with high winds (summary: “OW MY EYES”), blizzards with total whiteout conditions, temps nearing -20&degF, everything. Sometimes there are several feet of new snow to wade through, or freeze/thaw ice covering everything like an ice rink, or ankle deep mud during melt-out in the spring. Every shift of the wind means going out and rotating the dog houses so the wind doesn’t blow in them, no matter what time it is. Watch the video below…I was out in that, turning dog houses out of the snow, at 5:30am in the dark, with fogged up glasses and a headlamp that only highlighted the snow whipping around my face. It’s like this every few weeks, and apparently this winter we haven’t had nearly as much snow as usual. I wonder if it will all fall in March.

Actually, the weather keeps it pretty interesting, and I have enjoyed some of the challenges it presents. Most of the time it’s clear and beautiful, but sometimes it’s a fight just to stay upright and pointed in the right direction.

Back at the cabin, it’s probably time to empty the sink bucket. We usually have it drain under the floor and out the side of the cabin’s skirting, but the pipe that does that froze up a few weeks ago, so now we have the sink emptying into what was a former water hauling bucket, but got converted to a slop bucket after an unfortunate New Years Eve accident where Skippy and I drank three bottles of champagne in one night.

Anyway, I take the sink bucket and toss it outside. We use biodegradable dish soap, fortunately. By this time, Skippy is home from work (a desk job. Sallie Mae needs her money back no matter what), so we catch up and start to make dinner. Last week, we ran out of cooking propane, so we have to use a single electric burner, because the propane tank is 5 feet tall and is frozen to the ground so I can’t take it out to get it refilled until the weather warms up some.

Twice a week, we make our way up the path, towels and soap in hand, to take much needed No room for a shower or w/d hereshowers in the boss’s bathroom. We don’t sweat much at all, but that doesn’t stop the funk. Plus, with our heads covered by hats most of the time, our hair gets a little oily. We also do laundry at the boss’s house every couple of weeks. Her dryer isn’t working, so we have to take the wet clothes back to our cabin and hang them up in front of the heater to dry. The increased humidity sometimes collects around the door and freezes, trapping us until we kick and yank on the door enough to break the ice. It’s always fun to be literally trapped in your own home, especially when you’re late for something like work.

Next: Part 4, Nights

The Bucket List, Part 2, Afternoons

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 second post, covering my afternoons. Don’t miss the first post!

Fuel oil tankIf you’ve never had the pleasure of working with fuel oil, let me tell you about it. It’s oily (yeah, surprise), smells terrible, and instantly permeates any fabric it touches. It’s like dunking yourself in motor oil and then trying to rinse off with gasoline. I usually end up coated in the stuff. I then have to spend a good hour scrubbing myself and my clothes with oil soap, so our cabin won’t smell like a truck stop.

Eventually, the sled dogs start barking excitedly, and I know that the boss is prepping to take out a team. I suit up (typical uniform for the usual below 20° temps: long underwear base layer top and bottom, sweatpants, waterproof pants, long sleeve shirt, sweatshirt, Carhartt jacket, thick socks, boot socks, Muck boots, buff, windstopper hat, mittens) and head out to the yard. If I make it out there before the boss, I uncover the sled and lay out the line. Then I start pulling harnesses out of the gear box in the middle of the yard while she secures the sled to a post and sets the snow hook. We then harness each of the day’s 8 to 12 team dogs.

Boogles, a sled dogHarnessing involves approaching a very excited dog with the harness (basically two padded rings with webbing between them and a loop for pulling the sled at the end), getting the dog to jump on its house, slipping the harness over the dog’s head, pulling the dog’s collar through the harness loops so the collar sits higher on the dog’s neck than the harness, unhooking the dog’s chain and pulling it through the harness, rehooking the dog’s chain, getting the dog to slip its legs through the first harness ring, unhooking the dog’s chain again, walking the very excited and sometimes screaming dog (out of excitement!) over to the hookup line. The hookup line is a chain strung along several posts, with tie-outs coming off at intervals long enough to prevent fights and/or matings while dogs are being brought to the line.

Once all the dogs are harnessed and on the hookup line, we begin adding them to the sled line, first attaching their collars to a short neckline, then the back loop of their harness to the tug line, both of which are attached to the sled line. After all but the lead dogs are hooked up, I go jump on the sled and hold down the brake and snow hook, just in case the rope tied to the post fails. Every dog on the line is barking at the top of their lungs (so are the rest of the dogs in the yard, actually), all are trying to pull the sled, and some are springing high into the air every couple of seconds. All communication with the boss at this point is done by hand signals.

Some things I’ve learned about hooking up dogs:

  1. Some of the dogs like to show their excitement by trying to shove their paws in your face. Their paws have claws attached to them. Claws > the skin on your face. These dogs are best harnessed on the ground, and not on their houses, where they would have the benefit of being at eye level with you.
  2. Never, under any circumstances, try to control the biggest, squirmiest dog (pictured above) with a single index finger hooked through the loop of said dog’s collar. He will invariably launch himself off his house between your arm and your body, nearly ripping off your index finger until you let go at the last second, and take off down the trail until he gets distracted by a shiny object or a female sled dog in heat, and you can catch him.
  3. Some dogs get so excited, they poop themselves while being harnessed. Don’t laugh at them, they can still claw your face off.
  4. Some male dogs show their excitement by humping anything they can get their paws around, be it a female dog (even spayed females), other male dogs, a post, or your leg. It’s okay to make them stop.

Once she gets the leaders hooked up and pointed down the trail, she takes over on the sled, unties the rope, preps herself, pulls the snow hook, and takes off!

Afternoon ViewAs they leave the yard and turn out on the trail, all the dogs left in the yard slowly stop barking, and eventually they begin to howl mournfully. This lasts a few minutes, and then all is quiet again. I head up to the house and dump more raw meat in a bucket, add hot water, and bring it back out to the gear box. I also scoop up anything left by the dogs at the hookup line. Then I go inside and wait. Every time the sled dogs start barking, I have to go to the window to see if the boss is on her way back yet (she’s usually gone for one to two hours), so it’s pretty hard to concentrate on anything important for that time.

Once I see the team headed back across the field behind our cabin, I pull on my jacket, hat, and mittens, and head out to the hookup line. As the team comes into the yard, I coax the leaders to keep the dogs pulling up to the last post, and then unhook one leader from the line so I can attach the line to the secure hookup line, preventing the dogs from veering around with a long length of knee-level rope. We detach the tug lines, unharness the dogs, and put them back on the hookup line. Then I go around and dish out broth from the bucket I prepared earlier. We coil up the line, push the sled back up to the starting position, and cover it back up.

Now it’s time for lunch, which is usually a PB and J. I love peanut butter and jelly, and I have no problem eating one every day. And I basically have eaten one every day, for about 2 years now. Love love LOVE PB and J.

Right, so the next hour or so is spent working on whatever projects I have given myself, usually editing photos or looking to see if anyone has downloaded any of my pictures.

I take our two dogs out again, and if it’s not too cold, we play fetch. The “too cold” line seems to hover around 12°F. Any colder than that, and they start lifting their cold cold paws and hobble around trying to pee and poop as quickly as possible so they can get back inside and back on the couch.

Next:Part 3, Evenings

The Bucket List, Part 1, Mornings

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 first post, covering my mornings. Update: now with more pictures!

My life here in Alaska seems to contain an unending parade of buckets.

Typical morning viewI spend a significant portion of each day with a bucket in my hand, mostly the 5-gallon variety, but occasionally the smaller 1-gallon pail and the medium sized cat litter container (it has a handle, it’s a bucket). There is also the variety of bucket that I carry around at the end of a long handle, but I’ll get to that.

I wake up in the morning, check my email, eat a quick breakfast, and walk our two dogs. I then amble up to the garage, where I fill three 5-gallon buckets with dog food. I fill those buckets with another bucket. I add water with another bucket. I also add some fat, in the form of lard or frozen chicken fat, liquefied in the microwave (and it smells great). The three dog food buckets are placed on a bright orange plastic sled, which I drag into the dog yard to the sound of 40-some dogs telling me they’re hungry, as loud and often as they can.

Mah Buckets

I pick up a bucket, and carry it to each dog, dumping a saucepan full of food into their bowls. Some dogs also get medicine with their food, but not with every feeding, so that can be confusing sometimes. Some of the oldest dogs also get raw meat scraps with their kibble, to entice them to eat more. I pick up and carry each of the three buckets around the yard until they are empty, then return the buckets and sled to the garage. That takes about an hour.

After feeding, I let the puppies out of their fenced in yard, and allow them to run around while I scoop the yard. This involves the bucket with the long handle I mentioned above. In one hand, I hold this long handled bucket (think long handled dustpan, only totally enclosed except one side). In the other, I hold a metal bar that’s attached to a flat metal plate. This is the chipper. I use it the whack at dog poop that’s frozen to the ground (snow, since October), and after it comes loose, I smack it into the scoop bucket. I visit every dog circle, and scoop whatever I find. When the scoop bucket is full, I dump it into a bright blue sled, and continue scooping. Once the yard is clean, I take the blue sled and dump it into a pit away from the yard.

Some things I’ve learned about scooping:

  1. First and foremost, never smile, laugh, sing, mouth-breath, or otherwise part your lips while whacking a frozen turd with the chipper. Turd-dynamics dictate that not all poops will dislodge in a single piece, and some may explode when high-velocity contact is made with the chipper, resulting in frozen poop fragments traveling in an upward trajectory.
  2. Some frozen poops are actually well-disguised freshies. See lesson 1, only replace “frozen poop fragments” with “splatter.”
  3. Some of the dogs like to pulverize their evacuations, for some reason. In snow, this ends up resembling something akin to mint chocolate chip ice cream. For this, the chipper is useless, and a rake has to be employed.
  4. In the winter, the poop pit tends to fill almost to the top with snow, which means I have to walk farther into it than during the summer. The lesson here is that just because the top is covered with 2 feet of frozen water, it doesn’t mean what’s underneath is frozen. Tread lightly.
  5. Dog turds, when frozen and accompanied by a not insignificant amount of snow and ice, are heavy, especially when collected in a bucket at the end of a long handle.

After scooping, I put the puppies back in their fence, usually by holding a bucket (the 1 gallon pail) with some dry food in it above their heads and then tossing it (the food, not the bucket) into their barn and then slamming the door after they race in to get it.

Depending on the weather, I sometimes dump some yummy raw meat in a bucket, and fill it with hot water, which I carry around and give each dog a scoopful of warm broth.

Sometimes I have little projects to do, like drilling holes in the cans we use for dog dishes so we can hang them on the posts, repairing dog houses, adding straw to the houses, or building a chew-proof door out of plywood, aluminum siding, a hand saw, and a hammer, for a dog that lives in a can. More on him in a later post, I promise.

Water FallThat’s it for the morning dog duty, so I now grab a couple of different 5-gallon buckets, and fill them with tap water from the boss’s house. I carry these about 100′ back to our cabin, and pour them into a big Rubbermaid container, then plug in the sump pump that’s sitting in the Rubbermaid. All that water gets pumped into a giant 35 gallon bucket that’s installed at about head-height in our bedroom/office/living room. Now we can do dishes!

At this point (~11:30am), it’s definitely time for second breakfast, since I burned off those two pieces of cinnamon toast long ago. Second breakfast can be a bowl of cereal, a grapefruit, or bacon and eggs, depending on the level of my hunger vs. my patience to fix something complicated.

For the next couple of hours, I read, study, update my websites, take pictures, take tech support calls, research tech problems or new gadgets, waste time on Facebook, etc. If I’m unlucky, we’ll have run out of fuel oil for our heater, so I’ll have to get out the fuel pump (made in Indiana, ironically), and hand pump 40-odd gallons of fuel oil from a big can on the ground into a big can on a platform beside the cabin.

Next: Part 2, Afternoons

An update

Skippy and I are still recovering from being sick. It’s cold, there’s a volcano that keeps acting like it’s going to erupt about 75 miles away, and we’re out of propane for cooking.

On the bright side, we have almost double the amount of daylight as a month ago, from 5 hours up to 9 or so now. Pretty soon it’ll be light all the time!

Update @ 19:26 – I enabled a plugin a few hours ago that apparently completely disabled my site. Awesome! I’ll have to do better testing when I’m messing around with these things!

Bigwoofs Photography: it lives!

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I’m giving everyone access to a whole lot of my photos, in full resolution, ready for printing. I’ll take donations, and sell you signed prints, but you’re free to take them and do almost anything you want with them.

Bigwoofs Photography

You’ll probably see most of the photos posted here first, then I’ll migrate them over to the free site as I have time. Not everything I post here will go on the site for download, but most will.

If you have any suggestions or find anything that doesn’t work, let me know!