Thursday, September 25, 2008

Short and Sweet

So, one Saturday a while back, I go in to an appointment to give vaccine to a dog. She pokes her little head out from under the exam table from time to time, looking shyly up at me with shining eyes, as I take the history (new dog, acquired four days ago from a rescue organization). She has been recently spayed, and from the looks of her has weaned pups not long ago, perhaps a month. She's a little thin and her coat is coarse and sparse, a bit dull, and I suspect her nutrition during her pregnancy and nursing was marginal at best - not surprising in a dog that has ended up, litter in tow, with a rescue group. She is a drab muddy black in color, with scruffy and disreputable tufts poking up here and there, of indeterminate parentage (though I suspect a little husky, some lab, and strains of some other unidentified ancestry). She is sweet-faced, though, with a whippety build and the absurd Sister-Bertrille-hat ears that often come with some sight-hound ancestry. She gives me a smile as I am reaching into the mini-frige under the counter to get the vaccine, squinting her eyes just a little to telegraph her good intentions, tail thumping a rapid tattoo on the floor.

"Well, hello there little one; are you a good pup?" I ask her - as if she can reply (why I do this, I never know, but I talk to nearly all my patients as if they are small children and can carry on a conversation with me - and ridiculously, I sometimes supply their half of the conversation as well. Oddly, my clients seem to find nothing bizarre about this. Perhaps they do the same at home.) In reply, my patient flattens her ears and wrinkles her lips ingratiatingly, gazing at me with soft eyes full of hope.

"She's a GREAT dog," the owner says fervently. I am surprised; she's just told me she adopted the dog only four days ago. It seems like she's hardly had time to have such absolute conviction about it.

"That sounds like there's a story attached," I say, as I fill my syringe.

"My other kids all like dogs, but my 13-year old is deathly afraid of them. I decided we had to get him through this, and maybe the best way was for us to have a dog. The right dog," she tells me. "We went to the rescue group to look and they had her on a runner out in the yard. I could tell by the way she was acting that she was safe to approach, but my son was scared of her. I told him, 'Go on, it's okay, go up to her' - but he would barely walk over to her, he was so scared. She was very excited, but I guess she saw that he was afraid, so instead of jumping on him like most dogs would, she sat down very quietly, looked up at him, and held up her left paw to him. That was it. He was in love."

"Oh, how charming!" I said, smiling at the dog (who smiled back.) "Good friends now, are they?"

The client gave me a benign look, full of peace. "She sleeps on his bed."

So it's a small little story, just a tiny event that took only a few minutes out of my life. But I loved the image of this one plain, neglected and unwanted little mongrel changing, in a single instant, the heart of a boy afraid of dogs. His world turned, that day, on a single upraised paw. And so did hers, as it turns out, because now she has a home where she is already much loved, and well-cared-for.

Some days, the good guys win.

Monday, September 22, 2008

The "A" List

So I used to have an "A" list of places I wanted to travel to. Coincidentally, all the destinations actually started with "A": Alaska, Africa, Australia (in no particular order). But they were the "A" list not for that, but because they were my top three fantasy destinations.

So one day, toward the end of my first year of vet school, it dawned on me I wasn't going to have summers off for much longer. I poked around and found a cheap charter ticket to Alaska, and booked myself a week's vacation.
Naturally in such situations you have no true expectations; how would you really know what it will be like? So there I was on my charter jet, minding my own biz, and I felt the plane begin its initial descent. You, know, that thing where you lose a bit of altitude before you start making the airport approach. Now, usually there's some urban and/or suburban sprawl for, I don't know, maybe 30 or more minutes before the airport approach. So when I feel the initial descent, I look out the window. There's one road. There's one car on that road. There are no houses.

Hm. THAT'S a bit different.

The plane banks around, lifting the wing on the port side (where I am sitting). The pilot eases out of the turn, dropping our wing back down to level. I look back down to the ground. And then I look up.

I was looking up a long wide valley, bordered on either side with mountains. I felt my heart turn over in my chest and I thought: Oh. I've just come home.

So then of course I immediately thought: Don't be an idiot, you haven't even set foot on the ground here, and yet you think you own the place. But my heart was leaping and my knees felt weak and there were butterflies in my stomach. And that sense of homecoming never left me, the entire time I was there.

It was strange, that. I was 28 years old at the time. I'd never felt that sense of home anywhere but Colorado, where I grew up. And I discovered that Alaska is a speaking land. I felt like, if I was just quiet enough, I could hear what She was saying. So I spent the entire week, no matter what I was doing, feeling like I was listening for something, something just below the threshold of hearing. There was this sense of... presence, maybe. I wanted to look over my shoulder; I almost felt like, if I turned around really fast, I might see something there, behind me, where I knew there was nothing. Nothing visible, anyway.

Interestingly, I had a friend (a classmate from vet school) who had worked for many years as a tour bus driver in Denali. He'd been called to take an extra bus out to the Kantishna Roadhouse, deep in the park. So I'd gone in with him - a drive of several hours, in the evening as the rest of the buses were leaving the park for the evening. After the Toklat River, we saw no one. It was a gorgeous evening, soft with a recent rain storm, and we drove through vast valleys, following caribou, watching grizzlies gorging on berries, stopping to watch a solitary moose browsing in a pond or stare in silent appreciation of a double rainbow arching across the sky. We passed Wonder Lake and kept on into the fading light, arriving at Kantishna late in the evening. My friend, B, was well-known out there, and we were warmly welcomed, fed and plied with drinks and stories (several of which featured the antics of someone named Wild Bill, alternatively known as Flamma-Bill or Combusta-Bill. Something to do with kerosene and an incinerator. I forget the details.)

The following morning we took a full load of tourists out, along with a naturalist who was acting as guide. She was a cheerful, bubbly sort, upbeat and lively. She was chatting with me, asking me questions in a friendly way: Where was I from, how did I know Bill, was this my first trip to Alaska? I said it was.

"And did you feel like you'd just come home?" she asked me, to my complete startlement. I thought: How does she know?

Even after I went home, I could not stop thinking about Alaska. I could hear her siren song at odd moments... when I was hiking, or late at night when I was tired and worn from the long days at school. When I was standing in my pasture, brushing down my mustang mare, or on clinics at school when I'd pause in my work for a moment to regroup. I went back, twice, and never lost my sense of enchantment. Of homecoming.

So, after vet school I interned in Sacramento for a year. During that time a friend I had made in Alaska - one who did a lot of travelling for his job for the state - offered to cash in some airline miles to fly me up for my birthday. Since my birthday is in January, this seemed like a good idea - a chance to see if the winters were really as harsh as I'd been told. As it turned out, just before I arrived he was chatting with a former neighbor of his, who was, at that time, the manager of the clinic where I now work. When my friend mentioned that I was coming up, she said, "Bring her by the clinic. We're looking for a new vet." So, at the end of my visit, I went by the clinic, meeting one of the two owners, toured the clinic, and asked when they were looking for a new doctor to start. April, I was told.

"Oh," I said, disappointed. "I won't be done with my internship until August."

"For the right person, we'd wait," he said.

"Should I send you a resume`?" I asked, and he said I should. So I went back to Sacramento and I sent a resume`. They sent me a job offer. [As a handy fringe benefit - or further bizarre coincidence - the director of my internship was personally acquainted with the owners of the Alaskan clinic and were able to give me a personal reference, having worked closely with me for the prior several months.]

But there's a twist.

As it happens, my friend and classmate B - he of Kantishna fame - was less than happy that I'd applied for that particular job. HE wanted that job, it transpired - but there was a catch: He was temporarily unlicenceable in Alaska. Well, even so; it wasn't worth losing a 4-year friendship, I figured. There were other jobs, after all. So I decided I'd call up and decline the offer. So I phoned the clinic. They got the owner on the phone. I identified myself and opened my mouth to tell him, "I'm sorry, but I'll have to decline that offer." The words were there, clear in my head. And I hear my mouth saying, "I'd like to accept that offer."

I break into a sudden cold sweat. My heart takes a sickening lurch in my chest. I feel slightly ill. I can tell I'm still holding a conversation, but I haven't got the faintest clue what I'm saying or hearing. I hang up the phone and think: What the HELL just happened here?

So now of course I'm all freaked out, wondering what I'm going to say to my friend B, wondering who hijacked my lips and how, exactly, that could have happened. I had the word "decline" in my head. I could HEAR it in my mind's ear. And it Just. Did. Not. Come. Out. That. Way.

It took a while, but I finally realized: My friend B couldn't take that job, whether I did or not, because of the licence limitations. And too... I had faith in him. I believed that he would find that the friendship was strong enough to withstand his angst over that, and that he would himself come to see that I was not taking HIS job, not taking any job he was eligible to accept. And I was right. He is, as I believed, too good a guy, and too honest within himself, to believe that I'd taken a job he could have had for himself. We're still good friends..... and he works much nearer his family, which seems to have worked out well for him.

So that's how I came to be in Alaska. Since then I've been to Africa (twice), but I've yet to make it to Australia. I still want to go there, though I've had other travel priorities sneak ahead of it (my birthday in Paris, for instance, or family reunion trips, and I want to go to Scotland, now, as well. And of course, now that I have sheep, New Zealand is calling.) With luck. I'll see them all, one day. My "A" list, expanded. But I still wake up a lot of days, feeling lucky, feeling wonder... because, after all, I actually live in my "A" list. And it's home.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Donuts in Hell

So, for some reason we've been hellatiously busy of late. That's fine; it means we're doing a lot of good, helping a lot of animals, helping a lot of people. And we always have a bit of a surge in clientele around PFD time; when the Permanent Fund disbursements come out, people have a little extra wiggle room in their bank accounts. We do more dentals around PFD time than any other month of the year, for instance; dental cleanings are often a sort of "maintenance" item, something that gets done routinely but often isn't immediately life-threatening, so there's some leeway on choosing WHEN you do them.

It's also true that, should something emergent occur, clients have a little financial breathing room so they can go after things they way they'd like to, rather than the way their finances might dictate at other times of the year. But even so, we've been freakishly busy. We've just hired two new vets, so you'd think that I might be less busy, as they take some of the appointments. Hasn't worked out that way, though. The workload is amplified more for the techs than it is for me, since we did NOT hire two new techs to take up the slack, so they're scrambling at the moment.

Our techs are great, and we try our best not to overwhelm them. But sometimes circumstances don't cooperate.

Friday we had a dog come in that had been in labor since the previous night. She'd produced three pups, all dead; the dog herself had once been hit by a car and had had a pelvic fracture which had narrowed her pelvis. This is something we always discuss with the owner, since in an intact bitch it might (or might not) affect her ease of whelping. In this case, it appears that it did. So, into our already-full surgery book we added a C-section. Or, in this case, a C-spay, since the owners wisely elected not to attempt breeding this dog again.

C-sections are time consuming; it's not the surgery so much - once you get the dog induced, you go like blazes to get the puppies out, so as to limit their anesthetic exposure - and because you make a pretty big incision, the spay part is actually easier than usual. What takes time is puppy resuscitation. No matter what, there's some anesthetic exposure, and by definition, if the dog needs an emergency C-section, the pups have been delayed in their delivery and are in need of help. In this case, the four remaining pups were delivered alive, and two of them responded quickly, breathing readily and warming up quickly. The other two required a lot more intervention, voiceless even after their siblings were chorusing lustily in their high, warbling cries. In between appointments I go back into the treatment area, trying to help for a few minutes between cases. Two of the pups are trying to crawl out of their impromptu bassinet, while the other two are being worked on by the techs. I pick up the two lively ones, who are starting to chill a little, having crawled repeatedly out from under their warming blankets. I snuggle them under my chin, sharing body heat. The mom is out of surgery now, still recovering from anesthetic, and I express a little milk from one of her nipples, putting the noisiest puppy on the nipple. She suckles inexpertly, still crying. Dr. N comes back and takes the other puppy, trying the same maneuver on another nipple. Well, they're not great at it, but they're trying.

I get called back up front to take appointments, and the next time I go to check, the mom is awake but uninterested in the puppies. Two of the techs are coaxing the mom to lay quietly and accept a little scritching, and incidentally also accept the pups nursing.

This actually works with surprising ease in this case; some dogs will not accept the pups at all, and others take longer to accept these strange little alien noisemakers, lined up along their recently-operated belly and sucking on them. (Some bitches, with strong maternal drive, are trying to clean the puppies before they have even woken up fully from their C-section. We like when it happens, but it's a lot to expect, after all.... the dog has been struggling for hours in labor, has been yanked out of its familiar surroundings, drugged, operated on, and then woken up in a strange hospital setting and presented with a number of unfamiliar little creatures who are demanding attention right this minute.) Luckily, though, this dog is getting the hang of it before very long, overcoming the distractions of her circumstances and starting to take an interest in her babies.

This successful outcome is quite gratifying, but it HAS thrown off the surgery schedule quite a lot. Even with four techs, it's a busy morning. Dr. M - who has a day off - happens in to the clinic for reasons unrelated to work, and ends up being roped into helping out. He spends an hour making things easier for the techs, and then makes noises about leaving again.

"Hey!" says J. "How come YOU get to leave? Here we are, in desperate need of DONUTS, and you're just going to LEAVE us here?" she demands. Dr. M, recognizing that his fate in the immediate future will be determined by pastry, wisely elects to placate the sugar cravings of the scrambling crew and returns shortly with two boxes of donuts. Busy up front, the first I know of it is when I go into the treatment area (with a dog to be X-rayed, more work) and smell the unmistakable aroma of maple glaze. There have been serious inroads made, and there are telltale traces of sugar crumbs and sprinkles on certain people's smocks. Hmm. It's 11:30 and I still have procedures to do, having been pushed back like everyone else to accommodate the C-section. I'll probably develop hypoglycemia before I have a chance to eat lunch. Hypoglycemia is dangerous, you now. I could DIE. I'd better eat a cruller while my X-ray is developing.

We keep chipping away at it, and the remaining procedures are mostly routine and relatively quick. For some reason we have a line-up of very cute dogs in, as well, so it's easy to be in a chipper mood. I defy you, for example, to walk past this pup without cracking a smile:

That's E lurking behind the pug mix. Her hair really IS that beautiful - and she's a marvelous girl, smart and funny and very pretty, as well as cheerful and calm and capable. We love our E. It's my good luck that she's my Saturday tech.

We also had The Cutest Sheltie In The World. He is also the Sweetest Sheltie In The World.

Unfortunately, the afternoon is equally as busy as the morning, so there isn't much time to enjoy cuddling our patients. It's bloodwork after X-rays after hotspot after abscess all afternoon. Around 3 p.m. E's work day is done, and she departs. Shortly thereafter, Dr. J - who hasn't had lunch yet - decides that 3:30 p.m. is better than never.

"I'm going to leave the hell-hole and go get some lunch," he says, smirking in a way that tells me he's joking about something.

"Eh?" I ask him. He smiles.

"When E left, she asked if we had it under control, and J told her 'Go, go! You'd better leave this hell-hole while you still can!' - So now I'm leaving it, too," he explains, while J chortles.

Well, I guess I can see why J was feeling shell-shocked and harried, given the day we've had. She's barely had a moment to catch her breath, and we're still not done for the day. It certainly has been a hellatiously busy day for her. Still.... it may be hell, but at least we have donuts!

The Alligator Child

Some days you're the hero, some days... not so much.

Last week I had the most adorable little terrier mix come in. I mean adorable. I challenge anyone to see this little dog and not go "Awww...!" He's a seven-pound puppy, about 5 months old, sort of a creamy peach color, with a scruffy little face and mismatched ears, one of which goes strait up and the other of which appears to be tuning in to a radio station from Russia and is as a result half-lopped and set a bit a-kilter on his head. He is wiry and compact, with a lively expression and bright little chocolate-drop eyes and an endearing head tilt. And he has a bump about the size of a marble below his left eye.

Not surprisingly, he has come to see me to investigate this lump. When I walk in the room, he is on the table, sniffing industriously around. His owner, a very pretty, very nice young woman, details his history for me. The lump just came up 2 days ago, it's getting bigger, and he doesn't like her to touch it, although she was able to look inside his cheek to see if she could see any wound on the inside of it (which she was not.)

I listen to the puppy's heart and do the rest of his physical, saving his owie for last. He isn't at ALL sure I should be allowed to touch him, let alone press a stethoscope to his chest (what kind of pervert am I?), but nothing too untoward happens until I try to gently smooth his wiry hair back so I can assess his bump.

All of a sudden, an amazing transformation takes place. What before was a cute charming little pup, if a somewhat aloof one, is suddenly a snarling, snapping, lightning-fast Tasmanian devil of a dog. Hmm. This looks like a job for a muzzle. I make mention of this to his owner, who has a slightly stunned look; evidently this is the first she's seen of this kind of behavior and she is quite shocked at it, and is slightly horrified that I've suggested muzzling her puppy.

"I can't get bitten today," I tell her, sympathetic but matter-of-fact. "It's not good on the best of days, but we're completely swamped today and we need all hands. If one of us has to go to the hospital, a lot of pets go without care. Also, I'm a bit concerned that he'll bite YOU, and I don't want that. He made a dang good try just now, and I'd hate to see you need stitches in your face." She nods, still looking a bit shell-shocked, and repeats that she has just never seen him act this way. I depart for the muzzle drawer, reflecting that it's probably as Sharon, my receptionist (and a dog trainer for over 30 years) says: this kind of thing pretty much never comes from a clear blue sky. The puppy has probably been telling the owner for some time that HE is the one in charge, but she hasn't recognized his signals for what they are. She's not alone. This is not an infrequent happening. I make mention of this to the owner on my return, and she allows that the puppy IS "kind of demanding", which I take to mean that he tells her what he wants and expects her to do it, and that he also tells her what he DOESN'T want, and expects her to knock it off. And he's probably been doing it for a while. Meanwhile our puppy is glaring at me with ill-concealed dislike, and if I move either hand in any way he lunges at me, growling. His owner restrains him and corrects him, but it's not making much of an impression.

We manage, with some difficulty, to get a muzzle on the dog, and I am able to palpate the facial mass. It's a bit firm for the standard abscess, but I do detect a tiny spot where there's some give, so I think that (despite the unusual feel of it) that it is indeed an abscess. I explain this to the owner, and tell her that even in the best of circumstances I wouldn't want to go after an abscess without anesthesia; it hurts, the dog doesn't understand why you're doing stuff to him, and no matter how cooperative or stoic a dog is, I personally don't want to be anywhere near the eye of an awake dog with a scalpel blade. All the dog has to do is twitch and you've got a real problem. Seeing the logic, the owner allows me to hospitalize the dog for anesthesia and treatment.

Now the fun begins.

This puppy has demonstrated a willingness to bite his owner and me without hesitation. I'm thinking I'll get sedation on board before I take the muzzle off. I carefully pluck the puppy from his owner's arms, have her sign paperwork (while he stares at her reproachfully), and take him to the back. Still holding him one-handed (since I suspect that the minute he gets out of my grasp he'll be close to impossible to pick up again), I draw up his pre-meds. I need more hands to hold him while I inject, so I locate a helper in the form of K, a receptionist, dog groomer and tech-in-training. She gets a grasp of our erstwhile terror mix - er, terrier mix - and I insert the smallest needle I have under his skin. The effect is instantaneous. He lets out a loud scream and flails wildly, simultaneously urinating all over K. Somehow he gets a foot out of her grasp and swipes his muzzle off, lunging at her with jaws agape. Sensibly, she drops him on the table, where he begins to pace, looking over the edge to see if he can jump down. K throws a towel over him and gets a grip on him, but with more screaming and snarling and furious wiggling he manages to squirt forward and begins to emerge from under the towel. K regroups quickly, cowls his clashing jaws, and I manage to get his premeds injected, while he shrieks in rage and craps all over the table. See? I told you. The fun is just beginning.

We insert him into a cage, where he calms down instantly and begins to take an interest in his surroundings. He's still the cutest thing you can imagine, cocking his head to watch other patients going to and fro, and as long as we aren't doing anything to him, he's perfectly calm and relaxed. After a while his meds make him sleepy, and he lays sternal, head turning to watch the goings on, eyelids at half mast. I am not fooled, though; this dog is very smart, and I'm pretty sure he's not forgotten that he Does Not Like Us. My suspicions are soon confirmed; when he's up in the lineup for anesthesia, one of my techs, E, lassos him with a leash and coaxes him out. So far so good. She reaches gently to pick him up and he immediately goes into his newly-perfected alligator act: Not waiting for one of us to do something he doesn't like, and having learned from the muzzle experience, he opens his jaws as wide as possible, exposing a lot of sharp white teeth, and turns his head from side to side, covering all approaches. I get a towel and dangle it in front of him, toreador-style, while E takes advantage of his distraction and scoops him up. (I am fairly certain that this move only worked because of the sedation; had be been at full strength, I think we'd still be trying to catch him.)

Now we have to get another muzzle on him. He has figured out that his mouth has to be closed (or nearly so) for me to get a muzzle on him, so he continues with his gape-jawed growling and feinting. I get out a tourniquet, a length of black rubber cord with a metal slip-release on it. I make a big loop. Nope, not big enough. I make a bigger one, manage to loop it over his gaping jaws, and then draw it tight, closing his jaws and temporarily confining them. The tourniquet isn't designed for this use, and is at risk of slipping off the end of his nose, so I put a muzzle on over it and buckle it securely, laying the ends of the tourniquet cord over the top of his head for E to hold onto while I give him his induction meds. He still fights us, but E has a gift for calm persistence, and she ignores his histrionics and holds off a leg for me while I locate a vein and get some anesthesia into him. Ahhh. Everyone can relax now. The Alligator Child is now slumbering peacefully. E takes off his muzzle and tourniquet, we intubate him and start his gas anesthesia. I am now free to examine his mouth at leisure; he was giving me a damn good look at it earlier, but in all honesty I wasn't all that interested in putting my fingers in there to feel around while he was awake. I'm such a coward.

E shaves his bump and I lance it. Hmm. Not much pus (drat! I LOVE pus!). I get some mosquito hemostats and gently explore the pocket. Ahhhh. A foreign body. I grasp it and extract a sizey fox tail awn. Well, no wonder he was crabby. I can hardly believe the awn would even fit in there. It's quite huge. It might not be pus, but it's quite as satisfying.

I flush the abscess out, search it for more awns (finding none) and we give an antibiotic injection. Though I have not asked the owner about this, I elect to use one that lasts for 2 weeks so that she doesn't have to medicate the dog at home. For some reason I'm having a premonition that this would not be an easy task. (Call me crazy.) We recover out little FeistyBoy from anesthesia without incident and I entomb the awn in clear tape for the owner's edification. I call her and go over my findings (she is grateful for the 2-week injection) and we discuss aftercare. I also mention training, and suggest she investigate both a trainer and the NILIF (Nothing In Life Is Free) theory of training. Later, when she comes to pick him up, he is back in his cage, alligatoring his mouth at anyone who tries to reach in there. What the hell, it's worked for him so far. Mostly. But when his owner arrives, he closes his mouth and looks rather relieved to see her, trundling out of his cage and consenting to be picked up.

So that's a day where the medicine went right and the dog will get well.... but I'm pretty sure I'm in the "Not So Much" category of the puppy's "Hero" list.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Dodging the Bullet

So tonight I'm on call and I get a call about a Rottie who, the owner says, is the size of a small black bear, and who they think has been shot.

Oh, goodie. This could be fun. Not. A large, painful dog, possibly in shock, possibly (in view of these things) inclined to have toothy objections to being handled, and who will have to be hoiked onto the Xray table at minimum, and perhaps other places as well. Oh, well. Duty calls.

I cruise on in and meet the owners, who, it transpires, aren't exaggerating much about the size of their dog. It's a nice-tempered but painful 4 year old Rott, who indeed has what appears to be a gunshot wound on his right side. He is also tall and big-framed, and somewhat chubby. Okay, a little more than somewhat.

The physical exam fails to reveal an exit wound, nor does it tell me where the bullet travelled from the place it entered the dog, amidships on the right side of the abdomen. In that position it could have gone strait through, penetrating the belly (and if so very likely piercing gut, which would be bad), or it could have travelled forward or back or up or down. Fortunately, the dog is reassuringly pink in the gums and walked into the clinic under his own steam, although he is pretty willing to lay down the minute the opportunity presents itself. This doesn't rule out the possibility of Something Bad Inside, but at least the dog is stable for the moment.

The owners okay an Xray of the abdomen to localize the bullet. Somehow the male owner manages to heave the dog onto the Xray table (I estimate that the owner weighs perhaps 20# more than the dog, if that, since my patient is in the 150# neighborhood, and the owner is a lean, compact sort of guy). Between the owner, his wife and I, we manage to lay the dog down on his uninjured left side. This requires a certain amount of grunting and straining and breathless exhortations for him to please lay down, after about 3 minutes of which he finally succumbs to our will and allows himself to be stretched out on his side. I invent an Xray technique (since our technique chart only goes up to 24 cm, and this dog measures 28.5), truss myself up in various leaden garments, shoo the owners out of the room and shoot a film. My patient, meanwhile, having realized that the Xray table isn't really that uncomfortable (and also that in this position he can be conveniently petted by both owners), has relaxed and stretched out like a beached walrus, basking in the murmured endearments of his tearful owners, while their rather adorable little girl watches gravely from the doorway.

I develop the film - which is barely dark enough, despite my generous estimate of the necessary kVp - and discover that this dog has gotten lucky. The bullet (which looks like a .22) travelled up and back from the entry, lodging itself in the backstrap. In that position, and given the dog's general physical signs, there's about a two out of three chance that the abdomen has not been penetrated in any way that will cause problems. This is a Good Thing, since the owners cannot afford to open the dog up to make sure.

We elect to do what we can do, which is to treat to prevent infection and control pain. I clean the wound and the owner eases the dog onto the floor, grunting and huffing as he lowers him gently to the ground. I get to the computer and am entering charges and talking to the owners about aftercare and rechecks, explaining why it's better not to suture the entry wound, when I hear the beep that means that someone has come in the building. Eh? It's 9:30 p.m. We're after hours, locked down except for the back door where I've let the owners go out to get their checkbook, and the only people who should be here are me and my clients. I look over my shoulder and in walks Dave, my BF. Well. MY night just got better.

"Hey!" I say to him, pleased. "What are you doing here?"
"I was on my way home, saw your truck, figured it was Pet E.R. in here, thought I'd stop in and visit," he says. He looks at the Rottie, offering his knuckles to sniff, and (in his usual style) is soon schmoozing with the owners, inquiring about their dog, listening to their account of the events of the day (which they, venting their stress, are all too happy to relate, babbling slightly in their relief that their dog is likely to be reparable with nothing but medication and nursing care.) I invite them to go have a look at the Xray while I poke around on the computer, and hear one of the owners solemnly telling Dave that the bullet is magnified to ten times its actual size on the film. (EH? I did mention that there was a slight magnification effect, but I don't recall anything about "ten times actual size". Oh, well.)

I script out meds, make sure the client is clear on aftercare and what signs to watch for should things not be going as hoped. Dave walks them out, holding doors for them, and then comes and fills me in on his day as I'm shutting down the clinic. As is his habit, he asks me about my other emergency calls that day. I mention that this was my second GSW in a week; a bit odd, since I haven't seen one in well over a year.

"Both shot in the same area?" Dave asks.
"Yes, actually, although the other dog was shot on the left, not the right," I say.
"No, I mean, were they in the same area?" He says.
"Yes, both lumbar," I say.
"No," Dave says, laughing. "I mean, were both dogs shot while in the same neighborhood?"
"Oh," I say. (Duh.) "No, one was up in Peters Creek," I tell him.

I button down the clinic and we go out into the cool night, letting Pepper out to romp around and urinate on things. We load ourselves into our respective trucks and as I'm driving home I'm thinking that I'm due one more; it's weird how often these things really DO come in threes. I just hope that if I do get another one, it follows a similar pattern and (so to speak) dodges the bullet.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Literary Lions

So, Alaska is a HUGE state, but a small town. The entire state is a small town. There aren't that many people up here, relatively speaking, so it's amazing how often you know someone who knows someone. Or you just get to know someone yourself. The alleged "famous" in AK are just thick on the ground some days, it seems.

Anyone who follows mushing at all (and even a few who don't) will have heard of a number of people I've had as clients (past and present) and/or have met any number of times. Martin Buser, Jeff King, Karen Ramstead, Dee Dee Jonrowe, the Reddington dynasty (I met Joe and Vi before they died, and know some of their children and grandchildren), Libby Riddles, Charlie Boulding, Vern Halter, John Baker, Linwood Feidler, the incomparable Lance Mackey.... and many more, lesser-known outside Alaska, but still remarkable athletes and mushers in their own right. And there are others, related to mushing but not themselves mushers, like Hobo Jim. I've been to Hobo Jim concerts in the Knik Bar (and let me tell you, that's a hell of a show, for anyone who hasn't sen him in person; he's an amazing vocalist and an even more amazing guitarist). I've chatted with him and had him sign one of his CDs for me. One of my clients owns River, the blind sled dog from the books. Another is better known as Dusty Sourdough (also from the books, not to mention the stage show at the Sourdough Mining Company.) Shadow Spirit, the dog from the books, was one of my patients until her death. One of my clients wrote Danger the Dog Yard Cat the and Storm Run and was the first woman ever to win Iditarod. Several clients have been on TV, starring in commercials. Some of them have rubbed shoulders with Olympic greats (and some have rubbed a lot more than shoulders with them, as one pair of clients are the parents of an Olympic gold medalist.) One transient client probably knows a number of Hollywood's finest, as he trains wild animals for movie work. Some are amazing artists. Some are TV reporters.

Most of the time they seem like just folks, moseying on in to the clinic to do business as usual, and many of them I didn't know were famous until after I'd already kind of gotten used to them; when I first came to Alaska I wasn't versed on all the local "celebs" of mushing, and by the time I knew who many of them were, relative to their sport, I'd already blown my chance to get a thrill from just meeting them; they were already part of the fabric of life here, and at that point you really can't go back and be the starry-eyed awe-stricken fan meeting a legend for the first time. Oh, well; that might be for the best. You miss out on the thrill, but you also miss out on the opportunity to make a complete idiot of yourself. I find that I have plenty of opportunities to do that anyway. Open mouth, insert foot..... or else, just act like a complete geek. That's equally embarrassing, in retrospect.

Today, for instance, I go to take an appointment. I glance over the chart - a dog in for me to check his tail - and I happen to notice that the client's name is Gary Paulsen. Smiling to myself at the coincidence, I go into the room, where two men and a sled dog are waiting.

"So, we're here to take a look at his tail today?" I ask. The men nod, hoiking the dog up on the table for me to have a look. I inspect the wound, which unfortunately has enough skin missing that I'll be unlikely to be able to improve it with surgery. The owners detail the treatments they've done at home (antibiotics, begun the night before). We go over options, and I pause to update my chart notes.

"You know," I say, "I bet you've been told this before, but you have the same name as the writer of one of the funniest books I've ever read," I say to the older of the two clients.

"Really?" he says. "What's that?"

"Winterdance," I say.

The client nods. "That's me," he says.

"I'm sorry?" I say, not sure that I've just heard him tell me he's THAT Gary Paulsen.

"I wrote that," he says, matter-of-factly. There's no trace of boast, no pridefulness, just an admission of fact.

"Really?" I ask. "I'm going to have to get your autograph before you leave," I tell him. He gives me a sort of half-smile, shyly pleased. "I have to tell you, " I add, "That one scene, where you're about to take your team on a training run and you have the gang line tied to your bicycle, and the dogs are starting to pull and the gangline is starting to thrum like a just-plucked guitar string and you're just starting to think, "Hmmm, maybe this isn't the best idea..." right before the dogs snap the brake line and you go rocketing out the driveway... that's one of the funniest things I've ever read. "

Mr. Paulsen nods. "I never did find all the pieces of the bike," he says. I can't help it. I laugh.

"Well, it was one of the funniest things I've ever read," I say. "I was laughing so hard I couldn't breathe and tears were running down my face - and I couldn't stop."

"Well," he says, smiling, "thank you."

"I should be thanking you," I tell him. "I'm grinning my head off just thinking about it now. It's given me a lot of pleasure over the years. I enjoyed the book enough that I bought a copy for my Dad - his own copy, not just recycling mine, because I think when you read something that good you should honor the author by buying a second copy for the person you want to share it with. I think he enjoyed it enough that he passed it on to my brother."

"That was one of the funny ones," he allows. ONE of the funny ones? I quickly quiz him on other titles that he thought were funny; he mentions Harris and Me.

"That's a bunch of stories about how this friend of mine and I got into all kinds of trouble on the farm when we were kids, one thing after another," he says, shaking his head. "Sometimes I don't know how we lived through all the stuff we used to get up to."

That's it. I have to see if I can find a copy of Harris and Me. And maybe Hatchet, which he also mentions. [Here I must also advise you that if you have not read Winterdance, you really really should. It's an honest and highly readable account of mushing and the Iditarod in its earlier days. And remember... laughing so hard you can't breathe.]

We finish up making a plan for the dog, I shave the hair away from around his wound (which he is very patient about), and we go up front where I get a piece of letterhead (since it's nice cotton bond paper, not the plain old typing paper that we use for most everything else.) Mr. Paulsen makes a little autograph written out to me. I depart for the back and the cases waiting for me there, thanking Mr. Paulsen again for all the enjoyment he's given me over the years from his writing, and telling him most sincerely that it's been a real pleasure to meet him. "And you,"I add to his companion, a gent named Leo, "although I didn't have as much to say about your writing," I add, with a grin.

"Leo's working on it, " Mr. Paulsen says. "He writes, too."

"Well, keep at it and bring me in a copy," I tell him.

I take my autograph back to my office and carefully stash it on a shelf, humming to myself. I think: Hmmm, maybe I can get a copy of Harris and Me and then call Mr. Paulsen up and suggest he might need a recheck for his sled dog, and by the way, could you inscribe this book for me...?

See? I'm telling you. A complete geek.

Monday, September 15, 2008

I have Sheep Lust

No, not THAT kind of sheep lust. What do you take me for?

What I have is a distinct longing for more sheep to add to my flock.

Right now I have five sheep, all Shetlands. I never in 1,000,000 years thought I would have sheep. Ever. I mean, I raised orphan lambs when we were kids (this started as a 4-H project, which I wasn't very good at... I loved raising the lambs - and I WAS good at that - but I hated the record-keeping that the 4-H-ers wanted you to do, I didn't like showing them, and I really really didn't like that my little lambs were going to slaughter in the fall, to reside in our freezer for later consumption. For one thing, I didn't like the taste of lamb, particularly, and for another... ick. That was my pet. It just seemed wrong. But I had no choice in the matter, at the time.)

As you might imagine, all of that sort of put me off of the idea of ever having sheep as an adult. But. I got Border collies. Now, I will say this is not my fault; Pepper forced me (FORCED me, I tell you) to fall in love with Border collies. It is futile to resist. It's part of her Evil Genius. So once I fell in love with Pepper - which I will remind you was not my fault - more Borders were an inevitability. And then I found myself on an Internet chat board-o-BCs. And then I got sucked into the world-o-BCs a little bit more and a little bit more... and suddenly one day I was taking my dog for training. And then - quite by accident, I assure you - I got another BC, this one bred out of a good working farm dog belonging to a friend of mine, and by [cough cough] the dog who won of the 2007 National Cattle Dog Finals (and placed in the top 10 in 2008).

Still, I thought I was safe. Ignorance is bliss, and all that. After all, I had no place to keep sheep. I have no sheds or outbuildings, and as I live on a ridge, not enough flat land for stock pens. But I did not figure on The Power of the Border Collie. I look back on it now and shake my head at my childish innocence. I'd only had my stockdog pup for a year when The Worst happened.

I got sheep.

It certainly looked like an accident. A client who had to downsize her flock offered me some registered Shetlands "for free". A neighbor who used to have sheep (but had gotten out of them for a while) had been missing having sheep on her farm and was willing to trade chores and board for lambs. Suddenly I found myself riding in a pickup truck, hauling a stock trailer into a farm yard and wondering when, exactly, I had gone completely insane.

I'm still not sure when it happened. I AM fairly certain that it was sometime before I found myself helping two other women wrestle a large and annoyed ram by his (rather impressive) horns into the stock trailer. And it was definitely before we all started tackling a series of ewes who were the approximate wildness and agility of your average mule deer (although luckily, not so tall). It was certainly before I was helping my friends unload the sheep into their new pen. But by then it was too late. Bemused, I asked my sister: "When did I become a farmer?" She said: "You've always been a farmer. You just haven't always had livestock."

So, in went my new ram with my new ewes, with the hopes of producing tasty little lambs in the spring. Because, in the many years since I reared 4-H bottle lambs, I'd made two discoveries: One, I like the way lamb tastes. A lot. Especially if it's Shetland, which really does have a distinctly different flavor from the usual market breeds. And two, I STILL don't think it's right to eat bottle babies... but I have a lot less objection to eating lambs bred for production, reared by their own mothers, and not made into pets.

So, come spring, there was lambing. Here are two of my ewes, plus one lamb (daughter of the brown ewe, Nutmeg). For the uninitiated, in Shetlands, "brown" is referred to as "moorit" (which is probably Gaelic for something much more elegant than merely "brown".) This lamb - a ewe lamb, which means one I won't eat and therefore named - was quite huge, literally twice the size and weight of the other lambs. Hence we call her Gigantor. Don't ask me why she's eating a feather. Probably she'd already disposed of the rest of the bird and is using it to pick the bird fragments out of her teeth. Just in case there should be any awkward questions later on, or maybe forensic investigation for incriminating evidence.

This is Zena with her spotted lamb. He was a little weak at the start, so we put him in a lamb sweater. Lamb sweaters are made of Army-surplus neck-gaiters with leg-holes cut in them. Wool, nnaturally. (What else? No self-respecting sheep would be caught dead in, for instance, cotton - or, God forbid, poly-pro.)

The black ram-lamb. We started him in a sweater too, but he took it off. Maybe he thinks wool is itchy.

Gratuitous picture of adorable baby goats of Wildwood Farm, which may be the only thing on earth cuter than lambs. They may also be the only thing brattier than Gigantor.

Aaaand, more of Gigantor (whose middle name should be Houdini, as she has demonstrated quite a talent for escape, mainly by squirting through the square wire. You'd think that would be over now, as she's much bigger, but she still makes escapes from time to time. I don't know how. Levitation, perhaps.) I told you. Bratty.

This is my ram, Trinity.

Now, here I must pause to say that rams in general can't be trusted and most of them are right pains in the arse (or knee, or hip, or wherever they decide to - well, ram you). Trinity, however, is the kindest, calmest, most good-hearted and gentle ram I've ever met. This is not to say I ever really turn my back on him or completely trust him. It's also not to say he's okay with you taking his ewes away (which we do in order to control when he breeds them, so that we don't have lambs too early in the chilly Alaskan spring). In fact, come late summer, when he's getting a little rammy and starting to think amorous rammy thoughts, he isn't really even okay with you taking the chickens out of his pen. (Don't ask me why the chickens like to hang out in his pen, but they do. Also do not ask me what, exactly, he thinks he might DO with the chickens, but suffice it to say that he Is Seriously Not Okay with you taking them out of his pen). However... if you, say, want to bring him food or water, he stands back politely as you enter the pen, and then follows at a respectful three-foot remove, waiting patiently for you to fill his manger and walk away before he goes into his gluttonous, I'm-being-starved-here, they-haven't-fed-me-for-a-month act. Also, once you get your hands on him (for shearing or worming, or to have his feet trimmed or his blood drawn), he's really pretty tractable - easier in temperament than any of the ewes. Even easier yet in that he comes equipped with a pair of useful handles, in the form of those nice full-curl horns. The shearer loves him; she says he's amongst the easiest sheep she's ever shorn (AND she can't say enough about how nice his wool is). Plus, he never went after me for treating Nutmeg when she had eclampsia, even though they were penned together. Still.... even Trinity isn't above trying to run down a stockdog, and I never lose track of where he is when I'm in the pen.

Now that you see how handsome he is, can you blame me for wanting more ewes for him? Besides... lamb. Yum. And wool. Nice wool. Sheep to work my dog with. And maybe some dairying... sheep cheese.... sheep-milk soap.... sheep-milk yogurt.... sheep milk in my coffee.... D'you think I can make sheep-milk ice cream? And no, I am NOT psychotic. I am blinded. By sheep lust.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Moose Tales and Farewell Trails

So today, a client calls in to tell us she needs her dog looked at because she woke up this morning to find it entangled in its runner cable with a moose.

Yikes. This doesn't sound good. Moose are large and (potentially) quite dangerous and have been known to stomp people - let alone dogs - to death. By and large moose are peaceful, if left alone, but if you piss them off, you'd better be carrying a gun or be really fast - or really lucky.

This is a picture of a cow moose and a pair of week-old calves. I apologize for the graininess of the pictures, but because I don't have a death wish, I took this photo from my second floor window (through a window screen) rather than trotting down to the driveway and asking her to pose. (It was also between 10:30 and 11:00 at night, and my film wasn't quite fast enough for the conditions.)

That's a 55-gallon drum in front of the cow, which she could probably step over without scraping her belly.

The next two pictures (which I took from my back porch, inside the relative safety of my six-foot chain-link fence) are to try to give some perspective; that's my Dodge Sport Cab that she's dwarfing in the driveway (this is a mid size truck, the top of the cab of which is about 5 feet high.)

Mooses is tall!
(Okay, I admit this one is just here because moose calves are sooo cute.)
So, this may give you some sense of my trepidation. I'm wondering how the woman managed to get the dog disentangled from the runner cable so she can bring it in, and if it will be reparable. But when the dog arrives, it walks in under its own steam. I ask the woman how she got it away from the moose.
"The moose untangled itself from the runner somehow," she tells me. "My dog was just laying out there and I thought maybe she was dead, but as soon as the moose walked off, she sat up. I think the moose walked into the runner in the dark and got snarled up, and she tore the runner down and got tangled up in the cable."
I do my exam. Miraculously, the dog has very few injuries. She has a small hemorrhage in the white of one eye - possibly from being kicked, but I can find no bruising in the surrounding tissue, so I suspect it's more likely from being choked by her collar while the moose was thrashing around in the cable. This is consistent with the other injury the dog has, which is a sore neck, which she is (unsurprisingly) reluctant to flex. Her chest is clear, she has no lacerations or fractures, no lamenesses, no neurologic deficits and no broken teeth. This is a lucky dog. I prescribe some pain medication and ask the owners to keep her off a leash, collar or runner for several days until she heals. About this time I notice that the owner is sneezing.
"Are you allergic to her?" I ask. The owner, still sneezing, nods. This explains why the dog was overnighting outside. "Urk, sorry about that," I tell her. "Can you set her up inside?"
"Yes, we'll figure something out," she smiles, sniffling. I certainly hope so; we've been in the room for about 10 minutes, and she's already watery-eyed and congested. Doesn't sound like a fun time ahead for her. I hope she has some good antihistamines.
So this is a moose story with a happy ending. The moose appears to have escaped unscathed and none the worse for wear, and while no doubt shaken up and a bit sore, the dog will be fine in a few days. Not all of them work out so well. The last patient I treated for tangling with a moose was a dog named Toby, who I also saw today. Toby had about a million things go wrong with him in his life; I first met him after a bite wound to his tail had become infected, which resulted in the amputation of about a third of it. Unfortunately, the infection had already spread to his legs, so as a consequence of that he lost a couple of toes about 2 weeks later. He healed up, eventually. But about a year later he developed thyroid disease. However, we stabilized him and he did well for quite a while, apart from some minor dings and boo-boos, and a little touch of arthritis developing in his later years.
Then one day Toby came in swathed in a bloody T-shirt. His owner had come home from church the previous morning and found poor Toby (who was out on a runner in his yard) trying to climb the side of the house in an attempt to escape the moose that was kicking him half to death. She managed to chase the moose off and rescue Toby. He was bleeding from a laceration under his right arm, so she folded up a T-shirt as a pad to absorb the blood and bound it under his arm using an ace bandage wrapped around his chest and criss-crossed in front of his shoulders. This assembly she covered with another T-shirt, tied at Toby's waist aerobics-bunny style to prevent him from walking on the hem of his shirt. He looked kind of CSI stylish in a slightly grisly way, actually, what with the blood stains and all, though (not surprisingly) he was moving a bit gingerly.
So, I took Toby's T off and unwound the ace bandage. The lac immediately began dripping blood. Hmm. This injury is almost 24 hours old, so I'm a bit surprised that it's still actively bleeding. I get a little closer look. There's a ragged tear, bruised along the edges, edematous, but not apparently infected. Just as I'm thinking Toby may have gotten off light, Toby takes as step forward to sniff and the trash can and I hear a moist sucking noise. Oh, crap. Could not POSSIBLY be. This dog is walking around perfectly fine, and has been for 22 hours since he was injured. His color is good. He has no respiratory distress. On auscultation, I can hear airway sounds all the way down both sides of his chest. So he can NOT have a sucking chest wound.
I tell Toby's mom that we'll need to suture him up, and I'll need to get a closer look at the wound before I know the extent of it. She readily admits him to our care and I replace his T-shirt and ace bandage bandolier to hold him while I make space for him in the surgery schedule. Once we anesthetize him and we have his airway under control, I take off his bandolier. Silence. I gently shift the flap of lacerated skin behind his arm about a half inch to the rear. Big sucking gasp as air rushes into his open chest. Toby's color immediately goes south. Crap.
I start bagging him and the tech starts prepping. I still can not believe that Toby's been walking around for a day with only a T-shirt pad and an ace bandage keeping him from dying of a pneumothorax. Not just walking around, but eating and drinking and peeing and pooping and generally leading his usual life, albeit with a slightly ginger gait and a new wardrobe.
Toby goes into surgery and we open up the laceration, lengthening it so we can expose his chest wall and assess the damage. There is a broken rib there - cracked in three places - and biggish tears in the muscles on either side of it. Miraculously, there are no injuries to the lungs themselves, apart from very mild bruising. Hmm. Turns out the easiest way to fix Toby is going to be removing the broken rib - and the lacerated muscles on either side of it, which are mushy and fragile from the crushing force of the blows - and wire his chest back together, one rib shorter. This we do, a tech patiently breathing for Toby while we wire his chest back together and chase the free air out of the space around his lungs, where air doesn't belong. Once we seal up the soft tissues, Toby is breathing well on his own and his color is good. He recovers without incident. I can't believe this dog. He's eleven years old, is hypothyroid and has undergone multiple surgeries, and is missing several of his original parts (such as his testicles, two toes, about a third of his tail, and now a rib.) He's just has the crap kicked out of him by a moose and he's juuuuust fine. Perfectly happy. Thanks for the stitches, and can I go home now?
Toby did great after that for about a year. Then, being Toby, he developed renal insufficiency. But, being Toby, that was not enough to kill him. He toddled along - on his 16 remaining toes - pretty happily on supportive care. I put him down this morning, sadly, because he had abruptly lost the use of his back legs. He was almost thirteen. I don't know if he had a disc blow out (perhaps in consequence of the old trauma of the moose attack, or for some other reason) or if it was more orthopedic than neurologic; his owner, understandably, decided not to pursue it in view of his age and other disease.
I'll miss Toby; he was a good old man, tough and resilient and apparently unfazed by the vicissitudes of his eventful life. I know his mistress will miss him a great deal more. I can never see her without thinking of him; they're kind of a pair, stumping cheerfully along in a sort of calm, hopeful way, with their bright gentle eyes and prosaic manner. I hope she can find another puppy; she's one of those I think really has a gap in her life without a dog.
There won't ever be another one like Toby, though. Happy trails, old man. We'll miss you.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Hitting the Bottle

Or rather, being hit BY the bottle.

This is Pepper, the BF's Border collie. She looks peeeeerrrrrrfectly innocent, doesn't she? Just lying there in the grass with a niiiiice soft fabric disc, minding her own biz. Nothing maniacal about her. Nothing at all.

Little would you know she's an evil genius.

Okay, maybe not ALL that evil. But she has invented some games which A) require me to do a lot of ducking and dodging and climbing into unlikely parts of my house, 2) involve a certain amount of pain and wincing on my part, and iii) are weirdly addicitve. (Here I will enter the disclaimer: She did not invent these games for MY benefit, but for Dave's. Dave may believe he taught her to play these games, but I contend that it was the other way around, and aaaaall part of her Plan.)

Like most BCs, Pepper is able to FORCE those around her (well, anyone in posession of an opposable thumb) to play "fetch" games with her. By dint of various engaging expressions, endearing head-cocks and judicious staring, Pepper is able to instill in the primate brain an irresistable urge to pick up some object (which she has thoughtfully provided, generally well-lubricated with varying amounts of dog spit) and throw it for her. Over and over and over again. Until your arm falls off.

See how well it works on Dave? In this case she has caused him to drive her to Canada for some international disc-dog practice. Don't be fooled by the innocent smile. It is all part of her nefarious plan.

Here's the wind-up......

Here's the pitch....... (note the intensity - and be warned).

Now, it all looks perfectly normal, an ordinary game of disc with the dog, right? Nothing at all sinister here. And in fact, that's pretty much the truth... in public. It's only in secret that her true evil brilliance is seen. It all starts so innocuously. You're sitting there, maybe relaxing after a hard day of work or a trip to the gym or unloading hay for the sheep. Maybe it's a hot day and you've just sucked down a bottle of water or a cold soda. Maybe the bottle is sitting on the coffee table in front of you, or on the couch beside you. Out of reflex, the cap has of course been screwed back on. Maybe there's even a little bit of water left in it. Everything seems just fine. Nothing going on here.

Until suddenly, the bottle is presented to you by Pepper. She puts it in your lap - maybe with a little encouraging nudge - and then looks at you hopefully, eyes big and melting, adopting the patented BC crouch to demonstrate her readiness to play. So you think: What the hell, why not? Or maybe you don't think at all, and just toss her the bottle by reflex.

This is where her twisted brilliance becomes clear.

Pepper leaps up like a breaching shark. Her jaws clash shut on the bottle with a sharp snapping noise. But because the bottle in non-compressable (having been capped), it ricochets right back out of her gnashing teeth at approximately 428 mph, directly back into your face. Or some other, less convenient body part. (Poink! Ouch!) But of course, it's sort of funny, and after all, the bottle is now back in your lap. And Pepper is looking sooooooo engaging with her big brown eyes allllll full of hopeful worship. So you think, What the hell..... (and, you are now doomed.)

In the next 15 minutes you will be retrieving the bottle from behind the couch, from under the table, from the top of the bookshelf, and (of course) from the floor, where it's inclined to bounce after it hits you in the forehead. Pepper will, of course, help you retrieve it (see how helpful she is?) - well, not from the top of the bookshelf. She will, however, look politely away as you teeter on the arm of the couch whilst groping for the bottle, lest you feel embarrassed by the ridiculous posture (or the ridiculous reason for which you are assuming it). All the while you are running a commentary: Pepper, catch! OW! [hee hee hee] Oh, crap - go get it! No, wait I'll get that one... Catch! OUCH! [snerk!] Jeez, WHY am I doing this, again? Okay, one more... YIKES! Is my nose bleeding? Dang. Okay, here, catch! Ow, DANG!.... How am I going to reach it up THERE...? and so on.

But don't worry. It's really not your fault. None of us are a match for the the Nefarious "Doctor" Pepper.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

High Heels and Duct Tape

It's not what you think.

The other day Katie and I were having coffee (we do this a lot; Alaska is a bit coffee-addicted, maybe even more than Seattle is) and for some reason decided to drive someplace together. I can't recall where, but we decided to take my truck. Now, I don't know about you, but for me it's pretty common that I've got various things stashed in my truck - a dog or two, gym togs, a 50# bag of sheep feed, my lunch, presents, a stack of mail, an extra coat, what have you... and though these typically are not all in my truck at the same time (well, maybe the sheep feed and the gym togs, plus or minus a dog or two at all times), it's not uncommon that there's some detritus of my everyday life lurking in the front passenger seat. Hence, as Katie and I are embarking on our little jaunt, I tell her, "Just kick that stuff to the side; you don't mind, do you?"

"No," she says, deftly shuffling her feet amongst the items on the floorboards (which on this occasion include my windshield scraper, a half a roll of duct tape, a random dog leash, and a pair of spiky black patent leather heels.) Now, it should come as no surprise to anyone that an Alaskan has a windshield scraper in their vehicle, and that it's kept handy. Nor should it be a shocker that there is a leash in the vehicle of a vet (or anyone else who owns four dogs). It might be less clear that duct tape - which up here is sometimes referred to as "fifty-mile-an-hour" tape, because you can temporarily fix most anything on your vehicle with it, and it'll more or less stay fixed so long as you don't drive over 50 mph - is an item which isn't at all out of place in the cab of an Alaskan pickup. Evidently, however, not everything passes muster with Katie.

"You keep spike heels in your truck?" she asks me, with a sidelong glance, as if wondering what I do in my truck that requires a set of open-toe slingbacks.

"Well, yeah," I say. "I pretty much only wear them at Dave's house, and they're hard to drive in, so I change into them when I get there, and out of them when I leave. It's just more efficient to keep them in the truck."

"I see," Katie says, nodding thoughtfully, apparently seeing my reasoning. I fire up the truck and we are on the roll before Katie starts laughing.

"What?" I ask her.

"You are a true Alaskan woman," she says, grinning.

"What do you mean?" I ask. By way of an answer, from the console between the seats she picks up one of my my Leatherman tools (one of which is, quite naturally, in my truck, where it might come in handy at any moment). Around it I have (temporarily, I assure you) clipped a glittery enamel-and-rhinestone hair ornament.

"What?" I ask her again, blankly.

"It's not just that you have duct tape and high heels on the floor, or that you have a Leatherman and a super-fancy hair doodad in the console," she says. "It's that the Leatherman is WEARING the super-fancy hair doodad. Only a real Alaskan woman would do THAT."

"It's just to keep the hair thingy from tumbling around, " I tell her. "I'm being practical. It's not a fashion statement."

Katie looks at the slingbacks (the heels of which are nestled into the center of the roll of duct tape) and raises an eyebrow, looking amused.

Well, she can laugh. But it takes one to know one.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Katie's Cabin

So, the other day - Labor Day, in fact, when I had a day off - my friend Katie and I were looking for some kind of mischief to get into. It was a beautiful day - sunny and warm, with just the lightest of breezes to keep things interesting and disperse the last of the summer's biting insects. There have been all too few gorgeous sunny days this year, so naturally we decided to go do something outside. Maybe hiking in Hatcher pass, maybe coffee on the patio of one of our hangouts, maybe a trip to Talkeetna for lunch - hey! Talkeetna! That's not far from Katie's cabin! Let's go there!

Katie's cabin is the stuff of legend for me. I've been hearing for about the last three years (from various sources, none of which include Katie herself) how totally cool her outhouse is - AND that she built it with her own hands. I don't know why these two items are always presented together, but there you are. (I'm also not quite sure it's possible to understand, from the point of view of an Outsider, the peculiar passion Alaskans have for a good outhouse, but it is definitely something esteemed of many. Discussions as to what constitutes a good "Necessary" can last for 30 minutes or more, with much judicious nodding and vigorous debate about just what IS the most comfortable and thermally beneficial surface upon which to settle one's naked posterior when the ambient temp falls below - 20 degrees Fahrenheit. And, of course, there are many other considerations, ranging from the likelihood of encountering local wildlife whilst in a compromising position, the potential insect and arachnid count, and of course - an important consideration - the view from that particular perch.)

At any rate, once the idea of Katie's cabin came up, it was a done deal. There was no way we were going to go anywhere that day that did NOT include Katie's cabin. So, I gathered up some likely snacks, my camera, some water, and my boyfriend's dog (whose turn it was for an outing, since I cannot put all my dogs in a vehicle at once), loaded into Katie's truck, and off we went.
Now, I believe I've mentioned that it's been a cloudy, cool, rainy summer. One of the consequences thereof is that there have been few chances to see The Mountain. ["The Mountain" means Denali, The Great One, often known to those from Outside as Mt. McKinley, tallest peak on the North American continent... but up here, often referred to simply as The Mountain, with capitals implied.] However, evidently the Gods were smiling upon us on Labor Day, since she was visible nearly the entire way (barring times when curves in the road and other intervening terrain hid her from view temporarily.) Even on good clear days, you may not be able to see her, as she makes her own weather from on high, and may veil herself in cloud. But not today.

Now, the trip to Katie's cabin takes about two hours. The second hour is pretty much comprised of trundling slowly over rutted dirt roads, many of which should not be attempted without benefit of a vehicle with a good high clearance and 4 wheel drive. There is one point where you have to drive through a stream (an endeavor undertaken with the greatest care, not so much because of worries of stranding yourself, as in consideration of the fact that this is a salmon-spawning stream, and though the fish have long since completed that part of their year, it is important to disturb the rocky stream bed as little as possible.) There is in fact a bridge, but it is a great deal more frightening than fording the stream is, and in fact might not be possible to drive on, even with a 4x4. Flooding a few years ago caused it to cant at about a 30-degree angle to the downstream side, and sufficiently uprooted the moorings to the shore that even with the hubs locked it might not be possible to mount the leading edge of it without either high-centering the truck on the peaky upward jut of it, or else jumping the "kerb" so created and rocketing your vehicle over it and into the river, possibly on its side (due to the pronounced slope of the bridge itself - which, by the way, is distinctly holey and rotted-through.)

The beaver lodge

After the stream crossing, we weave through some curves, past a pretty little open meadow that contains a beaver lodge (and what looks like some good moose browsing habitat), and down a set of steep, tight, sandy switchbacks that would make many a person decide to get out of the truck and proceed on foot. Katie, however, is made of sterner stuff, and negotiates them with aplomb. We pause at her favorite currant bush and snag a handful of currants on our way by. And the next stop is Katie's cabin.

Currants on deck

One of the reasons Katie built where she did is, as you can see, the view. That's her, Denali, The Mountain, The Great One. She and her massif pretty much comprise 50% of the view off Katie's deck (although it's also possible to see Mt Susitna - AKA Sleeping Lady - and a number of other peaks from the top of the ridge where the cabin is perched.)

Denali and willow bower

Naturally, after an hour of kidney-bouncing roads, the next stop must be the famous outhouse. Well-ventilated and carefully screened to exclude squirrels and other small invaders, it is situated to get at least some benefit of passive solar heating (which I grant you isn't going to help much when it's midnight in December, but is still a consideration in a general way.) It is solid and square and neatly organized inside, with shelves for supplies (which are completely squirrel- shrew- and rodent-free.) I must admit, I am impressed with Katie's carpentry skills. She shrugs and says it wasn't that hard (although evidently stripping the logs was a bit of a pain). I begin to imagine how adorable will be Katie's chicken coop (currently in the planning stages.)

The Necessary House

Anyway, we spent a little time wandering through the woods and getting harassed by gnats (the mosquitoes have pretty much packed it in for the year). If anyone is wondering, wild bears DO crap in the woods, and I have photographic evidence (which, in the interests of good taste, I will not reproduce here.) Moose, pretty much the same deal. Pepper - the BF's Border collie - showed more restraint, spending her afternoon sniffing interesting things, patrolling for squirrels, urinating on likely bushes, and lounging at her ease in the sun on the deck (with occasional hopeful eyes at our bison jerky.)

Katie sweeping the deck of squirrel midden (pine nut hulls)

Unfortunately, both Katie and I had things to do the next day, so we didn't stay the night. All too soon it was time to head back down the trail, so we snugged the cabin back up, re-loaded the truck and made our way back over the ruts and obstacles. The colors are starting to turn, and we made our way back through the high-bush cranberries (which are not cranberries at all, despite the red and tart nature of them.) I'm given to understand that you can make a good meat sauce from them - although I just pretty much eat them off the bush, myself - as well as a beautifully-colored and tasty jelly... although evidently it smells as if you are boiling used gym socks rather than making something that you might want to put on toast or pancakes. The cranberries are best after the first frost, which we have not yet had, but the rose hips were ready to eat, slightly wrinkled, sweet and tangy. We had a few on the way out, spitting the seeds (not so much as a re-seeding effort as because the seeds will in some individuals cause something we shall here euphemistically refer to as "tummy upset". I do not know if I am one such individual, but I prefer not to find out.)

High-bush cranberry

So now I'm kind of thinking: Hmmm.... there was that open lot next to Katie's.... I wonder if I can talk her into building me a nice outhouse....?