Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Weather Wild

Okay, I actually do know that this is Alaska and I should expect weather extremes. That doesn't keep me from remarking on it from time to time; even we (who are used to it) find it dramatic at times.

This is a la nina year, which I was cheerfully told by a client would mean a colder-than-usual winter. I immediately cursed him roundly and then threatened him with bodily harm if he was right, but strangely, that has not changed things for me. It HAS been colder than usual, and that's not the extent of it.

For one thing, the weather predictors seem to have taken la nina as licence to lie to us more than usual. Okay, I know they aren't really lying; they're guessing. But they'll blithely promise us a 10-degree jump in temperature, with clouds and snow, and what we get is crystal clear skies and a 5 degree DROP in temperature. It's hard not to be annoyed by that, especially if your starting point is subzero.

For another thing, we had some wicked strong winds this winter. It started when I was at work one day; the temperature had come up, according to the thermometer at the clinic. However, the wind came up along with it, dropping the effective temperature. By evening, when I was getting ready to leave work, it was a challenge to open the back door at the clinic, and should you be so foolish to be coming in that door, you had to watch carefully that the wind didn't slam the door on your ankle hard enough to break it.

Well. THAT'S fun.

Even more fun was the fact that we'd had a recent snow, and all of it was now blowing southwest at a high rate of speed. There is, of course, the bright side: just walking to the truck, I got free dermabrasion from tiny sand-like grains of ice and road grit.

Mmmm. That's refreshing.

Moreover, once you stagger blindly across the parking lot and find your truck (mainly by feel, since you can't really open your eyes wider than miserly slits), you get to try to open the truck door. Since the truck is parked nose-on into the wind, this will require at least three tries, since on the first two the wind will snatch the door out of your rapidly-numbing hands and slam it shut again. The windshield will be hazy with airborne grit, but the truck will start faithfully.

Now comes the entertaining drive home. There will be a ground blizzard of epic proportions. This is disorienting to drive in for several reasons: First, you can't see the road itself, nor any lane lines or other markings. This is in part because it's dark out, and in part because the curtain of blowing snow is inches thick and not punctuated by much in the way of lulls or gaps. Second, as you squint at the river of snow flowing across the road, your eye wants to follow the motion, which makes it challenging not to let your wheel go with it. This effect is enhanced by the fact that the snow isn't crossing the road perpendicularly, but at something of an angle, making it harder to sort out visually where you are supposed to be aiming your vehicle. And last but not least, you're fighting the buffeting of the gale the entire time, trying to steer a straight course against the blustering tug of the wind on your rig, and through the shifting veil of snow concealing the road from your eye.

Eventually, however, you will arrive home, only to discover that, while the winds are lower at home, the ambient temp is also lower, which makes your truck sad. On the plus side, there's little drifting to contend with, and the winds are forecast to die down overnight.

As it turns out, those weather people lied about that. AGAIN.

In the morning the winds have picked up. Luckily it's a day off, so I can wait til daylight to go out and fight my way back into town (which I might not do if not for the fact that I have to return our on-call cell phone to the clinic). I warm up the truck, back down my hill, sashay my truck forward through the lightly-drifted part of my lower driveway, and pause to check for traffic before I pull out.

Oh, goodie. There are huge drifts across the road now. Yay. Not.

Sighing, I check that the hubs are locked and I pull out, gunning it to ramming speed. I break through the first drift, fishtailing in the deeper snow. Ten feet farther on I hit the second, and largest, drift. The truck shudders, hesitates, bogging down in the snow. The tires are struggling for purchase on the road, but the snow is too deep to allow it. But she's a good little truck and she digs in, slewing and yawing, and powers her way through. After that the last drift is a piece of cake, and we are on our way.

The wind is still grabbing at the truck, bullying it toward the shoulder. I keep two hands on the wheel and fight back. Luckily, the majority of snow available to blow has already blown wherever it's going to, and the visibility is decent. Not as luckily, there's still plenty of road grit.

Overhead, ravens are flying, as if nothing unusual is happening. Crazy Alaskan ravens.

On the way to work, I see a pickup bed topper turtled up in the ditch. Hmm. That's interesting. The wind tore a topper right off a truck, it seems. Even more interesting, further on, there is an entire camper - the kind that fits in a truck bed, with a sleeping compartment that rests on top of the cab - is sitting next to an intersection. It is upright, as if Dorothy's tornado came and plucked it off a truck and set it down complete, right next to the light post. Maybe we're not in Kansas anymore.

I looked to see if there were ruby slippers poking out from underneath, but I didn't see any.

I did, however, see a large piece of panelling flapping heavily against the storefront from which it has been half-torn free, and two street signs whose poles have been bent far enough over that the sign is swaying at knee-height in the verge of the road.

Last but not least, I see an entire 18-wheeler on its side in the ditch. It looks like this happened some hours ago - the site is abandoned, no Troopers or rescue personnel nearby - and the trailer is twisted at an awkward angle to the cab. I hope nobody was hurt.

Eventually I make the clinic, where the wind snatches my door open and tries (but fails) to rip it off its hinges. I stagger across wind-polished ice to the clinic, make it inside without having my ankle bear-trapped in the door, return the cell and catch my breath for a few minutes before braving the wind again.

Repeat for two more days.

Oh, well. It made a break from the cold, anyway. Unfortunately the cold returned thereafter, defying all predictions from the weather guessers that it was going to warm up tomorrow, warm up TOMORROW, I say, HEY! WARM UP!

No? Okay then. Who can I bribe?

I can't complain today. It came up 16 degrees overnight (to a balmy 12 degrees), and it is snowing: Big, light, fluffy crystalline flakes, beautiful to behold. On the road, not as beautiful, because it's snowing to white-out conditions and accumulating fast enough to glaze the roads. Luckily the snow plows are out plowing and sanding, and closer in to town, away from the influence of the Cook Inlet, the snow is lighter and not sticking. And now, drinking tea at the coffee shop and blogging, the sun is shining slantwise below the cloud cover and turning the thinning flakes to diamonds floating on the air. Rifts of blue are showing through the clouds - which is pretty, but probably means the temp will drop again.

Still and all, the light is coming back, which up here is the harbinger of winter's end. The brain defect I have - which calls the end of winter earlier and earlier every year - is fully operational, asserting to me that winter is practically over, all we have to do is January and then it's done, it's only a month more to go, and it could be worse: it could be raining.

Oh. Um... I didn't just curse myself, did I...?

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Bear Soup

Winters, I like to make soup a lot. I can make a biiiig pot of it and parcel it out into various canning jars, freeze it, and just grab a jar on my way to work. Handy, especially for someone who rarely wants to fuss around before work. I like to get up, do the morning routine and high-tail it out the door.

My most recent batch has been bear soup. For some reason, this is how it's gone at work:

Co-Worker: Mmmm, that smells good, what kind of soup is that?

Me: Bear.

CW: What?

Me: Bear soup.

CW [looking confused]: Bear soup?

Me: Yeah, you know: Soup made from bears.

CW: [various expression from dubious to horrified]

Now, for the life of me I can't figure out why Alaskans have a hard time with this concept. If I lived in Miami or L.A. or Chicago or New York City, of course I'd expect people to be confused by this. I mean, how often do you see people barbecuing bears in Washington DC or Sacramento? (Okay, I'll grant you that there may be a certain amount of roasting of bears in Chicago from time to time.) But in Alaska… isn't this part of the gig?

I gathered – after some recon – that part of the problem was that some people have had fish-eating bears (which, since they've been eating fish, are not the best flavor and end up kind of … well, fishy.) Then there's another contingent who have not themselves suffered from eating a fish bear, but have heard about it from others. Evidently this is an event so severely traumatizing that the reputation of fish bears has spread far and wide, so that people who have never even been outdoors know all about it.

However, I must faithfully report that bears that have been eating grasses and berries are quite tasty.

So, in case you should want to try the recipe, here's how it goes.

First, start several years ago by making friends with someone who knows how to hunt – and (very importantly) knows how to handle the meat afterwards. Alternatively, you can learn how to hunt for yourself, and acquire the correct meat-processing techniques , but I find that making friends with someone who enjoys hunting is more enjoyable and not quite as messy – most of the time. Because sometimes you might end up getting sloppy drunk with them, and who knows what might happen then.

Next, if at all possible, get yourself invited to their Harvest Party, and luck into winning the bear meat in the raffle. This is quite easy and will only take several years of crossing all your fingers at the various parties until the bear meat falls into your lap. If you want my advice, you'll elect to take the meat that S has slow-cooked and jarred up.

Wait 'til it gets a little chilly out, because that's when soup is best. Get a large pot and a bunch of veggies and spices and stuff, and either make some broth or use chicken stock (because its flavor doesn't mask the bear flavor.)

Hint: Garlic is your friend, and there's no such thing as too many carrots.

You may also want to add things like onions, mushrooms, broccoli, cauliflower, etc. Personally, I am a fan of Brussels sprouts, but I know many people are so allergic to them that the mere mention of them here has caused their eyes to bleed. (Sorry about that… maybe you should wear sunglasses or other eye protection from here forward, in case I slip and say "Brussels sprouts" again. Oh! Drat. I said it again. Sorry about that.) Personally, I also like snow peas in my soup, but am not a fan of potatoes, noodles, rice or barley, all of which upset my stomach. However, if you feel like contaminating your soup – er – adding these to your soup, have at it.

You absolutely must add some spices. If you do not, the bear meat will rise up against you and maul you to death. Okay, it won't, but you really really should add some spices. Bear tastes (to me) somewhere between elk and moose, but if you haven't tried those, the best I can do is say it's closer to beef than it is to pork or chicken. It can handle thyme, oregano, basil, marjoram and spices of that nature. It is a particular friend to sage. And have I mentioned garlic? I have? Okay, then; I'll shut up now.

Once you get your broth and spices simmering (and if you like your veggies tender, throw them in there too, so that they have time to get that way) you should think about adding some cooking sherry. Personally I favor the giant bottle of Gallo dry sherry for cooking, but whatever strikes your fancy will do. When I say "some" I mean anything from "none" to "rather a lot, really", depending on your taste. I like to add it early-ish, because it seems to help the spices marry together, and (since I'm making soup I intend to eat at work) I'd really rather all the alcohol cook off so I don't go around hiccupping and smiling sleepily at everyone all afternoon.

Add the bear (and any remaining veggies) any time. In my case this means after approximately 7 minutes and 19 seconds of swearing and rummaging around in drawers trying to find the bottle opener to pop the vacuum-sealed lid off , but use whatever method works for you. Scoop the bear meat into the soup. Make sure you get all the fat off the top and stir it in. There's really not that much when you spread it out over a big pot of soup, and it bestows a rich flavor and a silky mouth-feel to the soup, as well as helping it stick to your ribs.

Since the bear meat is already cooked, you don't have to simmer it long for it to taste amazing. It will also be meltingly tender, literally so tender you can cut it with a spoon. A dull spoon, even. Basiscally you only need simmer the soup long enough to cook the veggies and let the spices blend together. Your best bet is to try it right away so you can be sure you added enough carrots, sage and garlic. Also because it smells so good that you might have a seizure if you don't try it soon.

Note: At this point you may begin to feel a strange burning sensation on the back of your neck. This is your dogs glaring at you in envy and hoping to cause you to spill your soup so that they can help you clean it up by means of judicious wolfing-down and licking-up. It is in most cases safe to ignore this and continue eating. However, in some cases placating the dog by allowing it to lick the bowl is a useful strategy.

See? Bear soup is easy to make. If you start now with the part where you make friends with someone who will hunt bears and share with you, you can have some in just a few years. That might seem like a long wait, but it's probably the fastest method, since I bet that'll produce results before bear meat shows up for purchase at your local grocer's.

Just saying.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Crocodile Hunter North

Being a vet is a learning experience: Something new every day.

Last Saturday – my solo day at the clinic – I am buzzing through the usual pre-closing-time rush. While I am helping some people with their dog's ear infection, I hear an explosion of barking and snarling in the waiting room. The dog has a loud, deep-throated voice, suggesting it is both large and broad-chested, which often translates to powerfully-built. It is clearly not happy to be here.

Oh, goodie. That sounds like fun. Oh, wait. It doesn't.

While I am finishing my ear appointment, I hear the dog snarling and barking from inside the exam room into which it has been taken. Every so often the dog slams some part of its body into the wall. I feel the vibration translate down the wall into the room in which I am working, two doors down. Oh, yay. It IS strong, and it is doubtless also large. And it is still growling and barking.

Ah, well. It's the last appointment of the day. I know for a fact that it wasn't on the appointment schedule, but at least this particular walk-in isn't going to jam up the schedule too much. See? Always a bright side.

I try to take this attitude into the exam room with me. Inside is a man most likely in his 70's, tall and lanky, bearded and with a profusion of grey hair tumbling out from under his Stetson. He looks at me from behind wire-rimmed glasses as I greet him. The client is muttering about the government and how they're bleeding him dry and he has to go out of state to try to take charge of his situation, and he doesn't need this with his heart condition. The dog needs a health certificate to fly with him to the lower 48, and he also needs two vaccines. As it turns out, he is 18 months and 98 pounds of intact male mastiff mix, lean and rippling with muscle. In general I approve of this, but in the case of a dog who is snarling and barking and in the hands of someone who is in his 70's and has a bad ticker, I am somewhat less enthusiastic. Somehow the fact that the owner has named the dog "Ivan the Terrible" doesn't increase my confidence in the situation. Call me crazy.

I get a history and draw up my vaccines. I ask the client, "Do we need a muzzle for Ivan?"

"Yeah, you'd better," he says. "He ain't ever bitten anyone, but I don't know he wouldn't. I don't want to take a chance."

"Okay, then," I say, and I go to fetch an appropriately-sized muzzle.

"Make sure it's clean and soft and it smells like steak," calls the owner after me jovially.

"We wash them after we use them," I say, smiling, "but I'm afraid we ran out of steak-flavored fabric softener. We'll have to go with 'Spring Fresh' scent instead."

The owner chuckles as I fetch the muzzle. I hand it to him and show him how it has to be applied. As a general rule of thumb, the dog will more willingly accept the application of a muzzle from the owner than from a complete stranger, so the usual practice when working alone is to have the owner apply it.

Now the fun begins.

Our Ivan is not at all interested in restraint of any description. He is agile and quick, despite his enormous size, and he quickly whips his head out of his owner's grasp. He does this repeatedly, and begins biting at the muzzle to prevent it from going over his nose. Ivan is perfectly cheerful during the wrestling match that follows, but he is not in any way willing to accept that he will be muzzled and restrained. The owner is swearing at the dog with increasing impatience and trying to corral him with one leg laid over the dog's back. Ah, success. And nope, he has not tightened the muzzle and Ivan swipes it off of his face with one paw.

"God damn it!" the owner exclaims impatiently. He frowns at me. "Why aren't you doing this?" he demands. "You get paid to risk life and limb."

"No. I get paid to do medicine," I tell him. "The Crocodile hunter gets paid to risk life and limb, and he didn't turn up here today." While I deliver this smiling and in a humorous tone, there is underlying steel in my voice despite my best efforts to be mild. The owner has requested a muzzle, has told me he doesn't know if his dog will bite or not, and has just informed me that he considers the act of placing a muzzle on his dog to be hazardous to my well-being, perhaps to the point of death. I have no intention of sticking my hands where the dog can bite them. He's big enough and powerful enough that he could actually bite my fingers completely off, if he so chose. In addition to which – and here I know you'll think I'm completely insane - I don't consider it my fault that the owner has failed to train the dog. I know! Crazy talk!

The owner looks at me. One of my brows is slightly raised, and there must be something in my direct and unwavering gaze that makes him subside rather than challenge me again. He manages to get the muzzle on again and attempts to tighten it. Before he can do so, the dog whips it down, getting it caught in his mouth like a bit. He gnaws industriously on it while the owner tries to release the quick-release snap. He manages this, but drops the leash. Ivan charges immediately toward the door, shoving past me and bombing the swinging door. He bolts directly into the doctor's office. Hot on his heels, I make a grab for his collar. He whips his head around and gives me the look that we often call "The Rottweiller Look": A level-eyed stare that informs me that his next move is to nail me, should I be so foolish as to attempt anything that doesn't meet with his approval.

Meanwhile, Meryl's dog Fire is roused by the commotion. Fire is a 9 year old, 80-pound red Dobe. Meryl brings him on Saturdays because after hours, when she is counting the till, Fire comes up behind the reception counter with her. He is what a Doberman should be: Strong,athletic, self-possessed, protective, and willing to stand his ground. He won't start a fight, but if you bring one, he won't back down. Fire is at that moment confined in a cubby of the doctors' office, fenced in by a baby gate he could easily jump. He respects the boundary, as designated by Meryl, and will normally curl up in a corner and doze. If, however, anyone who doesn't belong in the clinic enters the space he guards, he does his job: Intruders are repelled. The till is safe, the employees are safe, the territory is defended.

When Ivan comes into the doctor's office Fire comes to his feet behind his gate. Head up and eyes intent, he bares his teeth and snarls at Ivan. Ivan leaves off staring at me and charges Fire, growling. Fire surges forward, roaring with fury, jaws snapping.

Shit. I love Fire. Ivan has a seven-and-a-half year edge and a 20-pound weight advantage over Fire. I don't want to put my hands between these dogs, but I'm not standing by while Ivan savages Fire, if it comes to that.

"MERYL!" I yell from the office. "Knock it off, Ivan! NO!" I shout at him, coming around his left side and trying to pressure him away from Fire without getting into the bite zone. Ivan feints toward Fire. Fire snaps at him, lips drawn back and eyes fierce and deadly serious: Back off NOW, he's saying. Stand down, or I'm coming over this fence, and I'll be coming for you.

I am looking for a weapon. Meryl is hustling back from the lobby. Fire is making slashing feints at Ivan, and Ivan turns away. Now Meryl is in the office, telling Fire to lie down. Ivan has been faced down; he gave up before Fire was called off, and both dogs know it. Bested, Ivan loses his desire to go after Fire. Meryl and I are able to herd Ivan out of the office and close the door.

Where is the owner during all this? Sitting in the exam room as if he hasn't a care. All that snarling and barking? Not his responsibility.

Meryl and I pressure Ivan back into the exam room. The owner catches his leash. My heart is slowly descending from my throat, where it had leapt when I saw 98 pounds of intact male mastiff mix snapping his massive jaws one inch from Fire's face, hackles a-bristle. That's not a sight you want to see ever in life.

At this point, I'm not going to take a chance on attempting to listen to this dog's chest. I've had a damn good look at his clashing teeth, so I know his color is good, he's hydrated, and he feels vigorous and healthy. He is fit in every way – physically, at least – and I know from experience that you learn little from trying to listen to the chest of a growling dog. One of the docs recently got seriously bitten in the face by a dog who laid him open without warning. I've gotten plenty of warning from Ivan. I'm not putting my face into the bite zone. It's not much, but I like my face the way it is right now, thanks. I can't think it would be improved by means of having Ivan's teeth ripping through it.

"Now, do these shots go IV or IM?" asks the client, as if nothing unusual has transpired.

"Sub-Q," I tell him briefly. He shakes his head emphatically.

"No. There's only IV and IM injections. There's no such thing as Sub-Q," he states unequivcally.

Um…. Excuse me?

Here I'm momentarily confused. Does the client think I'm making things up for fun, or does he think I'm lying? To what purpose?

Oh, wait. I've got it. He doesn't understand my verbal shorthand for "subcutaneous."

"No, there's also sub-Q, which stands for 'subcutaneous'," I tell him. "That means that these injections are designed to go just under the skin."

The client slaps his hand sharply on the counter and shakes his head again in impatient negation.

"Look!" he says, glaring at me. "I've raised horses for 40 years and I did all their training and most of my own vet work. There's no such thing as sub-Q!"

Hmm. Let's see now. In this room there are two people. One of us has no formal medical training. The other one has four years of medical school, a year of internship, 16 years of practice, and - what is that other thing? Oh, yes, a doctorate in veterinary medicine. One of us has injected his own horses for 40 years. The other one has injected her own – and a whole lot of other people's – horses, cattle, sheep, goats, dogs, cats, birds, ferrets, guinea pigs, rabbits, rodents, camelids, and assorted zoo exotics – including a primate or two. One of us thinks there's no such thing as Sub-Q, and the other thinks there is. Now, who do you think is right…? Oh, wait. That would be me.

On the other hand, it's quite obvious there will be no convincing this particular client that I'm right. I wonder if he thinks I'm so perverse as to be inventing things, so dishonest as to be lying, or so incompetent as to not know any better. I briefly consider asking him what possible motive I might have for inventing a mythical injection route, or suggesting he read the part of the vaccine label that says "for subcutaneous injection", but I'd just as soon get this over with as quickly as possible. I ignore the client's outburst.

"Hold him," I say briefly. I'll give this one go. If the dog is unmanageable, we're done here. The client will be asked to leave with his unvaccinated dog.

Ivan is perfectly cheerful again until the owner corrals his scruff. He begins wrestling himself backwards, growling, and I stoop and inject his first vaccine. Ivan surges backward away from the owner's straining grasp, jamming himself into the needle and bending it at a 45 degree angle. He does, however, have the injection on board (although – what do you know – half of it DID go IM.) I snag my other syringe off the counter.

"Round two," I tell the owner, and he gamely grabs the dog again. I dart in, get my injections done - entirely subcutaneously, this time - and stand down.

"We're done," I tell the owner. "You can take him outside if you like, while I finish your paperwork."

The client takes his dog out and I sign off on the paperwork. I take it up front and then go back to check on Fire. He is trembling and looking hang-dog: he is afraid he's done wrong. Meryl corrected him harshly (in this case, to limit his risk of having his face torn open), but he is demoralized. I call him to me and give him cookies, pet him and croon to him that he is a good dog, a good, good dog. I tell him I love him with my hands and my voice, I thank him with food and praise. He gives me a tentative wag and goes to lie down again, ears flattened. I get more cookies and call him back to me. He comes more willingly this time. I scrub my fingers under his jaw and his eyes soften and he relaxes into my fingers. Meryl comes back and praises him, apologizing with her body language. She corrected him for his safety, to keep him from harm, but she understands his worry and sets it right.

"It's your fault that that dog acted that way, you should know," she tells me, her expression amused. "The owner told me so. He said that it's because female vets don't know how to handle dogs and they're afraid of mastiffs." Meryl is laughing at this absurdity and I roll my eyes.

"Oh, yes, that's it," I agree. "He's the one who said a muzzle was a good idea. But clearly that's my fault, too. Obviously I should have started going to his house and making him train his dog eighteen months ago. What was I thinking? He's right, it IS my fault the dog acted like that. I'm obviously an idiot. I even thought there was such a thing as a subcutaneous injection! I'm a complete quack!"

Meryl snorts with laughter. For the rest of the week, we get a lot of mileage out of that:

Me: "Hey, Em, will you give this dog two cc's of penicillin via the mythical subcutaneous route?"

Em: "I would, if you hadn't just made that up. It's a good thing that client set you straight."

Me: "That's veterinary medicine for you. Learn something new every day."

Meryl regales Dr. P with our adventures later in the week. "You'd have told the guy to leave," she says. Fair point: We are within our rights to refuse service rather than to risk our health and livelihoods in such cases.

"He said I should muzzle the dog because I got paid to risk life and limb. I told him I got paid to do medicine, and that it was the Crocodile Hunter got paid to risk life and limb," I explain to Dr. P.

Dr. P laughs. "I like that," he says with a twinkle.

On the other hand, I did get the dog vaccinated - without benefit of a muzzle – and I didn't get bitten.

Maybe I am the Crocodile Hunter.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Beatings All Around

I just spent about 3 hours writing a looooong post for you all, only to have Blogger eat it when the internet connection went out. About 2 paragraphs were partially saved to the "drafts" folder - which I hate passionately, because it spaces every paragraph about 4 lines down from the previous one, and resists all attempts to correct that - but which would still have been better than losing the Entire. Freaking. Thing.

It's been a bitter struggle to find blogging time lately, let alone time that I have enough mental wherewithal to actually write something coherent and (with luck) worth reading. Kind of irritated that that many hours and that much effort just disappeared into thin air - especially as both are in short supply right now.

Let's all pretend it was the most fascinating post in the history of everything and you all loved it and found it transformed your lives for the better, okay?


Oh, well. I'll try again later. Meanwhile, if you read anything about the Blogger "drafts" function being visited by virtual goblins and made into electronic toothpixels, remember: It wasn't me. It was some other person we don't even know. They should look for him in Burundi, where he will be be choosing between tea and cake or death (served by Eddie Izzard, naturally.)

Sorry, guys!

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Temple of Ravens

I'm sitting here at a local coffee house watching the raven ballet. There is lavender-jasmine tea steaming fragrantly at my elbow and a smooth gray overcast behind the mountains, fine and soft as flannel. The mountains themselves are half-clad in snow, patterned in Wedgwood and slate, growing whiter toward their crowns. There is a breeze, and eight ravens are riding it where it sweeps up behind the hill. They spiral in a group and then break into sets, each pair flying in tandem so matched that it appears they run on a single mind, one thought divided into two bodies.

When they break from the group, they side-slip in pairs, looping up and circling, swooping this way and that, serpentining toward earth as falling leaves do. Then they soar up again, one bird flipping upside down so that they can lock toes and spiral down, linked together in aerial dance. They are grace spinning toward earth, breaking apart only to skim high on the updraft again, banking and wheeling, trimming their wings to match each other in flight. They fold themselves back into the pattern with the other pairs of birds, playing on air. They sweep their dark wings hard against the sky, driving upward. They level out, cresting the peak of the updraft, and hang motionless for a long moment before they begin to glide and dip and wheel again.

An eagle happens into the updraft and the ravens scatter, each pair sloping down the wind to another place.

The eagle flies alone for a time, floating almost motionless as he (she?) masters the wind. The light is diffuse through the overcast, but even so, the white fan of the eagle's tail is brilliant against the soft grey of the sky. They are a heavier silhouette, the eagles; broader of wing, deeper of keel. I am close enough to see one feathered leg reach down, ruddering against the sky to hold him in place for a long moment. He wheels in ponderous grace and lazily he sweeps his powerful wings once, twice. Once more, and the slow beat of his wings has taken him away over the bare tree tops so that I can no longer see him.

And now the ravens are back, appearing as if by magic from the reaching lattice of the naked birch twigs. They weave back together, tracing an intricate plaid against the sky. They perform their spiral communion again, black chevrons against the sky, rising like sparks cast heavenward from a Samhain bonfire. They flirt and soar, lighting momentarily in the highest branches of the birch, only to let the wind lift them up and toss them high again.

Then, from one moment to the next, they are gone, vanished like smoke on the breeze. But they'll be back, seeking the wind: The temple of ravens.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Legends of the (Akaskan) Fall

Autumn again.

Last night was the annual Wildwood harvest party, an event I look forward to every year, and one of the two Fire Feasts Wildwood holds every year. As usual, it was a lovely time. The bonfire was exceptionally good, thanks in part to the good offices of one of the party-goers, a local businesswoman who appears to be a closet pyromaniac. That's Wildwood for you: Providing you a safe and socially-acceptable outlet for your more felonious urges. All part of the service.

The Wildwood Harvest Party is sort of their version of Beltane. It's a fire feast, and always slightly pagan in feel, as are most bonfire events. There's something atavistic about feasting around a big fire, watching the sparks spiral up against the black sky, points of fire against the cooler brilliance of the stars. It's something that reaches into you and grabs some part of you deeper than memory. And it's something that engages you physically in opposites: The fiery heat on your face opposing the chill press of October against your back; the brilliant glow of flames against the deep rich blanket of night; the tide of music and laughter against the gathering quiet of approaching winter.

There's something about fire feasts.

Wildwood, of course, has an Alaskan spin on it. This is when we have harvested our gardens, done our hunting, filled our freezers with fish and game, canned and preserved and smoked and dried the fruits of our summer labors. Our larders, if we've done well and been lucky, are full. We've got a bit laid by to get us through winter, and this is the time to celebrate the bounty. One of the traditions of this particular event is that, if you have something you've put by - berries you've gathered, meat or eggs or produce you've grown, wine or spirits or crafts you've made, or any what-have-you, you can bring it to the party. These items are arrayed temptingly on the tiers of hay bales stacked in the horse barn, and at the appointed time names are drawn out of a basket and you get your turn to go up and pick for yourself a little piece of the year's harvest. Now, if you lived in the lower 48, it might be a little different, but up here the items on offer tend to be things we've hunted, fished, picked, pickled, brewed, baked, built or grown (sometimes completely by accident). There might be hand-made crafts at such an event, but in Alaska - or at least at Wildwood - there's every chance that the jewelry will be made of the claws of the bear that is also the source of the chili you ate at dinner.

Of course, first things first: Fill your plate, fill your glass, catch up with friends you haven't seen over the busy weeks of the summer. Beg the recipe for those moose meatballs or the green chili with bear meat or the pomegranate and mint jelly (which will be recited willingly to your eager ears). Winnnow out the maker of the spectacular caribou liverwurst you had two weeks ago and pick the maker's brain so you can try it with lamb liver. Discover who's retired, who brought friends to the feast from Fairbanks or Seattle or other far points, who is changing jobs or properties or life circumstances. Play with the dogs, tell stories, sing at the bonfire (and play your instrument if you brought it), throw your paper plate into the fire, pet the horses, put your name in the basket for the drawing, relax.

Got all that done? Okay. Gather in the barn for the drawing.

This year (and I'll try to get everything in, but might miss something here or there) we had the following: Moose, caribou, lamb, kid, deer and bear (canned, frozen, and/or ground, roasts and legs-of and sausages, etc); salmon, both smoked and fresh-frozen; halibut; various preserves; berries picked and immediately frozen; eggs from happy little hens who've spent the summer eating bugs and poking around the gardens and stock pens; Grand Marnier (home-made version, which is doubtless superior); various home-made wines; assorted houseplants; three separate bouquets of peacock feathers (courtesy of the Wildwood peacock, King Strut); a live rooster (for someone's lucky hens); jewelry, including the afore-mentioned bear-claw necklace; assorted produce (apples, carrots, various squash and cruciforms); breads made with local veggies or berries (highbush cranberry, blueberry, pumpkin or zucchini); and various spreads, dips and condiments.

Myself, I had an eye on the bear meat. And lucky for me, I managed to snag a jar of it, cut and cooked to string-meat, cut-it-with-a-spoon tenderness, which will be suitable for making soup or chili or bear-meat enchiladas, or something else that will doubtless make people follow me around sniffing at my plate and asking what that is, and can they taste it?

After the drawing you're not allowed to leave - well, or not immediately. If you bail out right away, the Wildwoodians will never hold the drawing again. Or so they claim; personally I think generosity is so much the foundation of their every cell that they won't be able to help themselves. But there is another advantage to staying: Song and conversation mimic the fire. The bright, crackling energy of the earlier evening has given way to stronger, hotter coals, burning steady and warm. This is the part of the evening when you can marinate yourself in the incense of wood smoke, letting it perfume your hair and clothes so that tomorrow, as you ruminate on the conversations of the evening, the scent of the fire lingers faintly around you, reminding you of fellowship, of food, of peace.

One of my brothers, after hearing of the bear-heart and caribou-liverwurst menu of one recent Wildwood evening, asked me if he could be me when he grew up. He's a fine cook in his own right (and married to another), but I can understand his angst: Bear and caribou and moose are likely in short supply at the local A&P or Acme. One of my cousins asked if she could open a Wildwood franchise in California, where she lives. Personally, I think that's an excellent idea. If there was more of the Wildwood ethos in the world, we'd all be a hell of a lot better off (in my Extremely Humble opinion). It would mean more thoughtless, knee-jerk kindness, more generosity, more laughing and playing, more self-sufficiency, more celebration after hard work, more consideration and open-heartedness and fellowship. It would mean more harmonious mixing of people who you'd think would have nothing in common, more driving people home or putting them up for the night if they've been too merry in their celebration that night. More music and gratitude and deliberately taking the high road. More acknowledgement of the deep and inexorable rhythms of the earth, more shaping one's life to fit peacefully in with the land and the seasons and the animals. It would mean more looking up at stars undimmed by city lights, more dark, gleaming eyes and silky warm fur pressed companionably to one's leg, more gently thumping tails. It would mean more marking of the cycles of life, be it with fire or feast, with fasting or with contemplation, with companionship and music or the deep quiet of solitude. Or, like at the harvest party, with some combination of the above.

There may be better ways of welcoming Autumn, but right at the moment, I can't think of any.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Barefoot in Hatcher Pass

Author's note: This is actually from several years ago, when the dogs I had were Kenzie and Finn - both still with me - and also my beloved and, sadly, departed Borderline collie, Buddy. My friend JK had with her Deshka and Keetna, Finn's parents. This story is from early July, not late May... but the recent gorgeous weather had me thinking of it. So Just pretend it's the 4th of July, a beautiful day out, and you live in Alaska...

So today JK and I took the dogs up to Archangel Falls for a hike. Gorgeous day, and not too crowded for the 4th of July, at least not when we got there... by the time we left four(+) hours later the place was jammed. But at the start it was cool and pleasant under blue skies with nary a cloud, a light breeze flirting in our hair and keeping the bugs off.

The road in is a bit bumpy (and here you should be thinking the movie "Deliverance" bumpy). I was feeling like I was back in Africa as we rattled and bounced and crept along, all limbs braced against any available stationary object. There are a couple of places where you have to get out and scout to see what your best option is for proceeding with your vehicle intact - but it's like purgatory before paradise. Once you get in there and let the dogs loose, it quickly becomes almost surrealistically gorgeous.

Finn started the day out by having some confusion as to which group of hikers was his. He went haring up the trail (as is his wont) and hooked up with a spaniel mix and five hikers. He was out of sight in moments, even with the switchbacks because the alder scrub is high enough that all you can see is people from the waist up, and the occasional flash of white tail-tip flagging above the greenery. We called for him but either he couldn't hear us or couldn't orient, because I could track him going back and forth on the trail, evidently searching for us. No success there until one of the hikers turned around and started walking him back down (bless them). Finn learns fast, though: Once we were reunited, he orbited our own group and didn't try to catch up with his new spaniel pal.

Meanwhile the rest of the dogs were racing joyfully over the hills, bounding like stags up the steep slopes, leaping like deer down the gullies, fording streams and nosing into burrows, racing up and down the trail, demented with joy and freedom. JK and I proceeded a bit more leisurely (having her three-year-old son L along), setting our pace in deference to L's short little legs. He came stumping up the trail behind us, happily playing with his blue rubber band and pointing out flowers to us with little piping squeals and crows of delight.

The trail switches back a bit along the first length of it, and then you get to a stretch where a little cataract comes bounding down the slope, sending tributaries across the trail and splitting them off to run weblike down into the gorge. You have to walk for a bit by stepping on the rocks, since the trail is basically IN the water. After that it's more up/down wandering. The dogs ran all over creation, and JK and I took turns handing L over the rough spots. He's a sturdy little guy, but it is a bit of a hike for someone whose entire body is about the length of our legs. After a while he wanted to go in the backpack, so we hoiked him up and picked up our pace a bit. JK is very fit, so the addition of 40 or so pounds of child to her back seemed to make little difference to her.

There is a bend in the trail with a little lake to pause at, where all the dogs went wading. We dawdled there for a few minutes listening to the marmots whistle sharply amongst the rocks and watching the dogs digging into burrows and loping along the shores of the lake. Buddy lost all sense of decorum about here, sliding repeatedly down the hill on his back (like ravens do). This is hilarious; his mouth is open wide in a grin of canine joy, and his eyes are white-walled with excitement. He is balanced on his narrow knife-blade spine, legs kicking to propel himself down the slope. After each pass he leaps to his feet and shakes the vegetation from his long silky coat, running back up the hill to fling himself down and go again. When he has had enough he sneezes twice - evidently as punctuation - and then goes racing around in his bounding sight-hound lope. This is beautiful to behold but silly as all hell, because he tends to bark shrilly as he does it, eyes wild with delight and gleaming with some insane inner joy that makes him look as if he is possessed.

This was all very well and good (although Buddy's sharp high-pitched barking was echoing off the rocks and could have shattered glass) but JK was eager to get around the bend. I didn't know why, having never been up this trail before, but I found out soon enough.

Around the bend the trail opened out into an enchanted valley. The lake we had just paused at was fed by a series of pools that chained together and serpentined across a green-gold meadow. The water there was a delicate translucent shade of teal, running crystalline over a bed of sand that rippled black and white under the water. We stopped and took our shoes and socks off and dangled our toes in the water. It's just come off the glacier and is only a few degrees above freezing, so while this feels incredibly good and refreshing, you can't keep your feet in for more than a few moments at a time. Your bones begin to ache almost immediately and you have to get your tootsies out of there before they go completely numb. But you can stay and dip them in and out for a while, which is lovely.

Meanwhile, the dogs - who seemed impervious to the sharp bite of the cold - are wading chest-deep in the water. Deshka, who likes to lie down in streams to cool off, wallowed in a little eddy pool. Finn and Kenzie dashed heedlessly in and out, drinking some and shaking quite a lot more all over us. Keetna was off industriously investigating the hummocks, evidently looking (without apparent success) for ground squirrels to dig out. Buddy went wading with the others, but soon developed an odd hunch to his back, stepping gingerly along with his spine raised as high as he could curve it. He's mightily deep-chested, our Buddy, with a tiny little wasp-waist that many a whippet would be envious of. All I can think is that he was trying to keep his little wanker out of the icy water. At any rate, he looked ridiculous, but as this is a particular talent of Buddy's, it was barely cause for remark.

The falls were maybe 3/4 of a mile on, above us. We picked up our shoes and wandered barefoot up the valley. If someone had told me I'd spend the day hiking barefoot in the mountains in Alaska, I'd have thought them nuts. Hiking, yes. Mountains, yes. Alaska, most definitely. But barefoot? No. Not something I associate with the wilderness here as a general thing, most especially not in mountainous terrain. But the ground was densely covered in mosses and sedges and little low-growing plants thickly scattered with red and white flowers. It was turfy underfoot, soft and springy and completely delightful on the bottoms of our feet. In some places the ground was sodden with the meltwater - much warmer amongst the plants than in the streams and pools - and it made lovely squelching noises as we walked on it. There were nice patches of mud to squish between our toes and little puddles in which to rinse them off again. The places we had to cross over the streamlets all had nice big rocks to step across on, some covered in moss and lichen, none especially sharp.

We walked up to the falls and lay down on our backs in the springy turf. JK had brought some cheese and crackers and we nibbled a bit, chatting for a while over the roar of the falls, then falling into a companionable silence. It's stunningly gorgeous up here under the deep blue sky. The foaming water of the falls is brilliantly white, against the dappled rock of the mountain. The varied green of the turf is comfortable for sitting and even more comfortable when we lie back upon it, looking at the little white puffs of cloud that have begun to scatter across the sky, letting the sun gild our faces while the breeze washes sweet and cool over our skin. It is really rather lovely up here, peaceful and still, with only a few other hikers around. It reminded me of photos I've seen of the Scottish Highlands, actually; maybe that makes sense, given the similarity of latitude and altitude. I wonder if there is the same sense of the wildness of the land there; the same feeling that if you are just a little quieter, you can hear the voice of the Earth.

Eventually it is time to pack up and go back down the trail. There is little darkness at this time of year, but L is, after all, a toddler, and while he is cheerful and pliant on our hike, there is a limit to his energies. Accordingly we gather our water and the baggies for the snacks, call the dogs - because Finn and Kenzie are still running around like maniacs - and head down the mountain. We are still carrying our shoes and socks, loath to put them back on. Part of the magic of this place transmits up through our bare soles... or maybe that should read our bare souls. Up here, there is something about the one that ties directly to the other.

Finn did have one more bout of civil disobedience when a tiny lab-cross puppy came skittering along the ridge and lolloped into our dog pack. Eventually we corralled Finn, which he took with good grace, and we gave the other hikers a head start before heading down ourselves, hoping to discourage further indiscretions on his part.

We cut to the other side of the descending pools, fording the streams without difficulty, but eventually we did have to put our shoes back on. As we went down the trail we met quite a few more hikers going up than we'd seen on our own way up, including one guy in a kilt (grey cammo - I wonder what clan has THAT pattern?) The dogs were amazingly good; all of them but Finn and Kenzie were maybe a little tired - perhaps not a surprise, given that they ran the entire time we were walking. Finn and Kenzie had the most excuse for being tired, since they bounced around like Tigger while everyone else lolled around on the comfy turf - and maybe they were a little tired, come to that, because they behaved perfectly on the trail, mannerly and obedient, if still noticeably energetic.

Well, at least they were good until we got back to the road where we had parked the car. There we re-encountered the little lab pup, upon whom Finn had evidently developed a bit of a crush - which affection he proceeded to demonstrate rather graphically. (Sigh.) Deshka, Finn's father, gave him a look of such profound disgust that you could almost hear him thinking: These young punks. No class, no style, no judgement. (Deshka, an experienced stud dog, is FAR too dignified to attempt to hump a 3-month old puppy at any time, much less in the middle of a dirt road.)

I'd estimate that hike is about a 4 or 5 mile round-trip, probably not over 4000 feet where we went. Above timberline, certainly, but up here that's 2500 feet, so that's not a good guide for altitude. It's my new favorite hike (hanging with JK has been quite an education for good places to go with the dogs... or without them, although why anyone would want to do that I have no idea.)

So that was 4th of July in Hatcher pass. In retrospect, I think there's some risk going barefoot up there... because if you set your soles bare and unprotected on that ground, something comes through them that alters your souls forever, and you can never get rid of it.

Not that you'd want to.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Hay Dude

So this morning - and a beautiful morning it was, too, sunny and warm, with a light breeze and deep blue skies - I went over to the farm in anticipation of the delivery of two absolutely enormous round bales for the sheep. As usual the dogs gave me an escort up the driveway to the house, thoughtfully announcing my arrival for Rae. Rae pops out and scolds them ("Don't you know her truck by now?!? She lives here!" - Well, yes, nearly.)

Rae is slightly at loose ends (well, as much as anyone is ever at loose ends on a farm), since half of Wildood is east, attending a quarter of Wildwood's college graduation (and you know I'm talking about you, girl!) By consequence Rae is in need of some help finishing the morning coffee.

"Got any milk to put in it?" I ask her, with an innocent grin. Rae gives me a disgusted look.

"Do I have any milk?" she repeats, in tones of incredulity. This is, realistically, a pretty stupid question; one of the goats is producing at least a couple of quarts a day, which Rae, all on her own, has no chance at going through without help. Even though she's freezing everything she milks at this point, there are still jars of the stuff in the fridge, as I discover when I poke my head in there. So many, in fact, that I'm not sure which one to use.

"Okay; just checking," I say, picking a likely-looking jar and helping myself. We make ourselves comfortable, looking out at the pretty day, and chat for a few minutes until the dogs announce the timely arrival of the Hay Dude. He has arrived promptly at noon after church, as promised, with his wife riding in the cab beside him and two gigantic round bales on his flat bed. We go on outside and meet the Hay Dude (a lean, compact and suntanned fellow who appears to be in his sixties and who bears a facial resemblance to a younger Gene Kelly - with whom he also shares a certain adept economy of motion, as I am soon to discover). He volunteers to drive the flat bed down the back hill to the sheep pens and offload there. Rae seems keen to use the tractor to move the bales, which I can understand: Using the tractor is one of the most fun things you can do on a farm. But our Hay Dude is quietly insistent, evidently concerned about safety issues, and prevails. He trundles his truck down the steep hill and backs it up parallel to the pens. There is a certain amount of clanking and rattling as the heavy chains holding he bales are released. The backmost bale is hanging nearly as much off the back of the bed as it is on the bed, but the Hay Dude ducks fearlessly underneath it to release the chain. Since this is not a Poe story, the bale does not fall on him and crush him. He clanks out from underneath the bale, dragging chains. From the cab his wife watches while he and Rae shove the bale and roll if off the bed, where it falls with a resounding thud and rolls a few feet. Rae climbs up on the flat bed and Hay Dude follows. They unchain the second bale and stand on the roof of the cab, heaving hard against the bale. Since I'd estimate their combined weight at about a quarter of that of the bale, they really have to put their backs into it. They rock it twice, three times, and it starts to roll. Rae jumps down onto the bed to push. Hay Dude braces one foot against the roof of the cab and the opposite knee hard into the bale, straining against its bulk. He is stretched out like a college hurdler going over the jumps, but just as he reaches what looks like the disaster point he hops agilely down onto the flat bed and keeps the momentum going. The second bale thumps heavily down next to the first.

There. That was easy. For me, anyway.

We go back on up the hill; the truck, in the way of diesels, belches a small cloud of exhaust. Walking behind the truck, I ask Rae, "Is it totally sick and wrong that I like the smell of diesel exhaust?"

"Yes, it is totally sick and wrong. And I like it, too," she tells me. I laugh; at least I have company in my sick wrongness. That's probably the best I can hope for, since I doubt I'll get over many of my quirks between now and death.

We re-emerge into the sunshine at the top of the hill, where I am going to write Hay Dude a check. He has quiet, smiling eyes, dark blue under brows like gull wings, white and graceful against his tanned skin. I whip out my checkbook, accidentally flinging a credit card to the ground.

"Oops," I say, retrieving it and blowing the grit off it. "Don't want to be throwing that around."

"I lost one of mine last week," he agreed. "I knew it was in the house, but I couldn't find it for the life of me. Turned up in the fridge." That makes me smile. "Do you milk the goats?" he asks me then in his quiet voice, having apparently inspected them as he drove by their pen.

"Yes; well, the owners do," I amend. "I just board my sheep here." He nods in a satisfied way. I think maybe this is a farmer thing: You like the animals for their own sakes, sure, but it's somehow viscerally satisfying to know that they are doing their part to drive the cycle of life. "So we said, what - three seventy? Three eighty?" I ask him; I've forgotten how much he wanted for delivery.

He frowns. "It can't be that much, can it?" he asks himself. "One seventy-five a bale, which is three fifty for the hay, plus delivery - yep, three seventy," he agrees. "Just make it for three sixty, though," he adds.

"You sure?" I ask him, and he nods firmly. "Okay, then," I tell him. I'm not sure why he's amended this; maybe some sense of chivalry? An older way of doing business, harking from a time when things were done on a handshake? Satisfaction that his hay is going to feed production stock? Just good old-fashioned decent farm guy-ness? Whatever it is, it seems to warm me slightly, along with his quiet, level-eyed cheer.

He takes the check and turns his truck around. Rae stops him; he has a lightweight step-stool on the bed, doubtless used to help him get the chains over the tops of the bales when he was tying them down. He's not much taller than I am, and the bales are about five feet thick. Rae has noticed that without the bales to wedge it behind, it's at risk for flying off in the breeze as soon as he hits the highway. She weights it down with chain and the Hay Dude gives her a nod of thanks and a wave as he trundles off into the gorgeous Alaskan day.

"Good eye," I tell Rae. She snorts.

"Girl, I've lost so much crap out of the back of my truck that way it's not even funny. I've learned my lesson. I need a break after pushing that hay around," she says. "Let's go sit on the deck in the sun and finish the coffee."

Well. That sounds just perfect to me.

We take the pot and a jar of goat milk out and settle into deck chairs. We chat about how we should position the bales; there are two pens, Trinity's and the main ewe pen, and since I don't want to keep buying separate hay for him, we try to figure out a way to set the bale up so that he can have access to it at the same time as the ewes. As we talk our neighborhood-resident eagle flies by, low enough that I can see his (her?) feet curled underneath him. Five minutes later one of the cranes circles just as low overhead. I can see its red crown, the places where feathers have dropped in molt from its wings. The crane soars in a wide oval above us, coasting; it drifts back down to the horse pens, then beats its wings to regain altitude and soar over us again. It makes a third pass, circling the opposite direction this time. It hangs its legs in its own slipstream, ruddering right, threading adroitly between a spruce-top and the crown of a birch tree. The spruce top passes just under its right wing, but the crane tips neither wing nor leg against its reaching branches and executes a neat turn around it, figure-eighting a glide back into the horse pens to rejoin the other cranes.

The cranes are allowed in the horse pens but not up on the lawn, because they like to kill and eat baby chickens. Unfortunately they tend to stick their long beaks through the chicken wire and grab the chicks by their heads and pull. Unable to get the entire chick back through the wire, they end up with just the head - and Wildwood ends up with a lot of decapitated baby chicks all dead in their pen. Kind of grim to come home to. This, not surprisingly, is Seriously Not Okay with Wildwood, so the dogs have been encouraged to run around and bark madly any time the cranes fly low over the lawn. They - and the cranes - have an understanding about this: In the horse pens, the cranes are welcome. On the lawn, near the chickens, they are not. This works well for the Wildwood crew - and evidently for the cranes, because they come back year after year, stalking elegantly around the horse pen, picking up stray bits of grain, hopping up and down, wings a-flutter, in their social displays. Flying overhead in pairs, crying their strange, compelling, warbling song to each other.

While the crane flies, we debate whether or not they're graceful on the wing. I think they are; Rae thinks they're not. It turns out that what I see as a peculiar grace strikes Rae more as just peculiar - and perhaps she's right. But I can't help it: When I see them, I think of grace.

For a while we talk of writing. Rae is herself a published author, and has plans for some books after the spring chores are lined out a little further. I talk about a work of fiction my agent has suggested I write, a story I started at her behest and in part from curiosity, but one which has caught my attention now. (And, sorry to say, distracted me from the blog and my other book. This is temporary, I assure you. And besides, I have no idea if this story is any good. It's in the hands of my proof-readers as we speak. They are tasked with telling me if it's crap or not: Not much point in continuing, if it it is.)

After the Wildwood Writer's Conference concludes, Rae fixes me with a stern look.

"I'm pretty sure that you left here last time without milk and eggs," she scolds me.

"Oops, sorry," I say, grinning. "Have to send me back for retraining."

"I should say," Rae agrees, gathering up the empty coffee pot and her cup. I take the milk and my own mug. I swap them for a dozen eggs and about one and a half quarts of fresh goat milk. Hmm. I'm not quite sure how being offered coffee has morphed into me taking home fresh eggs and milk, but there you are. It's a strange alchemy, but not an unusual one at Wildwood. I plan to randomly seed their kitchen with empty Ball canning jars and see what happens. It's not quite spontaneous generation; more like some kind of transformative magic involving benevolent elves.

So now I'm reawakening my blogging muscles, giving them a little stretch. After all, I have to limber up a little before I'll be ready to regale you with some of my less dignified visits to Wildwood of late.

We can't all be as self-possessed as the Hay Dude.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Ur... Sorry!

Hi gang. Just an apology: between I-rod and lambing and editing the book, I've been slacking. I'm still making lamb/kid sweaters, but I'm trying to get back on schedule with normal activities. Sorry for the break... kinda looks like that will be an annual March problem, so long as I'm lambing.

Still... got a post up today (which I started writing in March, but just now finished and posted - look, it's right there, just below this one - honest!), so I hope to be forgiven. Eventually. If I buy you all a pony.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Clash of the Titans

Okay, I admit it: I've been slow posting because I've been watching Iditarod.

It's been an epic race this year. There are always stories galore in I-rod, but this year in particular seems heavily loaded.

For one thing, Jeff King - one of four four-time champions and a giant of the sport - announced his competitive retirement right before the race... and the mighty Lance Mackey said this may also be his last competitive I-rod (though neither ruled out the possibility of doing it in the future just for the fun of it, without the intent to win). Jeff has been denied a win the last three years in a row by Lance. It would be no surprise if Jeff, one of the titans of the Iditarod, wanted to go out with a win over Mackey - not to mention a 5th championship, which would land him with the legendary Rick Swenson, to date the only person ever to win five I-rods. Jeff is a tough, canny, innovative musher, and a wily and determined competitor, an exceptional dog man, and he has proven over and over that he has some serious racing chops - so any time he's in a race, he's a contender and a threat. Also in the mix, however, are the considerable talents of Hans Gatt, Hugh Neff, Martin Buser, Rick Swenson, Dee Dee Jonrowe, Aliy Zirkle, Jessie Royer, John Baker, Mitch and Dallas Seavey - a host of mushing talent. Mackey felt that his toughest competitors this year would be King, Gatt, Baker and Seavey. Of those, no one has a stronger rivalry with Lance than Jeff King does.

First, however, he has to get by Lance.

Lance is kind of an unassuming guy, and although he's been around dog racing literally his entire life, he carried a number of burdens into his first I-rod win. For one thing, Lance is a cancer survivor; this in itself is not necessarily a burden, but his treatment for cancer left him with no salivary glands and enough pain in one of his fingers that he voluntarily had it amputated. His neck had to be surgically reconstructed after his cancer surgery, and radiation therapy has impaired the circulation in his hands and feet, making him frostbite-prone. Lance attempted his first post-cancer I-rod (in 2001) with a feeding tube still in place; he had to scratch that year - no surprise there, except that he was bold enough to even attempt it, under the circumstances. Lance had 5 I-rod starts under his belt when 2007 rolled around, but no wins. By consequence, Lance was something of an unknown quantity, I-rod-wise, when he stepped onto the runners with bib 13 in March of 2007. There were plenty who thought he couldn't do it, not least of their reasons being that he had just run - and won - the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest, the only race on earth that might be tougher than Iditarod.... and he was planning to run I-rod with 12 of the same dogs as he'd run in the Quest, leaving him only four slots for fresh dogs. No one had ever attempted this feat before, and many were sure he'd burn his dogs out, running them into the ground or fading somewhere between Cripple and Unalakleet. Initially I was undecided about this, myself; and when he started to make his move to the front, I started to be afraid he'd over-committed himself and his dogs. I've been a Lance fan since I vetted the Knik 200 several years ago; Lance was our race winner, and I'd liked how his dogs looked and moved, and how he'd interacted with them, so I was hoping he wouldn't do anything that would disappoint me in his dogmanship.

Lance was carrying the weight of dreams and legends into that race. It was his 6th attempt at the race, and he'd gone to some effort to be first in line so he could have bib 13. His father, Dick Mackey, and his brother, Rick, had both won Iditarod championships on their 6th attempts, while wearing bib 13. I think maybe Lance felt it was his year, and he made the effort to get bib 13 because of the symmetry of it - following in the family footsteps - and, maybe, for luck. And as it turned out, it was his year: Lance won the I-rod, 6th time out and in bib 13, just as his father and brother had done before him. But unlike them - unlike anyone in history - he did it after winning the Quest with the same dog team, finishing just 16 days before he started the Iditarod.

It was an incredible feat of athleticism, management, strategy and grit for both Lance and his dogs, but a lot of people said it was a fluke. Still... the following year Lance did exactly the same, making him not only the only musher in history to have a back-to-back victory in the Quest and the I-rod, but also the only one to do it twice, and the only one to do it two consecutive years. And remember: most of the same dogs in both races. And (if that weren't enough), just as a by-the-way, it also made Lance the first 4-time Quest champ (Hans Gatt won it this year to join Lance as a 4-time champ)... but Lance is still the only person ever to win the Quest four times in a row.

The next year, 2009, Lance skipped the Quest so he could coach another musher, but still ran in the I-rod. By now Jeff King was well aware that Mackey was a threat. Mackey has said repeatedly that King was the person he considered the best musher in the world, and - not leaving anyone out and no disrespect for other mushers - he was most likely to be the man you'd have to beat to win I-rod. The second time these two met head-to-head in 2008, Lance had some problems with sick dogs - but he managed them and kept his team together, taking his second win in part out of exceptional dogmanship and in part out of guile: In Elim, Lance was only minutes ahead of King. He got out his dog food cooler, hung his heavy parka up and puttered about as anyone would who was going to overnight in the checkpoint. He also, however, drank about 4 cups of coffee and laid down, practically vibrating from caffeine, and pretended to sleep. King, reassured, dozed off. Lance quietly got up and made his way out of the checkpoint, leaving his parka hanging by the door so as to decoy King for as along as possible while Mackey made tracks up the trail. He earned himself a lead which none of the pack could erode and took his second win.

In 2009, after being taken in by the Mackey Maneuver, King took no chances. He slept with his feet propped on Lance's gear so that Lance couldn't move it without waking King. However, Lance - abetted by the weather - carved himself out an 8 hour lead into Nome. Horrific winds and severe cold kept racers hunkered down in checkpoints and shelters along the trail; some mushers had to be rescued when blowing snow buried not just the trail, but also the trail markers, completely. Lance bulled his way through some of it and got ahead of other parts of it while other mushers were pinned down or turned back. Even Mackey - who is surely the toughest person I've ever come across - described parts of the trail as "brutal". But he faced it down to win his 3rd consecutive I-rod, earning himself a place in the I-rod hall of fame. A consecutive three-peat in the I-rod is an elusive beast, and only a few mushers had ever done it: Swingley, Buser and Swenson among them. Nobody has ever managed four in a row.

This year, the odds were heavily against Lance. For one thing, never in history has any racer taken four consecutive I-rod wins. For another, Lance is in need of surgery on both knees, and is recovering from surgery on one elbow. For a third, King - always a competitor, and hungry for his 5th title - was pulling no punches. For a fourth, Hans Gatt, who had just beaten Lance in the Quest, has a hell of a team this year, and Lance himself said that Hans's dogs were faster than his own. And for a 5th... there was the controversy about drug testing.

There's always been a provision in the rules for testing mushers for drug use. It's just never been enforced. Lance - remember, a cancer survivor - has a legit prescription for the medical use of marijuana. Some people contended that Lance won his three-peat in I-rod - not to mention his back-to-back Quest victories and back-to-back Quest/I-rod combo wins - as a result of using performance-enhancing drugs. From what I've seen, it appears that pot is more likely to hinder one's performance in an athletic event than help it, unless the competition relies heavily on having the munchies or sitting in corners with a silly smile on your face and your eyes half-shut. Still, while Lance is one of the most popular and well-liked mushers in Alaska, some people appeared to be offended by his use of what is, admittedly, a controversial prescription med. There was a lot of clamoring about the drug-testing rule, with the result that a drug test was scheduled for this year's race. Quite a number of reporters stated that the rule was fairly openly directed specifically at Lance.

Well, okay, then. Lance elected to toe the line and voluntarily forgo any of his prescriptions for the duration of the race. This goes above and beyond the call of duty, in my opinion, but it is one sure way to silence the nay-sayers: Whatever Lance's performance in this year's race, it certainly cannot be said that his performance was either helped or hindered by the use of drugs, no matter how mundane, legitimately prescribed, or enhancing (or, perhaps, hindering) they might be.

Accordingly, Lance and his team left Anchorage this year in bib 49. In lead he had a tough, smart little bitch named Maple. She ran in lead last year, though on the run-in to Nome she was distracted by the crowds lining the chute and Lance paused on Front Street to put the incomparable Larry in lead with her to get her lined out. This year, a seasoned leader at the ripe old age of three, she was an important part of Lance's arsenal.

Both Lance and Jeff know that the first few days of this race are critical. Getting too racey early on will often see you paying for it down the trail. Jeff gave his team some time to get into the swing of things. Lance did the same, commenting at one point that the team didn't gel until the third day of the race. Up to that point they were working, but not working as an integrated unit, a perfect race machine. But about day three something clicked. Right about then and all of a sudden, Lance saw that there was an opportunity to win the race. It wouldn't be handed to him - I-rod wins never are - but there was a chance.

Still, there are always challenges along the trail. Lance had several of his food-drop bags thaw out, rendering the red meat unusable. This is a serious problem, since keeping the calories in your dogs is a critical factor in keeping them healthy and working, and Lance had to find a way around the obstacle of food spoilage to keep his dogs fed and fit. One thing his dogs are famous for is their willingness to eat, a critical factor in their winning ways: Dog physiology is different than ours in that, if you provide adequate calories and hydration, dogs can continue to perform at extreme levels with minimal rest for very long stretches. In humans, a similar duration of work would lead to muscle breakdown. But for some reason in dogs, it doesn't. They just continue on, the work honing them into something spectacular, something legendary. Something that can run and keep on running, eating miles that would bury other kinds of animals. Lance cottoned onto this understanding somewhere along the line; my personal speculation is that he'd already figured this out when he made the choice to back-to-back the Quest with the I-rod for the first time. And I think that his first back-to-back Quest/I-rod victory is the illustration of this point: the first 1,000 mile race served as a training regimen for the second 1,000 mile race. I watched his team live as it came into Nome in 2007, having just won their second 1,000 mile race in a month. The dogs were happy, barking, rolling in the snow, lunging into their harnesses. They looked like they could turn around and run right back to Anchorage. More, they looked like they wanted to.

Somehow Lance worked around the food issues. He still had other problems: his feet were freezing, his hands were sometimes so cold he cold barely use them, and Jeff had a substantial lead on him. Moreover, Hans Gatt - who, remember, had just beaten Lance in the Quest and who had, in Lance's opinion, a faster team - was right up there with them. And so were some other seriously talented teams and mushers.... and some of them were looking very good indeed.

Jeff King said that the 75-mile run from Rohn to Nikolai was the best of his career. Keep in mind that King has run every I-rod since 1991 (and some in the 1980's). That's 20+ years of I-rod running, and this year was his best run ever between those checkpoints. Going into Nulato, King was still leading Mackey, and Gatt's team was looking good. At that point, about 760 miles into the race, it's nearly three-quarters done. The Lance naysayers were starting to smile. Lance himself was hurting by then: tired, cold, with aching knees and a gimpy elbow. Still... we mustn't forget that this is the man who Jeff King himself has called the hardest competitor he's ever faced.

The run from Nulato to Kaltag is 42 miles, and the run from Kaltag to Unakalkeet is a further 90. That was the first time in this year's I-rod that Jeff King saw Lance Mackey is when Mackey blew through Kaltag, logging only minutes in the checkpoint. Up to that time, Lance was running behind King, with none of the leap-forgging into and out of checkpoints that often marks the progress of the leaders.

Heavy snows and deep trails this year made the trail out of Kaltag slow going; it took Jeff's team 5 hours to do the first 27 miles of it, and everyone had the same challenge to face in terms of the trail condiditons. There was a long time with no updates on the leaderboard; once the teams are out on the trail, it can be radio silence for a long time, leaving you time to wonder if someone went off the trail, or had an accident or a hurt dog or if their team is tired or quitting on them. Still, when the updates finally arrived, Mackey was in Unalakleet, having made a long 132-mile run in one go. He had he same trail to face outside Kaltag as King did - maybe a worse one, since he went through before King did - and was 14 hours en route. But he carved himself out a little bit of a lead, just shaving away at the other teams a bit at a time. Lance has said more than once that his team isn't always the fastest one out there - but they'd run to the ends of the Earth for him. And sometimes that's the more important factor: that willingness to get up and go, to slip into that rhythmic, mile-eating trot or that easy, rolling lope, and just go. On and on. To the ends of the Earth, if necessary.

When the race made it to Elim, Lance's team was looking good - maybe even better than they had at the early part of the race. They ate and drank well, tails wagging and looking cheerful, and left on their way to White Mountain at a fast trot, leading the race. At this stage of the race, Hand Gatt and Jeff King traded places, Jeff three and a half hours behind Lance and yeilding up his slot in second place to Gatt, himself two hours behind Lance. Gatt's team was looking good and moving fast, posting faster trail times than Lance. At that stage of the race, it was Lance's race to lose, but it wasn't in the bag yet: If he made a mistake, Gatt would reel him in. Gatt was in similar case: King, one of the legends of the race, was breathing down his neck. He couldn't afford any mistakes of his own. Meanwhile, to most of the field, Lance is a ghost. Only the two in the rabbit pack - Gatt and King - have seen him in the last few hundred miles. Even they might only see him for a few minutes in the checkpoint - if they see him at all. For most of them, he's left the checkpoint before they even get there.

There's a mandatory 8-hour layover at White Mountain. That's enough time for the dogs and the mushers to take a little break, and the fans to start biting their nails. It's also enough time to stop and consider some of the other stories in the race: Ramey Smyth fell off his sled on the way to Golovin and had to run after his team for an hour. Fortunately for him, they read the trail without difficulty and made their way to the Golovin checkpoint without getting lost, tangling with wildlife, or getting tangled up and fighting. Equally as fortunate, in Golovin they stopped and parked themselves without mishap, instead of continuing on to White Mountain without him. John Baker was making a good showing, despite having lost 5 hours outside of Cripple as a result of losing the trail (perhaps as a consequence of insufficient trail markers or markers that got blown over or buried). Rookie musher Jason Savidis - who lost a dog about midway through the race, and scratched by consequence - has been reunited with his dog Whitey; the escape artist, while ending Savidis's race, is no worse for the wear and his three-day walkabout in wildest Alaska.

It's 55 miles from White Mountain to Safety, and a further 22 to Nome. Lance's team leads it all the way - and it's Maple who leads them. They come into Nome in good daylight, to cheering crowds and chaos and excitement. Maple has to thread her team between a truck - inexplicably parked on Front Street in the run-in to the finish - and the mass of fans pressed up to the edge of the chute. This she does; gone are the days when Lance had to put his seasoned, unflappable Larry up front to show her how it's done. Larry himself is leading the team of Newton Marshall, the first Jamaican musher ever to compete in I-rod, running Lance's second string - so it's a good thing that Maple has learned her chops. Larry isn't there to help, but he's done his job: the next generation of leaders has absorbed his knowledge and keeps the legacy alive.

Lance won his fourth Iditarod in 8 days, 23 hours, 59 minutes and 9 seconds, only the second musher in history to break the 9-day mark; the all-time record is still owned by Martin Buser, another giant of the sport, by about 2 hours. Even so, it's a personal best for Lance - and for the second and third place finishers, Gatt and King, respectively. I guess this puts a definitive end to the "Lance won because of performance enhancement from medical Marijuana use" refrain; it seems like it might be a good idea to encourage him to go back on his meds in the future, since taking him off of them only makes him faster. Fast enough to best all his previous performances, incredible feats though they were.

Still, even though Lance doesn't have the fastest-ever Iditarod title, he has a host of other bests. Nobody has ever done what Lance did: he won four consecutive Quests, four consecutive I-rods, two consecutive back-to-back Quest/I-rod combos; he won six out of the eight 1,000-mile dog races in the last 4 years. In all of that, he never lost a dog. Jeff King, one of the most successful disatance mushers of all time, one who competed in 20+ I-rods, 20 of them consecutively, never having once scratched or lost a dog... Jeff himself said, in an interview in the vicintity of Elim checkpoint this year, "I won't - I can't - do what Lance is doing."

When you think about it, neither can anyone else: Running on frostbitten feet, with two bad knees, poor peripheral circulation and a gimp elbow; without salivary glands, a full set of fingers, adequate sleep or any medications... and without, incedentally, complaints, attitude or being a jerk about it.

Lance has said he might be up for another run to Nome in 2011... emphasis on might, I think, and no statements about whether it would be a fun run for him or a competitive one. The answers to that might be dependant on how the knee surgeries go this summer, and a host of other factors. I would be thrilled beyond speech if he took the trail again in '11, whether competitively or not; it has been a pleasure and a privelege to watch him run these last many years; to watch him do what everyone said could not be done, to watch him repeat feats everyone said were flukes, to watch him face up to the naysayers and silence them by running with the disadvantage of forgoing his prescription meds - and not only making a go of it, and not only being victorious in it, but making a record-setting and record-breaking performance of it.

Whether or not I ever see Lance run again, I don't know that I will ever see a race like this year's: a battle to the last by giants of the sport, by athletes who are, man and dog, amongst the toughest, fittest and most determined on this Earth. There was an extra load on this year's race in the sense that it may mark the last time we ever get to see Lance and Jeff duke it out - it may, in fact, mark the last time either of them ever take the runners on the Iditarod trail. It's always an epic challenge, the I-rod.... but this year, it really was a clash of Titans.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

An Irrigation Ditch Runs Through It

It must be springtime in AK: The ravens are courting.

Lately there've been a lot of pair-flights in my neighborhood, little duos of ravens wheeling and dipping over the treetops, flying their swirling, romantic, aerobatic courtship displays, grace on the wing. This is, for me, an unmistakable sign of spring here. Even though I have that brain perversion that makes me think spring happens about the end of January, I think nearly everyone would agree with me that the juice is rising now. There's daylight both on my way to and on my way home from work, I've decreased the heat in my house, and things buried for months in my back yard are starting to emerge from under the snow.

Mind you, at a casual glance, one might be decoyed: It's the season of brown.

Summer here is unrelentingly green, and fall is often gloriously golden. Winter, of course, is white - at least in the daytime - bracketed at dawn and dusk with the most glorious shades of red and gold and peach and violet. But early spring (which in my mind is mid-spring) tends toward brown: the snow is disappearing, but the green-up hasn't started yet. Even MY twisted little brain can't make it look green... yet. That's coming - along with the return of the swans, the swift bullet-flights of the ducks, the evocative calls of the cranes and the haunting songs of loon and grebe. Then my lake will be open water, glimmering in the long light of summer, a thing of peace to be found, always, at the slightest glance out my windows.

I like living on the water. There was a time when I lived literally ON the water, in a boat: a 40-foot 1960 Chris-Craft yacht, to be exact. Now I live more metaphorically on the water, in the sense that my house is situated on a peninsula into a lake. Back in vet school, though, I had to make do with an irrigation ditch.

I lived on a property that had a small acreage, two frontages, several mature apple and cherry trees, a small house, a detached garage (which I rented out to a friend) and an irrigation ditch running through the fenced pasture area. Mind you, this was really quite pleasant and much prettier than it probably sounds. I'll grant you than in the winter the ditch was dry, which wasn't as pretty, but did have one advantage: It allowed my mustang mare to go across the ditch to a part of the pasture that she would not dare approach in the summer. The thoroughbreds would cross at will, fording the fast-flowing water without the slightest concern, but the mustang would not even consider this behavior, no matter which side her best friends and pasture-mates were on.

The down-side of the winter-dry ditch became apparent one day when a trio of adolescent boys came trundling down the ditch, evidently using it as their own personal highway, without regard to property lines or trespassing. They appeared unexpectedly from under the bridge that spanned the ditch where it passed under the adjacent road. I happened to be outside at the time with a classmate, Jean. We were treated to the experience of seeing all three horses in my pasture startle and bolt at the appearance of the boys. They ran down the fence-line, two of them crowding my mustang against the fence. Trapped tight against the wire, she leaped over it into the neighboring pasture, taking down the top wire as she did.

I bolted after the horses, hopping the remaining wire to catch up my mustang and inspect for damage. Jean, who had at one time been a Sheriff's deputy, took several brisk strides toward the ditch, calling in a deep, authoritative voice, "You kids are trespassing! Get off of this property!" It was quite a transformation: Jean is normally soft-spoken and rather gentle in her body language, and all of a sudden she's striding along like a colossus out to bust some heads, and her voice had dropped an octave and risen in volume by a factor of ten. The kids all leaped a half a foot in the air and turned, scrambling, to run back the way they had come.

I never saw them again. Quelle suprise. Not.

Meanwhile, my mustang, blowing and snorting, eyes wide and ears swivelling madly to catch any hint of threat, consented to pause by the far fence of the neighbor's pasture as I approached her. She held her head high and tense, surveying the ditch, but when the boys disappeared under the bridge she dropped her head a little and allowed me to sort through her dense winter coat for the source of the blood I could see streaked against her grey dapples. Nothing too bad: three parallel cuts, not quite full-thickness through her skin. Lucky it wasn't one of the two thin-skinned thoroughbreds, in which case I was fairly certain I'd be doing stitches.

Ah, well. That was the worst of the things that came of having an irrigation ditch run through it.

Most of the time it was rather a delight to have the ditch there. It meant I didn't have to worry about water if I decided to empty out and scrub the stock tank, and it was home to a family of muskrats and one of ducks. It was a delightful thing, of a morning or an evening, to go down and sit by the ditch with my notes and perhaps a cup of coffee, studying and sipping and enjoying the quiet sound of flowing water and the antics of the wildlife... well, sometimes studying and sometimes not. The muskrats would generally disappear when I first arrived, only to venture forth again a few minutes later, after I had failed to do anything frightening. They would swim up and down the ditch, sometimes emerging on the far bank, sometimes paddling along against the current, diving now and again with a little flash of their long bare tails. Once in a while one of the babies would climb out on the bank and huddle there, peering nearsightedly at me and sniffing the air for a while - until my evident boringness caused them to lose interest and they disappeared amongst the grasses on the bank, or slid seamlessly back into the water.

Most of the time, if I was sitting by the ditch, Cassie the mustang mare would come join me. Sometimes she would nuzzle at my coffee cup, attempting to taste the contents, or else sniffing deeply and then turning her upper lip up to funnel the aroma into her nostrils. Sometimes she would riffle softly through my hair with her thick velvety lips, blowing and snuffling gently at my skin, twitching her upper lip side-to-side to give me a companionable scratch. Sometimes she would lay down nearby, taking advantage of my guardianship to have a little lie-down. Sometimes she would simply stand next to me, head drooping companionably to the level of mine, her eyelids half-mast and blinking sleepily. Every once in a while she would poke her nose over my shoulder, peering at my notes and trying to turn the pages with her nose. She was insatiably curious, and relentlessly social - both useful traits for a wild horse, I imagine. Having been caught at approximately a year of age, Cassie had had the lessons of the wild to reinforce her own natural temperament - a lucky thing for me, given the number of times she devised a new means of escaping from the pasture. She was always to be found a few pastures down, visiting the nearest neighbor horses, but the moment I showed up she would turn away from them, bright-eyed with interest, to walk up to me. You could almost see her thinking "Hi! What are YOU doing here? Got anything to eat?"

Most fortunately, I could walk Cassie back home without benefit of halter or rope. All that was necessary was to reach under her throat-latch and pinch about 18 of her mane-hairs between my thumb and forefinger. This seemed sufficient lead by which to convince her to walk home with me, the other horses trailing in her wake. As she was always fascinated with whatever boring thing I was up to - and there was every chance she might be rewarded with food for accompanying me - she was more than willing to walk along home with me. I sometimes wondered what passing motorists thought of this odd little parade: Me (usually dishevelled, having been woken out of a sound sleep at 6 in the morning by some helpful stranger pounding on my door and yelling "Hey! Your horses are out!"; walking at my right shoulder, a sturdy and beautifully dappled grey mare wearing a bright, interested expression but nary a halter nor rope nor anything else; and two chestnut geldings clopping happily along single-file in our wake.

The pasture was a peaceful refuge for me on many an evening when I'd driven my brain hard all day and needed a little mental break before putting it back to work for the evening's studying. Quite often my little old dog Merrik - then 12 years old and missing one eye as a consequence of cancer, but still tough and active and otherwise bursting with health and energy - would accompany me out into the pasture, wandering around and sniffing things, sifting through the feed dishes for stray bits of sweet feed, milling peacefully amongst the horses, all of whom tolerated her presence without the slightest animosity. It was a lovely, restful, soothing ritual, often repeated throughout vet school.

Except for the day Merrik saw the ducks.

Merrik was pathologically fearful of water. Like many dogs, she dreaded being bathed, and spent the entire time attempting to escape the tub (or sink, or wherever I was bathing her). She was a relatively small dog (only 20 pounds) but she had the magical ability to gain twice her usual weight - not to mention several extra limbs - whenever I tried to pick her up to put her in the tub. Outside, she would skirt all but the smallest puddles. She would certainly go up to the irrigation ditch for a drink, but she was careful to place her front feet on the bank where she could balance herself securely without risk of getting wet.

One day, though, while walking around the pasture with me, Merrik happened to notice the duck family on the waters of the irrigation ditch. Well, this is an enticement not to be ignored: There, right in front of her, is a large mallard with four or five babies trailing in her wake. Who could resist chasing that?

Merrik takes off, growling low in her throat, darting at a shallow angle toward the ditch. The duck babies immediately begin paddling rapidly for the far shore. The mother duck begins swimming fast against the current, but hugging the near shore to decoy the dog away from her babies as Merrik (ignoring me as I try to call her off) closes in. At the last minute, the babies all having made the safety of the far bank, the mother duck churns it into overdrive, angling sharply across the water to follow the babies. At the same moment, Merrik - focused now on nothing in life but that duck - makes her leap.

She missed, of course.

The rest was like a cartoon. Merrik, on hitting the dread miasma of (gasp!) water, leaps strait up in the air. It's like watching a rocket launch, spray flying everywhere as she explodes out of the drink. Somehow, about two and a half feet above the surface, she manages to change direction and comes down on the bank rather than falling back into the ditch. This is rather a relief to me, because the laminar flow in the ditches - deceptively smooth and calm on the surface - is swift-flowing and powerful under the surface, capable of drowning adult humans. Apparently the shock of landing in water is enough to completely short-circuit Merrik's brain, and she races madly about the pasture for the next ten minutes, making wide, swift loops and zigzags and barking incessantly the entire time. Meanwhile I laugh helplessly, unable to catch my breath long enough to call her to me to reassure her, and slightly unhinged by the relief of not having my beloved dog sucked into the undertow to her death. The horses look on in bemusement, their heads turning to watch Merrik's progress as she criss-crosses the pasture at top speed. Cassie, excited by the activity, trots a few strides, tossing her head, but then stops again to watch the show.

Eventually Merrik outruns her shock and horror and slows down, and I am able to catch my breath and call her to me. She is panting and muddy, and her one remaining eye is wild with excitement. I take pity on her and decide not to bathe her; instead we hang out under the apple trees until she dries and I brush the mud out of her coat.

Merrik is many years in her grave - she lived to be fourteen, and the four years we had following her diagnosis and treatment for cancer were the best of her life. We did everything together, every fun thing I could think of for a person and a tough little terrier mix dog to do together. I suppose I will always miss her; but I can't help but smile when I think of her. She was the perfect sidekick to me for many years, and (bless her heart) saw me through vet school and into internship. She was everything charming and delightful and engaging and sweet, everything tough and cheerful and good-hearted and adorable a dog could be. She made me laugh more times than I could ever count, and makes me smile to this day whenever I think of her. I don't think I ever saw a dog more conscious of her dignity, yet more willing to abandon it when the opportunity presented itself. I'll have that afternoon always in memory: the sun slanting golden in the late afternoon, the green of the pasture, the muddy brown of the water, dappled with sun... the horses wandering about, copper and smoke drifting over the grass, and my little silver-black dog, racing wild-eyed through the mix, barking hysterically the while.

It might not have been quite as good as having a river run through it.... but the irrigation ditch was a pretty decent substitute.