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.