I promised myself that I would add one of these stories here every time I told one. I tell them at one point or another throughout the summer. There will be no chronology - not yet anyway - nor will there be much of a schedule. You never know; I might add a story every day and I might not. This is my life. Every day is an adventure.


Saturday, June 26, 2010

Home Sweet Home

The home where I now live did not come easily, nor did it come quickly. When we first moved out here, we came with the clothes on our backs and what we could stuff in a small bush plane - not much when you consider two small boys too. My husband had been working out here for two summers now, and he was here when the rest of us came, but that didn't count for much in the possessions of a family. He'd been working for one of the lodges here and had been able to negotiate a lodge-sitting job for the winter - supplies once a month and a roof over our heads. The job required us to be there and little else. It was a start. It got us all out here. After that we hopped around the area, moving from cabin to cabin as opportunity permitted, and going as far as roughly seventy miles up river so Don could work out of his boss's place for a year. We even spent some time in Skwentna so the boys could go to the one-room school there. Now that was a learning experience, for me anyway.

We came by this piece of property through my husband's boss. They had claimed four plots of land, one for him and his wife and one for each of their two boys. Three of those plots they had been able to develop but one of them was down here at Lake Creek and far from the others so they just never got around to doing anything with it. They were about to lose it back to the state but we bought it for the price of the survey. Couldn't tell you what that price was but I know it was a lot cheaper than if you were to go and buy such a piece of land on the market.

The plot was 20 acres, but other than that, we had little more than a map and a compass to help us find the place. Now, they had marked this place once before, but we discovered that they didn't correct for magnetic north when they tied their little markers around, so we had to pace it off and tie new markers. So once we found our landmark, that's what we did. With a compass and a fifty-foot rope, Don pointed the way and me and the boys walked the rope along inch-worm style - so many fifty-foot passes one way, ninety degrees and so many passes another direction and on around until we came back to the beginning. Then it was call the surveyor to come out and put it on the map. Turns out we did pretty good. The surveyor was pleased with our efforts to make his job easier, cutting bushes and branches out of the way if need be. As it turns out, we got real close to 20 acres - 19.something-er-other so close it's not worth mentioning in casual conversation.

As we were trekking through this uncharted wilderness, we happened upon a small clearing that was more grass than trees. I was looking at the grass and thinking yard for the boys, and Don was looking at the trees and thinking lumber for the house. During the course of the summer we started carving a path from the river to our little clearing and making the clearing into something somewhat shorter than six foot tall. Yes, wild grass here grows upwards of six feet tall and there's plenty of other plants and bushes who do as well. Our weed-eater and chainsaw saw a lot of work before we spent the first night here.

Before we could stay here, we needed somewhere to stay. Don built us a visqueen house out of small spruce poles nailed and tied between slightly larger trees. In it we had room for Don and me to sleep on the ground and the two boys had cots. We had a wood stove for heat, a TV and a single light. At night we were a beacon in the dark. One night military planes flew over on their way to some night-time training exercise further north and I swear they circled around to check out the strange light in the middle of nowhere. I suppose it's possible it was just a second wing passing over but I've never noticed them doing that since.

Before we actually built anything, Don went around the 'yard' and cut any trees that looked like they might hit the house should they decide to fall. Several stumps were left behind but what couldn't be milled into something useful was turned into firewood and that too was useful. At first, he'd cut a tree down and then cut it up into usable pieces while the boys and I hauled off branches and piled up what he cut. Though we had picked a clearing, there were still many trees around and it wasn't long before Don was merely cutting the trees down to be dealt with later. I could only watch with sympathy as he'd cut a tree and then look around tiredly, and then he'd sigh as he spotted yet another tree that could potentially endanger the house.

It took us a week to build the floor. Don milled the beams from trees in the area and then posts were cut and treated to set in the ground. Shortly before we moved here, a neighbor wanted a cabin torn down. We could have any of it we wanted if we'd come do the work. We picked that building clean, leaving very little behind, taking even the nails if we could salvage them. The lumber from that building created three of our walls, cutting what we needed to mill by a lot. All we had to buy was the plywood for the inside and outside, and the insulation and vapor barrier. Oh and we can't forget the windows but they came later.

While Don was nailing lumber together, I was hauling it up from the boat, the boys helped wherever they could. That was a chore. Where we can park the boats is at the bottom of a hill, and at the time, there was nothing but a foot trail up it. Once on top, I had a three-wheeler and a sled I could haul whatever I loaded the quarter mile to the house. But that hill was, is, and always will be, a killer. One sheet of plywood at a time or a couple boards at a time and up the hill I'd go. The boys, bless their little hearts, helped however they could. They were hard workers.

Roughly a day per wall and another few days for the roof and we had a shell. Then it was stuff it all with insulation and cover it with plastic. We were rushing - winter was coming. Take my advice, never move into a house you haven't completed. It's very difficult to complete it once it's filled with all your possessions. We've lived in this house for over 15 years now (I think) and the upstairs still isn't finished. But, at the time, we didn't have a choice. As soon as the place was built enough to do, we moved all our possessions in and piled them in the middle of the floor to be sorted out later; daylight was gone and it was snowing outside. The boys claimed their bedrooms upstairs and moved enough of their stuff up there to sleep. Don and I parked our little mattress (twin size by the way) at the back of the house and then, while Don lit a fire in the stove, I cooked supper. Home sweet home.

The next morning I looked outside. The visqueen tent we'd been living in was only a few steps from our home-made front door. Our construction site had a fresh clean blanket of snow over it but one more night in the tent wouldn't have been a happy one. The roof had come loose and the middle of our ex-home now had a pile of snow dumped in it. We had to laugh. We squeaked in under the wire by the skin of our teeth. We spent the rest of the day taking down what was left of our tent-house.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

A Good Bear-Dog

What is it that makes a good bear-dog? A healthy mix of foolish bravery, agility and loyalty. Everyone knows that dogs are loyal, and to a fault, turning on their masters only as a last resort, and most dogs are agile and full of fun-loving life. The foolish bravery part comes only to a few. During our stay in the wilderness of Alaska, we have been blessed with two such dogs. The first was an Airedale named Lavender. She moved out here with us, a Shelty Colly and my two cats. She learned the ways of our new wilderness life just like the rest of us were doing. There was a lot of snow our first winter out here and very little trouble to be gotten into.

The following summer was also a learning experience. Lavender had learn, without really being taught, to hang rather close to any of us who might be doing something interesting and to come when called without delay. In her eyes, the kids were to be watched over and played with but not minded so much - they were still pups.

Since we didn't live at the lodge that summer, I didn't see what happened, but Don was carrying fish to the freezer in back of the lodge and had his hands full. Yes, he had a pistol on his hip, but the bear (a grizzly) was already charging and there was no time to drop the fish and pull his gun. Lavender was there and suddenly she was in the bear's face. Never before had she been fierce - not with anything, but no one was going to pick on her master.

The bear stopped its charge and swatted at the dog, never touching her as she danced out of reach but didn't go away and was right back in there again. By now, the fish was on the ground and the pistol in hand but Don had a different problem - shooting the bear without hitting the dog.

I'm sure the whole thing happened in mere seconds but as far as Lavender was concerned, a big loud noise issued from her master and suddenly the bear was down and dead. Don said it was interesting to watch her think about this and quickly put it all together. She now knew what a gun was and it was the only thing she feared. For her, 'big-loud-noise' equaled 'dead', and she knew what had issued that big loud noise.

For her, that was the only bear attack and the only thing we shot with her around, but she never forgot. Every time guns came into hands she would find somewhere to be out of sight, to come if called, but she'd much rather not.

The dog we have now, Gizmo, did much the same thing. Endlessly playful and loving people, she knew who would throw a stick for her and would happily bring any of several she'd collected if you'd only throw it a few thousand times. She was a mutt mix of 1/4 black lab, 1/4 golden retriever, 1/4 husky and 1/4 shepherd. She looks like a shepherd though chunkier, and the bit of white around her nose and the tip of her tail tells of the husky. I guess her love of bringing back the exact stick you throw is the retriever part and her love of water is the lab part, but nowhere in there is the foolish brave part, not that we knew anyway.

One day, while I was at work, my husband was out using the weed-eater and unable to hear anything much else. This time the gun is in the house. Over the weed-eater, Don hears something out of the ordinary and looks around to see a bear charging across our little pond and the dog charging to interfere. Don drops the weed-eater and runs for the house, hoping to get there before the dog gets killed, but by the time he gets back out, the bear is no longer in sight - neither is the dog. He calls a few times and she comes back, the hair along her spine all standing up like a mohawk, the bear stayed gone.

Since then, Gizmo has kept the yard clear of bear and moose. Over the years, she's had to watch over the various critters that have shared our lives for a time. Now she just has to watch over Don and me. Most times, bears are not a problem here. We are not on a beaten trail for them. Summer time fishing is not all that great anywhere near here, though that doesn't mean they don't pass through. For the most part, I prefer to allow them to pass undisturbed, sending the dog after them only as a last resort. So, over the years, she's only chased them if we're already outside when a bear comes to call. Though she's come away with a mouthful of hair, she's never been touched in return. But she's getting old now so I worry about her. She's ten years old this spring.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Baby Moose

One day, about fourteen years ago - it was shortly after we moved to our current home - we were driving up the river early in the spring. Exactly what we were going to do, I have long since forgotten, but considering the time of year, I'm going to say we were primarily going to see if we could go anywhere. We live down a slough called Twenty Mile Slough. It's a drivable river most of the summer, but it gets interesting in the winter - the water gets really low before it freezes and we were out to see if it had come up enough for us to get out to the Yetna River. If we could do so soon enough, the boys could spend the last few days of school at the school house and have a chance to play with some of their friends before the summer was too busy for play.

This trip turned very interesting when the boys spotted a moose cow pacing back and forth along the edge of the bank. She was upset for some reason, and now even more so now that a boat was driving by. As I watched her, puzzling her actions, suddenly I noticed a baby moose standing chest deep in the just recently melted, ice cold water. This is one of the crueler examples of 'survival of the fittest'. Mother moose generally give birth on some kind of island if they can find one, and then move on as soon as their baby can keep up. This means swimming a river too. Moose have very long legs but mom doesn't always pick the best places to cross, plus the little ones likely take longer to swim across than their mother did and may end up in a bad spot for getting out of the water.

Of course, when I went, "Oh look, there's a baby. Can we do anything?" my husband tried (he was driving). We inched over to the bank. I crawled up on the very front of the boat and the boys both stood up and waved their arms. They may have been yelling too but I honestly don't remember; I was concentrating on this little bit of life in the water. It was standing on the ground, up to it's neck in the water, really wishing it could be somewhere else as this big thing came after it, but it couldn't go anywhere without swimming and I'm sure it was too exhausted and cold for that. I pulled it close by an ear and lifted it out of the water (not by it's ear). Then I tried to quickly shove it up on the bank. The top of this bank was still like four or five feet above the water's level, pretty much straight up, though the top curved down a bit. I got it that far up but the bank was still too steep for it to get all those legs under it without risk of tumbling back into the water so I had to stand up and give it an extra shove. Then it was "Here comes momma" an we had to get out of there fast.

Baby moose got all those legs under it and momma was happy to steer it away from us and the river as we backed away as quickly as we could. That is when all the fascinating little details sank in, never to be forgotten. The umbilical cord was still quite fresh so I'm thinking this baby was only a few hours old at the most. The fur was baby-hair soft (for a moose) and very fine. Even though it was wet, it felt so very soft, not at all like an adult's hair. From its little bony chest to its scrawny little butt, it was maybe eighteen inches long, however I swear from its shoulder to it's feet, it had to be three feet tall. That's my best estimate without having the time to even try to measure it against anything more familiar. I have no idea if it was a boy or a girl. I hope it lived to a ripe old age, but really there is no way of knowing.

Several years later I got to do it a second time with another baby moose - this one a bit older - maybe a month or so. The difference was amazing. It was stronger, the hair was more like momma's, and once it was up on solid ground, it took no time at all to jump up and run off with it's momma. They are hardy little creatures but the first year of their life is a hard one.