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$h!t and Run

$h!t and Run

Sled dog teams and their mushers recently crossed the Iditarod finish line in Nome completing a nearly 1000 mile journey across Alaska. Being pulled by running dogs with my hair flying in the breeze has been a dream of mine since the age of 8 when I thought it was a good idea to take our old English sheepdog out for a walk while wearing roller skates. For the record, it was not a good idea. Since that failed attempt to harness the power of a running dog, I thought a less injurious way to get that same sensation would be to try dog sledding. On our trip to Alaska, it was time to make that dream come true.

After researching various options for dog sledding, I quickly came to realize that during the summer, most dog sledding excursions use a wheeled sled. In my own crude way, I had already experienced the “joy” of being pulled along on wheels. I wanted the authentic experience of dog sledding on snow. The only way to do that in August would be to take a helicopter up to a glacier.

As soon as the helicopter cleared the ridge of the mountain, we were instantly transported to winter. The fact that it was foggy, drizzling and cold helped set the mood. During the summer months, the dogs are kept on the glacier so that they can continue their training. With 60 plastic, igloo-shaped dog houses clustered together, the glacier looked like doggy summer camp. Oregano and I expected the auditory assault of collective barking as soon as we landed, but the only sound we heard was from the rotors of the helicopter. Once it flew away, it was eerily quiet. 

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Doggy summer camp on the glacier

The mushers introduced themselves then gave us the history of dog sledding in Alaska. They explained the different breeds of dogs used, how the dogs must be fed and cared for during training and during a race.  Because they run such long distances when racing, the mushers must put booties on each dog’s paws to protect them. If you’ve ever tried to put socks on a wriggling toddler you have some appreciation for what these mushers must do. Now imagine trying to accomplish this task on sixteen four-legged, wriggling toddlers while your hands are freezing cold. We had no idea how much was involved in running a dog sled race. It was fascinating.  

As the mushers patiently answered all of our questions, their assistants got the sleds out. Instantly, the calm erupted into a canine cacophony.

“The dogs LOVE to run,“  the musher yelled so we could hear him over the barking. “They know what the sound of the sleds means.”

Some of the dogs were standing on top of their igloos barking and howling. Their behavior reminded me of students in class yelling, “Pick me! Pick me!” Very quickly, the assistants selected the lucky winners who would get to go for a run and hooked them into position.

While the dogs were being harnessed, Mike the musher showed us the sleds. They are very light aluminum. The Flexible Flyer I used to sled down hills on the golf course after a snowstorm seemed a whole lot sturdier than the sleds they use to traverse Alaskan terrain.  At the back of the sled are narrow rails on which the musher must stand to balance himself and control the sled. Between those rails is a  flap of plastic they push down on the snow to cause drag and slow the sled. There is a small metal anchor that acts as a brake.  DSCF0134

Mike got us situated on the sled. I sat on a seat at the front. If I’m being honest, seat is a generous term for what I was actually sitting on. It was more like a butt-sized plank with a tiny bit of cushioning and handles on either side. Oregano stood behind me. The musher got on the rails all the way at the back and the assistant lifted the brake. Without the anchor holding them back, the dogs that had been straining against their harnesses began running. It was like being shot out of a cannon. I had always imagined it would be more of a gentle increase in speed. Not so.

From a distance, the dog sled looks like it glides smoothly. As we bounced and bumped over the uneven snow and ice with the sled sometimes listing to one side,  I was disabused of that romantic notion. I grabbed onto the handles on the sides of my tiny seat and held on tight.

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This was soooooo much more fun than being pulled by my dog while wearing roller skates.

Mike mushed us around to the far side of the glacier and threw the brake in the snow. He complimented us for not flying off the sled. Apparently, many dog sledding newbies are easily tossed from the sleds when they first leave the camp. He snapped a few commemorative photos then he told us it was our turn to drive. He showed us the proper stance, how to steer and had us put our feet on the narrow metal runners. Braver than me, Oregano opted to drive first. As we were flying over the snow, I noticed cylindrical brown projectiles hurtling past me to the left and right. I  thought it was another unexpected hazard of dog sledding; rocks being kicked up by the dogs. As I looked around the mountain and the pristine snow of the glacier taking a moment to absorb where I was and what I was doing, it dawned on me that there aren’t rocks on top of the snow on a glacier. It wasn’t until I saw the “rocks” falling out of the business ends of the dogs in front of me that I realized it was flying feces. To my amazement, the dogs were shitting as they ran at full speed. There was no stopping to sniff around to select the perfect location. There was no spinning in place until just the right moment in time. These pups didn’t even break stride to poop. As a member of a species that sits and remains stationary to defecate, I was truly impressed by the dogs’ stamina and agility. The most I’ve ever accomplished while pooping was finishing a chapter of a book.

Oregano was driving at the back of the sled presumably trying not to fall off. I doubt he noticed the miracle of nature I was witnessing from my front row seat. Since the real musher was standing just behind me, I tilted my head back towards him, “Are those dogs really shitting while they’re running?” He could hear the awe in my voice.

“Yep,” the musher laughed at me. “We have 16 dogs on the team. We can’t stop running the race because one of them needs to pee or poop. We’d never get anywhere.”

As I bounced along the glacier with dung being flung past either side of my seat, I had a much deeper understanding of the axiom, “It’s good to be the lead dog.”

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The reason it is good to be the lead dog…

Angry Bird

No. I’m not writing a post about virtual birds that are programmed to be angry. This is about an actual bird that was really angry.

When Oregano and I arrived at our cottage on Lowell Point in Seward, Alaska, we heard the cawing of crows from high up in the trees just off the beach. Not the most pleasant sound as a welcome, but we just accepted it as part of the background noise and began unloading the luggage from the trunk of the car.

I stayed inside unpacking and Oregano went back out to the car. I could hear the crow squawking loudly again. Seconds later, I heard Oregano’s feet pounding against the wood deck before he burst through the door.

“Holy shit! That bird just dive bombed me at the trunk of the car!” he said slightly out of breath from the exertion of running with a suitcase.

“Really? Dive bombed you? Are you sure he wasn’t just flying to those shrubs near the car? I saw some berries on them. Maybe the bird was just trying to get something to eat.” I offered by way of an explanation.

“No. I’m pretty sure that bird had it out for me,” he said. “There’s still more stuff in the car. I have to go back out there,” he said as he steeled himself for another trip to the car and another potential bird bombardment.

A few minutes later, I heard the squawking again followed by the sound of Oregano running along the deck.

“That bird buzzed my head. I’m sure he was trying to get me!”

No sooner had the words left his mouth than we could hear the bird walking on the corrugated plastic roofing over the deck. It sounded like the bird was pacing back and forth waiting for us to exit.

“That is one angry bird.” I said. “We need to unpack. Hopefully, he’ll lose interest in us and fly off to find another victim.”

The noise coming from the roof stopped. We thought the coast was clear until we looked out the window. The pacing had stopped because the crow was now sitting on a ghost tree just outside our window. He was staring at us with his beady black eyes.

He was staring at us hoping to keep us from leaving the cabin.

It was like he was just staring at us inside the cottage waiting for us to come out.

“Is it just me or do you get the feeling that he’s just waiting for us to come outside?” I asked Oregano.

Always optimistic, Oregano said, “Maybe that’s his usual perch and we’re reading too much into this.”

Thinking the bird would fly off eventually, I busied myself in the cottage reading through information about the area.

When I lifted my eyes from my reading material, the crow was still there. The tide was going out exposing a huge expanse of beach. I wanted to go beach combing. With all the confidence of a creature higher up on the food chain, I opened the door to the cottage and strode right past the crow on my way to the beach. That crow watched me like a hawk, but didn’t fly at me.

For a long time, I wandered aimlessly on the beach with my head down searching for interesting rocks and shells. When I finally looked up I saw that the crow had followed me down the beach and he brought his friends for back-up.  With the spooky fog and the ghost trees, I felt like I had been dropped onto the set of a Hitchcock movie. A half mile away from the safety of our cottage, I no longer walked with the same confident swagger. The only way back to the cottage was right past the tree with the crows in it. As far as I was concerned, that was not an option.

Beach-combing on Resurrection Bay under the watchful beady eyes of the crows.

I’m the tiny dot beach combing on Resurrection Bay under the watchful beady eyes of the crows.

I decided to keep walking farther down the beach collecting rocks hoping that the birds would eventually fly off on their own before the tide came back in and the beach disappeared. The next time I turned around, the birds were gone. I walked briskly back towards the cottage with my eyes to the sky. As I approached the stairs leading from the beach up to our cottage, I heard the squawking begin again. I high-tailed it up the stairs, onto the deck and burst through the door.

Oregano looked up at me, “I see the crow is still out there on patrol.”

“Yeah, and this time he had a posse.” I said trying to catch my breath.

The angry bird was back and this time he had friends.

The angry bird was back and this time he had friends.

Later that afternoon we wanted to get ice from the main cabin located across the road. That meant venturing outside and into the crow’s domain. Oregano picked up the ice bucket and opened the door. As he stepped out, I grabbed my umbrella and tried to hand it to him.

“It’s not raining.” He was confused as to why I was offering him an umbrella.

“The umbrella’s not for the rain; it’s to protect you from the crow. Maybe with the disguise of the umbrella, the bird won’t realize you’re a human and won’t perceive you as a threat,” I suggested.

“Do you really think the bird is that stupid?” Oregano asked. He was unsure of what I considered to be unassailable logic.

“The expression bird-brained had to come from somewhere. Other animals use camouflage to effectively protect themselves,” I said with my arm still extended holding the umbrella.

“They do, but I’ve never seen plaid used as camouflage in nature,” he argued, but took the umbrella from me anyway and headed out the door.

Plaid doesn't exactly make for good camouflage, but it was enough to fool the birds.

Plaid doesn’t exactly make for good camouflage, but it was enough to fool the birds.

Ten minutes later, he calmly walked back onto the deck carrying the filled ice bucket.

“What do you know? Your theory worked. The crow didn’t dive bomb me this time,” he said sounding surprised. “The manager told me the crows have a nest in the tree adjacent to our cabin. They’re just trying to protect their nest.”

“That explains the crow’s behavior. Did the manager have any helpful hints on how to be outside without the fear of being pecked to death?” I asked.

“No, but he thought your umbrella was a good idea,” he said while chuckling.

We realized that for the duration of our stay, the only way we were going to peacefully co-exist with the crow was with our trusty umbrella.

When the tide came back in and the beach disappeared, we sat safely in our cabin enjoying the view. We were admiring the peaceful beauty in front of us when we heard sounds of squawking birds and screeching humans.

“Sounds like the crow found someone else to bully,” I said as we both stepped onto the deck to see what was causing the commotion. The people in the next cabin had arrived and the crow was none too pleased about it. He was going after them with even more enthusiasm than he had when he came after us. We saw a man carrying a suitcase while his wife walked behind him yelling and wildly waving a stick in the air. It was like she was whacking at an invisible piñata.

“The crow has a nest with babies in the tree right between our cabins,” I shouted to them to be heard over the loud cawing. “Holding an umbrella over our heads seemed to distract the bird. Would you like to borrow our umbrella?” I offered.

They declined and opted to continue using the long stick method. They very quickly learned that twirling the stick above their heads like a helicopter rotor was an effective deterrent. It looked ridiculous, but it got the job done.

When the tide was out again the next morning, I stepped onto our deck, popped open the umbrella and headed right past the crow perched in the ghost tree.  From the beach, I called back to Oregano. “When we were preparing for this trip, I learned that more people are killed by moose than by bears. I read up on moose evasion techniques and how to be bear aware.  Of all the potentially dangerous animals we might encounter in Alaska, who knew the most threatening one would be a crow?”

Oregano trying to balance the protective umbrella while taking a photo.

Oregano trying to balance the protective umbrella while taking a photo.

 

A Night in a Yurt Won’t Hurt

One of the most alluring parts of travel is the opportunity to experience something new. When we make the effort to go someplace, we want it to be different. We don’t want it to feel like home with better scenery. We try to sample the local color and, when possible, prefer to stay in smaller places that give us a better sense of the area we are visiting.

Despite the fact that we were planning our trip to Alaska more than 6 months in advance, we found that many of these smaller lodging options were completely filled. While researching our options on the Kenai Peninsula, I discovered a resort that was highly rated on TripAdvisor. When I clicked over to the resort’s website I realized that the accommodations are luxury yurts. I know a yurt is a glorified tent, but I was curious about what features turn a regular yurt into a luxury yurt, so I read through the website and more glowing reviews.

That night Oregano asked how the lodging search had been going. I told him that I’d discovered lots of great options, but that availability was a problem. Jokingly, I told him about the luxury yurt resort.

“Yurt? What’s a yurt? I’ve never even heard that word before,” he said.

“A yurt is a round, sturdier version of a tent,” I answered.

“Cool! Let’s go for it!” he said enthusiastically.

I looked at him like he was an alien. Five minutes ago he didn’t know what a yurt was and now he’s ready to spend the night in one. We aren’t campers. We’re not exactly outdoorsy unless you count sitting in the hammock in the garden. The idea of sleeping in a tent, albeit a sturdy one, didn’t exactly appeal to me.

“Are you serious? You want to spend a night in a yurt?” I asked incredulously.

“Sure! It would be an adventure. What are the details?” he asked.

I regretted mentioning this resort, but it was too late now, so I continued. “It’s on a beautiful remote island. We’ll need to leave our car at the public dock and take a water taxi to get there. The yurt is very spacious and will have a bed and bathroom with a composting toilet. There are solar panels, but reviewers said there wasn’t much electricity. Cell service will be questionable.”

“Twenty-four unplugged hours enjoying Alaska’s natural beauty sounds like a fair trade off for electricity,” he said trying to convince me.

“When I was perusing the website I did a quick check of the pricing and it looks like it is $250 for the night.” I hoped the price would give him some pause.

“That’s more than we usually spend for a night, but it sounds great! It’s like getting a hotel and an adventure all in one.” He peeked over my shoulder at the website. “Look! They have kayaks to use during our stay.”

I was a bit alarmed by his enthusiasm.

“I’d really prefer sleeping in something with sturdy walls when there is a possibility of bears sneaking in during the night and eating us,” I said with great concern.

“The website said there aren’t any bears on that island,” he pointed out.

“Ah, yes, I saw that, but did anyone show the website to the bears? I’m pretty sure they go where they want.” His casual attitude about animals that could snack on me as an appetizer before moving on to him as the main course disturbed me.

He still wanted to know more, so I kept going. “We will have a small propane stove, but no fridge. We’ll need to bring all the food we’ll need for our stay and enough ice to keep it cool for the duration. That’s a lot to schlep down a dock with our luggage then haul onto a boat.” I was trying to discourage him.

“So, we’ll eat granola bars during our stay. If we do that, we won’t need any ice,” he offered by way of a solution.  “It will be an adventure. C’mon, let’s do it. We can kayak and just enjoy the peace and quiet. It’s only 24 hours. When are we ever going to have an opportunity like this again?”

“The weather in Alaska is unpredictable. If it rains, we won’t be able to kayak. We’ll be stuck in the yurt all day. There will be no TV, no internet.”

Unfazed by this information, he said, “It’s a good thing we enjoy each other’s company. That could get pretty boring. It’s only 24 hours, how bad could it be?” He was really giving me the hard sell.

I could conjure numerous scenarios of how bad it could be. It could rain the entire time trapping us in the yurt. The owners who ferry us out to the resort could meet with some unfortunate fate, stranding us on a remote Alaskan island without cell service. I could go on and on, but Oregano was so excited about the prospect of spending a night in a yurt. I suspect part of the appeal was that he just enjoyed saying the word yurt.

“Okay,” I acquiesced.

“Okay, what?” he asked.

“Okay. I’ll spend the night in a yurt,” I agreed reluctantly.

“Great! This is going to be a once in a lifetime experience,” he said.

“Let’s hope so,” I muttered under my breath.

“Check the availability on the website,” he said quickly hoping to book this before I could change my mind.

I pulled up the website and saw that they did have availability. Damn!

“They have several yurts available for the date we need. Let me just read through their policies and the logistics of getting there one more time before we commit.”

I carefully read through all the information and then realized I had made an error about the price.

“Hmm… I think I read this wrong. It looks like the price is $250 per person; not per night,” I said rereading the website.

“$250 per person! It’s a yurt!” he exclaimed horrified by this new bit of information.

“Yes, but it’s a luxury yurt and, as you pointed out we’ll have a kayak to use during our stay,” I said.

“$250 per person!” he sputtered. “There’s no electricity!”

“Yes, but it’s about the experience, not the electricity,” I reminded him of his previous argument.

“$500 total and that doesn’t include food!”

“No, it doesn’t include food, but it does include the water taxi ride from town,” I pointed out.

“Not only does it not include food, we have to bring it all with us and the ice to keep it cold,” he said shaking his head.

“No, we’re going on the 24 hour granola bar diet. That was your plan so that we wouldn’t have to carry ice. Don’t you remember?” I asked.

“I remember, but it still seems like a lot of money for one night with no amenities and very few necessities.” He sounded disappointed.

This was great! I had dodged a yurt shaped bullet. I get the credit for agreeing to be adventurous without actually having to be adventurous.

“So now what?” he said dejectedly. Not yet willing to give up on his dream of spending a night in a yurt, he grabbed the laptop to search on other yurt lodging in Alaska. Five minutes later he called out to me, “Hey, I found a cheap yurt we can stay in!”

I stopped what I was doing and looked at him in disbelief. “Think about what you just said,” I replied. “Really, think about the combination of words you just used: ‘cheap’ and ‘yurt’.”

“So?”

“So, those are two words that shouldn’t be together. If the luxury yurt didn’t have electricity or a refrigerator, what things are missing to make a yurt cheap?” I said completely unwilling to find out the answer to that question.

“Good point,” he conceded.

After more searching, I found us an affordable, lovely lakeside cabin with wooden walls, electricity and running water. If wanting those few luxuries makes me a princess, then so be it.

 

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