Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Hen Haven

I haven't completed very many projects this summer. Finanaces have been a wee bit tight around Stardancer Central, so the focus has been on maintenance rather than improvements. One exception, however, is a new hen house.

The old hen house was a modified shipping crate, roughly 8 feet tall, 8 long and 4 feet wide. It has served the purpose but is really much to large for housing only 6 hens. I felt a smaller, especially a shorter structure would make it easier for the birds to keep themselves warmer in winter and encourage egg production during winter. 

I spent a fair amount of time looking at photos and plans of hen houses others have created, and then combined the features I most liked into our own structure. I wanted easy access to egg boxes so we can collect our breakfast treasures without disturbing the birds or opening a huge, heat-stealing door. I wanted a cozy area in which the chickens can roost, feed and generally do 'chicken stuff', with just enough space to get the job done.

I also wanted to be able to clean the hen house conveniently. 

Once I knew what I wanted it was a matter of gathering materials and putting them together. The structure has a foot print of 16 square feet (4 feet squared). This is a bit more than the recommended 2 square feet per bird. Keep in mind they have immediate access to much larger run area, so the space inside the hen house needed be so large.

Here are some photos of the resulting hen house. Unfortunately I just finished it yesterday and have to spend today preparing to return to work. It probably won't be put into service until early in my next R&R.

Front view on new Hen House
 When I place the house in service there will be ramp leading from the open hatchway into the chicken run, making it easier for the birds to get in and out. The hatch is hinged so it can closed to confine the birds at night and protect them from marauding predators. The plexiglass window is unbreakable and provides the inmates with a good amount of natural light.

Side and nest boxes
A drop down door in the back of the coop provides access to the nest boxes for egg collection and refreshing next materials when needed. The roof overhangs the back by a few inches to prevent icing of the hinges during winter.

Open front
When it's time to add feed, refresh their water or clean out the house the entire front panel drops down to provide easy access to the main "living area".

I intend to install a light fixture on a timer, to provide full-spectrum light for 15 or 16 hours per day during winter, to encourage egg laying. I'm thinking the heated poultry water fountain we already use during winter may be sufficient to keep the house warmer than it would otherwise be. If not, I may install a small space heater with a thermostat. At the moment I'm thinking that probably won't be necessary.

If I were to do it again, I'd build less pitch into the shed type roof. Otherwise, I'm quite satisfied with it and looking forward to putting it in service early during my next R&R from work.

Saturday, August 9, 2014


Chetan is currently wearing the "cone of shame" after a surgical procedure that we hope will result in the next generation of Hedlund Huskies in Alaska. Hedlund Huskies are a historical line of Alaskan sled dogs developed by Rose and Nels Hedlund of Lake Illiamna. They are remarkable due to their versatility and temperament. Hedlunds can haul freight, travel long distances or compete well in sled dog races, and often the same Hedlund husky can do all three. The Hedlund Husky is equally comfortable and content living in his or her owner’s home, in a kennel with numerous other dogs, or camped alongside a wilderness trail. Hedlund Huskies display affection toward, and seek affection from humans with whom they have bonded, but are rarely clingy or needy.  They are highly intelligent, especially in regards to problem solving.  The line is noted for producing a high proportion of 'natural' lead dogs.

Last week Chetan was surgically inseminated with frozen semen from To Point's Unknown's open country leader, Phoenix.  We chose this breeding because both dogs are beautiful examples of the line. They share only distant ancestors in their pedigrees and no ancestors known to potentially carry similar genetic disorders.

Next month we'll be able to perform an ultrasound examination to determine whether or not the attempted breeding "took". If so, we can expect a litter of new little Hedlunds in early October.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Training for the Hudson Stuck Reenactment Expedition.

A nice lady named Kimberly asked a question on our National Geographic Expedition Granted contest page that requires more than the allowed 500 characters to properly answer, so I will try to answer it here instead. Kimberly asked "What is the training program for the dogs to prepare them for the trip? Any special training for you as the musher?"

Our home community of Two Rivers, Alaska offers a wealth of well groomed trails and some challenging terrain in which to train, but retracing Hudson Stuck's 1905-06 will be considerably different than our home trails. Some sections of Dr. Stuck's route are no longer traveled so heavily as they were in Stuck's day, so conditions will be considerably different than our well maintained and traveled home trails.

Many of my dogs, especially my young leaders, have very little experience dealing with overflow - yet we can expect to encounter a lot of overflow during our expedition. We can also expect some open water crossings. Both overflow and open water crossing can be reasonably easy to manage once the team has been trained to do so, so that will be one major focus of our training regimen this coming winter.

Only a few of my dogs have spent more than a night or two away from home, camping out on the trail.  The dogs and I all need to train doing longer trips, spending multiple days and nights traveling. While we could do that using local trails, it will be more efficient and more fun to do so in a less familiar area.  I am planning several longer training runs using the trail system in the White Mountains National Recreation Area. Doing so will allow the dogs and I to develop and practice a back country traveling and camping routine, making it easier for all of us to undertake a journey of 1900 miles.

It's important that we take only proven equipment, especially considering that most of the technology my own historical team will be using has been obsolete for a century or more. In addition to running in the traditional "Nome hitch", the dogs and I also need to learn how to work efficiently in the historically popular but rare today "Mackenzie hitch", in which the dogs run single file pulling against a single gangline. I'm going to need to build a full set of historically authentic 'neck ring' or 'Yukon' style harnesses, and the dogs need to learn how to work in those historical types of harnesses rather than more modern types we've been using the past few years. 

The dogs and I also need much more experience working in high winds. Although our temperatures in the Interior are usually colder than on the coast, we rarely get the high winds and side-ways blowing snow that is common along the western coast of Alaska. A considerable portion of our tour will be along the coast, so it's vital that we learn how to cope with it.  When you consider how many highly experienced Iditarod teams were forced to scratch due to the wind and weather between White Mountain and Nome last year, it becomes readily apparent that learning to travel in nasty wind conditions may be paramount to our expedition's success. To experience similar high wind conditions we may need to travel to the Denali highway for some training runs - but even that may not be enough. Jeff King trained his team on that windy trail all last winter, yet was forced to scratch from the Iditarod between White Mountain and Nome. I plan to confer with my friend Aliy Zirkle to learn how best to prepare for those types of conditions.

Meanwhile, I personally need to spend a LOT more time working out, especially on an elliptical machine. The motion of an elliptical exercise machine is similar to that of walking on snowshoes, a task I expect to perform frequently when breaking trail along Dr. Stuck's route. 

If we win the contest we will be establishing a blog dedicated to the project, and will share more of our training objectives and track our progress toward those objectives there.

Contest rules state that we must begin the expedition within 3 months of receiving the prize. That being the case, the costs of making the necessary historical equipment and clothing and traveling to these various training locations for will have to come out of our own pockets. Since all of our expedition team members are aware of that, and willing to do so, I don't foresee it becoming a problem, but it is worth noting here. The prize will cover all or nearly all the expenses of the expedition itself, but much of the preparation will require our own investment of time, energy and yes, also money.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Newest Project - Trying to Win a Contest.

Rather than trying to recap all the stuff that's happened since April, none of it particularly unique or earth shattering, I think I'll just jump into describing that which has kept me occupied the past week or so.  National Geographic is conducting a contest that rivals "The Most Interesting Man in the World" commercials of XX (Dos Equis) beer. "Expedition Granted is National Geographic's nationwide search to find the next generation of explorers and to grant one person's dream expedition for $50,000.

I put the word out among some of my dog mushing friends that it might be fun to submit a proposal to reenact Hudson Stuck's 1905-06 tour in Interior, Alaska. Stuck described his trip in detail in the first five chapters of his book, Ten Thousand Miles with a Dog Sled.

I explained that my team can do it in historically authentic fashion, using dogs, equipment, clothing and so forth that is similar to that used by Stuck and his contemporaries. Someone suggested we could do it along with a modern long-distance racing team to contrast and compare historical to modern. Someone else mentioned that it would be very cool to compare and contrast the lifestyles observed by Stuck with those of the people we will encounter on our own tour. Another person suggested we could bring along a professional photographer to document it.

The response was quick, and very positive. In a very short time I had not one, but 2 dog mushing professional documentarians signed up for the project. Both Donna Quante and Scott Chesney contacted me, wanting to do photography and videography. Donna owns and operates Husky Productions, and Scott owns Loco Lobo Photographic Arts.  The next thing I knew, they were collaborating to put together the required 2 minute video proposal.

In less than a week we had their wonderfully well produced video ready to submit. Very shortly after submitting it, I was notified that the project has been accepted into the contest.

The next step is for our proposal to be chosen by National Geographic judges as one of the 10 best proposals. Then the contest will be opened to the public for on-line voting and the project that gets the most votes will win the grant.

So for now, we need to attract the judges attention to our project - and the only thing we can do at this point to increase our chances is to answer questions in a way that demonstrates how the project can meet the judging criteria. Here is how that criteria is described.

"The finalists will be selected based on their projects’ originality, impact, and viability.

  • Originality (50%): How original is the project? Is it a new idea or does it build upon an existing one? Does it expand upon the existing notion of exploration and push boundaries into uncharted territory?
  • Impact (30%): Does the project make a positive contribution to the local or global community? Does the idea have the potential to connect with the hearts and minds of others?
  • Viability (20%): Can the project be fully realized (with the right amount of time and money)? Will National Geographic's $50K prize allow for a healthy project start or full project execution?"

    Although I could answer the criteria based questions here, doing so won't get the attention of the judges. That has to be done through the project page on NatGeo's site.

    Meanwhile, the project seems to be getting a lot of attention from dog mushers. We have already recruited a multiple Iditarod finisher to do the tour as our modern team, and a world renouned sled dog veterinarian and musher who also wants to do the tour. I'm keeping their identities secret until they give me the OK to announce their names, but they are both very well known and lend a huge degree of credence to the expedition.

    If we win the grant, we will start the project by opening a blog dedicated to the project, and share the entire process, including lots of photographs and videos, from beginning to end. We will share the work and thought process that goes into planning the details of the trip, we will spend a lot of attention on Hudson's Stuck role in Alaskan history and the details of how we conduct the historical research necessary to make the journey as authentic as possible. As we get into next sled dog training season we'll share details of how we are training our teams as well as ourselves, and of course during the winter of 2015-16 we will retrace that 1900 mile journey, posting the images, video and stories of our experiences on that blog as frequently as Internet access in the bush allows.

    That's basically our plan. You can view our proposal video on line at http://expeditiongranted.nationalgeographic.com/project/becoming-hudson-stuck/. I hope you'll check it out, maybe ask some questions and, if we do make the Top-10, vote for our project early and often. After all, you'll be able to cast 1 vote per day for the project of your choice - hopefully ours.
  • Saturday, April 12, 2014

    Mission(s) Accomplished

    Spring is a season of great change in Alaska, and this year is not an exception. In just a couple of days Trish and I have made changes that represent an improvement at least in our financial status, which frankly sometimes seems pretty grim.

    During the coldest part of winter, the heater in the little Toyota RAV4 that Trish and I used as our 'daily driver' went out. When we took it to the shop it was the learn that the problem had little to do with the heater, but rather the head gasket on the little 4-cylinder engine was cracked, and the price to repair the rig was well over $2,000.00. Since the value of the 2002 model car was only about $4,000.00, I decided it would be smarter to find another rig (a "beater with a heater") than invest the money into the Toyota.

    That left us only the dog truck for day-to-day transportation. It's a GREAT dog truck, but with the price of diesel fuel being what it is up here (outrageous), it is expensive to drive. With the dog box on back it isn't particularly versatile, either. It's designed to transport dogs, not groceries, a ton of dog food at one time, or even haul garbage to the dumpster. The bottom line is that we needed to replace the Toyota RAV4 with another, more versatile rig.

    The replacement rig had to meet several criteria. It had to be spacious with enclosed cargo space for hauling dogs, bales of straw, bags of dog food, and Trish's wares when she is selling at the Farmer's Market or other venues in town. It had to have four-wheel driver (or all wheel drive), because the Alaska Department of Transportation would work in neighborhoods populated by influential politicians and wealthy homeowners than Chena Hot Springs Road, which services working class people and dog mushers.  Of course, it also had to be in sound mechanical condition and most importantly, it had to be CHEAP.

    I found an older GMC Suburban that, though ugly as sin and most goD-awful shade of orange paint you ever saw, met those criteria. It's a 1994 model, updated with a newer power plant. The body is rough, but it's mechanically sound with new brakes, a new windshield, and lots of newly upgraded engine parts. I spent $2,000.00 to buy the rig and another $500.00 to put new tires under it, and Trish drove it home yesterday.

    The next step was to remove the Toyota from the property so it doesn't become another junker in the yard, and send it off to it's next life. I contemplated selling it to a salvage yard, but those I called wanted me to give it away for next than nothing. Since the car was in great shape other than that damned head gasket, I advertised it for sale in that same classified ad web site. Three hours later an aircraft mechanic who spends his spare time buying, repairing and reselling older Toyotas handed me $1500.00 and with a big jug of water in the back, in case he needed to top off the cooling system, drove the car away.

    So, by the end of the day I had accomplished the mission. We now have an ugly beater with a heater that should meet our needs nicely for a couple of years. We got rid of a car we couldn't rely on, and the total cost to us was only $1,000.00 when subtracting the money I got for the little motorized roller-skate car.

    Some more good news. A long-time friend of mine who moved to the Lower-48 a few years ago is returning, and planning to rent Trish's place. He texted me from Tok this morning and expects to be in Two Rivers before noon, today. I haven't seen the guy in a LONG time. He's good people and I'm very much looking forward to visiting with him again.

    We are enjoying thawing temperatures during the day, but of course it's refreezing at night. That creates some challenges in the dog yard as well as the rest of the place. It also prompts me to be thinking about summer projects that need to be accomplished, yet there is still too much snow and the ground too solidly frozen to actually begin them. I can start some of the prep work, though. I think I'll find enough to keep myself busy during this April R&R.

    Monday, March 24, 2014

    More March Madness

    Profile of 7-dog at work by Veryl Goodnight

    Holy smokes, but the last couple of weeks have been very busy around here.  With Trish preparing for her racing debut at the Two Rivers Dog Mushers Association's Valley Funale, and all the other dogs needing to run as well, we've been enjoying March weather out on the trails.

    March is my favorite winter month up here. The days are getting longer, day-time temperatures are very pleasant, and clear sky is the most common March conditions. Of course the down side is that we are starting the earliest stages of the spring thaw, leading up to the dramatic meltdown of break-up.

    A real highlight has been a visit of fine-artist Veryl Goodnight. Veryl is a sculptress and painter, best known for her works depicting the American frontier west. One of her most well-known and most frequently viewed sculptures is "The Day the Wall Came Down". The monument's composition is five horses, one stallion and four mares, running through the rubble of the collapsed Berlin Wall. One casting was placed in a reunited and free Berlin on July 2, 1998. Delivered by the U. S. Air Force on the 50th anniversary of the Berlin Airlift, installed by the German Army, and unveiled by former U. S. President George Bush. The sculpture is a gift of friendship from the American people to the people of Germany. The second or "American" casting is permanently displayed in the central courtyard of the George Bush Presidential Library, adjacent to the campus of Texas A&M University. This second casting was first placed on loan to the state of Georgia for the 1996 Olympic Games and then moved to the new Presidential Library when it opened in the fall of 1997.

    You can read the rest of the story behind this amazing work of art by click HERE.

    Veryl Goodnight and her monumental sculpture at the Allied Museum, Berlin

     Lately her interest has turned northward and depicting the inter species relationships between dogs and dog mushers. On Sunday I dressed in my most authentic historical clothing and we headed toward one of my favorite mushing locations for a photo shoot. Veryl captured many wonderful images, and I thought it would be fun to share a few here.

    With the exception of modern harnesses on some of the team, the images are a fair depiction of a traveling dog team in Alaska between the time of the purchase from Russia through the Klondike Gold Rush.

    Cassie in single lead and a rare head-on view of some of our most historically authentic dogs - photo by Veryl Goodnight

    Cassie, leading Denali and Capells (swing), Orion & Midnight's Son (team) and Rose & Nels in wheel - photo by Veryl Goodnight

    Cassie and I watching the action out on the pond - by Veryl Goodnight

    Trish giving the second team a workout. Amazing Grace and Maggie in lead, Selene and Just in team, Seamus and Beau in wheel - by Veryl Goodnight
    Amazing Grace enjoying a free-romp through the snow - by Veryl Goodnight

    Crusty old-fart heading toward the house - by Veryl Goodnight

    Thursday, March 13, 2014

    Rookie Race Nearly as Exciting as the Winning Finish

    The race within a Iditarod race, for the title of Rookie of the Year was a really good one, almost like a movie plot. Nathan Schroeder wearing bib 25 started out ahead of Abbie West as she was wearing bib 69. On the run to Rainy Pass, West overtook Schroeder. When the start times were adjusted during the twenty-four hour layover, Abbie gained an hour and twenty-six minutes on Schroeder although she’d already moved ahead of him.  Nathan Arrived at White Mountain six minutes ahead of West. After the mandatory 8-hour rest they departed with the same margin. West checked into Safety 1 minute ahead of Schroeder but they departed at the same time. Somewhere on the trail, Abbie dropped her bib. Nathan tried to retrieve it but missed. He shouted at West and she was able to return to recover the wayward bib. Nathan took the lead and maintained it to the finish line. 

    I have a dog from Abbie's kennel in my team, and he's quite an interesting fellow. When I was first considering bringing him in, Abbie described him as "a big, goofy black dog". She was rehoming him only because he had outgrown his litter mates and his longer stride disrupted the teams rhythm out on the trail. Jay Cadzow, Abby's kennel partner and friend, is an Alaskan Native musher from Fort Yukon who has been maintaining his families old line of "river dogs" all his life. when I asked his assessment of Aumaruq he simply shrugged and said "he runs fast and pulls hard." Both were spot-on in their descriptions.

    At this point of the big race, the puppy drivers are starting to stream into Nome, giving us a look at tomorrow's superstars. These mushers are generally handlers or family members of competitive mushers, running teams consisting primarily of yearling and two year olds. The puppy driver's job is to get as many of the young dogs as possible over the length of the trail while giving them a positive racing experience. Allen Moore, Aliy's husband and partner in all things, was the first that I can clearly identify as a puppy driver to come into Nome, with 12 happily grinning, tail-wagging pups on his gangline. Only 1 musher to arrive thus far had a larger team on the gang-line. That was Peter Kaiser of Bethel, AK.

    I'd like to share something I've noticed during this year's race that I've either overlooked or just hasn't been so common in past years. Several of the teams that have performed well have been led with a single lead dog, rather than a pair. Running single leaders was common up until the 1960s or '70s, when mushers started putting a second leader up front, usually to obtain the additional pulling power than one more dog in the team offers.

    Two mushers with single leaders really stand out in my mind. Aliy Zirkle ran her marvelous microhusky leader Quito in single lead much of the race, and particularly during the bad blow on the coast. Allen also ran Quito in single lead through most of his victorious Yukon Quest run and he loves to quip that "There ain't no 'quit' in Quito." Quito is just a wee little thing, but it isn't the size of the dog in the race that matters nearly so much as the size of the race in the dog.

    Wade Marrs, now a 3-time finisher who broke into the 'Top-20' this year and is in contention for the Most Improved Musher award ran his dog Puma in single lead, and crossed the finish line in 16th place, ahead of Abby and Nathan. Puma also faced the blow alone at the head of the team.

    Conventional wisdom is that lead dogs gain confidence from each other when paired. I agree that in many cases they do. On the other hand, I believe that they display that confidence, sometimes to an astonishing degree, when given the opportunity to work alone, without the interference of another dog at their sides. I think the old time dog mushers had a reason for running single leaders, and it's being rediscovered by some of us today.

    Over the past couple of months I've given each my three 'born Stardancer' (from the only breeding I've done thus far) opportunities to run in single lead and I've been impressed by all three of them. Cassiopeia had her first opportunity during one of those days when I ran several teams, and was simply running out of qualified gee/haw leaders. I decided to try her in single lead to see what might happen, and she gave me a nice, solid run in front of a small (5-dog) team. Capella got her chance one day when I was running a tour for our friend down the road. Cassie was planned to run beside her, but during hook-up Cassie slipped her collar and then her harness. Rather than spend time trying to get her redressed and hooked back up I elected to run 'Pella alone to get the darned outfit moving. Her performance that day, in front of a big team with two tourists in the sled, was eye-popping.

    Yesterday Orion had his chance, leading in a 7 dog team trying to stay ahead of Trish's potential 6-dog race team. Holy Smokes - he knew exactly what he and his team mates needed to do the run. He launched well under control, which is in itself remarkable as he's an outrageously exuberant dog during hook up and launch (and hard to handle due to his sheer excitement). He picked up the pace at the right time, when muscles are warmed and everyone is ready to expend some excited energy, and then he slowed to a nice working pace at the right time, before all that extra energy is wasted in a burst of unnecessary speed. He hit every single direction cue spot-on and gave us one of those runs we remember - the kind that reminds us of why we do this stuff.

    Since my own goal is the accurately demonstrate historical mushing practices between the years 1763 and 1963, the ability to run single leaders in front of sizeable teams is important, and I feel that we've reached a milestone toward that ultimate goal. Like Aliy and Wade and several other mushers who relied on a single dog to guide their teams, I think we've rediscovered something those old timers either learned or just intuitively knew. 

    Trish and I both had a rough night last night. Damned leg-cramps. We both spent a lot of time trying to ease the cramps and chugging tonic water (quinine in tonic water is helpful for leg cramps) and grabbing sleep in fits and starts. The dogs are going to be fed late and I don't know if I'll run a team today while Trish is at work or not. All of the dogs save 4 have had good training runs two days in a row. I really should give Just, Chetan, Selene and Friday a run today. I'll just have to see how the day progresses. A nap might be a smarter idea.