My Canine Companions

It is another rather warm morning here in south central Alaska with mostly cloudy skies and the promise of still more of the same in terms of warm temps and no precipitation across the next week. Given spring officially begins tomorrow mid-afternoon the odds of seeing any honest winter weather continues to dwindle. Sure, we could see a snow event or another few days of much below normal temps but as the sun continues to ride higher and higher in the sky every day all trends are towards the upcoming spring. 

Of late I’ve noticed my female Alaskan Malamute, Anana, has been ‘asking’ to remain outside in the back yard after being let out to take care of business. Her method of communicating this to me is to remain standing or lying down on the back porch after I open the door and allow her pal Qanuk, my male German Shepherd Dog, inside. She is such a good girl and will stay put as long as a moose or similar doesn’t enter her field of view so I often oblige her. Qanuk, being true to his breed, prefers to be close to me and will rarely remain outside longer than he needs to handle his business. Seeing a definite uptick in Anana’s requests while her routine remains largely the same – she, like most other canines, prefers routine in her existence – started me wondering if she was recognizing the winter was waning and with it would come the end of cold and snow. One wonders if there are ‘new’ odors that she now identifies with the coming of spring or is it the string of warmer days? This was her second ‘winter’ – such that it was – but she is plenty observant and smart enough to recognize such signs and remember them after just a year’s exposure. 

Raising both a Mal and a GSD I’ve had ample opportunity to compare and contrast the two breeds which are pretty close to being polar opposites in so many areas. Anana lives to be a member of our pack and the most effective means of disciplining her when she’s broken the rules – and since reaching adulthood at 2 years of age this hardly happens – is to quarantine her away from me and Qanuk when she’s inside. This really makes an impression on her and with her incredible memory the point is always remembered. Qanuk responds to the more conventional verbal dressing down; he lives to please me as well as run and play with mankind’s great creation – at least as far as he’s concerned – the tennis ball. He, too, is a wonderful companion and rarely causes me issues except when he gets excited about going outside. He literally turns into something akin to the Tasmanian Devil we all viewed in the Bugs Bunny cartoons; his excitement is that powerful. While generally a very careful boy inside when truly wound up his big tail will find many things to knock over. However, after almost six years of raising canines most everything that can be broken has either met that fate or has been placed such that they are impervious to doggy tails and hype. Indeed, he gets so excited if we’re going for a car ride I have to command him to ‘tinkle’ before we board; otherwise in his excitement he’ll forget and then he becomes very anxious once in the car. Never before have I seen a canine that has to be commanded to empty his bladder before car rides but then Qanuk is a unique canine in many respects. 

As Talkeetna is known as a ‘dog village’ – witness no leash laws even in the village itself – my canine pals are in a great place and the fact that we’re surrounded by boreal forest and live semi-rural is generally a plus for them. I say ‘generally’ because Anana does miss being around so many different people; in Dearborn (MI) while I was caring for my folk’s place I fenced in the back yard and gave her the run of that area. She very quickly developed a string of neighbors whom during walks would stop by the fence and greet her often with treats. She was a true ‘rock star’ at the Northville (MI) Sunrise Assisted Living Facility and she owned the title ‘visiting therapy dog’ because she was so friendly and willing to interact with any of the residents. In general Anana loves anything on two legs and I’ve often said she would let any human into the house and probably help carry out any of my stuff if asked. It’s this love of humans that makes Mals ineffective watch dogs and Anana lives up to this breed trait in spades! Since relocating here she no longer has a neighborhood of folks to visit her and as there are no assisted living facilities at which I can volunteer she doesn’t have that means to greet new folks. In this sense she may not be all that pleased with our new home. Of course this is a dual edged sword as up here she can roam free and rarely has to deal with a lead. She has virtually endless acres of boreal forest to explore and handfuls of moose to chase. I do try to get her into the village fairly often and allow her to wait for me outside the PO where she eagerly greets the locals. 

Poor Anana cannot understand why every human doesn’t respond to her as she does to them with affection and love. She doesn’t understand that at 115 pounds she is a very big girl and although she is truly a teddy bear even I, with my love for and understanding of canines, would initially be wary of her if I didn’t know her. I’ve seen folks literally tremble with fear when she runs up and looks for attention; she just cannot believe any human wouldn’t love her like she does them. Qanuk, on the other hand, is very cautious around new people and remains to this day very nervous around adult males. The latter is completely my fault in terms of his socialization. I brought Qanuk into our pack while volunteering at Sunrise and once he was old enough to get control of his needs I started bringing him into the facility with Anana. Such facilities are staffed by almost entirely women. I never realized that because of this and Qanuk’s nature he became ‘okay’ with women but drew a very real line between the genders and hence never really came to know adult males outside myself and my brother. To this day he is very cautious around adult males and children; the latter I could understand as he saw very few while maturing. I do not want him to be so concerned about adult males and hence am beginning to introduce him to as many adult males as possible in the hopes I can socialize him a bit more towards males. He is fine with women but then in Sunrise that was almost all he saw. 

I expected Anana to really revel in her new Alaskan home especially during the winter but much to my surprise Qanuk has been the one to really take to pounding through the deep snow. Anana is smarter in that she allows Qanuk to cut a trail and then she will often follow. Given her height and build she fares better in the snow when the depth is over 18” but Qanuk is still the one I see pounding through the virgin snow. Some of Anana’s reticence to broach deep snow might be based on my poor ‘little’ angel suffering two major surgeries within 6 months of each other.  At the age of just two she blew out her right knee and required a TPLO (Tibial Plateau Leveling Osteotomy) which is a serious surgery in which the tibia is broken and leveled and then reattached via a plate and screws. The injury is the equivalent to tearing an ACL in a human being. She required a full six weeks to recover from the worst effects of the operation and she really never completely recovered until we moved up here. Then, six months later she blew out her left knee and had the same procedure; this time I knew what to look for and caught it early so there was less damage but it was still six weeks of Hell for her. Luckily my vet recommended a fantastic surgeon and he really worked wonders. In all the two procedures cost me just over $8,000 but given it was my companion I would’ve paid many times that amount as the only other option would’ve been to put her down. I’d say she recovered maybe 95% of her original abilities which is incredible given the severity of the procedures. For anyone in SE Michigan needing a wonderful animal surgeon I cannot recommend Dr. Kyle Kerstetter (www.michvet.com) enough; he and his team were incredible! As I’ve often kidded thanks to him I own ‘The Eight Thousand Dollar Dog’! 

As we approach the seasonal shift I am once again looking forward to being able to get out with my canine companions. I’ve come to realize that my walks in this magnificent land are enhanced by my canine companions; they function as extensions to my ears and my nose. I love to see either or both of them stop suddenly and raise their muzzles skyward as their noses work overtime to identify a scent. They almost always see wildlife before I do and I suspect this is largely based upon their hearing coupled with their incredibly sensitive noses. More than once they’ve shown me scat, kill sites and similar I’d have never noticed without their help. They truly enhance my outdoor Alaskan experiences and it is just great to have a couple of pals along on outings. 

They are both indoor dogs so we spend lots of time inside; both have adapted wonderfully to living in a human’s ‘lair’ and they’ve had to learn a lot of rules. Anana has never raided the garbage can and Qanuk has only done so twice; he’s learned to steer clear of this by watching Anana. Never have I known canines who wouldn’t raid a garbage can when it smells of meat, fish or chicken. They have their favorite spots; for Anana it’s the coolest place while Qanuk just wants to be someplace he’s comfortable but can see me. Anana sleeps by my bed but Qanuk sleeps in it maybe half the night.  He’s actually very ‘civilized’ in that he doesn’t steal the blankets or take more than half the bed. I’ve never fed them from the table so they know not to bother me when I’m eating but I do give them infrequent table scraps as a treat. 

All told I couldn’t ask for two better canine companions and my new life in Alaska has been immensely enriched by their presence. They are truly my family now that my sister and brother live thousands of miles to the south. Up here everyone has at least one dog so they helped me integrate into the community by meeting other people and their dogs.  And I rely on their incredible senses while outdoors as they can sense natural events and wildlife much sooner than me.  We’re all aging and our needs are shifting but to this day all they ask of me is shelter, food, a bit of attention and some play; I get back endless unconditional love, the very definition of ‘agape love’, and the companionship generated by another organism who truly does love to just be around me! Talk about a ‘win-win’ situation…

Anana and Qanuk playing in fresh snow early in January, 2015

Anana and Qanuk playing in fresh snow early in January, 2015

Anana at around twelve weeks of age.  Even then I could see the mischievous glint in her eyes!

Anana at around twelve weeks of age. Even then I could see the mischievous glint in her eyes!

Qanuk at around eight weeks of age

Qanuk at around eight weeks of age

Anana and Qanuk playing; Anana was always very gentle with him until he reached puberty

Anana and Qanuk playing; Anana was always very gentle with him until he reached puberty

Qanuk and Anana on East Barge Drive in early September

Qanuk and Anana on East Barge Drive in early September

'The Kidz' are playing tough!

‘The Kidz’ are playing tough!

Qanuk and Anana braving 16" of fresh snow; they really love Alaskan winters!

Qanuk and Anana braving 16″ of fresh snow; they really love Alaskan winters!

My poor 'little' angel finding some comfort in my bed after returning home from her second TPLO surgery

My poor ‘little’ angel finding some comfort in my bed after returning home from her second TPLO surgery

An incredible adaptation to Arctic cold, the Mals grow thick fur that sprouts from between their pads when it begins to cool down.  This remains all winter and then disappears with warming temps.  I'm sure this gives the pads protection against ice and very cold temps.

An incredible adaptation to Arctic cold, the Mals grow thick fur that sprouts from between their pads when it begins to cool down. This remains all winter and then disappears with warming temps. I’m sure this gives the pads protection against ice and very cold temps. Nature is just so awesome..!

Probability and the Angry Moose

This was bound to eventually happen although I must admit that up until an hour ago I still viewed it as an abstract event; one of those things people think about and reflect upon but somehow never actually expect to see it become reality.  I had a run in with an angry cow moose when solo backpacking in Kachemak Bay State Park in June of 2000 but she was just protecting her spring calf which was hidden in some waist deep grass in a forest clearing.  In this sense her protective reaction was entirely expected and even normal but then what just transpired maybe half a mile from my place also falls into that category.

As it looks like rain I decided to get the ‘kidz’ – as I jokingly refer to my 120 pound female Alaskan Malamute ‘Anana’ and my 86 pound male German Shepherd Dog ‘Qanuk’ – out for some exercise such that I might spare my home of the mud and gravel they track in when wet.  We started off heading east down East Barge Drive towards the Riven cut off; in the past year we’ve walked this road more times than I care to remember.  In typical fashion the dogs were ranging out in front of me by 15 to 75 feet and making many side trips into the boreal forest which surrounds this area.  I had passed John and Ruth’s driveway and was most of the way across the swampy muskeg area to the north of East Barge Drive and starting up the hill when I saw both dogs freeze.  In perfect harmony they raised their noses almost straight up into the air and then swiveled their heads to the west which is boreal forest.  Qanuk was continuing to sniff the air but Anana had dropped her nose and was scanning the forest with real intensity.  She has the best eyesight of any canine I’ve seen and she was definitely employing it at that moment.

Suddenly she shot into the forest like a rocket with Qanuk in pursuit.  I was looking but couldn’t see anything although given it was overcast and rather gray anything under the forest canopy was in deep shadow.  I started fumbling for my Canon SX-260 PowerShot ‘point and shoot’ camera which I often carry with me because it is so very portable and takes great images.  I started extracting it from my jacket pocket when I heard Anana yelp and then a loud conundrum broke out within the forest.  Anana came running from the forest onto the road with a wild look in her eyes and she was heading straight for me.  A few seconds later I saw a large brown cow moose break the cover of the forest and take to the road in hot pursuit of Anana.  Time immediately slowed to that adrenaline enhanced crawl and I can now remember distinctly what transpired over the next maybe 20 seconds which seemed like an eternity.

 

Qanuk on East Barge Drive

Qanuk on East Barge Drive

My first thought was; “Oh Shit, this isn’t good!” as I saw Anana closing on me with the moose in hot pursuit.  My second thought was; “Damn, I didn’t bring the pepper spray!” and my third thought was; “Time to run…NOW!”.  Thankfully there are lots of sizable spruces and birch trees right along the side of the road and I immediately tried to put one of these between me and the charging moose.  I remembered from my experience in Kachemak Bay State Park that moose are incredibly fast when they want and they appear about the size of a freight train locomotive when they are bearing down on you.  Anana ran to me and the moose followed but Anana only waited by me for a few seconds before she realized I wasn’t going to be much help and headed further into the forest.  The moose snorted as she raced by me but thankfully kept going after Anana.  At this point I saw a brown/gray blur whiz past me and into the forest after the moose; it was Qanuk.  With his appearance I breathed a sigh of relief because he obviously wasn’t injured and he was going to help his buddy Anana.

I heard the sounds of a lot of breaking branches and heavy breathing in the direction the ‘kidz’ and the moose had disappeared; within maybe a minute Anana popped out on the road perhaps 50 feet west of me and Qanuk was right with her.  I briefly saw the moose pop out of the tree line but I think she figured she made her point and she probably rethought the wisdom of messing with two large dogs so she just stopped, gave the dog’s one last look as if to say; “Take That..!” and then reversed direction and headed back into the forest.  To my surprise Anana looked like she was going to follow but I immediately intervened.  I called both of them back to me and checked them over; thankfully no cuts were in evidence and they had all four limbs, both ears and a tail to boot!  I then hustled them the final third of a mile or so to our driveway and put them in the house.

Just the previous week I’d shared a story with a college buddy via e-mail involving the kidz chasing a local moose; in doing so I said I’d confirmed Anana would run back to me if frightened and remarked this would not be good if she’d irritated a grizzly.  In addition I’d mused I should probably start carrying the pepper spray once again as I’d become lax in doing so across the summer.  I hadn’t heeded my own advice and almost ended up paying a nasty price for my negligence.  There’s no need for people just walking or biking around this area to carry pepper spray but because I have two dogs with me and I allow them largely free reign I need to be better prepared.  I knew this yet I allowed my ‘comfort’ with the area to get the better of me.  In true Alaskan fashion I was just reminded that this area is home to many large mammals and because I’m invading their home I’d best be prepared!!

Moose cow in my 'back yard' last October

Moose cow in my ‘back yard’ last October

Gorgeous Late Winter Weather!

Although in the grand scheme this winter has been a huge disappointment with it being largely absent during January – the warmest January on record for this area – and present in terms of temps but sans snow in February at least March has brought a change in these conditions.  Our snow event across March 4th and 5th deposited 15.4″ of new snow here at Mile 7.1 just east of the Spur and we’ve seen below zero morning temps across the past three days with afternoon highs rising into the middle twenties thanks to the clear skies and rapidly increasing sunlight.  Yesterday I walked the dogs in the middle afternoon prior to my evening newscast and found the conditions to be perfect!  The sky was that deep cobalt blue which I still associate with Canadian High Pressure in the lower 48 but has no such linkage up here; indeed, the pressure was falling rapidly across Friday afternoon and is all the way down to 29.20″ Hg (988.83 Mb) as I write this at 09:52 AKST on a clear Saturday morning.  There was a slight northerly breeze which was unusual but produced a beautiful sound passing through the snow covered pine trees and the air temp was around 25 F.  When in the sun I could really feel its warm and immediately recognized the implication that within just a few more weeks it will be strong enough to begin melting snow on clear afternoons even though the air temps remain below freezing.

The dogs were loving every minute of the walk with Qanuk racing well out in front of me only to turn and charge right back at me running full tilt only to turn away at the last second.  I saw a multitude of moose tracks and even some scat on the freshly cleared roads but the moose themselves remained out of sight.  Even Anana had a puppy-like spring in her step and she regularly tried to keep up with Qanuk but while she’s still the alpha dog when it comes to running Qanuk can literally run circles around her.  All in all it was a glorious day for a walk in rural Talkeetna and this time of year is rapidly becoming a real favorite of mine.  Sadly its unlikely I’ll get to experience -30 F this winter or see that 36 inches plus of snow pack but there’s always next year!

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Qanuk and Anana on Riven Street with the Alaska Range in the distance

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Anana looking north up Riven Street

Anana & Qanuk Looking East Down East Barge Drive

Anana & Qanuk Looking East Down East Barge Drive

This image was taken Christmas Eve around 14:30 from just shy of the intersection of East Barge Drive and the Spur. The air is so clear because it was -12.9 F at the time with no wind. I like the image because it gives some indication of the depth of the local snow pack and also gives a feel for that invigorating ‘Alaska chill’ that makes winter so enjoyable up here.

Snowy Dog Food Run

Snowy Dog Food Run

That’s my blue Escape with Anana’s head out the left rear window (Qanuk’s head is doing the same on the right side); we drove to Cubby’s Market to purchase dog food as I allowed their supply to run low and given the ongoing snow (we have about five inches now) and the forecast to snow into tomorrow morning I decided it was best to handle the re-supply now.

Freezing Rain…Alaska Style

I just returned from attempting to walk the dogs and we could only manage 42 minutes not because of the temperature or snow but because of the glaze of ice that’s covering almost everything!  There’s a quarter-inch of frozen glaze atop the remaining foot of now dense, heavy snow pack and even the plowed roads have a coating of ice.  The latter are extremely slippery, at least when on foot or paw, because we received another tenth of an inch or so of snow overnight.  I was really struggling while trying to navigate the frequent rises and dips and often ended up wading through the foot of snow on the sides of the inclines and declines because at least there I had traction!  I was almost continuously out of breath from laughing at the dogs as they slipped, skidded and did face plants on an ongoing basis.  I was also twice forced to stop, corral Qanuk, force him to lie down and remove pieces of the frozen snow that had managed to wedge themselves between his pads and caused him to limp.  Thankfully they were not sharp enough to cut open his pads…

I’m familiar with freezing rain from the lower 48; in general I’ve seen my share in places like Madison (WI), Cincinnati (OH), Chicago (IL) and Dearborn (MI).  And it was all pretty much the same in character; very light rain drops or partially frozen pellets falling at a rate just over a drizzle.  However, having now dealt with two extended periods of Alaskan freezing rain I can definitely state like so many other things its just different up here.  During most of the Alaskan freezing rain events I’ve witnessed the precipitation is liquid to almost graupel-like in nature but it’s falling at a rate akin to a rain shower.  When it does this it takes very little time to lay down a substantial coating of the ice.  A couple of weeks back I had the ‘pleasure’ of driving the Spur during such an episode of freezing rain and it was coming down so hard as to be almost blinding.  Under such conditions even running one’s windshield wipers on high-speed is insufficient to keep the glass clear.  I guess it shouldn’t be a surprise that Alaska does freezing rain in a way that surpasses what I’d seen in the lower 48; this state is indeed a magnet for extremes in most things.  But then again, this is part of the magic and the allure of Alaska for me!

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Icy stretch of East Barge Drive running up Bonanza Hill; even the dogs wanted no part of trying to walk this challenge!

Qanuk & His ‘Ice Beard’

Qanuk & His 'Ice Beard'

My German Shepherd Dog (Qanuk) was a bit peeved that I forced him to sit still for even just the 20 seconds it required for me to get an image of his ‘ice beard’. We’d been walking for maybe 15 minutes and heading back home to hold the total walk to less than 40 minutes as it was -12.7 F. Because Qanuk is extremely active even in these temps he has to pant heavily from his exertions and due to the relative cold, dry nature of the atmosphere his exhalations quickly freeze around his muzzle