The Tale of Baxter’s Nose

The following story was a feature in The Better Companion Dog Training Facility’s monthly newsletter – written in 2017, I think, and follows my early journey into the sport of K9 Nose Work. I’ve added to the story since then, of course. I thought the story might be an interesting addition to my blog and a fun way to bring readers into MY world as well as that of my very first K9 Nose Work dog, Baxter. So, here is our story, as it began in 2012, and then updated and revised. The journey continues. Enjoy!

“The Tale of Baxter’s Nose” by Deb Frost, CNWI™

The dog sport of K9 Nose Work is a fun, challenging and sometimes competitive sport; taking its concept from serious professional detection dog training and turning it into a sport that any companion dog can enjoy. The goal of K9 Nose Work is FUN for the dog and handler, learning new scenting and targeting skills and spending great bonding time with your dog. Communication is the key to this sport.

While learning the sport of Nose Work, handlers learn a lot about reading their dogs’ body language and the dogs learn to use their already stellar scenting ability to enjoy working as a team with their person. Although The Better Companion Dog Training (regulars call it “BetCo”) in Wasilla, AK had been offering Nose Work classes (Beg-NW and its sequel, NW-Intro to Odor) since early 2011, I remained blissfully unaware of what I was missing until December of 2012.

Then along came Baxter … a [previously] unwanted, small standard Dachshund that had been rehomed due to house-training and some fear/anxiety and fear/reactivity issues. Dachshunds are sensitive – and stubborn when they want to be (which seems to be often). When I found him, he was 10 months old and on home #3. Life wasn’t looking too rosy. But one look into those soulful brown eyes in a sincere, intelligent little black and tan face and I was hooked. I brought home my very first Dachshund in December 2011.

10 month old Baxter, December 2011

Neutering him thankfully solved the issue of lifting his leg in the house. Time, patience and help from Claudia Sihler, CPDT-KSA, eventually worked its magic on Baxter’s other issues and it wasn’t too long before he was a welcome addition to BetCo’s Friday evening Open Play Time, where he developed several long-standing friendships in the “Small Breeds” play group and often instigated bouts of the zoomies that would do a whippet proud. Bax may have short legs, but he was a ROCKET in a big, groomed grass field!

But I digress … After we’d had Baxter in our family for a year or so, I began wondering what I could DO with him for fun? My other dogs were doing Agility, Rally, Freestyle and Treibball. What could I do with Baxter?

Serendipitously; one of my other dog classes (I had two other dogs at the time) happened to be ending while the Advanced Nose Work Practice group was gathering at BetCo – what FUN they seemed to be having! I saw Bernese Mountain Dogs, Jack Russell Terriers, Labs, Huskies, Boxers & Yorkies – purebred and mix breed dogs – this was obviously not a sport just for special scent hounds or competition dogs – although they were well represented, too. I asked my instructor, Claudia, about Nose Work, thinking maybe it was something I could do with Baxter.

Next thing I knew, we were signed up for Beginner Nose Work class and I soon found myself dressing Baxter in a sturdy, comfortable harness, setting him down facing an assortment of brown boxes and turning him loose. Once he figured out the game – find the box that smelled like hot dogs and you will get a JACKPOT of them – there was no stopping him!

It seemed like no time at all before we’d graduated from Beginner Nose Work and Nose Work- Intro To Odor class and Baxter was enthusiastically finding tiny hidden tins or straws with birch-oil-scented Q-tips to earn the prize of hot dog, cheese or chicken treats. Together, we learned to search vehicles, found ‘hides’ under chairs and on top of tables (yes, really – small dogs can do high hides!), learned to smell out hidden treasures high and low, indoors and outdoors and gained confidence along with skill. Slowly but surely, we became a team. Baxter and I not only learned a new game together, but he learned to be comfortable and at ease in different environments and more relaxed around strange people and new dogs. Nose Work classes had been the highlight of his week for months – so what next?

‘Next’ turned out to be membership in the NACSW (National Association of Canine Scent Work) and taking an ORT (Odor Recognition Test) to see if Baxter was ready for his first Nose Work TRIAL! Yikes! I may have been nervous and unsure, but the new, more confident Baxter took on the challenge with his [now] usual aplomb. He passed his Birch, Anise & Clove ORTs on the 1st try each and I soon found the two of us headed for Ninilchik, AK (Sept. 2013) for a NW1 Trial.

NO expectations at all – my plan was to think of it as a great opportunity for practice and, of course, having fun with our Nose Work practice friends. Baxter’s plans were obviously loftier. We came home with our NW1 Title – passing all 4 elements (Container, Interior, Exterior and Vehicle searches) and took 4th place overall in the NW1 portion of the trial! We even earned the coveted “Pronounced” ribbon for exceptional teamwork (according to the judges) in all four elements. Baxter really LIKES Nose Work.

Baxter’s NW1 Container search!; Sept. 2013. Good job, Bax!

We continued to have fun practicing with BetCo’s Nose Work group over the winter and signed up (gulp!) for the NW2 Trial in May 2014 in Wasilla. NO EXPECTATIONS! Heck, we’d only been to one trial so far. NW2 is a lot harder than NW1 … Baxter, again, felt I was not giving him enough credit. Did I mention he LOVES this game? Yep; Baxter and I earned our NW2 Title on May 17th, 2014. I’m still amazed. Baxter is not amazed … this little rescue Dachshund just did what he enjoys most – find those “hides” and get his treats! Get a-looooong little doggie!!

K9 Nose Work Vehicle search

In late 2014, I decided K9 Nose Work would also be a great “retirement sport” for my older dog, [then] 8-year-old Abby, an All-American mixed breed (Icelandic Sheepdog, Collie and Traveling Salesman, we like to say). Back to Beginner Nose Work classes for me!

At about the same time, I decided that this is THE sport for me and pursued becoming an instructor. I am passionate about the concept of this sport – and how it is ALL ABOUT THE DOG. Young dogs, old dogs, fast or slow dogs, timid or reactive – all are welcome in K9 Nose Work. This is a sport I found I could put my heart and soul into – and I can’t imagine ever getting bored or out-growing it.

I decided to “go for it” and commit to the lengthy process of becoming a Certified Nose Work Instructor™ with the NACSW. Claudia and The Better Companion supported my decision and were a huge help in my journey to achieve this goal. It meant several trips “outside” and more book-learning than I could have imagined – and of course, lots of hands-on practice of teaching classes.

I began teaching nose work classes in April 2015 and earned my official certification to become a full-fledged CNWI™ on December 1st, 2016. I’ve enjoyed every minute!

Wow, what an adventure this has been (and continues to be) … and all because I adopted a [previously] unwanted rescue Dachshund.

I guess the old saying is true; sometimes you don’t get the dog you thought you wanted or expected, but you usually get the dog that you NEED. Discovering how much Dachshunds enjoy Nose Work (and dog sports in general) opened up an entire new world of possibilities for me. It’s a big part of the reason I so enjoy teaching Nose Work classes.

I learned, back in 2012, that dog sports prospects come in all shapes and sizes. It was an eye-opener for me and, like Baxter, I’ve never looked back. Just as I learned early on that all breeds (large and small) can do nose work, I realized that size or breed was seldom a reason to think ANY dog couldn’t do dog sports if they and their owners wanted to. Once I overcame my unconscious prejudice that Dachshunds (and other small dogs) were just house pets (looking back, I’m not sure why I ever thought that), I was on a role. It wasn’t long before Baxter was also competing in Agility – and doing pretty well! He was just as happy to take on Rally Obedience, Freestyle dog dance, Flyball and Trick Dog.

Over the past seven years; I’ve had the privilege of watching a talented 200+ lb. Mastiff doing Freestyle, athletic little Chihuahuas as well as giant breed dogs competing in Agility and pretty much every breed you can imagine successfully doing sports like Nose Work, Scent Work, Rally and Trick Dog. If you have a dog, any size or age – there IS a sport for you!

In June 2018, I added another Dachshund to the family – this time quite intentionally. Meet Goodwood Help Me Rhonda B Good (aka “Ronni”).

Rhonda has been part of the family for a year and a half now. She has her NW1 title, Scent Work Novice title, Barn Hunt Open title and Trick Dog Novice title … all before she hit 18 months old. She is currently following Baxter’s paw-prints in learning Agility and Rally. I really have to wonder what is next. I can hardly wait to find out.

Update 12/10/2019

A quick update on my Nose Work/Scent Work journey. I am currently teaching K9 Nose Work at The Better Companion/Regine Dog Training in Wasilla, AK, where they offer Intro to K9 Nose Work®, K9 Nose Work-Intro to Odor®, K9 NW-Elements classes and weekly advanced Nose Work practice sessions for all levels. I am approved to Judge or be the Certified Official at NACSW ORTs here in Alaska, and I am a certified Lead Judge for Performance Scent Dogs®.

Baxter and I are competing at the NW3 level in K9 Nose Work (he has his 2nd NW3 Title – we just need one more to make Elite), at Excellent level in Performance Scent Dog trials and have started competing in AKC Scent Work (once I finally got around to registering him with the AKC under their PALS program for unregistered purebreds). I really had to once Rhonda started AKC Scent Work, right? We are all three having a blast. Abby retired at the age of 12 after earning her NW2 title, but little sister Rhonda has taken up the baton and is coming up fast. Look out, Baxter!

Barn Hunt Stories … Tally-Ho!

Rhonda was bred for field trials and scent work. She comes directly from working European bloodlines and has prey drive to spare. No surprise this small Standard Dachshund took to hunting for rats and other small rodents with wild abandon.

Ronni senses a mouse … seconds later, she was gone!

When my Dachshund, Rhonda, was about 5 months old, a friend invited me to the local Cook Inlet Kennel Club training facility. They were holding a Barn Hunt practice and my friend Laurie thought Ronni would enjoy it.

Wow. Understatement of the year. Oh, wait … you don’t know what Barn Hunt is? You are in for a treat. Read on …

We arrived at the building, which was already crowded with about a dozen vehicles. I carried Rhonda inside, where I was greeted like an old friend by several people I didn’t [yet] know.

To my right, I couldn’t help but notice a large chain-link fenced area filled with straw bales in an assortment of stacks, piles and tunnels.

There was currently a young Staffie rollicking up and down the bales, over and around them in obvious glee. As I watched in fascination, she quickly pounced on a pile of straw between two bales and I heard her handler call out “RAT!”

The handler then reached down and picked a large, very sturdy plastic tube from its hiding place in the straw, handing it to the rat wrangler (the person in charge of removing the unharmed rat from the search area). The practice supervisor called out “Rat One!”

The Staffie had already moved on in search of another rat. Oh! That looked like fun.

Someone took my name and passed me along to a lady who was in charge of “rat introductions” for newbies to the sport.

Yep – I said sport. Barn Hunt is one of the newer scenting sports available to pretty much any dog who has a desire to play the game and can fit through the various straw bale sized tunnels (a requirement for competition).

But first, we need to discover if our pup is interested in the rat. Please don’t worry – this introduction is totally harm-free to the rat. They actually seem to care less, having done this intro with many, many dogs. The rat knows it’s safe and usually sits there, calmly grooming itself while the dog or puppy sniffs, sometimes barks and even tries to grab hold of the cage.

The intro rat is visible, but securely enclosed in a small, strong, rubber-coated wire cage – completely safe from even the most enthusiastic dog.

I placed my leashed puppy on the big tarp with the caged white rat in the center and waited to see what happened. Ronni noticed the movement immediately, moving forward to investigate. She approached the cage. The rat moved and Ronni jumped backwards a good foot! I bit my lip … being afraid of the rat was not a good sign.

But no, it was only instinctive caution of something new and potentially dangerous – remember, she was still just a puppy. She immediately crept close again, gave a good sniff – and instinct kicked in. RAT! Chase! Catch!

Oh yes, Ronni was going to like this dog sport! After two or three short introductions to the caged rat, Rhonda was allowed to investigate the [empty] straw bale enclosure. I was told that some dogs were unsure of the strange new texture of the straw bales, not liking how the shifting straw felt beneath their feet. It was not uncommon for a new dog to just walk around, sniffing and getting used to it.

Lithe little Rhonda immediately scampered up onto a bale, down the far side, then back up, jumping from bale to bale and having a grand time. No fear – this was a great new playground. 😄

The following weekend, she was turned loose to hunt for her first rat. We had taken a quick moment to visit the Intro rat to give Ronni the scent (she tried to grab and carry off the cage – which was nearly as big as she was), then entered the fenced search pen.

I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it wasn’t a difficult search. There were three rat tubes made of heavy plastic, with lots of breathing holes for the rat. The three tubes looked exactly the same; 1 tube held a live rat, 1 tube held rat bedding and one was totally empty.

It was up to Rhonda to communicate to me which of the three [new to her] tubes held her prey – the live rat. She sniffed all three. I held my breath. She made her decision and nosed one of the tubes … I called out hesitantly, “Rat??”. The practice supervisor said “Yes! Rat!” Ronni was right … and has never looked back.

Practice was tons of fun; sometimes they hid just one rat, other times 2 or even 3. Rhonda had no trouble scrambling up and down straw bales and gleefully bounded through tunnels – sometimes the more complex, advanced tunnels – all great fun!

It seemed (and was!) no time at all before a Barn Hunt trial was imminent. Should I enter Rhonda? She was still so new to the sport. Well, what the heck. It would be good experience, and she only needed to find one rat, climb a straw bale and go through a straight, novice tunnel. No expectations in a busy trial environment – just to have fun and gain experience.

There were three trials planned for that weekend in April, 2019. One on Saturday, then two trials, back to back, on Sunday. The team could earn one “Q” (qualified run) per trial. It took three Q’s in order to title. Below is one of Ronni’s 3 Novice trial runs that weekend, under Judge Dan Mata. In Novice, the dog has 2 minutes to find one rat, while ignoring the bedding tube and the empty tube.

One of Rhonda’s Novice Trial runs.

One of the most humorous moments of that first trial weekend came on Sunday afternoon when Ronni, with two successful searches under her belt, faced her final Novice search – with her Novice title at stake.

Poor Ronni … she entered the search area sporting PANTIES – a size too large to boot. She had literally (and very suddenly) gone into her first heat cycle during the lunch break. Yikes. There wasn’t even time to set her down to see if she would WALK in the weird, constrictive (borrowed) attire before her run.

I sent up a quick prayer, set Ronni on the ground and turned her loose. Zoom! She raced (with a distinct waddle, but it didn’t slow her down much) through the tunnel, made it up onto a straw bale on the second try and then wiggled nose down into a pile of straw, tail wagging fiercely out the back of her baggy panties. “RAT!” I called. “Congratulations!” the judge chimed in. “That’s your Novice title!”

Only a few short months later, with only a few more fun Barn Hunt practices behind us, Ronni and I found ourselves at our 2nd Barn Hunt trial weekend. This time, both days were back-to-back trials.

Saturday went great; we didn’t earn the quickest times ever, but running now in Open Division, Ronni found her two rats in both searches, consistently ignoring the bedding-filled tubes. Good girl, Rhonda!

On Sunday morning, we found ourselves again facing a possible Title run. I was strangely relaxed – Ronni was having so much FUN, I felt we were already winners whether we Q’d or not. Besides, there was still another chance later in the afternoon. Here’s Rhonda’s 3rd ever Open Division run. 😄 Boy, does that gal thrives on climbing straw bales!

Ronni’s Open Division title run.

Needless to say, Rhonda now has her Open Division Title and got to try her hand at [Gasp!] Senior Div. at the ripe old age of 15 months. She found 3 of the required 4 rats. Great job for my sleek little ratter.

Barn Hunt is a FUN sport and Ronni adores it, so we will, I’m sure, have more stories to share. But be forewarned; this little firecracker of a dachshund is also actively pursuing a career in K9 Nose Work and AKC Scent Work (she has her Novice title in both), is learning Agility and Rally, and has her Trick Dog Novice title. I wish we had the opportunity to try Field Trials, but they just aren’t readily available here in AK. I think they offer 1-2 per year in the state, but with no way to train, I’m not sure how to even begin.

“Goodwood Help Me Rhonda B Good” is already well on her way to being exactly what her breeder led me to expect. Thank you, Claire!

Still, from day one, when my sweet, social butterfly, Ronni, came into my life – my number 1 priority was welcoming the much wanted 2nd DACHSHUND I’d been dreaming of. I wanted to share my life with a PAIR of Dachshunds, whatever else happened. Baxter, my older Dachshund, was seven years old. It seemed like the perfect time to bring his new little sister home.

Handsome Baxter & little sis Ronni, sharing a sunbeam in our RV.

Sure, I was hoping Ronni would grow to love at least some of the dog sports I already enjoyed with Baxter – but I would love her just as much if she’d turned out to be no more than a loving companion dog.

I have long been a strong proponent of this valuable caution (para-phrased); “Don’t get a dog FOR the SPORT. Get the DOG you want, and embrace the sports that dog wants to play.”

So … tally-ho! Off to Barn Hunt we go!

Have FUN with your dog(s), whatever you do, and Happy Sniffing!

We all have Favorite Christmas Memories

What are some of your favorite or most humorous Christmas memories from the past twenty years or so? I’m attempting to generate some semblance of Christmas spirit in myself this year, so thought I’d spread the cheer and see what it brings back to me.

It took some serious digging through my computer to come up with these photos. Sadly, I’ll have to dig through the basement to find my non-digitalized favorites of when my own kids were small. Oh, THOSE were some happy memories indeed! I may find them yet … but for now, I’ll limit this walk down memory lane to more recent years.

Well, maybe not all THAT recent. This photo of me was taken back in Michigan in the early 90’s, with my very first Border Collie, My Bonnie Lass (“Bonnie”) when she was not much more than a puppy. Oh my, I loved that sweet, timid girl! She is the dog who moved with me to Alaska a few years later, taking the seven day drive without a qualm and adjusting to life in the Alaskan woods with enthusiasm.

Deb & Bonnie, circa 1992. Can you believe that HAIR? 🙂

The next picture (below) evokes some wonderful memories … my first Christmas in Alaska – and my only Christmas in Anchorage! I can tell by the wood paneling and blinds behind the tree that this was taken in Jerry’s trailer in Anchorage. OH! It was a good thing we were still newly-weds! I was so happy to get out of that place the following summer! Moving from a 40-acre farm in the country to a tiny mobile home in a city – yikes! But it was our first Christmas together and I loved every minute of it. And it was truly a first for Jerry, too; single until age 45 and with no close family in Alaska, he hadn’t really celebrated Christmas in many years – and had never decorated for the holidays in the 16 years he’d lived in his trailer. Jer was working night shift that winter when I pulled out all of my beloved Christmas “stuff” (well, as much as would fit) and transformed the small space. It’s a wonder he didn’t turn and run right then and there. But I’ll give Jer credit – he embraced my holiday traditions with love and enthusiasm, if not understanding. I mean, stockings? Really?

Over the years since, I’ve moderated my Christmas decorating. Partly to compromise with Jerry’s continued lack of interest in the whole decorating thing … he doesn’t mind it, but I was mostly doing it for myself and after a while the incentive just wasn’t there anymore. And partly, I’ll admit, because with no family here to share it with, I’ve found it hard to sustain my Christmas cheer. Still, I do have great memories of some special Christmases over the past twenty years.

My Christmas trees got smaller over the years, eventually evolving into setting up a “Christmas Snowman” and setting presents around it’s base. Lots easier than putting up and decorating a tree – something I always ended up doing along anyway. The past few years, I’ve settled for hanging our stockings (I’m NOT giving up my Christmas stockings!), placing a few favorite decorations on the living room window sills and calling it good. Here’s a series of my ever-evolving Christmas décor over the years.

Still, decorating issues aside; Christmas wouldn’t be complete without our beloved critters. Some years, they make all the difference in the world. Here are a few who have made it into the Christmas album over the years.

The handsome orange boy is “Mokume Gato”, my Maine Coon (nearly 20 lbs. in his prime). He and gray tabby girl Damascus, were Christmas gifts to ourselves in December 2005. There is a bit of a story behind this duo.

So, the Christmas story … The Mat-Su Shelter had way too many cats and kittens in December, 2005 and Damascus, at 4 1/2 months old and just a “plain gray tabby” was slated to end her stay there if she wasn’t adopted by Christmas. 😦 They needed the space and no one seemed interested in her – there were plenty of younger and cuter kittens. I couldn’t bear it, so put a hold on her (with a deposit), put a surprise gift bag with photo, kitty toys – and a “Pick up your gift at the Mat-Su Shelter” note under the Christmas tree “from Santa”. Jerry was always a sucker for an underdog. Problem solved.

The following day, when we arrived at the shelter to pick up our tabby girl, I left Jer to get acquainted and wandered around the many cages of homeless cats. Boy, I should’ve known better! I still remember reaching down to a lower cage to pet a cute calico (I’ve always been partial to calicos and don’t quite understand why one has never managed to make it into my home), when I felt something brushing my hair. I jumped back just in time to see a pair of furry orange paws reaching out through the bars of the cage above me. The bright orange kitten the paws belonged to was laying flat on its side, face pressed against the bars, golden eyes gleaming with mischief and front legs stretched as far out as possible, trying to reach out to touch me. The tag said SHE was four months old – the same age as our tabby. Sigh. Yep, we came home with both of them!

Were we ever surprised a few days after Christmas when we took our two new kittens in for a “well-kitten” vet check. Although Mokume was a little bit bigger than Damascus, we discovered two important things; she was actually a HE, and he was no where’s near four months old. Large though he was, the vet told us he was closer to 9-10 weeks old rather than 4 months! He still had all of his milk teeth! We probably should’ve guessed from the huge paws and honestly even the orange coat. Although not all; the vast majority of orange cats are male. Oh well … Merry Christmas to us!

Out in the barn, chocolate barn cat, Snicker-Doodle, kept the Christmas spirit alive for 15 years with her regular gifts of mice (and the occasional bird, although I tried to discourage that particular activity). Christmas morning in the barn with Snicker, the goats and livestock guardian dogs, Buran, Libby and then Journey, was always magical. Special treats were offered and accepted, extra time was spent enjoying the quiet of a dark December morning with the contented sound of livestock around you, munching fresh hay and nickering quietly to each other in the chilly pre-dawn air.

Besides, what is more appropriate on Christmas morning than being in a barn? Oh, I know – it’s not for everyone. I loved more than 25 years of Christmas mornings with my barn animals. I miss those quiet, peaceful Christmas mornings, The last sheep and goats left our farm in the summer of 2016. This will be our 4th Christmas with an empty barn. Still, they are wonderful memories and I will always hold them close to my heart.

OK, let’s face it, when your grandchildren (and great-grandchildren) live too far away to spend Christmas with – you end up with a lot of pictures of your [also] beloved dogs. These photos (below) span the years between 1999 and 2012. If I were to include ALL the photos of dogs that I’ve taken at Christmastime over the years, I would have to write a book. As it is – I have way too many pictures of my dogs. This is a little embarrassing! 😉

2012 was also the year we added [then] 10-month-old Baxter to the family. This previously unwanted Dachshund was pretty much an early Christmas gift to myself. He may have been a rescue on his 3rd home due to (IMO) poor puppy raising by his previous owner(s), but this glossy little black and tan boy was the apple in his new Mama’s eye – and with a lot of time and effort, he overcame his early disadvantages and proved to be everything I hoped he would be – and more.

Our most recent canine addition to the family probably needs no introduction. I ASKED for her to be my Christmas present in 2017. She hadn’t even been conceived yet, but I was on the breeder’s list and was just waiting for the right litter to come along. It might have been soon, or it might well have been several years – I had a LOT of specific traits I was looking for in my next Dachshund puppy and good breeders won’t sell just any puppy to just anyone. When she emailed me in late January of 2018 and said she had an upcoming litter that MIGHT have what I was looking for – I was beyond excited! She was a late Christmas gift, to be sure, but she was sure worth waiting for. Goodwood Help Me Rhonda B Good (aka “Ronni”) … the gift that keeps on giving!

So, that is my Christmas memory album for now. Good memories, each and every one. Christmas remains a challenge for me. But if I keep these happy Christmas memories front and center, and continue to work on my regularly thwarted plans to spend Christmas with my actual grandkids and great grandkids instead of my DOGS … who knows. Maybe next year, I’ll have some NEW Christmas memory photos to share.

In the meantime, to generate some much needed Christmas cheer, please feel free to share some of your favorite Christmas memories and stories with me in the Comments below. If you are enjoying my blog, feel free to share it with your friends. Hoping for happy holidays!

Snow Day Memories … Revisited

Sitting here tonight, in the deep cold of an Alaskan winter night, I find myself transported home in my mind. Where is home, you might ask? Spoiler alert … it’s a long story.

My barn, seen thru our Oriental Cherry tree.

Where is home? That’s a good question. Harder to answer. I moved to Alaska in 1997, after meeting and falling for an Alaskan guy. Oh my. Talk about not even being on my radar. I’m not sure anything short of Jerry could have moved me from where I lived back then. My little farm was less than ten wooded miles from the southern shore of Lake Superior. I had a job I enjoyed, friends that I cherished and finally, finally enough land to feed my soul. There was even a bubbling creek cheerfully ambling through my back yard. I still remember the day I drove down the nearly quarter-mile long driveway with the realtor. It was love at first sight. We pulled up and stepped out of the car. I looked at the little red farmhouse, the big white barn and the creek. A sigh whispered through me. I knew I was home.

The place needed a lot of work. The house needed upgrading (it was pretty awful) and the barn a new roof. I didn’t care. I loved the land, so figured the rest could be fixed over time.

It seemed like it took forever to clean 30 years of accumulated trash and debris out of the long unused old dairy barn, but we managed it in a couple of weeks. Pens went up, fencing was added and my Pygmy goats and boisterous flock of Embden geese moved in. The geese were thrilled with the creek! It wasn’t much as farms go, but it was my personal 40 acres of heaven and I loved it there.

Of course, a twenty-year span between those old memories and now leaves plenty of room for rose-colored glasses, hazing over the bad times and remembering only what the mind wants to recall. Since I want to keep those happy memories intact, I won’t dig any more deeply into those “good old days” for now. Heck, what I’ve written, deleted, re-written and deleted again over the past few days was enough for me to consider going [back] into therapy. There may be a reason people only keep the “happy” pictures from the past. Who knew? I loved that farm and it will always hold a special spot in my heart, but it wasn’t always good times. Writing about this helped me to remember WHY I moved on when I did.

I met Jerry in 1996. Not so unusual now-a-days, but meeting someone online back then was an eyebrow-raiser. My Aunt Mary Jo voiced the concern others wouldn’t or couldn’t bring themselves to say; “How do you know he isn’t an ax murderer?”

Well geez, wasn’t it obvious? Jer lived [at the time] in a modest mobile home in Anchorage, Alaska. I lived on a 40-acre goat farm in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Guess who owned more axes? HAH! It sure wasn’t Jerry. Wink.

It was a heart-wrenching decision, but six months later, I sold my farm and followed my heart. To not do so out of fear of the unknown and the comfort of familiar surroundings would have surely left me with regrets and wondering “what if?”. I have no regrets other than those caused by the sheer distance I ended up moving. It was difficult financially and time-wise (keeping in mind I had a working farm with livestock most of those years) to return to visit family and friends. I DO regret not finding a way to manage that.

The first twelve years in Alaska were memorable. We found and bought thirty acres of beautiful wooded land overlooking the Mat-Su Valley to build our home, barn and shop on. I air-shipped nine of my adult Pygmy goats from where they’d been boarded in Michigan to our newly built barn. I was married to a man I loved and was very busy building a new life. Jerry and I were both working hard, while also raising and showing beautiful, purebred Pygmy goats. I was spinning, knitting, dabbling in a variety of fiber and metal arts and writing (always writing). Although I still missed my friends and family, I was happy here. Time flew by.

Then September 2009 came, and Jerry’s accident. The resultant severe TBI (traumatic brain injury) changed Jerry and changed our lives completely. He was hospitalized for over two months. Rehab took years. I stopped writing. I stopped breeding my Pygmy goats. I stopped … well, for a long time I just stopped. There was no room for anything except coping with our new life. But that is for another blog post at a later time. Probably. I still have no regrets. Like Garth Brooks sang; “Our lives are better left to chance … I could have missed the pain, but I’d have to miss the Dance.”

Those twelve years with Jerry were worth every bit of what has come since. For now, let’s get back to loving Alaska but missing the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Boy, when I ramble off track, I really ramble, eh?

 SO … lovely though Alaska is, there are days like today when I look outside at the snow-laden trees, so reminiscent of winter in the UP and find myself missing the best of those days, those people, that life.

Alaska – my own back yard

I lived in the vividly green, brilliant fall reds, oranges and golds and stark white landscape that is the western end of the Upper Peninsula of MI for nearly 15 years and in many ways, I still think of it as “home”. I see photos like this one (below) and my mind instantly thinks “home”. I don’t quite understand why.

The Upper Peninsula of MI – photo courtesy of http://www.roadtrippers.com

I was born and raised in hot, sunny southern California, even though I wanted to live on a farm and raise horses, even as a child. In my early 30’s, I nearly got my wish when we moved to L’Anse, Michigan. The picturesque town sits on the shore of Lake Superior, along the Keweenaw peninsula. Talk about culture shock! It dumped snow on this city girl the first week we lived there – and I embraced it from day one. Altogether, I lived in the UP for about 15 years; first in L’Anse, then Nisula and finally my little farm in Ironwood. Less years than where I grew up in CA, and less years than I have spent living here in Alaska. But if someone asks me where I’m from, more often than not, my response is “the Upper Peninsula of Michigan”.

After twenty plus years of living in Alaska, I certainly am a big fan of all that is intrinsically Alaskan. The rugged snow topped mountain ranges and ice fields, massive glaciers, boulder-strewn glacial-fed rivers and crystal blue lakes … the sheer vastness of Alaska is something everyone should experience in their lifetime. If you do nothing else; drive from Anchorage to Tok, or vice versa. Where you’ll really start to comprehend the magnitude of this great state is along the stretch of highway between Glennallen and Tok. When they say you can see forever, they are very nearly right.

Black spruce forests and tundra – Wrangle-St. Elias mountain range in the distance.
A road less traveled …

I’m not saying you shouldn’t take the time to see the rest of Alaska, too – just that this stretch really brings home the sheer SIZE of the state.

It’s really the heavy, fluffy snow we’ve seen this past week (in Alaska) that has taken my mind wandering back to the UP. Alaska gets plenty cold in winter, for sure. But honestly, compared to the UP, the amount of snow we see here is peanuts. I mean, unless you live in Valdez (now, THEY see a lot of snow!), average snowfall here in south-central Alaska is about 50-60” per season.

Don’t get me wrong; I don’t miss the amount of snow we saw annually in the UP – if I remember correctly, it averaged between 200-300+ inches per season! That was a LOT of snow shoveling and I’m honestly not up to that these days. But oh, did all that snow glisten. Some winters, you could drive down a residential street and only glimpse the houses briefly as you passed their plowed or shoveled driveways, since the snow was so deep on the sides of the road, you couldn’t see over the berms. It was like driving through a winter snow tunnel.

Blizzards were not uncommon in the UP, leaving driveways and roads completely drifted over as if they’d never been there and making just getting to my barn a challenge. I used to don my one-piece snowsuit and boots to do morning barn chores, and remember days when I’d put my 5-gallon jug of water on a sled and then push it ahead of me as I trudged through waist to chest high drifts to get morning water to the goats and geese. Yes, I eventually invested in a John Deere snow-blower, but even then, I still had to wade through deep snow to get to the snow-blower in the garage … and then snow-blow paths to the barn, the goose building, the dog shed and back to the house. All before heading off to work! I was quite a lot younger, healthier and thriving on living the farm life I’d always been drawn to. Ah! The memories. Hmm … when I think about it now – it was also a lot of work.

A typical mid-winter day in the UP of Michigan – my house is to the right of the huge pine tree.

Spring in MI was pretty much mud season, as it is in most rural areas, rivers running high with brown winter run-off, grass spongy and easily rutted and farm gardens too mucky wet to work the soil. But spring was also kidding season, which kept me busy as a bee. God, how I loved kidding season with my Pygmy goats. The geese added to the fun with nests bursting with goslings. There was seldom a boring day in spring in the UP. Then again, since the goats moved to Alaska with me, my springs didn’t change all that much.

Summers were gorgeous; filled with thriving baby goats, wildflowers, wildlife and sunshine – not as much sunshine or the long hours of daylight we see here in Alaska, and higher humidity, but just as lovely in its own way.

Autumn in the Upper Peninsula is the cherry atop the sundae – absolutely unforgettable. It’s one of the few times of year where it totally out-shines anything you’ll see in Alaska. There is simply no comparison. I very much want to revisit during this time of year. If I can manage to get there in my RV by September (eventually), I doubt I will be pried away again until snowfall is imminent. 😉 Hey, a girl can dream …

I may sometimes wish it were possible, but no – I do not want to go back to the UP to live … you really CAN’T go back, and I know that. If nothing else, writing this has brought me to a clearer awareness that the past is the past. Most of it is surely better off staying there.

Keep memories that makes you happy. Keep the lessons you may have learned, often the hard way, along with the rewards and accomplishments earned. Let go of the pain and loss, of the difficult parts of the journey that was your life in another time, another place. Keep the GOOD MEMORIES. Treasure them. And move on. Life is not meant to be viewed, like a photograph. It’s meant to be lived.

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