Showdown with a Snake

copperhead snake

It was a Sunday evening, we had all had our dinner, the dogs had had their Race Day treats.  They went out on the porch to lounge in the cool evening air while Marie and I finished watching the NASCAR cup race at Richmond.

The dogs started barking.  It sounded like other dogs were barking too, so I assumed they were just conversing.  Dogs do that.  But then the intensity stepped up and I decided to go see what they were barking at.

The porch light was enough to see they had a snake “surrounded” out in the driveway.  It wasn’t very big, hard to say for sure because it was coiled up, but probably 12-18”.  Not that it makes any difference: if it’s a viper, the little snakes are just as venomous as the big ones.  More-so, really because they have not learned to meter out their venom by threat level like the bigger snakes will.  If it was non-venomous it won’t hurt them, but I’d rather they didn’t kill it.  I was barefooted and in my PJ’s; not proper snake wrangling attire in either case.

I went back in to get a flashlight.  In the added light I could tell from the porch it was a copperhead.  Until I came out the dogs were just playing chicken with it.  Once I was on scene Cochise went into “Protector Mode” and started attacking the snake; and taking hits from it.  Four… five… six, this is very bad! Continue reading “Showdown with a Snake”

Garden Update: Working the Onions

It is absolutely Amazonian out there this morning – not as in the on-line store, but as in the jungle.  Not hot (yet) but really muggy.  I had sweat running down my glasses just standing there picking beans.

vegetable gardeningThe Garden

 The morning haul today included:

  • The other watermelon.  I see no more of these swelling up: lots of flowers; no fruit.  But there are a ton of cantaloupes in development.  One is almost ripe.
  • Potatoes (some vines died two weeks ago). It’s time to harvest these plants now or they rot in the ground.  One did already.  I put the good ones in a box of  sawdust in the root cellar – er… uh… my office.  The sawdust (more like small shavings) draws excess moisture out of the skins and helps them toughen up for longer storage.  The plants with living vines will continue to produce potatoes until their vines die off in the fall.  Or until they drown like these did.  Had I known it would be so incredibly wet this year I’d have planted RICE!
  • A Patti pan squash – another will be ready in a day or two.  Then it will be a while; I don’t see any others developing yet.  Again: lots of flowers, few fruit.  The declining bee population makes getting a good yield tough.
  • MORE cucumbers.
  •  A whole mess of beans.  I stuffed a gallon bag.  I can blanch them for freezing later today or I might try canning these.  Should be enough for two or three pint jars here.
  • A few blueberries
  • And more onions. Continue reading “Garden Update: Working the Onions”

Making a Break For It (again)

Blondie, dog, escape artist
My “baby girl” Blondie

We have had a real problem with Blondie exploiting any weakness she finds in a fence and making a break for the wild woods.  As a result I have taken to tethering her in the shop yard or locking her inside the shop if I have to step away for a bit – like to go get the mail or do some gardening.  After her last escape I spent a morning tightening up the fencing, bolstering posts, and sealing up the lower edges where she (or something) had pulled up the pins that hold the fence to the ground.  I eliminated all the potential escape routes I could find.  But she is strong as a bear, and it constantly surprises me what she’s capable of. Continue reading “Making a Break For It (again)”

Building A Boardwalk

Originally published in May, 2013 by  Grit Magazine 

play yard projectSpringtime in the Smoky Mountains means warmer temperatures, greener scenery and rain.  Lots of rain.  Some years we get a few weeks of heavy, almost non-stop rain, other years we get a couple months of lighter rains.  Either way spring time means we’ll be dealing with erosion and mud.  On the monsoon years the quarries do a lot of business with folks seeking rock to repair washed-out driveways.  We’ve had one area that has been a consistent problem for us every year, heavy rains or light rains.

There is a long, horseshoe shaped driveway that comes up from the hard road, loops in behind a mobile home, then goes back down to the road.  The mobile home and driveway behind it are on a shelf cut into the slope to provide a flat spot.  In spring, rain water runs down the mountain side onto the driveway and collects there, making the area really mucky despite a thick layer of gravel on the drive.  Some years, when the rains are heavy the ground saturates so no more will soak in, then water comes cascading over the ridge at the top of the cut-in and flows across the driveway like a river – often taking all the gravel with it.  Even on light rain years the area between the mobile home, which is now my workshop, and the embankment gets sloppy fast and stays that way for weeks.  This was enough of a problem when it was just me going to and from work, but now we are providing foster care for dogs, and the pens are in this area too.

This year I decided to do something to get us all up out of the muck.  I built a boardwalk.  This is not a piece if high-end architectural engineering, nor is it fine craftsmanship.  There were three criteria it needed to meet: 1) It needed to keep us out of the mud, 2) I needed to build it quickly, 3) It needed to be cheap.

The proper way to do a boardwalk would have been to drill several dozen post holes, set short posts in them with concrete, determine height of the posts to get the decking flat and level and cut the posts off at the right heights, notch the posts to accept joists then lay planking across the joists.  Have you ever tried to use a post-holer in muck?  That doesn’t work so well, especially not in our red clay.

What I did was to lay landscape timbers in as sleepers, using pavers as support in the lowest spots, then cutting some old barn wood to use as decking.  This barn had been built by sawing whatever trees were at hand into lumber, so we have a mix of red oak, white oak, poplar, pine and a little walnut, but once it all silvers from sunshine it will match up closely enough.  The boards are not consistent in their thickness and are wildly random widths from 3” to 14”.

I did not want to take the time to plane the lumber to a consistent thickness, so I just watched to be sure I didn’t let it vary too greatly board-to-board.  I did rip at least one edge of each board to get the long edges reasonably parallel so the planks didn’t go angling off to one side or the other – especially in the long narrow walkways.  And I did buy a 5 pound box of decking screws to be sure they don’t rust out right away like most screws would.  I used screws rather than nails so I could easily replace planks if they rot or break.

Looking from the Guest Quarters (dog pen) out toward the workshop.  The metal steps lead up to where we store firewood under cover.  That hairy glob on the left would be part of my arm – I was up against the chain link of the Guest Quarters and taking a tricky shot without being able to see through the view finder.

The one missing piece at this point.  I need to locate a board that will fill this 12″ x 43″ space to join the deck and the lowest step.  There are no more boards that wide in the stack I was working out of, but I have two more outside of the dog yard.

Standing on the boardwalk near the Guest Quarters looking back toward the shop.  All that lumber leaning up against the loading dock is rejected lumber that is too rotted or split to be of any use.  I’ll chunk it up and store it for firewood next winter.  The pile I was working off is on the left at the end of the dock.  About 1/3 of what was there is left.  I’ll move that out to the piles behind the house – some other day; I’m very tired just now.

Standing on the loading dock looking back toward The Guest Quarters.  The pen itself and an area in front of it are floored with 2″ of pea gravel.  A gate at the end of this pad allows access, entering in front of the Guest Quarters then the boardwalk connects the entry pad (pea gravel) with the two sets of steps.  Beyond the loading dock the driveway rises a bit and has a good crown to it, so it is not a problem like this stretch is.

It took me two and a half days to build this project – some of it in the rain – and cost a total of just under $50 for landscape timbers and screws.  The end result undulates a little as it follows the contours below, but it’s not a problem.  The dogs love it!  As they go galloping along the board walk it makes a satisfying drumming sound that makes them sound even bigger and more powerful than they are.

Marie wants me to build a deck around the front steps of our home – THAT will be built with proper footings and construction, I assure you.

Prattle: Wireless Blondie

Mom’s House

I went down to check on my Mom this morning.  She lives in her own house on the property my wife and I own and live on.  It’s a whole lot more convenient to look in on her and help her out when she’s living a couple hundred feet away than when she was in Nebraska.  Normally I drop in on her mid-day with the mail, today I needed to follow up on yesterday’s excitement, so I went down first thing this morning. Continue reading “Prattle: Wireless Blondie”

First Day of Spring?

Originally published Mar. 21, 2013 by Grit Magazine

I arrived at work at 7:30 AM, following a grueling 150 foot commute.  The traffic was terrible.  Normally both dogs march along shoulder to shoulder at the ends of their leashes.  I tell Cochise, “Play yard,” or “Home” or “Mail box”, or (his least favorite) “Work” and he heads off in the right direction.  I tell Blondie, “Stay with Cochise” and she obediently strides along beside him wherever he goes.  Normally, but not today.  Today I’d started the pickup truck earlier to warm it up before Marie headed into town and her work.  Blondie really, really wanted to go for a ride; so when we came down the steps she was intent on going in that direction.  Cochise smelled something fascinating down in the yard and really, really wanted to go that way to check it out.  So they strained in opposite directions, neither one in the direction I needed to go.  We worked it out eventually, but it was a disorganized swirl instead of the usual orderly parade.

Yesterday was the official first day of spring.  It is cold and foggy this morning.  There is a possibility of snow.  I was wondering what happened, when I remembered something I saw at the Source of All Wisdom (Facebook), “The first day of spring and the first spring day are not necessarily the same, and can be separated by as much as a month.”  I’m glad now that I didn’t put my potatoes in their garden boxes last weekend, I’ll do that next weekend.  But I had planned on working at opening the garden for summer session this week.

The winter gardening session was disappointing; it was too wet and cold for much of what I grew.  Still, we did get a fair bit of lettuce (until it got crushed by condensation that froze into ice on the inside of the greenhouse) spinach, beet tops, onion greens, garlic greens, carrot tops, as well as the last of the summer’s carrot roots.  I got enough Brussels sprouts for one meal – but that is the best I’ve ever done with these sprouts; normally the looper worms gut the plants and kill them in days.  By using a greenhouse vented with window screen I kept the moths away in the fall so the plants had a chance to grow to maturity for once.  I had to cover the top vent with plastic after a particularly wet spell practically drowned them out as well.

The Swiss chard is just now getting any size to it.  I’ll get one decent harvest from that when I pull it up to replant the box with something else.

On the positive side, our local Lowe’s store now carries composted chicken manure.  That will help in rejuvenating the soil in my boxes.  I used composted cow manure last year with disappointing results.  Slowly, very slowly, I’m learning what works.

For the Love of Dogs

Originally published Jan. 16, 2013 by Grit Magazine

Marie and I have always had a love of dogs and enjoyed the company of canines.  Trained to behave in a civilized manner and be indoors with us much of the time, they were more members of the family than pets.  Last summer we lost both of our pampered pooches.

First was Zadie.  She was accustomed to heading up into the woods in the morning with her adoptive sibling Dolly and their friend from down the road, Boots.  That day was no different except that they did not return for breakfast.  It wasn’t like Zadie to miss a meal.  Any meal.  Ever.  And we became concerned.  Later in the morning Dolly returned, without Zadie (also unusual) and acted very strangely.

Dolly had been dumped on this mountain before we arrived.  When we moved into this home, she watched us for a while from a rocky outcropping above us, then decided she would take us under her wing (so to speak) and teach us to be proper mountain folk.  By this time we had been together for about 11 years.  Zadie arrived as a pup – apparently dumped as well – and Dolly took her in and mentored her in proper civilized behavior.  One of her most adamant tenants was that good dogs don’t “go” in their yard, but head up into the trees to do their business.  I particularly appreciated this personal habit.  But starting after Zadie’s disappearance, Dolly would not go more than a couple of feet past the tree line for her personal hygiene needs and NEVER went off a-wandering or chasing small game as she always had before.

Boots, Zadie's best friendBoots was oddly absent as well.  He used to visit every morning, but for days we had not seen hide nor hair of him.  Finally I did catch a glimpse of him, waved and shouted “Hi Boots!”.   He tucked his tail and scurried off as though I’d threatened him.

Being a Border Collie/Rottweiler mix, Zadie was very smart – in terms of being clever.  She could open any door and would paw a spring clip until it opened and she was gone.  To tether her required a padlock.  She was nimble too: 68 pounds of canine ninja.

Dolly may not have been as clever, but was very wise.  She was also compassionate and an excellent mentor to Zadie and Cochise.

Shortly before this occurred there had been a fire on Hogback Mountain: the next mountain over from ours.  It had burned for days and the Forestry Department was using bulldozers and helicopters to fight it.

A while after this day my nearest neighbor and I both heard what we were sure was a bear snorting and snuffling in the woods above us.  We think the bear got Zadie.   Most likely The Three Pooches caught its scent and tracked it.   We did not hear barking that morning, but if they came up on the bear suddenly, they might not have.   Seeing a bear kill Zadie would account for the trauma Boots and Dolly exhibited.  Zadie would have been cocky enough to take on the beast, Dolly would have recognized the danger and stayed back.  Boots was all bark and no backbone.

A few months later, Dolly died of heart failure, with her head in my lap.

We were deeply hurt by the loss of Zadie, and devastated when Dolly passed on as well.  They were our children.  Rather than wallowing in our own pain, we chose to focus on the good times we had together and celebrate the fact that they had shared our lives at all.

When we abandoned hoping that Zadie would be found or come home, we were not considering adopting another dog but we did want to do something to help repay the joy they’d brought into our lives.  Marie found the Dogs In Danger web site, which works with the Rolling Rescue program to save dogs in kill shelters and relocate them to no-kill shelters or breed-specific rescue programs.  We were surprised to learn that our local Animal Shelter works with both programs and decided to see what we could do to help out.

Our local shelter’s greatest need was foster homes for dogs that were too sick to qualify for local adoption or Rolling Rescue.  Mostly this involves heart worm positive dogs.  Treatment is expensive and makes them very sick for a while.  If donations from the public pay for the meds, they require an environment where lots of attention can be paid to them and their activity severely restricted until they recover.  An animal shelter is not such an environment.

Original dog penOne of the dogs they had on this list was Cochise, an American Bulldog who had been there long enough that he was just 4 days away from taking the one way walk.  He had a sponsor for his meds, but no foster home.  Something about him touched our hearts and we decided to help him.

We bought a 10’ x 10’ chain link dog pen and built a make-shift sleeping shelter out of wire fence and a tarp (we called it his wickiup).  It rained all that weekend, but he could not afford for us to wait for better weather, we put it all in and went back for him.

That was seven months ago.  Cochise turned out to be such an amazing animal that after nursing him back to health we adopted him.  He in turn has helped us help four others (so far).  The two that have completed the process went to facilities in New Jersey.  Marie says it’s like the witness protection program: a new name and off to New Jersey.  They must have a tremendous need for good dogs out East.

So far, Cochise’s only objection to any of this is that he just gets them trained to be good playmates and we ship them off.  I understand that feeling: I was an Air Force brat as a kid, my family moved every year, leaving all our friends behind never to be seen again. It was hard.  We might have to adopt one more – maybe Faith – as a steady playmate for him.  But that will be up to him more than us.

One thing though: none of the dogs are allowed to run loose anymore.  Cochise and I go for long walks up the mountain, but he’s always on a leash, and we’ve fenced in two large areas for the dogs to use as play yards, but no more running the mountain.  Aside from the danger that the bear may still be around, Cochise and I have encountered deer a couple of times on our walks and I’m sure that bull-headed dog would chase those things clear into the next county if he were loose!

Giving back by helping these programs snatch good dogs from the jaws of death, heal them and offer them to good forever homes is a very fulfilling venture.  We are volunteers; the shelter provides the medications, paid for through donations from the public, and dog food for the foster dogs.  We provide all the equipment needed and of course the love and attention they need.  But you could not find a more grateful group of beings to help.  And because these programs are registered non-profits, our fostering expenses are tax deductible as contributions.  If you have any interest in doing something similar, please visit Dogs in Danger or your local animal shelter to see what programs they have for you to be involved with.

Cochise Gets TLC at TSC

It was a bright and sunny Saturday, a perfect day to go for a ride in the truck. And since my kibble bucket was almost empty, it was also a perfect time for that truck ride to take us to Tractor Supply Company. So I paced and humphed while Hairy Face and Nice Lady got themselves ready to go.

Cochise, dogs, riding, tractor supplyOnce we were in the truck I used my most adorable “pleeeese” face to get Nice Lady to let me sit up front and her to ride in the back, it didn’t work, but she had just washed the big pillows that go on the floor back here so it was not only cushy, but fresh smelling. Continue reading “Cochise Gets TLC at TSC”

A Little Creative Writing: The Daily Tromp

The old man struggles at the slow end of the leash as his 80 pound bulldog, Cochise, strains like a John Deere at the other; dragging them both up the steep, winding mountain path.

Daily Tromp 8822The path was once a crude dirt road; just a common access for owners of property on the undeveloped, upper portion of the mountain. For several years an occasional 4-wheel drive pick-up would trek up the mountain to release hunting dogs, cut firewood to haul home, or just enjoy a few hours sitting in the woods soaking up the solitude.  Then, for a while only ATVs went up there to rip and snort along the path and tear new trails through virgin woods.  The old man was glad when the kids lost interest in their new toys and stopped coming.  It had been a year or more since anyone went up the old road.  No maintenance had been done, not even the farmer who occasionally used his tractor to drag a scraper blade along to even out the humps and ruts and shear off the saplings. Now those saplings were crowding in from the shoulders and taking over again. Trees had fallen, shattering branches all over and heavy rains were forming huge ruts and runnels that made the road difficult for any vehicle to navigate faster than a creep.

Only he and Cochise – occasionally his wife and a foster dog would accompany them a short ways; just to where it got steep – were the only ones to go up there.  They manage to keep a path trampled down for a half mile or so up the main route and a few hundred feet along a branch road. Continue reading “A Little Creative Writing: The Daily Tromp”