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Sunday, February 4, 2018

Fergus has a new trick

We came home one afternoon and the dog met us at the door. He was supposed to be in his crate. We assumed we must have left the door unlatched. Fergus likes his crate, but after he wakes from his afternoon nap, he wants out. Now we know he has found a way.

A few nights later we came home from a holiday party and Fergus was happily curled up on the futon, snoring away. His crate appeared to be still closed but he was no longer in it. Then the smell hit me. The poor guy had suffered a blowout of mass proportions in his crate. Of course he can’t stand being trapped in a small space with his own mess, so he scratched and dug at the crate door until he saw an opening and managed to wriggle his way out. He’s like Houdini. Now he pops out of the crate at will.

Fergus’ great escape reminds me of when we had lambs and they used to get out of their pens. Newborn lambs wriggled under feeders and came out the other side, where they were sometimes able to latch onto other mothers for a feed. Their own mother, after a rest and a snack, would stand bellowing at the pen gate, calling them home. We picked them up, put them back in their proper pens and boarded up the gaps in the fencing.

I wish I could leave Fergus out of his crate but for a number of reasons, I don’t dare. He isn’t disciplined enough to stay out of things. And we have four cats in the house all winter. They roam the house during the day, searching out sunny napping spots and patrolling for mice. If Fergus, their favourite creature to tease, were out of his crate all day, they would no doubt start a high-stakes chase. I imagine overturned houseplants, pictures falling down off the wall and lamps crashing to the floor as the cats leap, jump and climb up to higher levels of safety. Not to mention the many tempting snack smells in the house that Fergus might suddenly decide to see if he can reach and sample.

I was trying to remember how my parents handled the dog thing when we were young. I guess they just locked the dog in the basement during the day, when it was too cold for him to be outside. I could do that too, but I would be afraid that Fergus, who is still teething on his molars, apparently, might decide to chew on a handmade three-foot tall dollhouse, or – even worse – one of the Farmer’s taxidermy projects. 

He usually goes into his crate without resistance, but sometimes he hums a wee growl to say he would rather stay on his couch, particularly at night. Fergus won’t be much trouble tonight, however, because he is absolutely exhausted. He spent the day following our granddaughter around the house. When she climbed up the stairs or descended them carefully, one hand on the railing, he went ahead of her, pushing his bottom into her chest to hold her against the wall. I’ve seen a dog do that with its pup, in a video. I think he was protecting her from falling. The Farmer says he was just trying to get close enough to lick the spilled yogurt off her shirt.

Then there was a rousing game of living room mini-golf, where Fergus felt the need to retrieve all the balls after the baby shot them under the couch. He was very helpful, actually. When the baby went down for her two-hour nap this afternoon, Fergus had a snooze too. He recharged his batteries so he could follow her around the house, out into the yard and around the barn for a few hours before dinner. When she finally left after dinner and a bath, he walked her and her mom to the door, then crashed on the mat with a weary groan. He was wiped out. 

Come to think of it, I’m pretty exhausted too. And I have a sore back from lifting a thirty-three pound child up and down all day. I’m a bit out of practice. I thanked Fergus for his help, praised him for not trying to eat food out of the baby’s hand – and asked him to be a good boy and stay in his crate for the night – whether the cats are sitting there taunting him on the other side or not.


Saturday, January 6, 2018

Marking an icy anniversary

Twenty years ago this week, I was a young mom of 3, living in the suburbs of Ottawa. I got up at 3am as usual, because I had an early morning paper route before starting my day in my home daycare. When I opened the front door and stepped outside into the dark pre-dawn, I had a sinking feeling. The world was encased in ice.

It wasn’t very cold outside, and I had to admit it was beautiful. The ice hung from the trees like diamond necklaces. My early morning paper runs were usually peaceful and sometimes eerie, because it was during the time that even most nighthawks had turned in for the night. It was completely silent. No wind. No sound at all.

I was the only vehicle on the road. I drove more slowly than usual. I was on glare ice. When I stepped out onto the parking lot and began to load bundles of newspapers into the back of my van I realized I wasn’t going to be able to do my job as expected. I couldn’t get a sure footing on the ice. I made a mental note to pick up boot spikes as soon as the stores opened. The paper would be late that day.

I parked my van at the entrance to my allotted delivery zone and picked up a bundle of papers. I skated between the houses and slid down the driveways. As occupants of the large suburban homes began to wake up and step outside to collect the morning news I heard some of them exclaim aloud. Some swore. Others laughed. I laughed too, at the thought of how ridiculous I must look, clinging to parked cars and sliding down slopes on my bum.

It took me two hours longer than usual to deliver all of my papers but there was really no rush. My home daycare would not be open that day, and very few people would be going to work. Very few people would be leaving their homes at all, actually. My 6-year-old daughter had just one guest show up at her birthday party.

As the Great Ice Storm of 1998 took hold, it became apparent that we were the lucky ones, in the south end of Ottawa. In Kemptville where my parents lived, people were installing generators to replace the electricity they had lost when the build-up of ice caused the power lines to bend and snap.
I was keeping in touch with my parents every day. Then one day my father didn’t answer. Two more days went by and I began to worry. He had a generator in his garage, and despite widespread advice to keep the door open for better airflow, he said he was locking his garage doors so his generator would not be one of the many being stolen. I imagined with horror that he had inadvertently gassed himself, and that was why he wasn’t answering his phone. So I did what anyone would do in my situation. I called a friend who was volunteering on the rescue crew, and asked him to check on Dad.
My friend was busy, so he sent in the military. My dad was not impressed. But I got a phone call.
“You idiot.” It was a relief to hear his voice on the line, even if he was using his usual terms of endearment. “Hydro told us not to use our phones, so I unplugged mine.”

We worked out a system where I could get a message and be reassured every day that he and Mom were fine. Their power was out 21 days in the end. I felt guilty, sitting in Barrhaven, nice and warm. All we lost was our cable TV.

Without that television, however, my girls had to find something else to do. I walked past the living room and saw them sitting in front of the glass insert to the fireplace, which we rarely used.

“Ma. I see a face,” my eldest announced.
“Yeah. It’s yours. You can see yourself in the glass,” I explained.
“No. It’s a little face,” she declared.

And then as I stepped closer, I suddenly saw a tiny little face pop up in the window of the fireplace. It was a squirrel. I was happy the girls hadn’t tried to open the door to examine their discovery. I didn’t need a family of squirrels in the house. I guess they had taken refuge in our fireplace when the ice storm filled in their home. We left them alone and when I checked a week later, they were gone.
Everyone has their own story of the Ice Storm that hit Eastern Ontario two decades ago. And hopefully we all learned a bit about how best to prepare for the next one.


Monday, January 1, 2018

Starting the New Year Norwegian-style

When I lived in Asia the New Year tradition was to clean house. Top to bottom, every drawer, closet, nook and cranny. Out with the old to make room for the new. It’s a tradition that leans toward the spiritual in nature, because you are symbolically sweeping old habits and bad luck out the door along with the dust bunnies, leaving a clean surface on which to welcome the New Year and all its possibilities.  I still follow that tradition to some extent, getting rid of clothes I haven’t worn in a year and throwing out old broken and tired-out Christmas d├ęcor and even some unwanted pieces of furniture. It’s very therapeutic, this annual purge.

After taking down the Christmas tree, I like to move furniture around. This year I threw out the two old couches in the back room. Fergus was a bit distressed until he discovered the pillows had gone into his crate. They are perfectly wedged in there and he can’t get a grip to rip the heck out of them.
The Farmer is cleaning out his kitchen cupboards and drawers (his territory; I am forbidden to mess with his herbs and spices) to make room for his new cooking implements and gadgets. He too has the New Year’s urge to purge. I suspect the basement is next. I have warned the cats. All of their favourite perching spots are in jeopardy if they are atop items that we no longer need or can fix.

Another popular way to usher in a new year, particularly after all that holiday food and drink, is to launch an exercise program. Well my routine rarely extends beyond Pilates and yoga but since we are now hosting a student from Norway who was pretty much raised on cross-country skis, we decided to try and locate a pair for her so she can enjoy winter in the manner to which she is accustomed. The Farmer climbed up into the shed loft and pulled down a few dusty old pairs of skis and poles. My father-in-law also showed up with a couple more, and boots to match. They could have been left by one of his five offspring – now in their 50’s and 60’s…but we suspect he got them at a garage sale.
When we presented the many choices to Mina, she laughed. “I have only seen skis like that in a museum!” she said. Clearly they wouldn’t do. Her parents had her very own pair of ski boots shipped to her from home. A week later a brand new pair of Fischer skis (not to be confused with Fisher skis…) arrived on our doorstep. Then, as if it had been waiting, the snow arrived. In copious amounts.

On Boxing Day, the sun rose high and shone down warm on a thick blanket of new snow. Encouraged, I trudged out to the shed and pulled on a pair of boots. They fit perfectly over two pairs of socks. Next I dropped a pair of skis onto the snow in front of me and slid the boot into place. I pressed down on the fastener with my pole. Click. They fit. No excuses now. I set off across the barnyard, sinking about six inches below the snow. The dog ran ahead of me and blazed a trail. It was hard work, and the most exercise I have had in months, but it was worth it. With no wind to deter me, I was thoroughly enjoying my trek.

At first I thought it was a whim of my own until I heard a swishing behind me. And a bit of panting. There was the Farmer, over-dressed in his farm gear, trying to catch up.

We had about 50 metres of romantic skiing together through the first section of our forest before my husband gave up on his skis, which kept popping off because they did not fit his boots. He will need an adjustment before he heads out again because walking back to the house was far more difficult than skiing out. And by adjustment I meant his ski equipment but it might also apply to his spine at this point.

Mina caught up and passed us, dressed in her streamlined ski gear and flashing lime green skis. She now has almost 200 acres to enjoy, with Fergus at her side. If we can figure out how to strap a toboggan to his butt he may also be put to good use blazing a trail through the freshly fallen snow.
Happy New Year, everyone.



Tuesday, December 19, 2017

If you give, you get, this Christmas

I don’t have a surplus of cash to donate at Christmastime, or any time of year. I can’t afford to put a bill in the kettle every time I encounter a Salvation Army bell ringer. And yet, I have found a way to give to their worthy cause this Christmas. I donate my time.

It sounds quite charitable of me – standing beside a kettle between the drafty double doors at the grocery store for two hours at a time. In reality, I am the one who benefits. Being a bell ringer is the gift I give myself during the hectic pre-holiday season.

Where would you rather be – standing in line in a packed shopping mall, overheated under your winter coat, feet and head aching from the effort of searching for every last item on your gift list – or bopping along to Christmas music, jingle bells in hand, greeting smile after smile?

After several years volunteering as a bell ringer, I have developed a system. First, you find out where you will be situated. If it’s the local liquor store, they don’t always like you to ring your bells, but they do have their own holiday music playing, which helps put people in the giving mood.

If you are at the local grocery or hardware store you may find it helpful to bring your own portable Bluetooth speaker along. Select the random Christmas playlist on your smartphone Spotify app and Bingo! You are a mobile Christmas karaoke party.

If equipped with a set of jingle bells, I suggest you tap it on your leg as you would a tambourine. It’s pretty hard to ignore a woman standing in your path who is having her own little Christmas celebration. Bang your bells to the music, and watch how many passers-by join in with the song. If you have a good voice you may even attempt to sing along – it all depends on your environment. You aren’t busking, after all. But there are several inspiring videos online of Salvation Army bell ringers who have turned the practice of kettle work into performance art. Just Google “Christmas bell ringer” and you will find everything from charming carolers to choreographed dance routines.

Most people don’t realize that the annual six-week fundraising campaign executed by the Salvation Army just before Christmas funds most of their programming for the rest of the year. When you are asked to put some of your spare change in the kettle, you are contributing to the Christmas Hamper program, supporting community dinners, and providing toys for children who might not otherwise receive a gift this year. But you are also helping to fund programs for young moms, providing business attire for hopeful interviewees, and building an emergency fund to benefit those who have lost their homes to fire or other natural disasters.

Christmas is a high-stress time for many. It’s an intense pressure-cooker of emotions. When you ring the bells at a kettle, many of the people you meet may be current or future beneficiaries of the Salvation Army. They visit the food bank to feed their families – many of them for the first time. They turn to the organization for help when there is nowhere else to turn – and they get the help they need.

When I’m working the kettle, some people come up and tell me their own personal experiences with the Salvation Army. I’d say about 1 in 3 people will actually stop and put some money in the kettle. But very rarely does someone pass by without meeting my eye and saying something. I’m too flashy to ignore.

I’m wearing a green felt elf hat with bells on it. My sweater features a fuzzy white polar bear adorned with Christmas lights that actually flash and change colours. I’m harmonizing to the music, and jingling my bells to the beat. You can walk by me without putting money in the kettle. You don’t even have to wish me a Merry Christmas. But most of you will smile, and I will smile back.
Working the kettle is my gift to myself. I walk out of there after two hours, layered in smiles and well-wishes. By being there, I am helping the charity to receive an average $100 per hour – more than I could ever afford to give on my own. It feels great.

There is still time for you to give this awesome gift to yourself. Take a stress break from your Christmas preparations and man the kettle for a couple hours in your own neighbourhood.

Fergus the Destroyer

I pictured a Golden Retriever as soft, cuddly and playful. I knew there would be a teething phase and a digging phase. I did not expect to meet Fergus the Destroyer. I am on the hunt for a dog toy that is indestructible. Fergus appears to be teething again. Either that or he just likes chewing things.

We got through the puppy teeth stage virtually unscathed. Fergus sampled a few prohibited items like the carpet on the stairs and a cardboard baby book that probably smelled of milk when his sharp little puppy teeth were coming in. But he didn’t destroy any shoes or anything else of particular value because we kept a close eye on him when he wasn’t locked in his crate. He carried stuffed toys around for a few months, and this was a cute trait.  He would select one from the toy box, then proudly parade around the house with it in his mouth, wagging his whole body proudly to show us what he had “retrieved”. Then he began ripping their limbs and head off. Now he is making short work of any toy he discovers, even if it is made specifically for a teething dog and rated 9 out of 10 for durability.  

Fergus thinks the 10 rating refers to the number of minutes it should take to complete de-stuff a thing. I am kicking myself for buying those expensive chew toys at the local pet store. The only toy he hasn’t completely destroyed yet is the rubber chicken I bought him from the dollar store. Granted he leaves it outside for playing fetch so it is dark, dirty and likely not very tasty anymore. It’s missing its squeaker but it still has all its body parts.

I bought the Ferg an identical rubber chicken for the house and he declawed, de-beaked and de-squeaked it immediately.

Our Golden Retriever is 9 months old this month. According to the lady who attempted to give us obedience lessons, he is right on schedule for the second round of teething for the molars. Those are incredibly powerful jaws he is exercising, and although I have found most of his baby teeth embedded in various items around the house, his adult teeth seem to be adequately sharp as well.
I posted about my chew toy problem on Facebook. I was recommended the heavy duty Kong toy. Fergus ate it. I was told to buy the Chuckit brand tennis balls. Fergus ripped the fur off them and cracked them in half. I bought street hockey balls, which I remember as being hard as rocks. It took the better part of an evening but eventually Fergus chewed those into little pieces too.

The only chew toy he has not been able to crack is a rock-hard fake white bone that is lightly scented like chicken. He likes it more than the real deer antler I bought him and it is lasting longer than anything else I have purchased. I guess I will have to go back and get another one as backup because I hate to think what will happen if we lose this one.

Fergus is also destroying the landscape. The Farmer is mourning the loss of his beautiful lawn and garden. Originally trained to do his business at the edge of the yard in the long grass, Fergus has taken to using our perennial flowerbed as his toilet. I stoop and scoop his poop every day but his stomping and digging is taking its toll. There are huge holes in the garden leading to tunnels under the porch. He loves to leap up onto the porch, down the stairs, through the garden, under the porch and pop out on the other side. He seems to find it hilarious if you yell at him, and he speeds up like a runner performing for his cheering fans.

The Internet doesn’t have much advice on how to stop a dog from digging. My husband has long talks with his dog, in an attempt to appeal to his sense of reason. The trainer says there is only one way to stop a dog from digging: tire him out. So the Ferg is going on walkabout with the Farmer on a daily basis now. It’s helping him to stay out of mischief, and the Farmer is getting some exercise too.

Soon, with any luck, there will be snow and the Ferg will be able to dig to his heart’s content.

Return of the coyotes

Fergus the Golden Retriever and I went for a walk in the back forty on a sunny autumn day. Halfway through the second field I realized I had chosen the best possible conditions for the dog to get as muddy as possible. The pasture, which appeared to be lush and green, was deceptively wet. Fergus was in his glory. I looked down and realized my own legs were splattered with mud. There was no use turning back.

More than once I have realized I am very lucky that Fergus does not have the urge to roll in foul-smelling things he finds on the ground. The carcasses of roadkill and the droppings of other beasts are irresistible to some dogs. They drop and wriggle happily in the stink like a pig in mud. The smellier the better. But Fergus is not tempted. He stops and sniffs and sometimes he marks the spot as his own by peeing on it. But that is the extent of his interaction with the offensive things. For this I am truly grateful.

On this particular walk, Fergus found something really strange. He was quite captivated by it, so I came closer to have a look. It looked like a pile of dog droppings, but it was covered in white fur. There were half a dozen similar art installations, in a semi-circle at the corner of our field. This corner is slightly raised in elevation, which made it a favourite spot in the past for our cattle, and coyotes. Clearly this pack had found a meal of wild rabbit.

In earlier years when we had sheep the coyotes used to perch on the velvety moss-covered rails of the cedar fence and watch “sheep TV.” From that elevated spot, they could see all the way up the field into the barnyard, where the fat fluffies were snacking on hay, oblivious. From that vantage point, the wild dogs could plan their next move.

I only witnessed one attack, from two fields away, for about thirty seconds. I saw the coyote pouncing toward the grazing flock like a pup that wanted to play. When he made his selection and moved in for the kill, I ran looking for the Farmer.

“Coyote’s got a sheep!” I screamed. I couldn’t shoot a gun, so I just ran out of the house in my sock feet, flailing my arms and hollering. The coyote didn’t even look at me. He dragged the sheep to the edge of the field, where he left her. He and his pack would be back later for their feast.
Usually coyotes are much more discreet about their dining habits. They take the smaller or weaker animals that stray from the group. They invite their friends to share the meal. They leave very little behind.

After that bold daylight coyote attack, we got Donkey. And that was the end of the coyote kills, to our knowledge. The Farmer and his hunting buddies left the coyotes alone, because they were staying in their own territory. They ate rodents, rabbits and groundhogs and left our sheep alone. They weren’t our favourite animals, but they were allowed to stay.

When we replaced our sheep with cattle, the coyotes appeared to leave. But now that the cattle are gone, we see more deer, and the coyotes have returned.

They can stay, as long as they leave my dog alone. Fergus is on a wireless fencing system, and we don’t leave him outside when we aren’t home so he should be ok. The deer are on their own. Hopefully the coyotes will be satisfied with smaller animals for food.

A friend told me the local wildlife sanctuary is building a special kennel for coyote rehabilitation, to help build up their numbers. I was a bit flabbergasted. I know coyotes must have a purpose in the larger ecosystem but I did not think they were in danger of extinction.

In the spring we will have turkeys and chickens and a few steers that we will raise for our own beef. Fergus should be big enough by then to be pose a threat to any hungry coyotes.

But then the coyotes might be the least of our worries. On her way to Sunday dinner the other night, one of our guests reported seeing a ‘big cat.” We have confirmed cougar pawprints in the last few years, and we have seen a catlike creature at the back of our property.
I’m hoping the big cat has no interest in Golden Retrievers.


Sunday, November 19, 2017

To hunt or not to hunt, that is the question

You don’t venture into our neck of the woods without an orange vest this time of year. The regular deer hunting season is wrapping up but muzzle loader week is about to start. We aren’t exactly hunter’s paradise like in the Muskoka region, for example. But we do have our fair share of hereditary hunters. They have grown up with it as part of their lifestyle and culture.

As we are located about fifteen minutes out of town, we have a fair amount of neighbours who are neither familiar nor comfortable with the sport of hunting. Those who hunt are, for the most part, respectful of those who do not wish to see hunting happening in their neighbourhood. They might hear it, but they shouldn’t see it.

I find after the first few days of the hunt, if a party is not successful, they may become careless. I was taking a walk one morning a few Novembers past, and I saw a man in orange backing up toward the road. He stood in the ditch and held his gun up to aim back into the field he had just left. I stopped just a few feet behind him.

“Do me a favour,” I asked, “and don’t shoot until I’m around the corner!” You aren’t supposed to hunt anywhere near a roadway but this group probably had a dog chasing the deer out of the bush and they didn’t want the animal to make it to the road. I heard the gunshot just as I rounded the corner.
Most motorists would agree they would prefer not to see a deer near the road either. That is one of the positive effects of hunting in our region: it limits the number of animals that end up in front of a moving vehicle, risking the lives of the driver and passengers as well as the deer.

Hunting is a great way to ‘naturally’ control the deer population. The rules are there for a reason, however. It is not cool to bait deer with corn or sweetfeed. You can feed them to help them last through the long, cold winter but you should not be luring them out into the open just so that you can shoot them. A true hunter gives the animal a fighting chance. It’s as though the universe has to offer the animal up to the hunter, or it just isn’t fair.

We have 200 acres of mixed forest, pasture and crops. In my ten years here I have only seen deer a few times. We have seen sign of them, when they leave their antler scratches on the trees or paw the soft earth on the tractor lane. But you really have to know what you are looking for. I never would have found those marks on my own. These elusive animals are so good at hiding, it really is a miracle when one appears close enough to the hunter in his deer stand to actually be shot.

Venison is a nice, lean meat so it’s a very healthy menu choice. Our hunter/chef prepares his venison like a roast and we often serve it with red pepper jelly or mushroom gravy. He only shoots the animal that he thinks will make a good meal. If he shoots it, we eat it. There is no trophy hunting here. The King of the Forest in his ten-point glory is safe from the Hunter and his gun.

Fergus and I are looking forward to the end of hunting season for a number of reasons. The Farmer has cut a trail through the woods for us, so we are anxious to check it out on our daily walks. It isn’t safe to go out there at the moment, however, because we have hunters on all our neighbouring properties and our doe-coloured dog tends to spring and bound like a deer.

Fergus also finds the sound of gunshots to be a bit startling. He barks and demands to go outside, where he stands and stares in the direction of the shots, growling and harrumphing to himself. In deer season it’s usually only one shot, however. That’s all you get so you had better know what you are shooting at.

There is one thing Fergus loves about deer hunting season. When we are finished our meal of venison, it doesn’t make a great leftover. The meat becomes a bit dried out and tough. IF you wash off all the gravy and spices, however, and chop it into little pieces, it makes an excellent treat for a young Golden Retriever.