Sunday, July 20, 2008

Crab Apples and Sled Dogs

What to do with 10 quarts of crab apples? Hmm...

Growing in front of our house in the front section of the dog yard is a large crab apple tree. Who planted it? I don't really know. Why did they plant it? Again, I don't really know but I suspect they planted it as an ornamental tree. It was there when I moved in eight years ago. It has lovely white blossoms in the spring, bright green leaves, and small crab apples that start bright green and turn bright pink by the end of July or early August. Given that it bears fruit each year, this year, Eric and I decided to make it not just an ornamental tree but also a useful tree.

The big crab apple tree in the corner of our front yard.

Our house

Another view of the crab apple tree.

Our crab apple tree is also known as Sobo's Squirrel Tree since the squirrels love to play in it, and Sobo, our four year old Siberian Husky, loves to sit at the base of the tree and wait for the squirrels. Sobo is one of two primary lead dogs for our sled dog team here at Maryland Sled Dog Adventures LLC. Somehow, much to Sobo's chagrin, the squirrels always manage to escape the tree without Sobo catching them. Of course, the whole process involves hours of Sobo circling the base of the tree and barking at the squirrels, mind you. At some point, Sobo usually loses interest and mosies off. Heavan forbid that during the self appointed squirrel hour, I should need to go somewhere and thus, bring Sobo inside. This scenario usually results in me helplessly chasing a much faster Sobo through the yard with little or no success.

Sobo loves to sit under the crab apple tree.

Sobo surveys his domain from under his favorite tree.

Forget about Waldo...Where's Zoe?

In years' past, we've just let the crab apples drop to the ground and provide fodder for the deer and rabbits. (Of course, once the deer and rabbits finish eating the downed crab apples they then move on to my hostas and day lilies so this was not a perfect symbiosis).

Crab Apples ripening on the tree.

Is your bucket half empty or half full?

This year, we decided to harvest the crab apples and make crab apple jelly and crab apple butter. Yum!

Early this morning, with temperatures and the heat index forecast to hit 100 degrees here in Baltimore, Eric and I ventured outside early to pick a bucket full of crab apples for a full batch of crab apple jelly and crab apple butter. After about 45 minutes of picking and repositioning the ladder, we harvested approximately 10 quarts of crab apples.

Eric picking crab apples.

Repositioning the ladder under the tree

The neighbors' cat wondered if we could harvest a squirrel or two while up there!

More harvesting of crab apples.

Eric and Sobo share a hug after picking crab apples.

Yesterday, having not made jelly or jams before, we decided to do a small trial batch. Earlier in the week, I purchased mason canning jars, sure jell and a large sieve. Yesterday, Eric and I harvested approximately four quarts of crab apples from the tree.

While Eric installed new brakes on the dog truck (for more on Eric's exploits with the dog truck visit our other blog entries, Everything But the Dogs and Dog Boxes), I made up a test batch of crab apple jelly and crab apple butter. We sampled the finished products with our Sunday morning breakfast this morning and...yum! While the crab apple butter is light pinkish brown in color, the jelly is a brilliant pink color that is quite stunning.

Crab Apple Jelly

Crab Apple Butter

Crab Apple Butter spread on toast.

All gone!

Monday, July 14, 2008

The dog boxes are finished!

As many of you may know from reading my earlier blog entry, Everything But the Dogs: Mushing Equipment, Eric has been in the process of designing and building integrated dog boxes into our dog truck, which is a Ford Expedition SUV.

With a little chicken jerky the dogs were all happy to load up.

After approximately two weeks of planning and construction and about two hundred dollars later, those boxes are now completely constructed and ready for the dogs' use. Indeed, we took the boxes for a short "sea trial," as dear old Dad would say, yesterday when we took the dogs up to a nice little swimming hole in the Gunpowder River for a refreshing swim in the icy cold water of the river. The boxes passed, although when we returned we did make a tiny adjustment to the latches to make them more secure. The dogs were much calmer riding in the boxes than I expected. Since all of our dogs are crate trained, they all took to the boxes right away (a little chicken jerky didn't hurt none either!). T-Bone and Zoe really seem to enjoy the view they get from their "penthouse" boxes (especially when we pass horses, cows and other farm animals)!

The boxes have now received a coat of epoxy resin on the floors and the wooden thresholds to make them more waterproof. We have ordered a plastic boot tray for one of the five boxes (the center upper) and plastic sheet matting for the other four boxes to further water proof and make the bottoms of the boxes easier to clean if necessary. We have also placed a plastic barrier below the the boxes between the carpet of the truck's floor and the bottom of the dog boxes.

As built, there are five boxes, two over sized bottom boxes and three smaller upper boxes, that will hold five dogs. The boxes' framing is wood with wire shelving material between the boxes. The wiring grating, allows us to see and check on the dogs, lightens the over all weight of the boxes, and allows the rear AC vents to reach the dogs so that we can control their temperature more effectively. Because the boxes are within the confines of our SUV, they should still be plenty warm enough for our thick coated dogs to sleep in during the winter months.

Side view of the dog boxes through the lift gate

Sobo chills out in his box

There were several design goals when we built the boxes: (1) fit them within the truck but make them big enough for the dogs; (2) have them comply with Mush with Pride guidelines for the dimensions a dog box should be; (3) build the boxes as modules so they can be easily removed; (4) keep the weight being added to the truck at a minimum; (5) preserve as much rear window visibility as we could; (5) build well ventilated boxes but with floors that are easy to clean should a pup get sick or have an accident; (6) build dog boxes that are secure; (7) because we use a hitch mounted carrier to carry our rigs, the dog boxes must be able to be loaded from the rear doors and the lift gate which is not able to be raised or lowered with the rig in place on the hitch carrier; and (8) we wanted to still be able to raise and lower our back seat so that we could carry dogs and passengers. Adding insult to injury on this long list of "wants," there isn't a straight line to be had in the back of our Ford Expedition which made designing and building the boxes a lesson in patience and perseverance. Particularly difficult to deal with was the irregularly sloping nature of the ceiling of the truck (it has AC/Heat conduits in it) and the curved exterior edges on the two outer top boxes.

No straight lines! A fishy view (taken with a fish eye lens)

From the inside of the truck with one third of the rear seat up

Another interior view of the boxes (this one is kind of dark)

With a lot of patience, a lot of cutting, a lot of designing, re-designing, and a fair dash of creativity, Eric managed to build boxes that met just about all of our criteria.

Close up of Zoe, an Alaskan Husky

"Unless you have more chicken jerky, I think I'm going to nap," says Okemo

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Canicross Hiking Club Hike at Prettyboy Reservoir

The Big Gunpowder River

On Saturday, July 12, 2008, Eric and I met up with a great group of six hikers and five dogs for an approximately 4 mile hike through the Prettyboy Reservoir Watershed. Instead of following the Reservoir, this hike is a loop hike along a ridge and then along the Big Gunpowder River. Temps were in the mid to low 80s, however, the high humidity made the temps feel much more oppressive. In attendance we had Kathy and Lucky (a sweet little Border Collie), Laura and Lynn with Scarlett (a happy Black Lab mix) and Luke (a hard charging Chow mix), Katie and Sadie (a friendly black and white Siberian Husky), Margaret and Luna (a little gray and white Siberian Husky), and our good friend and hiking buddy, Dorothy (sadly, without dog). Along with Eric and I were Okemo (a white Siberian mix) and Sobo (a red and white Siberian Husky). Along on this canicross hike we had three walkers and four canicrossers and one dogless hiker.

Strolling through the dappled sunlight.

Given the heat and humidity, we took frequent water breaks

The trail starts off along wide open fire roads in the Reservoir Watershed paralleling the Big Gunpowder River but within the first half mile turns up hill toward a ridge and away from the River. We cruised along easily at a pace of approximately 2.8 mph (per the GPS) as the dogs pulled steadily.

Lynn and Laura with Luke and Scarlett

Katie and Sadie with me (Catherine) and Okemo canicrossing

Kathy, Dorothy, and Margaret pause on the trail while Luna demonstrates a nice line out.

At about one mile, we saw a cool little eastern box turtle on the side of the trail. Shortly thereafter, we saw something that one does not often see on the trail--steers (with horns!). Now lest you think these were steers in a fenced pasture alongside the trail, think again. These were steers on the trail with us. As the large ruminants recognized our approach, they took off down the trail in front of us.

The trail ahead...complete with steers!

All dogs were suddenly at attention and pulling hard to chase down the errant steers. In their wake, the steers left giant cow pies.

"Beef! Beef! I'm goin' to get me some kibbles and beef," think Sobo and Lucky

We believe that these steers were escapees of River Valley Ranch on Grave Run Road, a resort and Christian youth camp founded in 1952 and dressed up as a western ranch.

Lucky says: "Where are those steers? I'm a herding dog!"

Keep on trekkin'....

Continuing on the trail descends along a rocky stretch of fire road to Grave Run Road. Hiking down to the road, we spied River Valley Ranch on the right and many cows and steers.

Grave Run Road and River Valley Ranch

Doubling back for a few hundred feet, the trail changes from wide open fire roads to a narrow foot patch which once again parallels the Big Gunpowder River. After about 1/4 mile along the foot path, the trail once again opens to a fire road which parallels the River. Shortly after getting on the fire road, we stopped to let the dogs wade and swim and the people wade and swim as well.

"You first! No, you first!"

"Come on in! The water's great!"

"Look Mom, no feet. I'm swimming," says Scarlett

Even Siberian Husky diva, Sadie, decides to take a dip!

Katie and Sadie wade in the River

Group swim

After a refreshing dip, we continued down the fire road. At about a 1/2 mile in, the trail splits with the option of continuing on the fire road and back up to the ridge or taking a scenic but narrow foot path with lots of mud, sticker bushes, and a fun little portage over a wide branch of the River. After taking an informal poll, we decided to stay along the river. Shortly thereafter, the trail crosses a wide branch of the Big Gunpowder River, traverses a small island in the River and then crosses the River for a second time. Along the way, there is a large rock which juts out into the water where we let the dogs swim, again.

Our informal poll: Gesturing at either the foot path or fire road.

Flowering purple Hostas along the trail

Luna and Margaret contemplate how to get down to the water...

We made it down! Luna takes a dip.

"Look into my eyes," says Okemo

The first portage was quite challenging. We sent Eric on ahead to scout out the trail. Once he determined that this was indeed the trail, we began the somewhat arduous task of crossing the River on a downed log. While several dogs waded or swam across the 2-3 foot deep river, Sadie decided to teeter across the downed tree, agility style. Going slowly (and in my case without any grace), we all made it across the River to the small island. Once we reached the relative safety and stability of the island, we all took a minute to adjust our equipment and set off.

Gearing back up after the first portage.

Shortly after getting on the island, the trail once again crosses the River. This crossing was aided by a rather substantial log and debris jam that provided ample footing for a crossover. Returning to the mainland, the trail widen again to a fire road and we wound our way along and through a small grove of hemlocks. At 5.0 miles we once again reached the trail head where our cars were parked muddy, wet, tired, and ready for a refreshing swim in the Big Gunpowder River.

Arriving back at the trail head.

After stopping briefly at our vehicles to put on swim suits and change out gear, we headed down a short span of the Hemlock Gorge Trail to a secluded swimming hole in what seems to be an isolated part of Appalachia instead of suburban Baltimore County. As you descend along the river, the temperatures drops substantially, a welcome relief from the sweltering July heat. As we reached what we deemed a good swimming spot for the dogs and humans at the outflow of a little creek, we stopped to eat lunch and swim and wade with the dogs. After lunch our little canicross hiking party headed back to the vehicles tired but cool.

If all of this sounds like fun to you, visit our website to check out our Upcoming Events section for upcoming Canicross Hiking Club Hikes and to learn more about our Canicross Hiking Club.