Another Reason Why I Love It Here

Wildlife watching from the door to my front deck.

I’d been told that there were bighorn sheep in the cliffs up behind my home. And more than once I’ve heard them knocking rocks around up there as they move along the cliff face. And occasionally Penny will bark like a crazy dog at the cliffs, obviously hearing or seeing something I can’t. But despite purchasing and using a set of binoculars last autumn, I haven’t been able to see the animals up on the cliffs.

Until last week. That’s when Penny’s urgent barking caught my attention and I spotted three bighorn sheep — two adults and a yearling — in my neighbor’s front yard. I rushed Penny into the RV to shut her up and grabbed my binoculars.

Unfortunately, I got more of an eyeful than I expected. Not only did I get a close look at one of the animals, but I also got a too close look at my neighbor, who’d come out stark naked to photograph them.

Life’s different out here.

Today, more barking got my attention. And this time, when I rushed Penny into the RV, I grabbed my Nikon, 300mm lens, and monopod. Then I went into my unfinished building, climbed the stairs, and opened the door to my future front deck. I zoomed in on one of the animals grazing in the yard. Her head was down but I waited. No sense taking a picture of her back. After about a minute, I was rewarded. She popped her head up and looked right at me.

Bighorn Sheep
Captured in pixels from the door to my future front deck.

This isn’t the only interesting animal we have around here. There are also golden and bald eagles and other birds of prey that I see daily. There are quail — which have youngsters right now — as well as robins, magpies, and hummingbirds. I hear owls but have never seen one here. There are coyotes, which I occasionally see but more often hear at night. There’s elk and deer in the area, but I’m not sure if they ever make appearances near my home. And, of course, there are bull snakes and rattlesnakes.

It’s nice to live in a place that’s remote enough for wildlife viewing out my window without being too remove to take advantage of the conveniences a small city like Wenatchee has to offer. I really like it here — I only wish I’d moved here sooner.

The Rattlesnake Living Under My Shed

Is not living there anymore.

My first encounter with a rattlesnake on my property happened about two months ago.

Back then, the grass and weeds that cover my property, which I allow to grow naturally long, was still green and there were still plenty of wildflowers for my bees. I’d mowed a path to Lookout Point and to my beehives and close to my RV, but the rest was tall — some of it more than 3 feet tall! — and I saw no reason to cut it back until it died and became a wildfire hazard.

Until I saw the snake.

It was slithering out of the weeds on a direct path to my RV, probably attracted by the shade beneath it. I looked at it carefully to determine what kind of snake it was. Bull snakes, which are common around here, are friends. They eat rodents and rattlesnakes. But rattlesnakes are enemies, especially since I wasn’t 100% confident of Penny’s Arizona rattlesnake avoidance training, which was now more than a year in her past.

Unfortunately, it was a rattlesnake.

Not having a weapon handy and not wanting the damn thing under my RV, I reached down into my poor man’s hot tub, which I’d set up just the day before, and splashed water toward it. It made an about-face and headed back into the tall weeds. I got Penny into the RV, grabbed a heavy piece of scrap wood, and went after it. I tossed the wood onto it. It struck, but not hard enough to kill. The snake took off into the thick weeds over my septic field.

Later that week, I did what I should have done when I bought the place last year: I bought a shotgun and bird shot shells. Yeah, it might be overkill, but any kind of kill would make me happy. The next time I saw it near the RV, all I needed to do was grab the gun, load it with a shell from the open box nearby, and blow the snake’s brains — and everything else — out. The birds would take care of the rest.

That was the plan, anyway.

In the meantime, I mowed. As the green grass and weeds dried and the flowers feeding my bees died, I mowed them away to create a defensible space — not only for wildfire threats, which are very real here in the summer, but for rattlesnake threats. I wanted to see them coming.

About two or three weeks later, I came outside around dusk to take out the trash. I keep my trash can near my shed. As I passed the temporary water spigot, I noted a hole in the ground that I assumed was from a mouse. I stomped it to close it up and heard a rattle.

I think I must have jumped 5 feet backwards. The snake had been curled up near where I stomped and right after rattling, he took off, under the shed. The shed has a porch and the front part was open underneath at the time. Before I could gather my wits after such a scare, the snake was gone.

Not good. Did he live under there? Had he come out of the hole I’d stomped? Did he have friends?

Needless to say, I was a lot more careful when walking around in the evening.

About two weeks ago, while repositioning some of my pallets from behind my shed for use inside my building, I caught a glimpse of a snake slithering away, under my shed. This time I had time to see and count the rattles on its tail — just 3 or 4 of them. A youngster. Anyone who knows anything about rattlesnakes is aware of the theory that they’re the most dangerous.

Of course, there was no way to reach him and I wasn’t about to start firing a shotgun into the small space under the shed. I took measures to block the openings as best as I could. With skids on two sides of the little building and a new concrete platform out front, there was only one way in or out: the back. I closed up as much of it as possible, thus forcing the snake to come and go through a much smaller opening, as far away from my garden as possible.

Peacefully co-exist. That’s what one of my Facebook friends said when I mentioned the snake living under the shed.

I liked the idea. When I lived in Arizona a rattlesnake lived under my chicken coop for a while. It didn’t bother the chickens and the chickens apparently didn’t bother it. And that year, there were no mice in the adjoining feed shed. If the snake stayed under the shed most of the time and just came out to hunt and stayed away from Penny and my chickens and my garden — well, that would be okay.

But that was a lot of ifs.

Too many, apparently.

This morning, one of my chickens was dead. She’s the second to die of the original eight that I bought. As I started moving around equipment to get my ATV out for her “burial” at the far end of my property, I started wondering what had killed her. Had the snake come over to the chicken coop for a visit? Had they fought? Did a snakebite kill her? No matter how much I hoped that wasn’t the case, I had to admit that it was possible.

And then, when I saw the rattlesnake coiled up under where my little farm trailer had been parked only moments before, it became pretty obvious that the snake was not willing to peacefully co-exist with us.

I didn’t need the shotgun. I was holding a shovel.

As the snake stretched out and headed toward the back of the shed, I brought the sharp edge of the shovel down violently, cutting through the snake’s body. Again. And again. The snake was still moving, but it was pretty much cut into four pieces. Guts were coming out.

My First Kill
My friend Bob was right: who needs a shotgun when you have a shovel?

It was still moving when I used the shovel to scoop it into the recycling garbage pail sitting nearby. It’s a deep pail; I didn’t want the snake somehow getting out.

Then I went into the chicken yard and used the shovel to scoop up the dead chicken. After all, that’s why I’d been holding a shovel in the first place. I dumped the chicken onto the snake, put the pail in the back of my ATV, and headed out to the far east end of my property, which is where I left the first chicken who died. This spot is far enough from where I live that I don’t have to worry about Penny finding them. I dumped them unceremoniously in the same spot; scavengers would take care of cleanup, probably within 24 hours.

Is that the only rattlesnake around here? Probably not. A friend of mine claims they always come in pairs — although I can’t say I agree. I’ve seen solitary rattlesnakes before.

I am sure, however, that the one I killed today is the same one that was apparently living under the shed. Same size, same number of rattles. It’s a load off my mind, anyway.

Too bad about the chicken.

Chickens Again, Part I

Getting started with a new batch of chickens.

Penny with Chicks
Penny suspected trouble when I got into the truck with this little box.

A few weeks ago — just a few days after returning from my 2-month California trip, in fact — I bought 8 chicks. I set them up in my shed, in the stock tank I’d bought last year for my poor man’s hot tub.

Chicks in my Shed
My little chickies, huddled together in their nursery.

I’d had chickens before, in Arizona. They’re a lot of fun and you really can’t beat fresh eggs. Because I knew I’d have chickens again, when I moved to Washington, I took along most of my chicken-rearing equipment: feeders, waterers, and heat lamp. That saved me a bunch of money when it came time to get these started. And the stock tank in the shed really beats the cardboard boxes I used to use in my garage to get the chicks started.

The Chicken Yard

Of course, they couldn’t stay in the shed. Eventually, they’d need a chicken coop and a fenced-in yard. Like Wickenburg, this area has coyotes and I’d have to protect the chickens from them. It also has large hawks, eagles — including Bald Eagles — and owls, so a net across the top would be vital. I wanted the chicken yard to be large enough to accommodate all the chickens and, with the real possibility of free-range egg sales, even more chickens in the future. And although I only wanted to build it once, I didn’t want it to be permanent. (I’ve come to realize that I don’t want anything in my life to be permanent because nothing really is. But that’s a philosophical discussion best saved for another blog post.)

I explored many options. “Hog panels” looked good, but the only ones available in the area were very large and very costly. Someone suggested a dog kennel and even sent me to Costco in search of one that seemed like a good deal. But they were out of stock and I was running out of time. I needed the chickens out of the shed before I headed south for a few days on personal business.

Gardening with a Backhoe
Jeff cleared a space for my shed and garden and left a pile of bunchgrass and weeds in the area just north of the garden patch.

Covering Conduit
After he moved my shed and dug a trench, I ran conduit for my temporary electric and water lines to keep them off the driveway and he covered it back up.

Meanwhile, Jeff, the earth-moving guy, was preparing the pad for my future home. He had a honking huge backhoe and an i-beam that he used to scrape the ground. I wanted a garden and I wanted my shed moved to the other side of the driveway. (Originally, I figured I’d sell the shed when my building was done, but I realized it would make a great place to store garden tools so I decided to keep it.) I realized that Jeff could give me a good head start on my garden prep with that i-beam and I set him to work on a small area near where I wanted the shed. He dug out the few sagebrush there and scraped the ground clear of bunchgrass, leaving it piled up in an area north of the garden. He even dragged my shed to its new position — it was built on skids — and got it level for me. And dug a trench so I could run power and water for my RV and shed under the driveway so the cords and hose would not be run over by construction vehicles this summer.

When he left, I looked at my future garden location and the spread-out, uprooted bunchgrass beside it. The chickens wouldn’t mind all that grass. And it would be nice to have them next to the garden so I could let them in to eat bugs. Without even intending to, Jeff had chosen the spot for my chicken yard.

I wound up buying 150 feet of 5-foot tall “horse fence” at the nearby Coastal Farm and Ranch store. I wanted 6-foot fencing so I’d have plenty of room to walk around under the net, but this was on sale for a good price and it’s not as if I’ll be hanging out in there with the chickens. I also bought a few 6-foot T-posts. I already had a T-post driver and a bunch more T-posts that a friend had given me.

But I began realizing that I’d have a problem when I got the roll of fence home. It was too heavy for me to lift. I couldn’t even push it out of the truck bed. Clearly, I’d need help.

Assembling the Fence

Help came in the form of my friend, Mike. He’d come up from California with his helicopter towed behind his motorhome. After dropping off the helicopter at the airport, he rolled down my driveway and greeted me with a big hug.

Fence Under Construction
Some of the T-posts in the ground around the future chicken yard; the roll of fencing was very heavy.

After getting a tour of the place — building pad, “lookout point,” apiary, chicks in shed — we talked about the things I needed to do. I mentioned the chicken yard and the fence, never even thinking about asking him for help. That’s when he offered to help me.

I’m not an idiot. When someone offers to help me with a difficult task, I say yes! We got to work right then and there.

The work went surprisingly well. Within about 2 hours, we had completely fenced in a 9 x 25 foot area beside my future garden, leaving only a 4-foot wide doorway for a gate. Although it wasn’t perfect, it was a lot better than I expected it to look.

Chicken Yard
The nearly finished chicken yard.

Finishing Up. Almost.

The next day, I bought some bird netting at Coastal. Although it was supposedly 14 x 45 feet in size, the 14 foot width could not span the 9 foot width of the chicken yard. (What was that all about?) But with a little creative cutting and attaching, I was able to fit three pieces across to protect the chickens from aerial predators.

The next morning was warm and sunny with hardly any wind. I decided to try out the chickens in their new yard — I really needed to get them settled in before I went on my trip. I dragged the stock tank out of the shed and into the chicken yard. I closed the makeshift gate I’d made behind me. And then I tilted the stock tank so it was laying on its side, thus freeing the chicks.

They were not happy. And Penny, of course, went nuts. She couldn’t get into the chicken yard and she wanted a piece of those chickens. The chickens ran around and Penny ran around the yard. And that’s when the chickens started squeezing through the fence.

What followed was a comedy routine that involved me and Penny chasing 3-week old chicks. Penny was good at catching them and, for some reason, she didn’t kill them. I managed to get them all back in the stock tank. After putting food and water in there, I went back into the RV, hot, sweaty, and dusty.

The chicks would not be much bigger before I headed out on my trip. That meant that if I wanted them in the yard, I’d have to put something around the bottom edge of the fence to prevent them from squeezing through. What? I had some chicken wire, but I’d bought 4-foot width and that was overkill. It looked as if I’d have to head back to Coastal for some more chicken wire.

Reuse, Recycle

I was back out in the yard, contemplating the situation, when my eyes fell upon the 22 bales of straw I had in two piles in my yard. I’d bought the straw the previous autumn to stack around the base of the RV to winterize it. When I moved the RV out for my California trip in February, I’d stacked the straw neatly to get it out of the way.

If I laid the straw around the base of the chicken yard, right up against the fence, would that prevent the chickens from getting out? It certainly seemed as if it would.

8 WD
Although I bought this little flatbed trailer — a Craig’s List deal — primarily to move my bees around in the future, its size and low bed make it perfect for moving my ATV and straw bales.

So I got to work. I’d brought my ATV home, along with the little cargo trailer I’d bought years ago for yard work up at our vacation property in northern Arizona. The cargo trailer’s tires had been replaced and it was all ready for use. But last week I’d also bought a very small flatbed trailer that was larger than the ATV’s yard trailer. With a ball on the front of my ATV for towing the helicopter, I could tow the little flatbed trailer. It would be perfect for moving all that straw.

A formerly wise man used to say that any job is easy if you have the right tools. How true. I had the straw moved and positioned in less than an hour.

I was thrilled. My solution solved more than just the chicken escape problem. It also temporarily solved the problem of what I was going to do with all that straw.

A while later, I tried again to let the chickens out into the yard. This time, they didn’t escape.

Chicken Yard
The chicken yard this morning. I haven’t done a headcount, but I’m pretty sure all eight of my little girls are in there.

Temporary Coop
The temporary chicken coop is nothing more than a stock tank on its side with a piece of scrap plywood as a lean-to wall.

I set up an automatic waterer that I think might be a bit too big for them. Then I set up their chick feeders and waterer. I left the stock tank on its side against the side of the fence as a makeshift shelter for them; later, I leaned a piece of scrap plywood against it to enclose most of it. My list of things to do includes building a chicken coop, but I’m not sure I’ll get to that before my trip. The chicks are still small and should be okay in the stock tank, at least for a few more weeks.

The sun has just risen as I’m tying this. Seeing movement out the window, I took a closer look. The chicks are out in their little yard, scratching around in the early morning light. They’re exploring their big automatic waterer and, with luck, will soon be using their hanging feeder, too.

It looks like I’m on the road to chicken success. More later, after I’ve built their coop.

Penny, the Frequent Flyer Dog

A look at how Penny the Tiny Dog has accrued airline miles since September 2012.

Frequent Flyer Dog
Penny waits near the gate for a recent flight, chewing a bone in her travel bag.

One of the best things about having a tiny dog is just how easy she is to travel with. Indeed, Penny has been with me on almost every single trip I’ve taken since I brought her into my life on June 27, 2012.

Think I’m kidding? Here’s a quick look at the trips Penny and I have taken together since September 2012. This is just airliner flights and doesn’t include the helicopter and small plane flights we’ve done together, like the trips to Winslow, Williams, Page, Phoenix, Tucson, Lake Havasu, Flagstaff, the Grand Canyon, Georgetown (CA), Woodland (CA), Quincy (WA), Wenatchee (WA), and other places.

I’ll update this periodically so I have a permanent record of her frequent flyer status.

Date Departure Destination Miles
9/15/2012 Wenatchee Seattle 98
9/15/2012 Seattle Phoenix 1,106
11/12/2012 Phoenix Seattle 1,106
11/12/2012 Seattle Wenatchee 98
11/21/2012 Phoenix Sacramento 647
11/28/2012 Sacramento Phoenix 647
12/16/2013 Phoenix Dallas Ft. Worth 752
12/16/2012 Dallas Ft. Worth Jacksonville 796
12/30/2012 Jacksonville Dallas Ft. Worth 796
12/30/2012 Dallas Ft. Worth Phoenix 752
1/30/2013 Phoenix Seattle 1,106
1/30/2013 Seattle Wenatchee 98
2/6/2013 Wenatchee Seattle 98
2/6/2013 Seattle Phoenix 1,106
2/21/2013 Sacramento Phoenix 647
3/5/2013 Sacramento Las Vegas 345
3/7/2013 Las Vegas Sacramento 345
3/10/2013 Sacramento Phoenix 1,106
3/18/2013 Phoenix Sacramento 1,106
3/27/2013 Sacramento Phoenix 647
4/10/2013 Phoenix Sacramento 647
4/23/2013 Wenatchee Seattle 98
4/23/2013 Seattle Phoenix 1,106
4/26/2013 Phoenix Sacramento 647
5/6/2013 Wenatchee Seattle 98
5/6/2013 Seattle Phoenix 1,106
10/22/2013 Wenatchee Seattle 98
10/22/2013 Seattle Newark 2,394
10/29/2013 Newark Seattle 2,394
10/29/2013 Seattle Wenatchee 98
2/16/2014 Sacramento San Francisco 86
2/16/2014 San Francisco Santa Barbara 262
2/19/2014 Santa Barbara Seattle 907
2/19/2014 Seattle Wenatchee 98
4/21/2014 Wenatchee Seattle 98
4/21/2014 Seattle Sacramento 605
1/26/2015 Wenatchee Seattle 98
1/26/2015 Seattle Phoenix 1,106
2/11/2015 Phoenix Seattle 1,106
2/11/2015 Seattle Wenatchee 98
2/25/2015 Sacramento Seattle 605
2/25/2015 Seattle Wenatchee 98
Total Airline Miles   27,256

Too bad I can’t get her on a frequent flyer plan.

My Desert Dogs

A bit about my Arizona dogs.

I’ve had dogs almost my entire life and four of them have lived with me in Arizona’s Sonoran desert.

Spot and me in front of my old house in New Jersey. Spot didn’t really like the desert much.

The first was Spot or “Country Squire Rorschach,” a Dalmatian that I got for my birthday years ago when I lived in New Jersey. Spot was getting on in years by the time I moved to Arizona and he wasn’t the brightest bulb on the tree. He never quite understood the importance of finding and standing in shade on hot days. I took him hiking out in the desert just once with me and I thought he would die of heat stroke by the time we got back. I have a photo somewhere of him standing by a big saguaro cactus, but I can’t seem to find it right now; if I do, I’ll post it here.

Next came Jack the Dog, a Border Collie/Australian Shephard Mix. My soon-to-be ex-husband and I adopted him from the local shelter about a year after Spot died. He proved to be an excellent hiking and horseback riding companion. He liked going out on horseback rides so much, that he once followed two friends of ours when we let them ride our horses without us. He was a true “desert dog,” spending most of his time loose in the backyard, overseeing the scant traffic on the road that led to our house and barking at any vehicle that didn’t belong. When he was forced to spend time in Phoenix, in the tiny condo my husband had bought, we did what we could to get him out and about on long walks. But I know he was happiest at home and on the 40 acres of ranch land we owned near the Grand Canyon.

Jack at Howard Mesa
Jack the Dog taking in the view at our Howard Mesa property in northern Arizona.

Charlie on a Rock
It’s hard to believe that this photo was shot only a year ago, when my soon-to-be ex-husband and I were on a hike out in the desert behind our house. He’s taken Charlie from me; all I have left of him are photos and memories.

Charlie came about a year after Jack’s demise. My husband and I had gone to an adoption event in Phoenix, feeling ready to bring home a new dog. After taking two unsuitable dogs for short trial walks, I spotted Charlie, wet from a dog wash and looking pretty ragged. We took him out for a walk — against his will, I might add — and decided to make him ours. It’s unfortunate that he spent most of his time at that damn Phoenix condo, but when I was with him there, I took him to various Phoenix dog parks so he could run free with the other dogs. We also played catch daily with tennis balls at the condo’s unused tennis courts. Like Jack, he was happiest in Wickenburg, though, roaming around the yard or accompanying us on Jeep rides or hikes in the desert. The horses were gone by then, but I sure think he would have liked accompanying us on rides. It saddens me to think of his current life with my husband in Phoenix and Scottsdale, in walled-in yards and boarding facilities. A dog like Charlie needs to roam free.

Penny on a Rock
I shot this photo of Penny just the other day — on the same rock I’d shot the above photo of Charlie on the year before. She’s hard to take photos of; she just won’t sit still!

I got Penny the Tiny Dog in Quincy, WA near the end of June, 2012 as a foster dog. I missed Charlie terribly — he had become an important part of my life during the long days I was stuck at the Phoenix condo the previous winter. Although my husband and I had been talking about him and Charlie spending the summer with me in Washington, my husband had gone silent (again). Still, for some dumb reason, I had high hopes of them arriving, perhaps on my birthday at month-end. I really looked forward to seeing Charlie and Penny playing together — Charlie loved playing with our neighbor’s Chihuahua in Phoenix. But three days after I got Penny, I got the birthday call from my husband asking for a divorce. Penny has been a huge comfort to me since then — I officially adopted her only two weeks later. She travels almost everywhere with me — even in the helicopter and on airlines — and, like Jack and Charlie before her, loves hiking out in the desert. She’s outside now, as I type this, walking along the top of the short wall around the backyard, looking for lizards on the hillside below her.

My days in the Arizona desert are numbered now — when the divorce winds up, I’ll finally be on my way with Penny. Although I’ll miss the hiking and Jeeping here, I know there are new adventures ahead of us — in other deserts and in canyons and forests and along rivers. Penny and I are both up to the challenge.