Monday, April 6, 2009

Heckuva Start to the Season

We loaded up the sled at the top of the hill near the folks' new house, and headed out on the the freshly groomed snowmobile trail, and I knew we had some trouble as soon as we hit the first soft spot.

Jack and Julie don't have any trouble pulling what amounts to their own weight or even more, on a trail, or even through a foot of snow, unless their feet start breaking through the frozen surface into the mud, and where there's running water from springs and creeks, or swampy areas where there's standing water in mossy soil. Even long after freeze-up, that "post-holing" can be real hard on them when pulling a load. Likewise in the spring, when water starts to run under a frozen trail that's thawing, it can get dangerous for the horses the same way.

I could see right away that there were such spots, but what I didn't know was that where we were headed, the power company had been out rooting around all summer with their big trucks and heavy equipment in the cedar swamp, clearing the right-of-way and installing poles on the power-line, and I had no idea that there was a snow-covered section of rutted-up mud that was completely un-frozen.

When the rear set of runners sank down in the mud, the reach broke, which is the connector between the front and rear set of runners. The journey continued past that point only because the runners and the bunks on top of them are loosely connected by the hay rack itself. When we got to the top of the hill about a hundred yards from home, the swing-bunk split out and the whole front end of the running-gear came out. The front end of the hay rack, with its whole load of people dropped down in the snow. I jumped down off the driver's seat which I suddenly had to leave, jumping over the foot-board, down onto the trail to follow the team, turn and stop them on the side of the trail.

As I began un-hitching them from the eveners, tongue and yoke, I announced the end of the ride to the passengers, who scurried down the trail and declined the offer of campfire and cocoa which awaited them on the way to their van. I had rides scheduled for the next Tuesday and Thursday, but I knew that this was a major repair that would be required, so I canceled the Tuesday rides right away.

First there was a little excursion with the welcome help of Grant (who seemed to be a glutton for such punishment) and the ever-available-when-needed-most dear Solveig to jack up the rack and lash the broken bunk to the stringers under the rack. We tried pulling the empty sled home with two snow machines hitched like horses, but the tracks on those just spun. I went out and pulled it in with the team next day. I dug up the 25 year-old 6X6 white oak timbers I had still covered with a plastic tarp and a foot and a half of snow already at home. I hewed out a new tapered swing-bunk five feet long to fit up with the bearing-plate and four 1-1/2 inch pegs with through-bolts, as well as a new 3x6"x 4' reach. The reach had to be notched, bolted and glued at a right angle onto the roller, also made of wood, which holds the rear runners 4' apart and is fastened to the runners by means of a 3/4"x 10" pin with a hole drifted out in the end of it for a keeper-bolt which goes through the roller. I built the new reach first, using the old pieces of the broken one for a pattern, and that took a couple of eight-hour days. As the repairs progressed, I saw that I needed to cancel the two or three rides already booked for Thursday evening. That cost money, as well as the time and materials the repairs cost.

Christmas Eve, a day I had planned to take off, came and went with work in and out of the Cascade garage. Christmas Day, I made the campfire in time to put the kingpin which had a bend in it from the accident in there to soak while I tracked the trail down with a snow machine. The kingpin is a 1-1/8"x 10" steel pin upon which the swing-bunk swivels as the runners and beam turn beneath them. Everything was ready, and I was able to drop the rack back down on the running gear at five minutes after four. Then I realized I had forgotten to notch out the swing-bunk for passage of the pins that stick up from the runner-knees. So I crawled underneath the rack, and standing both myself and the chainsaw on our heads, I was able to cut the notches out. By 4:30, I was ready to hitch the team, get the cocoa, and maybe a bite to eat before a full schedule of three Christmas night rides.
(You can read some more of this gripping narrative if you want to, but you'll probably have to wait until I write it in my next post)

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Nothing Like Sleigh Rides

Yep, there's nothing like a hundred sleigh rides or so to get a team of horses in the groove. It just gives them a good routine. Jack and Julie performed beyond my expectations throughout an easier- and harder-than-usual season. Easier in terms of the location and organization, harder in terms of weather and conditions, and talk about breakdowns, wouldja!?

First ride of the year, on December 20th, with the down-through-the woods section of the trail not yet sufficiently widened, we went out on the power line (which was cleared, but bumpy, very wet, with some stumps and logs and rocks scattered about) even with eight inches of snow on top of a month of frost (should have been a foot of frozen ground there--it was everywhere else), with fifteen people from Bluefin Bay, to break the trail. You might be able to chalk this one up to lack of preparation. Maybe I should have gone out with the empty sled and tracked the trail down the day before, so that it could freeze down at night and all, but because of, and perhaps in spite of the fact that I didn't leave myself enough prep time, the first disaster of the season occurred.

The beginning of the season is always just as tentative and hard to schedule as the end. My usual rule, based on years of experience, is that I have to have 12 inches of snow accumulation to cushion the uneven ground on any unimproved woodland trail to permit the passage of horse and sleigh. On this day, we'd had a total of eight. The real busy season for sleigh rides here centers and is pretty much limited to the twelve days of Christmas. If you can't go out then, there'll only be a few riders (which are primarily daytime skiers here) later, when it's colder (and the snow is deeper maybe).

We rushed to get the sleigh ready with a tail-light wired on for visibility on the snowmobile trail I was borrowing, and all the other loose ends that needed tying up, with the help of Dale Jackson, the main(tenance) man at Cascade Lodge, who upon the horses' arrival, was with Michael O'Phelan, Cascade's Owner, nailing the sheathing on the barn (my heroes!) Sally from LTTA, the Lutsen Tofte Tourism Agency, the entity who booked my rides and paid me to do them, dropped off some lap blankets. I sent a new friend (that would be Grant who I had met the day before at North House) down to the restaurant to do the impossible task of walking up the hill with a five gallon Igloo cooler full of hot cocoa, I turned the sleigh around and drove up the steep hill, we loaded the folks on board, and off we went.

This story continues after I go feed the horses, maybe, or soon thereafter.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Jack is a Star, continued...

So Jack had been to visit the Amish folks in Neillsville, Wisconsin last winter. and when Solveig finally got me talked into driving him this fall, he and Julie ran into the woods the first time we tried switching Julie to the left side, which freaked her out as much as Jack. She’d always worked on the right side of Bessie before. Luckily that time they didn’t break anything, but boy I tell you what, that’s when I’ll have my first heart attack. I hate the runaways.

Then over to Donny’s, who lives across and down the road a quarter mile from the pasture at Betsy’s. We put in a few two-hour sessions, driving the new team (not far) down the road, with local motor traffic alerted to the potential for disaster, and with the Fearless Finlander (who’s never worked with horses before) holding their halters when I hooked up logs, we managed to get a few drags out each day. However, one day when I set the lines down to hook a log up they took off in spite of Donny’s steadfast halter-holding, and ran across the landing. Thankfully they went on either side of a spruce stout enough to stop them, exploding the team lines into four pieces, stopping when they hit the eveners. At least I didn’t have to run all the way home to Betsy’s. This time they got a spankin’. I tied them to a tree in their accustomed parking place and drove home, an hour round trip, to get the new set of lines I got with the harness, but never used. Then we made a couple more drags before taking them home. That’s about all I got done with them before they had to go to Cascade for sleigh rides.

The ground had frozen about a foot deep, and it waited long enough (the middle of December) before it started to snow. I got the sleigh loaded and hauled on the flatbed, went back and got the team (it’s only five miles down the hill from Betsy’s to Cascade) hauled down and fenced in just before dark. It snowed a lot the next day, my lucky day, getting the team hauled the day before the roads were no longer dry.
Something else had to go wrong since the hauling didn’t, and this time it was the horses. It was dark and they wouldn’t settle. Usually a couple-three hours is enough so you you know they’ll stay in a new enclosure, so long as they aren’t alone. Even though I walked them around and showed them the wire when I turned them loose in there, they kept looking over to the West like they wanted out there. Then when I was standing by the gate, also on the west side, Julie of all people, who should be better at this, came right toward me, stretching the gate wire across her chest. I slapped her lips with the gloves in my hand, and she backed off. I had hoped to head home before that happened, but it was looking more and more like I’d have to stay there and make sure to catch them before they got to the highway, even if I had to sleep in the pickup. Jack just kept standing in the northwest corner looking like he wanted to check out the west fourty.
I humbly took my hat in my hand and asked if I could pitch my sleeping bag (which I had fortuitously forgotten in the cab last summer) on the floor of the proprietor’s home. Michael and Maureen, who had formerly been my mere acquaintances, invited me in and gave me their homebrew to take the edge off, while I rose occasionally to look out the window or step out onto the deck and see if the horses had made their break. I slept in the lower level room of one of the daughters, where I could sneak out and water and check on them, which I did at 1:30 and 4:30 A.M. without incident... and so did they finally settle there on the lovely banks of a feeder stream near the mouth of the great Cascade River, for their winter of hauling tourists around. (To Be Continued again...)

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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Jack is a Star

Fast forward through something like 75 sleigh rides at Cascade Lodge for the Lutsen Tofte Tourism Association (office in Tofte). I'll have to do a total count when the season ends. Everything about it has been great, especially the ponies, except that the sleigh has broken down majorly three times, causing me to cancel a total of 17 rides already booked, and a few more than the usual for cold weather. The first ride of the season, we attempted to go out in eight inches of snow, in spite of my admonition that I had to have twelve on the ground. The season had arrived, the people were signed up. We'd had three or four weeks of cold weather, probably a foot of frost in the ground, and I figured we'd be O.K.

Well, we weren't exactly going to be O.K. (at least not in the usual sense of the abbreviation.) There was the usual last-minute scramble getting the sleigh and horses delivered, the shelter for the team framed up and sheeted by Michael and Dale just as Jack and Julie arrived at three in the afternoon, two hours before dark.
Dale jumped off the barn project and helped me string wire and hang insulators. What do you mean, "How come I didn't do that before I brought the horses..." I got the team unloaded, brought them into their winter yard, and led them all the way around the fence. Last winter, Jack stayed at the Amish farm in Wisconsin last winter for about five weeks with a bunch of other horses, but since I bought him in '01, he'd never been anywhere but Betsy's. Julie had been to Bloomington camping with Bess and stayed and worked by the Lutsen Golf Course like three winters before. (In my usual serially interrupted fashion, I shall continue this narrative forthwith.)

Monday, December 8, 2008

Jack Doesn't Seem to Know Jack

I'm a little disappointed, because now after two harrowing sessions and two or three skidding sessions with Solveig, and now two sessions with Donny Lehto (admittedly just a couple of hours each time) it's just now that I feel like Jack is driving well enough not to think he's gonna screw up and wreck something. He really doesn't seem to like standing still (do they ever?). I'm mostly disappointed in the job of starting him that that Amishman in Wisconsin seems to have (not) done when he had him down there last winter for a month. That wasn't really worth $350.00 that time, I don't think.

Thanks to Donny Lehto, we just had a couple of blow-ups with Jack going forward ten feet before he decided to quit. Today he managed to turn around the tree we had him tied to, and bend the forecart tongue quite badly. I really couldn't be working him without help yet. I'm just so glad that Donny was willing to help me skid the wood on his own project. He gets to have it done (until it goes better) for free, but it helps me out getting Jack trained.

They really drive pretty well down the road, though. I think they'll do alright on the sleigh, and I really like the sense of control you have when you teach them to stop and start and stop and stand and get around and get over and come back and stand and start like they have to while skidding.

It all just reminds me how much of what a horse is worth is what he knows...and he doesn't know Jack until somebody hitches him up and drives him.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Omos Weddy Go?

(Almost ready to go?) --That's what my tiny son Charlie used to say when he was waiting for Marce and me to get organized to go somewhere. Preparation seems like half the trip some days. I'll be hauling the last horse trailer load of hay from Bloomquist's today. Young Kostya, Charlie's adopted Russian brother, plans to work with me and Jack and Julie this weekend over at Donny's. We might cut up the two deer down at Parents' in Shroeder tonight. All the hay is in at Cascade Lodge, around 170 small round bales. We just need some snow now...It has been nice for getting those 700 bales or so out of there with the balding tires on my pickup--not having snow yet, that is.
The ground froze up good, so I could get in across the field to where the hay-piles were in the woods, out of the wind. The lean-to tarp shelter at the farm is full--50' x 14.'

Handling all that hay makes me cough. Should be fun logging--and good for Jack and Julie getting ready for sleighrides. And that's a Beautyway to Go.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Back to Sleigh Rides

Professionally speaking, I haven't been up to much, except for skidding logs a couple of days with Jack, Julie, and dear Solveig, getting the hoss trailer stuck in the mud out at Bloomquist's going after hay. Thanks to Darrin B. for pulling me out with his skidder. Broke a piece off of the coupler that money can't buy, when I jackknifed the trailer. I need new tires on everything. It got cold finally, and now I'm running around mid-day when I'm not sitting and waiting for the deer to show up, trenching wires in at the farm and pounding posts at Cascade.

That's where we're hoping to do sleigh rides out on an old ski trail and back along the power line. I'll be keeping the horses up by the new house and garage up the hill a little from the Lodge. Lutsen Tofte Tourism Association is taking over booking of the rides and hiring me and my team. But first I hope to get Donny Lehto's trees skidded next door to the farm. Plenty to do...