Jessica Marie

Frosty the Snowvan

When I realized that Rover wasn’t the van for me, I quickly set my sights on a replacement. After all, cramming five dogs into the back of a Mercury Mariner in the dead of summer is not sustainable.

Enter the Ford Transit Connect (XLT Premium, but who cares). I had ruled them out as being too small when I started my initial van hunt, but my needs have shifted. I spent a few weeks comparing the older and newer models and learned that the 2014 (and later) version has less cargo space. The newer model also looks more like a minivan and less like a mini van, if that makes any sense.

I decided on a 2012 model sold by a Massachusetts Hyundai dealership, aptly in winter blue. I will omit the story of how the van was purchased and delivered because it’s frustrating and boring. On to the pictures! 

Some things worth mentioning:

  • The second-row seats fold forward; I keep one down for Dexter and the others stay folded during travel. If I need to, I'll unfold and use this row as a bed.
  • I had a 2" hitch receiver installed at U-Haul for around $200 ($160 for the hitch and $40 labor).
  • The roof rack was a nightmare to put on, despite being made for this van. Key parts were missing and the instructions were full of typos. Avoid "Rola" racks, for sure.
  • Storage space is ample despite being way smaller than Rover. I've got my emergency road kit, first aid kit, air pump, tool kit, tire chains, hiking pole, plastic basin, and a pile of dog hair stored between the crates. The rear door has a handy pocket that I use for east-access dog gear. There's also a shelf right above the windshield/front-row seats.
  • This sucker gets 27 mph highway, whaaat.

I'm more eager than ever for cold weather to arrive. I have yet to attach the roof cargo box or try loading the dryland cart on the back, so I'm hoping that all goes smoothly. I'm also anticipating that my sled will fit inside the van in a way that's easily managed, but somethings tells me it'll be a challenge.

In the mean time, I need to find a new home for Rover. If anyone is looking for a starter adventure van, check 'er out!

Rover's Retirement

I hate to say it, but my days roaming with Rover are coming to an end. I love this van. It has served me (pretty) well for almost a year now. But in that year, I learned a lot about what I need out of a van—and what I don’t.

The allure of #vanlife may have gotten to me a little more than I’d like to admit. I collected ideas from other van-lifers and I was too ambitious with my setup. The big conversion project, quitting my job, and finding a fully-remote job seemed to imply that I was going to hit the road for the ramblin’ life. Friends were asking, “Where are you going?” or “Where are you now?” Uhhh, home, still.

I’ve always loved a good road trip, but I never intended to live on the road. Furthermore, traveling with five dogs isn’t simple. The van has made it a lot more comfortable, but I’m still limited to traveling during cold-weather. Aside from the risk of overheating, I need cooler temperatures to take them running and tire them out. Otherwise, I’d be rolling with four tightly wound balls of energy, restricted to tie-outs at rest stops and campsites. 

The true purpose of this van is to haul dogs and gear to trails. More than anything, I’ve used this van for day trips. I slept in the bed a grand total of one time. I cooked inside the van a few times, but it’s easier (and safer) to set up the camp stove outside. 

I could do without the cooking desk and use that space for storage. I also don’t need a permanent bed for most of my trips. The ability to roll up and store my bedding would keep it clean and free up more room. Once you take away the 4” thick mattress and interior cooking space, there’s no real reason to have a super high top. As it turns out, there are a lot of bridges and underpasses that Rover can't fit under, especially with the cargo box on top. 

When I bought Rover, I wasn’t planning to relocate to California. There are logistic concerns of getting the van across the country and having it survive the 6,000'+ elevation gains of the San Gabriel mountains, where I plan to live. It’s also unlikely to ever pass California’s emissions.

This year has been all about downsizing and simplifying. I went big out of fear that I wouldn’t have enough room, but now I know how I can condense. Rover taught me exactly what I need out of a van and I don’t regret the purchase one bit. 

After diving back into van research and visiting a cargo van depot, I've landed on the Ford Transit Connect XLT (2010-2013 version). They’re small (as far as vans go), affordable, fuel-efficient (compared to Rover), and from this decade. If it were just me traveling in this van, I’d probably stick to something older and "cooler", but I need something dependable when I’ve got five dogs traveling with me. I’m going to salvage what I can out of Rover’s build and transfer it, so most of the money I put into the conversion will not be wasted. Oh, and if anyone's looking to buy an empty '89 Ford E-150...

Food for Thought

Despite unseasonably cool temperatures, our mushing season has come to an official end, marked by Blitz’s neuter surgery. His recovery is going fine, but it looks like we’re headed into a heat wave next week.

Since I won’t have mushing to talk about for a bit, I've decided to start blogging about some other daily aspects of owning a bunch of athletic dogs. To start, I’m going to answer a pretty common question I get:

“How do you afford to feed so many dogs?”

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Siberian Huskies are remarkably efficient beasts—they were bred to be. My active sled dogs get about two cups of high-quality dry kibble a day. Right now, I’m feeding Annamaet Extra 26%, (a $66.99 40 lb bag lasts about five weeks) which offers "increased fat content making it even more appealing to active dogs, canine athletes, working dogs and bully breeds”. Retired Dexter has been getting various weight-management kibbles because he’s prone to chunkiness. Right now he’s eating Whole Earth Farms Grain-Free Healthy Weight Dry Dog Food. (the 12 lb bag lasts five weeks)

Some of the dogs can be picky eaters, so I usually add a spoonful of canned food to their kibble. I’ll switch this up from month to month to give them more variety since they do seem to get bored with the same thing all the time. I’ll also look for higher fat and protein foods during the season, then switch to regular formulas during the off season.

I’ve been feeding a lot of Nutro Max canned dog food, as it’s priced pretty low (around $16 for 12 cans) while still having good ingredients. The dogs were enjoying it for awhile, but they started to lose interest. This month, the Chewy Influencer program* hooked me up with some free Taste of the Wild canned food. I’ve wanted to try this brand for awhile, admittedly because of the wolf artwork on the cans, but it was pricier (almost $30 for 12 cans) than I wanted to spend for a kibble-topper. 

For nearly double the price of the Nutro cans, I hoped the dogs would really dig into the Taste of the Wild food. So far, I’ve had mixed results. The first feeding at home went over well, probably because they hadn’t been getting any canned food toppers for a day or two. Now that we’re up in Pawling, Denali is back to her usual picky tendencies. I have to watch or Blitz will clean off any uneaten bowl. 

I listed the first five ingredients of each below:

Nutro Max Beef & Rice Dinner: Beef Broth, Beef, Beef Liver, Chicken, Wheat GlutenTaste of the Wild Southwest Canyon Canine Stew (beef): Beef, Beef Broth, Vegetable Broth, Beef Liver, Dried Egg Product

Overall, Taste of the Wild is better if you’re looking for a grain free solution, but my dogs don’t have any dietary issues with grain. Beef as the first ingredient is also better, but overall both are pretty decent options. If your dog can handle wheat and grains, and you’re looking to save some money, I’d go with Nutro. It should also be noted that my dogs rather gnaw on groundhogs or eat garbage, so their taste-testing ability is a little questionable. 

I have Chewy.com auto ships set up, so my paychecks get funneled from my bank account directly into dog food that’s shipped to my door (the paycheck to poop turnaround is remarkable). There are very few stores that offer the brands I buy and I certainly don’t have time to pick up food every month. The total cost isn’t as bad as you might think to feed five mouths—efficient metabolisms combined with auto ship discounts keep things reasonable.

Aside from their morning and evening meals, the dogs get a variety of chews, biscuits, and treats every day. I tend to try something new each month, along with regular ol’ Milkbone dog biscuits and Dentastix before bed. Oh, and they often get bits of raw meat here and there, depending on what I have in the fridge.

After writing all that, it does seem like quite an ordeal. After years of owning multiple dogs, I think I’ve got the process down pretty well. Their annual wellness exams show they’re maintaining healthy weights, shiny coats, clean teeth, and strong muscles. So I must be doing something right.

 
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*I received Taste of the Wild canned dog food free of charge from Chewy.com in an exchange for my honest review.

 

The Great Escape

On Friday afternoon, I got the opportunity live out one of my nightmare scenarios. I wasn't sure I'd write about it, but I decided it's important to show the downside of owning huskies. My posts and Instagram photos paint dog mushing in a pretty positive light, but it's not all beautiful scenery and cute puppies. Before you rush out and buy some sled dogs of your own, you should probably read this.

A few months ago, we got a fence put up at the Pawling house. The yard is large and the ground is rocky and uneven. There's also a lot of gates and decks and tiny spots that needed to be secured. We've kept a close eye on the dogs whenever they're outside, making sure to reinforce any spot that seemed inadequate. And for a time, all was well.

I was off on Friday (work treated me to a 3-day weekend for my birthday), so we slept in while it rained. I finally got up around 11 and let the dogs outside, but they didn't seem interested in being out for long. They came back in, ate, then went back out—all part of their usual routine. I left the back door open so they could come in and out as they pleased. It took about 20 minutes for me to make breakfast, and when I sat down to eat, I thought it was odd that only Dexter was there eyeballing our food.

I called them from the door, but no dogs came running. They don't tend to hang outside when it's raining. I threw on fuzzy boots and a plaid shirt (over my crop top and pajama pants) and walked over to the side of the yard, assuming they were obsessed with some animal they had cornered. But nothing, no dogs.

I checked all their usual hang out spots, but they were nowhere to be found. Now the panic sets in. I couldn't see any obvious breakout point, but I knew they were gone. I ran inside, asked Will to help, and ran out into the woods that surround the back of the house and yard.

A lot went through my mind during the hour or so that they were gone. I also made a lot of weird clothing decisions as I ran back and forth from the house to the woods in the pouring rain. I attempted to have Dexter track them, which he may have been doing, but it's hard to tell with all the peeing and grass eating he did. Will jumped in his van and started checking around the neighborhood.

Now at this point, I'm fully prepared to never see them again. Or at the very least, to not see all four of them again. That was going to be it for me. I'd move away and never get another dog. I had failed them.

Finally, Will called and my cold, wet fingers could barely work the iPhone screen. He saw Willow darting through a pasture. A woman said she saw "all of them" (whatever that meant) around the back of her farm. I just about collapsed with relief, but the details were foggy. He said he'd come grab me if he couldn't wrangle them. I started back to the house with about an inch of water sloshing around my hiking sneakers—no socks, because I couldn't think straight to dress properly.

Luckily—so, so incredibly luckily, he managed to get them all in his van without much trouble. Blitz, Knox, and Denali came right to him. Willow was a little hesitant but came once she recognized Will. Or so I was told. At this point in the story, I'm standing in the house, dripping red hair dye remnants and trying to remember how to breathe.

It took about 15 minutes for him to get back home with the four soggy adventurers because they got that far away. The farm was over a mile from the house, and in the pouring rain, it's unlikely they heard my calls. None of them seemed terribly phased and Willow was eager to go right back outside. Not until we reassess the entire fenceline, of course. We found what we assume was the breakout point, just a small gap that was loosened up with all the rain.

The moral of the story: these dogs fuckin' run. That's why we love them, right? It's worth noting that every one of my dogs has gotten loose at one time or another, but they stayed close or came back when called. They don't really try to escape, except for when an animal is nearby. And since all four of them were together, they had the added confidence to keep on going.

I'm forever impressed by people who have trained their huskies to recall off leash, but I'll never trust it. What happened Friday was enough evidence for me. Please consider your environment and containment plans if you decide to get a husky. I consider myself to be above average (read: neurotic) about my dogs' care. I mean, I've altered my entire career so that I can be around them almost 24/7. And they still got loose. Thankfully, the area around us is primarily woods and farmland, but they very easily could have wandered another direction towards roads. That's a nightmare I hope to never experience.