We Really Do Grow Apples in Southeast Alaska

There are apple trees here and there in Southeast Alaska but when we talk to a fellow Juneau resident, most (except old timers) are surprised to find out we have apple trees in our yard.  If they saw how small our yard is, they’d be really surprised…but I digress.

Some years ago, we planted a couple of Goodland apple trees in the back corner of our front yard.  I know – we’d never heard of that variety either but the tag said they were hardy and we needed something in that corner so we decided to go for it.  You have to have two so they can pollinate each other so we loaded a pair of saplings in the truck and took them home.

Fast forward ten or so years and they are both about ten feet tall and sprout the most beautiful flowers in the spring.

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However, the spruce tree in the neighbor’s yard has been shielding them so they haven’t produced much fruit.  The first year we saw actual fruit, they didn’t get very big and didn’t ripen.  The next year they were oddly deformed and had black spots and checking with our professional apple growing friends in Washington confirmed they had a fungus infection.  We picked the fruit and cleaned up all the leaves and debris around the trees in the fall in hopes of controlling the fungus.

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The next year saw some fruit but that year’s blight was of a furry kind.  I was just about to jump into bed when I saw the trees shaking.  I ran to the window and hollered.  Hubby jumped out of bed, grabbed his bathrobe and big flashlight (yep – a Maglite 3 D Cell is his weapon of choice) and ran out the door to chase off the marauding black bear who decided our trees were his buffet.

Each subsequent year has seen some fruit but the location has gotten too shady with all the trees in the neighbors’ yards so when we came across some apple trees at Costco, I had to buy one to try in our sunnier backyard.  Hubs quickly agreed when he saw it was three varieties grafted onto one tree – Lodi, Zestar, and our favorite, Honeycrisp.  By grafting them, the tree is self-pollinating and the varieties ripen at different times.

We’ve had the tree in our backyard for about 6-8 years now and it’s about 12-15 feet high.  Since he retired, hubby has taken command of the backyard – the “producing” side of the house vs the “pretty” side where I have all flowers and ornamentals.  And he takes the apple tree care quite seriously, giving me regular morning reports on its progress over morning coffee.

One year, he saw the tree shaking and was concerned a small bear was in the yard – even tho they would have to climb a fence or navigate one small opening to get there.  Running out into the yard, he discovered a porcupine attempting to climb the tree.  He got a length of old 2×4 and managed to persuade the porky to move along with a lot of prodding, from a distance!  He chased that waddling porky all the way around the house, thru the pretty side and out of our yard.  And then we waited for him to return – porkies are persistent and will chew a tree down to nothing given half a chance.  We hoped that if he did come back, he’d stop at the Goodland apple trees – figuring they are now the sacrificial apples for bears and other pests.  Fortunately, we’ve not seen him or a bear in the apple trees some years.

The backyard tree kept growing with a little judicious pruning.  The Zestar graft is still there but doesn’t do much – I think the graft is failing – but each year the other two have teased us with a few fruits.

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A couple years ago, we ate some small apples late in the year but last year, it was so cold and rainy all summer, nothing ripened.  We left town in the fall without picking them and returned to find them hanging from the naked branches, frozen.  They looked like Christmas ornaments.

This year we worried from the get go.  It was still quite cold into May when we are typically planting annuals and seeing things green up.  The winter had been harsh – single digit temps with no snow cover meant the ground had frozen deeper than normal and we lost several perennials.  The lawn looked terrible and it seemed like it was forever before things finally leafed out.  Ever the pessimist, hubby’s reports on the garden were invariably gloom and doom.

And then it happened – the second warmest summer in history.  One could even call the days hot and in our backyard, it certainly was.  It collects the afternoon and evening sun and reflects it back to the plants.  The apple tree took off and the daily reports were of the number of blossoms it held.  All summer we watched as the blossoms turned into fruit – way more than we had ever had before.

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And in late August, he couldn’t stand the temptation any longer and started picking some of the Lodi.

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They are the first to ripen and resemble a yellow transparent – great for applesauce, apple butter or similar.  Those first few were still a bit on the tart crunchy side and we only had a few here and there.  We didn’t touch the Honeycrisps but they slowly colored, giving me a lovely view out the window with morning coffee.

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The fall rains came and it absolutely poured several days in a row.  This is normal for September and we wondered if we would actually get fully ripe apples.  When we got a unusual reprieve and the sun came out, we found several Lodi on the ground.  That was it – we had to pick them.  So we had our own Apple Fest. 20180826_135215.jpg

We picked the Lodi, marveling at the ones that “looked almost like real apples” and a group that was so large we had put a support under the branch for fear it would break under the weight.

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All in all, we picked a large overflowing bowl full of the Lodi, checked the Honeys and left them alone.

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The rest of our day was consumed with processing.

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I made Country Apple Fritter Bread in mini pans so hubs could take some on his fishing trip the next day and we could share with my parents.  The Instant Pot was key for making up a quick applesauce.  I asked if we should make chunky or smooth – turns out with the Lodi, smooth was pretty much what we got but it tasted awesome.  I also tried my hand at apple butter, again in the Instant Pot.  One thing to note is that you must simmer it uncovered after the apples are cooked to thicken it to “butter” consistency.  At this point, you will wish you had a screen lid of some kind as that hot sticky apple stuff bubbles hard enough to fly out of the pot!  It was easy to forgive the mess when I jarred up seven half pints of cinnamon appley goodness.

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And now we wait and watch the Honeycrisps, hoping they will ripen in this last stretch of sun….

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Housesitting Perk – Blue Apron Meal Kit Day Three

Our final meal is the one I picked out just for me.  I absolutely love gnocchi so the Brown Butter Gnocchi with Mushrooms and Chard were my first choice for our box.

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This was probably the fastest dish to make and once again, I was in charge.  I’m using that as my excuse for not taking more pictures…please forgive me.  I put water on to boil for the gnocchi, then chopped chard and garlic, sliced the shallot and quartered mushrooms.  As luck would have it, the farmers market had fresh shitakes that week so I added some of those to the mushrooms included in the kit.

The mushrooms are sauted, first alone and. then with the thyme springs.  Then you add the butter and brown it, remove the thyme and saute the rest of the veggies, adding the chard leaves at the end.

The gnocchi cooks quickly and I put hubby in charge of skimming them out when they floated to the top, and putting them in a colander.  Then you stir them into the pan with the veggies and add some pasta water, stirring and adding more of the pasta water until it coated the gnocchi in sauce.  I ultimately added more pasta water than they called for as I wanted to be sure the dish wasn’t too dry.

Plating was simple – put on a dish and garnish with Parmesan cheese.  I had some Parmesan in the fridge so I put that out so it could be added if desired.  Did I mention how much we love cheese?

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The serving size they sent for two people was a quarter pound of fresh gnocchi.  I honestly could not get through this meal.  Gnocchi are very solid bits of pasta and I find I can’t eat much of them.  But it was a good preparation, super fast and reminded me to put more chard in our pasta dishes next year when I’m staring at the bumper crop from our garden.

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This was the end of our meal kit box so we discussed what we liked and didn’t like.  We don’t mind grocery shopping and meal planning, in fact we enjoy it, so having that done for us was not really a big deal.  However, I could certainly see how busy people or those who don’t really like to cook might enjoy it.  There was the opportunity to try some new things like the farro or the fennel spice so that was good.  Cost wise, this was about $20 per meal or $10 per person each night.  That’s not too bad and in fact is reasonable enough that we might be sending a trial to some busy folks for the holidays.  If you don’t have a full collection of spices like we do, it makes it even more affordable since you don’t have to buy a full jar of something just to use a teaspoon of it.  The meals seemed pretty healthy, the fat to calorie ratio was good, but I didn’t use salt every time they said to because we don’t eat much salt.

The real question is whether we would do it again?  If it was available in Alaska, I think we might try it but maybe only every other week or something.  But I have to say that it’s still worth considering when we are down in the lower 48 housesitting since we could vary our meals without having to invest in a bunch of spices – well that and since it will be winter and there will be no farmer’s markets to tempt us.

Housesitter Perk – Blue Apron Meal Kit Day Two

Tonight we dove into the Blue Apron kits for the things to make Ginger Scallion Meatballs and Rice with Bok Choy and Marinated Radishes.  Hubby loves meatballs and I love rice and anything Asian inspired so this meal was an easy choice for us.

He loves to cook so he took care of most of the meal prep, grabbing the dish with all the kit ingredients and finding the ones for this meal and setting to work.  Did I mention that these are “30-minute meals”?  I’d say that’s about a true estimate. Unfortunately, he was so quick, I didn’t get beginning pictures. But here’s the recipe for future reference… Please excuse the glare.

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First step is getting the rice on to cook followed by chopping veggies.  We had bought some watermelon radishes at the farmer’s market so he added some of those in with the three that came in the kit.  The radishes are marinated with vinegar while you cook the rest of the meal. Have you ever marinated radishes? They give off an interesting aroma but trust me, they taste great.

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Then you make meatballs with the ground beef and breadcrumbs, adding in ginger and the whites of the scallions.  It says to make 10-12 meatballs but he thought those were a bit big so we ended up with a bit more than that.

You brown the meatballs, then add bok choy, vinegar, water and a packet labeled “sushi sauce” to the pan, cooking til the bok choy is wilted and the meatballs are done.

He wasn’t going to plate the dish but said I could do it so there was a picture for you – pretty easy with just the rice topped with the meatballs and bok choy mixture, then the marinated radishes and scallion tops for garnish.

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I really liked this dish – it was simple, light and the marinated radishes reminded me of when we make them for banh mi sandwiches.  And since it was meatballs, it was a universal hit.  Again, hubby felt like it needed a small salad on the side, but I was full without that….and no leftovers this time.

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Housesitter Perk – Blue Apron Meal Kit Day One

As promised in my last post, here’s a review of our first meal kit from Blue Apron, a generous gift from one of our homeowners.  For the first meal we are making Fennel Spiced Pork Chops with Fig Compote.

We started by pulling out the recipe card for the pork chops and read through it.  The instructions are very detailed with every step laid out, all the ingredients listed, and pictures.

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We grabbed the meal kit dish and found all the items we needed.  Then we were cooking.  I handled the pork chops and fig compote and hubby handled the side dish – farro with kale “salad”.  There seems to be a lot of kale and other greens used in the kits, at least in the ones we had to choose from, so even though he’s not a big fan, we chose this kit, in large part because of the pork chops and knowing we like fennel.

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The recipe was pretty straightforward.  You start the farro first  as it needs to cook for a bit.  We’d never made farro before and it was interesting that it didn’t say how much water to boil it in so we just made sure the grains were well covered.

Next up, coat the chops with a spice mixture that was in a pouch in the Knick Knack bag, Fry quickly (note that you provide the oil for cooking), remove to a plate and keep warm.  Honestly, I didn’t think the amount of time they allow for cooking the chops – 3 to 4 minutes a side – was sufficient for the center cut thicker chops so I gave them an extra minute or two and used tongs to hold them to brown the edges too.

Making the compote with included figs, vinegar, and sugar was pretty easy – just chopping the figs and letting everything simmer until a bit thick.

Then you add the kale to the pan you cooked the chops in and cook til wilted, then add some water to finish cooking and loosen the brown bits at the bottom of the pan.  Here’s where I took some liberty – rather than adding water, we added white wine because….well….we had some and that’s how we roll.

You finish up by stirring the kale into the farro and adding some creme fraiche, tarragon and vinegar into the farro.  Then you plate and serve.  I really did plate it rather than just having serving it family style, just so we could have the complete experience and so I could take this picture for you.

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We really did enjoy this meal.  I would likely never have used the spice combo they came up with. I’m sure I have the ingredients at home so I will try it again.  As I said, we’ve never had farro and while I liked it because I like hearty grains like barley and such, hubby was not a big fan so I likely won’t go out of my way to make it again.  It also didn’t really seem like a salad – more like a side dish.  Not a big deal for some but we are used to having some sort of salad or a straight vegetable side with our meals so it was different. The fig compote was a big hit.  I make these kinds of things a lot – some fruit, sugar and vinegar and you’re good to go – but figs in Alaska are very seasonal and expensive so this was a treat.  And it wasn’t unreasonable in the calorie and fat counts.

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Oh yes….there were no leftovers.  Good that it’s portion controlled….bad if you want something for lunch the next day as we usually did when we were working full time.

Next up – an Asian styled meatball dish!

I’M PUBLISHED!!!

I have a published article! So exciting!

I am actually a published writer if you count the innumerable articles, blogs, and booklets I wrote for the State of Alaska. And of course I do a little doodling on this blog. But now I have an article published in a magazine. Ok…it’s an online magazine and no money changed hands but those are my words and pictures out there.

If you want to check it out, here is the link…

Housesitter Magazine

A SilverCar Newbie Experience

I read a lot of blogs—everything from home décor to tech info—and travel blogs are near the top of my list due in large part to the amount of traveling we do.  An upcoming trip to the Seattle area was proving to be somewhat expensive given that it was summer time and coincided with the recent solar eclipse.  Finding a reasonably priced rental car seemed to be a pipe dream so when I read a blog about the new SilverCar location in Seattle, I was intrigued.

I knew absolutely nothing about SilverCar because they are only in larger US cities and we hadn’t had occasion to fly into any of those recently.  Reading the article and visiting their website turned up these facts:

  • They rent only silver Audi A4s – hence the name.
  • Reservations may be done online or in their app but for pickup you’ll need the app on your smartphone.
  • The cars are equipped with just about everything you need—navigation, Bluetooth, satellite radio, and wi-fi.
  • The price includes all the extras mentioned above as well as an additional driver.
  • If you return the car without filling up, they will charge you the actual receipt price for gas, plus a $5 fee.
  • If you encounter toll roads in your driving, you’ll be charged just those tolls, without another fee for processing.
  • They are usually off site but will pick you up and drop you back to the airport
  • They frequently have discount codes or you can find a referral code from someone who has rented from them in the past.

I already had a car rental set up and I’d used AutoSlash.com to find a decent deal (AutoSlash will continually check the rental car prices for your trip and notify you when it finds something less expensive).  For $329, we had a Nissan Sentra or similar rented for the five days we were going to be in the city.  I had joined the loyalty club so this included an additional driver.

To try SilverCar, I downloaded the app and set up an account then to test it, I logged in on their website and made my reservation.  The price was $369 after using the 30% discount code I’d found searching online. It was an easy choice to pay a little more for all the included options.

On the day of flight, I checked their website for how to pick up the car in Seattle but as it turned out, I didn’t need to.  I received a text from SilverCar telling me they were expecting me and that we would exit baggage claim to hop on the shuttle to the rental car facility.  At that point, I was to text that we were ready for pick up.  We did as instructed and on the shuttle, I opened the app and clicked on “Pick Me Up”.  This generated a text that said I was ready to be picked up.  Note – I missed that I had to click send on that text, likely because husband was talking to me and it was all new.  But once I got it sent, the reply I got was to proceed to the “Off Site Pickup” area at the rental car facility.  The signage for that area is exceedingly poor—SeaTac needs to do a better job with that—but we found it at the end of the facility where cars can pull in.  On this nice sunny day, it was lovely but on a rainy, windy day, you’ll be grateful for the limited shelter provided.

An Audi A4 pulled up after we’d been waiting about five minutes, but I’ll take the blame since I missed pushing send on the text message.  The driver put our luggage in the car (the trunk easily fit our two 21-inch cases, daypack and tote with room to spare) and asked if we’d mind picking up a third passenger who was also waiting which we of course agreed to.  On the short drive to their lot, he went through some of the car’s features including the navigation and phone menu.  There was a hang tag that showed how to shift the car – unlike the shifter in my truck, it’s a little lever that you push forward for reverse or pull back for drive.

At the facility, another agent asked if he had checked our driver’s licenses and when we said he hadn’t, she scanned them.  I’m not sure if this is because we were first time renters or if this happens every time but it only took a moment.  She told me to open the app and scan the car’s tag, located on the driver’s side windshield.  It would scan but it kept saying that the location services on my phone weren’t active even after turning them off and back on and rescanning but while I was trying that, she was processing it manually so we were ready to drive off in less than five minutes.  She told me to try uninstalling and reinstalling the app when we had a moment as she’d heard that fixed the problem.

I took a moment to check out the car – headlights, wipers, cruise – that stuff you need to know before you set off.  The navigation, phone, radio, backup camera and settings are all handled in a large, bright screen mounted in the center of the dash.  It sticks up above the dash a bit but doesn’t interfere with sight lines while driving.  The one thing we couldn’t figure out was how to turn the radio down or off – it’s a small button on the passenger side of the console – but we asked and then we were off!

I’ve never driven an Audi before but it was quite comfortable – or as comfortable as a smaller car can be for someone used to driving full size trucks.  It has enough pep to easily merge onto the freeway and the road noise was minimal.  The sunroof was a great feature as we’ve had a very cold, wet summer in Alaska this year and it was sunny and warm in Seattle.  As is normal on I-5, we encountered some slowdowns but fortunately we didn’t have any complete standstills until we were off on the side streets hitting traffic lights.  I say fortunately, because the Audi has an automatic feature that turns the engine off when its idling and turns it back on when you release the brake.  I HATED that feature and worked through all the different settings to figure out how to turn it off.  More on that later.

When we reached our destination, I couldn’t figure out how to put it in park. No, really – the shifter has Reverse and Drive and pops back to the middle position after you’ve engaged either one, but I couldn’t find Park.  When I turned the car off, it told me that I needed to put it in Park by stepping on the brake and using the Park button.  There is a lever type button flat on the console with a P on it.  Apparently, that is the Parking brake.  Looking closer, I saw the P button on the front side of the shifter, hit that and we were good to go.  The doors automatically unlock when you put it in Park so you know you’ve done it correctly.  (Not sure how I feel about that feature; my truck unlocks the door only when I pull on the handle and the rest remain locked which seems more secure.)  I can’t tell you how many times I pushed the shifter forward to put the car in Park just as I do in my truck before I’d remember to hit that Park button.

As our time in Seattle progressed, there were things I really appreciated about the car.  The peppy engine was great, it’s small enough to park easily, and it got great gas mileage.  But during a half hour stop and go session in Seattle’s notorious traffic one day, I grew to hate the auto shutdown during idle more and more.  I found a button near the bottom of the dash where you can turn that feature off but every time you turn the car off, it resets to the default of auto shutdown. The navigation is solely voice controlled and I had a heck of a time getting it to recognize the address but that may be just a learning curve on how it likes to hear things.  On the upside, the navigation appears both on the screen and as a heads-up display in the center of the dash in front of the driver.  Hubby could see the navigation to be helpful but I could also see it easily, albeit in a smaller form.   I missed the full set of backup cameras my truck has to show exactly where each corner of the car is in relation to the things around it – especially one night when the only spot left in the parking garage was pretty skinny even for an Audi. And a small thing – there is a trunk button on the key fob but it just unlocks the trunk rather than popping open the lid which is so much handier when you have a handful of shopping or luggage.

When it came time to head back to the SilverCar base, we knew where we were going but they thoughtfully program the address into the Favorites so you can easily find the address.  And they texted me that morning with my expected return time and a note to call their concierge if I needed more time.  Once at the facility, they scanned in the car and we boarded a shuttle bus that took us right to the airport, skipping the rental car facility altogether. It could not have been smoother.  I hope that in the future, they may use this option for pickup as well.  I would rather be picked up in a shuttle and taken straight to their lot than have to shuttle to the rental car facility for pick up.

They emailed me a receipt that matched my reservation and included the gas charge.  We’d purposefully left the tank unfilled to see how well that worked.  It showed the ten gallons they’d pumped at $3.49 per gallon, for a total of $34.90 plus a $5 fee.  We noted the gas prices were less expensive away from the airport so if you are looking to save a few bucks, fill it up yourself.  But if you are in a hurry or don’t want to mess with finding a gas station, this is a great convenience option.

And I guess that sums up my SilverCar experience—they make it as convenient as possible for you to rent a car and include all the options so you don’t get nickel and dimed during your rental.  You know exactly what car you’re getting and it’s a first class drive.  Would I rent from them again?  Absolutely!

If you want to try SilverCar, I’d encourage you to search online for “SilverCar discount code”.  You can also use my referral code, WDNZFLIB, to save $25.  Full disclosure – I’ll save the same on my next rental if you use the code but honestly, I’d rent from them anyway.

Housesitting Perks – A Room with a View

When you housesit, you look at pictures of the home and discuss it with the homeowners but you never really know the whole arrangement until you are there, settling in for the duration of the owner’s vacation. One somewhat regular housesit for us is on Whidbey Island, north of Seattle, Washington. It comes with a funny cat who is rather standoffish initially but wants attention on her schedule – when she jumps up on her bench to be petted and brushed and when the sun is coming up and she thinks it time for breakfast! It also comes with a lovely lagoon front property which is just two blocks off the ocean and huge windows to immerse yourself in the view.

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I truly enjoy watching the world go by on that lagoon with a cup of tea or a glass of wine in hand. There’s the neighbors coming up from their Seattle home for the weekend. It takes them just 45 minutes to run up in their shiny new boat; much faster than driving up and catching the ferry across to the island. The folks across the way got their big catamaran underway for a couple days so we were able to watch him maneuver in and out of his berth in that big craft, a mighty impressive feat. There’s a guy up the way who sets crab pots near the ocean entrance giving us our own ideas about crab fishing. And there are several folks who gets their exercise paddling the lagoon in kayaks.
And then there is the wildlife. In our Juneau, Alaska home, we see all manner of wildlife – eagles nesting behind our house, deer browsing alongside the highway, an occasional coyote behind the local grocery store, whales feeding when we are out fishing, and bears underneath our bedroom window in the middle of the night. Nonetheless, a wildlife sighting is still occasion to stop everything. The first thing you notice on Whidbey is the plethora of deer. They are everywhere and have little fear.

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This momma and her fawns were usually found lunching across the street and paid no attention when we stopped the truck for a picture.

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We saw lots of ducks in the lagoon but this lady mallard came most days to wander on the patio in search of birdseed the doves left behind.

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Then there was this great blue heron who came almost every day to try his fishing luck from the docks in the lagoon.

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On this day, he was having a bad feather day!

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But he managed to get them under control

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Ever wonder what they look like underneath?

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He did a pretty good job of sneaking up on his prey and darting his beak into the water for dinner.

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His dinner looks a little startled!

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And then there was the day hubby came in the house saying “Get your camera quick”. Turns out there were otters on the dock.

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Not only did they wait for me to get the camera but it almost seems they are posing for the pictures.

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So to our homeowners whom we now call friends, thank you so much for sharing your room with a view with us!