Chicken Run: Murder, Mishaps and Magic 6 Weeks House Sitting in Portland

January 2016

Laying on my back in pile of chicken poo wasn’t my idea of fun. Chasing a runaway dog through a wood wasn’t our idea of fun. Three power cuts in less than 2 days, leaving us without water, heating and lighting wasn’t our idea of fun. A month of record rainfall wasn’t our idea of fun. Despite these mishaps and the odd murder (of the chicken variety) we had a blast in Portland, loving every minute of it. 

We had a secured a six week house sit on a small farm 35 minutes from downtown Portland. Sat amongst 13 acres this was home for Christmas. Our charges were a super cute pup called Chewy, two adorable cats, Luke & Leia and 48 chickens. Yep, Star Wars inspired. Adding to the excitement, both daughters would be coming for a visit. It had been nine months since we had seen Lauren and Katherine. Being in touch daily helped bridge the kilometres, but seeing them in flesh again would be a huge highlight.

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We arrived three days prior to Kat, Anthony and eight-month old Ethan jetting off to warmer climes. We learned the ropes and helped to put the finishing touches to a mobile chicken coop for the young chicks.

The six older chickens were a breeze, but the young ones were a challenge! Come dusk we would have to try and catch them and put them to bed. There had to be an easier way than scrabbling around on all fours with a large rake under the coop. Turns out there was. All we had to do was wait until it was properly dark and they take themselves off to bed. Who knew younger chicks liked to stay up later than the old hens.

The persistent rain had turned the garden into quagmire, still, somebody needed to close up the coop. One minute I was walking along, the next I was laid on my back in a pile of chicken poo looking at the stars. There was not one ounce of sympathy as I squelched back into the house.

On our second night, Chewy’s whimpering woke us in the early hours. Lit by moonlight, a small gang of elk munched the grass right outside our bedroom window.  An eerie sight.

We walked Chewy around the back lanes with babbling streams, moss covered woods, a small waterfall, dozens of peacocks and the distant sound of automatic gunfire. Some of the wooded areas on the roadsides had signs stating ‘no shooting, land inhabited’.  Quite unnerving for us Kiwis.

Around 10.30pm most evenings, we would hear coyotes howling. We had been warned by Kat not to let Chewy off the lead whilst walking. She’s a bite-size snack for a couple of hungry coyotes. 

Chewy often had other ideas. One particular morning whilst I was tending to the chickens and Julie was watching Chewy answer the call of nature, there was a coyote howl in the distance.  Quickly followed by Chewy barking and Julie hollering. Chewy had taken off in the direction of the howling determined to let them know who was boss. I ran as fast as my gum boots would carry me, hurtling down the sloped garden, through the swampy bit at the bottom and charged into the woods. Despite our frantic calling Chewy continued on her coyote mission. Thankfully the thicket became so dense that she couldn’t squeeze through and we managed to catch her before she could give those darn coyotes what for. From that moment on, Chewy’s calls of nature were always at the end of a lead.

We weren’t so lucky with the chickens. There were two runs to take care of both with portable electric fences. The larger one with six adult chickens, then a smaller run with 42 teenage chicks. And may I add, not a single egg in sight. All was going well until a local hawk decided that chicken buffet at Walkabout Farm was too good to pass up. We found one of the adult birds dead with a big rip in the side of its neck late one afternoon. Then a couple of days later the younger birds started to be attacked. We did run some string across the top of the small run but that did little to act as deterrent. After we lost the third chick in a couple of days, drastic action was needed. At this rate, there would be no chickens left when Kat and Anthony returned. With the help of Mr Google and $20 worth of deer netting we managed to cover the whole run and bring an end to the takeaway service.

Christmas eve and right on cue the snow started to fall. Like a magical picture perfect Christmas card, the farm was blanketed in white.  Unfortunately, it didn't hang around for Christmas Day but did return with vengeance two days later. This time we had enough snow for Katherine to build her very first snowman, keeping us snowed in for a couple of days. We also had several power cuts.

One power cut lasted several hours so a neighbour kindly offered a spare generator. At least we would be able to keep the food laden freezers in the garage going. Now, Jim had a 4x4 in his drive but insisted that we take the owners' Prius down his snow covered driveway to collect the generator. Well, it went down the drive OK, but….. Let's just say a 2 minute job took best part of 40 minutes and needed the help of Jim’s tractor (he had been hiding it in the garage) to tow me backwards up the drive and across the road.

One of the great things about having the girls over was that we got to explore Portland’s funky neighbourhoods. Like Hawthorne with its collection of vintage clothes shops, the favourite being House of Vintage. In Mississippi, we stopped by to see two guys we met at Burning Man, both working at the chilled Stormbreaker Brewery. An amazing vegan bakery at NE Alberta caught our taste-buds with to-die-for apple pies.

The upmarket Pearl District is home to Salt & Straw with the best ice cream flavours we had ever tasted. Pearl is also home to the second largest bookstore in the world. Powell’s Books covers an entire city block with close to a million books over three floors. The girls managed to spend hours sifting through the shelves. For somebody travelling light, Julie came out with an armful of books.

In Old Town, Lauren was in heaven at a store dedicated to all things horse riding. The top floor dedicated to saddles of all shapes and sizes. Around the corner is Voodoo Doughnuts, a sugary institution in Portland, with its creative array of doughnuts.

Something was needed to burn off the calories from the doughnuts and ice creams.  Donning our hiking boots we set off to tackle the ‘4 T’s’ walk, Trail, Tram, Trolley and Train. This 2.5-mile walk (we doubled it by not starting at the right place, doh) takes you past the zoo, through a wood, up to the highest point in Portland and then down to the riverside courtesy of a quick 3-minute aerial tram ride.

Portland is a food and beer mecca. There are 58 breweries, with Stormbreaker, Deschutes and Rogue three top choices. The city also boxes above its weight with an array of vegan and vegetarian restaurants, Harlow and Prasad being top notch. And then, there’s the food carts, literally hundreds of them covering all types of cuisine.

But not everybody in Oregon is lucky enough to know where their next meal is coming from. Close to 270,000 people including 92,000 children need the help of emergency food boxes. To give back to the community we volunteered for several shifts at the Oregon Food Bank. The shifts ranged from sorting food donated at food drives, to bagging 2lb bags of oats, bagging frozen veggies and sorting through perishable items donated by supermarkets.

We also crammed in another visit to Columbia River Gorge with friends Rick, Paul and Lauren, a visit to the Catholic Christmas Grotto, another great catch up with Chester at Oswego Grill, the Winter Lights Festival, a visit to the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, a nose around the 18th century Pittock Mansion and a Patti Smith concert with Katherine. Busy busy.

Even with our mishaps, we had an awesome time in Portland, It’s a vibrant bustling city with so much to offer. Having the girls over to share in our experiences was the perfect Christmas present. Miss them so much, the only downside to long term travelling. Taking care of Kat and Anthony’s small farm was a blast, all the animals left a huge impression on us. They also gave us food for thought on what we could do when we hang up our travelling boots.

Apart from a couple of days in snowy Boston on route to Europe, our time in the USA had come to end. We met some inspirational people during the last 6 months and shared some fabulous experiences, especially in the National Parks. But, it was a new year and time for a new continent. 


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