Korpijaakko

– my personal views on all walks of outdoor life

Tag Archives: guiding

Winter 2013 wrap up, pt. 1: Woof woof!

The winter is finally over on the Northern hemisphere. To celebrate the winter gone and to make-up some of the quiet time in the blog, I will publish a three-part wrap up of my outdoor activities over the last winter. All the posts will be somewhat photo-heavy and lengthy (this one seems to be around 3000 words) so change your phone to a larger screen, take some time and grab a cup of coffee or tea with some cake to fully enjoy them.

As most of my winter was spent working with furry four-legged friends and guiding husky safaris at Taivalkoski in Northern Finland, it also makes a good topic for the first part of the series.

Home, chilly home

At the verge of the winter I was still supposed to work with snowscooter safaris at Luosto further North. But before heading there I was spending some time at the husky farm at Taivalkoski as my girlfriend N was working there for the season. I had done an internship period at the farm the previous winter and when the owner was faced with a sudden lack of quality guides he asked if I would be able to work there for the season.

Hmm… Living with my girlfriend and guiding long dogsled tours instead of short snowscooter safaris – plus a freedom to pursue my own guided ski tours in between… The decision wasn’t too hard!

So, instead of heading to Luosto I dumped the huge load of gear from the car to the backroom of a cafeteria building which became a home for me and N for the season. Living at your workplace has its advantages and disadvantages. In this case good things included very reasonable rent, possibility to use the cafeteria’s kitchen and feasting on the left-over food from safaris – and of course very short commute to work. Actually, on many mornings I was able to start working at the same time when I was munching my breakfast and if I happened to have a rare break during the day, I was able to spent it “at home”.

This is from the end of the season but the load is about the same…

The major disadvantage in living at your job is of course living at your job. This means often working also on your free time in the evenings or when having a day off. But as this sort of guiding work is more a lifestyle than work, it’s part of the deal. Other minor problems included for example:

– Very limited space which wasn’t quite enough for all the gear we had… But on the other hand, we didn’t spend that much time indoors anyway.
– Slightly inadequate insulation in the cafeteria building… But on the other hand, it helped getting acclimatized to the outdoor job.
– A 300 meter walk to the showers… But on the other hand, you don’t need to have a shower every day – or even every week – especially if it’s below -30C or there’s a raging blizzard!

A lovely December morning: outside -30C, inside +10C.

Despite the little shortcomings of our “backroom home” solution, living at the farm was cozy and convenient, a good solution.

Is that a husky?

“Are these all huskies?” and “Is that a husky?” were the standard questions through the whole winter. And the short answer was “Yes.”

Lempi (Alaskan husky)

We had around 70 dogs at Husky Center Kolmiloukko of which around 50 were working, few were retired  and we had 15 puppies and youngsters from three different litters. Most of the dogs were Alaskan huskies which is actually not a race but a name for mixed breed working dogs. Dogs bred to be the most hard-working, fastest running, hardest pulling workers with incredible endurance, the ulra-athletes of the dog world. They don’t necessary look like your classic postcard husky (a Siberian husky) but they do damn good work. Most or our dogs were “arctic looking” Alaskans with thick fur and pointy ears but we also had some mix-breed hound crossings, a type of dog often used for speedy competition that usually comes with shorter fur, floppy ears and skinny tail, and unbelievable motivation to run in a team.

In addition to the aforementioned we had a few Siberian huskies as well. The previous season we also had two Greenland Dogs but they were too slow for our teams. They excel in different use.

Vilma (Siberian husky)

Blue (Alaskan husky)

Usain and Bowie (Alaskan huskies). The former naturally has a brother named Bolt…

Other typical short answers included: “Yes, they all have names”, “Yes, I know them all by name”, “No, they don’t usually fight” and “No, they don’t bite”.

The dogs are all individuals and to be able to work with them you have to know more than the name. For example:
– What place the dog runs in (lead, middle, last), how it normally behaves (to notice if somethings wrong)
– Does it have special strengths or shortcomings (for example being a good leader or being afraid of snowscooter)
– How does it cope with others and different situations, etc.

It takes some time to get to know the dogs and for example the character of young dogs also develops over the season when they get older and get more experience. This keeps the work interesting as you keep learning new things all the time. Though I guess you have to like dogs to find this interesting. 😀

A team in work. Birk (hound cross-breed) in the lead.

Dogwise the season was very good one: the dogs did well even though they had to work a lot occasionally, the yearlings learned to work in a team and turned out to be very good runners (even leaders) and we had very few accidents and the dogs stayed healthy through the season.

Pile-of-poo – and other daily tasks

Guide’s work at a husky farm is actually very varied and includes a lot of things, especially as for the most of the season we were lacking an employee or two! Being out in the woods with the dogs and guests is only part of the package and most of the work and daily tasks done are somewhat to the guests.

One of the big daily tasks is of course taking care of the dogs.  The dogs eat every day – and they eat a lot! They poo every day and the fences need to be cleaned every day – and that makes a mountain of poo over the season! (Sorry, no photo of the Mt Poo…) In addition the nails need to be clipped and fur in the paw’s trimmed regularly. And of course you have to monitor the dogs constantly and keep in mind how they are doing and take actions if problems arise. (For example: two dogs living in the same fence not coming along as the bitch in the next fence is in heat).

Diego having a massage at the cafeteria.

A typical day at the farm starts at 08:00 with watering the dogs. Each dog gets about one liter of water mixed with some dog food or fat every morning to keep them hydrated and give them some extra energy. The watering is actually quite a quick job but can be little unpleasant if it’s dark, temps are below -30C and the bowls are buried under a blanket of fresh snow – or the dogs have hidden them in a secret place…

After the watering it is time to clean the fences which takes little more time and effort. Depending on the snow conditions and the number of dogs at the farm the normal amount of poo shoveled out of the fences was from two to five over-loaded wheelbarrows. But cleaning the fences was actually nice when you were not in a hurry so you had time play with the dogs and let them play with each other in the running fence.

After the cleaning there was maybe time for a quick coffee break and then it was time to arrange the sleds for the day and start to build-up the teams: take a dog, harness the dog, take the dog to its place in the lines and repeat. Tell them not to fool around in the lines and repeat. And after enough of repetition keep an eye on the dogs and tell them to behave untill the guests arrive. In the early season dogs are over-enthusiastic and fool around a lot but towards the end of the season it goes like a dance.

After the days work the dogs are put back to the fences, usually with the help of the guests. And when the guests have left, after some coffee and pulla, it’s time to feed the dogs: Each dog gets 0,7-2 liters of soaked dog food (with plenty of fat when it was cold and/or they were working hard). Again quite a quick job with the above mentioned exceptions… After the feeding there is often some work to do with sleds and other equipment meaning that a typical day ended around 18:00 or so ensuring a healthy ten hours outside! 🙂

In the beginning of the season, when snow was scarce and guests were few, the daily tasks included also training the dogs for the upcoming season. First this was done with an ATV but when the big marsh plains were frozen and there was a bit of snow, it was time to start the sledding season. And the start is always bumpy! But driving a dog team is great fun so I didn’t mind the bumps. In addition to training the adults the three litters of puppies needed also some extra program and as they were cute and entertaining as hell I sometimes went for a walk with them even on my days off.

In addition to the dog related tasks there was a plethora of other things to do, mostly related to maintenance work and preparations for the upcoming safaris: trails need to be kept in reasonable shape, snow scooters and sleds need occasional maintaining, cafeteria has to be cleaned, groceries shopped and food prepared and gear packed for longer tours. One of the special tasks was warming up the sauna if there were guests staying at the farm. This was especially interesting on the occasions when a water pipe had leaked on the floor making it a nice indoor ice rink… 😀

Out and about

Even though the dogs were awesome and the general outdoor work was nice the best part of the job were the safaris, especially the longer ones.

Going for a safari didn’t mean that I’d get to drive with a dog team. That was for the guests. At Kolmiloukko the guides usually drive with a snowscooter in the front opening the trail and towing food and equipment needed for the longer tours. There are pros and cons in using a snowscooter instead of a dog team and even though I don’t like the use of motorized transportation in the nature, as a guide I prefered to have the scooter.

Driving a scooter is a full-body activity.

Scooter makes the work a lot easier and the whole tour a lot safer for the guests and the dogs. For example we had around 250km of zigzagging and crossing trails on the area were we operated and scooter makes taking the right turns easy, even when routes are covered with snow. It also makes catching loose dog teams and picking up fallen guests possible. Not too easy to do with a dog team, especially if it would require U-turns in deep snow! And of course the snowscooter with sled would also make evacuation easy if needed. I think that the kind of safaris we did on the kind of trails we had, would not be possible to arrange safely without a snowscooter.

Learning happening the hard way…

And as the scooter was a necessary evil I actually learnt to like the driving, especially when conditions were difficult or you had to drive trough soft snow in dense forest. I’m not too interested in driving a snowscooter on hard track on my own free time but this was different. I think this was more about mastering useful tools and techniques: knots for climbing, chisels for woodcraft or code for programming. And I did learn a lot about snowscooter driving over the season, a skill I consider useful for all general winter outdoors professionals.

Guiding a safari in January, temps below -30C.

In the beginning of the season we did quite a lot of short 7km loops at Hanhilampi near Syöte National Park. This meant early wake-up, packing the dogs and sleds in a lorry and driving about an hour to Hanhilampi and putting the show together there. Usually the guests arrived from the nearby hotel with snowscooters, we gave them a driving lesson and then they drove the 7km loop with the dog sleds two in each sled, changing driver in the halfway. Driving the loop took only about half an hour but usually we did several loops every day meaning often long days.

The longest day at Hanhilampi was before Christmas when the lorry broke on the way and we spend the night at Hanhilampi with the dogs. Luckily, there is a huge kota shelter and we got some sausages and beers from the grocery so it wasn’t too bad.

Towards the end of the season we visited Hanhilampi only once a week or even less frequently. This was nice as the logistics are quite a hassle and long safaris are a lot more fun than the short loops!

Guests arriving to Syöte. Dogs waiting patiently.

The good stuff at Syöte on a good day.

The most typical safari was a full-day safari with lunch in the woods. The safaris started from the farm when guests arrived after the typical morning chores. The guests were given warm clothes, a driving lesson and then it was time to let the dogs out!

We drove along the tracks choosing a route appropriate for the conditions and for the guests. We stopped every now and then for photos and to change drivers (day tours were usually driven with “double sleds”) and after a few hours of driving we arrived to one of our lunch spots. There the sleds were fixed to trees, a fire was made and a lunch was prepared on the fire and enjoyed around it. After a one hour break or so we continued back to the farm. Normally the whole program took about six, seven hours and we covered from 25km to 40km. The dogs run actually quite fast (20km/h is easily achieved on good track with “single sleds”) but breaks and lunch take some time and it’s supposed to be holiday so usually we were not in a hurry.

Another typical tour, and one I liked even more than the full-day safaris, was an overnight safari. Basically it started like a full-day safari but guests where driving single sleds and at the end of the day we arrived to a wilderness hut in the forest and returned back to the farm the next day.

The guests took care of their own dogs and helped with the chores at the hut: poo scooping, making a whole in the ice, carrying firewood and water, warming the sauna, preparing dinner, etc. A longer tour is always more relaxed as you have more freedom to choose a suitable route and decide your own schedule, the guests also relax and learn to drive better and of course you learn to know the guests. Most of the guests were awesome and it was a blast to spent evenings at the hut with them: dinner, sauna, sitting by a fire with a nice dram…  Most of the time guests slept in the hut and most of the time the huts were full so I had a good excuse to build quinzees and sleep outdoors (or in a sauna).

Jänisvaara hut in moonlight.

The longest safaris we guided were one-week safaris with the program fine tuned for each group. Usually the week included picking up the guests from an airport, a full-day safari as a training day followed with a three-day safari visiting two different wilderness huts and  another full-day safari with dogs or snowscooters or some other activities and then taking the guests back to the airport. The longest tour of the season included six days of driving with the dogs and towards the end of the week the guests had become very good drivers and we were able to do some special routes.

As the tours get longer the relationships between the guide and guests and between the guests and their dogs develops and immerses. And in addition there is more freedom to choose what to do: you don’t have to pull the 7km loop in 30 minutes to be able to repeat it in time. The week-tours were probably the highlights of the season, in addition to some especially awesome full-day and overnight-tours.

Black grouses, quite a typical encounter on the tracks.

Excellent leader Iris teaching the yearling Alva the right route…

Jermi relaxing at one of the wilderness huts.

In addition to the husky tours we also helped the local hotel to provide safaris and outdoor activities for their customers as they didn’t have a guide of their own. During the season I guided also some snowshoeing, ice fishing, skiing and snowscooter safaris. It was nice variation for the husky safaris but I still consider the long husky tours the best. (Not counting guiding arctic ski expeditions covered later…)

Week-tour guests on a snowscooter safari.

Bottom line

The dogs were awesome.

The Northern nature in winter is awesome.

There is nothing quite like silently and effortlessly gliding trough winter wonderland wilderness with a dog team.

Driving snowscooter can also be fun – but don’t tell anyone!

Most of the guests are awesome.

I really liked my work.

Nature is just awesome.

PS. More photies! A selection of photos from the 2012-2013 husky safari season is available in my gallery: Click here to get there!

Crossing the largest glacier in Europe – Vatnajökull 2013

The winter ain’t over yet!

Even though the winter is definitly over in most of Finland, it ain’t over for me. At the moment I’m hurrying with some last-minute preparations for guiding a ski expedition across Vatnajökull, the largest glacier in Europe situated in South-East Iceland.

Urttaslaakso (Käsivarsi wilderness, North-West Finland) on a holiday ski-tour in April 2013.

The winter season has been a very busy one with guiding work. (My apologies for the silence in the blog and all the broken promises related to it.) It’s been hard at times but also very rewarding and guaranteed plenty of time in the great outdoors around and above the Arctic circle. This far I’ve spent little under 30 nights and closer to 100 days outdoors this year, which is never a bad thing. There are loads of unpublished photos and some stories to tell but that’ll have to wait until the end of May or so…

Winter magic - working the outdoors in cold but beautiful weather in January.

Winter magic – working in the outdoors in January. Cold but so beautiful!

The last time…

I was skiing across the Vatnajökull also about a year ago. The Vatnajökull 2012 expedition was a crossing from West to East (roughly along the line where the glacier is at it’s widest) and also included a longish detour to South to climb the Hvannadahlsnjukur (2110m), the highest peak of Iceland. The expedition took 16 days and was mostly very enjoyable experience despite the weather sucking big time every now and then: Freezing super-cooled rain, winds above 30m/s, temps below -20C, white outs, etc. – But luckily not all of that at the same time! And luckily we also had some days of great weather and good skiing to boost our moral.

Skiing on Vatnajökull in 2012.

… and here we go again!

The Vatnajökull 2013 expedition will be little different: we will start about 1 month later (meaning generally better weather), we will ski from East to West and won’t be doing the detour to Hvannadahlsnjukur and will spend 12 days on the glacier.

As we are leaving later in the season, I was expecting milder temperatures and generally better weather. I told to my clients that we’d probably have day time temps above 0C and night time temps down to -10C and would definitely get some rain at some point. But looking at the weather forecasts now at the eve of the departure it seems very different… Well, at least snow is better than rain and we still have good chance of rain at the end of the expedition.

Vatnajökull-by-yr.no

Itinerary of Vatnajökull 2013 expedition

– 26.4. flight from Finland to Iceland and drive to Hoffel
– 27.4. we will start skiing (or likely walking with crampons) from the edge of Lambatungnajökull in the East
– … skiing* …
– 7.5. arriving to the hut in Jökulheimar, on the Western edge of the Vatnajökull
– 8.5. super-jeep pick-up from Jökulheimar and drive to Reykjavik
– 10.5. flight back to Finland

* The basic plan is to ascent up on the Vatnajökull along the Lambatungna glacier in the South-East corner and then ski roughly to West across the glacier. But we might do also some detours on the way to check interesting places, weather and conditions permitting. At least we will try to visit the Grimsvötn volcano (1725m) on the middle of the glacier. There’s also a nice hut at the edge of the volcano…

The Grimsfjall hut in 2012. Expecting less snow this time…

Follow the Vatnajökull 2013 expedition!

We will be carrying a SPOT tracking device so you can follow the progress of the Vatnajökull 2013 expedition online on the awesome Social Hiking service: Click to the map!

In addition I’ll try to send some tweets along the way when we have cellphone reception (the sat phone we will be carrying doesn’t support tweeting…) but this will be scarce. But if you’re interested, it’s still worth to follow me on Twitter.

And if you’re really interested in the expedition you can also follow the weather forecasts on yr.no and Icelandic Met Office to get an idea of the weather on the glacier.

And if you happen to know Vaiska’s sat phone number, you can also cheer us with a message about the nice warm days, sunshine, beer and barbecue you are enjoying…. You enjoy the spring, we’ll be skiing.

I’ll be back in couple of weeks!

Auroras, snow shelters and husky tours

The blog has been little quiet, as has unfortunately been the way this winter. So, what have I been up to?

Mostly I’ve been busy guiding husky tours ranging from full-day safaris to over-night tours but there have also been other things…

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On the tours we spend the nights at huts but being out in the wild gives a good excuse to sleep outside and this week I decided to sleep in a quinzee as the night was expected to be a cold one. (The record low for this winter was recorded at Taivalkoski at the same week, -38,2C.) I was a little hasty building the quinzee and made the pile little too small and decided to go without the sticks to mark the wall thickness. The end product was livable but little too short with too big doorway and I had to patch one hole in a wall. But it still added apparently quite a lot of warmth as I managed to sleep most of the night comfortably in my sleeping bag rated to -18C (Tlim) and only woke up chilled a few times after 6.00 a.m. The cabin doesn’t have a thermometer but it’s in a cold place on low-lands next to big marsh so the temperature was likely colder than at the village of Taivalkoski… Snow shelters make sense! And there is still time to make some so don’t miss the chance!

Night_temp

The little free time I’ve had, I’ve used for arranging the guided ski tours. The last week I was guiding a group in Sarek (along the route mapped on Social Hiking, though the distance listed there is little optimistic). We also made snow shelters in Sarek as a training and they were not bad choise as the night was cold. Snow caves are especially nice shelters if you happen to find pile enough pile of hard snow. It was an awesome tour with good group and well worth sitting in the car for 21 hours – each way.

Sarek. There’s a feeling of real wilderness. And beatiful mountains as well!

I’ll write a separate post about the tour in Sarek later as this post is about northern lights! As the winter has been unusually cloudy there hasn’t been much auroras to be seen at Taivalkoski. I saw a good show here on early December, little faint lights every now and then here and at lake Inari and nice but little grey light show at Sarek. But this evening was different. After several cold and cold nights without a trace of the northern lights the lights at the sky were on a big time! Here are some photos of the showon Sunday evening. Hope you enjoy the photos in case you missed the show!

For those interested in the techy stuff all photos taken with my trusty Canon 550D (with a battery grip with dual battery for the cold), the cheap but stellar Samyang 14mm 2,8 lens and of course utilizing a tripod (a heavy Manfrotto 055). The only problem with this setup is the Samyang lens being fully manual, which shouldn’t be much of a problem but the markings on the focus ring are all totally wrong andgetting it focused in the dark is not too easy. I think I should make some new marking on it…

On the weekend we also had the pre-expedition meeting with the Vantajökull 2013 expedition and I can’t wait to get on the ice for with the group as it’s likely to be a great little expedition… But before that I still have some weeks of husky safari guiding to be done, including two nice longer tours. I’ll try to get some nice photos to share from the tours.

Winter wonderland and working dogs

In addition to guiding during the last four weekends I’ve also work during the weekdays as well. Unfortunately this means very little time for blogging but here’s (again) a set of photos to make up the lack of words. The photos are from overnight and one-day husky tours at Taivalkoski region in North-East Finland. All dogs are hard-working (well, except a few lazy ones) huskies from Kolmiloukko.

For those interested in (camera) gear the photos are taken with Canon EOS 550D with Canon EF 24-105 4 L IS or Samyang 14 2,8 lens. Mostly it’s just fast’n’dirty point’n’shoot, often from moving snowscooter but when you shoot enough, you also get some hits. Especially the Samyang 14mm wide-angle has proven to be a very nice piece of glass and it’s also cheap for the quality. Downside is that it’s all manual lens and the markings on the focus ring are far from reality but when you learn that the infinity is around 0,7m focus it works like a charm.

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I have to say that even though I love my job, I’m really looking forward to having a day off on Sunday as I’ve now worked for 33 straight days! I need some time to wash clothing, repair gear and do some more preparations for the one-week ski tour to Sarek in early March. And maybe I also have time to write some more words for the blog as well…

All sorts of winter weekends

The blog has been quiet as I’ve been busy with my work as a husky tour guide and with my own winter guiding projects (meaning 10-14 hours per day, sometimes over-night, seven days a week). And again I don’t have too much time to write but I’ve been taking photos and here are some from the last three weekends. Very different but very interesting weekends occupied with work.

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In mid-January I was in the North-East Finland near the Russian border on lake Inari practising winter skills with two ultra runners who are planning to participate on the Siberian Black Ice Race on lake Baikal in 2014. (The race was supposed to be held in 2013 but was postponed due the lack of participants.) The conditions were quite easy: cloudy the whole weekend, temps starting with -5C and dropping below -10C on Sunday morning and varying wind – which was good for the training. The customers were moving on foot but still did steady 5km/h despite  the occasional soft snow. Ultra runners are tough! A great weekend all together. Thanks Dave and Diana!

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And as a bonus few photos from the way back to Taivalkoski as there happened to be some sunshine at Saariselkä region…

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On the last weekend of January I was running The Basic Course on Arctic Ski Expeditions in South-East Finland. The first half of the weekend was filled with lectures and familiarizing with expedition gear and the later half was spent on an over-night trip practising the new skills in real life conditions. The conditions were quite similar to those at lake Inari: -6C, quite windy, some drifting snow and super-good surface conditions for skiing. Another good weekend that will be later followed by the one-week tour to Sarek in Northern Sweden. A tour I’m really looking forward to!

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During the last weekend I was guiding a 3-day husky tour in Taivalkoski area. The conditions were unbelievably similar to those of the previous weekends: mostly cloudy, temps around -5C and some wind with drifting snow. Early February should be damn cold up here (sub -30C) but it hasn’t been the case lately and I kinda miss the cold… Anyway, we had good time covering some 80km with dog teams (Well, I was driving a snowscooter opening the trail, or sometimes getting stuck in a slush…)  We spent the still quite long nights in private wilderness huts. (Though I tried to build a quinzee the second night but the temps were too mild for the snow to settle properly in the short time I gave for it and the structure cracked while carving it…) Good travel, good food and great company – even though this job is occasionally hard, I really love it most of the time. 🙂

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While working in the woods I don’t really have a possibility to write real blog posts but I try to tweet regularly so if you’re interested in the life of a guide / seasonal worker in Northern Finland, you might want to follow @Korpijaakko on Twitter.

PS. With the knee-deep snow we have here it took only 15 minutes to shovel the pile of snow for the quinzee and another five minutes or so to gather twigs for marking the proper wall thickness. The carving would have taken only some 15-20 minutes but was brought to halt because of the structure collapsing when about 90% done. If you happen to live on an area with enough of snow, I highly recommend building a quinzee and spending a night in it. It’s nice activity, teaches important skills related to winter backcountry safety and is great experience that you can do even on your backyard! Just remember: let the snow settle long enough, make a hole for ventilation and have a candle burning inside (if the candle goes out, there’s not enough oxygen!). I’ve also written a post about building quenzees. The post would benefit from some proofreading and I’d have also some new experiences to share but it’s still helpful as it is.

PPS. I also try to find some time to write first imperssion on a high-quality expedition sled I’ve been testing: The huge Isohitti which is 100% made in Finland by Hiking Travel Hit. I also have some new Kar 147 gliding snowshoes, not Altai Hok Skis but a similar (and dare I say upgraded?) model by a Finnish company OAC. Oh, and also some original Altai Hok 145s for comparison. Impressions coming when I have the time to write more, now to sleep as I have an overnighter to guide tomorrow…

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Stuffed with six sets of insulated overalls, six pair of Sorel boots and a chair. And still room to spare…