Cabin Life – #67

I love my dog Pico.  But there are times when he can be extremely The First Spileannoying.  Like right now, he’s licking my elbow and won’t stop.  I lifted my arm up off the table but he just jumped up on me to keep on licking.  I don’t know why he is doing this or what I could have possibly gotten on my elbow to make him want to lick it so bad.  He’s just a little weird sometimes.

I noticed another oddity out here this week.  I tapped a few maple trees so I could make a little sap this year.  Last year, I was all primed to do the work, but then maple season came and went in a week in February, and I was caught off guard and left with no syrup.

This year is a test run.  I bought some taps and used a few old milk jugs as buckets.  Trying to do it on the quick and cheap, I’m really only expecting a couple servings of syrup.  I don’t have the equipment or the time right now to handle a big production, but now that I know what I’m getting into, I can make a bunch of syrup next spring.

Last winter I found a cluster of nice maples not too far from the cabin, and never touched them.  But this year I picked up a bag of spiles at the local hardware store and the proper size drill bit. A friend and I took Pico, the taps, jugs, and drill out to the trees.  The sun was shining and it was perfect weather for sap to run.  As soon as the drill bit broke through the bark, a big, fat drop of sap coursed down the rough exterior of the tree.  The drill then died.

My cordless drill, which I’ve had since college, made a hole about half an inch deep and just stopped turning.  I jammed a tap into the hole to see how bad it was, and the tap stuck out a ridiculous amount.  No way would it be able to keep a full jug from falling to the ground.  I pulled the battery out of the drill and locked the bit in place.  I used the body of the drill as a handle and finished the hole using my power drill as a hand drill.  This is why I only placed three taps this year.

The next couple of days were cold and I didn’t think the sap would run that much.  From the yard I could see the jugs on the trees and knew that they hadn’t fallen or gotten blown off.  When I went and checked the jugs after two days, I noticed the irregularity that I was not expecting.  The smallest tree had given me the most sap, and the biggest tree had given me basically no sap.

Now, there could be many factors for this discrepancy independent of the size of the tree.  I just found it odd that this was the case.  I figured bigger tree equals more sap.  But maybe I did something wrong drilling the hole.  Maybe I put the tap in at too much of an angle.  Maybe the stupid tree just doesn’t produce that much sap.

After three days, I had a gallon of sap.  At this rate, I might be able to put my own syrup on one pancake.  But that’s not really the point this year.  I just want to try something I’ve never done before and see how it comes out.  That’s what this whole experience has been about too.  To try something I’ve never done before and see what happens.  And maybe that’s why Pico was licking my elbow earlier.  He just forgot that he’s done it before and wanted to see what he might find.

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Cabin Life – #65

Well, we had a nice March thaw.  I’m not sure it really made things better, Wood Pilebut it sure was pleasant to have a couple days of sunshine and warmth.  I was even able to let the fire go out for about thirty-six hours, marking the longest period I’ve gone without a fire in the wood stove since January.

While I enjoyed shoveling in just a shirt with no gloves necessary, I was still a little upset at having to shovel.  Needless to say, I have had more than my fill of shoveling this winter.  The driveway is passable, but not in good shape.  The ruts I made when the snow was soft are now essentially the tracks I have to take to get in and out of the cabin.  I basically have no say in how I get up and down the driveway, but so far, I’ve still been able to drive it.  I don’t mind hiking, but if it can be avoided, it seems silly to hike.

I did lose a lot of snow this week though.  I was listening to NCPR the other day and they said that there was no snow left where they are in Canton.  I am jealous, and still sporting about a foot of snow everywhere.  And now it’s snowing again.  Oh well, April is close, and with the days getting longer, it’s only a matter of time before the white stuff is gone.

In the mean time, the loss of almost two feet of snow has made it easier to complete some chores.  If I’m home during the day, I can burn the junk wood that’s out front under a couple of tarps.  I don’t mind burning the softwood, even though it means checking the chimney regularly.  I’ve been saving the little hardwood I have left for when I’m not going to be home for a while.  So far, it’s working out alright.

The other thing I do a couple of days a week which is now easier is taking the bucket to the compost bin.  I would just have a compost pile, but Pico is a little too eager to eat whatever is in there to leave the compost unguarded by some fence.

With no running water, I have to haul in all the water I use.  I use snow and ice to keep the kettle on top of the stove full, but that’s just for some humidity in the air.  Amy lets me fill my five-gallon jug at her house, and I go through about ten gallons per week.  Last winter, I was using the sink and drain, and the drain kept freezing.  It’s just a black plastic pipe that runs out into the woods behind the cabin.  As the drain kept freezing, I assumed that this was a unique situation.  I’m probably the only person who has no running water or indoor plumbing and still has to deal with frozen pipes.

So I disconnected the drain and replaced it with an old cat litter bucket.  The bucket under the sink doesn’t hold five gallons, but since a lot of my water gets drunk by either myself or the animals, I only have to empty the bucket a couple times a week.  Since it goes onto the compost, it’s almost like I have a garbage disposal.  All my scrap from cooking and washing dishes goes into the bucket and right out to the compost bin.

It may be a small accomplishment, but I’m pretty proud of the system.  I don’t waste any food scraps, nor does the water just go down the drain to foul up the woods where it drains.  Since I’m often cooking for one with a limited supply of water, there’s not a lot of waste.  But the compost bin is slowly filling up, and once I start adding dead leaves and grass, I should have a nice product in a year or two.  As long as Pico doesn’t eat it all.

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Cabin Life – #64

There’s a gentle thud as another icicle falls off the roof and lands in the soft, Melting Snowheavy snow on the ground.  It’s not that warm today, but warm enough to sit out on the porch and read for a while.  I needed a winter hat to sit out there, though the sun was warm when it poked out from behind the clouds.

There’s a noticeable difference in the amount of snow on the ground.  It’s not really melting, but it is disappearing.  Almost like the surface of the snow isn’t changing, but just sinking closer and closer to the ground.  The days haven’t been very warm, but we’re starting to get those days when it feels a little humid out.  This is the snow’s way of saying goodbye I presume.

While it hasn’t been warm enough to let the fire go out in the wood stove, I have been able to get by burning softwood during the day.  And a single load of hardwood has been lasting me all night.  It’s a far cry from January and February when I would have to get up a few times per night to add wood to the stove.

I’ve been stretching the hardwood supply and I think I’ll be all right for the rest of the year.  I’m hoping for a warm April, and can’t wait for the flowers to start blooming and the leaves to start growing.  Even though I know that my allergies will not be easy to deal with.

I’ve been wondering why this winter seems more difficult than last winter.  I think the biggest reason is that the novelty has worn off.  Last year there was furniture to move, wood to gather and split, property to explore and the adventure of a new endeavor.  I haven’t felt any of that this year.

I took several steps to make life out here easier this winter.  From the lights to the radio, and having established a procedure to wash dishes, this winter should have been a cake walk compared to the unknowns of last year.  But now all the chores that were novel last winter are just effort this winter.  Hauling in water is a pain.  Cleaning the chimney is no fun.  Getting up at four in the morning to put wood in the stove is, well, work.

I think that though the freshness of the experience has worn off, it’s been a good reminder of how much I can do without.  I have no intention of ever moving back “on grid,” but I also have no plan of living the rest of my life deprived of indoor plumbing.

While I sit out here and crank my radio, I like to think about what my own off grid house will look like.  There will be a heat source other than a woodstove so I can leave for more than twelve hours at a time.  There will be hot running water and an indoor toilet.  Once I get settled, I do not want to have to keep a toilet seat hanging on my wall above the wood stove.  Sure, it’s nice for now, but I really don’t want to be that guy for the next forty or fifty years.

I’ve learned a lot living out here and no matter where I go from now on, I will take these lessons to heart.  Plus, I would have a hard time learning to pay bills again.  That’s the one thing that, even though I was able to give it up, really keeps on giving back to me.

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Cabin Life – #63

It’s forty degrees, the icicles are dripping snowmelt off the roof, and it’s Iceiclessnowing out.  Today seems to be a perfect example of the paradox of the season.  March starts tomorrow, and the end of winter is in sight.  But there’s a pretty solid likelihood of getting a bunch more snow, as well as days and nights that are bitterly cold.

This, for me, is often the toughest time of the year.  I’m still enjoying the winter skiing and snowshoeing, as well as the sight of the white woods.  But as we get deeper into March and closer to my birthday, I start getting antsy for spring to be here.  Last year, there wasn’t really a part of the winter like this, seeing as it was so warm and light on snow.  I mean, I went canoeing on my birthday in late March last year.  That was definitely a first for me.

The driveway is a hot mess now too.  I’m still able to drive up to the cabin and haven’t had to hike in since the middle of January.  But as the snow that’s on the ground gets heavier and wetter, it’s harder and harder to stay on the tracks I’ve made.  I’ve slid off the tracks a few times and always have to back up a little bit before getting back on them and driving up to the yard.  It won’t be long before I’m complaining about the mud at the top of the driveway, but for now, I’ll have to complain about the snow.

Pico and I took a nice long walk down the road this afternoon.  I don’t keep him on a leash out here, as he has never shown an inclination to take off on me.  He wanders a hundred yards ahead of me and sometimes if he finds something especially interesting to smell, I may even get ahead of him a little bit.  Today was the first time all winter when someone came down the road as we were walking though.  I grabbed Pico’s collar and held on as the pickup truck drove by us to the end of the road, turned around and came back by.  I recognized the truck as one of my “neighbors” from down the road about two miles.  His little dog was sticking its head out the window as they went past and the little dog and Pico shared a hello bark as the driver and I shared the obligatory half wave.

I think what makes this time of year something that I think about is that it’s warm and nice and perfect weather for going out and doing my favorite activities, but due to the overcast sky and chance of rain, I find it hard to be motivated to go skiing.  The days are longer and warmer but there’s always the feeling that I can go tomorrow.  Without having to drive anywhere to go skiing, it’s easy for me to throw on some clothes and boots and head out right from the front door.

Even though I am looking forward to the warm days of spring there’s also the dread that the snow coming down could turn to rain, and kill the snowpack that’s already on the ground.  Then there won’t be any skiing tomorrow or anytime soon.  It’s the differences in these two attitudes that makes March interesting.  I can’t wait to go skiing again, and I also can’t wait to be able to walk around the woods without snowshoes or skis.

This sums up my attitude about living out here as well.  I love the life and simple pleasures my lifestyle provides.  But I’m torn when I want to take a hot shower or just veg out and watch TV.  The paradox of the season is representative of my lifestyle.  Looking forward to polar opposite desires brings me down and motivates me at the same time.  I’d like to take a hot shower whenever I want, but I also don’t want to pay for utilities or live in some dumpy apartment.  I just have to weigh my desires and decide which is best for me, just like anyone else.  After all, the hard decision of moving out here has already been made.  Now it’s up to me to make it work.

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Cabin Life – #59

Tools of the trade
Like most people, I sometimes make decisions that I regret.  Last week I made one of those decisions, and I have been regretting it ever since.  The decision I made was to shave off my beard.  On the coldest day of the year.  It’s not that I’m worried about my ability to grow another beard, but it’s been, well, cold and for some reason I seemed to forget how much insulation I get on my face from the beard.  In hindsight, it was a horrible decision.

I made another decision recently which is turning out to be much better though.  I bought a double-bit axe for use around the property, and I could not be happier.

Amy doesn’t want me to cut down any live, healthy trees out here for fire wood, so I am relegated to cutting only trees that are already dead and/or down.  Luckily, we’ve had some pretty severe wind this winter and there has been no shortage of trees to buck up and drag out of the woods.  I use the chainsaw for almost all of this work.  But when I’m cutting what’s called a “widow-maker,” the chainsaw can get pinched in the tree if I misread how the tree will fall.  It doesn’t happen that often, but it’s good to know that I now have a nice axe to use to chop out the chainsaw.

I got a double-bit for two main reasons.  The first is that they have straight handles, so it’s a pretty accurate axe.  The other is that I can keep one blade sharp for chopping, and the other a little more dull for splitting.  After splitting several cords of wood by hand last year with an eight pound maul, swinging the three and a half pound axe is much, much easier.

I’ll still use the maul for knotty wood or the really big logs.  It’s heavy, unwieldy, and gets stuck a lot, but gets the job done.  I also have a ten pound mini-sledge to get the maul through the really nasty logs, but that’s a lot of weight to be swinging around all day.  The combination of the two pretty much guarantees that I can get any log split, but it might take a long time to get a few pieces of burnable fire wood.  Three and a half pounds versus eight is a pretty easy decision.

And speaking of decisions, there is an annual event that starts this week which always makes me happy that I’ve decided to make the northern Adirondacks home:  Winter Carnival.

Carnival is what makes a hard winter bearable.  Carnival is something that I think everyone who lives in the Saranac Lake region looks forward to.  It is like a winter break for everyone.  And as an adult, who doesn’t wish that they still got all the vacations that school kids get?

For those of you who don’t know, Winter Carnival is a weeklong celebration of surviving through the winter.  There is a Royal Court, concerts, contests, an Ice Palace, and the whole thing culminates in an unforgettable parade.  Outside.  In the middle of February.  Needless to say, there may be some alcohol involved in one or more of these events.

Back when I was in college, there was a standing rule that my parents were not allowed within fifty miles of Saranac Lake on parade weekend.  I’ve grown up a little bit since then, but they still honor the buffer.  The parade really brings the community together.  People travel from all over the country and world to attend Carnival, and I have yet to hear of anyone coming away disappointed.

It’s a boon to the town, as well as to everyone’s psyche.  You have to be pretty tough to survive the winters up here, and Carnival is a great reminder that we’re all in it together, no matter who you vote for or how much you make.  We’ve all decided to tough it out up here, and Winter Carnival is our reward.

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Cabin Life – #54

Nick's Place
The snow is still falling, but not as fast and furious as it was earlier.  I heard on the solar radio that this is now called Winter Storm Euclid, but I think most people will remember it as the Blizzard of 2012.  I’ve got about twelve to fourteen inches on the ground, and it is still coming down.

I woke up early this morning to a text message from a friend letting me know that she had made it to Colorado alright.  The sun wasn’t up, but it was starting to get light out, so I got up and fed the pets and the woodstove.  The stove was cranking and it was pretty warm in the cabin.  I hadn’t done anything different in terms of what or how much I burned, but it was noticeably hotter in here.  When Pico and I went out for our morning relief, I figured out why it was so warm inside.  There was eight inches of snow on the roof providing a lot of extra insulation.

The next thing I did was to wax up my skis and get dressed for some outdoor activities.  After getting about a quarter mile from the cabin, I was glad I had set out early.  The snow was getting deep and it was hard to glide when I was breaking trail.  I could have followed Pico’s path, but that quarter mile would have turned into a half mile the way he runs all over the place.

Pico didn’t mind the new boots I had put on his feet, and the two of us made our way down to the little lean-to, named for the kid that built it, Nick’s Place.  It’s only about five feet high, eight feet wide and six feet deep, just enough for a couple of people to sleep in, though I doubt anyone has stayed there in quite a few years.  I’m always a little worried though, that when I round the corner of the trail and Nick’s Place comes into sight that some hermit or drifter will be staring out of the doorway at me.  It hasn’t happened yet, and since not even my landlord has seen the thing, I doubt if anyone will wander out here and find it.  But I always get just a little tense when I get close.  The more logical fear when it comes to the lean-to is that Pico will run in there and be face to face with a porcupine or raccoon.  He’s marked the area well, and hopefully my fears don’t come true.

Last weekend, I took Pico, a folding saw and some loppers to clean up the trail to the lean-to.  I’d like to make this place a little more accessible, and the first step in clearing out the existing trails.

From my cabin, I take the road that leads to Upper Camp.  About half way to Upper Camp there is a junction trail that goes off to the right.  It passes one of the old hand-dug wells and follows a stone wall to a large ash tree.  From there, the trail continues straight to a little clearing where all the pine trees were cut to build Upper Camp.  But the trail to Nick’s Place goes right, through a break in the large stone wall and meanders off into the woods.  I clipped some branches and small balsams that had started to grow, and pulled a few dead trees out of the way that fallen across the trail.  The trail then empties into an open glade, which in summer is beautiful.  Moss lines the ground and the thick clumps of balsam and spruce give off a classic Adirondack aroma.

There are thick evergreens that surround Nick’s Place, masking it in the woods.  Nick was the son of the previous owner’s and he did a nice job building this place.  The front is about half closed in but there is a doorway and a window, and the roof provides a little overhang so that snow doesn’t make its way inside.  After cutting out a few trees, you can see the lean-to from the where the trail enters the glade.  At least I don’t have to get too close now to see if anyone is living in there.

But this morning was not a work morning.  Pico and I just skied out to Nick’s Place and then bushwhacked up into the woods, heading towards the clearing up above.  I’d like to mark and cut a trail from the lean-to to the clearing, and found a pretty good route up there.  Of course, the route I took this morning is now covered in snow, and I’ll have to mark it another time, hopefully when there is not a blizzard going on.  It’s just one of the perks of doing this type of thing out here.  I get to ski it once, then ski again to mark it, and then ski it again to cut it out.  I could have done all that today, but I’m looking forward to having to do the route a few more times.  You know, as long as I don’t run into anyone along the way.


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Cabin Life – #21

There’s a soft, wet blanket of snow covering everything.  It’s also eerily quiet.  The last two mornings I’ve been woken up by a yellow-bellied sapsucker banging on the metal roof of the wood shed.  And the morning before that, Pico woke me up barking at the turkeys that were walking by.  Today, the birds are silent.

The rabbits that are all over out here are brown on top and white on the bottom.  It’s an interesting site as they sprint down the road in view of my headlights, then dart off into the woods.  All winter, I saw lots of rabbit tracks, but no actual animals.  Now that there is no snow and they are that awkward combination of colors, I see them all the time.  Their winter camouflage obviously works well.

The two robins that have been hanging around are constantly scanning the ground for worms, and the ruffed grouse run that weird little scramble of theirs whenever we get close.  I think most of the birds that are around, and there are quite a few, realize that we are more a source of food than a threat though.

The chickadees and robins don’t take off when Pico and I are out, and the yellow-bellied sapsucker let me take a picture from about ten feet away.  (For those of you who don’t know, the sapsucker is a type of woodpecker.  When I took his picture, he was banging his head on a metal pipe, so maybe he’s not tame so much as brain damaged.)  The American woodcock didn’t even bat an eye when I rode by on the four wheeler.  And the eastern phoebe that picks up all the seed that the chickadees drop looks akin to a gray-colored robin with no legs.  It’s like a baseball with a beak.

Maybe it’s just that no one lived here for a long time, so the animals are used to not being in any danger when they walk around, but I like when they come into the yard, or I see them out in the big field.  And since I don’t feel like hunting, they don’t have to worry about being bothered for a long time yet.

Cabin Life – #18

The afternoon sunlight slants against the birdfeeders, giving them a golden glow.  It’s hard to believe that it’s almost seven at night, when it was not that long ago that the sun was going down at about four-thirty.

During the really dark parts of the winter, it was hard not to go to sleep at six PM.  With only candles and oil lamps, night was difficult to fight off, and more often than not, I fell asleep on the couch with a book on my chest and my headlamp still on.

Now that it’s light so late in the afternoon, I am actually having a hard time filling the days.  Not that I’m just sitting around doing nothing, but I feel like I should be working until six or seven.

It is nice to take a break and realize that it’s dinner time, though.  The wood I cut over the winter is drying nicely, the deer have been coming back to the yard, and luckily there hasn’t been any sign of bears.  The chickadees have been using the feeders less and less, but the squirrels are still hitting them pretty regularly.

My focus has definitely shifted from cold weather preparation and existence to outdoor projects.  The compost bin is complete, and so is a small cold-frame I put together from scrap around the property.  The leaky porch roof now has a rather large hole in it (my fault) and is in dire need of repair, so that’s the next big project.

I’ll probably have to move a generator from Amy’s house up to the cabin to charge batteries and run a saw for the roof project.  It’s weird to think that other than charging my phone in the car, this will be the first time that I’ll have electricity at the cabin.  October to April with no power at the house seems like a long time.  But it went by pretty quickly.  I did go through a lot of 9-volt batteries powering the clock radio.  I also burned about three shoe-boxes worth of candles, as well as a gallon or so of lamp oil.

I’ve burned about four cords of wood, but the stove won’t needed much longer.  The two and a half gallons of gas I bought for the chainsaw is just about gone, and I finally added a gallon of gas to the four wheeler.  I really wish that the four wheeler would start in the cold, but now that it is running, I’ve been having a lot of fun just driving it around.  Unfortunately, Pico can’t come along on these rides, because he’s continually trying to bite the tires, and that’s no good.

The bugs are out, but nothing is biting yet.  A friend of mine saw some mosquitoes, but he said “they were too stupid to bite me.”  Let’s hope they stay that dumb all summer.

Snow’s Gone…

Just a few shots from the record warm of the last few days…

Whiteface in the Morning

Chillin' in the Shade

Ha ha! Wasn't that long ago...