Sunday, January 27, 2013

Record Low Temperature in Thunder Bay

I suppose I should have changed the entry on that other post to read more like "Climate Change Comes to Thunder Bay". While it is unquestionably warmer than in the past here, there are occasional blips. We were treated to one this past week. It broke a new record cold temperature in the city. Mummu and Grandpa Oiva recorded forty below on their thermometer, which agrees with the general rule that we are 5-8 degrees cooler than the city up here in the bush and further from the lake.

We managed to survive in the yurts though. Donna stayed up rather late feeding the fire, while I got up once or twice during the night to revive it.

Even so, we are becoming use to sleeping in the yurts and allowing them to drop to the freezing mark. It certainly will be a luxury if our cabin can be made to keep us a few degrees warmer, and allow us to burn a little less wood.

These temperatures have really played havoc with our internal combustion engines. The truck refuses to even turn over. The car was the same, so I trotted out my backup battery and was able to start it in that fashion. After a day of jump starting the car at every stop, I traded out the car battery for my backup when we returned home. Now I'll use the old car battery to power the winch.

The large generator was unthinkable to start, as would be the tractor.

As I said, the smaller generator was broken. I believe the cold weather made the plastic brittle, and the recoil starter uses plastic for its main cam. I was shipped a replacement promptly, and it promptly broke! I had wanted to give a super-positive glowing review of this generator, as it is shockingly efficient (even if not so eco-friendly), but these two broken cams have been disheartening. I must say though that Guy at King Canada Generator division is a real prince! There is a third one in the mail for me...

Coinciding with this cold weather, I have begun to get a few service calls for my computer business. This has been re-assuring (and also was a good excuse to replace my workboots). Here are a pair of shameless plugs - KC Automotive and Recreation and Howie's Saw (and Woodmizer) both have asked me to help them set up websites that they themselves could edit and control easily. I have also done a number of calls for private parties too. Howie's Saw was also kind enough to offer me some extra work in the office from time to time. This will be a nice chance to reduce pressure on our finances, while still giving me lots of time and flexibility to continue with the homestead.

The past few days the temperature has warmed up quite a bit, beginning to bump against the ten and fifteen below marks. I decided to try to start the larger generator (120 pulls) and used it to pull in a few more logs for firewood.

Happiness is a full woodshed!

Unfortunately while skidding in the logs, I lost one of my brand-new chains!

Offering up a chocolate bar reward sure came through with results though - Kenny and I retraced my route, and with a cry of victory, he pounced on it after about a half hour of searching. He totally discovered it on his own, and earned a well-deserved treat.

Grandpa dropped by, feeling that the mild weather (?!) warranted a try at thawing the well. We poured down all the hot water we could find, with no effect. With the large generator running, it was decided to make one last attempt to use an electric kettle to see if that worked.

I boiled up a full kettle, and slowly poured it down into the hose (for a change), and, just as we gave up, water began to run out!

Breathless with excitement I ran to the yurts to grab our pails and then back to the well. We filled two buckets when suddenly the water turned murky. I'm not sure why, but a large amount of sediment suddenly came through. We dumped out the brown buckets, and ran the well dry in an attempt to get back to clear water.

I brought up the two full buckets to the yurts and we shut off the generator and pump. Hopefully as the well refills it will clear too.

Meanwhile, back at the yurts, a combination of a toasty warm yurt, and too many mugs of hot tea, drove me outside to answer the call of nature in a state of "relaxed dress". Of course, these temperature encourage one to not dilly-dally, so by the time I finished my business, I was ready to sprint back to the fire.

Thankfully Donna was ready with the camera to capture my abilty to maintain my dignity in any situation.


Monday, January 21, 2013

Can't use my Toy. (A.K.A. Diesel Won't Start at -25)

The skidding of logs just for firewood seems to have come out as a rounding success. I'm not sure if this would have been as useful in southern Ontario, where the limbs of a tree are generally just as useful for the stove as the trunk. Here, on the conifers, it's rare that a limb is of a large enough size to make it worth pursuing. So you usually are only dealing with the trunk.


Back at the yurts, I cut up the logs into stove lengths, and then with Kenny and especially Donna's help, got them carried to the wood shed where my trusty Fiskars X25 rendered them down to suitable pieces.

Happiness is a full(ish) wood shed.

We tried to work promptly on this project because it snowed all day. Quite a bit of snow actually. When I awoke the next morning, it was clear that if we hadn't gotten the logs uncovered the day before, it would have been a real chore to do so the next day! That being said, the temperature was at least -25 by our best guesses.

The small generator was broken, and the large one was clearly a non-starter. I thought perhaps hooking up my spare battery to the tractor would give me enough juice to turn it over. That worked for about five minutes, over which time the tractor didn't even come close to starting.

I manhandled the large generator back to the yurts and put it inside the door to see how long it would take to warm up. As it turns out, it's probably close to a day or so. It came up to about -6 degrees on the outside metal after four hours indoors. It was not going to be useable anytime soon, and we are really reluctant to keep it inside for very long, lest the gasoline fumes (small though they may be) cause us discomfort or harm.

Having not much else to do, I cleared off the vehicles of snow. Then I began to shovel out around them. Then I shoveled in front of them over to the start of our driveway.

All this time I was punctuating my work with trips back to the yurts to clean my glasses. Please, if anyone has a foolproof way of keeping glasses from fogging up in cold weather, let me know! I'm getting desperate. I tried dish soap, breathing only through my mouth, only through my nose, only breathing "down" by giving myself a deliberate overbite, pulling my glasses to the end of my nose, and prayer. None seemed to work. I'm going to try vasoline next, and also pick up a bottle of that "Fog-X" product that is suppose to work on windshields. In the end though, I spent most of the day leaving my glasses at the yurts.

Grandpa came over and commented that I wasn't using my "toy" grader blade to clean my driveway. Although he agreed that it was unrealistic to be able to start the tractor, or most of my engines, in this weather. I can only hope that having a spare battery that I can bring into the yurts overnight lets me at least start the car or truck.

After estimating that we had received 8" of snow, he returned to his place to put away his snowblower(s) (which I suspect are tools and not toys).

I returned to shoveling down the driveway.

And shoveling.

And shoveling.

Until boom, I was done. It took most of the day, and I was only using a small shovel, but it got done. I did a second pass back up the driveway, and then a third one to ensure it was all clear.

I haven't yet seen how it looks - I didn't have the energy to return with my glasses, but as I was finishing my second pass, Donna arrived and took a couple of pictures.

It's comforting to know that in a pinch I can deal with this without resorting to my toys, but rather my old-fashioned muscles! (Which are complaining a bit today.)



Saturday, January 19, 2013

A New Technique for Harvesting Firewood

A few days ago Grandpa and I decided to grab up a load of firewood from close to the end of the trail.

This proved to be much more difficult than we had anticipated.

I managed to get the tractor up the ravine by disconnecting the trailer, driving through the difficult incline, chaining the trailer to the tractor, and then dragging the trailer up the same incline until they were both on level ground. We then could back up to the trailer and reconnect it directly to the hitch.

This is getting hard on our runners and trailer. On the previous trip we broke the tang on the trailer hitch completely off, and I had resorted to just resting the trailer tongue on the tractor hitch, dropping a bolt through the holes, and then dropping the three point hitch down onto the trailer tongue to hold it down. This worked fine for the time being.

The tractor and trailer then got stuck going up another incline further in the bush, previously an unproblematic spot, but now things were definitely showing up as more difficult than before. We used the same technique of disconnecting and dragging the trailer to work through this bottleneck.

Grandpa took the tractor right to the end of the trail, and with lots of finagling, we managed to turn both the trailer and the tractor around. We drove a bit back up the path to avoid the worst of another tricky incline, and then loaded the firewood in. This proved to be too much weight. The tractor groaned trying to drag the trailer up even the slightest incline; the runners began to twist and dig into the snow, cutting ever deeper until they hit roots or rocks or other immoveable objects.

Finally we unloaded half the wood, and managed to get the tractor to the highest point on the trail. Then we carried all the wood up the trail to repile the trailer there.

Of course, even on the way back the tractor got stuck again and required the disconnect and drag technique. It took us a half a day for one trailer load.

The trailer was in bad shape. Our runners were twisted and cracked and one support board had finally popped off.

It was at this point that I realized how much nicer it was when we were just skidding logs for beams - the tractor climbed inclines more easily and there wasn't a big implement on the back to account for when turning around.

I posited the notion of skidding out even the firewood and cutting it up back at the yurts. Grandpa was a bit lukewarm to this idea, but agreed it may be better than what we were currently doing.


The next day I dusted off my small generator. After a few pulls, a loud "bang" and bits of plastic coming out the side, I realized that I had somehow cracked/broken the pull wheel.

People with electric start generators truly are blessed!

I, on the other hand, spent the remainder of the day trying to fix this pull wheel, accomplishing said task, reassembling everything, and having the same part break on the first pull.

On to the next day, where after 200 pulls, I managed to get the large generator to start. Never again! I hooked it up to the tractor's block heater, as well as my spare battery, and managed to eventually get the tractor started.

Then I attached the generator to the solar battery bank and washing machine and pump.

The well was frozen.

I headed off into the bush with the tractor and chains and saw, and was able to bring in almost three trees to the yurts (usually a tree represents a load) completely by myself, as well as cut up another tree that likely is too green to burn.

Next I will likely get out the chain saw and try to render down these trees into useable wood. The sustained temperatures of -20 to -30 that we have been experiencing have quickly taught me that splitting the wood down smaller is a better use of it than larger chunks. I previously thought that large chunks would burn longer - that may be so, but they also don't burn warm enough to heat the yurts. Now I am splitting the wood down into pieces that burn easily and hot. This morning I was able to take the yurts from 10 degrees to almost 40 in about 40 minutes. (40 was too hot - I left the larger yurt to finish typing this in the smaller one).

I also upgraded my tractor's PTO shaft cover from the whiskey bottle (which kept falling off) to a more right-sized chocolate milk bottle, which I fastened in place with a cable tie.

Donna is so happy with the new wood texture that she took a picture of her "perfect fire". I hope you too can feel the warmth vicariously through it.


Thursday, January 17, 2013

A Long Tractor Trip Through the Bush

It was a day dedicated to a combination of firewood and more logs for construction. Grandpa was here bright and early and with a bit of work, I managed to get the tractor started. Twenty below can be pretty inhospitable to a diesel engine, as I think I've mentioned previously.

Grandpa had cut down one large jackpine, but was a bit disappointed to find the base had already been invaded by ants. He cut off about five or six huge segments before getting to solid wood - this still gave us two huge twelve foot beams, so I considered it a success!

I skidded these two out of the bush with little difficulty, then hooked up the trailer, freed the runners from the ice, and headed back up the trail.

This time I was annoyed to get stuck at the base of the ravine yet again. It sure will be nice if we can ever just drive up there without a second thought. I disconnected the trailer, drove past the sticking point, then chained the trailer tongue to the tractor and dragged it a few more metres before returning and reconnecting. This worked well and more quickly than previously, so I suppose I shouldn't complain.

By the time I returned to Grandpa, he had already cut down another tree that we thought would be good for firewood, and instead, it was still so sound that we opted instead to use it as beams. Leaving this tree for later, we then cut down and segmented two other dead, standing trees.

With some effort, we managed to turn the tractor and trailer around, and loaded them up with firewood.

This took us to lunch, so I just brought the load to the yurts and went inside for some summer sausage sandwiches (thanks to a great Christmas present!).

After lunch we headed back to the bush to skid out those last two logs. This time I proceeded down the trail to the very end! Grandpa had cut and slashed and landscaped a trail deep into the forest - right up to the property line and up high on the ravine. It was a great feeling to get to the end, turn around, and return without mishap. This was a long distance, and that spot up on the ravine was populated by a number of large, dead, standing jackpines - surely enough to see me through a month or two of hard weather!

It was uneventful to hook up the last two logs and skid them out.

All this time on the tractor really gave me time to enjoy my latest accessory - a cupholder that I hope does me proud. Pricing them out at $10 or so for a commercially made one drove me to try to be more creative. It works great!

Grandpa headed home for a bath, and I escorted Donna and Kenny on a trip to show them how far the tractor had gone.

Once we returned I took up my axe and finished off the trailer load in an hour or two of well paced chopping. The woodshed is not nearly full, but we're back in business. It's a good feeling.


Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Problem Which Dare Not Speak its Name.

Somehow the water line froze again. This time it was really as if it wanted to tell me who is boss. It froze solid from inside the well to a point about thirty feet uphill from the well. It's hard to believe, let me tell you!

I don't want to write about this subject any more than my readers want to read about it, but here we are.

This time I disconnected the faucet inside the yurts and removed the hose altogether. I'm willing to schlep water in pails for the rest of the winter if it means I don't have to spend one or two days a week getting water to flow.


I cut the hose off at the top of the freeze, just outside the well, and at a point in between. With the newly created pair of frozen hoses in hand, I made made my way back to the yurts where I took them inside separately to thaw out.

First one large chunk of ice slid out.

Then a bunch of smaller ones.

Grandpa and I worked away at the hose that progressed from outside the well casing to the inside. We poured hot water on and into the hose, and used the fishtape to try to break up any remaining ice. This was progress in inches at best. Every once in awhile we would tip the end of the hose down, draining the water we had poured in, as well as the occasional small cube of ice. It was quite a slog.

Eventually Grandpa succumbed to the lure of home, and I decided drastic measures were called for. I opened up the well and dropped in the ladder.

It was not the high point of my day.

With Donna's help and support, I managed to keep my sanity, and she kept up admirably with a supply of kettles for me to pour into and on the hose from inside the well. This was similarly slow work to what went on outside the well, but at least the slope of the hose ensured that my hot water was getting to the blockage, and then easily draining back out without freezing and making the situation worse.

Donna kept up a great pace on the outside of the well with the fishtape, unwavering in her optimism that we'd eventually break through.

I physically dragged some of the hose through the cement casing and a few feet of frozen sand, so that I could pour more hot water on the outside of the hose. This finally did the trick!

Donna cheered, and with the sun setting, I pulled up the ladder, restored the short length of hose to its original position, and reconnected another short length of hose so that I could control water flow.

I radioed Donna back at the yurts to plug in the pump, and quickly filled four twenty litre pails. Covering the end of the hose with a sandwich baggie and rubber band, it was with a sense of grim relief that I called it at day.


Tuesday, January 15, 2013

A Few Observations on Using a Sawmill in Winter

Using the sawmill to cut my beams has been a little bit of a learning experience now that the temperatures have dropped so low (recent days notwithstanding).

One of the first difficulties I ran into was the water freezing up.

You see, the blade is lubricated usually by simple water. Unfortunately, when it is far below freezing that no longer works.

Inquiring with Wayne at my local WoodMizer dealership, I found that they switch to windshield washer fluid when the temperatures dip that low. I have followed suit. One thing though, I was trying to be stingy with the fluid, seeing as it costs me much more than water does. This lead to loads of sap building up on my blade, and even worse sticking. Live and learn.

Generally, I also find I just have to move more slowly through the log to prevent it from binding. This is okay, as I think of myself as being a patient man. I also don't mind sawing, as it gives me a chance to listen to CBC radio on the AM/FM headphones Donna gave me for Christmas - did I mention them yet? They are the best gift ever!

A cursory cleaning on the rails on my mill is not enough. It took me a few days to learn this. I kept noticing that it was getting harder and harder to push the mill head down the rails. I cleaned the tops, thinking that the rollers were the only real point of contact. It wasn't until I finally could barely move the mill, log or no log, that I got right down and brushed off all the snow. Then I noticed the mix of ice and sawdust that had built up on the support beams. This mix was like concrete, in fact, it was sort of used as such during the war and called Pykrete.

In any case, it took a bit of tool work to knock off this layer of obstruction that the mill head had been riding up and onto. From now on I will be sure to keep that area much more clear. It is amazing how much easier it is to move the mill without that added friction.

I have seen that they have created a new clamp for the latest mills, and would be interested in trying it out sometime if funds and circumstances ever permit. I love my WoodMizer very much, but there is one annoyance that I seem to share with other owners of this older model of the LT-10 mill. The log clamp.

It doesn't always hold very well. I have cut a few "diamonds" due to the log rotating when the blade makes contact. This isn't fun.

As I said, the clamp that I have now has been replaced, so in that sense I can't speak to current mills. Mine is a solid bar with a wedge on the top that you cam into place and it just is suppose to dig into the rail based on the pressure. After repeated use though, it seems to slide on the rail. I finally opted to lock a pair of vice grips behind the clamp before engaging the cam. This has been working perfectly up until my last session, when the cam began to release on its own, seemingly due to the vibration of the mill head passing by. So now I am using two grips to lock the clamp in place. Inelegant, but it does work. I'll likely stick with this system for the near future - it holds the log extremely securely, it is just more steps than I was originally use to.

My relocated sawmill seems to work out well, if only there was a way to separate the sawdust from the snow without having to wait for spring

EDIT: Just yesterday I was given a used, surplus clamp in the new style to try by my local Wood Mizer dealer! Now that's true service! I'll try to report back after I've had a chance to try it out.


Monday, January 14, 2013

Restoring Water Flow

As I outlined in a previous post, there was really no getting around the fact that I had to continue to use my poly pipe to pump water from the well to the yurts, whether it was frozen solid or not. Seeing as it was frozen solid, and I didn't have any real facilities to thaw out that much pipe in the field, I had to resort to drastic measures.

I had already cut the pipe at about the fifty foot mark, hoping to find the blockage there. At that time I noted that the frozen section was uphill from that spot, so this time around I cut free all fifty feet of cable ties, and spent the better part of ten minutes in a sweaty, fierce battle with the hose, attempting to return it to a manageable coil. Subsequently, I have decided that curses that you only mouth but don't actually sound out, don't count.

Eventually I managed to get it tied into a semblance of circle, and into the yurts. This went better than I feared. Originally I had pictured being unable to bend the hose at all, and having to feed it into the yurts a bit at a time through the door, waiting for it to thaw before being able to coil it enough to bring in another few feet. You can imagine my relief at only having to impose on Donna a tiny bit with this hose propped against the clothes rack for a few hours.

I returned later and began rotating the coil such that bursts of ice water could flow out into a nearby pail. After about five or six full rotations, I was confident that all the water was out of the hose, and it could be restored to its original glory.

This time I was very careful to tie the cable firmly to my log supports, ensuring at all times that there were no dips or level areas for water to collect in.

At last I arrived at the final cable tie. Donna was handy with the camera to capture my moment of glory.

No, I am not holding both ends of the hose apart, ready to connect them. This is where they actually meet. I am hypothesizing that between the hose being installed in 20 degree temperatures, and now being subjected to minus 20 degree temperatures, it has shrunk quite a bit. Add to this my new zeal for tying it to the supports much more firmly than before. Also, there was the little matter of a tree falling on my water line which I'm certain pulled the hose into strange permutations.

I very quickly rigged up a sloppy patch using spare hose and some homemade couplers. Things looked great! I even blew into the hose inside the yurts and could feel no resistance.

At the time, Donna had no need to do laundry, and the sun was shining brightly, so I exercised extreme patience, and we waited a day to start the generator and actually pump some water.

Do I need to say that it worked? Of course it worked! Donna pumped about 175 litres of water without a hitch :).

That in itself is a blessing - knowing that there is still that amount of water in the well at this time of year. Of course, February will be the most consistently dry month, but we are hopeful. Especially since we hope to have a resevoir arranged next year.

Will it last? We shall see.


Sunday, January 13, 2013

Global Warming Comes to Thunder Bay

Thursday and Friday, it was raining. This is in January! It is very disconcerting for many reasons.

Most immediately, it means that it is actually getting more difficult for me to get back into the bush where the larger trees are. I need that access to be able to build our cabin in the spring/summer/fall! It's melting the snow that levels off the terrain for the tractor.

Trying to take slight advantage of the melted snow, I hooked up the grader blade to the tractor and decided to hit my snowbanks hard. This took far longer than I expected. I guess I need more experience mostly.

First I did a quick pass along the trail leading back to the yurts.

Then I tried to really clean up the area around where we park the vehicles. I was getting tired of having to use the come-along nearly every time I tried to park the truck. I am not exaggerating. At least half the times we try to turn the truck around, it gets stuck. Grandpa thinks perhaps I need more weight in the back of the truck. I suppose this isn't impossible to accomplish - I just need to purchase more cinder blocks I suppose.

After clearing these areas, it was time to tackle the driveway.

I swung the grader blade around to point backwards and proceeded in reverse down the driveway. This was very hard on the back and neck after the first hour. The second hour was painful. The third hour I tried to twist around to the other side, but it really made it awkward to operate the three point hitch lever when you're turned away from it. The fourth hour I decided I didn't need my driveway to be so wide. The fifth hour Grandpa came out with his scoop to ensure there was no evidence of snow left on the road from my endeavours. We both had read in the Lappe Lantern a warning to people that they were not allowed to have any snow from their driveway on the public road, subject to fines.

While the driveway looks messy with the dirty snow exposed, it is much wider now, so hopefully we can continue to get to town when we need to.

Still the rain was coming down, and a very soggy me returned to the yurts for some home made chicken noodle soup and wonderful grilled cheese sandwiches. As hard as it is to prepare most foods on the woodstove, Donna has completely perfected the ability to make grilled cheese sandwiches. I think this is very fortunate, as soup and grilled cheese is almost my favourite meal!

The best part of the day came at the end - sauna night and the bliss that comes from being steamed and cleaned.