Friday, June 14, 2019

Flett Tunnel

A peaceful, idyllic trip planned to an abandoned railway line.

A group of enthusiastic young homeschoolers, eager for a romp through nature, exploring and seeking out fun and interesting geocaches.

Moms and tots, Dad and preteens, sunny skies and (relatively) few flies.

The entire group of us either trotting briskly with dignity or running screaming from the tunnel as a lumbering behemoth approaches.

How did we get here?  It all began over one hundred years ago as the Grand Trunk Railroad grew eager to take advantage of the budding Canadian identity's requirement to be linked coast to coast.  Content at first to build up a network of rail lines around the Great Lakes, they realized that the Canadian Pacific's westward expansion was turning into a bigger deal than they had expected.  As such, they planned their own line linking Fort William with Winnipeg.  Unfortunately, as they worked their way westward, creating alphabetically organized nodes, Alba, Baird, Crest, Dorval (?), Ellis, they reached a barrier at "F"lett - a rock formation that couldn't be avoided on their way to Griff.

Wait, that's too far back.  How about just four months ago?

That's when the Music Workshop School decided to book the Waverley Library Auditorium for their end of year recitals - thus overriding the "tech club" and our usual Thursday afternoon booking for two consecutive weeks in June.

We bumped our bookings to the local Gameshelf/Bookshelf, but then there was further discussion of maybe mixing things up a bit.

Kenny and I had long discussed visiting this tunnel that we had read about in some local hiking blogs.  Once again, we hoisted the flag of Flett tunnel, and saw a couple of fellow homeschoolers willing to trust us to lead them to a new adventure - in the real world!  What a radical notion!

We met at the Emerald Greens Golf Course promptly at 1:20 - amazingly for homeschooling families of various sizes and ages, we were all there not just on time, but early - Kenny could hardly believe it, but I had had faith.

I reiterated our directions - head west on Dawson Road/102 until Sistonen's Corners, then follow the highway to the right and onto the 11/17/Trans Canada Highway.  Follow that until Finmark Road and then turn right there.  Follow that until we either turn onto Flett Road, or it becomes Flett Road (conflicting maps and directions made it hard to say for certain - as it turns out, it bears to the left a bit more significantly than to the right, and there is a sign marked "Flett Road" pointing straight through at that spot).

Continue a bit further, until you're certain that the road will soon peter out, and then if you're lucky, your Google Maps GPS will tell you to turn hard left onto the old rail bed - it's perfectly driveable for most any vehicle.  Kenny and I were in our 2WD Ranger, followed by three other crossover type vehicles, and the going was just fine.

Eventually the rail bed started to get a little more...  potholy?  And then the look of the trees up ahead became distinctly dark.  The GPS announced we had arrived, although there wasn't much to see other than an inky shadow on the road ahead.  I pulled off a bit to the side, shut off the engine, and hopped out of the truck.  Ahead on the road lay the maw of the tunnel - it was at once surreal, exciting, beautiful and, dare I say, cool!

So uhm, is that it?  Or just a really overgrown part of the rail bed?
Puddles are never NOT interesting!

We examined our surroundings, collected the various children and gear we wanted to carry, and proceeded the remaining few metres to the tunnel entrance.

Large pools of water awaited at the mouth of the tunnel, but along the sides were wide, dry sections of crushed gravel that made it very, very accessible.  No need to get my slippers wet here!

The bugs, even at this time of year, were either not too bad, or else the wonder and interest of the place made them entirely forgettable.

We headed straight through the tunnel for our first run.  The children were already completely at ease, and had reached the far end of the 300 metre tunnel just as the grown ups were entering it.  I give them credit - it was very dark in the centre area, but the light at each end made it quite tolerable and comfortable to be in.  No sense of being closed in in the least.

I'm just approaching it, the kids are already at the far end!
Who knows what they are plotting?

Needs more lens flare!  JJ Abrams?  Where are you?
Graffiti was not nearly as bad as it could have been, and the garbage wasn't terribly offensive.  There were a few plastic bottles, a few cans, and only one glass bottle - intact.  We planned on gathering it up before we left - but then, due to the incident...  Well, I get ahead of myself.

Emma, Stu, I hope your love is as strong as this rock.  💘💘💘💘💘
N! joked privately with me about how fun it would be to make a loud train sound and to see the reactions of everyone there - I knew that Kenny had an authentic train whistle somewhere - but of course, we never thought to bring it.

N!, clearly contemplating something dark, disturbing and nefarious.
...or else thinking of Calvin and Hobbes, it could go either way.
At the far end, I walked a short distance beyond the tunnel and discovered a marked trail off to the left that clearly circled back to the top of the cave.  I wasn't interested in mentioning that to the group - I would not have enjoyed the notion of all those kids running rampant up around the unprotected roof-edge of the tunnel.

Teenage me - wicked cool cliff!
Adult me - keep those kids away from there!
Am I...  Old?
The TeamKim family opened up their geocaching app and proceeded to tell us that there was a cache hidden somewhere in the tunnel!  I returned to the truck and retrieved my phone, and there were at least three of us with our phone flashlights on, picking our way along the sides of the tunnel, seeking out a small "treasure-box".

Everyone was in on the search!
Luckily, I overheard the matriarch of their team remark that the cache was hidden close to the "Jeep" - I knew where that was!  I had taken a photo of it not five minutes earlier!

Jeep?  What Jeep?  (True confession - at first I thought it said "BEER")
Rushing down, we quickly found the small box behind a rock.  S! opened it up while everyone gathered around.  C! and M! enumerated the contents as we all basked in the sense of discovery, adventure and satisfaction at having found a modern-day buried treasure.

Suddenly, in a scene reminiscent of Stand By Me (props to LA! for posting this clip to the group within the hour), shouts of "Truck!" reverberated down the tunnel - a fully laden logging truck was barreling down the abandoned rail line - directly towards us!

We headed back to our vehicles at a brisk pace - some at a run, some a brisk walk.  This was fairly unexpected - although in hindsight, I do recall seeing at least one small sign warning of something like "warning - truck traffic" - but I didn't think at the time that it could be a very likely occurrence - and certainly no transport truck would be on such a road and willing to travel through the tunnel!  How wrong I was.

I'll take "Things you don't expect to find in an abandoned train tunnel for $1000 Alex".
Getting back to the vehicles, it was obvious that we hadn't pulled over far enough for a truck to pass unimpeded.  We quickly decided that we had had enough adventure for that moment, and turned our vehicles around.

Kenny and I led the way back along the rail line, pulling over in a wide spot with lovely lilacs on one side of the bed, and huge mountains of creosoted ties on the other.  The truck passed us by and disappeared around the bend as we waited to be sure everyone was re-assembled.

Convoy once again in formation, we headed back along Flett and Finmark road until we came upon the truck and driver.  He had pulled over (with enough room for us to pass) and was conscientiously re-tightening his load.

As I passed by I rolled down my window and asked him how often he encounters surprised hikers blocking the way.

"Every single day." he replied patiently, with a tight-lipped smirk.

Ice?  In June?  Only in Thunder Bay!

Donna spotted a king's face in this picture - pareidolia at work?

Post Blog Blooper Reel:

Heading back down Highway 11/17, Gary Numan's Magnum Opus blaring on the truck speaker (more relevant to our modern world than ever, I must say.  I *DO* feel safest of all when I'm in my car, cut off from society), suddenly my bluetooth kicked in with a jarring 8-bit version of "Ride of the Valkyries" - someone was calling me?

You get what you pay for, and I had paid for a $25 bluetooth stereo from Walmart.  I could just make out the voice of TeamKim leader asking if Kenny and I were game to search out another nearby geocache at Sunshine.

"Heck Yeah!"  we replied (well, actually, we fumbled for five minutes to turn off the bluetooth on my phone and then Kenny mustered all his enthusiasm into "I guess so").  We're always looking to keep the party rollin'!

We pulled over at the Sunshine Loop cutoff and assessed.  Unfortunately, LM!, N! and S! had to pass the vehicle torch, so they were going to take a polite pass.  L! was able to inspire C! and M! to agree, and Kenny repeated his new mantra - "I'm willing to try new things" - as always, in an utterly convincing monotone voice.

We followed the GPS about a kilometer and a half north of the highway where we met up with our old nemesis - well, I guess not that old - it was the same rail bed we had left about twenty minutes earlier!  In fact, it was basically the Ellis node location!

There was a rust coloured gate hanging limply across the rail bed to keep interlocutors out (that is to say, people who TALK about being interlopers).

We swarmed all over it, but found nada, zilch, nothing, the big goose egg.  Luckily, an errant finger poking into the open end of a bar of square stock felt something more...  plastic than steel.

Sliding out a small magnetic hide-a-key, we knew we had triumphed yet again!  Score two for TeamKim!

I'm quite certain that everyone appreciated being able to claim two victories in the hunt for treasure in a single day.  Perhaps we will expand our group interests into the realm of geocaching?

But that, is another story...

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Disaster Strikes my Wood Rack!

During the course of the winter, I observed the rack of wood that I had set aside for possible sauna construction begin to tip over.

I had hoped that it would hold out until the snow melted, but I guess it wasn't to be.  One morning I woke up to it being completely over.  No harm I figured - I'll unload it and all will be well again.

Hey, this stuff can be heavy!
I was wrong.  You can see that the legs on the back actually sank deep into the clay before it tipped, and that bent the legs terribly.

Awww, that's not right!
I guess I'll just use the angle grinder to remove the lower section of legs and have a slightly shorter shelf when I move it to a more stable location.

Live, and hopefully learn.

Friday, May 24, 2019

First Campfire of 2019!

Kenny's been asking for a campfire for a week or two now, so last weekend we decided to give it a spin.

I used some very dry old lumber, which burned up way too quickly.  Time to get a bag of charcoal for the hibachi, and maybe use some of my precious birch for the campfires.

Bring on the skewers!

Thursday, May 23, 2019


I've been sitting on these pictures for a little while - just wanted to show the snow accumulation in front of the woodshed.

Be careful!  That's a sharp edge!

So pouty.
Bonus Hacienda picture.  That's the resting side.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Total Teardown of our Solar Power System - Switching from Flooded to AGM L-16 Batteries

Our solar power system has been working very well for us for the past five or more years.  It has washed our clothes, cooked our food, boiled some of our water, kept the lights on, charged our devices, powered our internet connection and, occasionally, even thrown off some heat here and there.

Of course, so much of our experiences here on the homestead have been punctuated by "if I was doing it over again..." sort of thoughts.  I finally managed to revisit two of them related to our solar power in the past couple of weeks.

Originally I had intended to put the batteries under the cabin.  This was before I realized that flooded batteries off-gas and need to be properly ventilated.  I wasn't too enthused with having something potentially explosive underfoot, and I also wasn't excited about having to isolate them and ventilate them to make that situation workable.

Instead, I put thick insulation inside of a deck box, drilled large holes through the cabin, and hoped for the best.

This did work just fine for half the year, but once the mercury dropped to twenty below and further, the capacity of those batteries was severely curtailed.  We could have a full charge in them by four (on the very rare days when there was that much sun available), and yet, by morning, they were just able to make it to lunch when the sun was finally back on them.  I suppose it's unfair to expect them to do all their required work on only four hours of sun in that perspective, even if we do shut off the power after we go to bed.

I tried installing warming pads to raise the temperature, and thus capacity of the batteries.  This had a mild positive effect.

Finally, while freezing my fingers and watering the batteries, I rethought about bringing the batteries indoors.  If I switched to sealed AGM batteries, I could solve three issues at once.

I wouldn't have to water them anymore, as the water in batteries isn't normally permitted to escape to the atmosphere during electrolysis.

They wouldn't take up so much space on our back deck.

They would *stay warmer* - and thus have much more capacity available to us through the winter months.

The big question - where to store them indoors?  The crawlspace was inconvenient to access them if required.  The main floor simply didn't have any free space.  The upstairs rooms also were already pretty tight.  So I went even higher.  The attic?

Four L-16 batteries at 52kg is just over 200kg in total.  This is like having three copies of myself in the attic.  Something in that perspective would never concern me.
Fortunately, two weeks ago my friend B! was visiting, so we purchased some 3/4" plywood and sliced it up to fit across the joists in the attic.  I had enough that I even doubled it up to be extra sure.

We also mounted the remaining pieces carefully on the end wall directly under the solar panels.  One other consideration is that the batteries really need to be kept as close as possible to the inverter to prevent too much in the way of line losses.

This is the first board mounted on the wall - ready for my electronics.

This is where the solar panel leads come into the cabin.  This is just a 4 gauge jumper cable I bought on sale - it worked great and was much cheaper than purchasing wire off the shelf!
This had the knock on effect of solving my other big issue with the existing solar power setup - all my electronics were in the master bedroom on the main floor, and the truth is, the Magnasine inverter/charger was a bit noisy.  It has a definite, noticeable hum.  We had learned to mostly tune it out, but it still was there whenever you were trying to listen to the radio or television quietly.

It also just made the room look and feel cluttered having the inverter, charge controller, and a small breaker box all in the same corner of our already cozy bedroom.

Most of the electronics are pulled out.  Look at that rat's nest of wiring!
All my cabin wiring congregated to this spot, so we did have to deal with that restriction - we ended up running conduit from that corner of the bedroom all the way through the loft room above, and into the attic, right between where the batteries would rest, and where the electronics would get mounted.  It looks just fine to me!  Just like the work I did in the kitchen.

In order to make the wiring fit, I still needed to add two more boxes.  I used this chance to mount switches or outlets in these boxes, so I could manually switch off circuits in the cabin without having to go to the attic to throw a breaker.  We also needed an outlet there for the digital electronics that were to remain - the modem, router, nVidia shield, bedroom television...

I ran two sections of conduit - one contained all the power related wires, and the other I pulled control cables (and the ground cable) through - the solar controller has a web server to show its state with, and I didn't want to give that up for anything.  So I pulled an RJ-45 wire for it.  Also, the inverter had its own controller on a standard telephone cable - I pulled that through too.

A view of the new conduit from the upstairs office/guest bedroom.
I hired my contractor to help me carry up the batteries - it was a three man job, but not too bad after that.

Batteries all lined up behind the access door.
Same with the inverter - the Magnasine is surprisingly heavy.

After about and hour and a half, my contractor and his hired man were finished, and I was left to slave most of the day away finishing the wiring.

I connected up the lines to the batteries, including two temperature monitors (one for the solar charger, one for the inverter/charger).  I plugged the network cable into the solar charge controller and...  no dice.  The cable was either too long, or damaged, or something.  I tried it a few different ways, and ended up having to pull ALL the lines out of that conduit, replace the network cable, and refeed them in again - that was NOT fun.  I added lots of dish soap to try to make it a bit smoother to pull them back through, and that definitely did help.

Batteries all interconnected, the two temperature probes are in the lower left of the picture.

Golly that inverter was heavy!  Note the baking sheet fireproof mount :).
Then, the really scary moment of truth - installing the 100amp fuse on the DC cable from the batteries.  As the capacitors in the inverter charge, there is always an off-putting spark.  It's not fun, but perhaps I'm getting use to it.  I believe this was the third time I've gotten to experience it (there's a video of the spark at this link).

Looking pretty good.  I've cleaned up and fastened the wiring since this picture.
Over the next couple of days, I finished up the wiring in the bedroom, and moving out the electronics has also given me a bit more wall space there, which I just filled with a few leftover chrome shelves that fit nicely.  Now I have a spot to hang a few of my "dress" clothes - and I was able to reposition the laser printer, and my tiny "work" shelf where I place computers and laptops as I work on them.  It's nice that I can have all my digital hookups in that one space.

I still need to repanel the wall now to go right to the corner.

Nice work area!  Sorry for the potato quality.
It's been a hard push to get this all dealt with, but watching the batteries charge up and hold such a good charge right through to the next morning has been very gratifying.  It's also so quiet in the bedroom now - the only sound is the fridge compressor in the other room, and that's only while it's running.  It also makes the room darker, without the lights of the inverter and charge controller (the latter of which ALWAYS displayed its state via bright LED lights (how's that for RAS syndrome?)).

Now in winter I'll only have to worry about the amount of sun we receive, and not so much the temperature as I believe the attic stays at a pretty moderate climate.

Bonus May 9 weather condition picture.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Follow-up to Aeration for Iron Mitigation - Problem Solved?

I don't want to get ahead of myself or jinx things, but there has been a definite and very noticeable difference in the water situation since I began aerating the well water on a daily basis.

Previously, water taken directly from the tap and boiled on the woodstove suffered severely from the iron being concentrated - as we poured out the kettle or the insulated bottle, the final second or two of the pour would suddenly be full on brown.  We only used this water for washing dishes, and they were always rinsed again afterwards, so while it was annoying, it wasn't severely distressing.

In any case, since the aerator has been operating, this has no longer been happening.  The water in the bottom of the kettle or insulated bottle has been as clear as the top pour.

I'm really, really excited.  I'll be sure to follow up if things change back again.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Aeration to Mitigate Iron in the Water - An Experiment

So we've never had to use the heat cable in our well as the daily pumping to the holding tank in the kitchen has always managed to keep the well water open.  That's a blessing that I really cannot stress enough.

Unfortunately, the water that we pump is just lousy, lousy, lousy with iron.  We don't even begin to entertain the notion of white clothes.  Our Berkey filters are covered in about four millimeters of sludge every time I try to wash them.  If we don't run the bathroom tap for a day for some reason, the water comes out very gritty, or sometimes like chocolate milk :(.

We don't have enough pressure or space for any fancy filtering systems, so I've had to seek out ideas that are decidedly low technology, low space, and with low power requirements.

I had heard a few indications that injecting air into your water system would somehow precipitate out the iron - maybe it discourages the bacteria that fix it?  I'm not completely sure, but I'm willing to try things.  So with that in mind, Kenny and I hit up the local big box pet store and purchased the largest bubbler we could find.  I've tried smaller bubblers in the past, but they've been too dependent on small solar panels, or had to be manually started every time I wanted them to run.  This is my last attempt at a larger setup.

My parts assembled.  What a neatly made bed!
The pump had four outputs, which was three more than I really thought I needed.  I bought two T connectors and brought that down to two outputs.  I also bought two long air stones and twenty-five feet of air hose.

Setting up the T connectors.
And the finished setup.  Looks good to me!
I assembled most of this, and then waited for the well to finally melt out of the snow.

Once we could see the cover, Kenny dug a lovely trench from the cabin down to the well, and I headed down to check things out.

Exciting!  We can see the well again!

The water level was worryingly close to my outlet inside, which is a situation I've been aware of for some time.  I disconnected the heating cable, and then hooked up the air pump instead.

Making sure that (with the power turned off) the plug is above the waterline.
I lowered the air stone to the bottom of the well and trimmed the hose into two lengths that would allow the stones to be fully submerged to the stone base.  Unfortunately, no bubbles developed at that depth.  Sigh.  I raised the stones up until I felt that there was a good supply of bubbles coming through the water, and fastened the hoses in place.  I realize that the bubbler is in a precarious position, but this is both an experiment, and the best I could realistically do.

Looks a little crazy, but it shouldn't be able to go anywhere.
Had to lift up the stones off the bottom before I got good bubble production.

Indoors I've been trying to press the timer switch in the kitchen that was normally reserved for the heating cable.  It has a maximum time of thirty minutes, which is far less than I think the bubbler really needs to run.  I plan on replacing it with a daily timer as soon as I can purchase one.  It seems to draw so little power, I could probably just leave it on constantly, but in winter I may want to be able to have more granular control, so I think the timer with more features is the way to go.

I guess it may take a week or two or three to flush out the current system and begin to see any results, if any are to be seen.  I'll try to post back.  In the meantime, wish us luck!

Kenny was inspired to begin work on our next video game and this is a key scene - coincidence?  I think not!