Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Canvas Walled Winter- Acclimatization


First of all I want to say that I finally bought that second thermometer I have been meaning to acquire since I moved in and it, in it's infancy has already given me much to think about. To begin, it is 6 degrees outside and the air is 48 degree inside the tent, which has stood unmanned for the last four hours while I was away enjoying a luxurious dinner of fresh veggies thanks to our weekly winter CSA box.   Like I've said, this cabin is no different than any other house in terms of internal temperature, both my house and your's are warm when the heat is on, the big difference lies merely in the speed at which they cool off when the heater shuts down, and this cabin, sans insulation, cools off with great rapidity. So I rambled back here, got the fire stoked up and here I sit in a t-shirt, a single pair of thoroughly threadbare woolen long underwear (hey I live with a dog and he hasn't complained of my bachelor ridden wardrobe), typing away not really feeling cold at all, although to be fair in the course of typing this sentence I have flashed looks of impatience at the sluggish stove several times, with no response.

I have to admit to not only being a book nerd, but also being a nerd of books and stories about Antarctic exploration. I finished reading “Mawson's Will” and “The Coldest March” this week, both of which are books about extremely harrowing and dangerous expeditions on the Antarctic continent, the former with a (kinda) happy ending and the latter with a not so happy ending. In both Douglas Mawson's and Robert F. Scott's stories of ridiculous cold weather expeditions, a constant theme, among many, was the acclimatization to the weather that was experienced by all, or at least most, of the members of both expeditions. This is remarkable for one reason: it is uncomprehendingly cold and windy. Temperatures of -70 and winds of 80+ miles per hour are not uncommon once the coreless polar winter sets in. But as you read about the lives of those men (sorry no women on the expeditions, this was turn of the century Victorian England) you realize that they got used to those low temperatures to the point where they were repairing motor sledge engines in -40 and sleeping in wet, frozen reindeer hide sleeping bags with only minimal discomfort. Basically, they got used to it. In a round about way this is my attempt at making sense of the fact that it is now edging only towards 58 in the cabin and I am not at all feeling the chill. I will be curious what the temp is when I wake up, I am betting it'll be around 10. Sound cold? It's not if you get used to it.    

Monday, January 6, 2014

Canvas Walled Winter- Cold Bubbles


The past few night have remained cold, dipping down to -10 and I would think close to -30 with the wind chill. I have found that this tent starts to lose the battle with the cold around that point, say -20 or less. At those cold temperatures the wood stove is able to keep me warm, but like the wolves in Jack London's Whitefang who are always lurking just beyond the limit of the campfire's light, the cold becomes a sphere around me kept at bay by the wood stove. It is like living in a little warm bubble that expands and contracts with the rising and falling temperature of the stove. I think I would be good to -40, then at that point the bubble might be so small, even with the stove rolling, that I would either have to huddle close to the stove or, well, find somewhere warmer to live. That said, I wouldn't be surprises if -40 comes and goes without a perceptible difference in here save for a cold floor. This past week it has been cold enough where the snow that comes in on my boots on the rug by the door doesn't melt, it just sits there all day reminding me that my bubble is getting smaller. I guess the smallest my bubble can get is the size of my down sleeping bag, which has kept me uncomfortably warm all night and that routinely earns it's -20 degree rating.  

It is still snowing, lake effect snow now meaning that 10 miles inland from here it is a bright sunny day but here, due to the moisture leaking from the lake skywards, we received another 2-3 inches of light, powdery snow. The wood pile has taken a hit this week- all this withdrawing without a deposit has been making my feel a bit antsy.  The other day I drove out to cut a truck load of wood and found that all of the roads leading into the woods were still buried under 2' of snow.  Most people look at firewood as a luxury, as a way of highlighting the holiday season with a crackling fire in which to sit in front of and watch football (I am one of those who does in fact enjoy doing just that) but for this life firewood is a commodity beyond luxury. To me firewood means life and a lack of it means, not death-we're not that remote up here, but losing a challenge and losing the claim of self sufficiency; which represents a big deal to me.

I have been busy training for my trip this February to the Boundary Waters (Follow our trip at http://bwwinter2014.blogspot.com/ ). Everyday I try to take a trip to town with a loaded up sled (2.5 miles round trip). Today I took the sled in, did laundry, bought some groceries, filled up my water and came home. I love the feeling of living an active life at a time of the year where, if other people were to find themselves doing what I routinely do, it would be a result of some catastrophe or bad luck, anything but by choice.  I thrive on the confused and sympathetic looks I get from people driving by when I am pulling a sled in -30 and snowing weather, looks that seem to say "Poor guy, I wonder where his car broke down?" It reminds me of a time a few winters ago when I friend of mine and I were walking out to ice fish on Lake Superior.  We were on foot pulling sleds about 2 miles off shore when a guy pulled up on his snowmobile and asked us where our machine broke down and if we needed a ride.  Situations like that make me feel like I am doing something right.  

Friday, December 27, 2013

Canvas Walled Winter- Welcome Winter


It was funny, the other night I was sitting on the front porch of the cabin drinking some tea thinking that this life (this winter at least) so far has been too easy. Now I don't need life to be difficult, far from it, but I was beginning to feel a shade antsy; so far I had been focusing on the day to day physical needs of this life off the grid and, I guess I was winding up with too much free time. Well that changed this week. Starting Monday afternoon we started getting a wet, heavy snow and it didn't let up until Thursday morning. All told I have 16” on the ground in places on this property and I suspect that there might be nooks deep in the woods that received more. It was a thick snow with temps staying close to or slightly above the freezing point all week. The only problem was that it stuck like putty to the tarp over my tent which caused the shelter to slump under the weight of the snow. I'm not sure what would have happened if I wasn't there to shake the tarp clean every hour or so, maybe nothing, although most likely the guy lines holding the tarp out would have ripped off the tarp and it would have been free to flail in the wind- not the end of the world. It does show, though, how much more attention a house like this demands, and I for one like that feeling of connection to one's shelter.

Behind the storm that brought the snow was a high pressure system that allowed cold dry air to funnel down from Canada and settle over the area. It feels good after a week of damp cold and snow to have clean dry air and light fluffy snow. I can't attest to the wind chill, but when I woke up this morning the temp was -10 and it really never got too much beyond that today. The tent has stayed warm despite the new arctic air, as I write now the outside temp is -12 and I am inside wearing a t-shirt which I would think means the temp inside the tent is around 65 (at least on the end with the stove!)

I was gone all day yesterday to the big city and when I got home around midnight I found the following items frozen solid:

-The 5 gallon jug of water
-A jar of peanut butter
-Contact solution
-A jar of dish soap
-A bottle of mead (not the whiskey)

I learned quickly not to use the small portion of liquid that doesn't freeze in the bottle of contact solution as, I can figure from a very uncomfortable first hand experience,  it is either salt or alcohol.  Much of this life is like learning how to live all over again, and I consider that lesson learned.  I take a good deal of satisfaction out of learning these small lessons that make this canvas walled life possible, some lessons are learned the hard way, like to thaw out the humanure bucket so it can be dumped, before its gets to full to use, while thankfully other lessons are given without a worry  (I can't think of an example of one of those, I'll let you know when I learn something the easy way...)    

I like toast, unfortunately I have had no way of baking a good slice of bread over the wood stove.  I thought about baking right on the hot steel, but as there is a layer of stove blacking on it, eating food right off the stove seems slightly sketchy.  Well the other night over diner my neighbors and I started talking in their kitchen, which is tiled with slate, and we got to thinking that one of those 12” x12” slate tiles put directly onto of the wood stove might do the trick. This morning I tried it out and it works like a charm, the slate gets good and hot and toasts a slice of bread quicker that a toaster.  Of course with any new tool there is a slight learning curve, like with this slate tile I learned it is better to have half over the firebox and half over the shelf on the stove to keep the temperate of the slate down and to give you a few different temperatures to cook at.  I thought it would benefit from a layer of oil like my cast iron, which I think it did, but in the process I almost started the tent a flame by applying the oil to the slate while it was on a raging hot wood stove- lesson learned. I like it when you get off relatively easy learning lessons in life. Like the other week when I was at my dad's house we heard this banging coming from the clothes dryer, and thinking it was just loose change or a belt we forgot about it until I opened the dryer and laying there among my socks and t-shirt were 3 unspent 30-06 cartridges that were in my pants pocket from hunting. I'm not sure if we were ever in danger from those shells or whether they could have accidentally fired in the dryer but it definitely gave me pause to think how close I came to owing my dad a new dryer.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Canvas Walled Winter- Back Behind the Wheel


Arlo and I in our usual spots- behind the wheel 
So after a whole mess of windshield time in the past few days, what with the holiday and all, I am finally back living the canvas lined American dream. Somewhere in the middle of the 6 hour drive up here I let me mind drift into the philosophical turbidity of the contemplation of time- time as in when will I get to to Minoqua (the place where I start feeling like I am home), time as in I wonder how long my grandpa has to live ( it's ok, his passing will be an occurrence of sad relief and remembrance of a life long lived), and time in relation to our limited perception. The first was simple as it is a notion of time that is fixed to a physical place, so it's accomplishment came and went with little more than a fresh cup of terrible coffee to show for it. But it does service to this journal entry by giving me a tangible object to tie that third idea of time onto- it's relativity to our lives.  Whew, I don't think that made a terrible lot of sense, but we'll move on... 

Time is a bit notional, a bit of a problem to us, as Jimmy Buffet would say, “we all want it, we all got it, now what do we do with it?” He was talking about love, but I figure one immortal element of life can substitute for another in a pinch. And just like love, we can all too easily let time go unnoticed until it is found a few months later in the back of the fridge with a pernicious shellac of blue green algae growing on it and no clear memory in our noggins of how it got there in the first place. Time has the habit of laying low, letting you think it will never change and then wham! time gets up and cold clocks you between the peepers with a sock full of nickles. So it is with this loping pace that time carries on throughout life; so slow that time starts to disappear and then there is an event that accelerates time back to where it should be, leaving you feeling a bit older but hopefully with a renewed appreciation for the impermanence of our time here. I feel that way often these days, that time, while still creeping through the weeds unnoticed, is about to let loose one on me; better start wearing protective eye wear.

Well, no time for anything these days but getting ready for the cold weather coming this weekend. The last couple of days were warm, in the low 30's and 20's at night. I don't know if it really is that warm at night or if my body is adapting to the cold but I found myself sleeping with the same sleeping bag I usually use in the summer and that barely kept me warm a few weeks ago. The stove is doing it's part in keeping the nights warmer now I have figured out that if the stove is loaded to the gills with wood and only given a gasp of air in the vent that a good hot bed of coals can be nursed all night and be waiting for my command to heat up the water for coffee in the morning. I am not sure how much heat the coals put off throughout the night but I'm sure it is enough to take to edge off of the crisp winter air. Today I sectioned and split up the last of the wood I had hauled in last week which brings me to a cord and a half or so.

Today was the first snow I have seen up here this year. While I was gone we received a couple of inches but, alas my eyes saw not the snow nor the flake in my absence. So I was happy and content seeing the beginning of what is supposed to be a three day storm bringing 12-18 inches by Thursday. I found myself sitting on the porch reading and having a nip of elixir this afternoon, all the while thinking I'm sure the neighbors would be amused to see me enjoying the afternoon as though it was a lazy and sultry summer afternoon. 

While typing I heard scratching coming from the gear shelf outside, and hoping to catch the little mouser on camera, I ducked out into the, now heavily snowing evening. Well, it was a good thing I went outside as my tarp, which I'm sure will do a splendid job of shedding dry snow, was languishing under the weight of the wet snowy mix we were getting necessitating me to give it a good shaking all around to relive it of the slushy burden. I may have to figure out some other way of supporting the tarp if this snow loading becomes a common occurrence as eventually it will bring down the tarp's ridge pole, and that should be prevented.

The finished mittens
I finished one of the fox lined mittens today and, for my first ruffing I think it came out alright. Today also marked to first bread making in the cabin. I would like an oven attachment for the wood stove that I can bake bread instead of frying it, and while I am thinking about it there are few other things I want my stove to do. First, I don't see why the wood stove can't be making electricity for me. They sell a little backpacker'
s stove that also creates a drip of power, and scaled up to the wood stove here that same technology should be able of really cranking out the power! Well that is it I guess, I want my wood stove to bake bread and make electricity, in no particular order. It shouldn't prove to hard to make a small steel oven that hooks onto the side of the stove, I think I will use an old white gas can as soon as it is empty. It will look essentially like a reflector oven except that it will gain it's heat from the side of the stove instead of an open fire.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Canvas Walled Winter- Away


Making Lefse with Grandma- the highlight of going home for T-day
Just a small disclaimer: I am currently on sabbatical from the cabin due to our nation's need to keep the domestic turkey population under control, and when you look at the statistics it is a darn good thing. It is estimated that 50 million turkeys are culled from the flock each year around the end of November. I mean, imagine if we didn't take them out, why we'd be plum overrun up to our gills with turkeys, and if you've ever dealt with a flock of turkeys, well, it can be quite challenge as most birds of considerable girth are a force to be reckoned with. It is well known that geese, both wild and domestic, have a temperament fit for a bouncer at a pub- quiet and stoic until provoked then the next thing you know they come at your full bore with wings spread and beak aimed for your eyes (or worse). I once saw a friend try to rush a flock of Canada geese in a park in a big city thinking that, since the population was clearly well beyond the control of the ineffective groundskeepers whose only defense was to paint tar on the eggs to prevent them from hatching, that he could simultaneously reduce the problem of the park's goose carrying capacity and also put some meat on the dinner table. All was going well until he crossed some invisible, to us hominids but clearly not to the geese, boundary that signaled a good number of the flock of twenty or so to wheel around and in unison make the most unworldly (and terrifying) noise I have heard in my short life. Well when my buddy saw this display of utter attack he was forced to dive awkwardly away from the flock at the last second and proceeded to tumble, much to the delight of the geese I would think and to myself purely as a recorder of moments in time, into a nearby spruce and through on out the other side. It was all great fun.

It is strange being away from the cabin and it was even more unsettling leaving last night. Unlike robotic homes that live on life support delivered unerringly from the grid, my cabin ceases to function when I am not there to care for it; alone and utterly gridless. I packed up those things that can't freeze into the truck to come with me, put those things that, if they freeze will explode and cause a mess, in a big plastic bin and left the rest to fend for themselves until I return. Do most people personify their homes and the “stuff” that lives in it? I like to think that my hammock will miss me, coldly hanging there all furled and twisted like the lonely single sock one finds in a laundromat washing machine that had clearly been left behind, probably because the dryer stole it's mate as was thereby rendered fairly useless. These are the things I think about when doing laundry and also when I leave the cabin. I'm sure a psychologist would say otherwise about my personification of inanimate objects but I defer to an older time in human history when the items we had in our lives were often imbued with spiritual significance and cultural taboo. Of course that is not to say that a single white cotton sock neglected in a laundromat washing machine has the same animate value as say, a hunter's bow from the early Pleistocene, but I am not going to be the one who makes that judgment call. So to be safe I feel that most things are alive or have something more going from them than their physical form would let on.

A happy and well fed Calcifer 
My stove is a no brainer- definitely alive, and dare I say with personality. It was hard letting the coals burn down to cold dead ash after the fire in it's belly had been glowing non-stop for pert near a week. I have figured out the correct amount of ventilation needed to allow the full load of wood I shove in right before bed to burn down to a nice bed coals overnight without going totally out. If I am really on the ball I remember to stack a small pile of wood directly under my hammock so in the morning I just reach down, open the vent, load up the stove with some wood and retreat back to my down-filled cocoon, all without putting my feet on the ground. There naturally comes a time when the cage has to get cleaned, so to speak, and the ashes have to get scooped and tossed in the garden's compost pile. Instead of letting the stove cool down completely, I scoop a shovel load of the red hot coals into a metal pot which gets set aside while the stove is cleaned out. Then when the fire box is clean I return the coals thereby reinoculating the stove with the spirit of the old fire. Sound crazy? You try investing the continuation of your nice cozy 98.6 degree world in a wood stove for a winter in the north country and tell me how attached you become to your stove. What sounds crazy to me is living a life that is so removed from the act of keeping warm in the winter that you don't even know how the one thing that keeps you warm even works or how to feed it when it's hungry when the grid is down, let alone how to fix it when it breaks.

The one thing being back in city has made me realize is that I need a good table. I don't want something so large that it will serve as a beacon for flotsam and other assorted pocket scraps, but large enough to accommodate my small woodworking array and also a few choice dinner guests. I envision an empty table sitting there in the cabin, just waiting for purpose or perhaps just waiting for a candle and a small vase with which to put a pen or a flower in. If I were a pipe smoker, that is where the pipe and it's smoking accouterments would live. But look, the table is already getting cluttered, maybe I am not ready for such an empty canvas yet. A friend once told me not to build too many shelves or cupboards as they are merely eddies into which falls and collects the clutter of life and I too have experienced this phenomenon. Once I rented a house that came with a completely empty two car garage. Well, let me tell you it didn't take more than a few weeks before the space was occupied by logs I was meaning to make into baskets, bikes I was meaning to fix up, tables and shelves that absorbed and necessitated the growth of my tool collection, and other items that I could justify keeping only because I couldn't justify throwing them away. I have learned that space is only destined to be filled, so be careful how much you make.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Cavas Walled Winter- Melancholia or Even Woodsmen Get the Blues


The practical: It was a fair day, temps in the teens to low twenties, some sun. Around 2 pm a pocket of warm air moved in and it sure felt a heck of a lot nicer out.  I bucked the trend of most people up here, instead of hunting deer I stalked the woods for dead trees. The way I see it is I don't need meat to live, but wood and the heat it releases through the magic of pyrolysis, I physically cannot live without and the idea of buying wood rubs me wrong considering we are living in one of the greatest and most expansive forests on Earth. That said I did find a few minutes tonight to sit in my blind but nothing came around. The fox lined mittens are coming along nicely and I hope to get them finished up this week.

The less than practical: This afternoon I started feeling, well melancholy I guess, not too blue just a bit down in the spirit. I always like to think about these feelings in relation to something or in metaphor as my mind works better when I give it something tangible to latch onto in times of emotional or psychological introspection. In this case I became fixated on a word and found myself walking home from the deer blind with the word 'melancholia' stuck in my head and after a cursory exploration, this is what I came up with:

It is indeed, as I thought, a work of art (an engraving in wood to be exact) by Albrecht Drurer, sorry Albrecht, no umlauts on this keyboard. So in 1514 old Albrecht engraved one of the art world's most intriguing, most interpreted, and most studied pieces where he depicts a depressed looking winged women in the midst of a veritable jambalaya of symbolism. There are many good scholarly articles out there if you are interested in the nitty gritty of the piece, but succinctly she is surrounded by the weapons of science (alchemy) and mathematics- not in use and scattered about is a hammer, a balance scale, an hour glass, and she holds a compass. The way I understand this scene is that while she is surrounded by the tools to make her life better, she is unable to use them to achieve a vision of life she broods over; a feeling of helplessness and impotence to enact a life despite having all the tools to do so.

Very melancholy leaves
I like that idea because I think we all suffer from that melancholy, the melancholy of “if I just move here life will be different' or “if I just get this new thing then I will have life by the throat and it will be mine.” But I don't think it works like that. We are like children surrounded by toys but yet who cry out of loneliness. We clamor and grind through life with the idea that physical material translates to emotional/spiritual/psychological enlightenment and growth, and while I can't say there isn't any interaction or relationship between the internal and the external, it seems to me like we put a little too much stock in the latter. In this modern culture we are up to our eyeballs with stuff, some useful, some ridiculously worthless, but who among us can say that anything we own has helped us achieve what we are really working towards?  
But just as the engraving shows, in this case with a rainbow, there is always a new morning coming just around the bend and if you can wake with fresh eyes then all of the melancholy of the past day becomes mere fodder for your journal.  Now, if I can only get these winter mittens done everything will be better...

Friday, December 6, 2013

Canvas Walled Winter- Anticipation


It feels like winter is coming and I for one am ready.  The feeling is like the anticipation you experience just before you board an airplane, where you know something is about to happen, and save some crazy move on your behalf like running frantically out of the airport, the outcome is kinda inevitable or at least unavoidable- they take your ticket, you'll board the plan, the plan will take off with you trapped aboard and there you are until the wheels stop rolling back on the ground. Depending on my attitude at that given moment I either feel a shade claustrophobic (more than a shade when I fly) or more often, like with the coming of winter, energized by the constriction of freedom that come with those events.  Now, I don't mean I like to have my ability to live as I please trammeled or trampled upon- there is a fundamental difference between willing and unwilling imposition of an outside force, I just like the reduction in the complexity of life those moments produce.  I get the same feeling when you receive 18" of snow and the roads close for a day; life becomes simple- stay warm and hunker down.  Of course I know deep down that I don't have to board that airplane or I don't have to live through winter, yet their presence and dogged continuity gets me focused in the present instead of getting lost thinking about the future or worse, mulling over the past.  I suppose in a way it is why people take up extreme sports, get painful body modifications or devote their lives to intense religious study- all reduce life to very simple terms and relieve you from the burden that the past and future can carry.  

The new rug- it really ties the room together
Today temperatures didn't climb to much above the freezing point and we enjoyed bright blue skies and calm winds for the first time in a few days. Now the temp is down to 24 and the wind chill tonight is supposed to drop to around -5;  I think tonight will be the night I use my new down -20 degree down sleeping bag. This weather seems right for this time of year where fall is waning and winter is just getting revved up. The dry weather has given me a good deal of time to take care of some projects around the cabin that have been needing attending to. Today I made a run to the lumber yard and picked up some 1x6's and 1x8's for some shelving that will replace the old plastic shelving I had been using.  The new shelves look a great deal better and free up some floor space while the old shelves are now holding some outdoor clutter that had been living all over the deck, which won't be such a great storage area when the snow comes. Now the outdoor clutter is neatly tucked away, the inside of the tent is more organized and to top it off Evan and Sadie stopped by with a birthday present- a new (old) wool middle eastern rug. Not only does it really class up the place but it adds another layer of insulation on the floor.

The new shelf holding some winter reading
More shelf action
Tomorrow begins the 9 day deer season up here. I plan on waking up early and heading out to the blind I built overlooking the creek bottom and waiting to see if any deer (bucks only for me this year) stroll by. I would be lying if I said I went just to be out there and the hunt was not important, I mean there are 50 other weeks of the year that I could go sit in the crepuscular light waiting to catch a glimpse of a wild critter, but I usually don't. Maybe it's the added sense of purpose, maybe it is the chance to be a part of something greater than us, maybe it is because I like to eat meat. Either way the night before the hunt begins is an exciting time, not exciting like the night before Christmas but exciting like the night before a big presentation where you not only have to get up at an unusually early time but that you will also be expected to perform some task requiring a higher degree of mental and physical exertion. This year I am not as nervous as I have been in the past, but sure as the wind will blow tonight I will be excited when my alarm goes off at 5 am.