Saturday, April 24, 2010

Trail is Marked

We spent the day hiking through the trees with GPS in one hand marker paint and trail tape in the other. It's nearly impossible to actually walk or mark in a completely straight line, especially since the GPS is not entirely accurate, but I'd say we have a reasonably straight line clearly marked to our center point now. We also brought a lot of tree bits back with us in our shirts and pockets since we just bulled our way through the thickest parts rather than going around as usual -- which necessitated much hacking away with survival knife to leave a clear line of sight to the last marker.

One thing is for sure, this boreal forest is nothing like the east coast hardwood forests where there is lots of open space in the understory and very little brush... everything here is jam-packed together creating an almost impenetrable wall of wood except the few places that falling trees and large animals have already beaten down a path of sorts. The more easterly we head, the bigger and denser the trees get until we hit that little clearing area near the center marker. We tried to do the string trick to make a straight line, but that was not even going to happen as it got snagged, hung up, twisted around etc. So we ended up leap-frogging from point to point, one person beating their way through the brush until we were in line again, then the other one hacking, spraying, and taping until we caught up.

We we started out, it was bright and sunny with a few clouds; that lasted until we were really in the thick of things and then the clouds rolled in and it started to snow. We did manage to get to the center and then back out to the tent before it started snowing hard though. Have to be careful with the weather the way it is because it's really easy to get mild hypothermia since it feels warmer than it really is, and if/when the weather turns with snow or rain you can get chilled really fast. You know you're getting cold, tired and low on blood sugar when you starting yelling at each other over the stupidest crap... sometimes you don't even realize that it's creeping up on you.

We did find LOTS of moose poop back there, and what appears to be a well-used bedding area... so we're going to be extra careful so as not to surprise Momma and her calf.  Also seeing fresh chew marks on the base of the alders and fresh scat, so the porcupines are definitely out and about. Running into the occasional fresh bear sign - scat and claw scrapes, although no identifiable tracks since the snow is melting too fast.  Something big got Ripley's attention last night and spent a good 10 minutes barking her best "My house, go away" warning from the deck. It was just the wrong light for us to see anything, so it could have been a moose or a bear; but definitely something big enough to really get Ripster agitated. Most times she just chuffs and woofs a bit when it's something smaller like coyotes and foxes.

But anyway, now that the trail is marked through, we can start working at it from both ends to meet in the middle. It tends to work better that way so we aren't on top of each other and risking life and limb dropping a tree on the other person. Of course it does mean that Ripley has to run back and forth the 500' between us, but she's young and full of energy (it's really our secret plan to exhaust her LOL). We will, of course, each have a weapon nearby and our walkies if we're out and separated... no sense throwing caution to the wind just because we want to finish faster. Safety First!

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Trail Pics

Yes, it really is 60F -- and it feels really hot! Mostly sunny with a light breeze, perfect for clearing trail. Although this says it's 40% Relative Humidity, but that's only because the gauge doesn't go lower; our electronic monitor indicates that it's 27% RH today... so slightly more humid than normal. Most people can't deal when it's this arid, but we seem to do ok now that we're used to it... high humidity has always been a killer for me anyway, I hate feeling sticky.
The warm temps and 16+ hours of daylight have resulted in lots of thawing. "Break Up" is officially here, and is turning our driveway and clearing into a slushy bog. Although, since we didn't get as much snow as usual this year, its not too bad. Just means we have to be careful where we walk and deal with Ripley running inside and nailing you with cold soggy paws. Poor girl, even though she's blown her winter coat, with all the snow melting she can barely find a place to cool down anymore.
Now that the snow has melted, you can finally see how much farther we've gotten on the trail clearing this spring. It does meander a bit, but mostly because it was hard to figure out where you were and what was underneath you with 2+ feet of snow on the ground.  Standing at the eadge of the clearing where we stopped last September, it actually is starting to look like a proper driveway!  Once we get the Billy Goat brush mower fixed and borrow it back from Jimmy (after doing some clearing for him in exchange), this should clean up quite nicely. It might need to be widened a little bit more to let the truck through, but the ATV goes down it just find... once we take the wiggles out, the truck should fit just fine.
And we have our "Central Processing Area" that's at the head of our current push. This was a somewhat natural clearing full of deadites that we salvaged earlier. Makes it much easier to park and turn the ATV around here for the time being rather than risk it getting trapped in a brush-filled trail with us. We just unhook the sled and take that down the trail for now. This clearing also makes it easier for us to pre-process the firewood trees into manageable logs before sledding them down the trail to house.
And my little blooper trail is handy for us to start piling up our brush in as we continue to clear further down our corrected heading. Clearing up all the slash, brush and little stuff out from behind you is the most time consuming part of clearing trail. If you're not careful, you can get stuck with a chainsaw that's out of gas with no way to go forward through the dense trees and no way to go backward because you have a 20' brushpile behind you! If you're really lucky, you'll find a thin spot of forest to bull your way through, else it's a very long journey back out getting tripped and whipped the whole way. But you can see how easy it is to lose your bearings in this sort of forest... it all looks the same!
 We have brush piles like this one about every 20 yards down the trail. All of this is either wet/punky stuff that wouldn't burn, or spruce slash and other stuff too small to bother making into firewood.  We're probably going to have to move a few of these piles again if we end up widening the trail for the truck since they're kind of crammed to the side. Sometimes the forest is just too dense to clear out the brush as you go. Eventually, I figure we'll have a big bonfire to celebrate reaching the center marker, but theres way more brush than we need for even that :-D  I think we'd burn down the forest if we tried to burn of all these brush piles, so we'll leave the ones that aren't a safety issue (fire or vehicular) as natural habitat for the critters.

Willow thickets, huge fallen trees and massive stumps cause us the most problems. Those damned thickets just will not die and they love to snag you and throw on the ground. Makes for dangerous footing when you're carrying a huge log or a running chainsaw. The stumps and fallen trees are less difficult to clear out or go around as long as the ground isn't frozen... both of these are right in the middle of the trail and we can't deal with them properly until it thaws a bit more, then they'll pull right up with the ATV winch. I'd like to keep that stump mostly intact and just move it elsewhere since it makes a nice hidey-hole for the critters.

And here we can see the trail heading back to the tent. We're going to have to get a trailer for the ATV soon since I doubt the sled will manage much longer now that the snow is melting.

So every day, we end up with a little more of this:

Do  a lot more of this:

And end up with some more of this:

(yes, we're having some heaving issues with that center post now that it's warming up -- we'll fix it as soon as we can get the pier unfrozen)

Monday, April 19, 2010

At the Half-Way Point

Just came in from clearing out the trail (some) so we can keep cutting further. Much to our surprise, we are further in than we thought we were, as we discovered that we were actually parallel to the "Secret Garden" and not too far off from the "Sentinel" Tree. Woohoo! 

Here's a little illustration so you can see the layout:

We have a cord (+/-) of firewood from last fall's clearing, which we finally got around to bucking up into stove lengths because it got buried under the snow before we could get to it. We now have a new mound of logs to buck up from the spring clearing so far, which will probably be another 1.5-2 cords.  That's not including the 5+ cords of deadites that we cleared and burned this winter.  Figure by the time we're done cutting in the trail and clearing the building site, we should have at least 6 cords of green to season, plus another 3 or 4 cords of deadites for immediate consumption. We're basically salvaging anything that's bigger than my fingers fit around... it all burns!!  Actually, we prefer smaller wood to big splits since we have greater control over the temp that way... the big split stuff is normally just for bedtime or long absences.

I'll post pics of the trail (and blooper trail), the massive brushpiles, and all our stacks of firewood and mounds of logs soon. Plus pics of all the puddles and slush everywhere. Forgot to take the camera with me again today :-D

We've also had some moose visitors recently. From the signs we saw today it looks like a female or possibly a younger male... now we know what Ripley's been all woofy about. Wonder if that big bull from last year will come back, he seemed fairly at home last time I saw him. Of course, a mom with baby is probably just as, if not more, dangerous that a big bull, so we'll keep our eyes peeled. Seeing the occassional sign of bears, but not too close to the tent and nothing that indicates that any are hanging around... so far, so good. The rabbits are starting to turn brown again, and the birds are back... so are the flies and mosquitos. Ah, JOY!

Friday, April 9, 2010

Making Concessions

I'm rounding the homestretch on the 16' x 24' cabin plans. The end is in sight. After months of designing and redesigning, I've finalized the structural plan enough to start working on a materials list, finding suppliers and costing things out. And then going back and tweaking my model with necessary changes to stay somewhere close to our budget.

For instance, we'll have to forego the metal roof this time and go with shingles. It's not ideal, and won't make for good rain catchment... but we can afford it and it doesn't rain here enough anyway. The nice enclosed porches that could be turned into arctic entries every winter with a few foam panels? Those had to be post-poned as well. All the other niceties, like big windows in the living room and tongue-n-groove flooring, don't really result in enough cost-savings to eliminate.

So I feel that I've stripped down the design and construction of the cabin to barest of bones, with the absolute least amount of material waste, while still maintaining a safe, livable, and warm abode. Designing the whole thing on a 4x8 grid to match common building materials helped keep costs down ALOT, even if it made building the stairs a total PITA. It's been a challenge, but worth every minute.

What we've ended up with is a box made of 6x12 (everything yellow is 12") sill beams and girders, that rests on our piers on top of adjustable screw jacks. The 6x6 posts go on the sill box frame and support an identical header box frame creating the loft and supporting the gambrel roof. This is the main load bearing structure and more than adequate to handle the loads - including snow, wind and seismic (whew! doing all THAT math sucked!)

The concrete pad and pier foundation is completely on the surface because of the permafrost, and the crawlspace is 36" above grade to keep from thawing it out. Between the concrete piers and the sill beams is an adjustable heavy-duty (15-ton bearing/2-ton lifting) screw jack so that we can level the house in the spring and fall if there is frost heave. That's one of the reasons we had to build such a beefy load bearing frame for the main "cube" -- can't have the house joints bending and flexing too much while we're twiddling with the jacks.

Between the wall posts, we'll be installing a double wall, with a gap between, made of 2x4 studs that are staggered 24" on center (no thermal bridges!) and then the entire 8" cavity filled with blown cellulose (for about R-30). The 12" floor and rafter cavities will also be completely filled with cellulose (for about R-45).

The south end of the first floor is the living room and kitchen area, with the woodstove centrally located. There are 3 big windows on the south face (2 down, 1 up) to let in light and some tiny bit of solar gain in the winter (but mostly they will have thick insulating curtains on them in the winter to keep in the heat).

The north end of the first floor contains an 8x8 pantry for all our non-freeze-safe food storage needs (since we stock up for the entire winter), and the staircase (I don't trust ship ladders because I'm a spaz) with our composting toilet and a sink (yes, a real sink!!!) underneath. There is a small ventilation/light window in the bathroom under the stairs, and a fixed glass picture window upstairs (we couldn't ignore the view of the mountains even if windows on the north face are a bad idea).

The loft will have the bedroom, our water storage tank, the battery bank & inverter and (finally!) a small office/desk area. The super-steep (12/3 & 7/12 pitches), braced gambrel truss roof allows us to have almost full usable floor space in the loft, even if it requires a ladder permanently affixed to the roof so we can get up to sweep the chimney.

Both porches on the east and west side are 4' and we will be screening them in even if we don't fully enclose them yet. The porches will be used to store firewood, the generator, fuel and to set up our little propane burner so I can do my canning without totally heating up the house.

So that's the plan anyway. Next time we're in Fairbanks, we'll place our orders at the lumber yard and builders supply warehouse and should (hopefully) have the rest of the driveway and homesite cleared before they deliver everything to the side of the highway. No one will come down our trail in a big truck, not even for the pricey delivery fees  :(  Oh well, at least I won't have to drive back and forth to Fairbanks a dozen times ferrying it all 3/4 tons at a time!

Now let's see if we can build it level, square and plumb; and get it all dried in and insulated before winter comes again. :)  It'll be nice to have solid walls again.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Whoops - wrong tree!

Just got done cutting another 25 yards of trail only to discover that I veered off 7 degrees because I was using the wrong "big tree" as my sight line. So there went a whole day of wasted work effort and a bunch of senseless tree murder. The GPS we have is great for determining if the trail you're on is going in the right direction, but not so great for determining which way you need to head to make a trail to get where you want to go. We either need to upgrade to the better model, or invest in a good laser transit (I'm opting for the laser transit because it'll help with the building site and construction as well). 

The forest is dense enough that you can't see more than 20 feet in front of you in most places and the trees are tall enough that it's easy to lose your landmarks. Things would be so much easier if we could tie a big shiny helium balloon to our center marker on 100' of line so that we could see it from everywhere (or at least if you backed up a little). For now, we'll just have to deal with a slightly meandering trail and come back later during clean up and straighten out the edges when we widen it for the truck.

Days like these I can totally understand people who decide to simply drive a bulldozer through the forest to cut in driveways. If I wasn't trying to save building logs and topsoil I'd be tempted to do it myself!