Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Ahh, here's the snow

We got a bit of snow back in October, but after several weeks without snow, with high winds, and with below average temperatures, hardly any of it was left. Here are a few pics I took on the Elliott Hwy during my Fairbanks trip last week, it's definitely not normal to be able to see so much of the grass and trees in December. And we're losing light fast, I barely had enough time to make the drive in during daylight... these pics were taken at NOON on a "sunny" day.

Well, it looks like Mr. Snow finally figured out where he was supposed to be, because we're currently being dumped on. Ripley is in heaven.

And it doesn't look like the snow will be stopping anytime soon:

Screenshot of Forecast for 12/12/12
It's been snowing since early yesterday morning, and this morning the weather observatory at University of Fairbanks noted a record 24-hour snowfall of 4.1 inches... beating the previous record of 3.0 inches this day back in 1991. The major factor in this winter storm is warmer weather (above zero), as it is too cold to snow at lower negative temperatures.

As a result of the extended period of cold weather without a blanket of insulating snow, river ice depths throughout the area are higher than normal... the ice on the Tanana River at Manley is currently reported at 33 inches.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

A Winter's Day

As the days grow shorter and the temperatures drop, we're stuck inside more often and most people assume we'd get cabin fever. Well, G gets a bit of cabin fever, and I get a bit of annoyed at not having any quiet alone time because he and the dog are always stuck inside with me (not sure if that counts as cabin fever or not LOL).

A typical winter day looks like this:

  • 8-10a: try to ignore that the freak dog is whining to be let out, one of us eventually gets up to open the door and gets the fire & coffee going
  • 10-noon: the other one gets up & we get breakfast going, since the days are short there's no real use getting up before the sun
  • Noon-4ish: do the outside chores while we have light. Normally this is firewood-related or shoveling snow, but sometimes it's a trip into Manley or cutting lumber for indoor projects, etc.
  • 4-ish: when it starts getting too dark or cold to be outside, we'll either work on the indoor projects, or research/plan future projects, or general housekeeping for a few hours. If it's been a really cold/hard day outside, we'll just veg... G gaming on the XBox/PS3, and me reading or playing a PC game (or napping).
  • 9-ish: we'll cook & eat dinner
  • 10p & 3a:  "magic hour" when we have unlimited bandwidth on the satellite, so we'll either watch something on Netflix/Hulu (movie or TV), or do any large downloads (like updates, PDF books, or YouTube). If the satellite uplink isn't cooperating, we might watch a DVD, play a game, read, or go to bed early
  • 2-4a: Bank the fire and go to bed
Since I'm a chronic insomniac & ultra-light sleeper, I'm usually the one who gets up first (darn dog!!) and goes to bed last. Since G sleeps like the dead, he's usually only the first up if I'm totally exhausted and sleeping really hard.

Likely, we'll have a bit more structure to our days once we get critters since we'll have to go out to give them (non-frozen) water and food, gather any eggs before they freeze solid, milk the goats/sheep, and generally make sure everyone is happy, warm and healthy. We're only planning to overwinter our laying/breeding flock, and don't expect them to produce in the winter... with marginal daylight and the cold, best to give them a break and let them put the majority of their resources into staying warm & alive.

P.S.  And what the %^$* is with the freakin' weather?!?!?  It's been majorly windy and warm (around zero), definitely not normal for late November. At least the snow isn't that deep yet, since it's blowing around at high velocity like a sandblaster and all sorts of stuff on the decks keep getting blown off so we have to hunt for it. Not just light/small stuff either!

Friday, October 26, 2012

Lessons Learned -- Wheelbarrows

Wheelbarrows may be awesome labor-saving devices if you have hard, smooth paths; but we've found that they pretty much suck for muddy, bumpy, rooty, stumpy ground. Especially if it has one of those wheelguard/tip-assist bars at the front like this one:

That little metal bar gets jammed or hung up on everything when you're pushing the wheelbarrow at any angle that allows the back supports to clear any obstacles; and the single wheel in the front makes for a very unstable load on uneven ground... either pushing or pulling. We end up using more energy struggling to maneuver over/around small obstacles while keeping the whole thing upright, and usually tipping over and dumping the load anyway, than we would just hauling stuff around in buckets or dragging it on a sled, tarp or board.

If your landscape isn't a nice stable, flat, relatively hard-packed surface we recommend that you ditch the wheelbarrow and go with a wheeled cart with wide knobbly tires. Two-wheel tilt or 4-wheel wagon styles ultimately work MUCH better than a wheelbarrow... maybe a 3-wheel tricycle-wheelbarrow hybrid would work.

Be careful with the tire size! A large skinny tire like those below will probably roll/climb over a obstacle ok, but will dig furrows into snow, mud and mulch... and then you'll be stuck fighting with it again.

So, it looks like we'll be repurposing our two wheelbarrows into vegetable planters in the spring, like these from The Micro Gardener!

Note: I'm not knocking the wheelbarrow and skinny-tired cart, they are perfectly appropriate for barn, lawn & garden chores on smooth, stable surfaces... they just aren't appropriate for more rugged backwoods chores on unstable surfaces.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Early Winter Pics

First "sticking" snow - Mid October 2012

Still sunny enough to cause some daytime melt on the south side.

But still cold enough that the snow hangs in the spruce.

One of many woodpiles waiting to be split.

Evidence of little critters nesting in our toasty brush piles...

Weasel tracks, we're not sure if it's a Least Weasel or an Ermine.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Winter Has Arrived

It's been frosting at night since Labor Day, been below freezing most days since the beginning of the month, and we got snow that stuck last weekend... and last night we got our first below-zero.

Time to drop the linen and stop the grinnin', cuz Winter is here!

Saturday, October 20, 2012

How big is an acre -- really.

I'm sure there are lots of people who think, or once thought (like I did), that an acre was a huge area of land. Sure, 43,560 square feet, or 4,840 square yards certainly sounds huge... but that "square" in there is a bit misleading. See, an acre is a measure of area, not length, and I see many garden and mini-farm plans claiming you can be "food self-sufficient" on 1/4 or 1 or 2 acres WITH a house... but if you look really carefully, the dimensions on the plans don't add up.

So what is an acre, and what does it look like?

Well, conventionally, an acre is one furlong by one chain -- 660 feet by 66 feet -- but it can really be any shape and dimension that contains an area of 43,560 sq ft.

The easiest comparable "acre" for most in the US to picture is a football field WITHOUT the end zones. The playing field in American Football is 100 yards x 50 yards, or 5,000 sq yd, which is roughly 1.03 acres. Adding in both 10 yard end zones makes it 6,000 sq yd, nearly 1.24 acres.

Can you imagine building a cabin, growing all your produce, raising all your animals and their food on a football field? Can you imagine it if you also had to produce your own CLEAN water supply, sanitation & waste processing, and heating fuel? Can you imagine it if you couldn't rely on municipal grid power or outside inputs (like building materials, animal feed or fertilizer)?

Let's put into perspective with dimensions that are a little easier to wrap a brain around. An acre that's square would be roughly 208.7 feet on each side, about 2/3 of an average city block, 5-1/2 school buses, or 3-1/2 semi-trucks. Starting to sound a lot smaller?

Here's a sample scale layout for a 1-acre S-S farm, 210' x 210'... assuming a 3-season growing period and mild winter (only 3 cords of wood per winter) and minimal outbuildings:

We kept our cabin's footprint pretty small at 16' x 24', the porches add 6' to either side, so 28' x 24'. BUT for fire safety, pest resistance, and ease of access we also need 5 feet of "barren" path around the perimeter... so that's 38' x 34', 1292 sq ft you're not growing anything -- nearly 3% of your acre.

A private road or driveway averages 12 feet wide, ATV paths average 8 feet and foot paths average 4 feet. You have to be able to get yourself, materials, equipment and animals around your homestead, so a significant portion of that acre is going to be dedicated to non-growing transportation areas. We'll be generous and assume that your homestead will be laid out to maximize transportation with minimal roads and paths, let's say 10%. That's a little over 4356 sq ft you won't be growing or raising anything on.

So, you've essentially eliminated 5648 sq feet, or 13%, of your acre just on the cabin and access. In the remaining 38k sq ft, you put in gardens & fields avg 4,000 sq ft per person (about 1/5 acre for a couple) for all the vegetables and grains for humans and their livestock; a dozen laying hens with a 60 sq ft coop & 200 sq ft yard with broilers in mobile "tractors" on pasture until slaughtered (requires "pasture" to put them on!); a dozen breeding rabbits with a 40 sq ft hutch with fryers in a community pen until slaughtered; 3 sheep with a 240 sq ft shed and....

...oops, you just blew your acre with the sheep because they require 1/4 acre of "pasture" for fresh graze, 750 lbs of hay, and 100 lbs of supplemental feed each per year... and you have to have at least 2 or they get lonely (3 if you want to breed). OK - you can go with 3 goats and 2 feeder hogs rotation-pastured in your woodlots, they don't need grass like sheep do, but add 100 sq ft of garden space per hog for feed -- they literally, eat like pigs LOL. You definitely ain't carrying a cow, not even a small one, stocking rates for cow-calf pair on good pasture year-round is 1:acre.

And you'll need to grow their bedding/litter as well... if you use straw you need to grow grains, if you want woodchips you need some sort of woodlot. Don't forget about feeding your household pets! If Fido and Fluffy eat solely off the homestead, you'll need more chickens & rabbits... or throw in some ducks and geese (you need the pond anyway).

You might be able to shave off some of the personal food space by eliminating/reducing grains, but we're including small livestock feed, minimal irrigation and no commercial fertilizers, so the more common "1k sq ft per person" won't necessarily apply. You'll need more space for green manures (cover crops grown just to replenish the soil) and crop rotations. The livestock will also provide brown manure for your garden, but you don't have a factory-farm's worth of these critters and supply isn't unlimited.

You might also be able to shave off some of the personal food space if you live somewhere with an extended growing season where you can eat a succession of fresh produce for 8-10 months in smaller area and not need to grow everything you need for the whole year all at once and preserve it for the remaining 6-8 months (like we do).

So you're down to about 1/2 acre now, and you still have to consider heating fuel (wood lot for firewood)... some of the personal food yardage may be usuable here if you live somewhere where fruit trees grow well and you have a decent-sized orchard that you coppice for firewood. And you have to keep all the poo-related areas (including fertilized garden) and toxin-related areas (driveways, garden, garage, workshop, etc) at least 100 feet and downhill from your well (which totals 1/4 acre with limited use).  And your privy also needs 100 foot perimeter for hygiene and sanitation (another 1/4 acre). Plus, you still have the footprints of all the other homestead structures to consider... garage/workshop/toolshed, garden shed, woodshed, wellhouse, abbatoir/larder, privy, rainwater cistern, pond, solar & wind array... they all add up.

So, in a perfect temperate climate with mild winters and really awesome soil, you might be able to be self-sufficient on 1 acre if you don't eat a lot of grain (of ANY kind) or potatoes, or want to make your own fuels (woodgas, biogas, biodiesel or ethanol), or want dairy or red meat or fish or bacon. But for the rest of acre would be seriously pushing our luck with absolutely no room for expansion if necessary. No margin for error or mishap, and I seriously doubt it would be sustainable (notably, the woodlot and soil fertility).

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Temps... food for thought

We are often asked (um, challenged, at times) to compare our climate to other cold places in the Lower 48... places like Montana, Wyoming, Missouri, the Dakotas and northern New England. Well, it's kind hard to say... but here are a few things to consider based on Fairbanks weather data (we tend to be a few degrees colder down here):
  • November to March the average high remains below freezing and our average low remains below 0F/-16C
  • January is the coldest month, average high is 1F/-17C and average low is -17F/-27C, only 2.5 hours of visible daylight; record low of -66F/-54C, record high of 52F/11C
  • October & April we bounce between just-above freezing and just-above 0F/-16C (sometimes daily, sometimes hourly)
  • July is the warmest month, average high is 73F/23C and average low is 52F/11C, 24 hours of visible daylight; record high of 99F/37C, record low of 30F/-1C
  • Annual (across the entire year) average high is 38F/3C and average low is 17F/-8
  • Average snowfall is 65"/165cm over 61 days, and average rainfall 10.8"/275mm over 109 days; the remaining 195 days it is too cold for precipitation
  • Maximum average frost-free days are 102, between mid-June and early-September
  • Heating Degree Days approximately 14,000
  • All of Interior Alaska (including Fairbanks) contain discontinous permafrost, i.e. soil remains below freezing for two or more consecutive years. Only high altitude mountain ranges (particularly the Rockies) contain isolated pockets of permafrost in the Lower 48.
  • Our location is classified USDA Plant Hardiness Zone 1b/2a, no state in the Continental US falls below 3a (although microclimates that fit the criteria may exist).
So, make of that what you will... I'm going to go stack more firewood :D

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Pics of our new gas range!

So, G's folks gifted us with the off-grid (LPG with 9v piezo ignition) Unique Range we were lusting after. Despite international communication and currency issues, logistic horrors getting it shipped to Alaska, and a slightly non-standard coupler/fitting that delayed installation... this stove totally ROCKS! And it looks awesome in our kitchen... now all I need to do is build a baker's cupboard and pot rack for the corner and the kitchen set-up will be complete :)

How wonderful to have a proper oven again! I mean, the nifty stovetop Perfection Oven for the woodstove was pretty sweet... but we usually ended up roasting ourselves as well as dinner. While roasting in a Dutch oven with coals works pretty well as long as it's not too frigid outside; we never quite mastered the knack of baking anything but doorstops in one. And thanks to Megan and the Amazon gift card she sent me for writing those guest articles for her blog, I've also been able to replace a few essential pieces of bakeware. Now we can easily make bread, pizza, pasta al forno and potatoes au gratin. Oh, happy day!

And the little portable LP catering stove that my folks got for us while we were in the tent, that has served us diligently these past couple years, can now be used indoors or out (eventually in the outdoor "summer kitchen") for rendering lard, deep frying or large-batch cooking and canning. Can't get better set than that!

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Porch Construction... PICS!!!

We changed the orginal porch design from 4' deep to 6' deep with a center bay 8' deep (forming a 2' stoop at the top of the stairs). Because of the integrated roofline, we had to get the porches on before we could FINALLY paper and shingle the cabin roof. Since it rained all summer, construction and subsequent roofing was delayed... so it got to rain INSIDE the cabin as well. Seriously! I had rain chains attached to the ceiling joints in the living room/kitchen to divert the leaks into buckets.

Anyway, I, um, "misplaced" the camera during the construction of the western (front) porch, but managed to take pics of the eastern (back) porch when it wasn't rainingl and they're identical, so no harm done. Again, we're using surface pads and piers for the foundation. This time the pads are a sandwich of pressure treated 2x4 and plywood with precast concrete piers instead of reinforced concrete pads and poured piers like we used on the cabin since the porches are much lighter. The cabin's surface foundation has proven quite stable and effective with barely any shift despite a rainy summer, a fast freeze-up, an unusually cold and snowy winter, an extremely wet and slow break-up, and another rainy summer... so we're confident that the porches won't go anywhere either.

Since we didn't want to waste a lot of time and effort leveling the pads and pier jacks after building the deck, we opted to build the deck first in 3 independent square frames, attach each frame to the cabin's sill beam since it was already level side-to-side, use temporary braces to level the deck frames front-to-back, and then drop the posts into the pier blocks through their corresponding slots in each of the deck frames and plumb them up before nailing them to the already-leveled frames. Then we came back and shored the posts up with cross ties and angle braces.

This method worked out pretty well for our two-man team without a flat surface to start with, and certainly went faster and smoother (and more level, plumb and square) than erecting the posts and beams first and dropping in the joists second like we did with the cabin floor. Just one of the many benefits to designing and building on a modular grid!

Floor frames built first and then attached to the sill beam.
Pads, piers and posts placed after the frames were attached.
Ripley, sneaking into the shot again!
We added cross-ties in front and back of the posts under the joists as extra insurance, and angle braces to prevent racking.
We attached the stairs to the stoop with an extra riser nailed through the rim and joists on the inside of the floor frame.
Then angle-braced the nose of the cantilever back to the posts just to make sure everything was solid.

AND we put the decking down FIRST this time, so I wouldn't be able to fall through like I did on the western porch! 
Double-checked that the posts were plumb side-to-side and tied them together with a header plate on the inside and outside.
Then checked plumb back-to-front and tied the porch posts to the cabin posts -- yay for the modular grid again!
Trimmed off the tops of the post and added the rafters, with an angle brace as extra support on the flying rafters.
The roof overhangs the deck nearly 2' on all sides, except right over the stoop where the deck sticks out a little;
and that little bit won't be exposed too much after we get the gutters on.
Then it was just a matter of adding sheathing, drip edge, tarpaper, shingles and flashing to finish up the whole roof.
Technically, we didn't need metal flashing on the valley and pitch break since shingles on gambrels are usually just bent;
but since the lower rafters are nearly vertical, we opted to flash it like a roof-wall connection rather than an adjoining roof.
So here's the front (south) dead-on with both completed porches.

LOL - kinda has an Amityville Horror thing going on from this angle!
Now, if I could just get James Brolin or Ryan Reynolds to come split that mound of wood for me!!
And oblique angle from the SW corner, which shows the roof better.
Yes, our cabin is really that small and our truck is really that big ROFL!!

And the back porch with the siding installed (hmmm, to paint or stain, that is the question).
Remarkably, we managed a halfway decent job keeping the shingles even, straight and smooth!

We'll be adding the siding on all faces eventually, but might not make it before the snow flies this year. With winter coming, the worst of the rainy season should be over, so we're not panicking to get the gutters up either; but we'll have straight gutters with a downspout into collection barrels on the south end for watering the garden with sun-warmed rainwater, rather than the near-frozen hard water that would come up from a well.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Clearing Brush ... more PICS!

Clearing brush for access, construction and fire safety has been our constant occupation, especially since we've had such a rainy summer.

In order to preserve the critical vegetation mat, we're clearing the home acre by chainsaw instead of with heavy equipment. As you'll see by the mountains of brush, it's a LOT of cutting and hauling... and we still have the eastern half-acre left to do!!  Eventually we'll be sorting all the brush into separate piles since we plan to use most of it to weave a wattle fence around the home acre and veggie garden. Good thing that the spruce right here is smaller diameter, very straight, and very supple! The few bigger trees (4+ inches) will become firewood (or go onto a bonfire if it's punky) and all the random little bits and slash from limbing out the fencing will get mulched to fill in low spots along the driveway (no mulch near the cabin, it's a red carpet invitation for carpenter ants and cabin fires!!)

We were lucky that G's folks helped us out with some of the clearing on the NW corner during their visit... but it's just not right to force houseguests into slave labor even if they are family :D   Now we'll need to haul "Mount Wardle" from the NW corner to the "Wall o' Brush" long the southern border so we can put our storage and wood sheds in the NW corner easily accessible from the front porch.

The end of the driveway, as far as we got last year other than the immediate cabin construction site.
The southern border, extending east from the driveway, and the tail end of the Wall o' Brush.

The Wall o' Brush extending 100' from the driveway, 4' high and 8' wide.
And that's just HALF of what we've cleared, which is only half of what we need to clear.
The western border, extending north from the driveway up to Mount Wardle.
And Ripley, sneaking into shot again!!
Mount Wardle -- all the brush from the NW corner.
Don't be fooled by scale, this pile is nearly 8' tall and 20' in diameter!
That blue tarp right in front of it is covering a *full pallet* of sheathing.
Alas, we've only made it to the corner of the back porch... we still have nearly all of the eastern half-acre to go!
But at least we have a little more of an opening outside the front porch now instead of being claustrophobic in the trees!
And for some perspective and scale... this shot was taken from the back porch roof and shows the entire SW corner (nearly 1/4 acre) with Sonja (our full-size Dodge pickup) in the foreground. It was all just as dense as the surrounding area.
Phew, just looking at it makes me tired all over again!!

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Winter's Coming - landscape PICS!!!

As Ned Stark is fond of saying "Winter is Coming."  (Game of Thrones is such an awesome show!)

The leaves on the birch and aspen only turned a couple weeks ago, but they've already dropped. No Termination Dust (first snow) yet on the lower hills you can see from the cabin, but we have seen some on a few of the higher hills on the way into Fairbanks. We are getting nightly frosts already, and it's definitely jacket weather. We weren't affected by the Nenana & upper Tanana River flooding, but we're happy for the recent respite from all the rain anyway! Of course, now we're already seeing "chance of snow" in the forecast.

Now that we're past the Autumn Equinox, we're losing daylight fast. Just shy of  7 minutes a day... over an HOUR every week! It's nice to have sunset and night again, but it won't be long until we're down to only a few hours of daylight again.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Adapter Found - finally PICS again!!!!

Yay! While preparing for G's parents visiting, I finally found the camera's card reader so I can finally post pics again :D

I'll start with a few random shots of indoor stuff from previous posts:
Our 200 gallon water tank up in the loft so we finally have running water (gravity-fed, not pressurized).
The pantry shelves. Eventually I'll get these painted and better organized!!
Adjustable spice shelves I built to fit between the wall studs in the pantry. No space goes to waste in a small cabin!
Our tiny bathroom under the stairs. Two-seater bench holds the poo bucket and urinal.
Note the narrow sink we made out of a fish-steamer, which still needs some work to drain properly.
Honey Bucket, not to be confused with....
... bucket of honey :D
The perfect pee-tainer, a 3-gallon outboard fuel tank.
Complete with sturdy handle, fill gauge and threaded liquid-tight cap!!
View from the "throne" - very untidy understairs storage at the moment.
BTW - I highly recommend the 'Gourmet Liquid' ant bait for Carpenter Ants!!
Obligatory picture of Ripley, she's such a camera whore!!

More posts and pics soon!