Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Winter on the Farm

Spring is here and it's here in a big way. The sun is shining again, the grass is growing, humming birds are back in force, the trees are leafing out and the nightly chorus of frogs has gotten so loud you nearly have to shout to have a conversation if you are standing near a pond. Life is reawakening out here after a cold winter and it is wonderful to live in a place where I am surrounded by it at every turn. Just as important, or perhaps more important, is having a lifestyle that puts me in daily contact with all of it. I spend most of my day, just about every single day, outside. Much of our activities out here are dictated by the weather, the amount of daylight or what part of the growing season it currently is. Often this creates challenges, but at the end of the day I usually go to sleep with a sense of satisfaction I seldom experienced back when I lived in the city.

And here I am, playing major catch-up on my blog. It may be spring, but this post is going to cover way back in November and December. I'm going to be a bit shorter in my descriptions and reflections (maybe that's a good thing? I tend to get a little long winded, I know) so I can get up to date and show the exciting things that are happening up here now that spring is here. As such, if this is the first of my blog posts you are reading about my time living up here on Shaw Island, I'd highly recommend you check out my previous post first, Settling into Island Life to better understand what all is going on up here.

I'd been in Seattle for a few days visiting my parents and taking care of some business, but once that was taken care of I packed up my car and headed north, then onto the ferry boat home. I always feel good returning home to Shaw, and the boat ride makes for a wonderful transition between what I see as in a way very different worlds. On that particular night a few friends were up from the city and as I arrived home people were cooking a big hunk of deer on the BBQ. The next morning we wandered to the top of the hill on the property, the highest point on the island, and looked out over towards the water below and Canada in the distance. In t his particular shot we are looking north towards Westsound on Orcas Island, discussing the handful of trees we want to remove, and the placement (some day) of a huge tree platform that will overlook the meadows.

As I mentioned in my previous posts, I've been living in a tent up here for months (six months in total!) but it was time to get serious about building a house of sorts for me to live in. I was back in the city during the first stages, but here is what I found upon my return to the island, much as Jon and I had discussed. The house/cabin is a single room, 8 feet by 12 feet, with two skylights, and a huge window and glass door facing north overlooking the meadow below. The actual square footage of my new home is a whopping 83, or 7.7 square meters for my metric friends. Simple living, just the way I like it.

Lunch break at the cook trailer. If you look in the background above Jon (middle) you can see my place.

One of the most important pieces of equipment on a farm, or any big piece of property for that matter, is a tractor and we were on the hunt for one to buy. In search of one that wound fit the rather small budget, we hopped the ferry to a neighboring island, San Juan, to have a look. San Juan is much larger than Shaw and has a very different feel to it; it is much more open, more developed and far less secluded.

The tractor for sale was a Case 530 Construction King from the 1960s, it's a three cylinder diesel and came with a removable front loader as well as a big backhoe. Jon and I knowing very little about this kind of thing enlisted the help of another friend, Lincoln, to come check it out as well. It turned out we weren't able to get the thing started, but overall Jon was very interested in buying it, which he did a while later. It's a great tool, and you will be seeing much more of it in the coming posts.

My place coming along nicely.

At this same time the islands were hit by a period of unusually cold weather. Out here it seldom gets below freezing, but it sure was now and it made for a few cold nights inside my tent! Although it was getting to be the third week of November by now we still had crops in the garden, an experiment in over-wintering them. The cold took a serious toll, but a few things did hang on and are still alive this spring actually.

Ponds are starting to freeze.

Hanging around big burn-piles is one of our common social activities around here, haha. Call up our friends on the island, light up a big brush pile from some recent clearing project and kick back with a few beers.

Sunset from the ferry dock. We had an evening mission to Orcas island which gave a perfect excuse to watch the sun go down from the middle of the water.

A big American pickup truck full of crab traps, concrete and a freshly taken deer. We all need to eat, and we all need to build so this sums up life pretty well night now!

The garlic had been planted about two weeks prior, and it was time (well, maybe slightly past time) to put up the deer fence around the crop. We pounded in t-posts and installed 8 foot wire fencing around the whole field.

I've mentioned it before and I think the earlier picture of the crab traps and venison confirms it, but we eat very, very well up here. These are some delicious meat pies that Jon made for dinner one evening, as well as trying out some delicious garlic-jelly Ellen and Jenn made from our previous garlic crop.

Back on Halloween, as part of our display I ended up using my tree climbing gear to swing out at people from a tree above. This lead do a phone call from the Sisters of Mercy, one of the two groups of nuns on Shaw and they were looking for someone to do some work for them. The sisters are a pleasure to work for and were very pleased with what I was able to get done. Since then, I've been back a number of times to do more work pruning, felling and bucking trees, which usually ends in us sitting around sharing stories and them making me lunch!

Deer butchered, vacuum packed and ready to be frozen and eaten throughout the coming months.

At this point I still had some work to do back in Seattle, and plus Thanksgiving was coming up. I loaded my car, drove across Whidby Island as usual and returned to my parents, where my cats now live.

I vastly prefer the island scenery, but the city still has it's moments of beauty!

The day after Thanksgiving, all of our friends gather for a second Thanksgiving, which is usually quite an epic feast. Sure, a few of my good friends are living up in the islands now, but it still doesn't compare to how many long time friends are still in Seattle. As a result, it really is nice to return to the city for these kind of gatherings.

It was time to return home to Shaw and as usual I had a ton of things to bring up with me. I have a bit of a habit of loading my Bug like it's a pickup truck and this day was no exception. On the roof alone I had a patio table, four chairs, two bikes, a rake, pole pruner, pole saw and a peavy....

Just before reaching the ferry dock in Anacortes to catch the boat out to the San Juan islands there is a small park. Not only does it offer a stunning view of Mt Baker (behind the smoke belching oil refinery in the foreground) but it also has this cut of a massive doug fir tree. As the sign says, this was a 970 year old tree, it was 242 feet tall and remains a powerful reminder of the kind of wild land that used to exist out here.

Jenn organized a nice Hanukkah dinner at a friends house. A number of other families from the island were invited and we had a lovely dinner with some traditional Jewish food.

At the same time, we were hit with a long stretch of unusually cold weather. It doesn't get and stay below freezing very often in this part of the state and to be honest even though we had a day or two notice we were not fully prepared. Our outdoor shower froze. Our outdoor sink froze. Our toilet froze. The indoor sink in the trailer froze. At times it was as low as 16 degrees (about -9c) and keep in mind I was still living in a tent at this point!

Nick scored a free woodstove from someone on the island (“the island provides!”) and although it was a bit rusty, it was in great shape and would be a perfect fit in my little cabin. First things first, I had to take the power tools to the thing and clean it up.

It was getting colder and colder at this point and everyone was excited about the possibility of playing on our frozen ponds. Here Jay is checking out how strong the ice is.

Yep, strong enough!

It turned out the ice in our ponds was around 4 inches thick and was more than strong enough to play on. We made some calls, rounded up some ice skates and decided to have a play day in the cold weather. And when I saw this picture, I decided my beard was making me look even crazier than I realized and maybe I should shave it off, haha.

We had about six people on the lower pond when it made an awfully scary cracking noise and decided to evacuate to the upper pond. The upper pond is smaller, shallower and has a rock in the middle, all of which served to make it a somewhat safer ice platform to play on. Eventually that too cracked, but it was fun while it lasted!

Hurried by the cold weather, we were also working quickly to finish up my tiny cabin. All the insulation was in at this point and Nick showed up to do the wiring.

The structure is complete! It had a floor, walls, a door, windows, a roof, insulation and power. Nothing else at that point, but it was sealed up and about ready to allow me to get out of my tent and into an actual building!

You may remember a photo in a previous post about making mead, here is the bottled results, which were delicious by the way.

More tree work for another islander. It's a fun job and hey, you sure can't beat the view!

Cold weather means burning a lot of firewood and we found ourselves spending plenty of time and energy to stay warm. That said, I wouldn't heat any other way. It's an energy source from our own property, still works regardless of other systems going down and is just intrinsically satisfying.

The view over Southbeach, the longest stretch of sandy beach in the San Juans apparently.

The first night in my new home! It was still just a wooden box at this point, but I could put in my air mattress, table and a few other things, so it was a hell of a lot better than living in a tent!

I have to say I never really expected that I'd live in a dome-tent for a full six months, but other than the cold end it really wasn't bad. It was an upgrade from living out of a single backpack during my travels through Africa so it never felt all that restrictive actually. And you know, I suppose these kind of things build character as well, haha.

Looking the other way inside. There is still a ton of work to be done, but the foundation is here now. At this point my plan was to simply live in the space for a while and let that experience point me in the direction of how to build it up.

Yep, up a tree again.

Beards, beers, headlamps and the porch in front of the trailer, living the dream boys!

At the beginning of this post I talked about the tractor Jon was going to buy and it was time to return to the place to dig around for more treasures. This is the inside of one of their two huge barns and for some idea of scale, that boat frame on the left is something like 70 feet long! Jon and I spent a few solid hours digging around the place for cool and useful tools and materials to buy for the farm and came home with a decent truck load of stuff.

Nick spends a lot of time watching the weather and the tides, partly as a result of working at the ferry dock; so when there was a record low tide coming he proposed we all take a little outing to Southbeach to check it out. We piled in the trucks, drove down to the beach and spent the evening plodding around in the sand and muck under the stars.

Nick turning the compost.

Helping Nick put power out to one of their buildings, with Boomer the cat supervising.

Conduit laid, wire run, lights hung and success. Eventually this structure will turn into a wood-shop, but like many of the old buildings on the Copper property, it has a lot of work that still needs to be done. That said, power was an important step towards that and it always feels good to make progress on the endless project list.

Well, that brings me to the end of this post. I'm still way, way behind but I hope to get myself into gear and catch up quickly. Check back soon, the next post will cover the holidays, major progress on my cabin, buying the tractor, lots of time on the water, preparations for spring and a few little adventures along the way!