Thursday, May 14, 2015

Here Comes The Sun: Preparations For a New Home and New Farm

As I write this, I am sitting in the loft of my new cabin, overlooking the lush green meadow below and the maple that frames my cabin as it leafs out.  Spring has sprung as the cliché goes and things are very busy right now.  Work is picking up again as everyone is outside and thinking about their trees, the farm needs a huge amount of work in terms of expanding and planting the garden, friends and family are beginning to start coming up in bigger numbers again and of course I've got a ton of work to do on my cabin.  It's a lot to handle, but life is good.  

After a big push to get the framing of my place done, it was time to head to Seattle, mostly to gather supplies yet again.  As always on this project, my dad has been a tremendous help and happened to have a propane oven he salvaged that I could use.  It was up at our family cabin at Snoqualmie Pass, meaning we had to push through a little bit of snow to get it, but it is the perfect sized unit for a small cabin and saved me a lot of money as well.  

Also while in Seattle I bought three 275 gallon water totes that I found on craigslist for $100 each.  These will be used for storing rain water that will be collected from the roof, and will supply my sink and shower.  

While in town and with access to some better tools my dad and I cut some boards that would make up the loft.  It was a dusty job for sure, and my cat Jack was curious what was going on.

When I was looking at buying a vehicle to transport materials I debated for a while what was best and I have to say, I'm 100% convinced that a full sized van with a lumber rack is better than a pickup truck for just about everything.  In my van I've got TWO 275 gallon water tanks (empty), an oven, dozens of boards, rolls of tar paper and countless other things all safe and dry inside.  Then on the roof rack I had 25 10 foot 2x6s.  

Home again, by what was the most beautiful ferry rides I'd had in a while.  Sometimes it seems like a hassle to deal with the boats to get places, but when it comes down to it, I love it and it's just another wonderful feature of this unique lifestyle.

While it was still only January, it was time to get ready for the growing season.  Part of the old chicken barn has been designated the 'potting area' and is where we meet up to plant seeds, water them in and bring them into the 'germination station' in the house.

This is one of my favorite scenes on Shaw.  The photo doesn't do it justice (they never do), but this is what it looks like in the morning sun as fog rolls over the meadow next to the community center, over the road and pours out into Blind Bay.  

Working on my roof.  The cabin is generally a rectangle, but has one corner cut off on the meadow side to provide a more interesting and appealing shape.  Rather than have the roof take the same shape as the building footprint however, the roof is a perfect rectangle, providing this overhanging section that is above the front door.  

Nick using the tractor to move some wood chips and put them on the road to the back meadow which was getting a little muddy.

Nick, Brendan and I doing the tar paper wrap.  I know I climb huge trees for a living and have no fear of heights, but ladders are a whole different thing and are way more dangerous!  Luckily we had no troubles putting it up and with that done, I could start to work on the windows and actually sealing up the building.

The San Juan Islands tend to attract a lot of interesting people to live up here, and this man was one of them.  My boss and I had been removing a tree near the road and he came to ask for the wood.  We ended up bringing it to his place, and he told us a little about himself.  Born in Germany, worked as a blacksmith for something like 50 years, a woodworker, a pilot, a member of the local choir and a print-maker, he wanted to show us his antique printing presses which both Austen and I were excited to see.  In his workshop, he had three different presses, one over 200 years old, and often carved the lettering by hand.  

Back on the farm, enjoying the pond and thinking back to all the work we did to actually expose it.   

One of our (rather new) traditions is the Super Bowl Sunday Shotgun Shoot.  A few of us guys got together on the back meadow to shoot some clays and had a ton of fun.  I hadn't done any shotgun shooting in a few years, but I think I hit something like 23/25 and was pretty impressed with myself!  

The sleeping loft coming together.  Because I had to install the beams before I had time to sand them, it ended up taking me like three days to do the sanding from a ladder!  Looking back I would have easily traded a few hours of sleep for getting them cleaned up before the install.  Oh well, live and learn.  

Exciting news for the fire department, we got two new fire engines!  Ok, so they weren't 'new', they are hand-me-downs from the San Juan Islands fire department and are from 1986, but that still makes them the newest trucks in our fleet and they are great to have.  With new equipment comes a lot of new things to learn, and working with these two trucks has been the focus of fire drill since receiving them.

The decking for the loft is complete and looks awesome.  Can't wait to be sleeping up here!

Ellen's dad up for a visit, here they are moving some t-posts to start on the garden expansion.

Speaking of dads, mine came up again to help me install the windows.  My views over the meadow are going to be awesome.  The two large windows on the front wall are fixed windows and were acquired free here on Shaw form a neighbor as they were upgrading theirs.  

Last year the farming was done between two couples and two properties, but this year only one will be continuing to farm, Nick and Ellen on the property where I'm building my cabin.  The obvious implication of this is that the garden needed to grow considerably, and after coming up with a plan that will hopefully provide space for the next two or three years of farm growth, it was time to start pounding in t-posts and putting up fencing.  

It's only mid-February at this point, but today was the first flats of plant starts in the greenhouse with many, many to come shortly.  

Me doing some tree removals for a fellow islander.  I'm always happy when I get to work in something other than doug firs, because that's what probably 90% of my time is spent doing up here and it's nice to mix it up once in a while!  (there was a lot more diversity of species and work back in Seattle, but that's ok)

There is a house that was going to be torn down on Shaw, and rather than doing that and hauling it away, the fire chief organized with the owners to let us use it for training exercises for a few weeks, then do a controlled burn of the entire house.  Naturally I was extremely excited about both the training opportunities it would provide and about how cool it would be to legally burn down an entire house.  A fringe benefit of doing this however was the fact that all the glass, appliances and other non-wood items were to be removed before the burn.  Because of that, Nick and I were able to go to the house before the burn and salvage whatever we wanted.  In the end we wound up with a huge stash of windows and doors mostly, as well as a handful of smaller items. 

Even in February we have large numbers of friends coming up to visit, which is lovely.

As the old time wisdom says, 'plant peas on Presidents Day' so we did just that with the help of our visiting friends.  With peas in the ground, that marked the very first seed in the ground this year, a big and exciting moment!

More work on my place, here is a shot of the roof overhang with all the soffits done in cedar.  

Working with Nick and Ellen to weed the garlic beds which are looking wonderful.

Now this was one of those sights that can never be adequately captured with a camera, one of the biggest, most color-rich sunsets I've seen in a very long time.  It was like the entire sky, 360 degrees around you was deep blue and pink and purple.  It was one of those moments, for just a few minutes, where all you wanted to do was stand outside and watch it before it disappeared.

A quick walk down South beach with Brendan and the dog he was sitting.

That same night it was a particularly low tide so Brendan and I returned to the beach to explore it at night looking for whatever fun creatures we could find.  Using his hip waiters, Brendan headed into a kelp patch and found hundreds of nudibranch, collecting a few in a bucket to bring back to the sand and examine.  I've gotta say, nudibranch are pretty much the most alien looking creature I've ever seen in my life...

My temporary home in the chicken barn, until my cabin is ready to move into.  It was pretty easy to re-use all the furniture from my tiny house and re-purpose them, making it a very painless process to move.

One thing I haven't had for oh, the last 4 years or so, was a great place to shower.  Becoming tired of that, and knowing I had a place to settle for a while I decided to build myself an awesome outdoor shower below my cabin.  It is based on a 4x8 platform, with half going to be the shower, and half a porch, with the whole thing overlooking the meadow.  It's going to be pretty awesome.

Some of the first starts moved from the germination station in the house to the greenhouse outside.  Ar sign it's getting warmer out and that the growing season is about to come very quickly.

Doing tree work in the San Juans often takes me to incredibly beautiful places and this day was no exception.  Working for the Land Trust, my boss and I headed up to Turtleback Mountain Preserve with our chainsaws to do habitat restoration for garry oak trees in the area.  What happens is that doug firs grow faster and larger, out-competing the native oaks and eventually killing them off.  Our job was to go out and cut down firs to give the oaks the space they needed to survive and thrive.  We spent a full day dropping trees (and we didn't have to do any of the cleanup!) in this beautiful place, and will be doing more in the future.

Here is some progress on the shower.  Taking a cue from the shower back where I used to live, I sealed the shower box (except for the bottom few inches) using heavy duty plastic sheeting.  What this does is trap the heat of the water, creating a steam-room effect in the shower that makes it far more comfortable to use year round.  The large window overlooking the meadow is one we salvaged from the house we are burning down, and the next step is to put up all the cedar siding to make it stronger and far more attractive!

A work shot, looking down from a tall, skinny fir removal.

So this was an exciting, but ultimately uneventful day.  Around lunch time, my fire pager went off to report a smoke alarm and potential structure fire on Shaw.  Any time my pager goes off when it's not the noon test page, my heart starts to race and the adrenaline begins to flow.  Usually it's a medical call and is dealt with by the EMS team (aka, not me) but this one was actually for a possible fire.  Nick and I raced to put on our gear and head down to the station, where a few other guys had already begun getting the trucks ready.  As I drove Engine 51 towards a possible house fire, trying to get prepared for anything, we got a call on the radio indicating it was just a false alarm and to stand down.  

So at the moment because it's such a long run from the power source to my cabin, I don't have enough power to run two things at once.  What this means at night, is that I can't run the big construction lights AND a power tool at the same time.  This is a hassle for night time work, but that's what headlamps are for right? (and no I was not cutting towards myself, this was just a posed photo!)

The ducks, wandering the property together.  I really love having animals on the property, so many funny little personalities that to me at least add a lot of joy to life out here.

On a sunny Sunday morning, it was finally time for the big event.  After weeks of training and preparation it was finally time to do the controlled burn with the fire department.  Conditions were perfect: clear skies, a slight breeze blowing the smoke away from us and over the water, and mud free ground to place out trucks and other equipment.  

Nick had the honors of lighting the house, which was done with a few gallons of diesel and some road flares in the kitchen.  From ignition to this photo was only THREE minutes, that's how fast the fire spread and it was incredible to watch.  We had all of our trucks set out, with lines to all four corners of the house to keep the fire contained.  One of our tasks was to protect a little birch tree that was near the house which I was sure was going to catch fire, but thanks to favorable winds pushing the heat away and Mikes use of water, it escaped any damage.

(photo by Brendan McGarry

This is the side of the house where the fire was started from, the left corner.  Two portable fans were blowing on the house to direct heat and smoke away from the sheds we were protecting, and two fire department members were stationed on this side with hoses.

30 minutes after ignition, the house was almost completely gone.  Here I am with my hose (and GoPro mounted to my helmet) keeping my corner of the house contained.  I had to spray down a lot of grass to the north of the house to keep things safe and contained, but everything went perfectly.

About 40 minutes after ignition, the house was probably 95% gone.  One small wall was still standing, and did for a surprisingly long time, but the rest of the house was nothing but ashes.  Overall, doing this burn was an invaluable training and learning opportunity.  Getting to watch the fire behavior will help all of us in the event of an actual fire, and spending time with the equipment is always a good thing.  A number of community members came to watch and feed us coffee and treats which was lovely, and ad the end we all gathered for a group photo.  What a cool day.  

As always, seeing reptiles is a sure sign of warming weather and spring on the way.  And I'm still just a little boy, I love catching snakes and other critters.

On the cabin front, on this day I installed the final window.  Id originally planned on using different windows, but when those didn't work out I had to make other plans.  That of course meant a trip to Seattle to look for the right thing, but a second use store had just the right thing.  It required re-sizing the opening of course, but all in all, is a better window and a better option anyways.  This window will be over the kitchen area, looking out into the moss covered forest.  Getting the final window installed was a big step that felt like some real progress.  With that done, the building was almost sealed up and one more step closer to moving into.  


That is is for the moment, thanks for reading.  Coming up in the next post is, well, more of the same.  There will be a major push to get the garden ready for the growing season, more work on the cabin and property, rescuing a cat from a tree and a gorgeous kayak trip.  Life is great right now, the sun is shining, friends are coming up to visit and progress is happening all around.  I'm so happy I've found my way up to this amazing little island with this wonderful group of people, and right now I can't see myself living any other way.