Sunday, December 27, 2015

handling firewood

Firewood will not be able to heat us all after the fossil fuels are gone, but with careful stewardship and fewer homes, it will be a way for many of us to keep warm in those places that get cold in the winter and have enough rainfall to grow trees.

For now though, I am lucky enough to be in a place where wood heat is feasible and sustainable for the local population density. The climate and terrain in Southwest Wisconsin are conducive to sustainable wood harvesting. 

I have projects in mind for improving the efficiency of our house, but in the mean time, we are burning around three cords of wood a winter. 

While splitting wood by hand, I often just kind of go blank, or "get in the zone", but the mind sometimes wanders. Can't tell you how many times I silently repeated that old saying "chopping your own wood warms you twice- once when chopping it, and once when burning it". Attribution is to many, but it's a pretty obvious conclusion to anyone who splits wood by hand.

But then I thought about how many times I touch the wood with my hand, ( and wearing out gloves) and began counting. After I drop a dead elm with my chainsaw ( not ready to use my crosscut on felling just yet, maybe next year) here are the steps to get in to the Russian furnace.
1. From the ground in to my truck
2. From truck to a pile next to the splitting station
3. From the ground on to the top of a big old oak round 
4. (smaller and more pieces now)From the ground to my wood shed
5. From my wood shed into a wheelbarrow
6. From the wheelbarrow in to a bin in our sunroom
7. From the bin in to the house and into the woodbox
8. From the woodbox in to the Russian furnace

and I guess we won't count the steps the ashes go through before they become soap or soil amendment.While the various handling steps don't wear you out like the actual splitting, they do make one appreciate how much time and labor we replace with fossil fuels these days. 

I was talking about firewood with a neighbor, and mentioned that I preferred not to use box elder because of the low btu content, and he stated that density and btu content are directly correlated, to which my immediate reaction was, gosh, that makes sense, but is it true? So I went looking for info to see for myself. Could find nothing on the internet that charted the correlation, so I found sources for various densities, and other sources for btu content, and graphed the two.

The chart below has density is in pounds (LBS) per cubic foot (FT3) and the heat content is in MBTU/cord. A cord of wood is a volume 4 feet by four feet by eight feet. Quite the mish mash of old units, but this doesn't really matter when looking for a correlation. 






In general, it is a pretty good linear relationship. Red cedar, apple, and shagbark hickory are the three that are a bit above the line, meaning that they have less btu content than one would extrapolate from their density. Shagbark hickory had the highest density, and also a very good btu content. Ironwood had the best btu content per unit volume, so it would be the best firewood to use, except it is less common, and does not grow to a large size. In my general area, oak is by far the most common wood for heating, as it has a good heat content, and is a common tree here. 

There are a few firewood or common trees for our area that I did not find numbers for, so this chart is of course not definitive, and I also can't vouch for the sources I used, but in general I think I've confirmed the  common sense notion that the density and heat content should have a linear relationship. Here is the data in tabular form. These are trees for the U.S., but I would imagine the relationship holds for other species.


alder
14.8
23.7
apple
21.6
46.5
black ash
17.9
32.8
green ash
21.1
38
white ash
21.6
39.8
aspen
13.7
25
basswood
13.7
24.8
american beech
22.7
40.8
blue beech
23.7
44.7
grey birch
19.5
34.4
yellow birch
22.1
41.7
white birch
20
37.4
butternut
13.2
25.2
redcedar
12.1
30.7
white cedar
11.6
19.6
black cherry
19.5
33.3
american elm
18.4
34.5
balsam fir
13.2
25.8
shagbark hickory
25.3
50.53
ironwood
26.4
47.5
black locust
23.2
44.2
honey locust
23.7
41.5
black maple
21.1
38.7
red maple
20
34
sugar maple
23.2
42.2
bur oak
22.7
41.8
red oak
22.1
41
white oak
24.7
44.3
jack pine
14.8
28.7
red pine
17.9
31.6
white pine
13.2
23.2

A final word for anyone heating, or contemplating heating with firewood- KEEP IT DRY! My pet peeve is heating with unseasoned or wet firewood. So much energy is wasted turning water to steam that it is a criminal waste, one might as well chuck half the wood you've worked so hard on into the nearest ravine. I see it all the time though, especially those who have the wood boilers.
The latest firewood shelter

I might rant on that another time, but for now, KEEP IT DRY!

Sunday, October 25, 2015

A tour of the root cellar

When we started looking for a farm property six years ago, I had been inclined to find open land with no buildings, so I could build a very energy efficient and probably earth sheltered house, as well as lay out the overall infrastructure with permaculture principles in mind. 

But the house and property we ended up buying had enough cool features that I let go of that idea. (Good thing too, as I now think the project might have been quite the strain, as we were both still working and not living close enough to make very quick progress)
One of those features was an attached root cellar. Since the house is hillside and partially earth sheltered, the root cellar is accessed from inside the house, on the upslope side. 

While the root cellar does have a couple design flaws, it is quite serviceable, and since it adjoins the laundry/utility room, it is very handy. Who wants to go out in the snow, clear snow from the door, and chip some ice before getting a jar of canned tomatoes in February?

Here is a quick tour of our stores this fall.

We have a set of bins, a wooden shelf set, and two sets of plastic shelves. With the humidity and dark, the wood needs to be rot resistant. I used cedar leftovers, and some black locust leftovers. 

The bottom half of the bins has butternut squash, potatoes, and acorn squash. Apples were here earlier, till we made the cider. These all store well, and the potatoes were from our own seed potatoes saved in the root cellar from last season. Down and to the left you can see the hard cider we bottled a couple weeks ago.


Top half of this bin tower has onions, more acorn squash, and on top are seeds in glass jars.


This shelf set has dry beans, spinach noodles, dried apple slices, apple butter, apple pie filling, apple sauce, spiced apple rings ( we had a good apple year) dried potato slices, and some peach pie filling.We found making noodles is a good way to put up extra spinach, and it works well with basil also.
 These shelves have pickles, green beans, dehydrated kale, and some beverages.
 The wooden shelves have pickles, tomato sauce, pasta sauce, green beans, chicken broth, and some odds and ends. You can also see our garlic. We did not have a great garlic year, but have already planted next years garlic, so what's left is all for eating. It should last till late winter, but won't get us to next summer.



A lot of this does not really need to be in a root cellar, but it would not fit in the pantry or kitchen storage, so this makes a fine place till we need more true root cellar storage for more root crops or fruits. We haven't harvested the parsnips yet, but the carrots were a bust this year, and hope to get better results and store some in here next year. 

A lot of our veggie storage is in our chest freezer, but over time we hope to can or dehydrate as much as we can to reduce dependence on the freezer. We try new dehydrating or canning experiments each year, some work, and some don't.

Most of this is from our own trees and garden, but not all of it. The peaches, acorn squash, and beverages are purchased. We increase our dry bean plantings each year, and have enough for year round eating now, but most of those are stored in the pantry. 

Two things I hope to modify on the root cellar are a better air vent setup, and a bit more dirt on the roof. These will both get it colder, and keep it colder longer in to summer.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

water collection

Finally made some progress in capturing and storing rainwater. The north half of the barn roof now flows in to a 350 gal. ( 1325 l) tank, and I have installed a gravity driven drip system to our fruit and nut trees downhill of the barn. 


The routing might look goofy, but I was trying to place supports that tied in to the internal structural, find a level spot, keep the tank on the north side where sunlight ( causes algae) is minimized, as well as not being below the window.  


This is still not enough capture, so I plan to expand the storage to catch even more of the rainwater. Plans for the south roof flow are to irrigate the south garden. When I get that side finished I'll post an update with photos as well. 


Barn is 30 ft. ( 9m) x 60 ft. (18m), so a 1 inch (25mm) rainfall will provide 150 cubic feet, ( 4.25 m3) or 1100 gallons (4200 l)

Since each downspout is catching half the roof, this setup could potentially get 550 gallons (2100 l) from each inch of rain.

Average annual rainfall for here is 36.56 in. ( 928mm), which is a generous amount of rain, so I really just want to save enough to get through drought stretches as long as this setup is just for trees and supplementing rain in the veg gardens. 

If we decide to try to rely on rain for more uses, and the well pump for less, then the need is a great deal larger. For now, I plan to increase storage enough to capture rain from April through August, which is about 17.6 in ( 450mm). That's a lot, but I would stay with above ground storage, and simply drain and shut down in the winter. 

If we try for year round use and storage, then insulation or an in gound cistern will be needed. 

The drip system has had some problems to consider. First, it was hard to find components that are suitable for low pressure . Many catalogues have "low pressure" fittings, but this means 5-15 psi ( 35 kPa- 105 kPa). Since I am using only gravity, I have much less than than, somewhere in the order of 5-15 feet of head. I found some that are marginal, but the flow is still not very good.

Second, running it above ground means that once grass and weeds grow up, it is hard to find! I put out a few flags, but need to do some more to make sure we don't damage it and can find it if maintenance is needed.

Third- It will be hard to drain all the way before freezing temps arrive, without taking it all up and coiling it. I may try to blow it out with air.

I got this finished late in the season, but it should really give the trees a boost next year.

Monday, October 12, 2015

solar dehydrating update

Now that we've done some dehydrating, here is what we've found with the design.

As I mentioned in the prior post, the design I used was not the product of some company or solar design engineer, but the result of homesteader ingenuity. 

So far, were have dehydrated greens and fruit. Collards and lacinado kale were blanched before dehydrating, and they dried quite well, in less than one day. Apple and peach slices both dehydrated well, and are now stored in glass jars. If it's cloudy or you don't get the fruit in the dehydrator first thing, it might take two days. We just leave the fruit in the dehydrator overnight and have had no problems. After they are dry, we store in airtight glass jars.


Our "summer kitchen", blanching collards on the propane cookstove.

The dehydrator has four individual trays that can be taken out for loading with food or for cleaning. We found that sugary food like peach slices will stick to the stainless screening, so we used the plastic screens from our electric dehydrator on top of the  stainless screen. Plastic sticks less, and is easier to clean up in the kitchen sink. 

Picture shows kale that has been blanched and the center rib cut out, starting the drying process.


Some observations: 
Occasionally an ant has found its way in to the dryer area if it's cloudy or overnight, but normally, if the sun is out, it is so hot insects don't go in. 

The temperature and air flow is not quite as good in the lower two sections. This is actually handy for drying herbs, in which you want a low temperature. For fruit slices, we just switch top and bottom trays half way through so they finish equally. I don't yet have a temperature probe, but plan to get one, then we'll know how hot the two levels get.

Next year, maybe we'll try jerky. The two dehydrators have now been taken down and stored in the barn for the winter.


Tuesday, August 18, 2015

tender young trees

This past late spring, I attended a workshop on foraging wild edibles. I'll do a post on it later. One of the points stressed for many foods was to harvest when young and tender. The young shoots, leaves and stems all will have milder taste, are easier to eat and digest, and are easy to pick. 

It turns out that we were being informed of a fact that every herbivore on the planet already knows.

And so it goes here in Wisconsin, where the deer, rabbits, mice and voles all look forward to the tender new plants we humans grow with seeds, or poke in the ground as seedlings. Of special concern to me are all the trees I have been planting. Most are bare root seedlings, which are only one year old when planted. A few of the nursery purchased fruit trees are older, but still tasty apparently. 

I'm no expert, but it is obvious that at some point, the bark is sufficient barrier and no longer attractive to these animals, as once trees get beyond a certain size, they are not girdled or killed ( no beavers around here).

Until that time, I have been protecting my young charges with various methods. 

This apple tree is getting the deluxe package, with hardware cloth protection against rabbits and mice down around the first 16" (400mm) of trunk, the reinforcing wire cage to ward off deer, and cardboard mulch weed suppression. I even have the rainwater drip irrigation strung to it now, but it's not quite functional. I'll describe that another time.

This oak, started from acorn, had the sod flipped, placed around the hole to form a depression so watering will stay and soak in, and the small cage for deer and partial rabbit protection. It is getting watered occasionally this summer till its roots can develop below all the annual grasses.

Other trees I've planted don't get quite this nice treatment, and many don't ever get watered. 

All the hazelnuts and chestnuts from 2012 were planted dormant bare root with a mechanical seedling transplanter and got the spiral plastic trunk wrap for winter mouse and vole protection . No watering, but are mowed next to several times during the summer.

Since there are well over 2500, in rows out in our field, the time and cost to do more protection:  tree tubes ($) or weeding ( time, aching back) or watering (equipment, heavy well use) have made the low input, low effort management style an easy choice.

I planted some more chestnuts ( 120) this spring, but they were tubelings from Badgersett, and would be more vulnerable to dry times, so we have been watering and hand trimming around them as the summer rains slowed down. We did no cages though, so have had some deer predation. They were planted similarly to the oaks. We'll put on plastic spirals before winter sets in.

I also planted the start of a hedge experiment ( why are there no hedges in the U.S.? Any info I've found is from the U.K.) The osage orange and hawthorn were bare root seedlings  and got planted with a dibble. I've weeded a couple times, but no watering. They are far from the house. I'll do an update on the hedge next spring, when I see how many make it though one winter.







Thursday, August 6, 2015

Our rabbit fence, or The Maginot Line redux

We are in our sixth year gardening here, and the first full season while actually living here. Over this time, we've slowly been upgrading our infrastructure, learning from our mistakes, and getting a bit better at growing our own food.

Last year, we spent quite a  bit of money to put a combination deer/rabbit fencing around our two main garden plots. We used eight foot fence posts, cattle panels and rabbit fencing to show those critters who was boss. A bit hard to see in the the photo, but the rabbit fence is the lower 24", and the cattle panels extended up to around seven feet above the ground.

The deer got the message, and besides there is a cornucopia of green growing things all about and surrounding the garden anyway. 

The rabbits did not get the message. 

But my beef is not with the rabbits. Rabbits will do what rabbits do.  No, I'm ticked at the fence manufacturing industry, and their obvious drive to compete with the cheapest design possible, and still call the product a rabbit fence. 




In theory, rabbit fencing has wire spacing that is close enough in the lowest strands, with slowly widening spaces toward the top, so that rabbits can't squeeze through. 

The problem is, that the widening is happening much too soon and too low, so that rabbits hop right through it. We've seen both little spring tykes and full grown rabbits get through ( not under), with devastating results to our beans, which they love.

Next possible solution(s) 
plant a "trap crop" outside the fence- say some soybeans for them to munch on. Would have to churn up some more of the deep pasture sod to do so.

Put one more layer of fencing along the upper half of the rabbit fence, where the problem seems to be.- more cost and hassle.

Snares,traps, other lethal schemes inside the fence- I'd rather not, as it is wasteful and one more thing to monitor and maintain.
For now, it looks like we are still going to get a decent crop of dry beans, so maybe we just live with it.


Anyone else find that rabbit fence doesn't serve the purpose?

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Solar food dehydrating

Preserving food is essential for those who want to maximize home grown food year round. So far from our garden, we've canned a lot of stuff, put up a lot in the freezer, have dehydrated veggies in our Excalibur, and I even tried fermenting and made a batch of kraut.

To really reduce energy use in food preservation, solar is the way to go. There are a lot of designs to choose from, but I built our dehydrator based on the design developed by the homesteaders at
http://www.geopathfinder.com/Solar-Food-Drying.html

These homesteaders (Larissa and Bob) have been at it a long time, and the site has some other good stuff also.

I have enough materials to build a second one like that shown in the photos, but if we decide we need even more capacity, my plan would be to build the Appalachian State University design.

http://appropriatetec.appstate.edu/sites/appropriatetec.appstate.edu/files/HPImprovingSolarFoodDryers.pdf

Until we decide to ( or have to!)  really cut back on power use, we will still freeze and can plenty of food, but right now we are experimenting with dehydrating various things, with the general intent to minimize energy, maximize retained nutrition, and of course, process in ways that leaves the food with good taste and texture.

You can use either glass or plastic for the transparent trapping layer, I used double wall polycarbonate. The glass or plastic needs to be suitable for the temps, as well as possible hail.


These are the 24" square removable trays the food sets on. I used stainless steel screen, and cedar framing. The black painted aluminum absorbs heat, and reradiates it to the food, while the heated air is channeled by the corrugated metal to send the evaporating water up and away. Larissa and Bob's website goes in to more detail.


Larissa and Bob have built theirs as a permanent outdoor appliance, but I used carriage bolts and made my legs and bracing removable, for storage indoors. Right now, I'm setting at a little over 15 degrees from horizontal. If this is too steep and food slides, I will just whack the back legs and redo the braces.

I used hi temp black stove spray paint on the heat capture aluminum sheeting. We'll let this outgas for a couple days, then give it a go.


Sunday, June 28, 2015

Chicken update

The chicks we started on May 1 are now over seven weeks old, and are no longer chicks at all. It had been a long time since I had tended livestock as a kid on the farm, so it's with renewed amazement that I see how quickly they grow. I partitioned off a part of our new barn for the coop, and then built this permanent run outside. We used cattle panels and chicken wire, as well as buried hardware cloth to discourage predators from digging under the fence. We will still shut them in at night in the varmint tight coop.

Next chicken project is to set up a mobile coop/roost and electronet to get them out in the rest of the pasture. I'm also building our own little abattoir, as we will do our own butchering.

This photo shows the sun shade I fashioned out of an old tarp canopy we have held on to forever, and are finally getting some use out of. I think the last time it was used was when the kids were in scouts.


Closer shot of the Black Australorps. The difference between roosters and hens is quite clear now. The other marked difference is between the Australorps and the New Hampshire Reds. While both were described as good breeds for foraging and free ranging, the Australorps are MUCH more confident and ready to explore, eat various tidbits, and just seem more alert and quick to react to their environment. On the other hand, the Reds are growing quicker.



This shot shows the hole I hacked in our new barn. I'm still working on a better latch/door mechanism.


In hopefully another month or two, we'll be sending most of the roosters to "freezer camp", and then just waiting for the hens to start laying. Since it will  be late fall by the time they should start, I will need to set up some lighting on a timer to encourage laying as the days get shorter.


Saturday, May 16, 2015

learn from the cherry tree

William McDonough and Michael Braunart's book "Cradle to Cradle" is primarily about man's design methods for the artifacts we all use, but it is more deeply about our interface with the natural system we are immersed in. ( even though most of our fellow travelers visualize some sort of maginot line between us and the wider world).

 I recommend the book; it is an easy read, as it dives back and forth between big picture systems views and detailed examples to make the lesson stick. It's also the only book I own that is not made of paper, something the authors did to make a point about whole systems ( cradle to cradle) design.

As our young cherry trees bloomed this spring, it reminded me of one little "parable" from the book. The authors point out that the cherry tree, in order to survive as a species, really just needs to get one seed to to germinate and grow into a replacement that will in turn bear the next generation. But the process that has evolved ends up producing an abundance of fruit and seeds for the rest of the local ecosystem to feed on, with a net benefit for the system as a whole. The tree makes the pie bigger, instead of trying to get a bigger piece of the existing pie. ( mmm- cherry pie! can't wait) It's not really that simple, but what they are doing is trying to point out a possible alternate mindset, or design approach than what is common right now.

Is this benevolence on the  tree's part? Is this enlightened self interest? ( if trees can be enlightened) One could delve in to thermodynamics, energy flow analysis, game theory, maybe even spiritual or supernatural underpinnings of the universe, but for me, simply recognizing that this is how nature works, and has worked for millions of years means we should pay attention, and not think we as newcomers  have a better way.

Contrast the cherry tree with the industrial ag cornfield, where the monoculture field is entirely subjugated and dedicated to output for humans. We are taking all the pie, instead of trying to make the pie bigger and leaving some to share. This is only made possible, I should point out, by extreme use of nonrenewable fossil fuel inputs, which won't be available by the time the chestnut trees I'm planting now are at full height in 100 years or so.


While the book then goes on to apply the concept to designing a building, It's even more applicable to agriculture. I now try to think through what this farm should try to aim for and how we might emulate the cherry tree. Permaculture will be our overarching framework, but there are so many things to work out, so many choices, so many experiments that needs started, and the results take so long to fully be understood.

I've never taken a PDC ( permaculture design course) , and probably won't, but I find that as I walk around our land, I am constantly looking at the ground slopes, the water routes, the existing plants, the soil makeup, and try to visualize what might make things better ( value laden word there, I admit). We are after all, a keystone species, and it's time to act like it.
from a prior post:  the rogue keystone species


Saturday, May 9, 2015

closing the nutrient cycle

One of, if not the greatest challenge in the post fossil fuel future will be transitioning agriculture to run with on farm natural inputs, and still get  a yield which we can live on. I need to do more study on the local geology and resultant soil makeup, especially phosphorus, as the surface geology here is very old. Regardless, trainloads of rock phosphate will not be shipped around the globe forever, so we all will need to be better at husbanding what we have here now.

This spring, we took one more step in that direction, with the introduction of livestock to our farm. We just started 30 Black Australorps and 25 New Hampshire Reds, both straight run.

Our plan is to put nearly all the cockerels in the freezer in good time, and get eggs from the hens. All the while, the chickens will be adding to the ecology here, by foraging in pasture, by eating garden vegetable processing scraps, and returning good fertilizer to the soil. Over time, we hope to do more and more to keep improving the nutrient cycle, by adding more livestock, by expanding our composting quantities, figuring out no till gardening, and doing more and more perennial food crops.




We ordered these chicks through the local feed store, but long term plans will include broody hens, selecting for breed improvement, and hatching our own chicks. Harvey Ussery deserves another shout out here, as his book is great for describing all these steps, as well as integrating chickens into an overall farm ecosystem, and will be my main reference as we proceed. Since the photo was taken, we've hung a nipple waterer, and are getting them trained to it. We have also started tossing in plants for them to peck at and get used to being part of their diet.





Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Driftless Folk School

One more bit of serendipitous luck in our finding this corner of Wisconsin to homestead is that we ended up being very close to the new home of the Driftless Folk School. If anyone reading this is interested in taking classes on traditional arts, homesteading skills, and self reliance, check out their offerings.
Driftless Folk School home page  

I took my first class a couple weeks ago on pruning old, overgrown apple trees to get them back in shape. It was well done, hands on, and also a good way to meet other people in the area with similar interests and goals. 

We went on our train journey shortly after the class, so I couldn't start pruning straight away. 

So I finally got to cracking on the old apple trees early last week, and proceeded to build a rather large pile of discards, but I'd say I only have a fair start to the project. Will see how they respond this year, and do some more next year, as buds are just starting to swell, and I want to let that proceed undisturbed.





I have my eye on some other classes as well, and hope to not just learn some essential skills, but to build connections with the like  minded people in the area. ( though some of the participants are from rather away).

Anyone wanting to quickly pick up hands on skills but not knowing someone to learn from, will find folk schools a good place to get those skills. I know there is a very large one out east: 
https://www.folkschool.org
and I've stopped in and looked at this one in Minnesota.
http://www.northhouse.org

There are others.
http://www.bestchoiceschools.com/folk-schools/


Friday, April 10, 2015

Amtrak demystified

We have just returned from a train trip to visit our son in Oakland, CA. Traveling by train is by nearly all accounts a better environmental choice than airplane, and car, unless the car is crammed full of passengers.

 Since we are retired now, we have less schedule pressure, and are no longer carefully counting out precious vacation days in planning our trips to see our diasporatic children. More time means less need to fly, and more ability to be greener.

However, unlike Europe, ( and other areas of the globe) America does not have a robust train network, nor a very coordinated transit system to mesh with the long haul routes. Lot's of politics and short sightedness there. On top of that, the web info available to get logistics planned and make sure the experience is simple are lacking, both on the Amtrak website, and on the various amateur blog entries and youtube videos.

So here are some observations on our experience, filling in some gaps in case anyone thinking of Amtrak stumbles on this quiet corner of the net. Our route was the California Zephyr, from Galesburg IL ( the route actually starts in Chicago) to Emeryville CA ( the San Francisco bay area, with a short bus hop to SF, for those going all the way) , so I'm not sure how they might extrapolate to other routes.



Riding in a sleeper car:
Above is the layout for the sleeper cars. We stayed in a lower level  "roomette" on the way out. The two seats face each other, and they flatten out in to the lower bed. The upper bed is tilted ( mostly) up out of the way during the day. The attendant asks you what time you want the beds set up, and he/she comes to do that. I think the latest they will schedule is 10:30 PM. After you leave your room in the morning, they come back and remake the beds and set up the seats for the day. 

There are two reading lights for the seats, but one of ours would light but could not be aimed, so couldn't use it. The upper bunk used the ceiling light for reading in bed, but there was no light useful for reading in the lower bed. There is a climate control knob, as well as a louver adjustment for the air flow, but we could not detect any change when these were twiddled with. There are privacy blinds on both the door and window, and they are pretty good, with velcro patches to keep them tightly shut and make sure no pervs can glimpse you in your jammies.

Upper bunk can be tricky to get in to. If you are large or less agile, it might not work for you. There is a nylon netting mechanism that supposedly keeps you from falling out if an especially large side sway happens. It also makes it trickier to climb in. A couple of steps are built in to the side of the room for clambering up.
The attendant left bottled water with us each time he made the beds, and always asked if we needed anything, but other than that, didn't see much of him.

You have a tiny "closet", with two hangers and a couple wash cloths and hand towels. Towels for showering are provided in the shower area. 

Meals in the dining car are included with sleeper room fare, and the  menu is limited and the same every day. The food was pretty good most of the time. Liquor is of course extra.

Which side of the car is best for sightseeing is luck of the draw, so not much point in trying to second guess that. We spent a lot of time in the observation car, which is good for watching as well as getting in to some interesting conversations. It's also the hangout spot for night owls, no quiet hours 24/7.

There are also full rooms available, but they are even more expensive, and not many to a train, so if you have a set date of travel, reservations need to be made far in advance.

Riding coach:


We decided to try coach on the way back, to see if the cost savings was worth it. The climate control in the coach cars was of course not in our control ( no individual nozzles like in an airplane), and was much warmer than we prefer at night. I assume the temperature was based on the fact that you can't bring a lot of bedding with you, but we prefer it cool at night, so felt stuffy to us.

They say seating is first come, first served, but in reality, they give you a seat number, and it might be anywhere in the car. We knew from the ride out which side we wanted to sit on going back, and were able to get things switched, but only because we did it quick, and we were the initial stop of the run.

The chairs are comfy enough, with leg and foot rests, kind of like a slimmed down recliner chair. They recline back more than an airline chair, but not as much as a true recliner. We decided that we just can't sleep well sitting up anymore, and would probably spend the money on the sleepers next time.


Food for coach riders is bring your own, or buy from the snack bar on the lower level of the observation car. Virtually no healthy food, but you can get microwaveable sandwiches, so you won't starve. This will save you money compared to the dining car, but you can still take meals there if you want, you just have to pay for them like any restaurant.

Other general observations:
The crew gets switched out every so often to keep fresh eyes in the engine car, and conductors on duty, but the food crew stays the full ride. We noted that they are not all consistent with announcements and enforcing rules.

You can carry on two carry ons, plus a small item or two ( purse, outer wear,....) but the overhead stowage rack is not that large. There was plenty of linear rack, but the opening height would not admit some of the larger "carry on" style luggage. There is also separate luggage shelving down by the exit doors, so some stuff can fit there, but it's not as handy. More and/or larger ( over 50 lbs) can be checked, but costs money. They will go in the baggage car, and will be pulled by the conductors at your stop.

"Facilities, WC, toilet, bathroom, head, etc..."- various sizes, configurations, but mostly small, no larger than airplane restrooms. They even use the vacuum sucking flush system like on an airplane. One weird detail-  the sink water pressure and faucets were way too high pressured, and always sprayed water all over the place, making the room messy much quicker than your typical public restroom. So stupid, and you would think easy to fix.

Some bathrooms get used a lot, and get nasty. This also is affected by how well the train crew keeps up with things, and of course, your luck in what kind of fellow passengers you end up with.

The shower was fine- push a little button and get a minute or two of water. Push again to get more. Nice and hot, reasonable pressure, but one time the shower did not shut off for quite a while. Oh, and showers are only available for travelers in the sleeper cars, so keep that in mind if you  take a multi day trip riding coach.

Amtrak does not control the tracks, so we had to sideline a lot to let freight trains go by. A serious mass transit system would not be run that way, and travel times could be reduced considerably just by adding more track or separating the two.

If I remember more, I'll add them later. Or ask me questions!


Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Box elder syrup

In Southwest Wisconsin, there is a small maple syrup industry. Nothing like Vermont or Canada, but a lot of small sugar bushes, some even having a label and are sold commercially. But our farm has no maples ( except one maple planted in our yard).

I had read about syruping, and learned that box elders, being a relative of maples, can also be tapped for sap. Well, box elders are not a very desirable tree, so they grow everywhere. Funny how that works. We have our share, and some are fairly large, with trunks as large as 16". ( roughly 400mm). 

So I bought some spiles, cute little galvanized pails, and got out the cordless drill and set up my own mini sugar bush. ( 5 trees!)

I also am half way through reading Helen and Scott Neering's book "The Maple Sugar Book". They give a good accounting of the history of maple sugaring, and details and techniques of production scale syrup making. The only thing remotely relevant to my experiment was their discussion of the mysterious vagaries of sap flow and weather. I found it to be hard to figure out which days (and which trees) would flow each day, but in the end, got a fair little store of syrup for my effort.

We had our first sampling this morning on pancakes, and it was good. Not as "mapley" as maple syrup, but sweet and mild flavored.



Because each day's batch was so small, I couldn't use a hygrometer or candy thermometer to monitor concentration, so went by ( very inexperienced) eye. First day's batch went too far and crystallized, but each of the others seem to be fairly close. since I don't know the actual content, nor did I monitor temperature, these will stay in the refrigerator till used, so we don't get mold or bacteria growth.

Note that the syrup is not clear, but varying degrees of cloudy. This is because I also did not bother to strain out the sugar sand. It is harmless minerals that precipitate out during heating, and is probably actually good for you.

All in all, a fun experiment, and I might expand the "bush" to more of our trees next year.


Thursday, March 26, 2015

Pest control- rodent category


The photo pretty much explains this method of mouse control. You can google bucket mouse trap or bucket rat trap and get all sorts of variations on the theme, many with crude execution. I have found that as long as you take in to account the size of the mouse, the geometry and spacing of the components, the thing can be pretty effective. We luckily have no rats, so I can't confirm how deadly it might be for them, as they are known to be pretty cagy.

Since we weren't living here full time till this past July, the buggers thought they owned the place. There is a new sherif in town, so things are clearing up. 

Following this ( my first) mouse, I caught 38 more before winter set in and the water froze. The water is key, because they can actually jump back out if not treading water. Rats would have no problem at all jumping out if no water was there. I also found that this plastic pop bottle was better than a can, as it spun with just the right resistance, giving the mouse sufficient confidence to take that last fatal step.

Now that winter is ending, I'll start this bucket back up.

These guys all go in the compost pile, completing the circle of life.



Monday, March 9, 2015

long beds

Lumber is yet another miracle of the industrial age we don't even notice here in the richest country in the world. Any homeowner can run down to the closest Lowe's, Home Depot, Menards, or whatever chain you are near. Not too many actual old time lumber yards out there, but there are still a few around. And that homeowner can buy materials cut to size and build anything from a birdhouse to a three story mansion if he has the time and money. In my opinion, lumber is shockingly cheap for what it is. Just imagine the effort to cut and hew wood to shape for building a simple cabin as in days of yore. There was a good reason the cabins were simple logs with minimal whittling on the ends to facilitate locking together.

And something else about lumber I hadn't thought about till we finally bought a farm truck this week. Why does lumber have the dimensions it has? I'm sure there is a real, historical and technical reason, but here is my pure speculation without researching it.

I think it is because of how tall humans are. While lumber can be had in any number of lengths, your basic framing stud is eight feet long, the height of the typical wall in a wood framed house. All the sheet goods, plywood and any other amalgam of glue and sawdust you'd care to consider, are four feet by eight feet( the great majority anyway). Once you have some parameters like that settled on, the other dimensions, thickness and width, are a function of how much strength is needed for a member that is eight feet long to handle the loads it will experience.

So, maybe now I'll read and see if there IS any history on the evolution of lumber. 

Where I'm heading with this is our truck shopping experience. I am not a car guy. My brothers read Car and Driver, and other mags focussing on trucks, of which I don't even know the titles. They know a LOT about trucks. I only recognize maybe 10% of the cars on the road, because of their distinctive design, but many guys know all of them, what year they are, what city it was made in, which engine it has, what the major good and bad aspects of that model (and year!) are, and how much it would cost new or used. There: I've admitted it, I've failed my shade tree mechanic father.

One thing I did know, or thought I knew, was that you buy a pickup so you can haul stuff, including and especially lumber. So we soon found out that hardly any truck on the road these days has an eight foot bed to haul lumber in. If there was a standard ( which there isn't, nothing is standard anymore) bed length, it is 6 feet, 6 inches, and a short bed, of which there are many, is 5 feet, 6 inches. The average man couldn't even lay down in the bed of his truck, or dispose of bodies I suppose, without bending the knees a bit. 

And get this- a bed which is eight feet long is now called a long bed. The pickup truck these days is a fashion statement, or a confirmation of rugged manhood, or a result of hypnotized consumers falling for advertising once again. It is not a working truck, that is for sure. Not even sure why they mostly have four wheel drive, but ours will need that.

We finally found one, so I am done cramming eight foot lumber ( only maybe a dozen or so) into the car, and my "new" truck ( used, but in immaculate shape) will soon be getting the dents, scrapes and mud it was meant for.