Archive for April, 2009

Winter’s Fart

Friday, April 24th, 2009

The morning before Earth Day, Nancy and I lay in bed under our mound of comforters, slowly letting our circadian rhythm kick into gear. Those first mumbles of the day tend to be a series of yawns, grunts and moans. Suddenly our eyes became more than awakening slits and we scowled at each in a most accusing manner. “Eeewwww, did you fart?!” we queried in unison.

After sputtering denials from both parties, and retreating beneath the filter of covers, we realized that the smell was from coming from outside. Actually we had detected the smell outdoors the day before but now a trace of the insipid aroma had seeped through the thick log walls of the Outpost.

After getting dressed and stepping outside to check things out, it didn’t take much sleuth work to locate the mystery orifice of winter’s release. Behind the Outpost, over the top of Pulpit Hill is a relic of a former river path. It is a curving oxbow pond now and it is the smelly grail of this seasonal miasmic release.

In the past few days as we have got in some wonderful early spring ski outings in the area, we have detected the smell of sulfur every time we are near a lake or wetland’s edge. The breezes this morning carried the wake up call directly towards the Outpost.

Just as our bodies cannot process our food without creating noxious gas fumes, the waterlogged soils around wetlands become gas-producing environments. Over the course of a long winter, any oxygen that had been in the muck has been long consumed. All aerobic (oxygen loving) microorganisms have died off leaving only those anaerobic wee organisms in good shape. The metabolisms of these microorganisms that don’t require oxygen are the reason for the increase of compounds such as the odorless gas methane and the highly odoriferous gas, hydrogen sulfide. The hydrogen sulfide is the nose-wrinkling, rotten egg smell that nearly caused a rift in our morning bed.

As this is our first experience with the demise of a northern winter and the advent of a Yukon spring, we have been curious as to how spring would announce itself. I have to smile knowing now that the fair maiden called ‘Spring’ is called forth by a stale, sulfurous and bad tempered fart of Old Man Winter.

Clearly a lesson was learned here. This was simply another case of where we can find beauty, a sign of spring, in something that is typically a bit revolting. I have always found a certain joy in smelling the first skunk of March or April, but since they are not found in the Yukon, I must be rejoice in spring’s appearance as declared in a similar discharge.

And once again I have been battered with the adage that there is always something good in the bad.

Ahhhh, smell that wonderful winter fart!! How lovely.

Good Friday Gone Bad

Saturday, April 11th, 2009

Okay I will confess that most of my Yukon updates and blog entries give the impression that we reside in the house of heaven. Oh sure there have been a few bumps like charging dead truck batteries and lots of snow shoveling, but I really do like winter and there is a wee bit of me that hates to see the treadmill of fun shift.

Well I’m coming clean. No embellishments here this is the straight poop. Yesterday was Good Friday and I was feeling a bit of a resurrection in that for three days prior, I had been smitten with a skookum cold. (A little review on your Yukon jargon. skookum=good.) So when we discovered that our septic line was frozen on top of having pump troubles, I had a difficult time fending stress away from my healing ways.

Some would call it the perfect storm. Water and waste supplies on strike at the same time.
While it is frustrating, it’s not that big a deal in the grand scheme of things. After all, I can go down to the frozen river, less than 30 steps from the house, and tote up five gallon containers of wonderfully pure water running out of the mountains. Hot water is secured by heating it on the wood stove, which we still are using early in the morning and again in the evening. Or we simply heat water on the kitchen stove.

So what do we do with the water, well we throw out over the railing of the deck that is off the kitchen. . . just like we have been doing all winter. During the cold of winter, this was a hurried affair and all too often I heard the scuttle of forgotten silverware in the dishpan as I heaved everything into the night air.

No water for the toilet is not a big deal since we used the outhouse all winter. As mentioned in an earlier blog entry, The Long Drop, I have come to enjoy quiet moments of the outhouse. Though after a long winter, I can tell you we will be digging a new outhose basement and prying the biffy up onto some pine logs and roll it to a new position. Over the cold winter I have had to reach down into the bowels of the one-holer with a two inch thick section of aspen and knock down the “stalagshits’ or “pinnacles of poop.” Makes you wonder what I think about out there.

I spent some time on our Apple “Google Machine” and found out that our winter practice of reducing water draining into our septic system was likely the wrong thing to do. We should have been running some water down the line on a regular basis. If you want to live like we have, then it would be best to live in a tent or a remote log cabin where fetching water and using outhouses are the norm.

I spent part of Good Friday in our crawl space, writhing like a snake under the floor following and inspecting the water and waste lines. Only once did I think of Charles Bronson having a panic attack as dealt with his claustrophobia while digging on the escape tunnel in the film, The Great Escape. At least there were zero spider webs to wipe away. There is no way they would survive a Yukon winter there. Besides no spiders, there were no answers.

I tried priming the pump three times. . . no luck. I feel so inept as a handyman sometimes. But on occasion I will surprise myself. No surprises today, only disappointments.

So when I am frustrated what do I do? I do something physical, get outside and move the body. So why not do something constructive, rather than relaxing and fun? I am pleased that a pair of interchanging shovels did the work. My arms and back survived but only because I made myself stop and take two long breaks.

But I shoveled a whole lot of snow and have managed to get down to bare ground. Behold another “first” on my life list! I have shoveled away two feet of snow from a good portion of my lawn. With the days stretching and the promise of clear skies, I am hoping to partner with the sun in accelerating the thawing of the buried septic tank and line.

Feeling at least a modicum of satisfaction at something going right, I grabbed a late afternoon cup of coffee, a brownie and a fine book and settled into a chair up on the deck where the sunshine was warm. Basking felt good and all is really quite well. Though the land wears the stole of winter, the air and south wind are nudging a new story into place.

Fifteen minutes and a chapter later, I stood up, tossed the coffee grounds out of my cup out over our dishwater middens. A flash caught my eye. There sticking up out of the crusty snow, like the first bold daffodils, was a setting of silverware.

Got to love spring discoveries.

Making Do

Wednesday, April 1st, 2009

While the media pounds us with global economic woes, the news of the largest recession in seventy years, I prefer to think of it as an overdue “social correction.” Clearly with human population continually rising and our worship of growth at all costs, there was bound to be some constraint emerging. In following the common credo of limitlessness we continue to spiral into short-term thinking that compromises future generations. I believe it is time to consider the wisdom of past generations

My Great Gramma Schmidt lived to be 104 years old. Up until her last days, she was sharp and her wisdom and shared experiences were gifts I will always treasure. I have kept track of some of her sayings and pieces of advice. Such common sense is rarely heard anymore.

One phrase, a favorite of mine, is especially appropriate these days when jobs seem insecure and household budgets are tightened. Gramma often repeated, “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.” I would like to see someone take that slogan, and others of similar ilk, and create bold, colorful posters similar to the large war bonds posters that graced our nation during WW II. The posters could be hung in schools, libraries, post offices and other public locations. Perhaps the sales of such posters could be used to fight the increase in poverty.

The other night was the observation of Earth Hour 2009. Around the world, people shut off lights for one hour in an attempt to bring awareness to the need to reduce energy use and conserve resources to counter high carbon emissions. Organizers had hoped to sign up 1,000 cities. The week before the event, almost 2,400 cities, towns and municipalities in 83 countries had agreed to take part in the event. Nearly19,000 businesses and 5,500 organizations also signed on. The goal was to cut energy consumption by5% an hour. However, if we as inhabitants of earth hope to substantially reduce carbon emissions we will have to far better than a 5% savings.

I don’t know how participants in the Yukon fared, but just south of us, in British Columbia, and far more people, the province experienced a 1.1 % power drop. It was reported that if British Columbians implemented the same conservation measures that they did during Earth Hour for one hour every evening, enough power would be saved to power 2,400 homes for an entire year.

I managed to make it through the hour without a single light. But it did help in that this northerly latitude is experiencing leaps in lengthening days.

Last month our electric bill, all generated by carbon free hydropower, generated by a dam on the Yukon River in Whitehorse, was approximately $30. Last fall it was about $38 per month. So Nancy and I have saved approximately 20% on our household electric bill and we could do better.

Since just prior to Christmas of 2008, we have been experimenting with more intentional means to lessen our energy use. We try to limit our trips to Whitehorse, 25 miles away, to one trip per week. We buy groceries, go to the library, and maybe get in a cross-country ski workout at Mt. Mac, followed by a sauna and shower at the Nordic/curling center and often an evening arts event.

It has been over three months since I turned off our electric hot water heater. We could think of no reason to have a 40-gallon tank of hot water sitting there when we draw upon it only minimally, so we turned it off. Instead, we heat two large pots or a teakettle over the wood stove. We wash dishes once a day, wash up and even imbibe in wonderful sponge baths while standing in small plastic tubs placed next to the warmth of the wood stove.

Or I take hot water from the teakettle and pour it into our solar shower bag that we take camping or use here in the summer. Then I hang the shower bag over the showerhead in our bathroom and stand in the tub for a quiet shower. And I find that I can use my hot grey water for washing a small load of laundry that I squish with my feet as I shower. The final rinsing of the clothes is done in boiling water from the woodstove. The wooden drying rack for mitts, gloves, boot liners and outdoor gear is directly behind the wood stove and it makes a wonderful laundry dryer as well.

Larger loads of laundry make the trip to Whitehorse with us each week or two for a trip to the Laundromat. Nothing puzzles me more than when I hear of folks who feel a need to wash a load of clothing every day or two. Granted babies, young children and some jobs require more washing, but most folks are simply wearing out their expensive designer jeans much faster by subjecting them to the rigors of frequent washings. Wash clothes less often and you will benefit from cost savings from an energy standpoint as well as your clothing budget.

Every week or so we treat ourselves to the blissful pressure of a hot water shower and turn on the electric hot water heater for one hour. Consequently, a simple shower has become a more wondrous and amazing event. I find it incongruous when folks wrinkle up their noses at the thought of not having a daily shower or washing a load of laundry multiple times each week.

The other plus side is that since early last November, we have used less than 1500 gallons of water in our house. That amounts to about 12.5 gallons per day for the two of us.

The recent thirty-dollar electric bill was not bad considering we must have lights on much of the time during the long, dark winter nights. We also have the computer on for at least eight hours a day. The computer is a major energy user. We have the computer, printer and modem plugged into a power strip and that is switched off every night or when we know when we will be gone from the Outpost all day. We have developed a habit of unplugging the microwave after each use. It is estimated that 5 per cent of all household energy used in typical homes powers vampire electronics. These appliances include any device that has a digital readout, such as a clock. TVs, microwaves, cell phone chargers, DVD players and other electronics use the power for instant-on features.

Recently the Globe Mail newspaper out of Toronto published an alarming point regarding the electricity used by a single plasma TV over a year for the instant on feature is huge. The energy required is enough to illuminate up to 14,500 one hundred watt light bulbs for an hour!

Since we have no television, we save both on the electric bill and on mindless staring. We do enjoy watching an occasional DVD movie and use the computer for our indoor theater. A computer is a major energy user. Ours is on for up to ten hours each day since both Nancy and I use it for our work.

Funny, how choosing to do with less, in terms of television, washing clothes or even shaving frequently give Nancy and I more time to share time exploring another snowshoe hike to check out the local herd of caribou or to sit down with a cup of tea around the wood burning stove and read aloud. Perhaps the greatest reward has been that we have enjoyed more quality time together and have a far greater appreciation for simple pleasures.

So how will I do without the woodstove providing my hot water in a month or two? As I write this, I am researching and sketching a design for a simple, inexpensive solar hot water batch heater. The challenge is on