The Ark of Misery Bends Toward Progress

I am aware that the title of this blog entry is a mangled version of a much loved quote by Martin Luther King. Our efforts here this year have struggled against the stubborn bush, the swarming bugs, the scorching heat and the laws set down by Mr. Murphy. Against all that we are two tired and banged up people who keep moving our hands and shuffling our feet. We are stubborn and determined, and sometimes when we look up from what we are doing, it seems like some small progress is being made. We will make a home in this desolate place, or we will make the local news when one of us is carted off to the sanatorium, yelling “I had to kill him/her, there was always sawdust on the toilet seat!”

A busy camp Summer 2014

A busy camp Summer 2014

In a little over a hundred days we have carved out a homestead that is up and running in the most important ways. We have our own access to a public road at the end of a 900ft winding trail cut through the bush. We have set up a working (it not luxurious) camp, centered on the old workshop that is being patched up just enough to get some temporary use out of it. We have cleared about an acre of bush around the old shop, and removed a prodigious quantity of scrap metal and junk left behind by the previous owner in the 90s. Our access to water and electricity is adequate, but is far from efficient or convenient. Shack #2 is now useable as sleeping quarters, and is a major improvement over the tent. We have cleared and broken a garden plot of something over 3000 sq. ft. It is hoped that it will be ready for growing vegetables in the spring. Along with many other projects completed or in progress, we are establishing ourselves here on the land. With winter coming, our focus is to improve our arrangements for shelter and start accumulating the mountain of firewood that will be required to keep us all warm. 003

I will be wrapping up this blog soon, and starting a new one. Looking back over what I have put down here, I see a rambling account of hopes and expectations, running head on into reality. What I have written is full of shortcuts and temporary patches pulled together under the stress of people trying to hold back the ocean with a broom. As things settle down here this fall, I will try to take a deep breath and pull together what we are trying to do here and why. I hope to tell a story that would be of interest to others that have chosen this path, or those who plan to or even wonder what it would be like. I will keep telling this story, sporadically during the summer and in more detail from November till May, for many years to come, unless Bill Gates succeeds in gaining complete control of the internet. In that event, my dispatches will be available via carrier pigeon.


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The Month of Backaches and Blisters

This has definitely been a month for the books. I have not been forced to work this hard since I started my grounds keeping business 25 years ago. Hard work has not hurt this much since…..lets face it, it has never hurt this much. Am I surprised how hard this is to do? Not really, I did enough homework to know what to expect. Am I discouraged, and thinking of giving up? Not for a micro second. This place might kill me, but I won’t be leaving in anything but a box or the ambulance that takes you to a mental institution.Tent
The frustrating thing straight out of the gate is the virtual impossibility of staying on one project all the way to completion. The reality of the early days on the land is one of being pulled in several directions at once and running around in circles. Suddenly losing all the normal services and conveniences means that just holding body and soul together with the minimal acceptable level of comfort becomes a time consuming job.

All the Comforts of Home

All the Comforts of Home

An absolutely essential part of establishing a homestead like this is to secure an adequate water supply. A good quality, high capacity shallow well is the best that can be hoped for and according to a number of the locals, there is cause to be hopeful that we might be able to dig a good well here. If that does not pan out, the other possible options would include a deep core drilled well, a dugout, rainwater collection, hooking on to the local system and failing all of that a cistern to store water hauled in. This is all in the future, our immediate needs have to be met by hauling water in. The first week or so out here, all water had to be carried in though the mud in one gallon jugs. As soon as the ground firmed up things improved greatly, being able to haul in 150 gallons at a time with our small tank in the back of the pickup and transferring to our stationary 325 gallon tank. We first tried to arrange to haul from the small water treatment plant in the hamlet that we border on, but arrangements were so awkward that we opted to haul from a municipal well about 17km away. I suspect local politics are at play here, and I would prefer to steer clear. We have adequate water for a reasonable amount of resources, so that is all that matters.


Refrigeration is more of a challenge than we had hoped. We have an old 3 way RV fridge that we had planned to run on propane. The first couple weeks there was no time to set it up on propane so we ran it on electric which required running the generators more than we would have liked. When I finally got the thing running on propane, I was still tweaking the venting arrangement when the propane control burned out. So at present it is back on electric, until I can figure out whether repairing the propane control is possible or practical.
The electrical system is far from adequate at this point. The battery bank consists of two golf cart 225 amp batteries, a 45 amp charger and a 1500 watt inverter. Waiting in the wings are 6 more batteries, two 75 watt and one 100 watt solar panels, a 400 watt wind generator, a 1500 watt marine inverter with a 70 amp charger, a 1000 watt true sine inverter and a small 600 watt inverter. All I need is the time to set it all up.
One of the main reasons for the delay in getting the electric system up and running properly is the partially completed shack #2. With the amount of rain we have had, and the additional rain forecasted, I need the shack up and protected by roofing without delay, or warping and deterioration of the osb panels will threaten the quality of the whole project.
Shack 2

Shack 2

Driveways, trails and access have shown some progress in the last month. Our access from the beginning has been across a neighbours property, and even though he has been very patient with us, we are keen to have our own proper access. The most promising way to open up short term access for the least resources, seems to be to re-open the old driveway to homestead #2. My best information at present is that we are building the fourth homestead on this property. When ours is completed it will stand on on a different location from each of the other three that have been here over the last century. I am thinking of attaching a page to this blog that will cover the history of this property as I am able to piece it together. The driveway of homestead #2 is being reclaimed because it is closer to our planned cabin site, because it requires comparatively light clearing, and finally because it was once a driveway and therefore should have a gravel base under the surface. If this route ever had a culvert, it was long gone. By following the RM (Rural Municipality) minutes published in the local newspaper, I discovered it was common practice for property owners to install and maintain culverts for road approaches. If you take this option, the culvert is supplied by the RM free of charge. The RM will upon request supply, install and maintain the culvert, but then you pay, pay and pay some more. As in most things, I find my own labour rates more agreeable. So with the help of a neighbour, I brought a shiny new 12” x 20’ culvert home from the RM yard. The ditch was very shallow, so I had to dig the culvert in a bit deeper than the bottom of the current ditch. I did this because I fear that any really heavy vehicles (like gravel trucks) would crush the culvert flat passing over it. By going a bit deeper, I think it will be better protected but now I have to do some additional digging on both sides of the culvert.
The next step was to have some gravel delivered. For roughing in the approach, driveways, parking and work areas the common practice is to use what is variously called “scrapings” or “pit run” which is a by product produced by gravel pits. In this location it is a mix of sand, gravel and small rocks that may not be pretty, but gets the job done for less coin. When we are satisfied that we have a good base, we will apply a relatively thin layer of crushed gravel over the pit run base.

Generator Shack

Generator Shack

Recently one of the locals felt the need to tell me the story of an eccentric fellow who lived in these parts on a piece of bush like my own. Apparently this reclusive man spent years laboriously clearing his land by hand. When he finished, he set to planting the entire patch with trees. I think my storyteller was trying to evaluate my sanity. My disdain for bulldozers runs against the common wisdom that this northern bush is merely an obstacle that needs to be swept aside to make way for cereal cropping or grazing.Southwest
You may have noticed that this post rambles and meanders in various directions, and on the one hand, I would like to have the time and energy to pull this together in some sort of coherent form. If I do that, I will not get around to posting this until about the early part of December. It is in a way suitable, that my posts this summer are a chaotic mess, because that is a true reflection of the situation here on the ground. Stay tuned because I am sure things will improve in two or three weeks…..or months…..years? Umm… decades?

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Hard Early Days

It is hard to believe that we have been on the homestead for three weeks. It has been a mad rush all the way. I will try to pull together a decent post in the near future with some pictures. My break is over now, so ……

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Today we are Homesteaders!

Just having a last cup of coffee in a dwelling with grid power. This morning it was cold when I got out of bed, so I just turned up the thermostat. It will be the last time I have access to that kind of convenience for a long time. I have no problem leaving behind the life on the grid. I think E will be happier about it when we get our own services up to a comfortable standard. Riley does not care as long as he can be with his people, have a good kibble supply, go for truck rides and have access to some kind of heat source. He is even more stressed about this last move than E, he has been shadowing my every move to make sure he doesn’t get left behind. Today feels like an important line to be crossed, even though about half of our possessions will remain at the rental for another few weeks. The homestead as it exists today consists of a ramshackle old workshop that is not so much standing, as falling down in extreme slow motion, three other small sheds under palliative care, a large tent on a platform and a mostly finished outhouse. Power facilities are minimal and water supply is next to non-existent. Things can only get better.

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Good Omen or Practical Joke?

This morning the sight out my window does not look quite right six days short of May. The snow is back and spring appears to have been cancelled. The forecast calls for a big improvement just before we move out to the homestead. Good omen or practical joke? April 25
Today is a day of packing and moving stuff out to the storefront. These are boring tasks that we have had a lot of practice at lately. This move from British Columbia to the homestead has been a record breaker in every category. The distance, over 2000 kilometers. The amount of stuff to be moved was unprecedented. The truck and trailer made 5 very overloaded trips.Exodus The move required staging from Langley to Tisdale, from Tisdale to Hudson Bay, and now from Hudson Bay to the homestead. The cost topped 7k which is a lot for frugal people like us.
A number of people asked us if it would not have been better to downsize more before the move, even if that meant re-aquiring certain items on this end. First, we did downsize and I mean radically. It would be fair to say that between us we divested at least half of what we owned in terms or weight and bulk. We might have been willing to cut even deeper if we were moving from a rural area to an urban area. Typically prices are lower and selection is better in an urban area. We tried to evaluate each item according to how useful or personally valuable it was and how the economics of moving or disposing worked out. It will be some years before we can make a final accounting of the choices we made.
Our days of living out of our matched 100 piece luggage set (Rubbermaid tubs) are far from over. Even after we finish moving everything on to the homestead, there will be years of shuffling around as work, living and storage spaces are added and improved.
It has been fairly said that minimalism is a great tool in the pursuit of economy, independence and security. As true as that is, the self sufficient homesteader has to balance minimalism with function and comfort. If you are moving from one furnished apartment to another, you can travel light. If you are moving to a piece of bush that has virtually no “improvements”, it seems to demand a fairly large collection of objects.

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Thankfull for a Flood (sort of)

A little bit of warmth today and predicted for tomorrow has given us a bit of a lift. The first 8’ x 12’ building is gridlocked until it can be moved outside, and before that happens, I need to move the Outhouse/ Generator Shack to a spot on the west side of the workshop still occupied by a snow bank. To do any of this, I need the swamp to dry up at least a little. Homestead Camp April 21
The most sensible thing is to get some of the moving done while the ground is drying. With the tent set up on the platform, I can move boxes and tubs from the winter rental to the tent. It will be a slow process because everything will have to be walked in from the road.
As long as the weather gives us at least partial co-operation, we should be able to be moved by the end of the month and have reasonable living conditions that will improve over time.

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The Late Late Snow

With only 12 days to go until we give up the winter rental, the last thing we need is bad weather that will hamper our preparations. So naturally we get 10 or 15 cm of new snow. We will manage, but it is frustrating that the year we are committed to go camping with all of our worldly goods in tow, is the year that Saskatchewan decides to have a freakishly late spring.003

The hardest thing right now is mustering the patience to move forward without stress. Twenty five years in the landscaping business taught me that flowing with the conditions will always get you further than trying to batter down nature with sheer bloody mindedness. So in the next 12 days we will get ourselves moved out to the homestead, establish whatever level of function and comfort that we can manage and take advantage of the conditions as they improve.

This morning we had a big breakfast of garlic sausage and eggs. We are considering making this a traditional breakfast for every Easter Blizzard.

I put a call in to the only storage company in town and found that they still had no space to rent. That means just like last fall when we moved here from the west coast, the closest storage would be over 100km away. Once we are living on site, the main requirement we have for storage is simple protection from the elements. I have started scheming about ways to rig up temporary outdoor storage for the items that require only minimal protection. The local lumberyard has been providing shipping pallets and I have been hoarding tarps for the last couple of years.

The forecast for the next 12 days is a mixed bag that includes more snow and rain, but there is also enough warmth and sun predicted that we should be able to accomplish the essentials. In a curious way, I am glad that the winter rental has already been leased to someone else for the first of the month. It eliminates any agonizing over decisions that would take us sideways. Lacking options, this kamikaze prairie schooner is plunging straight ahead.

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19 Days to Go

With only 19 days to go until we vacate the winter rental to take up permanent residence on the homestead, I am starting to feel the pressure of all that has to be done. The biggest obstacle to progress continues to be the stubbornly late spring. Some melting has occurred in the last week, which was good for the spirit, but caused some new problems. Our borrowed driveway has no gravel and that means that I am walking in lumber and supplies about 500 feet. The old workshop has been flooding, and I have had to divert effort to shovelling, pumping, vacuuming and bailing out the water.
Whatever the difficulties, we need the first two small buildings complete enough to give some minimal function by April 30. The outhouse/ generator shack is basically all framed out and the roofing felt and metal installed. The cookshack is finally progressing, with the floor basically assembled and mounted on pressure treated skids.001 The 8’ x 12’ footprint of this structure is likely a prototype for several other structures on the homestead. It is a useful size for storage sheds, firewood sheds, greenhouses, chicken coops and other miscellaneous structures. The fairly modest amount of labour and materials required will allow us to get the functions that we urgently need within the limits of our scarce resources. Another advantage of small skid mounted buildings is the flexibility of portability. We have a lot of learning to do, and working out the best way to develop our homestead on this rambling acreage may be a long learning curve. A final note is that the municipality does not require building permits for structures less than 100 sq. feet. Cutting down on paperwork, fees (and possibly our property taxes) makes perfect sense to us.
The forecast tonight includes a snowfall warning (more than 10cm) and falling temperatures. The upside of that is that I should be able to drive into the yard for a few days. I re-mounted the wheels on the trailer today and will bring it into town tomorrow, load it with as much as it will hold and return it to the homestead before the ground thaws again. It will have to stay loaded for a few days as at present there is no storage space available. As soon as the weather relents and the cookshack platform is ready to move outside, the old workshop will be given over to storage. Work will have to be done mostly outside from that point.
002Just to keep things interesting, one of the generators broke down today. It was having trouble starting, then belched a large cloud of brownish black smoke and soot. On the next pull, the starting rope broke. A single profanity rang out through the bush causing the birds to momentarily cease their twittering. Something else to fix, the great thing about homesteading is the job security.

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The Impulse to Homestead

During this extra long winter I have had a chance to read a lot about homesteading. Books, magazines, blogs and articles presenting every variation on the homesteading impulse. At the one end is the aspirational homesteader who lives a highly conventional life conforming to a corporate consumer model. These folks think and talk about self sufficiency, work on smaller projects (such as making their own toothpaste) and plan for the life they aspire to. At the other end of the scale is the completely realised homesteader. This cat is comfortably snuggled down on his or her debt free, highly productive homestead where they enjoy an ecologically correct life, free from all of the pressures and compromises of the post-industrial world. These are very lucky people, and as it turns out mostly mythical.
The road to any version of an ideal life is littered with roadblocks and forces that seek to pull you off course. The first and most powerful is often the people closest to us. If you have people in your life, you have to deal with ongoing attempts by your friends and loved ones to influence or advise you. If you have a spouse and or dependant children, you ignore their aspirations at you own peril. Since no one wants to be responsible for giving bad advise, the course recommended to you will likely be the most conventional they can think of. How well you can resolve these relationships will set the boundaries of your own impulse to homestead. Stain Outhouse Floor
The world we live in is structured to put you on a treadmill, and keep you there. The people higher up in the corporate structure have nicer treadmills, but seem just as powerless to get off at will. Getting off means overcoming obstacles, some real and some perceived. Because of the long road we had to travel to get this far, I have a lot of sympathy for those who are still negotiating that course. It takes a lot of hard work to amass the resources to live a life that is based on choice. The most cost effective way to make the list shorter for me has been meditation. The list of possessions and experiences that I have discovered that I didn’t actually want or need, would have taken a couple of extra lifetimes to acquire. That gives me more time to focus on the simple joy of the spring sunshine streaming into my workshop window. The freedom to step outside and spend a moment being very small while nature unfolds around you.

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Still Thaw Impaired

Five to seven cold days, followed by two or three warmer days, and then repeat. This has been the pattern for the last couple of months, teasing us with the possibility of an early spring, and then slapping us with another dose of winter.
005 (1024x768) Progress on the homestead has been slow. The outhouse/generator shack is coming together, but warmer weather would be welcome. The RV style window has been mounted temporarily to check fit and function (and to keep the cold wind out). The chute between the floor and seat is a scrounged piece of ABS pipe (thank-you Mr. T). With the wood seat placed on top, I sat down to check the positioning of the window. My first impression is good, it seems roomy and comfortable. The window is ideally sited for the contemplation of nature. The screened slider can be operated easily from the seated position, allowing quick, easy adjustments to cooling and air supply. This test was of course a “dry run” because …. Well, I didn’t have a magazine handy.

004 (1024x768) It got me thinking more about another looming issue, and that is venting. I have visited enough outhouses and porta-potties in my day to have formed a firm opinion that the two biggest issues with this type of waste management are winter cold and bad odours. The most common method of venting I have seen is a tube that runs from under the floorboards straight through the roof terminating a couple feet above the roofline. The problem I see with this is that it allows two or three cubic feet of foul air to collect above the vent, just below the lid on the seat. I am hoping to mount a vent in the side of the green pipe just below the lid. This would be piped outside and up at least two feet above the roofline. A 12volt fan might be incorporated if needed.

Having the entire structure insulated R-8 in the walls and R-12 in the floor and ceiling, will make it more comfortable winter and summer. The generous overhangs will also help prevent quick heating, which translates into more bad smells. As for winter heat, I will try a large oil lamp that will be left burning 24/7 during cold weather. If that is not adequate, an electric heater can be operated at least when the generator is running. More elaborate provisions for heating, will hopefully not be required as we expect to have a conventional water closet and septic system in place by the second or third winter. When that happens, this structure will be moved to a new spot near the future workshop. Because the cabin will be part of the permanent East homestead, and the new workshop will be part of the future West homestead, the distance from the cabin to the new workshop may be 500 feet or more.

003 (1024x767)I apologise to all readers for the outhouse theme on the blog lately. The insanely unseasonable weather has brought progress down to a crawl, which makes it seem as though this project is going on forever. Even as Picasso progressed beyond his “blue period”, I will move beyond my “outhouse period”. This first winter of trying to stay productive on the homestead by commuting from town and working in a ramshackle shed, hammered home the value of a good workshop and being on the homestead full time and permanent. In about 40 days we will finally take up that permanent residence. It has been a long time coming and it will take a very large crowbar to pry me out of that place. My plan is to stay on my fifty acres for all eternity. I have left instructions that after my passing, that I should be “composted”. I suspect that I will in death, as I have in life, produce very good fertilizer.

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