Rural Life in the UP of Michigan Some stories about life on 160 rural acres in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan

March 31, 2013

New Life

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin0 @ 8:51 pm

talltomatoLast summer on one of my watering trips in the greenhouse, I found myself looking UP at one of the tomato plants. I’m a pretty tall guy, and am not used to having to crane my neck to see the tops of these plants. Our tomato crop last year was spectacular by our standards. We ate, froze, and dried a lot. We’re still using the dried ones in our salads, and both like them better than the produce section ones available this time of year.

We’ve been raising our own tomato plants for years now. Usually in early March, I get the plastic bins out, fill them with starting soil, and use my excellent near vision to put one tiny seed in each cubicle. For some reason, I had trouble getting my act together this year to get them going, and waited until last week. Of course, once they are planted, I look inside the tray every day to see if the first little plant has broken the soil.

tomatoJust yesterday, our first one said hello. Now when we look inside, there are often one or two new ones joining their siblings. It is a wonderful time of the year. The new seeds coming up, and the maple trees waking up gives us a jump on spring that others may fail to notice. Notice we have, and enjoying the transition we are.

March 30, 2013

Things Are Looking Up

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin0 @ 6:42 pm

After a pretty bad day in the woods yesterday, I got back on track today. Alice and I are both fighting bad colds, and wisely stayed close to home and warm until a bit after noon.

My first job after snowshoeing out there with several gallons of clean water was to empty all the burned gunky liquid in the evaporator. It was hard to dump all that work onto the snow, but it was cathartic too. Once it was done, all I could do was move forward. I’d brought a stainless steel Choreboy(tm), some BarKeeper’s Friend(tm), and most importantly as it turned out, the wire brush for my cordless drill. I want to tell you, when you burn syrup in the pan, it is the devil’s own project to get it off. I started with elbow grease, and wound up going over and over it with the wire brush and drill until all traces of the black crap were gone.

Then I carted in several buckets of clean show and started a small fire in the firebox. Once that warmed up, I rinsed everything completely until the inside of the pan shined again, and added some fresh sap. I poked up the fire, and slowly the sugary steam once again filled the shack. I say filled because I forgot to open the end vents. Once opened, the shack stopped looking like London and got back to normal.

I did sections of the gather while things were warming up, and didn’t give too much thought to how much sap was accumulating. When I completed my rounds, I peeked inside the barrel, and estimated I had about 35 gallons of sap. That means about 7 hours of boiling before I can gather any more. It is a nice problem to have. I was just emailing a friend today, and told him that I thought the work I do in the woods during the maple season is my favorite.

March 29, 2013

Burned a Batch

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin0 @ 5:17 pm

I had some bad luck in the woods today. I burned my first batch of syrup.

I had just stepped out of the shack for a few minutes to do a partial gather, and when I got back, a bad smell met me. I tried to mitigate the situation by flooding the system with sap, but realized after I thought about it that I should have just gotten some buckets of clean snow and dumped them in the pan. I then shoveled all the burning logs out of the firebox.

I had hoped I could just drain a gallon or two off the evaporator and salvage the operation, but it was a total loss. So tomorrow I will go out, drain everything, carry out some clean water, and scrub out the pan with Barkeeper’s Friend ™. Then start over. It is discouraging, but hopefully some lessons got learned.

I keep telling myself that it could have been worse, and I suppose it could have. Tomorrow is another day.


Filed under: Uncategorized — admin0 @ 12:06 pm

snow3Yesterday I wrote about chopping a channel through the roof ice HERE. Last night we were getting ready for bed when there was a roar and the house shook. Alice was watching a video with her headphones, and thought the sound was part of the video. I got the flashlight out, and sure enough, the roof ice had slid off just as I’d hoped it would.

March 28, 2013

Getting Smarter

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin0 @ 8:42 pm

sapbag2As I’m hiking out to the sugar bush during the syrup season, I begin to wonder what sort of sap run to expect. My equipment consists of 60 metal buckets and 3 sap bags. The bags have a lot going for them, foremost in my mind is that I can tell from a distance how much sap has accumulated since my last gather.

This year, instead of positioning the sap bags just anywhere in the bush, I put one of them on my best tree, which also happens to be one of the first ones I see as I’m walking out to the operation. I put my second bag on his neighbor, which has an average run each year, and is pretty close to the first one. That way, as I’m walking out, I get some clues for what I’ll likely be up against.

As you can see from the picture, there was a pretty good run that day, so I planned accordingly. And the run wasn’t a frozen block of ice, as it has been on many of my gathers this season. My metal buckets are all tapered, so I can usually coax the ice out by tapping the bottom of the pail. The bags, though, require me to take them apart and gingerly slip the block out of the bag. I have to be careful because even though the plastic is tough, I can tear it with the ice, thereby making the bag useless.

Collapse Averted (For Now)

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin0 @ 8:31 pm

We’ve had a lot of snow this spring. Enough that I watched the roofs of our buildings with caution. We have metal roofs with a fairly steep pitch, so the snow, when it is unimpeded, slides of automatically when the weather warms up. On the addition to our house, the snow on the west side is impeded by an entry-way we built. The roofs on the rest of the buildings all did their jobs of shedding their snow, except this one. The snow was really piling up, and I was worried that an unbalanced load on that roof could cause some problems.

snow1The temperature has been warm enough lately that the sap has been running, so I’ve been busy. My subconscious thought has been that the warm weather will shovel the roof for me. Then I was reading my facebook last night, and learned that a friend of mine had her attached garage collapse, causing her to have to temporarily move out of her house! Yikes!

So today I hauled the heavy ladder through the snow, grabbed my big snow shovel, and climbed the roof. This job is one of them that isn’t as bad as I make it out to be. I tend to put it off, when I should just get on with it. The ladder is heavy, and it is stored in a place in the garage that is hard to get it into and out of.

snow2I have to admit that when I was done shoveling a channel for the snow, that the aesthetics of the roof have suffered, but I do feel better about the balance of the structure now. Hopefully the channel will allow for a speedy shedding of the last of this winter’s snow.

March 24, 2013

Strange Spring

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin0 @ 8:54 pm

iceIt has been a strange spring for the maple trees. I’ve been tapped now for a couple of weeks. It looked promising early in the season when I tapped. Then came several blizzards with heavy snowfall and cold weather, back-to-back. The temperature has been flirting with the freezing mark, but the trees are understandably skeptical.

Today I went out there again, and there was not enough sap in the buckets to warrant emptying them. There is so much snow that I have to use snowshoes just to get out there, and the gather is that much harder on snowshoes.

I’ve probably gathered around 10 gallons of sap so far. As you can see in the picture, it is mostly ice. I have to tip the buckets, and sometimes hit them hard on the bottom to get the ice out into the gathering bucket. This is then dumped into the evaporator pan. There has not been enough gathered yet to warrant lighting a fire, so the ice just piles up.

The weather report is calling for highs in the 40s towards the end of the week. I hope the trees feel inspired by it.

Strengths and Weaknesses

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin0 @ 8:41 pm

Lots of individual projects were started, completed, on contemplated today. Soup was made, sap buckets were checked, tea brewed, firewood carried… the regular normal activities for this time of year. Two events stood out in my mind, however. The floors were vacuumed, and the dishwasher was emptied.

I’ve long been fascinated by the differences in people. What motivates one person can be boring or worse for another. And somehow, the jobs get done to the level that they need to. One advantage to a long and successful marriage like mine and Alice’s, is that we’ve worked out a lot of these details, thereby avoiding a lot of frustration. (Maybe that is why the marriage has lasted; because we managed to work these things out.)

The particular skill I think I bring to this household is order. And Alice brings cleanliness. We often work together to prepare our evening meal, and I honestly enjoy the aftermath, when we work together to put things away. If we’re lucky, as we were tonight, the dishwasher’s LED reads “0,” meaning it is time to put the dishes away. While I do enjoy the emptying of the dishwasher a lot, I like that I do it equally as well. Because if I don’t do it, it often gets done by someone that puts the pot lids in the wrong place. The small pot lids go on the left side of the shelf of our pot holder, nested, and the large pot lids go on the right, also nested. On occasion I find the large and small pot lids mixed between large and small in the same stack, and sometimes the stacks get completely reversed! You can bet that little problem gets corrected the minute I set foot in the kitchen.

On the other hand, running the vacuum is not high on my priority list. Once Alice tried to wait me out, I think. Towards the end of week 2 or 3, I noticed she was getting a little edgy. I was suspicious that her edginess might have been because the pot lids were out of order, so I checked, but they were fine. Eventually, I figured out that it may have had something to do with the coating on the floor that was obscuring the color of the carpet under the dining room table. I don’t remember if I finally saw the light and started the vacuum, or if poor Alice capitulated, but the task was completed, and the tension dissolved from the air.

I wonder if there is only so much room inside our heads for a certain number of these traits? If there really are people that are both neat and clean because they like it? I’d have a lot more to say on the subject, but I heard some rattling around in the kitchen just now, and feel the need to make sure the pot lids are in their proper places.

March 6, 2013

Lb. Lard Per 1,000 Pasties

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin0 @ 9:31 pm

This year I once again volunteered with Little Brothers for their pasty fundraiser. Last year I was involved during the day these delectable dishes were baked, but this year, I participated in the prep phase. We chopped up onions, carrots, rutabaga, peeled and stored potatoes in large water barrels, and made the dough.

Most of the cooking I’ve done in my life has been on a home/family scale. Prepping to make 1,000 pasties is food on an industrial scale, at least compared to what I’m used to. Alice and I do like our butter, but we are very stingy with it due to our constant efforts to keep extra pounds off. So when I walked into the VFW hall where we did the prep work this morning, I was surprised when greeted with this countertop full of lard:

lardAs we were sorting out who would do what job, I fell to the unwrapping job. My partner popped the lard out of their cardboard boxes and slid them to me. I unwrapped them and stacked 4 per pile in preparation of adding to the dough mixing machine. I noticed the skin on my hand, which is winter-chapped, reacted quite favorably to the lard treatment. Perhaps a product suggested itself, “Uncle Ted’s Winter Lard Hand Treatment.”

As we were working through the lard, the dough expert came in and started mixing the first batch to go into the big mixing machine. I watched him work as I continued larding my hands. Then he started verbalizing the ingredients, “3 cans of flour, a handful of salt, 4# of lard…”

“I wonder who he’s talking to,” I thought.

It turned out he was talking to me, because after he’d mixed a couple of batches he said, “Now you do it.” He watched me mix the next few batches, then walked away and left me to the job. Several hours later, I added the last 4# of lard to the mixer, and the dough for tomorrow’s baking was done.

We worked from 6:00 AM until just after noon. Working with other volunteers on a worthwhile project is one of the best things I do.

March 4, 2013

Bucket Day

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin0 @ 9:11 pm

Around noon today, the sky was still overcast and a chill wind was blowing. My farmer’s instinct told me that today would not be the day the sap would start to run, so I moved on to other projects. Around 3:00 the sun came out. The air was still below freezing, but had a very different feel to it when I stepped outside. So Franco and I got out the army surplus duffel/backpack, and I tossed in everything I could think of to get the maple syrup ball rolling. We grabbed the snowshoes, and headed down the road.

As usual, Franco was way ahead of me on the road, with his nose poking everywhere, and a stick in his mouth. As soon as we got to the place where we cut across the field, things changed. I strapped on the snowshoes, and poor Frank really struggled to get through the snow. He was pretty tired by the time we finally got to the scene of operations.

firsttapThere are lots of little things to do to get the season started. I busied myself with these things, started a small fire in the evaporator, scooped some clean snow into the pans, etc. One of the last things I did was to fire up the cordless drill and tap the first tree. Now I know what you’re thinking, and I was thinking the same thing when I took the picture. “You’ve seen one picture of a bucket on a tree, you’ve seen them all.” I completely agree, and would have stayed my hand on the camera shutter button if I could have. But there is something just magical about that first tap that I can’t resist. These resilient marvelous maple trees are waking up after such a long nap. They are brave enough to conduct sugar water from their roots all the way to their buds. This is the first twig of the logjam that is winter. You pick that twig out of that jam, and a shutter happens here, a crack there, and pretty soon the river is running free again. Spring is coming my friends, and I’m happy to share the event with our maple trees.

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