Archive for March, 2014

Cement Shoes

Monday, March 31st, 2014

We Yoopers are tough. No brag, just fact. I can imagine someone trying to torture some information out of a Yooper.

Black Hat: “First I’ll put you in a hot room, then I’ll plunge you in cold water, and I’ll do it repeatedly until you talk.”

Yooper: “We call it a sauna by the lake. Just make sure the rocks are hot and the lake is really cold. Oh, and could we hit each others naked bodies with a cedar switch until we turn beet red?”

Black Hat: “Ok, then I’ll thwack you across the face with a stick.”

Yooper: “We call that walking single file through the woods and having the guy in front of you let go of a fir branch just as you’re into your stride.”

Black hat: “OK, then I’ll loosen your teeth.”

Yooper: “See fir branch above.”

Black Hat: “I’ll make you sit inside a dark tent on the ice a mile from shore.”

Yooper: “Oh great, you’re taking me ice fishing.”

Black Hat: “I’ll subject you to a mile of cement shoes.”

Yooper: “Noooooooooooooo!”

The snowshoe is an amazing invention, right up there with the canoe and the bicycle. It allows you to easily travel in places during the winter that would be essentially impossible otherwise. The design has been honed over many generations up to the current high tech ones. Talking to people about snowshoes is like talking about multitools. Everyone has a favorite and no one is willing to concede that theirs is inferior.

My showshoes are WWII army surplus aluminum alloy with aircraft cable lacings. They are light, tough, and the best snowshoes in the world. They work well under most snow conditions, allowing one to float effortlessly and silently across the billowing snowfields. There is one condition under which they tax even the most experienced snowshoer… the dreaded cement shoe!

cementshoesWhen the weather warms up enough that the top foot or two of snow turns to slush, the snow does not filter through the lacings on the snowshoes, but instead piles on top. This plugs the top of the snowshoe, meaning that every other bit of snow that falls onto it piles up too. After a few steps, each snowshoe gets heavy indeed. If the cement shoe weather is just slightly slushy, you can kick your feet forward one at a time, and flick the pesky slush off. On days like today, however, just about everything you do makes matters worse. The only thing for it is to pick up each foot in turn, deposit it as many inches forward as possible, rest, then do the same with the other foot… over and over.

Today was my first gather of maple sap. The trees were running gayly in yesterday’s sunshine and 50 degree temps. Today it was still in the 40s, but overcast, and the trees seemed depressed. As I was walking out to the maple orchard on the snowshoes, I felt compelled to cheer them up by slapping them on the bark and saying, “Come on old buddy, this weather can’t last forever. Are we going to let a little dreary weather get us down?”

But by the time I’d slogged out there, I was ready to buy my maple syrup at Walmart. And that was before I started gathering.

Since it is early in the season, I have no well-established trails between the trees. I fell through repeatedly, covering my snowshoes with slush. I gamely tried to flick it off the first few hundred times, but eventually just slogged. All 63 trees gave me a total of 4 gallons of sap for all my efforts.

Even Franco, my 5-year-old German Shepherd, who has inconceivable energy when it comes to being outside with me, just looked across the 50 feet of slush separating us, and whimpered.

After I’d gathered the last drop of sap, poured it into the evaporator, and closed up the building, we started our slog back to the road on the fairly well established trail we’ve been using all week. “We’ve got it licked now, don’t we buddy?” I said to Franco. That’s when I noticed it had started to rain.

Turned the Corner

Sunday, March 30th, 2014

maple1If I were to give a name to the winter of 2013-14, I’d call it relentless. I don’t think the maple trees have ever slept this long in my 6 or so years of tapping them. Day after day and week after week, I’ve checked the weather, checked the one tree by the road I poked my knife blade into, but nothing. Then about 3 days ago, we turned the corner.

It was subtle, but the hole in the tree by the road was no longer dry. It wasn’t running, but there was moisture. I switched to maple mode, and started hauling things out to get the season ready. The biggest job was to haul my new 55 gallon stainless steel barrel out. It made it down the road on the little plastic sled, but when I tried to pull it across the field with me on snowshoes, it was too top heavy. So I wound up carrying it all the way on my shoulders. I also hauled out 12 gallons of water for cleaning and disinfecting, and various other odds and ends that were needed out there.

maple2It took me two days to get things ready for tapping, and today was the day. I walked out to the trees carrying 7 buckets, taps, and covers, in addition to my cordless drill and hatchet, and worked my way through the trees. When those buckets were used up, I snowshoed back to the shack and got another 7. I did about half this morning, and the rest this afternoon. Some were gushers when I drilled the hole, and some were still pretty dormant.

Every time I do this, I come away from it refreshed. It is hard physical work and no mistake. But the day was sunny and even a bit warm. The deer trails were still evident, and I even heard my first Canada Geese of the year while out there. Spring has turned the corner.

Medical Conspiracy Theories

Sunday, March 23rd, 2014

I just read a very good article titled, “Half Of Americans Believe In Medical Conspiracy Theories.” I liked two things about the article; the solid information it gave and the kind treatment of the half of Americans that were the focus of the article.

I remember most of my college education as an amorphous mass of experiences, but I do remember two times when the light bulb went off. One was in Dr. Robert Keen’s Biostatistics course. The other was in Dr. Jim Spain’s Biochemistry. The first course had a lot of rote things to memorize, and lots of filling pages with numbers. I put that stuff in the amorphous category. Then something clicked in my brain, and I thought to myself, “heck, this stuff works!” Using statistics, you can say things with certainty that you could only guess at without. In the Biochemistry course, there was again a bunch of rote learning, and then, in one moment, I “saw” in my minds eye, how chunks of protein with active sites could be manufactured and put into production in cells. Again, the light bulb went off and I’d gotten it.

Both these events happened in graduate school, and were probably in and of themselves, a good enough reason to go to grad school.

The article I just read ended with a sentence saying that the world is a complicated place, and that a lot of these medical conspiracy theories are intuitively compelling. It did not say that this particular half of Americans are stupid, or that they should have paid better attention in high school biology, but that given their level of education and their circle of acquaintances, this understanding of the state of medical affairs in our country is understandable.

I was lucky to have been able to attend Michigan Tech, and to have been influenced by such great teachers as Drs. Keen and Spain. In those days, one could pay for a year’s school by working and saving hard for a summer. Those days seem gone for good in our country, and we as citizens are the poorer for it. I propose a return to the days where anyone with the intelligence and drive to attend college can afford to do it, and do so without incurring crippling debts that are very difficult to pay off.

Spring Peeper

Saturday, March 22nd, 2014

My Mom often tells the story of when she was a girl and her family would be out for a drive. Suddenly, her Dad would pull over, crank down the window, listen and smile. Spring Peepers, those little frogs that are an early indication that spring is here, would be singing their intoxicating songs. Grandpa would sit there quietly, car idling, lost in thought. I take after my grandpa in that regard. It seems I can’t get enough of their raucous whistling, which all too soon, is gone for another year.

But this story isn’t about frogs.

Several days ago, I planted a flat of seeds. There are 72 divisions in the tray, most of which received one tomato seed. I also planted some cabbages, basil, parsley, and chives. Alice smiles indulgently as I open the cracked clear plastic top several times each day to see if any seeds have sprouted. Well, today, our first plant poked her shy head out of the soil and into the air… a red cabbage plant. A spring peeper, if you will.

Since I’ve had one come up, I’ve probably looked inside the flat a dozen times to see if any others have sprouted. So far only our little cabbage plant is showing. The others won’t be far behind though. Before long, the whole shelf of our bay window will be stuffed with foot high tomato plants. My main concern then will be whether the snow will be gone in time. Tomatoes, I’m told, do not do well when planted in snowdrifts.

Seeds

Tuesday, March 18th, 2014

flatI’ve heard it said that only an optimist plants trees. This year’s spring weather has dampened my optimism. Looking out the window at all the snow, at the dwindling firewood piles, at the snow lumps that are hiding the sawmill, and the aftermath of yet another blizzard, I’ve put off planting the tomato seeds. “What’s the point?” I wondered to myself.

Yesterday Alice and I marshaled the strength necessary to bring in the necessary gear, and spread it out on the downstairs table. After a long winter it is easy to forget what moist warm dirt smells like. Dirt is that stuff frozen somewhere under all that snow. It smells like everything else that is frozen.

Once the 72 cells of the flat were filled with their tablespoon of dirt, watered to moisten things up, a pencil was used to make an indent in each cell. Then the seeds were dumped into my ham fisted palm, and very carefully, I’d pick one tiny seed, and drop it into its prepared hole. Then the miracle happened.

Especially the Brandwine tomato plants, whose seeds are no bigger than any other tomato seed, caused a little thrill as the fragile little guys tumbled into their hole, to be covered up by 1/4″ of dirt. These are “Tall Brandywines” meaning they haven’t been selected for shorter vines. These plants are formidable, reaching taller than I am some years. At their peak of growth, we joke that we keep moving when we walk by for fear they’ll grab us and eat us for a salad. The miracle that such a tiny dried up seed will become a mother of dozens of juicy large red lovely tomatoes never fails to grab me.

By the time it was over with, I’ve taken in a few lungfulls of the indoor potting soil mix, and I was already thinking about summer… the greenhouse cover up, plants stretching up and out, thirsty for water and hungry for last year’s compost, and a little more of the late winter blahs wafted away.

A Few Successes

Sunday, March 16th, 2014

There has been a lot of whining going on this winter, and I have not wanted to be on the forefront of that trend. Instead, I think cheerful thoughts like, “The weather is what it is!” “I’ve seen much worse!” “Pretty soon it’ll be 90 degrees and buggy, and we’ll remember this winter with great fondness!” “If this winter doesn’t end soon, I’m going to start breaking things!” “I’ve had it! I’m selling everything and moving to the equator.”

As you can see, if you let yourself think about it at all, your thoughts can deteriorate quickly.

What I really needed was a few successes. It seems like the winter projects I’d planned for this season have all gone badly. I’d get started and something would get broken, stall, I’d get a cold, drop something on my foot… Over the years, I’ve learned that when life throws hints like these at you, it is best to heed the warnings and avoid projects that include sharpened steel edges.

Over the past several days, I’ve facilitated getting the rest of the logs moved from the powerline project, have moved some of those logs onto the rack for the sawmill (I assume the rack was somewhere under the lump of snow I dumped the logs on.) In general, I can say that a few of the jobs I attempted went pretty much as planned, so my confidence is starting to improve.

Here is is mid-March, and the maple trees are not tapped yet. The weather has been too cold (in my opinion) to hang the buckets. Not to mention that tapping includes a drill, which is a sharpened steel tool. With my confidence at an all-winter high, I may just take the plunge and tap the trees tomorrow.

Forty Four and a Half

Wednesday, March 5th, 2014

winemakingTwo glass carboys, 5 gallons each, have been patiently settling their apple wine contents for several months now. Today, the calendar told us it was time to bottle, so we assembled our gear and invaded the basement.

My perennial advice for anyone interested in wine-making is, you’d better make your peace with dish washing, because you probably spend two minutes washing gear for every one you spend on the actual making of the wine. In this picture, Alice is up to her elbows in soapy water. We wash each bottle, rinse, and then fill it with sanitizer, then put it in the dish-rack to drain.

fillOnce the bottles are clean and sanitized, they need to be filled. We use a very clever siphon gizmo that works well as long as the bottle is lower than the carboy. In this picture, I’m getting the last bit out of the first carboy.

Over the years I’ve learned that the less the wine is exposed to the air, the better the wine will be. So once the bottle is full of wine, it quickly moves to the corking department.

corkingThe corker I use is a hand operated one. I put a sanitized cork in the barrel of the corker, place it over the bottle, and press the handles down hard and steady. The result is amazing, considering how hard it is to pound a cork in without a corker. One very satisfying aspect of this job is to watch the bottles line up in neat rows on the other side of the corking station.

When everything was done, we counted 44 1/2 bottles of new apple cider wine. These will sit for a year or so until they are ready to be uncorked, poured, and enjoyed. This is not to say that some enjoying didn’t happen today. We, of course, taste a sample from each carboy before we bottle, on the off chance that we’re bottling vinegar. Then there are the occasional over-fillings of bottles, whose contents need to be emptied somewhere, so might as well go into a glass. Alice commented this is the only time it is justified to be drinking before noon.