20 December 2007

Holiday, part 1: Preparations

Much of the time between our firewood/poker weekend and December 21st is kind of a blur. Aside from our company holiday party, the rest of the time was devoted to preparing for the holidays and our holiday guests.

This is the first year since we were kids when we weren't traveling anywhere for Christmas or New Years! Instead, this year a portion of Corinne's family is coming to visit us. (We won't see my immediate family until a trip to Florida in January.)

When we take vacations - even if just a long weekend - we generally try to arrange it so that we can just stay home on "the farm". Since there aren't many places to eat out near us, and we can generally make better, healthier, and cheaper food ourselves, we try to do enough menu planning in advance so that we can do all of our shopping on a day when we have to drive in to town to work anyway. So when we're hosting as many as 8 people for as long as 12 days, having enough food takes lots of advance planning.

We spent several hours searching for good recipes that are suitable for larger groups and would make good leftovers, then broke down the recipes into shopping lists and divvied out the lists to a few shoppers. 12 days worth of food (and drinks) for 8 people takes up quite a bit of space, so we would rely on the fact that the weather would stay cold and we could leave much of the food outside in coolers.

On top of that, the snow just didn't stop. Over a 2 week span we probably got 18" or so of new snow on top of the 24"+ we already had on the ground. Almost every day for at least a week, we spent significant time snow blowing and shoveling. We're getting pretty good at clearing the driveway, but the snowblower that we have doesn't clear down to the ground. The result is a flat surface of packed snow that all-wheel drive vehicles like our Honda CR-V can navigate, but most 2-wheel drive vehicles would have problems. Since we had at least 2 vehicles arriving that fell into the latter category, we decided to clear out an area next the bottom of the driveway for parking. We'd still have to dig and push the cars out at the end of the vacation, but at least they wouldn't have to deal with the rest of the driveway. Leif kindly offered his snow shoveling assistance, which we gladly accepted. He even brought some homemade stew to rejuvenate us when we finished.

And of course, there's the Christmas tree. Last year we cut down a tree at Thanksgiving, brought it in and decorated it, all with the help of our Thanksgiving guests. But this year we were in Seattle for Thanksgiving, so we needed a new plan. Ideally we wanted to cut down the tree, decorate with lights and put it up (in that order!) before our Christmas guests arrived. The guests could then help with ornaments and any other decorating.

So a week before our guests were to arrive, we headed out into our stands to find a good tree. Corinne wanted to find a tree that was more sparse and narrow than the typical Christmas tree, so that:
  1. There would be more free space for ornaments to hang;
  2. We would need fewer lights; and
  3. The tree would take up less space in our great room.
After some searching (most of the trees are much too large even for our 20' Great Room ceiling), we found a nice grand fir that met all of the requirements. We had the tree on the ground pretty quickly, then carried it through the deep snow toward the house, having to stop numerous times along the way. It was much easier last year when we had a dozen people helping! We knew there was no way we would be able to put the tree up on our own, so after laying the tree down for a few days under the eaves of the house, we brought it inside and waited for the xylem in the tree to thaw and for our guests to arrive.

Holidays, here we come!

- Mike (& Corinne)

15 December 2007

A La Friends

Insitu hired a photographer for its Holiday Party.  While most people used the opportunity to have their family portraits taken, we decided we'd rather have a group shot with some of our friends from work.  This picture came out unbelievably well.  Stay tuned for episodes of our own new TV show à la Friends.

10 December 2007

Frosty Sunday Morning

A beautiful frosty morning inspired me to take the digital SLR out for a morning stroll. I took 163 photos hoping for some winners. These are some of my favorites.

Corinne (& Mike)

09 December 2007

Poker Champion

Our friend Mark, an avid poker fan, holds a Texas Hold-em poker tournament semi-annually. The most recent poker tournament fell right in the middle of our firewood expedition, but we really wanted to go (and he was expecting us). So we showed up at his place wearing "farm" clothes and with a pickup full of firewood. We changed into something more appropriate once we got there, each paid our $25 buy-in, and sat down with the other 19 players for an evening of poker fun.

It's a good thing we went, too; after about 6 hours of card play, I won! For my $25 buy-in, I took home the $210 first place prize money. I figure that just about pays for the firewood and gas money for the pickup. Now when people ask how we heat our house, I can honestly say: poker winnings.

I guess I should have turned the money around; there are actually $20s on the other side.

- Mike (& Corinne)

07 December 2007

Winter, Continued

After our escapades cleaning up the snow in the driveway, Mother nature decided to be kind (briefly). The temperature went above freezing for the next few days, allowing some of the remaining unplowed snow to melt. A few days of rain also helped to further soften the path. We still haven't been able to clear out the west half of our circular driveway, but it's a start.

In the meantime, we had several related heating issues to resolve. Starting sometime before Thanksgiving we noticed a mild propane smell in the house when we arrived home at night. Our house's primary heat source is a propane furnace, so something was not right. The smell quickly got stronger, and on some days the heat wouldn't come on at all, requiring a manual reset of the furnace. We made a service appointment with the furnace repair folks, checked the toxicity of propane (propane is non-toxic), and started to use our wood stove more heavily.

Unfortunately, the fire wood that came with the house was almost depleted, so it was time to replenish. Being of a scientific nature, I started by doing some research on the various types of wood available locally and their qualities: BTUs per cord, propensity for smoke, burn temperatures, etc. I then checked out the local classified listings and found someone selling seasoned, cut and split maple for a good price, so we jumped on it. We loaded up the pickup 3 times (1 cord for us and 1/2 cord for Leif). Loading and unloading 1.5 cords of hardwood is hard work, but it's a heck of a lot easier than cutting and splitting it.

Now, a quick diversion to answer the question we receive most frequently: you live on a tree farm, so why do you need to buy firewood? Ideally we'd simply thin trees from our forest and use them. The problem is that we would have needed to cut down those trees at least a year ago; soft woods like firs and pines should be seasoned (i.e. dry aged) for at least a year before burning. Unseasoned wood will burn cooler and generate much more smoke and creosote, neither of which is a good thing. So sometime soon we hope to fell some future fire wood.

This assumes that we don't spend all of our time dealing with snow, that is. And so far, prospects are not looking good. After a short respite from the snow, it was back with a vengeance. For about a week, it seemed like we got new snow almost every day, and spent a part of each day cleaning it up. Some days we would blow snow in the morning and shovel at night; other days it was only in the evening. We're definitely better prepared as far as the snow-blower is concerned, but enough is enough! The furnace is now fixed (thanks to a $60 gasket), so at least we can come in to a warm house after a cold snow removal session.

- Mike (& Corinne)

03 December 2007

Tractor in the Snow - part 2

Previously on "Tractor in the Snow":

It is Saturday night at about 11pm. There's ~18"+ of snow on the ground, and it's still falling. The snowblower is attached to the tractor, and we managed to maneuver it so that it is ready to depart the shop and immediately start blowing snow. Last step: engage PTO and drive out. Engaging...

(grind grind) Something's not working right. The PTO won't engage, so the auger doesn't turn. We try all sorts of things - engine in gear, out of gear; all sorts of unrelated hydraulic settings; numerous calls to our "tractor support line" (Reidar) who apparently thought he had the night off. Nothing works. After about an hour and a half, we gave up and went to bed at close to 1am. Frustrating. We fall asleep dreading the next morning, envisioning several feet of snow covered in a sheet of ice.

Early the next morning I'm up, and the weather isn't as bad as we feared. I'm on the phone with our support rep, who gives me a couple of things to try. Finally, I manage to get the PTO engaged by doing it with the engine OFF - something (the ONLY thing) I didn't try the night before.

Time to start the real work!

The snow is deep, and less fluffy than the night before. It's still manageable, but I have to alternate between forward and reverse frequently, to avoid too much snow piling up in front of the blower. Corinne gives me frequent direction initially until I get comfortable with how it maneuvers, then she moves on to do some manual shoveling. It's a bit awkward to operate the tractor driving backwards and looking over my shoulder to make sure the snow is blowing, but it works. I figure that as long as I alternate which side, I shouldn't be too terribly sore the next day.

As the day progresses, the temperature starts to creep up and the falling snow turns more slushy. The snow on the ground has been getting gradually heavier; at one point the discharge chute jams with snow, causing us to have to stop and dig it out with trowels for a while to clear it. After a total of 4 hours or so, we've managed to plow from the road to the garage, but only one side of our circular driveway. Cold and tired, we head inside for a break and breakfast.

After a couple hours inside to warm up, and with the snow still falling outside, we decide to head out again to do another pass on the driveway and attempt to clear the rest of the unplowed section. It doesn't take too long, however, before we realize that we don't have enough diesel fuel to finish. So we pack the tractor away in the shop with snowblower and chains still attached, ready for another day. We hope that we'll have an opportunity to clear the remaining section before more snow or ice arrives. After a long days work, we measure the snow and head inside. 24" (at the time of this photo).

Maybe we don't love snow as much as we thought...

- Mike (& Corinne)

02 December 2007

Tractor in the Snow - part 1

This past weekend was a busy one - even busier than Thanksgiving. Here's why.

We took Friday off (as part of our "end of the year and we have extra vacation we need to use up three day weekend extravaganza") and spent the afternoon shopping in Portland. That evening we met up with Jamie, Torsten, Katja and Marta for dinner and games. The following day we spent with Phyllis Clausen, scanning many of the old photos she has of her and Vic's time in Trout Lake. The photos go all the way back to when they built the house in the 1970s. It's amazing how much can change - or be changed - in just 30 years. But we'll save that for another post.

The REAL news is the snow. Lots of it. We actually left Portland earlier than we had planned on Saturday so that we might avoid driving during the worst of the storm. But almost as important is the fact that we have to clear our own driveway, and we were already behind.

Up to this point the snowfall has been fairly mild - a few inches here and there, slowly accumulating on the ground and driveway without too much effort required of us. Our CR-V was able to drive right over the snow that remained from the first few snowfalls. But now we were faced with snow of a different beast. Forecasts were predicting "Heavy Snow Warnings"; "Freezing Rain By Morning"; "You're In Trouble."

We arrived home at about 8pm to find that a lot of snow had already accumulated: probably at least 12" of fluffy, new snow on top of the 8" or so that remained from the earlier storms. Realizing that the icy forecast for Sunday morning would only make things more difficult for us - and that the snow was still coming down pretty heavy - we decided that we needed to try to take action as soon as possible. So we unloaded the car (which did manage to get up the driveway), ate a quick bite, and head out to the machine shop.

The shop brought a host of problems that we had to solve before we could even start thinking about moving snow.
1. Detach the blade implement from the back of the tractor
2. Put the tire chains on the tractor
3. Remember how to start the tractor
4. Attach the snowblower
5. Get the tractor out of the shop
6. Remember how to operate the PTO

It has been quite a while since Reidar gave us our tractor lessons, and we hadn't used the tractor since then. So suffice it to say things didn't exactly go smoothly.

The first few steps weren't too bad, and we managed to get through step 4 in probably a little over an hour. Step 5 is where it started to get complicated. Our machine shop is a fairly large outbuilding, but it is also filled with lots of equipment, including 2 tractors, at least a half dozen attachments, a trailer, and a full-size pickup. The tractor and snowblower are in the middle of the shop, while the two sliding doors are blocked by a pickup and the other tractor.

In the past this hasn't been a problem; we would simply drive one of the other vehicles out of the shop onto the grass to make room. However, the snow at this point was almost 2 feet deep. We hadn't yet put the snow tires on the pickup, so we were afraid that if we drove the pickup out of the shop into the unplowed snow, it might get stuck, and then we'd be in big trouble.

Tetris skills to the rescue! Back the pickup just outside the door (see photo); move the tractor into a nook; slide the pickup past the tractor; etc. Imagine the Austin Powers N-point turn, only with a large tractor with snowblower attached (and we didn't actually hit anything.)

Finally, the tractor was positioned so that we could get it out of the shop, and it was oriented such that the snowblower would create a path for the tractor. But before we drove out of the shop, we figured we should test the PTO connection that drives the snowblower...

Stay tuned tomorrow for the stunning conclusion of "Tractor in the Snow".

- Mike (& Corinne)