Homestead

Last updated: 09 December 2018


As life becomes more convenient, I feel a growing separation between the actions I choose and the consequences I experience. This distancing from tangible feedback obscures the learning process. Life in rural and remote areas brings with it a certain responsibility to myself and my dependents, and a respect and appreciation for the land and those of history who worked it.

After five years of quasi-vagabond adventuring and exploring the mountain West in search of our chosen homes, Brandon and I purchased bare land together in the Sapphire mountains of southwest Montana. In the following years, we built a home from materials found on the land, developed the creek for water supply, and continue to improve the homestead to supply resources for our own self-sufficiency and the hardiness of the community.

My experiences with rural and remote living are a daily reminder of how precious each life is. These feelings are not exclusive of a rural, minimalist lifestyle, but it is how I am best able to share life with my neighbors and connect with myself. I am an active participant in my life. It is my goal and aspiration to encourage my friends, neighbors, and fellow homesteaders and pioneers to be an active participant in theirs.

My best friend and I have been homesteading on our land in southwest Montana since the spring of 2015. We have been living minimally on and off-grid since 2012.

This page is my addition to the off-grid/modern-homesteading/alternative-living community. Inspiration came largely as a result of searching for the anecdotal experiences of others who have “been there, done that” and could impart wisdom and advice for us as we consider alternative ways of living without “reinventing the wheel”.

After years of researching, reading, watching, and listening, we have come to the conclusion that there is more than one way of doing things, but seldom was there an answer for our situation. Our hope is that others may find our experiences useful as we reflect on the approaches we take and the consequences (good and bad) of those choices. We judge “success” by the food on our table and the roof over our heads.

– Jeremy Aal

 


Cabin

In 2015, Brandon and I purchased 6-acres in southwest Montana. The land is long and narrow, a tight valley bottom in the Sapphire mountains at about 5100ft. A small seasonal creek runs through it part of the year. You will hear more about the creek in the Water chapter. The contiguous 6-acres is separated geographically and ecologically into an open upper-valley and a densely treed lower-valley. With excess dead and dying trees to build from, we decided to use wood as a primary building material. The goal of the homestead was to minimize the amount of imported resources and maximize building with resources found on the land.

The worst thing we have tried is to force preconceived plans onto land that won’t support it. This theme will appear many times through the homestead story.

We built the cabin with an idea of it being an experimental structure. We have read a lot about earth-bermed, earth-bag, timber-frame, log cabin, straw-bale, and various other alternative building methods. Each of these have aspects both to their individual benefit and detriment. We utilized several components from different methods and cherry-picked what we thought would be the best hybrid of them all. The cabin uses whole-log posts, beams, and girders. The walls are earth-bag with a cob interior and milled boards for exterior siding. We have an earthen “cob” floor. Windows are free from Craigslist or salvage jobs, and one wall is a 20ft shipping container for storage and workshop space.

2015

After the purchase-contract finalized, we wanted to start building immediately. There were many problems with jumping straight to building. The land changes through the seasons and we could have saved ourselves a lot of extra work had we waited and lived in temporary quarters and studied the land. Ideally for a full year, but at least a few months. Some of the things we wished we thought about before building are:

  • Where does snow build up and where does the wind come from?
  • Is there spring flood after break-up when the ground is still frozen?
  • Is there fire danger?
  • Which hazard trees need to be felled? Should a whole area of trees be cleared?
  • Do we want the cabin close to certain gardens? If so, what areas are best for those gardens?
  • We are in a valley. Does the sun hit one hill longer than the other?
  • Will the neighborhood subdivide or expand? If someone brought in utilities, would it go through our land?
  • Is future privacy a concern with a shared driveway?
  • If we want an earth structure, what types of soil are available and where are they on the land?

Rock Foundation

Deciding on a log-framed rectangular cabin, we knew we didn’t need (nor would we ever want) a concrete foundation. We planned an earthen floor which needed only rock as a capillary-break. We cleared the grass from an area, about 16x20ft. The outside cabin dimensions would be about 14x16ft.

With five-gallon buckets, we moved all the sod to a pile some distance away. This pile sat for a little more than a year and composted itself into a pile of rocky soil mostly free of grass and roots. We did not yet own a wheelbarrow. We have found that almost any homestead job can be done with a 3$ Home Depot bucket. A dozen of these would make a wonderful gift for any new homesteader.

On the land, about 100ft from the building site, is the “rock quarry”. This is an exposed part of the hillside with gravel and rock in various sizes from 1″ to head-sized. This has been a great source of material for building and is where we pulled for the capillary-break “foundation”. Later, we pulled from the quarry to build a skirt around the house during the fire season in 2017. We purchased a wheelbarrow by this point and moved 4-5 yards of rock starting with head-sized and moving down to 1-2″, or whatever we could shovel.

To work the layers together and compact the ground, we drove over it repeatedly with the truck. This worked decently well. It was monotonous work but it was as inexpensive as a gallon of diesel for an hour of back-and-forthing.

Timber Frame

Two large spruce trees were felled and cut into lengths for the posts. Six posts were needed for the plans. The spruce was dying but still moderately green. Through the years, we have tried peeling logs with a draw-knife, broad ax, pulaski, double-bit ax, and shovel. The draw-knife does the worst in all conditions. When the log is more than 6″ in diameter or had any appreciable number of limbs, a draw-knife makes for miserable work. A steak knife might be more suitable. The pulaski does alright and is easy to control by holding onto the adze-end. Both Brandon and I feel the broad ax has worked the best for peeling logs in almost all conditions. Our particular broad ax has a left-handed head angle which does help as the handle is angled slightly away from the log so our knuckles stay clear of stubs. Even if it were a straight head, it would probably still be the best option for peeling. The short handle is easy to maneuver and the large head lifts the bark off as one unit. The sharp edge can cut off stubs that were missed by the saw.

Once the posts were peeled and cut to length, we measured and dug six holes. They were 3-4ft deep and we placed a layer of head-sized rocks at the base. While digging, we discovered a treasure chest left behind from when the property was logged several decades ago.

We used something similar to Mike Oehler’s method described in the $50 and Up Underground House Book for preparing the posts. This amounted to wrapping them with a few layers of black plastic trash bags and dumping a gallon of diesel in the bag before taping them up. This was a bad idea. Please don’t do this. As the posts sat on the rocks at the bottom of the holes, the bags got holes poked in them and all the diesel ran into the ground… What diesel did soak in before being placed in the hole might help with ants, but there are probably better methods of setting posts without using toxic gick that ended up in the ground.

Because we used way too large of posts for what the final structure ended up being, we boxed ourselves into using equipment to set the framing. We originally planned to berm earth onto the roof so we made extra sure we had large enough posts to handle the weight of 30-yards of earth (at 18″ depth). We later figured out having that much soil on the roof would have required the purchase of several dump-truck loads of fill-dirt. As you’ll learn about in the Food Production chapter, our soil is very, very rocky and a poor choice for berming material. Not to mention, without a large excavator, lifting 30-yards of soil by 5-gallon bucket was exhausting just to think about! We ended with a metal roof. Our snow load is not even close to needing 24″ posts. 8-10″ would have been just fine and could be moved without a machine. We boxed ourselves into using equipment and the rental cost for three days of a small excavator was 1500$. Bad idea.

That being said, we have thought about building a roof with earth in the future, but using sandbags to move the soil up then cover the layer of sandbags with a metal roof. Then we can collect rainwater and have the benefits of the thermal mass. I think there is a lot of potential for this method, but it is unlikely we’ll go back and layer sandbags of earth on this cabin. In the future, we will consider it. If someone actually tries an earth-bag roof with metal roofing, let us know!

Once the posts were set, we notched the girders by making cuts with the saw and chipping the wedge out with the broad ax. The girder was lifted into place with the excavator several times to “fit” the notch and reshape as needed.

Cutting notches is not a science. It is a skill that you get from doing. By the end of the build, we got to be pretty alright. The first several notches left something to be desired, but I don’t think it compromised the structure any. They just look like hell.

To secure the girders into place, we drilled as deep as we could then pounded 1/2″ rebar through them and into the posts. Our bit was 8″. We hoped this would be enough to get the rebar going and it would stay straight through the end-grain of the post. This was a total failure. The rebar bent 90-degrees as soon as it hit the end-grain of the post and came out the sides. It stayed straight only as deep as we drilled, then went all over the place. Imagine something from Looney Tunes.

We then purchased a 14″ x 1/2″ paddle bit from our local hardware store and hoped this would help. It kind of did in-so-far-as the rebar stayed straight for 14″ instead of only 8″ … then it bent and still came out the side like we learned to notch from the Three Stooges.

With all our money going to tools and an unnecessary excavator rentals, compounded with a difference of opinion on how to proceed with the build, the frame sat for winter. Another winter living in the 19′ Mallard camper trailer.

2016

Over winter we regrouped and decided on a single plan. We would build with earth-bags for the lower walls, use blue foam board for the roof and upper walls insulation, metal roof, and an earthen floor.

We also decided to add two extra beams to cut the span from 8′ to 4′. This was probably not necessary after we decided to go with the metal roof and ended up removing one of the beams for use elsewhere.

We finally saved the 2650$ (+200$ shipping) to buy a very-good-condition used shipping container which we had placed directly at the “rear” of the frame. We left the container intact and did not cut into it but we did use it as one of the walls. This heat-sink was by design and keeps the container 20-30 degrees warmer than the outside air temperature without causing too much of a draft in the cabin. The issue was the container is 8′ tall. The rear of the house is 6′ tall. So… ooops.

The plan was to have container meet at the rear of the cabin roof and “level out” the roof line. We solved this by putting risers on the last beam. This patch-job worked pretty well but we should have seen this ahead of time. Again, we did not work our plans out from start to finish.

Alaskan Sawmill

To cut planks for the roof, we used the chainsaw Brandon already owned, a Stihl 056 purchased on Craigslist several years before. He bought a ripping chain online for the 32″ bar and attached the Alaskan mill my uncle Fairbanks gave us.

Our mill is maxed out at about 24″, which is the upper limit of trees as we get in the drier hills of southwest Montana. The branches and brush were collected into a pile which awaits a chipper. We chip our brush and use it as land covering to help build soil. We do not burn our brush.

We can cut a 16″ wide board at 2″ depth at a rate of about 2-linear-foot per minute.

Roof

Once the roof decking was finished, we covered it with one layer of synthetic roof paper. Then we laid the metal roofing we bought new in Missoula. The total cost of the decking was probably 15$ in gas and 2-stroke mix. We use old motor oil for bar oil which works very well, though it runs a little fast and can stain the board if we aren’t being careful. The synthetic paper, staples, and a box of 4″ screws was about 200$. 600sqft of metal roofing was just shy of 400$. It was a challenge finding the right places to put the roofing screws because the planks are not evenly spaced on any regular pattern with the wane-edge, so a few screws went into the gaps. These stayed in their holes and got an extra big glop of sealant.

Racing the clock and running low on funds, we used the covered frame as a storage area until we could commence building. Fortunately, building would continue through winter as funds became available.

Framing & Windows

2017

The next step was to cut notches into the posts where boards could hang. These 2″ cross-boards would be the framing that we based our window height and floor level off of, so those had to be decently level. We used an electric circular saw to cut two horizontal lines in the post. A chisel was used to knock the wedge out. The intended board was cut to length assuming 2″ of notch on each post. Once one notch was complete, one end of the board was inserted into it and the other end was held up to the opposite post. The level was placed on the board and when it was level, we marked the opposite post of where to cut the notch. We used this method for finding “level” because the ground was not flat, so we could not use it. We could have used a string-line, but I found this easier to do. Once one board was in, the board notches above or below it could be cut by measuring from the first board.

Collected over the last few years, we used salvage windows we picked up for free on Craigslist or from box-home remodels. Most of them are single-pane but we did come up with a few gems. The up-side of this is that all the windows were free of charge but may have cost 100$ in gas over the years from driving around to collect them. The down-side is that the house has single-pane windows which are very drafty in winter and there are several sizes and odd shapes so if one breaks we will need to get creative in replacing them. Framing was also a son-of-a-gun with all different sized windows, but to keep costs low, this was the option we chose for this experimental cabin.

Siding & Chinking

We finished windows on only two sides before moving on to the 1″ siding. This is because the container was one wall and the last wall is where we would set the front door which we had not yet decided on. The siding boards were milled with the Alaskan and the logs were mostly from standing-dead spruce. Because no gap was the same length and there were several funny angles, hanging the siding was a tedious job. We used 2″ screws and a bead of caulk. For the last bit of siding, we did not use caulk as our funds were dipping low and we needed to move into the cabin very soon for reasons I might write about at a later time. We chinked between the boards using a sticky mortar. We found this much more cost-effective and of better quality and work-ability than caulking. This was used on the joints of the boards and anywhere else there were gaps, especially around the girders that stuck out. This mix is also superior to spray-foam, but much slower to apply. We played with several online recipes for a mortar mix but none of them worked well for filling holes, gaps, and places where it hung upside-down. I developed my own “sticky” mortar which was easy to apply and has held up fantastic with no cracks or shrinkage for more than a year at the time of this writing. “Jeremy’s world-famous upside-down sticky mortar mix” ratio is:

  • 3/4-scoop sand
  • 1 1/2-scoop sawdust
  • 1-heaping-scoop cement
  • 1/2-scoop lime

In case you were wondering why the girders extended much beyond the posts in previous images of the frame, the original plan was to extend the roof several feet but that would have added extra cost to longer sheets of metal roofing. We didn’t have the money and didn’t want to wait, so we just cut the ends of the girders off.

With extra roof decking, we built a quarter-loft.

With the other walls sided, we moved on to the south wall. We scored a double-pane, metal-frame sliding glass door off Craigslist for free. (What people throw away in Bozeman is unbelievable!) After 40$ in gas and most of the day, we brought our fancy slider home to be framed.

For the two funny triangle spots on the south wall, Brandon re-purposed single-pane windows and cut-to-fit a wood frame to make two custom windows. This worked awesome except the frame was not perfectly straight and put a slight pressure on the glass. The pane cracked in both of the triangle windows, but this was not a big deal. They are for ambient light in the room, not looking through directly. Sometimes, windows crack.

A coat of linseed oil was applied and the cabin took a new glow. I strongly suggest linseed oil for protection of wood, interior and exterior. We used boiled linseed oil which has the negative of having some petroleum additives which stabilizes the solution and allows it to penetrate better. We chose to go ahead as this was the best option for us. It was inexpensive at 28$ per gallon at the hardware store and easy to apply. It finishes dry to the touch and protects wood well without being straight-up lacquer.

Earth-bag Walls

To begin filling sandbags for our earth-bag walls, we drove higher in the valley for better soil. Our soil is very gravelly and we were a little worried that this might tear the bags when tamped. We found “smoother” soil with a higher clay content, but we did use rockier soil by the end. It didn’t really make a difference. The clay-richer soil packed a little better and was easier to form around corners, but in the end, the other stuff did just fine. When it comes to filling earth-bags, just use what you have. It doesn’t make much of a difference in our experience.

We chose to use earth-bags walls for three reasons.

  • Thermal mass
  • Easy, quick, and cheap to build
  • Ballistic protection

The mass of the walls keep the cabin cool in the summer and warm in the winter. The mass functions as a “thermal buffer”. In summer, the walls absorb the cool night air and take half a day to warm up in the direct sun. This keeps the inside of the cabin below 20C (70F) until late in the afternoon. The walls “catch up” to the heat of the summer sun by evening and hold the heat into the night. We stay above 15C (60F) inside until 4 or 5am. In winter, the radiant heat of the wood stove keeps the walls around 10C (50F) to-the-touch in January. Considering the outside temp has rare spells of -40C (-40F) and regular weeks of -27C (-20F), this is a fantastic result. Even though the outside may fluctuate wildly in temperature between night and day or day-to-day, the walls never really change much. They also insulate outside noise.

Ballistic protection is both for safety if there were bad guys doing bad things, but it also offers protection for negligent discharges or flying projectiles of all kinds. Our shooting range is only 100m from the house. Though it is behind a hill from the cabin, if terrible negligence was had, it is not inconceivable that a bullet could lob over the hill and toward the house. Also, the stretch of national forest we border is prime hunting territory. If a hunter was not familiar with the area or shot high on the ridge and missed his target, again, it is conceivable that a bullet could hit the house at the bottom of the valley. Ballistic protection isn’t just for the hardcore prepper. These are things to think about when considering the safety and security of your family. To do it again, I would have gone for full-height earth-bag walls. At that point, just build an earth-bag structure…

Earthen Floor

The rock-base “capillary break” for the earthen floor was about 30cm (12″) thick. We started with the head and fist-sized rocks pictured earlier. Then moved to smaller gravel from the quarry for an initial depth of 15cm (6″). We then purchased 7-tons of road-base (about 3/4″-minus) and had it delivered for 180$ and spread it another 15cm thick. Using a string-level, we tried to spread it as level as convenient, but as long as the whole floor was within an inch, it really won’t make a huge difference. The road base was tamped several times. The capillary break was a total depth of 30cm and we could begin the cob layer.

We spread about 5cm (2″) of loose straw from the feed store. For this 23m² (250sqft) cabin, we flaked about two small bales at 6$ each. We then started on the cob layer. This layer is 10cm (4″) thick and is straw-heavy. It had a very concrete-like texture. From everything we read and watched online, it sounded like the mixture for earthen floors was pretty finicky. To avoid any costly mistakes, we purchased 3-tons of top-soil from a near-by yard. This soil was clay-heavy compared to the sandy soil in the valley. With delivery, the total cost for this was 200$. The cost was worth the time and fuel savings as compared to if we drove around the area liberating clay-rich soil from generous neighbors’ fields. We mixed it with about 4.5-tons of sand we pulled from around the land and higher in the valley and screened with 1/8″ hardware cloth. This ratio worked well with minor cracking as you will see later.

We heard of horror stories from people who didn’t allow the cob layer to dry all the way and ended up with mold growing on the straw or mushrooms fruiting from the cracks. To help prevent this, it was suggested to add disodium tetraborate which is commercially sold as Borax to act as an anti-fungal.

We mixed clay-rich top-soil and sandy-soil on a tarp. Once the soils were well-mixed, we flaked several handfuls of straw and about 1/4-1/2 cup of Borax and mixed it together. There is no perfect science to adding either of these. Just wing it. After a few buckets it will start to feel “right”. We added water and stomped the mixture, turned the tarp, and scooped the cob into buckets to carry it inside. The cob mixture felt something similar to concrete in consistency. If it was is dry, add water. If it is too wet, add a little soil.

  • 6-shovels clay-rich top-soil
  • 9-shovels sandy-soil
  • Several handfuls of straw
  • 1/4-1/2 cup Borax
  • Mix and add water until wet-concrete consistency

This same cob mixture is also what we used to cover the earth-bag portion of the walls.

It took one full day for two men to mix enough cob to cover half of the floor (~120sqft) to a depth of 10cm (4″). We used our 5-gallon buckets to walk the cob inside then used concrete trowels and a 24″ level to get it “pretty close”.

We set aside flat stones we collected from the valley and planned to lay them at the door for a stone entrance. After much debate and an uncertainty of the final depth, we decided to forgo the stone entrance in favor of an uninterrupted earthen floor with no toe-catchers sticking up.

What was interrupted was our cob-stomping party. Three forest fires in the area had too much fun over several windy days and we were politely asked by the Sheriff’s deputy to vacate the county before our house burned down and we died along with it causing all sorts of unwanted paperwork. We thanked the man for the notice, promptly packed the camper with as much water as we could haul and drove off into the hazy, ashen sunset for a few days until things calmed down.

After the coast was sorta clear-ish, we returned to finish the job. Another full day and we had the cob floor finished. This 10cm layer took about a week to dry. We judged it by feel. Once it stopped feeling damp and sounded hollow when knocked with a knuckle, we gave it another day or so for good measure and continued to the final layer.

The top-layer has sifted straw which was collected by shaking flakes over 1/8″ hardware cloth. This is the same screen we ran the soil mixture through to pull out any large rocks that would not trowel out flat. We followed the same ratio as above.

Throughout the next few days, cracks began to form on the southern side of the room. We suspect this was caused by sun hitting this part of the room and drying the floor faster than the other side. If the floor was wet with a hose for several days and re-troweled as it dried, I suspect it would have come out much smoother with less cracking. We may try this in the future.

Once the top layer appeared dry with a light-brown or grey color, we applied three coats of boiled linseed oil. This area took about 7-gallons. After several days of drying, it had a dark-brown color. We applied Howard’s Feed ‘n Wax, a beeswax and citrus-oil compound. We went as heavy as possible, but it was quite expensive at 8$ for a small bottle. It took 10(?) bottles to cover the floor twice. Using an electric buffer, we went over the floor several times. This gave the floor a nice sheen.

Over the next several months, the floor lightened in color somewhat but has stayed a dark shade. There are several cracks across areas of the floor but they have not caused an issue one year later. We have plans to cut the top-layer and “excise” the cracks and refill them similar to how you might do a cement patch. This won’t happen until everything else is finished inside the cabin – probably another year or two.

Mud Room

Also called an “arctic entrance” in some parts of the world, we began building the frame for the eventual mud room. Posts and beams were skinned and set. Unlike the house where we used spruce framing and douglas fir exterior paneling, we used pine for the framing. We did this because we already had pine logs in the lumber yard of the appropriate size.

We set the posts out about 2m (6′) from the house. This will be a walk-in mud-room, sun-room for sprouting and growing plants, and covered work area.

The mud room is still being built. I will add more as it comes along.

Interior

We built a temporary kitchen using two 2″ boards stacked on milk crates. This works very well but is a little short for our preference. It has been in service for one year at the time this section was written, though I am glad the kitchen will be built soon.

For roof and upper-wall insulation, we used one layer of 2″ blue foam boards. A 4’x8′ sheet is about 30$ at our hardware store. Over winter we milled blue-pine for the interior paneling. We have lived with the foam-board insulation showing for one year, now. It doesn’t bother me. Once we stopped worrying about how pretty stuff looks or “what might the neighbors think?!”, life got a lot less stressful. I will be glad when the house is finished and looking nice, but it looks like it is being built by hand and with no debt. Also, in case your wife is worried, the neighbors think it is pretty awesome that we’re building a home all by ourselves…

This is an important picture to share. Sometimes, things get disorganised. I’d love to say we are well-organised and on top of things and have a great workshop in the conex like it was planned. Well, sometimes it isn’t always the case…

Now, it isn’t like this anymore! It still has a lot of things in it and it is still a little bit of a cluster, but it is organised. When we were in the camper, so many things were kept in the box for tight storage and safe keeping. Now that we are in the house, construction materials were used up, household items were brought in, bookshelves were stocked, things got figured out… We could have chosen to be anal over the storage container. We chose against it. It took time to work through and it will always be getting a little better. That’s the way we did it.

Washing Clothes

  • Five-gallon bucket with warm water from the garden hose
  • Slice of bar soap
  • Rope

I don’t think we will ever go back to using a machine. Seriously. First, I highly doubt we will ever have such a set-up that provides infrastructure-enough to run a washing machine. Second, why bother? It is faster, funner, and more satisfying to wash clothes in a bucket. Of course, this is what two young men say, unmarried and living in a hunting shack. We shall see what future wives say about the topic.

With warm water from the hose, we fill a five-gallon bucket. If we have bar soap, we’ll cut a sliver into it and make a sudsy mess. If not, we’ll give it a shot of dish soap. If we are low on dish soap, we’ll splash some white vinegar in the wash. No vinegar? Just water and a sun-dry is better than nothing…

Once the water is soapy, drop a few garments in and dunk them several time. Squish them and work them and do all sorts of washing machine-like actions to the water, then give the garments a gentle wring and set aside. Work through the stack of nasty until everything smells like Irish Springs. Dump the bucket on the compost and refill with the warm water regenerating in the garden hose. Dunk a few garments at a time to rinse, wring them gently, then hang on the line for the rest of the day. Your clothes with last longer (sans machine dryer heat making the fibers brittle) and smell better (with a day of UV light). A splash of vinegar in the soap water works great on sock-smell.

As of 2018, we now run with unit called the Breathing Mobile Washer gifted to the homestead by a fellow off-grider. The mobile washer is a fancy little tool which appears to have been invented by a failing toilet plunger company who just never quite got the hang of it. This device is a huge upgrade for those who wash clothes in buckets and turns two gallons of water into four. The “breathing” action super sudsifies the soap and pulls the water through the fabric well. In my opinion, if doing clothes by hands gets clothes 60% clean as compared to a machine wash, this funky toilet plunger gets clothes 95% clean as compared to a machine wash.

Winter time clothes washing does not change the process. As the clothes hang on the line for a few hours, they freeze-dry. The water freezes, then sublimates. The clothes do retain some water which makes them frozen boards. Take these awkward frisbees inside to finish drying by hanging on a line near the wood stove. They thaw and dry in a few hours. Only heavy cotton pants retain enough ice to drip as they thaw. Almost nothing else drips, they just feel a little damp after thawing. I cannot describe how cool of a process this is. Freeze-drying clothes works best when temperatures are below 20F. Between 30F and 40F, clothes won’t dry outside. During these brief and uncomfortable temperature stretchs, we let the clothes hang outside and drip for a few hours then bring them inside to finish drying by the wood stove. The clothes will drip on the floor and make every window fog up. It’s just the way it goes.

Bathing

As for bathing, there is a summer and a winter method on the homestead. In summer, we have a 4′ cattle trough (“the tub”) that is filled with water piped from the creek. We have a dam in the creek higher in the valley which feeds us water all summer via a black poly pipe line. This water line is detailed in the Water chapter.

The tub is filled with water which we then dip in. The creek water running into it is chilly but mighty refreshing after working in the sun all day. A quick towel-off followed by standing in the sun to air-dry is a great sensation. Every few days we will do a full shower with warm water and soap. To heat a few gallons of water, we employ the 100′ garden hose which sits in the sun all day. By the afternoon, we have hot water. Set the sprayer to a gentle settling and you’ve got a hot shower. A simple as it gets.

In winter, we have a large pot which we melt snow in all day. Adding snow to the pot throughout the day, we can melt and warm about 3 gallons of hot water. Once this pot is full and steaming hot, we pour it in a 5-gallon bucket and cool it with snow or ice until it reaches a comfortable temperature. This bucket of warm water is poured into a 5-gallon solar shower bag. We hang the bag outside where we stand on a gravel pad. This has proved to be comfortable and invigorating down to -30C (-20F). Below that, water freezes on your skin faster than you can towel it off. Above that, the warm water from the solar shower is a rush on the parts of your body that are being chilled from the cold. I’m not kidding, this is a great experience – similar to being in a hot tub while it is snowing. If it is below -20F, we will wait a day or two for it to warm up or take “sink showers” with washcloths. We do washcloth showers in winter daily, anyway, because we do not shower daily. I recommend you don’t either. Unless you are truly filthy, I personally think showering every two or three days is much better all around. It keeps the skin in its own oil longer, which helps it from getting dry. I suspect it is probably better for the biome that lives on the skin, but I am not going to dig through PubMed to get the latest and greatest in dermatological science for a credible citation. Instead, I’ll cite Mr. Carlin:

“Unless you work out, or work outdoors, or for some reason come in intimate contact with huge amounts of filth and garbage every day you don’t always need a shower. All you really need is to wash the four key areas: armpits, asshole, crotch, and teeth!” – George Carlin

Composting Toilet

We use a composting toilet here on the homestead and I recommend you do, too. We chose this system for:

  • Ease and cost.
  • Conscientious use of resources and good stewardship.

 

** The remainder of this section contains poop-talk and vivid descriptions **

A composting toilet system could not be easier, regardless of which method you use. There are several methods for setting up such a system. On the homestead, we use the 5-gallon bucket method. This doesn’t amount to much more than pooping into a bucket and covering it in sawdust.

There are two dedicated “toilet” buckets. These are rotated as the other fills up to allow for extra time between emptying the buckets. With an empty bucket, throw 15cm (6″) of sawdust into the bottom. This makes it much easier to dump in winter. Squat over the bucket and do your thing. Once you’re finished up, cover the aspiring fertilizer with sawdust and you’re finished. It doesn’t take a lot of sawdust to keep everything covered. One good scoop is all it takes most of the time and you don’t need a huge layer. One bucket should last one guy way north of a week. Two buckets just about last one man a month. This figure does, however, include using a different bucket for peeing through the day. If you’re out in the woods or around the property during the day, which you should be, then water any tree or bush you find looking a little dry. One European friend of mine says he “needs to drink a Sprite” each time he wanders off for a few minutes. I wonder if something is being lost in translation… Anyway, our poop bucket is just that.

Different from others in the composting toilet community, we do not divert urine. When we sit on the bucket, we don’t do any screwing around with funnels or diverting ramps or whatever. That’s just gross.

We do keep a pee bucket inside the house which is a 5-gallon bucket filled 3/4 full of sawdust. Once the liquid nears the sawdust layer, we take it out and dump it on the compost. This is for night time pees and few other times. If we are in or by the house during the day, we step outside and pee on the compost. We have found that after a month of peeing on the same tree every day, it starts to smell and can eventually burn plants. In winter, a pee glacier will form. So, keep it on the compost and you’ll never have an issue. That being said, our compost does not smell. The poop bucket does not smell. The pee bucket does not smell. Nothing smells like poop or pee. If you cover your business with enough sawdust (which is not much), even when cooking in the summer heat all day it does not smell like anything but earthy wood chips.

Once near full, the buckets are dumped on the compost at the same time as the pee bucket, food scraps bucket, and any garden compost pulled that day. Everything is covered with 1″ of sawdust and it smells like forest.

I use the word “sawdust” loosely. It can be wood chips, planer filings, it really doesn’t matter in my experience. The first summer before we started milling lumber, I broke up a nurse log and collected the little cuboidal punky wood chunks with a rake. Though, finer “true sawdust” does work better for the poop bucket cover material. Unfortunately, a sharp saw does not throw “dust” so you should not be making that often! With firewood bucking, milling, all of that, we have almost never been hurting for sawdust. It is worth inquiring at a local sawmill or fence-post outfit to see if they will sell you trashbags of u-scoop sawdust. They may even give it to you just for asking. One contractor bag full could last several months if used wisely.

The one caveat I will mention is that this is not a great indoor system for a one-room cabin. Last winter we tried having the poop bucket set in a cozy corner but it just didn’t work. That smelled for several minutes after making a deposit. The poop bucket was put back outside. It sits under cover in the mudroom where it will stay. It will eventually be set up as a bucket under a bench similar to what you might recognize in an outhouse. The bench will have a seat for sitters which can be lifted up for squaters (as humans are built for anatomically). Sitting = straining = hemorrhoids, especially with age. Until the bench and privacy half-walls are built with the completion of the mud room, the bucket sits outside with cinder blocks for squating. A section of pipe insulation along the rim gives a little cheek-support and isn’t too cold in winter. The indoor pee bucket does not smell, ever.

On the topic of hemorrhoids, one of my favorite subjects for dinner-table conversation, another thing to consider is giving up the paper. If there is one thing that folks in India do right, it is using a water rinse. We no longer use toilet paper on the homestead because it doesn’t do a good job for cleaning and hygiene, or comfort. It just doesn’t. I worked in a hospital for a few years and helped folks get cleaned up on the toilet and in bed. Do you actually know what happens after an endless wiper? Don’t think you are immune from this plight. Even the most modest middle-age ladies left piles of hospital bed sheets with skid marks that would make a trucker blush. Think about it like this… Picture yourself coming home from a long day at work. You spent nine or ten hours on your feet and you are tired and ornery. You stumble into the kitchen, open the freezer, and with a crack of a smile you pull out a tub of rocky road ice cream. You look at the sink and see all of your bowls stacked up and dirty. You pull a coffee mug from the rack and the last clean fork from the drawer. You dig into the soft, dairy desert and on its way to the coffee mug the lump of melting chocolate falls off the fork and lands on the counter. After a moment of cursing your mother, your boss, and your dog, you pick up the scoop of ice cream with your fingers, inspect it for toast crumbs then drop it in the mug. You grab a dry wash cloth and run it over the messy zone where the ice cream landed. The dry rag picks up the chunks of nuts and a marshmallow but leaves a sticky, chocolate smear. You toss the rag next to the sink and grab another dry rag. Impatient and ready to get on with desert, you wipe over the sticky area again. You scrub with the dry rag until the sticky is gone. You toss that rag next to the first but a dry crust of dairy remains on the counter. The next day, Saturday, the same thing happens. In a better mood after watching several re-runs of Judge Judy, you take the time to run warm water and wipe up the chocolate mess with a damp, soapy sponge and the counter is clean and fresh. You rinse the sponge and no trace of ice cream is left. Do you get what I’m saying? Set a jar next to the bathroom sink and buy some cheap Walmart washcloths for a pat dry.

In the summer of 2018 we opened our first compost pile. The results were amazing. In the Food Production chapter you will find images of the lofty, earthy smelling, and worm heaven compost. We are making our own compost. We produce resources, consume those resources, then recycle the nutrients into rich soil that produces more resources. I don’t get woowoo very often, but there is something truly grounding about the connection this builds with the land.

In rural areas, communal sewers don’t exist. Pit outhouses inject fecal pathogens straight into the groundwater and septic systems also spread pathogens and other household chemicals through the groundwater plume. I am not going to molest my neighbors’ land by pooping in their drinking water. I ask my neighbors do the same. Composting toilet systems are easy, cheap, put compost back on the land, and do not contaminate drinking water. Most systems require a little extra work over simply flushing your sins away, but do you want what is easiest or what is most meaningful?

For more information, I encourage you purchase Joseph Jenkins’ guide The Humanure Handbook.

Firewood

2018

Spring has arrived and not much happened with the cabin over winter. We used about 5-cords of firewood. This is with a not-perfectly set-up stove, single pane windows, and lots of drafts and spots to finish sealing. Considering our winters, that is a very fine number. The earthen floor worked great, keeping a pleasant or just-cool-to-the-touch feel. The earth-bag walls were the same. When it is -40C (-40F) outside and the wall is “just cool”, that is a win.

Lessons 

(for homestead/off-grid/no-debt/by-hand building)

  • Don’t bring preconceived plans and “force” it onto the land. Buy land and draw plans from the resources available or search for land with the specific resources you require for preconceived plans you are unwilling to amend.
  • Don’t fear plans changing. No sense in warming up the Victorian fainting couch when presented with new information. You are the one who will suffer.
  • Take your time. Make arrangements for comfortable temporary housing. We brought a 19ft camper trailer and made it work, despite a bad attitude. We installed a Nordic oil stove and burned red diesel Jerry-rigged to a 5-gallon gas jug to keep warm. We had everything to be comfortable while we observed the land, designed plans, built a sensible house, and enjoyed the process except our bad attitude. I will write a post on this someday.

 


Water

When we sought land, one of our most firm requirements was that it must have surface water. A small lake or solid creek, doesn’t matter. Do you know what we did? Bought a weed patch with a dry creek bed. What we didn’t know and didn’t ask the owner (ask him directly, don’t ask the agent) was “is the creek year-round on the land we are looking at?” It isn’t. This creek runs hard in spring break-up, the same time we looked at the land. It was early May and the creek ran hard, fueled by the melting snow caught by several miles of valley above us. Once the snow all melted, the springs ran low, and the creek dried. In a heavy snow year, the creek begins in late April and runs until mid-July. Light snow years will charge the creek for about a month.

The creek in April before everything greens.

We cannot afford a well, though they are not wildly expensive in our area. A driller quoted us 2,500$ for the estimated 75ft depth. A hand pump is another many hundred dollars. So, when looking at the land, we planned to get our water from the creek. Drinking water. Dish water. Bathing water. All of it. We did not ask the right questions so when the end of June brought a drying creek, we realised our mistake.

The first year we shuttled water in five-gallon buckets from Rock creek, about two road-miles away. Every day we shuttled 35-gallons on the flatbed to water the wimpy garden, fill the solar shower, drink, cook, and wash the clothes. With miles of cattle operation above us at this point in Rock creek, we filtered drinking and cooking water through our Berkey water filter.

Rock creek.

When the snows came in December, we started to melt snow for water. The diesel stove was already burning 24/7, so we kept a large pot on the stove and filled it with snow every few hours. When the pot was full, we filled a water jug. When the jugs were full, we washed our clothes and bathed. It was an incredible and humbling experience that first year. We have always been cautious with water use, but I have never had to conserve that harshly for such a long period of time.

The creek dries on our land but it doesn’t dry farther up the valley. It is true our creek runs “all year”, it just doesn’t run far from the spring. Our mistake was assuming that meant the creek ran all the way. This was a mistake on our part. The previous owner nor the agent said expressly or implied the creek ran all the way. This is an important note for people looking for land in the future. If you can wait, look at the water source in late-summer before purchasing the land.

In our valley, there are five private pieces along the valley bottom. We are number three of the five. The creek runs full-time at the top of the property highest in the valley. We discussed the issue with the neighbors and made a plan. We bought 1,600ft of black poly pipe (about 300$) and would run it a quarter-mile up the creek bed to where the water ran strong. We dammed the creek on the neighbor’s land and connected the hose to a five-gallon bucket “catch” in the dam.

The handshake agreement was that we may leave the pipe running through the creek bed and leave the dam in place provided the neighbors had access to the pipe. We installed a tee at where they wanted. This would take almost all of our pressure away when they filled their jugs, but these neighbors only come periodically and saw an opportunity to delay digging a well. It has worked well for everyone involved. This is our current summer water system and provides constant water until the line freezes. We do not, and probably will not, plumb the cabin to this water line for a variety of reasons. A daily chore is filling a 2-gallon plastic water jug which sits inside on a shelf. We do not filter the water from our creek. We only filtered the water from the big river when we pulled from that source.

The 3/4″ 1,600ft pipe has an elevation gain of about 15ft from our cabin and provides about 3gpm with enough pressure to run one garden sprinkler at a time.

Winter time looks a little different. Even flowing full-time, the water moving through the pipe doesn’t move fast enough to resist freezing. The Fall after laying the line, we found that water flowing through a 3/4″ black poly pipe moving at 3gpm exposed to the air will freeze at -2C (28F). By this time, snow has started to build so we would be able to melt. However, melting enough snow to met our daily needs is exhausting and we did not want to do that. It takes about 20-hours to melt 15-gallons, enough for three days. The quality of water from snow melt is relatively low, especially towards the end of winter. Months of wood smoke from the cabin settles on the snow in the vicinity which absorbs some of the taste. Snow also has a high affinity for carbon dioxide giving a car-exhaust taste after a period of time. Not to mention, the yellow snow adjacent to the house begins to radiate farther and farther away through winter leaving clean snow more of a walk prior to installing the composting toilet system. So, we came up with a new plan. The neighbor dug a pond in the creek at the top end of his property, above where we dammed. The original purpose of the pond was to work through some of the gravel for sapphires but this never amounted to anything for them. It seconds as a water collection spot for us. We have five, five-gallon water jugs. This is enough for drinking and cooking water for about six-days. We can melt washing and bathing water without too much trouble.

Once a week we drive the half-mile up the private road to the ponded area. If driven weekly, we were able to keep the snow ruts passable. We only drove the 4Runner with all four tires chained. In four-wheel drive and engaging the locker in the rear differential, we drove up the valley with the five jugs in the back. We knocked a hole in the ice and filled them. About -30C (-20F) was the coldest day we have collected water so far. The ice required a pulaski to break through and Brandon’s hand was frost nipped after several minutes exposed. This is not ideal and will not be the forever solution, but it worked for clean water and was available all winter.

A heavy snow year with an odd warming and cooling cycle in the late-winter caused an early creek flow followed by an ice dam, clogging the culvert. Every other day we spent several hours picking and digging channels to divert the flow of ice from the cabin door. Digging wet, sloppy, ice trenches is miserable. No way around it. But less miserable than pouring a new earthen floor because it got flooded and molded in the spring.

Flowing ice towards the container and cabin.

Even after the ice dam melted, the heavy snow with heavy spring rain kept the creek (and most of Granite county) flooding heavily. This resulted in a need to build a bridge where the culvert was. See the “Bridge” chapter.

If you have surface water, flooding is something to think about no matter how unlikely. We had an unusual situation, but it is one we could have prepared for if all conceivable situations were thought of. The creek comes no closer than 100ft to the cabin. The cabin is about one foot lower in elevation, across a slightly graded field and driveway from the creek. The creek runs liquid water for about two-months each spring on average years. If there was a clog in the culvert, how would the water divert and where would it run? If it was a heavy rain year, where would new channels carve? These are important questions to ask yourself if you live on a creek or lake.

Previous dike.

Lessons

  • Do not trust real estate listings to tell you the whole truth. Put boots on the ground and see for yourself. Be very, very wary when buying out of the area or sight-unseen.
  • Start looking at land at least a year before you buy, if possible. Track specific properties for sale near where you are interested and even places you don’t think you are interested, walk on them, document, and take pictures for future reference. This might be slightly dishonest if you must pose as an interested buyer to get an address but you will be much more informed when you do buy.
  • What is every conceivable disaster? Can the creek flood in a 20-year storm? How high will the lake rise? Will the lake dry up or become a swamp? What’s your back-up plan for potable water?

 


Food Production

Industry does not come from the land. It comes from what industrious people do with the land. A gold miner makes the gold mine. Without the miner, layers of gold in rock is just layers of rock.

This valley is a sandy, rocky river-bed with poor soil covered in invasive, noxious weeds. In three years, enough food is now being produced to feed several people, 6-months of the year. Enough food is produced where excess can be sold and a profit can be made from the land. The valley did not make that happen. We made that happen. We studied the land, identified its faults, and worked to improve the quality. This valley, as it sits, is unproductive. There is little value in unproductive land. We built the value.

Producing food is the epitome of personal responsibility. Fewer things better illustrate a man’s ability to support himself and his family than to produce their food. Healthy, sustainable food (and water) is a pre-requistite for healthful existence. It may be the choice of a man to provide substinence by purchasing it rather than producing it, but this is not secure. Food supplies can be interupted, markets can decline, civilizations will transition.

As I described in The farmer-less market, to have a plan for what could happen does not translate to a belief of what will happen. Disruptions to the supply of food, electricity, and other essential services has occurred in the past, occurs in the present, and will continue to occur in the future. In the South, hurricanes are the precipitating event that lead to empty shelves and rationing at the grocery store. The Pacific Northwest experiences “pineapple express” rain and wind storms that destroy miles of access roads and power-lines with downed trees and mudslides isolating large areas and peninsulas for days or weeks. Here in Montana, wildfires will cause whole regions of the state to be evacuated. If a victim is unable to evacuate or is not notified of the evacuation, he may be isolated for days or weeks with fire consuming all roads in and out.

Danger is a risk associated with life. Owning your life means accepting the consequences of your decisions. If you choose to live in an apartment in the Big City, that is your choice. You get to make that decision. But you must also accept the consequences of that decision. If you choose to grow a lawn instead of a garden, that is your choice. You get to make the decision. But you must also accept the consequences of that decision, and those consequences may be bigger than they first appear. If a hurricane, flood, tornado, snow storm, wildfire, drought, terrorist attack, currency devaluing, or any other disaster disrupts the food supply you choose to be dependent on, then you must accept the consequences of that decision. Who owns your life?

Grow a garden in the back yard. Plant a fruit tree along the drive way. Have a sprouting tray on the counter. Put an herb in the window. Taking charge of your food supply doesn’t mean selling an urban life for 40-acres with the Amish. I strongly encourage rural life and the work it requires, but it isn’t necessary to take charge of your food. Each little step adds towards a life of self-reliance and self-satisfaction. How do you live your life? Who owns it? Who enjoys the benefits and who suffers the consequences?

Garden

The first summer in the valley was a great experience. For gardening, it was more-or-less a complete failure for farming but a raving success for experience. The learning curve was steep. We pulled up some weeds, knocked clumps of grass, and threw some seed in the sandy soil. The first year we tried to grow squash, melons, garden cress, mustard, kohlrabi, peas, beans, blueberries, raspberries, and perhaps a few other things I have forgotten in the few years since. The kohlrabi grew to be marble-sized and there was enough cress and mustard in the whole garden to add some flavor to a pot of stew. Everything else sat there for a while looking like they didn’t have anything better to do before dying.

The soil is rocky and sandy in the bottom of the valley and requires heavy amending just to get stuff to sprout. Planting straight in the sand wasn’t going to work well, so we decided to experiment with two methods: hügelkultur and raised compost rows.

Hügelkultur involves piling wood into a berm, working it with smaller and smaller limbs, branches, and sticks, until eventually covering it with soil. We started with putting cardboard on the ground to supress the weeds and see if it might help hold the pile together. It has helped tremendously with weeds and doesn’t seem to be holding the berms back. Then, we walked around and collected the plent of dead and rotting aspen and cottonwood around the valley which were cut up and weaved together. Finally, we gave ourselves a head-start and bought a little topsoil from the nearby yard. This layer went on and the results were great. Kale and cabbage were the primary first-run crop. The cabbage didn’t make heads but they made huge leaves. This may have been because of the heat or some other factor. Paul Wheaton, who lives not too far away from here, has a nice article talking more about hügelkultur over at the Permies forum.

That Fall, we covered the berm with straw we purchased from the feed store. The following summer, almost nothing grew on the berm. Cabbage grew a few inches tall, kale had odd looking galls, and beets never had a chance. We have no evidence of this, but the best hypothesis we have is that there was a heavy absorption of broad-leaf herbicide (such as glyphosate “Round-Up”) from the straw. As the straw decayed into the berm, the residual herbicide was pulled into the soil by rain and watering. Leeks, which are not board-leaf plants, seemed to do okay. Everything else grew diseased or died, or didn’t sprout at all. A neighbor suggested an alternative hypothesis: the botanical genocide could be a result of tannin accumulation from the rotting wood and branchs, but I do not think this is a likely scenario. If this was an issue, then hügelkultur would not be a thing. Something very specific to our berm was wrong and the first variables to consider are those that changed between the first and second summer. The only thing that observably changed was the addition of the straw, which was likely sprayed for weed control or to promote desication prior to harvest. The only other thing that was added to the satanic berm was cuttings from our morel harvest. The fungus which fruits morel mushrooms has not been known, to the best of my knowledge, to cause mass extinction of garden-variety etibles. So, all roads lead to herbicide. If so, then the berm will be out of commission for a few years. We will sow cover crops and add compost to it and try again in a few years.

The raised compost rows also proved to be a huge success the first summer. We have only one growing season on them so far and that was late in the season. After breaking open our first humanure compost bin, we were tickled with the results. More about this with pictures is included in the following section.

These raised beds held water for several days and were fluffy. Concerned that they might hold water too well, we added a little sandy soil to the mix.

With the preliminary success of the first berm, we made two more. The first is a wood-core mound, the second is a berm that we refer to as “the sun scoop” as it faces south. Once these were finished, we did not buy soil but mixed our compost with soil taken from the hillside. This did great and we had more greens than we could handle. We gave much of it away, traded some, and sold a bit at the Farmer’s Market. Erosion became an issue so we threw some sawdust on the piles and that did the trick.  We were given the opportuntity from a neighbor to take some of her strawberry starts. Brandon made up a new set of rows for these bootlegged strawberries. They had about a month to root in before winter. It will be exciting to see how they fair over winter. We also learned that the proper method is to place the strawberry nodes over a pot of soil for a while before clipping from the “mother”. We did not do this and many of the clippings died immediately, but about 25% survived and made new green shoots. Next Spring will be when we can judge success.

We have future plans for a simple beet and potato bed in one area with better soil. Also, I will try growing yams in buckets. I suspect that with black buckets, covered in black plastic, I might get the soil warm enough to grow yams and some exotic potatoes.

Compost

Year One, we built a quick compost from sticks on the ground. This worked well except that compost was falling out the sides, so we put a layer of cardboard on the sides. This worked like a charm but did feel rather flimsy all around. The following composts would be made of boards and be about one yard square. This size has worked well, but we may opt for twice that size in the future.

We tried making a compost bin from stacking strawbales but this failed. The walls caved in and the whole thing now has to be held together with braces where it will sit for a year and a half. Plus, this straw is the same straw we bought from the feed store which we suspect to contain herbicide. Not the best decision for a compost bin. Reuseable boards will be the choice from now on.

Liberated from a relative’s yard, comfrey was planted alongside the compost bins. These are great plants that make great fertiliser, pull up nutrients from the soil, and bring them to use. We planted them next to the compost area to act as a nursery where the plants can grow, be split, and grow bigger. Eventually, once the orchard is planted, a splitting of comfrey will be moved to under each tree.

Our compost runs at about 130F most of the summer. It freezes in winter, then spring time it picks right back up where it left off. We are running our compost for one full year starting the year it is closed. With our first pile that we opened, this seems to be a good timeline as the soil inside was rich and earthy smelling. There were no recognisable items except the windows from junk mail, some plastic that fell in accidentally, and avocado skins. The pits from avocados were recognisable but fell apart and crumbled when held exposing a wild worm orgy inside. Every one was filled with worms. According the Jenkins’ book referenced earlier, this should also be plenty a timeline for almost all pathogens that might have been transfered from the composting toilet. If you shake peoples’ hands or touch public doorknobs, then this should be a non-issue.

Wild Foraging

Few things I cherrish more than a day spent wandering around the hillside and seeing what nature has provided to me. In our valley and around the neighboring hills, many types of mushrooms, mint, nettle, and other herbs are found plentiful. Morels are among a top hit with the neighbors. We collect a fair amount for ourselves and as gifts.

Morels
False snowbank morel
Pig’s ear

Morels, in particular, are a great forage. Many people swarm the hillsides of recent forest fires. We did try that this last year but found the product to be of lesser quality. Ash and soot got into the honeycomb cap and was hard to rinse out. Better yet, try looking in a cottonwood grove along a creek. We have a large grove of aspen in our valley which hosts more morels in a short-lived flush than we can stand to pick.

If you do choose to search a burn as your easy-pickin’s target, I made some observations this last Spring that may be helpful. First, take a hike. Really. Get off the road. Pick a spot, doesn’t really matter where as long as you are in the general area, get out, and walk. In my experience, at least 90% of folks never lose sight of their car. If you are looking for mushrooms from the road, you are likely to be disappointed. Once you get an eye for the little brown caps, you can see them 10-20 feet from the road. Usually just a single crown. Pull off, walk that way, then keep walking. One will lead to two, two will lead to hundreds. It does take an eye, but after a few hours you’ll be spoting it like those freaks who finish a Where’s Waldo? book in under a minute.

Roadside “flag”

Hills generally on the warmer, south slopes were more productive. If there was evidence of water, a creek, or water-loving plants like aspen, cottonwood, nettle, or mosses, all the better.

Two guys who knew what there were looking for found enough morels to last a family a year in a few hours. After one day, we had more than we knew what to do with. We made the offer for several friends to come out for an outing and we usually left them with all of the pickings. Taking a few people out who have never foraged before and showing them how to find mushrooms is a great experience. It was a great time hearing a friend start cheering from over the hill as they went from one clump of fruit to the next.

Washing took almost as much time as picking. We washed our mushrooms by dunking and thrashing them in water and using a finger to pick out the honeycombs if there was junk in it. Mushrooms from our aspen grove are usually very clean but still get a dunk. These washed mushrooms are thrown on the drying rack and set for a week or so until they are completely dry and brittle to the touch.

When feeling frisky, throw a handful into some cool water for a few minutes, slide them in half, and throw them in a pan with oil until they get crispy. They are just fantastic.

If you go out by yourself, do be sure to take your time and do your homework. When Brandon and I first started foraging for anything, but especially mushrooms, we both could spend an hour or more with a single specimen to make sure. If we were unsure, more investigation was needed. Almost all things in the wild can be identified, and once you learn some biological terminology and know what to look for you get faster and faster. For all things fungus, Brandon prefers Mushrooms Demystified. Alternatively, the useful pocket guide All That The Rains Promise Other great forageables include glacier lilies. These plants are 100% edible from flower to bulb. The yellow flowers add a wonderful, spicy bite to a salad similar to mustard to garden cress. The leaves are sweet and can be a great backcountry salad just by themselves.

Wild onion grow all over the hills and rarely have I backpacked and not found a few growing. If there are just a few, I will usually leave them. In large patches, as they often are, I am not afraid to pick a few and even dig up a few of their bulbs for a trail snack or seasoning for lentils that night.

Just about every backcountry creek or stream in the Rockies has brook saxifrage. The leaves and stems make a great spinach-like salad, but they can be sort of strong as they age into summer. Toss in a few Spring time dandelions and have yourself a feast!

Wild raspberry is one of my favorite treats. I have never picked enough to can, but I am sure it would make a delightful winter treat. When I find patches, which also grow abundently in our valley, I eat all I pick. This berry will turn a 10-minute walk to get the mail into a two hour adventure.

All sorts of treasures can be found. On the side of the road in a forest area we found a large patch of hawthorn and service berry. Both are fantastic crops. Harthorn has a lot of unpalatable seeds, so these we squeeze and make juice. It is bland to those with suger-tongues but for someone with a taste for nature, it is pleasant and sweet. I have seen recipes which use the pulp of hawthorn berries for ketchup makings.

Service berry is like a boring blueberry, but can be rich for tongues not burned from sugar-overload. These berries are so full of natural pectin that once smashed, they stiffen up and dry into a fruit leather better than any off the shelves. We mixed one batch 1:1 with huckleberry and I don’t think we will ever go back. The leather was flexible, not sticky, and had an amazing taste.

We did the same with a roadside crab apple and chokecherry. Pulp from sqeezed chokecherries and blended apples were mixed together and dried for an apple bark we put away for winter snacks.

I also want to talk about foraging on the road. Brandon and I visited a friend in Wyoming and on the way back we went through the Black Hills of South Dakota. On this trip we purchased several cans of no-salt beans at the local grocer and foraged our way to a bountiful feast. On this trip, in less than a one mile radius of the camping area we found off a forest road, we picked and ate:

  • wild onion
  • violet (leaves only)
  • dandelion
  • red clover

Throw those together, even in a bachelor’s mixing bowl, and I’d almost dare to say sometimes we eat better on the road than at home.

Knapweed and thistle are the adversaries of almost all farmers and ranchers. Besides thistle being a juicy and sweet wild celery when the stalk is picked young, shaved, and steamed, but both knapweed and thistle are great bee forage. Both of these “weeds” are low on our priority list.

Animals (Hunting & Domestic)

We don’t keep domestic animals on the land besides one working dog. For some personal health reasons, Brandon and I have held very tight to a rather strict plant-based diet. We also don’t have lifestyles that allow us to raise animals and care for them. We do not want to have a goat or sheep or cow and have to worry about watering it in winter or feeding it when we are away for weeks on adventures.

Animals do provide food reserves, compost, and are great natural lawn mowers. Goats, especially, are great weed control if you stake them out in a thistle patch.

Neither of us have hunted large game. For the last seven years at the time of this writing, meat has been a rare-to-never part of either of our diet. So, there has never been much sense in taking a large animal if we’d never eat the meat. Plus, we don’t have the infrastructure to freeze the meat and I am uncomfortable with canning meat. We could dry it, but that is a lot of jerky…

Brandon has for a while felt like he just isn’t getting enough power from plants alone, especially when he is working a longer-term job. He has started introducing a little bit of meat into his meals and finds that makes the difference. For reference, Brandon has an outrageous turbo-drive metabolism and regularly consumes 5-7,000 Calories a day. That is a lot of lentils… I do not have such great demands and have not moved from an almost exclusively plant-based diet.

This section may be edited over time to include more about hunting and wild game harvesting.

Wolf kill

Yes. Moose can get very, very angry.

Home Cooking

I love cooking food on a wood stove. It doesn’t take long before you really get to be a pro. I am not interested in one of the large, wood cook stoves. The full-size cook stoves have a large foot print for small cabins and don’t function the same as a regular ol’ wood stove, like they can’t be stuffed with wood and left all day the same way. The only downfall with regular wood stoves is that there is no oven. My grandfather gave me a Coleman folding camp over that sits over a fire or stove, but that was a while ago before buying this property and it seems to have found a new home between then and now.

We do have a two-burner Coleman propane camp stove hooked to a regular propane cylinder. This works great for summer months when the wood stove doesn’t need to be used. When the kitchen is built, there are plans to replace this camp stove with a small, RV-type propane range and oven. When we were in the trailer, this size of over worked very well for us and was sufficient for the small amount of baking I did. I have found, however, that a cast iron skillet with a lid does pretty well for bread. I prefer flat bread which does not require baking. I have a dutch over but never found the interest in using it on the wood stove.

In winter, there is usually a pot of beans or soup on the stove simmering away. In summer, I usually don’t make big soups for it uses a lot of gas. With that said, being conservative with what cooking is done on the propane stove and what is deferred to the wood stove, two men cooking at home for all meals can make a single propane cylinder last about 12 months. We’ll keep a few extra cylinders in storage for a rainy day that will last a small family in this cabin for a few years.

Lessons

  • Get creative when choosing the right crop for the right climate. We select mostly Siberian varieties of kale, cabbage, onion, melon, and squash. Lettuce do well, but kale and cabbage are great. We frequently have freezes and snows all through summer with only August being the “probably safe” month. Not one kale has died or stunted to 20F, or more. Beans and peas have been a struggle with the grasshopers.
  • Get creative at home and on the road. How much fun and what kind of lessons can you teach yourself, your friends, and your children about adaptability and creative thinking than driving up a forest road or wandering around camp, picking dandelions and clover, and making a salad. Teach a man to fish…

 


Food Storage

We don’t do a lot of food preservation on the homestead. I enjoy canning and Brandon does a fair bit of dehydrating, but it isn’t much more than just for hobby.

Canning

I don’t have a pressure canner at this point but I will consider it in the future. I enjoy canning and plan to do more, especially as garden vegetables become prolific enough that excess veggies can be put away. I currently can applesauce and huckleberry jam. If I come across a u-pick blueberry farm, I may do a bit of that.

This last year we stumbled upon an elderberry patch along a canyon highway in Utah. We picked about three gallons and put it all into jam. The stuff is delightful as a desert toping, but is also a great homestead medicine for viral issues. I made a small batch of wine which turned out interesting, but great for a first run. I look forward to making wine and cider in the future.

Dehydrating

Throw it on a rack. For size, I bought a pack of three pizza racks from Walmart and Brandon made a little juniper tray for each to sit on with little nails holding holding them in place. They hang over the wood stove by paracord. For summer drying, we currently have a set of racks made from lumber cut by the Alaskan mill and window screen covering it. These work great to about 2ft-square. Beyond 2ft x 2ft, the middle sags a lot when the whole thing is covered with fruit mash.

We have dried fruit leather from apples, service berry, huckleberry, and chokecherry.

Also, apples are a great drying fruit. Cut into relatively thin slices, these will dry in a few days and can be stored for a very long time. We don’t worry ourselves with citric acid or any other antioxidant to prevent the chips from browning. They don’t get all that brown and it is just a part of nature.

Root Cellar

This is something planned for 2019. As this is built, I will update the section.

Plans include building a lean-to on the side of the container opposite of the house. Then building a half-A-frame structure. The exterior will have earth bermed on it which will come from the material dug out of the way.

The plan is to move all food out of the shipping container and into the root cellar. The shipping container can be a storage space and work shop and the root cellar will have all of the food. The plan is to store buckets of dried food purchased from the store which we don’t grow ourselves, such as beans, lentils, and oats. Also stored will be all of the canning and dried things which will be stored in jars.

Lessons

  • An outside, solar dehydrator should be towards the top of the list. Perhaps even before building the cabin. This will free up space inside for large-bounty forages, keep the inside of the house from getting super humid, and dry better and faster than inside drying. We almost lost a ton of apple leather from mold because there wasn’t enough airflow, so we had to start the wood stove in August to get them dried. It was a miserable, hot, humid few days.
  • Experiment and try out new things. Failure is an opportunity to learn.

 


Access

I love this photo.

Summer

We live 15-miles from the state highway and 45-miles from the interstate. At the end of 13-miles of paved county road, we have 2-miles of gravel county road. Then, a half-mile up a two-track driveway and you’re here.

Summer access is not bad. The ruts get deep during break-up when the top layer is muddy and the bottom layer is frozen. This will make ruts that are axle-deep. Over the course of spring, they will get worn in. We shovel gravel in the deepest sections. If a visitor comes with a car, they can drive to the side of the ruts and figure it out.

We chose for this property to have vehicle access, as opposed to a property without road access. In the contiguous-48 this is the case most of the time, but there are a few off-grid places landlocked by forest land without possibility of laying a drive way.

Because our forest is so ill, we have trees fall across the road frequently. We probably have 10-20 trees per year. Some are small and movable by hand, others require the big saw and the truck. If you live in the mountains, you are your own Road Department. Brandon invested in one big saw several years ago that stays in his truck. I also bought a small saw to keep in the car which can cut small to medium trees. We give ourselves plenty of time to get where we are going in case it takes a few minutes to clear a tree. If this isn’t something you are willing to do, live somewhere without trees or off a main road where others are likely to encounter and clear trees before you or call the fire department.

Winter

The state highway is plowed, decently fast. The paved county road is plowed, not long after. The gravel county road is plowed, eventually. Our driveway is plowed, never.

Brandon once owned a plow, but sold it before buying this property. We have 4×4 rigs and chains for all four tires if needed. The truck has needed chains to make it up the driveway a few times, but the 4Runner has never needed chains to reach the house. The difference, I think, is that the truck is a flat bed and has little weight over the rear tires.

I lived in an apartment in Butte for part of 2016. I moved back to the property (still the camper at this point) around the end of December. I thought these pictures were pretty humorous and I wanted to share them. Sometimes, you have to figure it out on your own. 

Alternative

I am fascinated at fly-in properties and look forward to learning more about such a life in the future.

In the mountains, it is not uncommon to have a ski-in property in winter. If we received much more snow, we might be one of those. One of our friends must snowshoe several miles to his cabin higher in the mountains. Another couple we know in Idaho has one snow machine for the both of them. Whoever has more time skis, the other snow machines as schedules allows for them.

We do not have a snow machine and do not plan to buy one anytime soon. Both Brandon and I have invested in a good set of backcountry Nordic skis and love the sport. Here, it is more than a sport. It is a way of life. Skiing is a legitimate form of transportation. I am excited each winter for the first few inches of snow to fall so I can go out and scrape my skis on the rocks poking through the shallow snow. The experience gets better with more snow…

Our area is also home to lots of critters that love to play in the road. In the day, this is a non-issue. Montana traffic jams are a regular occurance. At night, these beasts can be costly for drivers who are not careful, and sometimes still costly for those who are.

Emergency

Living in rural, remote, or off-grid areas means sometimes help isn’t coming. Wildfires may be just over the hill and you will only know by the smell. There may be only one road that services the area and it is not passable. Are you able to shelter in place if needed? Will you build your house to be fire safe? Have you thinned your land and cut a safety perimeter? We didn’t. And it was a very tense few weeks with all projects on hold to ready the cabin.

In the future, I will build to consider all natural disasters including sheltering-in-place for my family with easy-to-follow instructions.

Brandon bummed up his knee the day after his truck broke down. I owned a Subaru at the time that did not have enough clearance to make it up our driveway. What is your plan B? Plan C? In this case, the day Brandon injured his knee, I pulled him in a sled one-half-mile to where the car was parked where we then drove to Missoula and had it x-ray’d. If he was by himself, he would have been SOL and had a very bad time. For the next several weeks, each time Brandon left home, it meant a half-mile each-way walk in crutches. More than one time he slipped on the ice. 

Emergencies are going to happen. Help might not be coming. We don’t have phone at the cabin and there is no cell service. Internet is not reliable. We are not a rarity in this part of the country. For folks in Alaska or other areas, that form of remoteness is the norm. What is your plan? Every detail does not need to be worked out, but at least having an idea of the resources available and what to do if they aren’t avaialble may be a matter of life and death.

Bridge Build

This was such a cool project it gets its own sub-section.

We had a heavy snow year the winter of ’17-’18. In February, we had an odd warming and cooling cycle that resulted in a heavy rain, lots of snow melt, followed by freezing temps. This cycle occurred several times and caused mayhem over the whole county. The creek was so heavy that spring it washed out the 15″ culvert. To avoid this again in the future and avoiding another ice dam issue, we opted to build a bridge.

To get the creek back where it is supposed to run and off the driveway, we called in a favor from the neighbor. He brought his excavator and dug out the gravel that filled in the void of the culvert.

From our log pile, we pulled two smaller logs that would be the buttresses that the logs spanning the creek would rest on.

We then fell a dying spruce for the main logs that would span the creek. Being still-green-ish and in longer lengths (~18′), these were very heavy. We did not want to drag them so these logs would stay fresh and free of rocks stuck in the bark. Using two rock bars and leverage, we “walked” the logs onto the truck, one at a time.

The logs peeled nicely. We cut notches in the buttress logs to keep the span logs in place, as well as level the height of the three logs.

Brandon used the chainsaw to roughly level the deck surface of the logs. Then, we fired up Grandpa’s 7.5kW generator and drilled as deep as the bit would reach and staked the logs with 1/2″ rebar.

Last year, we fell an old fir that stood on the property. It appears “old growth” by the tightness of the rings. I counted 200-years and there were still more to go. This tree was dead and being consumed by the ants, so we took it down and set it aside for a special project.

We milled this log into 4″ decking for the bridge. It is beautiful wood, and this will be a beautiful bridge.

I trimmed the wane-edge of the boards with the little saw. The 4″ depth was too much for the small circular saw we have. A quick run with the plane to round the wedges and corners and it was almost ready.

A few spots had a little bit of funky wood, so we took care of that with the broad ax.

I know I am not wearing chaps. Please, wear chaps regardless of how quick your cut is. I made a bad decision. Fortunately no issues arose because of it, but it was a bad decision. Save your eyes, save your ears, save your skin.  

The boards are spaced about 5cm (2″) apart. They were drilled, then had six 6″ lag bolts screwed in with wood glue – two lags per span log.

We collected several truck loads of rock from the quarry and built up the ramps on both sides.

(the second lag bolt not installed)

The bridge is up and operational. We laid 1″ pine boards to be the “tread boards” that get torn up and replaced over the years. We will apply a coat of linseed oil when we have a few extra dollars. It should take 1-2 gallons for one, heavy coat.

Lessons

  • Do you want road access? Do you want it year ’round? What is your plan for medical emergencies?
  • Do you have a snow plow? Are there plows in the area you can hire? Can you afford to rent a plow, always?
  • Is a snow machine, snow shoes, or skis a reasonable alternative?
  • How many roads out are available to locals? Are you locked by bridges? Could you ford the creek in a 4×4 if needed? If all else fails, can you shelter-in-place?
  • Will shelter-in-place be your first choice or will you always evacuate? Sometimes, evacuating might not be the right answer. I have heard arguments for sheltering in place in wildfires and will strongly consider building to this standard in the future.

 


Property Boundaries

I’m still gathering my thoughts on this one.

 


Technology

As life becomes more convenient, I feel a growing separation between the actions I choose and the consequences I experience. This distancing from tangible feedback obscures the learning process. Life in rural and remote areas brings with it a certain responsibility to myself and my dependents, and a respect and appreciation for the land and those of history who worked it.

I have strong, ambivalent feelings towards electronics. I enjoy having the internet and online communities. I love having a free and easy platform to share stories, images, and experience. I feel like it has, in many ways, gotten a bit out of hand. I may be an old soul in a young man’s body, but I don’t think that’s the case. I really do think there is something concerning with shifting more things to computers and doing fewer things by hand. Call me a luddite but I think there is a real bond that is breaking between man and Earth. I love this land. I toil in it, I sweat in it, I bleed in it. I touch my land and work my land because I respect my land. I respect my family and my posterity. I want to give them this give of connection to the Earth, to know what a gift life is. Sticking an iPad in front of a kid to stun his brain with sensory overload is sick and those who do it will have hell to pay. Our brains are not built for that kind of stimulation. Pornography has been an excellent case study for this. John Steinbeck paints a vivid picture of what happens when man no longer knows his land.

Telephone

There is no cell service in the valley. In fact, there is little cell coverage in the whole county. We discussed the possibility of bring in a copper-wire landline and I went so far as to call the phone company. This idea was DOA. There is a sliver of forest land between the county road and our private property. This sliver of land requires a Special Use Permit from the Forest disService. When I asked the lady at the local USFS office that issues the permit that would allow a utility company to lay a permanent line through the forest land to our private land, I was told “good luck”. When I asked her to explain and give me some kind of estimate, she said it could take ten-years and at least 10,000$ for the appropriate federal agencies to do an assessment. This strip of forest land possesses the tail-end of our seasonal creek. Because a “creek” might be involved, this land must to be treated as a “wetland”. When the USFS hears tell of a private land owner who wants to molest a precious, dry, weed-patch of a wetland with infrastructure and civilization, all hell breaks loose.

To have a telephone line brought through their land, an assessment would need to be performed to ensure the safety and quality of the so-called wetland habitat to ensure survival of the mythical aquatic species which might reside in such a locale. This process would involve environmental engineers, wildlife biologists, hydrologists, human-impact studies, and special environmental insurance for the government-approved contractors who would be required to lay the line through that 100-foot sandbox. All this on my dime, paid up-front.

Lady Permit also said that if I was to do all of these things, wait this time, and pay for the costs, there was no guarantee that the impact study would result in a favorable conclusion and I would not be able to reclaim any of my costs.

Though it needn’t be said, we do not have a landline. We do not have cell coverage. However, the forest road adjacent to the homestead leads to a butte that sits very tall and has clear line-of-sight to one of the two cell towers in the county. This is where we go if we need to make a phone call. The seclusion we feel in the valley is awe-some. We cannot be disturbed. We must make arrangements and schedule times to call friends or family. When we are home, it is quiet. When we have visitors, nobody is on their phone.

Internet

For a variety of reasons, we decided to bring in internet on year two. For the same reasons as the landline, we could not bring in copper-wire DSL. We could bring in satellite. We have Hughesnet satellite internet and it works pretty well. For daytime hours, the speeds are very slow but usable for email and basic web pages. For watching Youtube (at any resolution) or downloading anything of size, we have to hit the early-bird hours. From 3a-7a, I have hit 40mbps. The rest of the day speeds hover around 100kbps or less.

I have a smartphone that can do wifi-calling. The internet speeds are too slow to hold a voice call without dropping or being garbled and the lag is almost two-seconds. This is no-good for voice calls. But, this works plenty fine to send a text through wifi and schedule times when either Brandon or I are in town to have a regular conversation.

Because our power supply is very limited as you will read about later in this chapter, we don’t have the electricity to keep the internet turned on all the time. The modem is on when we need it for something specific and it is off all other times. We enjoy this seclusion and privacy. There is nothing so important in this world that it cannot wait until morning for us to check our email. If grandma had a heart attack, there is nothing that I can do 700-miles away that will help her. Being out of instantaneous contact has worked fine for the last 100,000-years, it will be just fine for a while longer.

What happened to writing a letter by hand, anyway? Type writers can be picked up cheap at estate sales. Give it a try. Grandma will be tickled pink.

Solar Power

Brandon and I have both lived with minimal access to electricity for many years. While working on a ranch in the Okanogan hills of northern Washington, I had my first off-grid experience in 2012. The ranch owner’s cabin had grid electricity, but the remaining 160 acres was without power. Two Trojan L-16 6VDC batteries charged by a Honda 1000 generator powered a single light bulb in the bunk house. Radio was by battery. No television. No cell phone coverage. It was a great experience for two reasons. First, it helped “zero” me out. I was never into video games or television a whole lot, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have my cell phone with me 24/7 or checked my email and F*c*b**k several times a day. I was 18-years old at this point. I wasn’t on the Twitergram and Instawhat all day, but I definitely felt naked without the fondle-slab. The second lesson from this off-grid ranch-hand experience was a requirement to become familiar with hand tools. There were some power tools on the ranch but it required hauling a noisy 4kW generator on the back of the truck. In winter, transportation was strictly snow machine. I didn’t own skis at this time. Becoming familiar with hand tools results in a young man becoming self-reliant. Feeling the give as an axe splits a piece of kindling – feeling the creak of a seized bolt in the middle of winter – lifting a log onto the pile using only the pile itself as leverage. These things result in a man learning his capabilities. He learns his strengths and he learns his weaknesses. He learns to listen.

Since 2012, the most electricity Brandon or I have had in-house was a single extension cord that we ran through the window of a cabin we rented together for a year in North Idaho. For the first month, we didn’t even do that. We used a gas lantern for light. The option became available for us to run a long extension cord from the Landlady’s house to the cabin. The cost of electricity to run the lights was going to be less than paying for propane, albeit low as it was. We did this and had grid power, but because it was a long extension cord it was limited to just the lights.

In 2014 we bought a 1999 19′ camper and lived in it full-time for three years. We stayed at an RV park over the winter of ’14-’15, but didn’t have much in the way of electrical appliances. After that, we lived in the camper while building on the property. During that time, we used a 100W panel and charged a Señor Cheapo battery that again, only ran the lights until I bought satellite internet access in late 2016. The cheap battery gave up the ghost after the first winter and several deep discharges, so we started looking for a new solution.

We then received a Goal Zero Yeti 400 battery/inverter with two 30w solar panels. This unit was given to us by a relative as an early cabin-warming gift after hearing of our impending perma-power outage. It is a fine unit if you want an easy-to-use, self-contained power supply but you will pay a premium for the convenience and brand name. This worked pretty slick for two years as the primary power source but the 400Wh battery did require a generator in winter at least once a week, sometimes more. With the 60W of power the Goal Zero collects, more solar power would be needed in the future. With the mild amount of interneting we do, keeping the webpage going, and running the actual business side of AAL FIREARMS, keeping the power supply charged to run a laptop, internet router, and lights requires more than we can collect from sun alone. In winter, we have less than 2-hours of direct sun which means we must run the Yamaha 1000W generator about 4-hours a week to supplement on average.

To light the cabin, we have LED desk lamps that draw 2-5 watts each, depending on the setting. One is on my desk, the other is on a kitchen shelf and lights much of the area. There is also a string of LED Christmas lights that consume 4 watts. I have plans to upgrade the lighting to permanent and brighter lights after we have more power.

In 2018, a good friend donated two 125W photovoltaic panels to the cause. With 160W of panels we already had waiting to be put up, we built a wood frame for the panels to sit on. With a total of 410W of solar panels, I justified purchasing one 12V 100Ah AGM battery and a 40A MPPT charge controller. After four months of daily use, we’ve only charged with the generator twice. Both occassions were days of heavy, all-day interneting on cloudy days. I suspect, even around winter soltice this trend will continue and we will find that 400W is enough power for a small cabin.

Amateur Radio

If you do need to get a hold of me, give me a shout on 80m. – KF7NCD

It has been a challenge having radio of any kind in the valley. The hills on either side are so steep and tall that very little radio gets in or out. Even AM/FM is a challenge: only one or two stations that come from the north give us the least bit of advertisement-interrupted music. Even though the high-bands have trouble, 160m-40m does okay on my 204′ dipole. I suspect that a vertical might do better on 40m-10m and plan to purchase one this year or next. I’ll update this section as I experiment.

I first tested for my Technician ticket in December of 2010. I listened to the VHF repeaters outside of Seattle for more than a year before my first-ever QSO. At the time, I had an Icom 2200 2m I was given by uncle Fairbanks. His promise was, “If you get your license, I’ll get you a radio.” That hand-me-down mobile has been great. I still have it.

A quick, but well-needed review: Due to a ‘packaging error’ on my part when I put the 2200 in storage, it sat in a box that had been near a very leaky window. The plastic bag that I poorly wrapped the radio in caught the rain water and was almost filled. The 2200 sat in a full bag of water…for two months. Catching myself on the way to the dumpster, I figured I might as well try the unit just to see the sparks fly before I chuck it. I opened it up and let it dry in the sun for a few days. It turned on. It transmitted (into a dummy load). It appeared to be functioning perfectly! I am afraid to transmit on the air with it, but I am going to keep it and test it sometime – just in case. Maybe this isn’t as much of a miracle as I think it is, but I still find it neat. I am worried about a few drops from my jacket sleeve falling onto the screen of my Kenwood – and here is the Icom still working after soaking for two months.

In 2013 I completed the General exam and Brandon KG7HBU passed the Tech. I currently run barefoot on an Icom 735 (usually around 35w) into a True-Talk 204′ dipole in an inverted-vee pattern (∠135°). An MFJ-941 manual tuner completes the HF system. A 100w PV panel keeps the single 12VDC deep cycle battery topped off, though this is a challenge by itself. The battery is old and weak and the panel doesn’t get much sun in winter.

I have a Yaesu 2900 that I have kept in the house but I am not impressed with it for a variety of reasons. There is a Kenwood 218 in the truck that also isn’t doing too well. It is rated as mil-spec for ruggedness, but I think the dust has taken a toll on the circuity. An Icom V-80 Sport rounds out the amateur equipment showcase. I am not impressed with this unit as a whole, but this is my “Baofeng”. It does perform the job I bought it for. (Maybe I just can’t be impressed with any radio?)

As of May 2016, I am now an Amateur Extra. After reading that damned book cover-to-cover (twice) and help from online study tools, I successfully completely the Amateur Extra test just under the wire for the new question pool.

I am excited for the future of amateur radio on the homestead. Currently, it is not far from a duct tape production. As equipment is upgraded and better systems are installed, I’ll be sure to update this section.

Lessons

  • How important is a cell phone connection? If it is very important, look around. Don’t trust the Verizon coverage maps. Drive to these properties and look for yourself. I am surprised at how many remote properties have decent service when they are only a little bit higher on a hill.
  • Satellite internet is coming along. Supposedly there are plans for 1gbps connections in the next few years from
  • For a few hundred dollars, anyone could be comfortable off-grid.