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A week on the Maine Island Trail: Vinalhaven to Deer Isle

August 30, 2017

This post continues the account of our recent trip from Five Islands to Deer Isle on the Maine Island Trail.  We pick up from the previous post on Hurricane Island, southwest of Vinalhaven, where we spent the night after crossing the western arm of Penobscot Bay. DSCF0375The morning dawned clear and calm, and we broke camp straightaway so as not to miss the tide.  We bid farewell to the island and rowed across the mouth of Hurricane Sound on the last of the ebb, and rounded the lighthouse on Greens Island to open the approaches to Vinalhaven village and Carver’s Harbor.  A breath of wind came up, but there was still a fair amount of rowing involved before we made it to Sheep Island, where both the sea breeze and the flood tide picked up and carried us up the east side of the bay.  DSCF0387

We made a quick pit stop in the lee of Smith Island, then decided that conditions were suitable for the crossing to Isle au Haut, and so set out for the second half of Penobscot Bay.

The front had pushed out the previous day’s southerly haze, so this time we had a crystal clear view all the way across the bay.  As before, Alexis set a course on the chartplotter app so we could keep track of our progress.  The numerous lobster buoys were a bit of a hassle to navigate around, particularly in deep water or popular channels, where two floats are connected by a submerged line of fifty feet or so (presumably so the gear can be recovered if it gets chopped by a passing powerboat). But they were also useful for gauging current, and they provided an important psychological boost when rowing in a calm.DSCF0389DSCF0392DSCF0410By now the flood was at full strength, and the sea breeze was not so strong as the day before, so if it faltered the tide might have carried us right into Stonington (and the psychology would have been a lot different with a strong ebb carrying us out into the Gulf of Maine). But as it happened the wind held, and we reached across the bay at a crab angle to the tide that carried us past Kimball Rock, past the lighthouse, and into Isle au Haut Thoroughfare by mid-afternoon. DSCF0417DSCF0435DSCF0425The wind seemed to strengthen and align with the channel as we sailed into the busy harbor and tied up on the back side of the town float.  DSCF0442DSCF0447

We stretched our legs, got an ice cream and some crackers, and walked a few hundred yards down the road to the Acadia National Park ranger station, where we talked with the ranger on duty about the park and inquired about Duck Harbor campground (booked solid as expected, not to mention upwind against the tide).  So we got back aboard and sailed a very short distance to a lovely MITA campsite with a fine cobble beach and glorious sunset views across the entirety of Penobscot bay – a total of about 16 miles for the day.  DSCF0466

We pulled the boat up the beach above the high-tide mark with on the rollers with the block and tackle, made camp, and enjoyed spectacular sunset views.

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Day seven dawned with a light breeze but a low overcast had set in, with intermittent fog.  We had 3 miles or more of visibility to the south toward Stonington and could see the sun through the mist, so we figured it might burn off, and in any case the islands of Merchant’s Row off Stonington offer numerous campsites.  So we rigged the radar reflector and ran off to the north, amid the lobster boats and the occasional outboard.  DSCF0524DSCF0537DSCF0545We passed west of Merchant Island with a clear view to George Head, but then as we approached George a fogbank rolled in off the bay leaving us with nothing but our compass course and the navigation app.

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Still, the wind was moderate, and the visibility sufficient to make out the lobster boats well away, and soon we could make out Sand Island and the racket of the granite operation on Crotch Island beyond.  At that point the wind faded away, and we took to the oars to make our way past Two Bush Island and into Stonington Harbor and the town dock.  We filled some water bottles, got a snack, and the dogs socialized with others of their kind while we waited for some wind.  DSCF0563DSCF0560The fog lifted, and in time a light southerly sprang up again, so we set off again reaching down the harbor, where we passed a ghostly windjammer in the mist.DSCF0570At this point we had an appointment to make at the end of our trip, so we coasted up the east side of Deer Isle on the tide and what there was of the wind, with the navigation app keeping us clear of ledges and steering us toward our destination in what thickened to become a pea soup fog with mist edging toward drizzle.

For the last mile and a half we had open water, and we set aside the app and steered by dead reckoning, with just the compass and a guestimate of our speed.  We saw our destination loom out of the mist just as I was starting to wonder if we should check the GPS, a dramatic and fitting end to a delightful trip.  We capped the afternoon with a hot shower and a crackling fire in the woodstove to dry off, and the next morning found our way back to civilization. In the end we traveled about 88 (statute) miles over the ground by sail and oars, and our route looked like this:2017 MITA trip map

Given the popularity of both the Appalachian Trail and sea kayaking, I am surprised that the Maine Island Trail doesn’t get more through-trippers.  Membership is reasonable, and the freedom of navigation makes island-hopping more akin to free-form off-trail wandering in the Rockies than the trail-bound hiking and occasional views of backpacking in the east.  Our point-to-point approach left much to explore, including the eastern rivers of the midcoast, upper Muscongus Bay, the Fox Islands Thoroughfare and upper Penobscot Bay, and the east side of Merchant’s Row.  And the trail extends west and east of the section we chose to travel; we both agreed that we would definitely return again to the Maine Island Trail.

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Hearty thanks to everyone who helped make this trip possible, to all the friendly and helpful folks we met along the way, and to the MITA team for enabling this beautiful water trail!

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A week on the Maine Island Trail: Tenant’s Harbor to Vinalhaven

August 30, 2017

This post continues an account of our week on the Maine Island Trail.  The previous post left the story at the end of day 3, when we had sailed into Tenant’s Harbor for a ‘rest night’ after rowing from near Allen Island south of Port Clyde.

We had come far enough to appreciate the inn for its hot showers and soft bed, the front passed in the night, and the morning broke misty with a light easterly wind.  We had a nice breakfast on the porch, then packed up and beat out of the harbor against the wind.

DSCF0136DSCF0143DSCF0151The wind died (a bit more rowing) but the sun burned through the mist, and a light southerly came up which carried us through the narrow slot between Rackliff and Norton islands, a neat little passage of the sort that a small boat can breeze through but a yacht wouldn’t risk.  We got permission to tie up briefly at the Sprucehead lobster co-op, a hopping spot, where we gave the dogs a break and met briefly with a friend of a friend who lives and sails out of Sprucehead island, and he shared his advice about the crossing to Vinalhaven.  DSCF0175DSCF0176The sea breeze out on the bay had picked up to 10 or 12 knots at this point, so we got back on the water and set out across Muscle Ridge Channel for an island that would put us in good shape for the crossing.  DSCF0177DSCF0181DSCF0183

We got a good view of the Camden Hills up the channel to port. The wind carried us across the channel but seemed to be faltering, so we weren’t tempted to set out across the west arm of Penobscot Bay at the late hour.  As we approached the island we passed a ledge with a number of seals sunning themselves; I don’t know seal varieties that well and we didn’t get close enough to take good pictures.DSCF0187DSCF0191We put ashore at a nice half-tide beach, making camp on a beautiful granite ledge so as not to disturb an osprey nest on the northern end, and set the haul-off for the night – a total of about nine miles for the day. DSCF0198DSCF0215DSCF0227At the dawn of Day Five we found that for the first time the southerly seemed to survive through the night, if abated, so we got a relatively early start. DSCF0239We rigged a radar reflector between the forestay and starboard shroud, and carefully threaded our way among the ledges and islands forming the east side of Muscle Ridge Channel.  DSCF0245DSCF0255DSCF0256The wind strengthened and turned comfortingly southwesterly as we headed out into the bay.  We could make out the vague form of Vinalhaven and the three large wind turbines that provide much of the island’s power, but there was enough haze that we couldn’t actually see our destination, Hurricane Island, a high wooded granite form that guards the southwest corner of Vinalhaven.  To this point we’d been navigating by eye using waterproof paper charts, but as we faced the seven-mile open water crossing, for the first time we turned to the free app and fifteen-dollar vector chart I’d loaded on my phone. Alexis used the app to set a coarse past Crescent Island and across the western arm of Penobscot Bay to the northern end of Hurricane Island.

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With a good breeze, the flood tide running hard, and a couple feet of gentle ocean swell, we were happy to have the app to correct our compass course, and soon we were mid-bay, where we could make out the high island and the passage to the north.  DSCF0273There wasn’t much boat traffic for the crossing, but as we came closer, a nice looking yawl motored out into the bay.DSCF0272Once we passed between White and Hurricane islands, the wind went flukey off the high island, the tide was hard against us, and there were ledges to dodge, so it took us several short boards to make the float, where we tied up on the back side and went ashore for lunch.DSCF0276

While most islands on the trail are quasi-wilderness, Hurricane is a veritable city by comparison.  In the late 1800s it hosted a massive granite quarry with a town of up to a thousand people, which dried up in the early 1900s, leaving the island deserted.  More recently it was the sea base of the eponymous Outward Bound school, with a mess hall, workshops, staff barracks, cabin tent encampments, and more.  Some years ago HIOBS abandoned the island, but fortunately a new organization, Hurricane Island Center for Science and Leadership was formed to revitalize the island and use it for a variety of outdoor programs, and a dozen or more staff members now make it their home for the summer.  The team generously allowed us to fill our water jugs, and we spoke at some length with Sam Hallowell, the on-island Director of Operations, who described the work the new organization has done to stabilize and rebuild the infrastructure and launch new programs that take advantage of the beautiful setting to inspire students, teachers, architects, and the like.

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After lunch we took a leisurely walk among the outsize relics of the former quarrying operation, including massive grout piles, stone foundations, cemeteries, and a giant rusting steam engine. We walked through the remains of the quarry and up to an amazing overlook that commands a panoramic view of the surrounding islands and the open Atlantic.DSCF0285DSCF0288DSCF0292DSCF0294We had planned to keep on sailing, either out around the exposed southern end of Vinalhaven, or up Hurricane sound and through Fox Islands Thoroughfare to other Island Trail islands on the east side of the island. But Hurricane was a truly delightful place to visit with much to explore, and as we were studying the charts a small, rainless front blew through, quashed the seabreeze, and replaced it with an indifferent northerly. With the ebb we faced a long beat against the tide to get into the Thoroughfare, where the wind would likely be even lighter, and we didn’t want to risk the outer route at the late hour and with the outgoing tide. And with the spectacularly interesting and beautiful setting, it wasn’t a hard decision to stay the night on Hurricane.  So we took a leisurely walk around the north end of the island and back to the quarry overlook, where we watched as several yachts sailed into the harbor and took up guest moorings. DSCF0298DSCF0311DSCF0324DSCF0341DSCF0352The island seems to get a pretty good traffic of cruisers and day visitors from nearby islands, but fewer MITA through-trippers; Sam said that someone comes through about once a week doing a through-voyage along the trail, and this was consistent with the information in the tupperware trail registers that were provided at some of the islands.DSCF0359The MITA tent platforms are out of the way of the rest of the island activities, and we set the hauloff in a cove between the rocky shore and an old stone pier and made camp. DSCF0363DSCF0368

To be continued…

 

 

A week on the Maine Island Trail: Five Islands to Tenant’s Harbor

August 30, 2017

DSCF0008This post continues the report about our week on the Maine Island Trail.  The first post describes our the idea for the trip, gear, and planning. Subsequent posts will describe the middle and end of the journey.

On the first day of our trip, we launched mid-morning near Five Islands to a light southerly wind, and the photo above shows the view back into our home harbor. The breeze freshened as we got out into the Sheepscot.  Rather than beat out around the Cuckolds lighthouse against wind and tide, we decided to take the inside passage to Boothbay.  Here we are crossing the Sheepscot and entering the passage to Townsend Gut. The dogs took a while to settle down, but soon they were sleeping on either side of the daggerboard trunk.DSCF0012We arrived at the Southport bridge just in time for the 12:30 opening.  DSCF0017The wind was still pretty much southerly, and we made the end of Linekin Neck in a single tack, then bore off for Pemaquid Light.  DSCF0020

The short crossing to Pemaquid Point:DSCF0023

DSCF0026Pemaquid Point is reputed to be rough, but neither the wind nor the seas were excessive, the weather was clear, and we cleared the headland without incident, waving to lighthouse visitors on the shore.  DSCF0028

Looking to stretch our legs we poked into New Harbor, where we got permission to tie up at a commercial dock, and went ashore to exercise the dogs and get some chips and soda to complement our backpacker-style rations.  On toward late afternoon we sailed out of the harbor and a couple miles up Muscongus Bay to a beautiful island on the trail – about 20 (statute) miles on the water for the day.

DSCF0040Still being pretty far out in the bay, there was some surge even on the sheltered side of the island, and the landing was a ‘bar’ of dog-sized granite boulders covered with rockweed, so getting our gear and critters ashore was a bit of a challenge.  We then set the haul-off and pulled the boat out into the cove for the night.  At this point we were quite tired, but there was a nice campsite with great views and a couple of large tent platforms (even a rotting picnic table!), so we had a fine time.

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The morning of day 2 dawned clear and calm, and unfortunately it stayed calm right through noon, when we rigged the boat at the first sign of a breeze and headed east.

DSCF0046DSCF0055All afternoon we ghosted across Muscongus Bay past lovely islands, with rarely enough wind to heel the boat perceptibly.  On towards evening I rowed the last mile or so to our destination, a total of scarcely more than seven miles for the day.  But we had a sand beach landing, a beautiful shell beach campsite, and wonderful views of the surrounding islands.

DSCF0069DSCF0078DSCF0079DSCF0098Day three dawned sunny and the wind remained light. DSCF0113DSCF0126DSCF0128

So we rowed most of the way to Port Clyde, and put in at the general store, where we filled our water jugs at the gas dock and ordered a couple of nice omelettes from the counter to eat on a picnic table at the wharf while we waited for wind.  In general the Maine coast wharfside restaurant paradigm proved pretty dog-friendly over the course of the trip, and here as on several occasions we were one of many tables with dogs leashed to the legs of the table.  A light southerly sprung up, and we tacked out of the harbor in good spirits.DSCF0131

The wind died just as we rounded the lighthouse, and it was back to rowing.  A light southerly reappeared as we approached Mosquito Island, and carried as far as Mosquito Head before dying again, and it was back to the oars.  By now the day was getting on, and we were far from the next island on the trail.  We could probably have asked permission to camp on an off-trail island, but with evening coming on and rain in the forecast, we took the easy, luxurious route, got on the cell phone, and found a room for the night in Tenant’s Harbor.  We tied up at the town dock (a total of about 11 miles for the day, mostly under oars), schlepped our drybags to the inn, and got dinner at a wharfside restaurant, where we met some old friends from New Jersey who were finishing up their own (land-based) Maine vacation.

To be continued…

 

A week on the Maine Island Trail: Concept and Preparation

August 30, 2017

DSCF0244One of the challenges of trying to live as if CO2 emissions matter is that it’s tough to go on vacation.  A cross-continent flight or a long-distance road trip can quickly undo the gains carefully accrued over months of bicycle commuting and solar-powered living.  Fortunately, here on the coast of Maine we live in a top-notch summer holiday destination, and fantastic renewable-powered recreation is near at hand.  We tried this out for a week earlier this August, and had a great time. Besides the beautiful scenery and occasional relaxation, the trip provided a great opportunity to think about the coastal ecology and economy of the place where I grew up, with its uneasy — but symbiotic and picturesque — coexistence of the recreational and fishing economies that give the folks at the Island Institute so much to write about and photograph:DSCF0139

Naturally, climate change was not the only factor in deciding to do the trip.  It had been a while since we’d done any real backcountry, and our two dogs are getting too old for serious hiking.  We’ve enjoyed kayaking and sailing a small dinghy around Casco Bay and Five Islands, and for years I’ve wanted to do a more serious trip on the Maine Island Trail, a loosely-defined 375-mile coastal route from New Hampshire to Canada, enabled by over 200 small islands sprinkled along the route where travelers with a membership can land and camp overnight.  Membership cost is very reasonable, and it includes a useful paper guidebook with precise info about each island, including where on the perimeter of each island provides the best landing and tenting.  We managed to keep the paper guidebook dry (at least until the drive home), but all of the same info is also available in an iphone app, built locally by the good folks at Chimani. Here is Alexis taking advantage of a calm stretch to pick our next camping spot in the guidebook:

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We were fortunate to have access to a suitable vessel for the trip – a Trinka 12′ dinghy.  Most people who travel the trail use kayaks, but we like to sail and wanted to be able to bring the dogs, so the dinghy worked out well.  The Trinka is a beamy, plumb-stemmed, high-sided fiberglass tender with a self-bailing hull, and a single large sail on a stayed aluminum mast.  There’s not much information available online about these boats and I don’t get the sense they’re very common, but the design is by the same guy who designed the Laser racing dinghy (there are also 8′ and 10′ Trinkas by different designers; the commonality seems to be the builder, Johannsen in Florida).  There are some photos available online to give a sense of the boat.  With an LWL of about 12′, hull speed should be about 4.5 knots, but it’s a planing hull, and in a strong wind we saw 5.5-6 knots on a reach (surely it goes even faster when not loaded with camping gear, dogs, and water).

Initially the dogs were a bit put out by the uneven footing and constant motion, but they soon settled in:DSCF0173DSCF0174DSCF0041

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As to the particular boat we used (sail number 18, if that means anything), around 20 years ago my dad bought it from an elderly neighbor who found it too tippy for his own use. We used it a lot when I was a kid, especially since it was a lot drier and warmer to sail than the lower, sportier singlehanded dinghies like the Laser.  Then it spent 15 years or more up on blocks, until we cleaned it up this spring for Fern’s birthday party on Beal Island (which is incidentally also on the Island Trail, though it is owned by and accessible through the Appalachian Mountain Club).

Later in the summer we did an overnight test trip, sailing out of the Little Sheepscot river, stopping for lunch near the mouth of the Kennebec, and then making a trial crossing of six miles or so to Damariscove harbor before running back up the Sheepscot and camping on Powderhorn Island.  That trip went well, so we began preparation for a more serious journey.

A boat this size isn’t big enough to live and sleep on comfortably (thus the island part of the Island Trail), so one major question dealt with how to put up the boat for the night. While it’s light enough for two people to move around a bit, it’s too heavy to carry, so we contrived a couple of methods of dealing with the 10-12′ tides of the Maine coast.  For the typical rocky shores, we carried a ‘haul-off’, consisting in this case of an 8lb Danforth-type anchor with 70′ or so of rode, and about 350′ of light synthetic potwarp arranged in circulating loop passing through a ring on the end of the anchor rode.  With this setup we could set the anchor offshore, trail the haul-off rope to land, put our cargo ashore, then attach the boat to the circulating loop of rope and pull it out beyond the low-tide line, where it would ride comfortably overnight through the tide cycle.  In the morning we could pull on the other end of the rope to bring the boat in to shore.  The 350′ line (which of course gives half that much reach when doubled) was a comfortable minimum, requiring us to carefully select our location and dodge ledges, given that much of the coast of Maine looks like this:DSCF0218Here are a couple of photos of the haul-off in action:DSCF0234DSCF0098To keep the doubled rope from twisting or fouling, the junction between the single anchor rode and the doubled haul-off line is typically made to float, and is given enough width to prevent it flipping over in the water from the inevitable twisting tendency of the rope.  I made the connection with a stout piece of clear-grain oak with a galvanized steel ring bolted to it; to accomplish the antirotation I lashed a red PFD cushion to the oak bar, which can be seen in the photos above.  In doing it again I would definitely incorporate a dedicated float, as the lashing and unlashing was annoying and took valuable time.  In general we spent a lot of time fiddling with knots to secure our gear; on a subsequent trip I’d find some kind of small, corrosion-resistant locking carabiners and incorporate more fastex clips and other time-saving tools, which would be especially valuable in trying to make a fast departure in squally conditions (which fortunately we didn’t have to do).  This photo shows me in the distance at far left fiddling with the haul-off, trying to get the anchor set among submerged ledges and ghostly abandoned lobster traps near Allen Island:DSCF0088

For landing on the rare and wonderful gradual sandy beaches, we brought two hard foam rollers 6″ in diameter, of the sort that athletes use to massage their backs, which worked well for maneuvering the boat up and down a smooth beach surface.  I am told that inflatable dock bumpers work well for this also.  We also had some pulleys that would allow us to turn the haul-off rope into a 3-fall tackle to help pull the boat up a steeper slope. Here are some photos of the beach rollers in action:

DSCF0584DSCF0470DSCF0471We ended up using both the haul-off and the beach rollers multiple times, and both worked well. The rollers performed nicely on surface roughness up to apple-sized rocks; for rougher surfaces we switched to the haul-off.   One time we were able to find some driftwood planks that did a nice job of enabling the rollers to work on a slightly rougher beach; as the coast of Maine is famously rocky I’m happy to have made the trip without damaging the fiberglass. If the weather had been rougher, we would have naturally been driven further inshore, up the rivers and bays to flatter water and muddier, gentler landings, but as it was the winds were on the light side and we kept to the outer islands for the most part.

If I were contemplating more serious or extended expeditioning, one modification to the boat that I would consider would be to cut some high-quality access ports into the double hull, both to check on the condition of the internal flotation foam and to make use of the substantial volume under the seats for gear and water storage – possibly even to the extent of fitting an internal water tank.   As best I could tell, the 2+2 of us consumed about three gallons a day on average, without trying too hard to conserve.  We carried fresh water in two 2.5 gallon plastic jugs lashed in the stern, as well as five 1qt nalgene bottles for daily use, and we picked up an extra 3-liter Poland Spring jug in Port Clyde. We also brought three types of water purifiers (pump, iodine, and a newfangled UV disinfector), and didn’t use any of them, though if we’d been trapped on an outlying island by several days of stormy weather we might have been glad to have at least one of them to purify rainwater.  One piece of gear I would add would be a couple of large collapsible water bags, the weight would be nothing and they would add flexibility and psychological margin, though in reality there was fresh water all over the populated parts of the coast.

DSCF0079Continuing on the theme of gear, we also acquired several dry bags (90L, 65L, 2@20L, two for cell phones) and other maritime sundries including a handheld VHF, a plastic foghorn, a collapsible radar reflector, a small compass that we fitted to the boat, and a waterproof camera that we didn’t take the time to experiment with beforehand (this explains the datecode on the photos).

We also bought a small folding solar panel for recharging phones, headlamps etc.  This seemed kind of awkward, but it actually worked pretty well and wasn’t too much of a hassle.  The phones didn’t get coverage for much of the trip, and we only used the GPS navigation app a few times, so we didn’t need much juice.  The test would be an extended period of cloudy/foggy weather, which would mean more using and less charging.  A surprising amount of gear has gone over to lithium and micro-USB, which I guess is a welcome change compared to hauling lots of AA and AAA batteries:DSCF0120Other than that, our equipment was the usual camping gear – tent, sleeping bags and mats, white gas stove and pots, etc.  While in theory we could have upgraded our meals with bulkier or heavier items, or fresh food in a cooler, we were short on drybag space and wanted to keep things simple, so we kept to our usual backpacking meal planning.DSCF0117

We decided that our launching point would be Five Islands, and that we would go ‘Downeast’, following the prevailing winds to our destination, a friend’s cottage on an island east of Deer Isle.  The following posts will describe the trip piece-by-piece.

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Another reason we need wind, solar, electric vehicles, and heat pumps

June 15, 2014

A semi hauling diesel and kerosene tipped over in a rotary less than a mile upriver from us on Wednesday.  The image below is from the Portland Press Herald:

gorham stroudwater fuel truck crash

The article said that 6000 gallons were recovered and “Emergency crews were able to prevent the spill from entering the Stroudwater River”.  However the crash was only 1/2 mile north of the river, and  it rained heavily on Friday.  By Saturday morning the river smelled strongly of petroleum.

Modern life requires energy to power our transportation and heat our homes, but we can (and must) do better than dirty, unsustainable, de-stabilizing liquid fossil fuels.  We need to accelerate the development of efficient technology that uses less energy to get things done, and cost-effective renewable sources to meet the remaining demand.

 

19th century clean energy technology in Maine

November 10, 2013

As some readers know, we are fortunate to inhabit a beautiful spot on a small river in southern Maine, which was long ago the site of a water-powered mill.  One of the enigmatic relics of the ruined works was a 3″ diameter steel shaft sticking out of the muck in the riverbed, with a Lovejoy coupling on the upper end the size of a dinner plate.  Soon after we arrived, we made a preliminary effort to unbury it one spring afternoon, but if I remember it was hot and buggy, and we ran out of steam after digging down and finding the runner pinned under some chunks of broken metal.

runner in hole

18 months intervened, and I had basically given up the thought of finishing the job before winter, but Saturday dawned pleasant for working, so I took some buckets, a shovel, and a digging bar down to the site and was soon hip-deep in a mucky hole.  By a combination of bailing, digging, and pitching out rocks, I was soon able to get back to where we had previously stopped, and was able to rock the runner. With a bit more excavation I could see what I was up against – about half the circumference was trapped under a semi-circular cast iron ring, which had clearly been some sort of inflow nozzle that directed the flow downward onto the axial-flow runner.  The cast iron parts were not going to move, since they were bolted down to some structure buried even deeper in the mud, but I was pretty sure if I could pull the one main chunk off (to the right in the photo above), I could lift the runner clear.

At this point I was pretty confident of victory, so I texted Tony and invited him to join the fun.  Together we toted our light oxy-acetylene cutting rig down into the riverbed, and without too much effort we were able to burn off 3 nuts (or bolt heads; hard to tell with that much rust):

torching off nutsfire in the hole

The old metal was wet and covered with mud, so the cutting was pretty mangy, but I got them burned off and then knocked the slag away with the digging bar.  I lifted off the iron chunk, and then we had a pretty good view of the runner.  it appeared to be about 3′ in diameter, with 10 graceful sweeping vanes.

The runner was free, but it was way too heavy to lift.  However, we were fortunate to have two good-sized forked trees in line with it on either side; an ash on the manmade island between the main watercourse and the ruined spillway, and a pine on the high ground,directly beyond a steep  cliff that rose about 15′ above the riverbed.  We rigged a chain in the ash, a snatch block on the runner, and a second snatch block in the pine, and used our trusty orange worm-drive hand winch to take up the strain, with the red Ford as an anchor.  Once we levered it clear of the remaining bits of metal in the hole, it rose smartly thanks to Tony’s efforts on the winch:

starting to rise

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We were about out of winch by the time the runner was clear of the hole, so I guided it over onto the riverbed and Tony set it down.  We lowered the attachment sling to just above the balance point, re-rigged to pull directly with the truck, and tied on a rope-a-long that was hitched to the south shore.  Then with the truck we quickly raised it until it was even with the cliff edge above:

runner suspended

We then winched it south with the rope-a-long while gently lowering it with the truck, to arrive at its new resting place on high ground:

closeup of runner up top

All in all a fun project, and a neat piece of Maine renewable energy history – I’m curious now to learn more about the mill that was at this site, and more generally about this type of small water mill.  My first impression is that this runner seems much bigger than appropriate for the flow of the river (which can be judged from the photo above, which shows the outlet of the millpond, roughly at the location of the ruined dam) – at least during typical summer and early fall flows.  Of course there are times in November and early spring when the entire valley fills with a raging torrent (see canoeing pictures from earlier this year) but I wouldn’t think you would build a larger-than-needed mill just to run on those few days or weeks of the year.  Maybe the process (sawing wood or what-have-you) had a relatively low duty cycle, and they’d let the millpond fill up between cuts, then open the floodgates to get more power when they needed it.

Jari Mower RIP

June 16, 2013

jari on fire

I am sad to report that the Jari mower bit the dust this weekend.  I purchased it about two years ago from a guy upcountry, and put several hours into getting it running well.  I sorted out most of the issues, including the frozen-up cutter bar and rotted gas tank, but the replacement tank never quite fit right – there was a slight intermittent gas leak between the top of the tank and the carb, and I never could figure out why.  However, on Saturday it finally caught up with me.  The mower ran out of gas so I shut it off, filled the tank, and as soon as I cranked it up a small flame started on the surface of the carburetor. I tried to bat it out with a mat of fresh-cut green grass, and it almost worked, but the flames persisted.  I ran over to the neighbor’s and grabbed two fire extinguishers, and exhausted them on it, but by that time the metal was hot enough that it re-ignited after the powder stopped flowing.

I didn’t think it would explode, since the gas seemed to be escaping from the tank – at first through the leak, and subsequently through the zinc carburetor, which melted into a puddle on the ground.  Still, I ran down the hill for some hoses, to tap the neighbor’s water.  At peak the flames reached 6-8 feet high, but by the time we had the hoses up there the gas had burned itself out, and the fire was reduced to burning the rubber tire, belts, and the thermoformed plastic fairing on the front.  Ben Wilkins tossed a couple of pails of water on the smoldering heap and the excitement was over.

Once it cooled off, Bodhi and Kieran rolled the machine down the hill and I took stock of the damage.  The engine was pretty well baked (as I mentioned the carb had completely melted), the left tire and shroud were shot, and the belts were burned down to the fiber cores.  But the frame was intact, and even most of the paint was still in good shape – I tipped the machine over on its side when it caught fire so the tank was up, and there wasn’t much to burn up forward.  One of the idler pulleys looks pretty baked, so it would probably need to be replaced.  Joshua and I toyed with the idea of doing an electric retrofit, since sickle mowers don’t use a lot of power compared to rotary machines, and using two separate motors would significantly simplify the mechanicals.  Unfortunately, I haven’t got time to do a major rebuild (or an electric conversion), so today I bought another used sickle mower (Troy-Bilt make) from a nice retired couple in Cornish – I’ll tune it up next weekend and see how I like it.

On Manipulation: a skeptical stance is appropriate in a world formed by evolution

April 13, 2013

If I am climbing a remote snow-filled couloir deep in the mountains, and a rock breaks loose from the cliff above me, it is reasonable for me to believe that the flying piece of stone is indifferent to my presence as it bounces down the slope – it might brain me by pure chance, but it gains nothing by doing so.  I can look at the distribution of similar rocks arrayed on the gentler slope below and verify this randomness.  But the case is potentially very different for the teeming horde of microorganisms, invertebrates, and buzzards that would take great pleasure in eating my remains.  And if I drink straight from the stream below and ingest Giardia lamblia organisms, it is probably not a coincidence that the resulting frequent bathroom breaks will increase the probability that I make a deposit near open water.

giardia

There is a fungus in South America that reproduces by infecting an ant and commandeering it’s nervous system, causing it to perform odd behaviors that are not in the normal ant repertoire, but happen to be especially conducive to the propagation of fungal spores.  This sort of relationship has been discovered all over the place – I remember reading about another critter (maybe a fluke) that causes a different species of ant to depart from its customary routine and hang out on the tips of blades of grass, where the ant is likely to be eaten by the sheep whose gut is needed to complete the life cycle of the fluke. These phenomena illustrate the incredible power of evolution – that the chance appearance by mutation of an incidental cause in one species with a marginal effect on another species can be amplified and honed over thousands of generations into the appearance of an ingenious stunt. 

In the time since Darwin laid the keel of biology, we have come to understand that the living world is full of replicators that have survived from ancient times to the present by possessing heritable traits that made them slightly better than anyone else around at levering themselves into the next generation.   There are a lot of strategies for doing the levering, and one particularly effective one is manipulation – why do the hard work of slithering up a blade of grass, when it might be easier to grab the controls of the body of an ant and make it do the work for you?  And this is at least as true of our fellow humans as it is of viruses, fungi, and ants.  One theory of why humans are so darn smart is that we evolved high levels of intelligence not to outsmart other species, but to out-manipulate one another – a sort of evolutionary arms race in the direction of cleverness.

An understanding of the evolutionary benefits of manipulation should lead us to a healthy skepticism, especially about the motives of unfamiliar agents.  I was thinking about this after a recent discussion of belief, skepticism, and the scientific method, and I realized that the relationship between skepticism and evolution is stronger than I had previously understood.  Skepticism is associated with evolution because the discovery of evolution by natural selection is one of the great achievements of the scientific project, and evolution is a major flashpoint in the ongoing turf battle between reason and received tradition.  But more fundamentally, a worldview informed by skepticism is a logical conclusion that flows from an understanding of humans as an evolved species.

As much as the nature-documentary view of evolution involves carnivores running down and chomping herbivores, a lot of the evolutionary action has got to be intra-species, and in social animals there’s a tension between manipulation, aggression, and dominance on one side and cooperation for mutual benefit on the other.  If manipulation were the whole story, we never would have managed to work together enough to build this amazing computer I’m typing on. Theory shows how  pro-social behavior can emerge under suitable conditions, and how it can out-compete ruthlessness.  Altruism towards family members is easy to understand, but under the right conditions it can extend further – particularly where living arrangements allow for repeated interaction, and the critters in question (e.g. us) have sufficient intelligence and memory to sort out and recognize the reliable characters from the shifty ones. But these conditions are fragile and limited in scope, and powerful motivations for betrayal are never far beneath the surface.   Accordingly, manipulation, loyalty, and betrayal are constant preoccupations among people everywhere, and a perennial staple of fiction.

The principles of evolution offer some guidance about when to suspect manipulation most – especially single-shot interactions (for instance buying a used car far from home) and anonymous settings (e.g. emails from ‘friends’ in Nigeria).  But far beyond outright fraud, on average a random person who is trying to make you believe something is far more likely to be doing it for their benefit than for yours. The most obvious example is advertising: the product might be good and it might be shoddy, but the person producing the ad copy probably may not even know – their bonus (and their continued employment) hangs on their ability to get you to open your wallet.

Understanding the incentives that are motivating the people (and other organisms) we interact with is a powerful tool.  If your doctor receives 30% of his income in the form of clandestine ‘gifts’ from drug manufacturers, it is reasonable to expect that this will have an impact on his prescribing behavior – whether he admits it to himself or not, you are unlikely to be the beneficiary of that influence.  But a flight to ‘alternative’ or ‘holistic’ practice is no refuge – indeed the skeptical worldview is frequently under attack by people who would love to convince potential customers that the scientific establishment are fascist storm troopers, so they can sell more herbs or crystals or whatever type of dubious product they have on offer.

Others are skeptical of skepticism for reasons of iconoclasm – ‘it comports with my self-image as an edgy person to claim that all ways of knowing are equally valid’ – or simply aesthetics and wish-fulfillment: ‘true or not, I am happier believing that powerful forces want me to be beautiful and successful.’ (There may even be a strange evolutionary logic to illogic – if I truly believe that warpaint protects me from arrows, I will surely act with more courage, and in a world of less deadly weapons, the added benefit of banishing fear could conceivably more than compensate for the cost of miscalculations about the effects of pigment on projectiles.) Still others condemn the skeptical stance as heartless and austere; that – even if  true – it is too thin and hard a pillow for the average mortal to rest their head on at night, and that ordinary people would be better off believing in comforting fictions.  But this is condescending. People can handle unvarnished reality, and they make better decisions when they understand it.

Evolutionary insight brings the realization that the world is jam-packed with finely-tuned organisms that in no way have your best interests in mind – ranging all the way from viruses to used car salesmen.  This understanding is very different (and potentially a lot less attractive) than conceptions of a stern but loving God – or a fluffy New Age optimism that the universe cares about you and everything happens for a reason – but it has the virtue of being true.The skeptical view is consistent with our best understanding of how the universe works, and it is of a piece with hard-won, durable, practical knowledge of how matter, energy, and living organisms interact. This same body of knowledge amplified our power (and our environmental impact, alas) a hundredfold by harnessing thermodynamics, cured deadly diseases through detailed knowledge and intricate manipulations of  invisible biological machinery, built us microscopes and telescopes that allow us to visualize the stuff of the universe across 20 orders of magnitude, and landed a few lucky dudes temporarily on the moon. And it says that the universe doesn’t care about you, no matter how much you wish it did, and furthermore that many of its living pieces would much rather use you for their own purposes than do you a favor.

Open Source Ecology

September 29, 2012

A day or two ago I heard a piece on NPR about a guy named Marcin Jakubowski who is on a mission to design and build the Global Village Construction Set, “a modular, DIY, low-cost, high-performance platform that allows for the easy fabrication of the 50 different Industrial Machines that it takes to build a small, sustainable civilization with modern comforts.”   As described in a short TED talk, Jakubowski explains that he was a theoretical physics student, started farming when he felt that he lacked practical skills, and had bad experiences with old farm equipment that motivated him to design simple, practical open-source tools. This evening I checked out the website of his organization, opensourceecology.org,  which has a work-in-progress wiki-based compendium of concepts, specifications, designs, fabrication videos, and test images.  The group is big on modularity, hydraulics, and structural steel, and they’ve done a pretty impressive amount of development on a few of their concepts, including a skid-steer tractor and an automated press for making rammed-earth blocks. They are based at Factor e Farm in Missouri, which reminds me a lot of stuff I’ve read about the New Alchemy Institute.

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Pika Energy: Home wind and solar power

April 17, 2012

Posting has been light and progress limited, but there’s a good reason: my colleagues and I have launched a startup, Pika Energy, to develop affordable, high-performance home wind power systems. When I was a kid growing up in Five Islands, we lived off the grid, since the power company hadn’t yet brought lines out the North End Road, so naturally I was fascinated by electricity. On a cross-country trip to California I saw tons of water-pumping windmills, and when I got home I started experimenting with wind turbines to make DC power. Here are some pictures of a turbine I built and mounted on the roof of our barn:

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