Archive for the ‘weather’ Category

on the Texas energy catastrophe

February 21, 2021

Like most people I’ve watched the Texas power grid collapse and the resulting cascade of failures with dismay, though perhaps with less shock than is typical. The modern way of life is utterly dependent on copious and freely-flowing energy (85% of it from fossil fuels), and ordinary people take that for granted to a degree that is maddening from the perspective of an energy engineer.

This morning the New York Times has an article about people in Texas who didn’t lose their power, but are facing 5-figure monthly electric bills because of the specifics of the rate plans they signed up for in the de-regulated market. Apparently among the over 200 competitive plans in the state, some have the schtick ‘wholesale plus $10/mo’; when wholesale rates railed out at $9/kWh, those plans duly passed the cost on to the homeowners. (The average home uses about 30kWh per day; surely big Texas homes in a cold snap use much more.)

Besides falsely blaming renewables for the state’s failures, the governor is now promising to protect Texans from that market functioning as intended – from the same article:

“We have a responsibility to protect Texans from spikes in their energy bills that are a result of the severe winter weather and power outages,” Mr. Abbott, who has been reeling after the state’s infrastructure failure, said in a statement after the meeting. He added that Democrats and Republicans would work together to make sure people “do not get stuck with skyrocketing energy bills.”

I believe it was Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute who said something to the effect that “Markets are designed to be Efficient, not Sufficient,” and this is a great example of that. The provision of affordable, reliable, non-planet-destroying energy to over 300M Americans and nearly 8B humans is not primarily an economic project, it is primarily a technological project. Economic systems are technology, markets are an extremely powerful tool to lubricate the inner workings of that project, and financial tools could be an engine of transformation (e.g. a global carbon tax), but by themselves they don’t magically solve much of anything.

The power grid is practically the textbook example of a natural monopoly, at least for transmission and distribution, and the trouble in Texas obviously started with a lot of equipment (mostly around natural gas) shutting down in conditions it wasn’t designed to run in. The modern electric grid operates essentially ‘just in time’ without significant energy storage at any step or scale. Most homes don’t have backup systems and aren’t very well insulated; pipes burst below freezing and homes flood, and from there things go to hell pretty quickly.

The wildest thing about this story is that $9 per kWh is still a bargain in human energetic terms. As I wrote in Energy Enlightenment and the better angels of our exotherm, an average human at hard labor (say pedaling to power an apple cider mill) can only produce about 1kWh per day. A human diet of 2000 dietary calories per day is only 2.3kWh, and this puts a hard ceiling on what a person eating that much could deliver on an ongoing basis. The amount of energy that typical Americans take utterly for granted is a ginormous thundering torrent in absolute human terms. If more people realized this, they might refocus some of their pandemic home improvement efforts on superinsulation, backup systems, self-generation (i.e. rooftop PV), and modest onsite energy storage – likely some combination of firewood, propane, and lithium.

Reflections on a summer of serious gardening

November 15, 2020

Ever since landing in Arizona I’ve gardened where I could, but this summer the stars aligned, and I applied myself to it more seriously. While I’ve complained about the limitations of backyard gardening as a response to hard times, the underlying instinct is surely sound, and obviously I feel it myself. In redoubling my efforts, my goals were to:

Broadly speaking it was a great year. Below are some notes and thoughts on what I learned, organized by vegetable crop; I hope to do a post on my experimentation with staples soon.

As usual we grew quite a lot of potatoes. It’s not for any logical reason I can tell; new potatoes in summer are delicious, but we grow more than that – I think it’s for the joy and symbolism of it. The plants are so happy and vibrant-looking, and digging them up is like discovering Christmas presents. I started in late March or early April with a box of wizened, shrunken red potatoes that got away from us and started sprouting in the basement. As an experiment I dug a trough in some of the newly tilled ground, stuck in the sprouted potatoes, and tented over them with used window sashes. They got off to a slow start, as it was occasionally still snowing that eraly in the season, but even the ones that were outside the glass tent re-sprouted eventually after the first tips got blasted by frost. The bulk of our crop we planted back in the main garden using seed potatoes from the garden center or fedco. They don’t need much attention besides hilling and diligently picking the beetles (or an application or two of spinosad, which I use on occasion). The kids love digging them; Z got right into it and put them in the bucket while I turned the soil with a fork.

Strawberries I think we’re starting to get the hang of; we grow them because they are delicious, luxurious, and not actually too much work. I used to think of them as finicky but at least in our soil they go quite rampant, taking over the aisles and nearby beds and continuing to grow late into the fall when hard freezes have flattened lesser plants. This year in the early spring J&K transplanted some runners into new beds near the greenhouse, including a shovelful of soil with the plants (‘strawberry sod’?) and they took off and produced a decent crop. Toward the end of the season the berries get small, and it got to be a bit of a chore to pick and freeze them, which is good I think in that it reminds us that we don’t actually want everbearing strawberries, and For Every Thing There Is a Season. They need to be weeded diligently, but the biggest problem is waxwings pecking the ripe fruit. In the past we have used floating netting, but sometimes the birds get under it and thrash themselves to death, which is less than pleasant. This year I criscrossed flash tape above the beds instead, and it seemed to be mostly effective and less work.

Fresh greens are a big part of why we garden. This year that started early with lettuce, kale, and spinach from the greenhouse, and we (Kelsey mostly) did pretty well at succession plantings (out in the beds, not in the greenhouse) to keep us in salad fixings throughout the summer. For me the big discovery of the season was broccoli raab. I grabbed a packet at O’Donals or somewhere early in the year, and was amazed at how much faster it grew compared to other greens, how free it was from worms and bugs, and how it would hang in for a good while before flowering and going to seed. The rest of the crew here is less excited about the bitter greens flavor than I am, but I will continue to grow it for its vigor and sheer enthusiasm.

Continuing on the brassica theme, I had resolved to grow a lot of broccoli this year, since it’s nice fresh and we also use a lot of it (mostly bags of frozen from TJs) – I hoped to freeze a bunch for the winter. We started some in the greenhouse and transplanted out a dozen or so, and they did OK, with the majority producing a respectable medium-sized head followed by side shoots the rest of the summer. I think I planted them too close together, and they would have benefitted from more compost. I ended up freezing a couple gallon bags of florets, but ended up feeling that I could have done better. We had some extra healthy-looking seedlings in the greenhouse that I couldn’t bear to ditch, and we were already fully planted out, so I put them in large (5 gallon?) plastic pots we had lying around, mixing in compost at as much as 50%. These did OK but probably would have done far better had I planted one or two to a pot instead of 5 or so. The meta-lesson is not to be sentimental about seedlings – as it is written, Many are Called, but Few are Chosen.

I also planted some cauliflower that acted strange; it eventually grew heads but they were heavily interspersed with green leaves, such that it was kind of a dissection project to eat it. I should probably think ahead and order from Johnny’s or Fedco rather than trusting a garden center seed rack next year. We grew kale as usual, and it did well as usual; Kelsey also grew a big bed of collards of which they may have eaten a few meals, and Holly in Somerville grew a kohlrabi the size of a football. As the season winds down and colder weather sets in the brassicas grow on me; even after 17F there are still some broccoli florets hanging in there, and I wish I had some brussels sprouts. I’ve started my winter salad regime of shredded red cabbage, grated carrot, and kitchen-window alfalfa sprouts; maybe next year I’ll plant some cabbages. The biggest problem with brassicas is the little green worms; one theory to try for next year is to plant them all in a row to facilitate a more disciplined application of Bt.

One of the meta-lessons of garden planning and meal psychology is that early-season stuff like kale and chard quickly lose their appeal when the midsummer vegetables come in. A frank acceptance of this might have us harvest and freeze these crops en masse as the zucchinis etc. start to come in, and reuse the space for a succession crop.

The value of succession plantings become clear this time of year, with the sturdy holdouts offering cheer as everything else dies back. Carrots and spinach seem to be the most robust, surviving a hard freeze that withered most of the lettuce and chard. We did a pretty good job with successive plantings of both, and are harvesting them still. We tried likewise with beets as well but could have done better; we discovered along the way that goldfinches peck the leaves to the point of destruction.

Alongside the carrots and spinach the leeks are also green and hearty, and we’re pulling them as needed. They grow easily once started, and grocery-store leeks are $2.50 each, so despite their modest aspect, they definitely counts in the luxury category. Regardless of means, I would have a hard time putting $15 of anything in a humble pot of soup, so growing them in profusion feels like a particularly snug form of wealth. The only change for next year is we should have planted them deeper to make the white part longer, though Holly says we should just roast the green parts with salt and oil – I tried it and they were OK; I found myself keeping a container of them in the fridge and chopping them into e.g. fried rice to good effect. In other allium news, Kelsey grew the usual bed of garlic and started some onions from seed; they seemed to falter (perhaps from the drought) but eventually caught on. I also planted a bag of onion sets that did a bit better; we always use up however many onions we grow, so if we come up with good technique we could scale it up.

I enlarged the garden early in the season, and upgraded the fence as time went on this summer. The construction now consists of 5/4×6 PT decking set edgewise and buried 1-2″ below grade, with economy cattle panels from TSC set above it, screwed to 4×4 PT posts on 16′ spacing. This construction replaces an amalgam of slabwood, chicken wire, plastic netting, and untreated tree trunks we originally put in, which had rusted and rotted into the ground over the last 10 years. The fence is a bit extravagant, but we spend a lot of time up there and it’s a pleasure to use. I can run the BMX-bike wheelhoe right up against the boards on the inside. That wheelhoe has been a revelation; with it I was able to keep the entire ~1/6 acre from growing up in weeds with 10 minutes here and there. For finer work I used a regular straight hoe and a small Japanese hand-weeder that my mom gave me; Kelsey uses a small Korean hand plow.

The edgewise decking at the base of the fence similarly resists the string trimmer on the outside, and the cattle panel is good for trellising crops, allowing us to use the soil right up to the edge of the garden. In exposed places I’ve strung three strands of 17ga steel fence wire above the cattle panels to discourage deer, and I lived in fear that we would get coons in the corn and I’d need to add an electric element, but thankfully they never found us.

As the weather warmed and the crops started to come in I had less time to put the finishing touches on the fence, and as a result my crop of butternut squash was badly damaged by woodchucks; as is I got maybe half a bushel and we have a bunch still in the freezer from past years so we’ll manage fine for pies. We also grew the usual zucchini and summer squash, and as usual it produced well before getting nasty with mildew and beetles. The revelation this year in cucurbits came from a garden-center packet of light-green pattypan squash; I planted one hill of these and it took off like a rocket. It spread out into a jungle maybe 12′ in diameter that produced an absurd amount of squash, and unlike the single-threaded zucchinis it had a persistent branching habit that survived several attempts to cut it back out of the aisles. Also unlike zucchini it seemed unfazed by the bugs and mold, and produced continually until the weather got cold. With the warm dry weather we also managed to grow some quality cantaloupes and a few watermelons, trellised along the garden fence.

Other crops reliably did their thing – tomatoes, green beans, sugarsnap peas, etc. Southern Maine was dry this summer, and we irrigated a fair amount. We have a pretty good system now, using the sort of oscillating lawn sprinklers that have a bow-shaped metal tube with a series of jets pressed into it. The sprinkler is screwed to a short piece of decking, with a rectangular wooden tube about a foot long screwed to the underside of the decking. The tube slots down over a wooden post driven into the soil, setting it at about head-height, above the tomatoes and peas. The garden is long and narrow, so one sprinkler can manage the entire width of the garden, and six or seven posts allow us to move the sprinkler to successively water the entire area. Kelsey also does a fair amount of hand-watering, which keeps the weeds down in the aisles, and we have some drip tube here and there.

I think that about covers my ‘lessons learned’ from a summer of serious gardening – we’ll see what next season brings…

A philosophy of outbuildings

December 21, 2019

My family seems to have a thing for outbuildings.  It’s not that unusual here in Maine, but still I think we take it to an extreme.  Starting from sparse ledgy ground, over time the homestead where I grew up came to include ten useful, non-decrepit structures.  You could chock this up to my father’s love of building buildings, but my maternal grandparents’ property has 12 buildings (including outhouses), most of which he did not build.  So I seem to have the gene from both sides.

Outbuildings provide capacity (both volumetric and functional), but take time and resources to build, they take up space (physical, mental, visual), precluding other uses, and they require maintenance.  So they should be planned and managed carefully.  I’ve mulled this over, and here hope to articulate principles toward an optimal philosophy of sustainable outbuildings.

A small outbuilding should be portable.

My mother is a writer.  When my sister and I were small and tended to make a racket, she needed a place to get away to focus on her work, so my father built a trim 8’x8′ Writing Shack in the woods east of our house.  It had no foundation, siding, heat, or electricity, but my folks were used to that, and at the time my mom wrote with a fountain pen. It had nice big windows of used plexiglass, overlooking the Little Sheepscot river through the trees.

Later when we grew up and spent less time at home, for a while the Writing Shack sat idle.  Then, at some point we were in need of a dry place to store sails and paddles near my grandparents’ dock on the ‘other side’, so we lowered it onto skids and dragged it half a mile to the head of the dock, where it sits to this day, serving its new purpose admirably.  Its floor framing is made of untreated lumber, but it has always been held well up off the ground on concrete or PT blocks, and its roof has large overhangs.   My father may have replaced the asphalt roofing once, but otherwise it has needed little in the way of maintenance.

I believe the family record for moving and repurposing a building is four placements.  My grandparents originally built a handsome 2-holer outhouse for use with the Upper Cabin, and it stood for 30 years or more in the woods on or near the site of the big barn where we make cider.  When they built a year-round house with plumbing and moved up in 1983, the outhouse sat idle (excepting the occasional power outage), so at some point my father hauled it across the island and set it up at a spec house they were living in.  Later it moved to the homestead where I grew up, the holes were boarded over, and it served as a tool shed for Jake’s arborist tools.  Most recently it migrated to Bay Point, where it was fitted with a handsome set of double doors to serve as a small farm stand.

The large end of the small outbuilding category is fuzzy; the Upper Cabin itself moved to make room for my grandparents’ house.  It being 16’x24′ with cedar log siding and a long porch, that was a bit of a project, but fortunately it was built as a kit in 8′ wall sections, so it could be taken apart with some labor.  I was too young to remember exactly how the move was done, except that at some point my grandmother’s small bulldozer stuck fast in the mud at the new site (now within the orchard fence), and every come-along on Georgetown Island was borrowed and pressed into service to winch it out ahead of a hard freeze.

All the time I was growing up, the Upper Cabin served as sleeping quarters for my many cousins when they came to visit the grandparents.  Its missing outhouse became something of an issue, so at one point I built a small one-holer, entirely from used materials, diagonally planked for strength and with a treated lumber undercarriage.  That outhouse was itself moved as the orchard expanded, and the move was simplicity itself given the small size and sturdy construction – the small excavator bucket fit nicely through the open front door, lifting it cleanly off the ground and on its way.

At this point I hope that the value of portability in small outbuildings is amply demonstrated.

[Dave points out that small, light portable buildings tend to blow over in a strong wind, and should be anchored down, e.g. with earth screws.  The profusion of disposable portable buildings has made these screws a thing that can be found used or cast off in rural areas of late.]

A large outbuilding should be large.

As illustrated above, one of the issues with outbuildings is that they sometimes get in the way of later, more ambitious plans.  It’s a shame and a waste to tear them down; that’s why it’s important that they be movable.  What about buildings that are too large to move?  In that case I believe they should be built large, substantially larger than the initial primary use would dictate. That way you won’t wish you’d made it bigger later on, and won’t be tempted to glom a bunch of sheds or ells onto it, which is inefficient in terms of materials, makes the space less useful, and starts to look busy after a while.

This is an essay about outbuildings: non-insulated utility structures that will not be heated routinely.  I definitely don’t advocate for making a primary residence larger than necessary.  A larger house will use more energy (holding construction methods constant), and these days new home construction runs into the hundreds of dollars per square foot.  On the other hand, an unheated utility structure won’t consume any energy to speak of, and at least using our typical methods of construction can be built quite economically using locally-harvested timber milled on or near the site.

As an example, when my parents were contemplating the design for the (big, older) cider barn near the orchard, I knew that they were moving from the old homestead with a ton of utility buildings chock full of stuff, so I encouraged them to make the new barn big.  While they were skeptical, they had a lot of lumber around (I think a particularly tough winter had delivered a large pile of salvaged logs for the sawyer), and they settled on a fairly ambitious design, 36×60′ with a Corbusian forest of posts, a drive-through center aisle, and stand-up lofts running along either side.  Everyone was happy with the result, and before long the building was full of lumber, tools, staging, cider equipment, free boats, and more lumber.

The original concept for the barn included livestock, and separately they had it in mind to build a sugarhouse, which could also serve as a ciderhouse to keep the beverages separate from the manure.  So last winter they quickly whipped up another barn, this one 26×50′, in this case open inside from wall to wall.  Again the lumber was mostly salvage logs (the hemlock trees on the island have been decimated by microscopic wooly adelgids), and the building is a delight, with a rustic but airy feel.  I have no doubt but that it will soon be full.

One potential disadvantage of large outbuildings is the challenge of maintenance, which could easily get expensive (if hired out) or intimidating (if attempted on weekends).  This brings me to the next topic.

All outbuildings should be economical but built to last

Conscious or not, the thoughtful builder of a building makes a statement.  “This building is right and proper for this site.  It is worthy of the space, time, materials, and energy it takes up.  It deserves to be here, and those who come after will be grateful for it.”  Here I am channeling the spirit of Wendell Berry, that righteous old judge of rural places and uses, and in that spirit, every decision in design and execution is a balance between durability and economy.  Too fancy or too large speaks of ostentation and waste, while too small and cheap depresses the spirit and stinks of disposability.

What does this mean in practice?  Naturally it will differ from place to place, according to the local climate and materials, but in our climate, rot is the enemy, and the first defense is large overhangs.  By carrying rainwater well away from the walls and underpinnings, they extend the life of the building, and for single-story structures may eliminate the need for siding – a further economy.  Naturally, there is a cost in added wood and roofing, but I believe this is well worth it, at least up to the comfortable cantilever capabilities of the materials of construction.

Next, the underpinnings of the building should be well up away from soil, leaves, and duff.  This is easier said than done, for it is the fate of outbuildings to be neglected.  Years of leaves will pile up against the uphill side of a low-set building, and soon the tendrils of fungus are at work.  So too the splash of rain from the eaves is relentless at turning siding into moss.  Accordingly, buildings should be set well up off the ground – and all the more in the case of lazy owners, or buildings (e.g. boathouses) that by their nature are rarely visited.

For permanent structures this is most economically done with sonotubes filled with hand-mixed concrete – like the homestead I grew up in. This is expedient, durable in good soil, and moderate in the use of emissions-heavy concrete  – in fact, the $4 bag of sakrete should be considered one of the wonders of the modern fossil-powered economy.  This construction also makes for ample dry-ish storage space underneath, particularly when built on a slope.  The primary disadvantages are a less-than-trim appearance, and non-suitability for garages and other grade-level applications.

Permanent grade-level outbuildings on the smaller side (e.g. garages) are typically built on a floating slab, or a conventional 4′ concrete foundation in the case of larger buildings.  The site should be well-graded, and the concrete well up above the ground.  This does not sit entirely easily with me; it appears that concrete production emits about 400lb of CO2 per cubic yard.  Taking slab, curbs etc. as an average of 6″ thick, that amounts to 7-8lb CO2 per square foot. The US vehicle fleet emits about 0.9lb per mile, so 1000 sq feet of slab-on-grade building emits the equivalent of driving about 8,000 miles – not obscene, but material in the context of trying to live a low-carbon life.

Concrete slabs are useful, but it’s not clear they’re strictly necessary in many applications.  I’m intrigued by the prospect of using pole-barn construction with sonotube piers extending well clear of the soil, to keep the posts dry.  The problem then becomes how to seal up the necessary vertical gap between the sheathing, to keep leaves and snow from blowing in, without setting up a situation where the soil heaves the building or buckles the siding.  The Kaufmans built a small barn in Flagstaff and used reclaimed polycarbonate panels from e-ink, set on edge just inside the inner surface of the vertical board siding to keep the snow and squirrels out; I bet something similar could be done with reclaimed trex decking or some other less exotic inert planking or panels.

Portable buildings can also be set on sonotubes, but this might be considered extravagant, and liable to leaving obstacles/eyesores if the building is moved.  A reasonable expedient is to set small portable buildings on some arrangement of rot-resistant blocks – reclaimed cement, pressure-treated wood scraps, suitable rocks, or the like, provided that the building can be jacked and blocked level from time to time to account for the settling and heaving of the soil.

Smaller portable buildings are traditionally set on, well, pretty much anything or nothing, but this is why they are often found rotting into the soil.  Pressure-treated timber can delay this significantly, but it’s not what it used to be, no longer containing toxic chromium and arsenic, and even now surely has a much heavier environmental footprint than locally-sawed, air-dried lumber from salvaged logs.  That broaches the subject of materials selection more broadly.

Materials of Construction

Here again, judgment must balance cost and environmental impact with longevity and low maintenance (again, it is the fate of outbuildings to be neglected).  I have not done a lot of math on this yet, and have instead gone on intuition.  I spray pounds of copper on my apple trees in the spring as an approved organic fungicide (as the soil test said I was light on copper), so I’ve considered it reasonable to use the modern copper azole PT judiciously.  Still, PT is kiln-dried, pumped full of chemicals, and trucked heavy up the eastern seaboard, so it’s probably best not to use it indiscriminately.

For general structural use, the clear choice here is pine/spruce/hemlock lumber, sawed onsite from salvaged logs by a roving Woodmizer and air dried.  For a classier building, cedar shingle siding is relatively local and maintenance-free for decades, however I am not sure how sustainable eastern cedar forestry is.  The trend on the land recently has been toward vertical pine board and batten, with the windows carefully cased and flashed.

Regarding windows, doors, and hardware, decades of connections in Georgetown and my father’s scorn for waste can usually turn up something that will work for a small building, often with added charm.  Those less fortunate might cultivate a friendship with a local ecologically-minded builder who does remodeling.

Roofing is again a tradeoff between time, cost, and longevity. Surely wood shakes are the lowest impact, particularly if harvested onsite and cut by hand, but in our climate they will quickly rot. With unlimited time, a retired purist might split out pine shakes with a froe, install them with stout stainless nails, monitor carefully for the end of life, and painstakingly remove and reuse the nails.

Absent such fundamentalism, in the shade and raked of leaves, a quality asphalt roof will last decades, and is most economical for new buy, but it makes nasty waste when removed, an unholy mix of petroleum, fiberglass, and gravel.  Painted steel roof is more expensive but attractive and long-lived, which should factor into the calculations, the useful longevity of the building being a goal here.  It appears that steel manufacturing produces about 1.8lb of CO2 per pound, and 26-gauge steel is about 1lb/ft^2, so a steel roof accounts for on the order of 2lb CO2 per square foot (higher for steep pitches).  The lighter weight of steel on straps compared to asphalt may be a boon for portable buildings. [Dave points out that in snowy climates, metal roofing will reliably dump hundreds or thousands of pounds of snow under the eaves of the building.  This should be considered in tight quarters, and when placing doors etc.]

In the extreme of longevity, used corrugated aluminum from retired chicken barns has been in service on the homestead for over 40 years with no apparent wear.  I have not priced aluminum new, but understand that it is too spendy for reasonable use on an outbuilding.  However, if one were to procure aluminum roofing used and install it carefully on a locally-sawn wood building with wide overhangs that’s protected from ground-level moisture, it might be the closest thing to a permanent, ecological outbuilding.

If I am condemned by fate and genetics to be a builder of outbuildings, the least I can do is to be thoughtful about where, how, and of what materials I build them.



Cider Year 15: Fair Winds

December 14, 2019


2019 was a milestone year in many ways for the Five Islands pedal-powered cider tradition.  At the 2018 cider weekend we spread the word that we were expecting a baby in early May of 2019.  In the fall we prepared the ground for a handful of new peach trees that my parents were keen to plant in the open northwest corner of the orchard, placed an order with Fedco, and planned Orchard Weekend for late April.  As luck would have it, Z arrived a couple weeks early, and my parents planted the peach trees by themselves.

More and more over the past 10 years, the orchard has taken a back seat to the pressures of building Pika Energy, a power electronics company focused on clean energy storage and management.  Hours before Z was born, we completed a transaction to sell the company to Wisconsin-based Generac, and now we continue and accelerate our work as a cornerstone of Generac Clean Energy Systems.  All told it was an intense and joyful spring.

In another fortunate turn, while my attention was elsewhere, a stretch of cold, damp weather decimated the population of overwintering Browntail moths that had done such damage in 2018, and by early summer it was clear we had a good fruit set in the orchard, so I scrambled to get a few doses of Surround and BT on the trees amid the changing of diapers and the demands of work. I also bought a used 7′ sicklebar mower to cut down on the time and labor involved in string trimming around the trees in the orchard, and it worked pretty well.

In June we gathered for a 100th birthday celebration for my grandmother Emily Rand Herman (‘Ummy’), and a month later she died peacefully, having overlapped on this earth with Z for just a few weeks.  In September the family gathered for a celebration of her life, and her four children scattered her ashes by the blueberry patch on the shores of Robinhood cove, together with her husband Bill (‘Poppy’). 

The season raced by, the fruit sized up on the trees, and it became clear that we would have enough apples to make the cider without buying any from off the island.  Time being short I did not plan any major equipment upgrades; the main focus was a second attempt to couple Eerik’s ‘Concept II’ professional rowing trainer to the grinder.  To that end I beefed up the jackshaft that accepts power from the two bicycles to 3/4″ steel from 5/8″ aluminum, and sprung for a piece of t-slot extrusion to simplify the assembly.  I also switched the drive between the jackshaft and the grinder shafts from bike chain to v-belt, in an effort to make the whole unit quieter. (Thanks to Eerik and Holly for the photos in this post.)



Another major change this year was the addition by my parents of a large sugarhouse/cider barn, between the house and the older barn we’ve used for the last several years.  It’s a handsome building, and they built it remarkably quickly in the dead of winter, commissioning the arch in time for sugaring season.  We had originally planned to set up cider in the new barn this year, but between the baby and other pressures we decided it was too much work and risk, and there’s not yet any livestock, so we set up as usual in the big barn.  Still, it was fantastic to have the sugarhouse available for meals; the open framing and high ceiling gives it a nice feel, and if it were cold we could lay a fire in the arch.


Alexis, Z and I did a bit of apple picking, but my parents did the vast majority of the work, filling a sea of Tidy Cat buckets (which they get from the Transfer Station) and carefully labeling the varieties with sharpie.  In the end they picked about a ton from our orchard, plus several hundred pounds that they gleaned from neighbors’ yards and wild trees around town.  We’ve increased our standards for wild fruit since one year when we put a bunch of scrumped apples in the mix and the cider came out more tart than we like.


I made one or two weekend trips to set up the gear in the barn ahead of the appointed weekend, enough to have reasonable confidence of pulling off the cidering.  Then, days before the party, a fierce storm blew down the coast of Maine, knocking trees over and blocking roads.  Power was out to the entirety of Arrowsic, Georgetown, and much of Woolwich, and (fittingly) we ran 2019 Cider Weekend on a propane-fired Automatic Home Standby Generator.

With a number of errands on the way, it was mid-day Friday before I made it up to Five Islands, where I continued assembly as A&Z, Holly and family, Eerik, and others arrived throughout the afternoon.  It being on the cold and windy side, we once again decided to eat dinner up the hill rather than down by the water. Buster helped with the refried beans:IMG_0083

After dinner the build party continued; Eerik had fabricated a very classy adapter in California and brought it with him; the idea was that we would lead a small (#25) chain forward from the rowing machine and connect it to a sprocket mounted to a freewheel on the extreme left end of the jackshaft.  That part worked well, however we found that the chain skipped on the sprocket, and the extreme force of the rower’s stroke tended to skid the entire assembly across the floor.  We made some brief attempts to fix the problems, then decided that the rowing machine would once again need to wait another year.


The next morning we continued various setup, fueled as usual by Kelsey’s fantastic breakfast burritos, and and as day trippers started arriving we kicked off the cidering process.  This year we had a nice plank set up on a slight incline that allowed several people to inspect apples and cut out bad spots at a comfortable working height.



Similar to last year, the pedal-powered washer/elevator was a hit with kids and adults alike.  We added some ag spray nozzles on locline positioners on the recommendation of the Kaufmans, who noted last year that the washer could be improved by rinsing the fruit as it emerges from the tumble scrubber drum:


We had previously included flimsy plexiglass guards to keep apple bits from flying in the faces of the pedalers, and to keep small kid fingers out of the gearing, but my dad scored some motorcycle windscreens from the Transfer Station, which were both effective and visually cool:



Generally speaking the equipment ran well; the one exception was that the belt drive on the grinder was not as positive as the old chain drive, such that if pulp didn’t feed cleanly from the primary grinder drum into the nip between the post-crusher drums, it could back up and clog the works, causing the belt to slip on the post-crusher drive shaft, further gumming up the grinder and necessitating a quick teardown for manual cleaning. We added more belt tension at lunch, but it still happened maybe a half-dozen times, and while it wasn’t a big deal, it was definitely annoying enough that I’ll consider using timing belt or some other positive drive method next year.

The press worked smoothly, and ground corn and rye steadily for dinner as it squeezed the juice from the cheeses:




We were as lucky with weather this year as we were unlucky last year.  It was beautiful and sunny, and warmed up nicely When folks weren’t making cider they basked on the lawn and ate Nebraska Cream Can Dinner:


We were even graced by the presence of a couple of Taiko drummers, who set up on the driveway and made an impressive spectacle.


This year we were joined by Jen Coyle, formerly of GreenMountain Engineering but presently running a mobile beverage canning company in the SF Bay area, and she brought fantastic expertise to help with setting up and running our counterpressure bottling system:




Despite a false alarm where we found a misplaced tote with a hundred pounds or so of apples after thinking we were through, things wound up by 5PM.  We did some cleanup, then we ate Holly and Becky’s delicious chili, cornbread, and apple crisp in the new sugarhouse:


We continued cleaning up and hung out by the fire, but turned in pretty soon after a long day.  The next morning we ate blueberry pancakes, cleared out the sugarhouse, and packed the cidering equipment in a corner to be out of the way until next year.

For the most part Z hung out with Alexis while I was running around with my fingers in the mechanisms, but he did help with mixing and dispensing the finished cider blend:



Cider year 15 was great, and I look forward to Z growing up to run in the pack of kids, which seems to get bigger every year.  I am grateful to everyone who pitched in to make the weekend a success, and particularly to the Gates family for partnering with us all these years, to Alexis for tolerating the increasing madness, to my parents for embracing the event, building the barns, and picking the apples, to Jonah for designing the Fair Winds graphic, and to the Jones family for generously funding the t-shirts.  Here’s to a good crop in 2020!



Cider Weekend 2018

January 1, 2019


A damp but willing crew including old friends from afar put in a fantastic effort back in October to make the 14th annual Cider Weekend a success.  We produced about 197 gallons of cider with just over 70% yield, and enjoyed great food and great company in the big barn on Saturday, despite a soaking rain.

With other facets of life imposing, preparation for cider was largely on autopilot this year.  Holly arranged the delivery of two bins (about 1200lb) of mixed eating apples from Autumn Hills Orchard, packed in heavy-duty cardboard boxes that previously held ultra-pure silicon from his work.  With the help of the amazingly intrepid Jim Serdy he also picked and shipped a few boxes of Golden Russet for the cider mix.  And I am ever grateful to Steve Wood and the crew at Poverty Lane Orchards and Farnum Hill Cider, who despite a crummy growing season came through with a bin of Dabinet bittersweet apples for the cider mix.  We combined this with at least a bin of fruit my parents picked from the Five Islands orchard; however this was a shadow of the previous banner-year production.

On the mechanical side, the one area of advancement this year was a pedal-powered chain drive apple conveyor, quickly assembled out of scrap wood and driven by the same bicycle that runs the tumble washer, that served to lift apples out of a receiving tank and deliver them into the washer drum.  The idea was to avoid the laborious handling of individual apples into the washer, previously one of the more annoying tasks. With the new conveyor, clean apples can be dumped directly into the receiving tank without further attention, and the kids found the conveyor absolutely riveting.

I’ve had the chain and sprockets for the project for years, and had been mulling over the design with the help of creative folks including Gene Kaufman.  I finally put it together in a couple of evenings this fall.  It consisted of a loop of 50-pitch chain with 12″ wide oak paddles mounted via special connecting links, running on a wooden frame with sliding facilitated by PEX water pipe.

The weekend kicked off with roll-your-own burritos in the big barn on Friday night; between the October wind, the larger crew, and the build party activities, dinner has migrated to the big barn for the last couple of years.  Some of the kids are old enough to be a real help:


After dinner, the intrepid team of Rachel Taylor and Steven Tobias executed the final assembly and drive details on Friday night, and the conveyor came together nicely:


Meanwhile, Eerik and Holly were engaged in an intense effort to hook Eerik’s Erg (“Concept II” professional rowing machine) to the grinder.  The rowing machine project had its origins in the observation last year that when the whole system was running smoothly, the grinder appeared to be the rate-limiting step.  Eerik retains his love of rowing from his collegiate days, and dreamed of boosting the performance of the grinder with a rowing machine in parallel with the two bicycles.  There were several complexities, including the large size and relatively low stature of the rowing machine, the fundamentally pulsating nature of its power flow, the fact that its chain-driven flywheel spins the opposite direction of a bicycle, and the mechanical details of its flywheel, which is surprisingly softly mounted and not designed to deliver power beyond the squirrel-cage fan riveted to it.

Undaunted, it occurred to us that the hydraulic hoses on the pedal-powered cider press do an admirable job of physically decoupling the pedal powerstand (which also grinds grain) from the press, and inspired by the success of the press in general, I secured the necessary components from Surplus Center, and we contrived to couple a log-splitter pump to the flywheel, and deliver the power directly to the grinder using a small hydraulic motor.




Holly and Eerik executed both sides of the erg-to-apple-grinder powertrain, and with great fanfare we charged the hydraulic loop and Eerik took an inaugural pull on the chain. Unfortunately, while we were able to spin the grinder with the Erg, the losses in the hydraulic system (seemingly primarily in the motor rather than the pump) were such that it was not able to contribute significantly, and we did not end up using it on Saturday.  It appears that human-powered hydraulics are much better suited to high-force applications than high power applications, and in retrospect this is not too surprising.  And realizing how simple the mechanical drive of the Erg is, we resolved next year to figure out how to mechanically couple it to the press and realize Eerik’s long-cherished dream of grinding apples by rowing power.


Keith Richtman contributed his considerable knowledge of bike hacking all around, including the surprisingly effective technique of using a piece of PEX tube to guide and deliver the slack side of a chain drive directly to the sprocket, avoiding the need for a more precise and sensitive contrivance.

All that being accomplished or not, we reconvened Saturday morning to enjoy Kelsey’s delicious breakfast burritos, and set to work grinding and pressing apples.   As usual we got rolling between 9 and 10AM, and work proceeded with minimal mechanical issues.  A steady rain that started mid-morning limited the typical influx of day-trippers to the most hardy and dedicated souls, but the large population of overnighters carried the day – at most we had probably 50-60 people, who fit pretty comfortably in the barn, whereas recently on a sunny Cider Saturday we probably have close to 100 – the event seems to be nicely self-regulating in that way, so long as there isn’t too much fruit to process.  Still, the cold and rain this year suggests that we work to move the event closer to the middle of October than the end.


This year, all of the apples could be rolled around, either with a pallet jack or on the increasing assortment of wheeled dollys that Dave has built – this made handling much simpler, and we made ample use of forks on the tractor for moving apples and equipment before and after the main event.  Once we got rolling, the kids loved pushing the apples into the elevator/conveyor with paddles that Dave improvised for the purpose:




The pressing process was streamlined by the addition of specialized press cloth squares purchased by Holly from a cider supply company, which both flowed more freely and seemed much more tear-resistant than the muslin we’d used over the previous thirteen years.  Instead of depositing pomace directly into the loader bucket of a tractor outside the window, we used a large reclaimed plastic bin outside the window, which limited the tractor trips to the compost pile that were needed in the rain.


The manual diaphragm bilge pump that conveys the cider from the press into the 100-gallon conical bulk tank was also a big hit with the kids as always (though a brief scare at setup made it clear that getting a spare from Hamilton Marine would be valuable insurance), and the tank filled quickly.  As we broke for lunch, headlined by the traditional Nebraska Cream Can Dinner, more than half of the apples were ground, and we quickly spun up the sweet cider bottling operation to empty the bulk tank.  Thanks to Dave and Emily’s foresight and the help of intrepid recycler Jim Coombs, a large array of clean plastic jugs with matching lids were at the ready, and there was only a brief delay before switching over to the hard cider apples in the afternoon.  About mid-day, the sun being over the yardarm, we got the bottling of 2017 cider underway, substantially streamlined by Eerik’s innovation last year in counterweighting the filler heads:


Things were wrapping up by 4PM, and the crew hosed down the equipment and hoisted it into the loft, while Holly and Becky prepared the usual delicious chili/cornbread/apple crisp dinner.  As usual, the grain was ground using the big aluminum grain mill on the hydraulic pedal stand:


Lots of folks including three generations of the Jones/Joukovski family pitched in to help:


After dinner, folks with young kids retired to the cabins early, while others sat up talking by the fire in the red barn.

Sunday morning dawned dry, and with blueberry pancakes and armloads of cider we bid the cider crew farewell by about mid-day.  The rest of the day was spent in unhurried cleanup that somehow always seems to take until sundown, when I loaded the truck and trailer for the return trip to Gorham, said goodbye to the orchard, and headed south.  It was a great year with lots of old friends and an increasing flock of kids, and no shortage of potential for further innovations:

  • The major remaining annoyance of the process is the manual cutting out of bad spots; this mostly applies to the wild and home-grown apples which are not sprayed as assiduously as the professionally-grown apples.  Last year I did pretty well on the organic spray routine with Surround, BT, etc., but with a lighter fruit set and frequent rain I didn’t stay on top of the pests as much as I could have.  We’ll see how I do next year, given everything else that will be going on.
  • Agricultural nozzles from Tractor Supply replaced the finicky improvised garden hose sprayer in the apple washer; Joshua and Gene recommended a more thoughtful arrangement of these nozzles to better rinse the apples after the emerge from the tumbler.
  • The large cast iron frying pan remains a key piece of equipment, but it could use some kind of diffuser to spread the heat more evenly – a valuable junk-scrounging/minor welding project.

The biggest difference next year will by that my folks have built a new maple syrup/cider barn between the house and the current barn, so they can kick the pesky cider operation out and finally bring in the livestock that was its original purpose.  The new barn is not quite as large overall, but it will have a larger open space, and also a large wood-burning firebox that could even be used for boiled cider.  There are other exciting changes in the works as well – always so much to look forward to!

Thanks to Holly and Eerik for photos, and to everyone, near and far, who continue to make this tradition so much fun. Happy New Year, and much love to all!



Cider Weekend 2017: The Fruit Of Our Labor

October 30, 2017

2017 cider corn shellerLast weekend we gathered with friends and family for the thirteenth year running to make cider using bicycle-powered equipment, and for the first time, the majority of the apples came from our orchard – a major milestone in a project that began in 2006, with the first trees planted out in the orchard in the spring of 2008.  It’s been a long time coming, and in the years since the Cider weekend has evolved and grown significantly.

The weather was amazing, sunny and mild, and we had a good crew to help.  In total we pressed 275 gallons on Saturday, with a yield of approximately 69%.  100 gallons went into glass between our root cellar and Holly’s basement, and the balance went into freezers and refrigerators across New England and beyond.  The equipment behaved fairly well, and we also made significant advances in both growing and processing grain.

2017 cider pressing

Friday night we gathered as usual by the cove for a picnic and campfire, then Alexis, Holly, Steven, Eerik, and I worked for a few hours in the barn on last-minute details.  By prior arrangement Eerik brought some linear guide assemblies made from rollerblade parts and T-slot extrusion to significantly improve the action of the dual counterpressure bottle-filling apparatus, and while he was assembling it I improvised a foot-pedal-operated mechanism out of scrap wood.  Previously the filling head assembly was supported on janky linear guides made from copper pipe with wooden bearings, and a hand-operated screw was needed to clamp the head in position so the pressure of the CO2 wouldn’t blow it out of the bottle in a volcano of carbonated cider.  Now the filling heads moved smoothly up and down, and a heavy counterweight reacted the pressure until it was released by stepping on the pedal, and it all worked brilliantly.  We contemplated how it could be further improved by automation driven by bicycle-compressed air; we’ll see if we get anywhere with that next year.

Meanwhile, Holly fit an antique cast-iron corn sheller to the bike-powered stand that also ran the cider press and the high-quality grain mill we added last year.  As usual he did an amazing job of cleaning up and restoring the cast iron, and he fit a crummy aluminum pulley to the shaft by manually matching the square taper of the handle.  The sheller worked amazingly well on the wheelbarrow-load of corn we had previously harvested from the patch of newground by the Upper Cabin.  It has an amazingly clever and hilarious mechanism whereby the spent cob is ejected upward diagonally so that it doesn’t fall into the bin of shelled grain.  The only issue was that kernels went everywhere; we solved that problem by sacrificing a plastic storage bin to confine the flying grain.

With the equipment in good order, we turned in, returning at dawn to get things spun up.  No matter the preparation, it always seems to take a couple of hours to get everything ready to go (and a pause for Kelsey and Beth’s delicious breakfast burritos), but by shortly after nine we were in operation.  As usual, the first stage of the process is washing the apples; we resurrected the pedal-powered, astroturf-lined rotary wash drum from last year, with the addition of a couple of finely-balanced soft-bristle brushes that may or may not have actually made much difference.  The crew sorted apples on the way into the drum washer, composting the bad apples and cutting out bad spots; this attention to detail is probably a big part of why our cider tastes so good.


Tubs of washed apples were hand-carried to the grinder, where two folks pedaled while one more fed apples in, two at a time, and a fourth forced them into the grinding drum with a wooden plunger.  With vigorous pedaling the chains and forks popped off now and then; a more rigid assembly with less wood in the compressive path would probably eliminate these issues, but in any case the freewheels on the driveshaft prevented injury or damage.  I did get the sense that when the process was running smoothly, the grinder did seem to be the bottleneck, indicating that a third pedaler might be in order (or perhaps Eerik will come through with a rowing machine as promised for next year).

2017 apple wash and grind


From the grinder, tubs of fine, soupy pulp were carried or dragged to the other side of the barn, where they were baled into cloth-lined forms, folded into cheeses, and fed into the pedal-hydraulic press.  Holly did buy new press-cloth this year, but it seemed to be too impermeable, leading the stack of cheeses to get squirrelly, to the point where some of the wooden grates suffered damage.  He says it’s the same stuff per the internet fabric site where he ordered it; next year we will need to try some different fabric.  In any case, we reverted to the old cloths, and the press settled down to its work.

2017 cider pressing


All the while, the same hacked Schwinn exercise bike that ran the hydraulic pump was also grinding corn and rye (both grown in the orchard this year) for dinner; it was relatively simple to pulse the valve on the hydraulic pump to get the desired flowrate of cider while pedaling steadily for the grain grinder.  All in all the new multipurpose pedal hydraulic stand we built was a great success.


Increasingly in recent years the overnight crew has been reinforced during the day on Saturday by a surge of day-trippers, including lots of locals, family friends, and this year a delegation from the Rand family. Many hands make light work, and despite a leisurely lunchbreak (complete with Nebraska Cream Can Dinner) and a near record supply of apples, we were done in time for dinner; we hoisted the gear into the loft of the barn, set up tables and benches, and served Holly and Becky’s amazing feast of chili, cornbread, and apple crisp, baked in the barn using a used electric range secured from Craigslist.  We also had a temporary sink with hot running water from a Craigslist hot water heater, and even an improvised outdoor shower so folks could rinse off the sticky apple mist.  Folks with kids retired to various cabins and tents after dinner; others hung out by the fire in the mild evening.

Sunday morning another beautiful day; pancakes, homefries from Stroudwater garden potatoes; more cleanup as well as orchard tours, and playing by/on the cove.  Ela even conspired to get Holly and me to break out our fiddles and play in the sun, a reminder of times when somehow there seemed to be time for music.  Leftover lunch, and goodbyes capped a fantastic year, with great people, great food, and delicious cider.  Thanks to everyone who pitched in, and thanks to Eerik and Terran for the photos in this post. Here’s a link to Eerik’s photos: if you have others in a world-readable place, please put a link in a comment – thanks again!


Orchard Update: Summer 2017

August 30, 2017

While this blog may have been dead for quite a while, the orchard has been very much alive.  This spring I grafted around a dozen interstems for a new block of semi-dwarf trees in an area of newground that we prepared north of the original orchard area last year.  And at the end of April a small but dedicated crew put in a great day of fence-building and tree planting to enclose the new area and plant the interstems.

Meanwhile, the oldest of the trees are around ten years old, and had begun to produce fruit in previous years, but being completely unsprayed it was misshapen and quite wormy, requiring a fair amount of cutting around by the cider crew.  So this year began experimenting with an organic spray regimen, starting in the spring with dormant oil, copper hydroxide, and Serenade (a competitive colonizing bacterial culture), and following that with two or three sprays of Surround and BT.  Surround is a refined kaolin clay product that makes the trees and fruit inhospitable to crawling and chewing insects, and BT is a parasitic bacterium that is very effective against tent caterpillars, which had in previous years set back many of our trees by defoliating whole branches.

To apply this stuff, I bought a 100-gallon PTO-mounted Kings sprayer, which fits on the small Kubota tractor (though not by much) and it has worked out quite well – if I’m careful I can do the whole ~1acre orchard with one full tank.  I bought most of the supplies from Seven Springs, which has significantly better prices than Fedco for some reason.  Many of the trees are quite laden with apples at this point, and the spray regimen seems to have all but eliminated the tent caterpillars and significantly set back the Plum Curculios, which otherwise scar the fruit badly with their crescent-shaped bite marks.  It’s too soon to tell how effective it will be on the flies and moths that damage the fruit later in the year; some folks use Spinosad or stronger synthetic stuff to knock them back, but Spinosad is expensive and I’d like to try sticking with organic pest control if it provides sufficient protection.

The Surround spray makes the trees a ghostly white, but it doesn’t seem to block enough light to affect the growth.  I also sprayed the peach trees, which turns out to be a mistake; here at the northern end of their range not many insects seem to bother them, and the clay is impossible to remove from the fuzzy skin of the fruit.  It’s harmless and I don’t mind eating it (after all, what’s in Kaopectate?), but it is impossible to wash off, and it makes the peaches look much less appetizing, so in the future I’ll skip them and work harder to avoid overspray on those trees.

Speaking of peaches, like others in Maine we’ve had a stupendous harvest this year; I took home about 65lb last weekend and it hardly made a dent in the crop still on the trees; I would estimate we’ll get at least 300lb of peaches this year, and my folks are having a hard time figuring out what to do with them.  Some of the apple trees are heavily laden as well, particularly the Honeycrisp, with branches drooping down to the ground.  We’ve also had to prop up some of the branches on some of the peach trees.

Meanwhile, the crop of winter rye did very well, and it’s currently drying in the overhead of the red barn – we’ll try to thresh some out at cider and see how it grinds.  I planted about 1/10 acre of buckwheat for a new hive of bees, and they seem to be enjoying it; it’s headed out now and we probably harvest some of that if we liked – or just let it go to seed for next year.  I also planted about 1/20 acre of Waspie Valley field corn from Fedco; it went in a bit late on account of the wet spring and new ground, but it’s way over head-high by now, and I’m hopeful that it gives a good crop before the weather gets too cool for ripening.

All in all a good year so far; despite the recent dry spell things seem to be doing pretty well.  I have noticed that some of the wild apple trees in the woods have gone completely brown; I have never seen anything like it – perhaps it could be a response to two dry summers in a row, though the trees I noticed are not in particularly dry locations – quite the opposite in fact.  I also noticed that many but by no means all of the local red maple trees have very weak-looking growth in the tops; relatively few leaves, and the ones they do have much smaller than normal.  Other maples nearby seem completely unaffected.

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.


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.


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.


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!


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.


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.


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.


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…