October Observations

October came, with its glorious colors as the maples, apples, and oaks put on their fall displays.  Time to bring in the last of the harvest and watch the rains start in earnest.

October 3rd, 2020

Well, life keeps moving forward in its usual busy way out here.  We ate well on our Port Neville salmon, and I also made some test salmon jerky … my first attempt at this.  I marinated thin boneless strips overnight, and then dried them out thoroughly on our woodshed’s tin roof over a couple of sunny hot days.  Tastes great, but now we’ll have to see how well it keeps.  Lots of people use freezers to preserve their harvests, but there have always been concerns about what might happen in a SHTF scenario.  When we moved out here, we decided that we would operate without freezers, partly due to the issues of getting and storing sufficient power to run them, but also due to the issues of what happens to your freezer when your system breaks down (and this definitely does happen to OTGers on occasion).  I know lots of people out here refuse to give up on their freezers, but they also end up running their gen sets a lot in the winter.  My salmon jerky experiment is my first attempt at storing meat without using refrigeration or canning it.

Celtic salmon.

We dry quite a bit of fruit (what we don’t eat fresh), doing it slowly over a long period of time during the summer and early fall.  I gradually accumulate 500 mL or 1 L glass canning jars full of dried fruit, which I vacuum seal to preserve the freshness.  The amount of fruit we end up with varies from year to year, depending on which crops did best and produced an amount in excess to what two fruit-hungry Picts can consume.  After a few years of doing this, I have ranks of jars on the shelves containing a bit of this and a bit of that … On that note, our little apple trees did very well for themselves this year, and were so loaded with apples that I had to thin them early in the summer, and then prop their branches later so they wouldn’t break under the load.  That still doesn’t amount to a huge volume of apples, but bodes well for the future.  We didn’t end up with much in the way of foraged apples.  This year, it wasn’t the cranky grizzly that got them, rather it was hoards of hungry Steller’s jays.  They were after our crops as well, but Brennan has been working overtime on jay patrol, and mostly they’ve had to make do with the odd peck or two.

The whole COVID experience this year has really made us aware of the fragility of our human systems.  How quickly these systems can be broken, and how long it will take to repair the parts that have experienced the most damage.  I think here in the Vancouver Island region, we have been very lucky, but I’m not sure how long that luck will hold out.  We are definitely starting to see the impacts of the longer term effects on the economy … shortages of certain supplies, reduced hours at many stores, businesses closed down, etc.  It is hard to predict what things will look like next spring, which stores will be open, what products will still be available.  Lots of people are wearing masks now, and in some stores it is mandatory.  We’ve been using masks for our last four outings, both as a social statement and for whatever protection they will give us.  All of this has made us think very hard about the weaknesses in our own systems, and I think we have worked much harder this summer on a number of fronts than we might have pre-COVID.

Power generation has been a weak point for us since the outset.  We currently have four solar panels rated at 80 W each, and we get lots of electricity from them in the summer, but not enough in the winter.  The long, dark, wet winter days have meant using the gen set.  At the moment, with cheap gas, this is maybe not so bad economically (environmentally, that’s a whole different question), but I doubt gas will remain cheap forever, and our access to fuel is another of our weak links.  Everything must be hauled by jerry can from Sayward Junction, a one-way trip of 16 nautical miles by boat and 11 km by vehicle away from the homestead.  So getting fuel uses fuel, and our cost for fuel is actually much higher than just the value shown on the gas pump.  As a result, we’ve been experimenting with increasing our production of electricity.  We recently invested in a small wind turbine, which we now have on site and mounted on a pole for testing.  However, as things would go, we are currently in the longest stretch of still weather that I’ve every observed in our five years here.  I know the wind will blow again, but it almost seems that buying a wind turbine had some kind of Murphy’s Law impact on the weather.  In the meanwhile, as we’ve been waiting for the wind to blow, I’ve gone back to looking at a small microhydro system for the place.  I’ve been over this ground many times before, and our biggest issue is that our creek is seasonal, and only flows well during major rain events.  Since these usually coincide with the worst of our grey, sunless weather, one might think that hydro would be a good supplement to the solar panels.  However, the designers of small hydro turbines won’t sell you any of their units unless you can prove to them that you have sufficient water to run the unit year round.  I guess they have sold units in the past, and have had complaints from their clients that the units produced insufficient power during the low flow times of the year.  It is really hard to convince these people that I totally understand that we will not be generating energy from a hydro system during the summer, but we could really use a little hydro in the winter!  Anyhow, I might have convinced one supplier to possibly sell us a Watter Buddy unit, should there be any available in our new COVID “normal”.  Ken and I have both agreed that if we can get one of these units now, we should, as it seems that many things are becoming harder and harder to get.  Kind of like if you snooze, you lose.

Vertical axis lantern wind turbine installed on the she shed.

Another one of our fragile links has been transportation, both for getting in and out of “town”, but also for foraging as necessary.  The Awen is a great boat for heavy hauling and bad weather trips, as she has a pilothouse and we travel year round with her in relative comfort, but not so good for getting to shore with a dog.  An experienced person can sail her solo, but for me, she’s definitely a two-person boat.  Our herring skiff is great for sunny weather foraging trips, but absolutely miserable in windy and rainy conditions.  We had hoped the speed boat (the Surfer) would be an intermediate boat for us, but she turned out to be too difficult to beach, and takes a really strong arm to steer.  So … back to our search for a MacGregor, which we hope will be a light enough boat that solo-handling for me (a short, light-weight person with limited boat handling experience) will be possible.  Although I hope never to need to do solo trips, with our remote location, it is best to be prepared for emergencies.  We are also very much missing a little boat for local foraging which we can comfortably overnight in, and which we can easily access the beach with.

MacGregor 26x in action.

I’ve been reading that the real estate market in Vancouver is up.  It makes me wonder what people are thinking when they are selling, and who’s doing the buying.  There’s a lot of restlessness over COVID, I suspect.   I’m hoping that maybe in the end, this will help us address one of our other vulnerabilities … the real need to have another family on the property as we “age in place”.  We’ve worked on this problem before, but with little success (and a few very strange results), but maybe if there are more restless people looking for solutions out there, we might have a greater chance in finding someone suitable to share our site with.  Anyways, still looking and thinking about that one …

We dumped over our potato barrels yesterday … the experiment was both successful and unsuccessful.  We used full 55 gallon barrels, with some hope that we might generate an entire barrel of potatoes.  Although I religiously added soil and compost every couple of weeks, we only got potato production in the lower half of the barrel.  Reading further into the subject, it appears that potato production is limited by the amount of leaves the potato can generate, and here on the coast, we are more sun-limited than in the interior, so the potatoes could only generate about half a barrel of spuds.  It also turns out that excessive hilling may not always generate potato production further up the stem, especially if some other factor, such as light, is limiting.  So next year, we’ll cut the barrels in half and plant twice as many potatoes.  On the positive note, the potatoes we got were beautiful, huge specimens, so they were clearly happy in the barrels, just less productive than has been suggested by some of the articles that you read out there.

Potatoes growing in 55 gallon barrels.

We just finished planting our fall grain plots a couple days ago.  I’ve harvested all the grain from this year.  Some did very well, others not so good.  The best ones seem to be Sangatsuga Barley (hulless), Brazilian Lavras Wheat (hulless), Triticale (hulless), Quinoa, and Buckwheat.  A couple of the hulled wheats did OK as well, but I’m still looking to find hulless varieties, as they are just so much easier to deal with from a harvest perspective.  For some reason, our rye didn’t do as well this year, although it has had good production on other years.  We’ve replanted some of the same grain this fall, but I’ve also put in some purple hulless barley and Kumut wheat that are localized strains that we got from the miller on Vancouver Island.  We are still pondering the possibility of making a grain dehuller.  I found a design for a bicycle dehuller on the web, with some detailed plans, but it involved a fair bit of machining and welding, which we are not, at this time, equipped to do.  Maybe someday when the shop gets built …  In the meanwhile, hulless varieties will probably be our best bet.

I’ve been doing more than my usual amount of seed saving this year.  It’s been quite concerning that most of my regular seed suppliers have been out of stock of many of their seed varieties.  Apparently, there was quite a mad rush for seeds this year as a result of COVID.  I usually save seeds from the easier crops – beans, peas, corn, etc., but this year I’m trying to get seeds from pretty much everything I have in the ground.  In addition to making sure that I will have something to plant next year, I think that saving and replanting seeds more rigorously will help to develop more localized and adapted strains of the crops that I am growing, which, hopefully, might up their yields and increase their hardiness a bit.

Jade pole beans.

We went into town (Campbell River) again early last week, as we had an appointment scheduled with the vet for Brennan’s vaccinations.  The whole experience was less than joyful, both for him and us.  As a result of COVID, the vet wouldn’t allow us into the facility.  The vet tech came out, noosed Brennan, and took him away into the clinic.  I was surprised that he behaved as well as he did!  He was slated for his full set of annual vaccinations, but because I wasn’t allowed inside, there was no possibility of discussion about what was necessary and what was not.  So they gave him a “new” version (at least for Brennan) of the Bordetella (kennel cough) vaccination that involved a nasal spray of “live” attenuated virus.  I might have chosen to skip this vaccination for Brennan, as kennel cough is the least of our concerns – rabies being the most important one, as we have lots of bats around the cabin – and the “live” virus can be a little “hot” at times.  As a result, about two days after his vaccinations, Brennan came down with a minor case of kennel cough, so he’s been hacking and off his food for most of a week, and is only now getting back to normal.  Oh well, hopefully he’s developed some immunity to the virus, but this was not the ideal way to get there.  Makes me wonder if we need to catch COVID in order to acquire immunity as well??

It’s amazing that the COVID infection rate on Vancouver Island is still very low.  I’m not sure if this is due to luck, or the fact that people over here are being more careful, which is limiting spread.  In any case, I’m quite thankful to be here and not in Vancouver.  However, I’m very concerned about the start of the school year with students going back to class.  I think this was possibly a bad move, but we’ll see how it works out.  Unfortunately, children a really good virus spreaders, and classrooms are terrible breeding grounds for viruses – I say this from 12 years of teaching experience!

October 29th, 2020

Well, another couple of busy weeks have flown by!  We’ve been in and out of Campbell River twice in the last two weeks.  It seems that our lives revolve around boats in much the same way that most other peoples’ lives are tied to vehicles (and sometimes ATVs).   We’ve been talking about getting another boat for some time.  We have our big Nauticat sailboat, the Awen, which is a terrific boat, but we really need a second boat capable of crossing the Johnstone Strait as a backup in case we have problems with the Awen.  This is particularly true now that there are so few people living in the Inlet – there really is no one to call upon should we get stranded by boat issues.  We have an old powerboat, but the engine, a 350 Chevy, started giving us some issues (especially the carburetor).  Neither of us are particularly skilled at gas engine repair, and when we tried to find someone who could do the work, it looked like we were going to have to trailer the boat into Campbell River, an expensive proposition.  At the same time, we wanted to move away from an engine which consumed a lot of gas, and get something that has an efficient outboard and sails as primary/secondary propulsion.  So, some time back, we had agreed to get a Macgregor 26X sailboat, a fairly common little sailboat that meets all of our needs.  In addition to being cheap to run and easy to repair, it has a swing keel and a flat bottom, which allows it to be beached.  This makes maintenance easy, and allows us to go beach combing with the boat, all good things to us.  We’ve been on the lookout for a MacGregor in Campbell River, and have missed a couple of ones that have gone up for sale.  They seem to be a real item these days, with lots of people buying boats in response to COVID.  Last week, however, we connected with a seller, got over to Campbell River, viewed the boat, and put some money down.  This week, we completed the sale, and a couple of days ago, towed our new boat home.  She’s sitting contentedly on the beach outside the cabin as we begin the progress of cleaning her up and doing some required maintenance – she runs as is, but, as with all used boats, needs a little TLC in a few spots.

Our “new-to-us” MacGregor – name to be released shortly!

Here we are, two days from Samhain.  We had our first big frost last weekend, and I just managed to get all the tomatoes and pumpkins in before it hit.  The tomatoes that I’ve been growing are mostly smaller ones, about the size of a hen’s egg or smaller, chosen because they are a good size for drying and don’t get too mushy.  As it turns out, I had a whole stack of egg cartons, and these were just the ticket for ripening small tomatoes.  With each tomato placed in an egg cup, I was able to avoid the need to wrap each tomato individually in newspaper, and it seems to be working quite well.  Of course, when the last of the crop came in, I finally ran out of egg cartons and ended up with tomatoes in cardboard boxes.  In spite of the slow year, we have had our best crop of tomatoes ever.  No so with our pumpkins, but you can’t get everything!

All our beans are in now.  I planted a number of new pole bean varieties this year, and although it was a poor year for beans in general, they did pretty much as well as my usual bush beans from years past.  This has convinced me that pole beans are much higher yielding per square foot that bush beans, and I will try them again next year.

Uganda Bantu pole beans.

You’d think that kale would do really well out here, but strangely, most of our brassica crops do poorly.  It seems like there is a reservoir of cabbage fly in the area, and their maggots chew the roots up badly, so turnips, kale, mustard, etc. just don’t grow very well.  I’ve got some hybrid perennial kale/broccoli that I’ve crossed, which is a strong winter vegetable, and it seems to be the only brassica that fairs well in our garden.

We had smoke from the States for a couple of weeks off and on in September.  There were a few days when we decided to stay inside and not do any outdoor work, as the smoke was that thick and irritating to the eyes and lungs.  Now that we are getting our usual fall rains, the smoke has cleared.  It seems to be one of those years … if it isn’t one thing, it’s another.