Sunday, April 24, 2016

The birds of March (and April)

Although Julius Caesar had a little trouble around the Ides of March, we had a great trip to the cabin in early March. Here are photos of a few of the bird friends who stopped by to visit, both during our March trip and another in the 3rd week of April. 

The gray jay above is coming in for a landing on our deck; at left, you can see the same bird, a few seconds later, about to land (note the shadow under the bird's feet... not quite touched down yet). These friendly birds are also known as Canada jays, whiskey jacks, and camp robbers, the last name due to their habit of stealing food that any human has been foolish enough to leave unattended. 

Of course, we feed them deliberately, and delight in their antics. They are a northern species that lives year-round in the boreal forests of Canada and far northern Minnesota/Wisconsin, but is seldom seen south of there. Males and females look alike, at least to humans (presumably, the birds can tell). They cache food in trees, and survive on it through winter. So we like to put out high-quality items such as raisins, chopped walnuts and unsalted peanuts. They breed in late winter, incubating their eggs even in below-zero temperatures. Last year, our resident pair of gray jays brought their three hatchlings to our deck to feed in spring, and we're hoping to be lucky enough to see that again this year.

Another winter bird is the redpoll, whose breeding range is in the Arctic tundra. They drop down to Canada and the northern states in the winter, and will eagerly feed on nyjer thistle seeds. Above is a group of them on our deck, stuffing their bills. 

They are somewhat nervous, and will take flight at the slightest noise or movement... the sound of my camera shutter sent them flying, as seen on the right. They would often fly to the nearby spruce tree, where they would wait until the deck appeared safe once again, then return to resume their feeding. 

(As always, you can click on any of the photos here to see an enlarged version, and a film strip will also appear along the bottom with all the photos from this post so you can click through the enlarged versions.)

We also saw boreal chickadees in March, and again in April. This is another species that is found only in Canada and the far north. They are distinguished from the much more common black-capped chickadee, which is found throughout the northern two-thirds of the U.S., by their rufous sides and brown cap. The four photos below show a boreal chickadee, with a black-capped chickadee at the bottom right for comparison.

By the time we returned in April, the redpolls were gone from the area, but there were a lot of dark-eyed juncos in the area. Although they may stay in the far northeastern corner of Minnesota all year, their major breeding/summering area is farther north, in Canada, and we see them primarily in spring and late fall. Like the redpolls, they enjoy feeding on nyjer thistle seeds, but will also visit the feeder to peck at black-oil sunflower seeds. I didn't get a good shot of the juncos in April, but here's a shot from last October, when they were passing through on their south-bound migration, showing a female junco that had flown into our deck-door glass and was stunned. I held it gently in my hands to warm it up, and it regained its strength after a few minutes and flew off. Sweet little birds. 
In April, we also saw the first white-throated sparrows, which will be in the area until next fall. The white-throated sparrow has a very distinctive call that many (including us) consider to be the "sound of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area." They are very special birds, and quite fetching, with their yellow and white head stripes and distinct white throat patch. 

Finally, the purple finches arrived in great numbers, and took over the feeder. These lovely birds have a stunning song, and are a real treat to look at. The famous birder, Roger Tory Peterson, described them as a "sparrow dipped in raspberry juice" and that's exactly what they look like. On the left, they are feeding during a strong rain, so they are pretty soaked. At the top right, you see a male (the red one) and a female eating nyjer seeds on the deck, and below that is a male in the sun. Gorgeous.

Thanks for looking at my bird photos! I find them a very challenging subject because they move so fast, and also my longest lens isn't long enough to really get close to them. But I hope to get better this season. I'll do another post soon with some cabin shots.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Cabin part 14: Rock on: Landscaping

Finally, everything came together at the very end of August, and Dean Berneking (who had done our septic system install) was ready to work on stabilizing our landscape. The photo above shows a before-and-after look at one of the areas that was causing so much trouble; it's on the north side of the cabin. The left-hand photo shows the unstable slope, and you can see the gullies where it was washing out. Each rain made it worse, and we were pretty anxious to get this stabilized before the whole thing washed away. (The right-hand photo shows what it looks like after the boulder retaining wall was built.)

Dean had located some big boulders that we looked at with him in July. On the last day of August, he and his partner, Doug Finn, hauled in four big dump-truck loads of boulders and dumped them in our driveway; the first load is being dropped in the photo above right. Yikes! What a racket. Dean pushed the first batch into a pile (photo at left) while Doug got ready to dump another load. After a total of four loads, this is what we had on our driveway:

The next day, Dean got straight to work. Below you can see him hauling one of the huge boulders in his large, yellow excavator (he also had a smaller, orange "mini" excavator on the job site, as well as a bobcat-type machine and two big dump trucks.) In the second shot, I am looking down on him from the deck. The next two shots show him positioning rocks to create a boulder retaining wall in the area shown in the photo at the very top of this page.

Dean worked placing the rocks, while Doug acted as his "eyes on the ground." It's hard to believe the finesse Dean was able to use in placing these monstrous boulders.

It took all day to build the retaining wall shown here. The ground was shaking and the entire process was somewhat unnerving. At the end of the day, when Dean left, he looked at the massive pile of boulders and said, "If this washes away... don't call me!"

The next day, they set to work on the other side of the cabin. Here, we had a very unstable path that we had been using to walk from the parking area to the lower level, and it was a really miserable, slidey, sorry excuse for a path. Dean built rustic stone steps, held in place with boulder retaining walls.

The photo at the top left (below) shows what the area looked like before he started. The next photo shows what it looked like when he pulled up all the fill so he had room to work. The yellow excavator was in the parking lot at this point, and the red mini excavator was down next to the lower level of the cabin; the two photos at the bottom of this group show the work in progress. You can see smoke where he's dropped a boulder onto another in the last photo; often, there were sparks as the big rocks hit each other.

The next series of photos shows the actual construction of the steps. At first, it was hard to tell what he was doing, but the shape of the stairway soon became clear. The last photo is looking down on the stairway from the deck; the perspective makes it hard to perceive the steps.

Dean also built a small boulder retaining wall next to our walk-out patio area on the lower level, and built a path from the walkout onto the lower driveway. You can see before-and-after shots of the lower level below. And below that, you can see the finished southeast corner, including part of the boulder wall he built on the first day. As you can see, Ian is going to have to do some rock facing to fill in above the boulders on this side (and also on the other long side; it's just too difficult to predict exactly where the boulders will end up).

Below is a series of shots that show the top of the step area, as it blends into the parking lot and entry area. Dean smoothed out the driveway and parking area, adjusting the grade to divert the water into a ditch along the edge of the driveway or into other areas where it won't cause gullies and washouts.

Finally, here's a photo of a phenomenally beautiful sunset that we enjoyed on Tuesday evening (the day that the first retaining wall was built). This was taken from the deck, overlooking the lake. Beer in hand. Life is good.

Cabin part 13: Everybody must get stoned ... stone facing, that is!

We were very fortunate to find Ian Johnson, a Grand Marais-based mason, to install stone facing around the above-ground foundation below the logs. We thought we'd have to settle for "cultured stone" (that is, cast concrete rocks) but he was up for the challenge of working with natural stone.

The first thing we had to do, once we worked out details with him, was to board up a potential window that was in the concrete foundation on the west side (in the photo at right, you can just see the temporary plywood that we'd had over the window opening ... it has some very yellow Great Stuff foam around it, and over a splice in the plywood). This was a huge, major job for us ... not only was Bruce still not quite up to par (I had to run the circular saw, for example, as his hand was too weak to control it), but we had to dig out the fill around the base. That fill was extremely unstable, and we had dozens of "landslides" that meant we had to dig out the new stuff to clear the area we needed to board up.

Next, we had to remove the old lumber wrap (the white stuff that looks like Tyvek). Then we had to put a wretched, hard-to-control material called Norpro (a thick black plastic film with super-sticky adhesive on the back) over everything to waterproof it, so that Ian could put his metal lath over it.

On our way up to the cabin to work on this wretched task, we stopped at the stone yard in Duluth to pick out our stone. Here's what a "pallet" of stone looks like. This is one of the types of stone we chose. It is from New York state. The other stone we chose is a rusty, yellowish-brown stuff from Montana. We went with 75% of the New York stuff, and 25% of the rusty stuff.

We spent a very intense few days excavating the window opening and boarding it up properly, then getting the sticky black film on it. By the end of it, we were so beat, we could hardly hobble. (We are getting too old for this kind of stuff!)

I had agreed to lead a nature walk on Wild Edibles of the Gunflint Trail on Sunday, July 26. Bruce's niece Carey and her husband Kipp, along with their 6-year-old son Beck and 5-year-old daughter Merritt, came up for the weekend, timing it so they could come along on the nature walk. They are some of our favorite people in the world, and it was nice to do something other than work on that *@#! wall for the weekend.

Unfortunately, the weather was scorching, with temps in the low 90s and very high humidity... not so good for hiking through the brush looking for wild plants! But everyone--particularly the kids--enjoyed swimming in the lake on the days before the hike.

Carey and Kipp shared in meal prep, which was great and gave me a chance to kick back a bit. As a treat, I made a campfire berry cobbler for dinner one night while they were visiting, and our neighbors Deb and Oscar Meyer also came by in time to have a scoop.

Ian showed up bright and early on Monday morning, and got right to work. The process of installing stone facing is pretty interesting to watch. First, he puts tar paper over everything, to provide a moisture barrier.

Then he attaches metal lath (a specialized type of screen-like material) with screws. You can see a bit of lath in the photo at right. The area to the left of the door has the lath on it, while the area to the right is where Bruce and I filled in the old window opening and covered it with that nasty black sticky film. Ian covered that all up with tar paper before proceeding.

Next he smears a thin coat of mortar, called a scratch coat, over the lath. This has to dry overnight before he can start setting the stones. He worked on various tasks in sections; in the photo below left, he has put the scratch coat on the lath to the left of the door and below it, and he has also got the tar paper and metal lath on the area where the window opening had been.

Now for the fun part! Ian sits on the ground and holds a piece of stone on his knee and whacks at it with a chisel and hammer, or just holds it in his hand and chips at it with his hammer, to get it into the shape he wants. (It takes a  good eye to figure this stuff out, and Ian is really good at that.) I was amazed when I realized that he never wore gloves, and when I asked him about it he just shrugged and said that his hands were his gloves. He's got pretty tough skin. His black lab, Sam, is in the background.

He "butters" the back of each stone with some of the same mortar he used for the scratch coat, then puts it in place on the wall. Unbelievably, it does not fall off; he just wriggles it a bit and holds it for a minute or two, and it stays in place. His yellow lab, Tess, is helping out in these photos.

This continues until the whole area is filled with stone. It's really something to watch him trying out various pieces of stone--which, as you can see, are irregularly shaped--to see what might fit, and then tailoring that piece so it fits just right. He's a real artist at this.

After all the stone was applied, he did the tuckpointing--basically, a process like putting grout between  tiles. We had to leave before he got the tuckpointing done, so he sent us photos. And in the two side-by-side shots below, you can see what the stone looked like before and after the tuckpointing. (I'm not sure why the color looks so different between the two shots. I know that he washed the stone after the tuckpointing was done, so that may account for some of it. Also, the light was probably different when I took each of these shots. The shot on the right is more accurate for color and texture.)

We were so pleased with his work when we came back and the entire cabin foundation had been surfaced with stone, and tuckpointed. Here's what it looked like when we came back a week or so later. Next step: Getting the landscaping done. We've had terrible problems with erosion, because so much of the area around the cabin is fill that has been added over the years and it was becoming terribly unstable. Every time it rained, we had new gullies appearing, and more fill washing down the hill. (The next post shows the landscaping.)

While we were up on this trip, we installed a new kitchen sink and faucet--in a temporary plywood counter. We started planning the bathroom, which will be in the lower level. We had a bunch of work to do before the plumbers could come in and hook up the water line to the filtration system and water heater, and also connect everything to the drain lines that go to the septic tanks. Always something!

Throughout the spring and summer, we'd been enjoying the antics of a local gray jay family. The parents brought their three babies to our place in May, but by July they were down to one youngster. We later read that the dominant youngster apparently drives off any others, because there won't be enough food for the family during winter (gray jays are year-round residents on the Northland, and apparently survive largely on food that they cache). Here's one of them enjoying a walnut snack on our deck in August.

Cabin part 12: Spring and early summer 2015

It has been a very looong time since I posted anything on this blog. All I can say is, it's been a very busy year, with lots of trips to the cabin interspersed by intense periods of working on client projects at home.

In May, we started work in earnest. One of our main goals was to install three exterior doors and three windows in the lower level. We also planned to put the board-and-batten siding on the north gable (time to cover up those ugly white Tyvek triangles!). We also contracted with Michael Valentini to install our fire suppression (sprinkler) system, and to install the line to the lake to draw water.

We had lots of fun bird activity, starting with hummingbirds in May. Above, you can see a male (on the left) and a female, visiting the feeder that hangs off our deck about 10 feet above the ground. As in the past, the male defended the feeder aggressively, driving off all other hummers who dared to visit "his" feeder.

The lupines were very plentiful this year, and really quite stunning from early June (photo at right) through Labor Day. Although they are non-native plants (which means that many people think they should be eliminated), they are a hallmark of the North Shore. (As always, you can click on any photo on this page to see an enlargement, and there will be a row of all photos along the bottom that you can scroll through.)

We desperately need a shed to store tools, wood, and various materials. After considering many options, we bought this temporary tent-shed, and it has been a life-saver. We hope to put up a real shed next spring; hopefully, the tarp walls of our tent-shed will withstand the winter snows and storms. For now, this tent-shed is really doing the job.

The Gunflint Trail (where our cabin is located) has had a number of major wildfires in the last two decades. As a result, many people who have lake access install sprinkler systems, which pump water from the lake and spray it over the property through a network of sprinkler heads mounted on posts. We had our system installed in May. The pump, which runs on propane or gasoline, is shown at right; it's on the shore and has a water hose that runs into the lake. It's got more than a dozen sprinkler heads, including one on top of the cabin. The firefighters up there say that these systems absolutely make the difference between a cabin burning down when fire sweeps through, or surviving. I hope we never have to find out!

After a series of manufacturing errors (which started last year), we finally received our three exterior doors. They are white in the photos, but we'll be painting them later this year. Bruce and I tackled the most difficult one first--the deck door, which had to be re-framed to accommodate a smaller door. Since it's in the log level, this is somewhat of a challenge, as we have to build special "bucks" that allow the logs to settle over time (meaning we can't attach the door jambs directly to the logs; see the bottom of my earlier post for details on that).

Unfortunately, during a period of intense work in early June, Bruce got a pinched nerve in his neck and was virtually unable to work for about a month. He lost all strength in his hand, and had a lot of pain in his right shoulder, elbow and arm for about a month. It slowly got better, but we decided to hire a crew to install the other two doors and also two windows in the lower level. Here's Jim Baird installing the main entry door that leads to the parking lot. He also put up the board-and-batten on the north gable (with assistance from Kevin and Brian, all part of Michael Valentini's crew who had installed out sprinkler system) and finished the tricky soffit install under the peak over the main entry door.

 Bruce was starting to get some strength back in his hand by the end of June and was able to put the hardware on the doors. They look really sharp. The door to the deck is shown in the photo at right. Everything will look even better once we get the doors painted!

We still need to put interior trim on all the windows, throughout the cabin. At this point, it will probably be next year before we get around to that; we decided to concentrate on the exterior this year.  Two of the windows in the lower level can be seen in the photo at right. The windows, including the one in the door, really opened up that space, which was rather cave-like before.

Michael Valentini's crew also installed the lake water system, which draws water out of the lake and into a pressure tank in the crawlspace below the cabin. We opted for a high-tech water line that has a built-in heating cable along the entire line; it's called Carapace, and is manufactured in Canada, where they know something about cold temperatures. The Carapace heat system has sensors all along the line, that constantly measure the temperature and send heat only where it's needed. This is a big contrast to simply running a heating cable through the center of the water line (which is a more common method) because the entire line isn't being heated all the time. We'll see how it works once the snow flies. The Carapace is in the photo at left; it's the blue tubing that's wrapped up in plastic. It was installed inside the solid (non-perforated) drain tile on the left of the photo (the black stuff), which also contains the power line for the pump that is in the lake.

We had a bunch of pine siskins roll through in June also. They really take over the feeder when they are around, driving off the goldfinches, chickadees and purple finches. But they seem to move around in big groups that range fairly widely, so they are here today, gone tomorrow. The group in the photo at right is one of the smaller batches; at times, we had a dozen or more all trying to feed at once, and fighting for position at the feeder ports. They are aggressive little buggers.

I'll throw in one more shot of a beautiful mixed-color group of lupines. This was taken at the very end of June. Coming up in the next post: Stone facing on the cabin foundation!

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Cabin part 11: Making visible progress!

The cabin finally has been caulked and stained, and we've finished the face of the dormer; it is starting to look like the real deal. Just for fun, I'll post a few shots from earlier in the process, so you can see the changes; all were taken from roughly the same position. The two just below the big photo were taken the day the cabin was moved onto our lot at the beginning of October 2013, and at the end of October 2013, when we put a temporary tarp roof on the cabin to hold it through the winter. Below that are two shots from March 2014, when the rafters and dormer frame were added; a door was also cut into the side. The last set of shots are from May 15 and May 29, when the peak over the door was added and the soffits and roofing were completed. (As always, you can click on a photo to see an enlarged version of it.)

We just returned from several weeks up there, to oversee the installation of the actual windows, and also the caulking and staining of the exterior. The stain is a little darker than we'd anticipated, but overall we like it a lot.

The cabin now has four windows in the log level. Two were cut into the logs when we bought the cabin shell: the square one on the north wall of the cabin (visible in the first photos above), and another on the east wall, which is opposite the wall with the door in the photos above. We also added a double casement next to that side door on the west wall (you can see the new window in the large photo), and a single casement on the south wall, which is where our deck is (that's the side that overlooks the lake).

Bruce and I had installed two windows in the dormer face in July, and on September 7 and 8, we put up the board-and-batten siding and window trim. Next year we'll finish the gable ends; right now they are covered with plywood.

At right is a photo of me working on the dormer face. I did most of the work on the scaffold, while Bruce ran the saw on the ground. I had figured out the dimensions and spacing for the window trim and board-and-batten siding, so I measured for each piece and then installed the boards Bruce cut. I also caulked around the windows and along the board edges where needed, and did some sanding and staining on the big cedar logs. Two days on the scaffolding is enough for me!

We had gas lines run to the two stove/fireplace appliances in mid-September; now all we need is a propane tank to fuel them for cold weather. We're in a race to get this stuff done before the snow flies, and we may--or may not--get it done before we have to close up for the winter. We're also waiting for the actual doors to be delivered; once they are in, we'll be close to buttoned up for winter.