Autumnal Anticipations

It’s a cool, damp and dark day yet again in south central Alaska along with being the Autumnal Equinox; I’m taking a break from working a plethora of spreadsheets to look out the window.  Uncharacteristically, there’s a fair amount of wind even down close to the ground and combined with the cool drizzle – it is 43.8° F/6.6° C – the yellow and gold birch leaves are rapidly falling to the ground denuding their homes of the last four plus months.  Said leaves are forming a yellow carpet which while pretty can be rather slippery when coated with rain.  The second floor view from my office window looks south into a portion of the boreal forest which makes up part of my yard and is often home to moose as there are a number of dwarf willows intermingled with the other ground based fauna.  Sadly, most of the color change is now just a memory as the weather is feeling more and more like fall.  We have seen a morning temperature below freezing just once to this point which probably explains why these conditions seem to be about a week to a week and a half later than I remember.

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The view from my office window on the Autumnal Equinox, 2016

Even with the windows closed I can hear the dulcet tones of my wind chimes; it occurs to me I haven’t heard much from them this year but then the thick boreal forest which I live within and stretches for tens of miles in every direction does an excellent job of stopping the wind.  It is not uncommon for me to see the tops of birches and spruce – around 35 to 40 feet (10.7 to 12.2 meters) – swaying many feet off center while there is almost no air moving at ground level and even smoke from the burn barrel rises only slightly off vertical.  The sky continues its multiple day run of ragged overcast birthing drizzle along with the occasional rain shower.  Indeed, we’ve seen 0.96” (2.44 cm) of rain across the last 48 hours.  September is this area’s second wettest month of the year averaging 4.2” (10.67 cm) but this September we’ve already seen 4.78” (12.14 cm) of rain which is 113.8% of normal.  We still have eight days left in September and we’re forecast to see rain across most of them so it is very likely we could well see 150% of ‘typical’ monthly rainfall.

I, along with most of the locals, am wishing for a ‘real’ Alaskan winter across 2016 – 2017.  The previous three winters have set records for the warmest and driest on record.  I long to see 5 feet (1.52 meters) of snow pack and taste the raw cold of a -35° F (-37.2° C) morning; while these might seem extreme in a ‘typical’ winter in south central Alaska they are almost ‘normal’.  Heck, I’d even deal with a daylong electrical outage if it were caused by a snowstorm dropping 20” (50.8 cm) of fluffy Talkeetna snow.  But, as we all know, Mother Nature will do as she will and we’re just along for the ride.

With the advent of autumn I’ve begun my ‘winterization’ routines; this being the fourth such repetition I’m beginning to get the routine down.  If the snow holds off for another seven to eight weeks I hope to get a number of blown down trees cut up, sized and stacked for seasoning.  My buddy, Sarge, will be visiting for a couple of weeks in mid-October and we have a number of large projects scheduled like building a wood shed and creating my long time longed for ‘aurorium’ from which I can view the aurora borealis in comfort.  There a myriad of other smaller projects as well but by the time we’re done I hope to be at a point whereby I’m done with ‘home improvement’ efforts for a while and can instead concentrate on ‘home maintenance’ work.

There’s a comfortable rhythm in this lifestyle; one tied so closely to Nature.  My Chickadees, Red-Breasted Nuthatches and similar are now at the feeders continually and I’d guess 85% of the black oilers they select are going into cracks in tree bark and similar as stored food for the upcoming winter.  They are also much more vocal when the feeders are empty; while the Nuthatches will dive bomb me chattering away I swear if I held out my hand a few of the Chickadees would alight and scold me vociferously.  I was seeing lots of moose a few weeks back but now that hunting season is open they are nowhere to be found.  I suspect the bears will soon begin to head up to higher elevations seeking dens in which to sleep away yet another winter.  And the days are really becoming shorter now; within a week or so I will remove the last of my light barriers in the master bedroom in anticipation of clear evenings enhanced by the aurora.  This flow just seems so natural and peaceful.

Alaska is an amazing place and one which is so closely tied to Nature; I love living up here as do my canine companions Anana and Qanuk.  I so enjoy watching Anana come back into the house after her morning ‘constitutional’ to take care of business when the temp first drops below freezing; she has a spring in her step and a glint in her eyes.  Qanuk just goes with the flow; as long as he gets outside to run once a day he’s happy.  I am blessed to have both of them with me up here and they are a huge part of my life in semi-rural Alaska.  And they continually remind me of the importance of living in the ‘now’; no need to worry about the past or the future – just enjoy ‘now’.

Sadly, I have to get back to my spreadsheeting but I also have a warm and peaceful feeling as I hear my Toyo Monitor furnace grumbling as it comes to life.  It has run just twice last week; prior to that it was late April when it last fired up.  I know I’ll be hearing a lot more of it in the coming weeks and I’ll be supplementing it with some now seasoned firewood in the wood burning stove Sarge and I installed last October.  The wind continues to blow the yellow and gold birch leaves around under a dark, ragged cloud cover.  Mmmm, this I just another wonderful Alaskan day..!

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A view of the unmaintained portion of East Barge Drive perhaps 0.6 miles east of my place; I took this image a couple days back when walking ‘the kidz’

Wood Stove Installation Adventures…

What has become a regular occurrence – if two years can produce a ‘regular’ anything – my college friend Sarge flew into Anchorage the last day of September to spend 17 days. He was a regular partner on my many trips to ‘The Great Land’ from 1996 through 2005 and drove the 26’ U-Haul van from SE Michigan to Talkeetna when I relocated in August of 2013. As such he has seen most of what I’ve seen in this majestic state so his visits since I moved up here have centered upon project work. Each year I assemble a list of projects which either require another’s assistance or are beyond my skill set; as Sarge is extremely handy when it comes to so many things he can usually handle my requests. Being a self-employed design engineer he is well suited to taking my requests and developing a ‘fix’ as well as implementing said ‘fix’. Thus when I began making noise about wanting a wood stove in my humble abode he figured it wouldn’t be too major an undertaking.

In a perfect world such a project would most likely be a fairly straightforward proposal but as we all know this is anything but a perfect world and many aspects of this plan were under-rated simply out of ‘regional ignorance’. I had already picked out a compact wood burning stove at Moores’; the unit was ready such that the day after his arrival we drove to the store and picked up the stove. Initially things went well as we utilized the invaluable assistance of Shane at Moores’ along with Sarge’s skills to get the stove positioned and to get the hearth pieces cut and placed after which we did a more precise positioning of the stove. Then we went after the ancillary parts to pipe the exhaust from the stove through the exterior wall to the outside and run the piping to the second story roof. It was at this point things began to get ‘tense’.

Interior Stove Install Almost Complete!

Interior Stove Install Almost Complete!

I budgeted this effort at around $1400. Hah; I quickly learned I was virtually clueless regarding the requirements of installing a wood stove in Alaska. Because of the potential for cold temps the piping not just inside but all the way to the cap just above the second story roof line needed to be insulated double walled piping. Ouch, the price differential between just single wall piping and double wall insulated is huge! This blew my pricing guess-timates right out of the water as while six inch diameter single wall piping is maybe $30/3 feet the double wall insulated variety runs around $90/3 foot section. Then I discovered the costs of all the additional pieces like the thimble, exterior support and the ‘T’ were far more than I had anticipated. Within a matter of days I saw this project pushing $2,000 and then Murphy decided to lend his five cents.

We had hoped to buy a kit for all this ancillary stuff at Moores’; sadly they were out of stock and didn’t even have all the parts required in stock. We went on-line and found cheaper alternatives at Lowe’s but when we checked they showed out of stock at the Wasilla location and both Anchorage stores. We finally found a good deal through Amazon.com and placed the order on Sunday, October 4th. All week I monitored the order but there were no updates. In addition I sent two emails to the third party vendor inquiring as to shipping methods. As of Monday, October 12th Amazon.com sent me an email informing me they couldn’t verify anything about the order. I uttered a few choice words, emailed Amazon.com, canceled the order and sent in a blistering review regarding the customer service of the third party vendor.

Sarge and I then visited Moores’ and picked up most of the parts in the kit; the operand word here is ‘most’. They were short two critical pieces and wouldn’t have them until Friday at the earliest. This was far too late so we purchased the items they had, beat feet home and went on-line. Mr. Murphy must have been chortling because only the Lowe’s on the south side of Anchorage had what we needed! We loaded up and left around 11:30 in thick freezing fog which thankfully dispersed just north of Willow as the air temp climbed to 40°F. The long trip was uneventful and we found the Lowe’s and then discovered they had the complete kit at a substantial savings over purchasing the separate parts. We purchased the kit and the other part we needed, jumped in the Escape, stopped at Fred Meyer and Costco and eventually pulled into the driveway at 17:55. A long day but we were feeling good given we had all the parts.

Tuesday rolled around and so did the rain; initially just drizzle but strengthening to showers by daylight. Given most of the remaining work involved putting up the exhaust pipe from maybe five feet above the first floor all the way to just above the second story roof and a cut into said metal roof was required to allow the exhaust ‘stack’ to remain close to the exterior wall and thus supported we spent most of Tuesday awaiting a decrease in the rain. I took time off to fill in at KTNA for the noon newscast; when I returned Sarge had installed the exterior ‘T’, the stack support and one length of double wall insulated pipe as well. Only the increasing rain had stopped him from continuing on the exterior work. But the weather refused to cooperate and we had to be content working other projects indoors for the remainder of the day.

Exterior Assembly Underway!

Exterior Assembly Underway!

Wednesday dawned mostly clear but some definite rain had occurred around 05:30 and everything was wet. As we awaited daylight the skies began to cloud up and weather radar showed showers moving in. I checked the NWS forecast and determined we’d be seeing rain by 11:00 which would probably last into the mid-afternoon. But the same forecast called for clearing overnight with continued clearing into Thursday morning yielding mostly sunny conditions with a high around 50°F. Given this we agreed to continue the outdoor work while it remained dry and managed to get three 36” lengths of the exhaust pipe mated, stabilized and sealed. This left us just two more pieces along with the cap but also still needing to cut the hole in the roof. We decided to switch off and finish some remaining projects while we awaited the forecast better conditions on Thursday. I was more than a bit concerned about doing so as I know how wrong weather forecasts can be up here but I also felt the safety factor was paramount and no one wants to work at the end of a 20’ ladder in rain while sporting an electrically driven ‘Saws-All’.

Thursday dawned partly cloudy and continued to improve with the sunshine slowly warming the air but also encouraging a light breeze. Not to be put off we visited Moores’ around noon and rented a 24’ fiberglass ladder which we hauled back to my place and set up. It took Sarge two and a half hours to extend the exhaust pipe, cut a clean hole through the wood and metal roof, add the final piece of exhaust pipe, place the stabilizing ‘apron’ over the pipe and add the cap. Then it was time to return the ladder and finish up some final sealing and cosmetic work in the house. By this point we were tired and agreed to wait until Friday morning to install the fire bricks inside the stove and test the whole thing.

Sarge working on slightly enlarging the hole through the roof

Sarge working on slightly enlarging the hole through the roof

Friday was damp and drizzling so we definitely guessed right regarding the day to do the exterior work! The jigsaw puzzle that was installing the fire brick required a bit of thought but we soon had it ready to go. I assembled a small fire and attempted to draft the unit. Because it has ‘heat-a-lator’ piping in place there is no single large opening to the exhaust piping; this made trying to draft the set up difficult. I thought I had it and lit the fire; within a minute the main floor was awash in smoke! Thankfully I found my heat gun, cranked it up to ‘high’ and started heating the top interior of the stove. Within four or five minutes I had an upward flowing draft and could re-light the fire which this time drafted properly. It was a fitting end to see smoke slowly curling out of the chimney above the second floor roof line!

The finished product ready for use!

The finished product ready for use!

So now I have something I’ve wanted since I first moved in; a full functional wood stove! This will cut down on fuel oil costs and also draw out the place in winter; in addition I will have reliable back up heating system should the power fail and the generator run out of gas. My next chore is to locate a local source of seasoned firewood and get it delivered…