Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Snow! But not enough to ski on.

The anticipated event has occured. I woke up to snow on the ground. Not much as you can see:
Certainly not enough to ski on. But one can be certain that more is coming. The roads are clear; there is not enough to plow. It flurried up to noon; now it is just partly cloudy, temperatures about 5C.

Monday, October 26, 2009

A scenic interlude

I really have to keep up with the Joneses, er, blogsters. There are people who blog every day. I admire them, but I find this difficult. There are lots of things to do in a day. Future bloggers, please note: It is incredibly easy to create a blog. It is much harder to feed it. Well, when in a pinch, resort to scenery. I could have entitled this "The Four Seasons" a la Vivaldi, but that would be trite. Alaska has incredible scenery. For starters, here's dawn over Little Lonely Lake, 300 m walking from home:
These dawn shots are always tricky, from a technical point of view. If you meter as in a snapshot, the built-in meter is ovewhelmed by the sun and you get a washed-out picture. Have to meter on a darker spot, freeze the exposure (button halfway down on a digital cam) and then compose and shoot without letting up on the button.

Next, a beaver and his lodge.
This is (forgive me) a shot of Igor, as I called him (it might be Ivana, though). Igor and Ivana built a lodge (foreground) and spent the winter there. They are no longer there, an unexplained Alaskan mystery. You can see Igor/Ivana about the middle of the picture. Here's another shot of the lodge:
If you look carefully, you will see a float plane in the background. This is the quintessence of Alaska. Soon, the floats will be replaced by skis, or the plane stored for winter.

Wild life is not confined to beavers:
As you can see from the handsome ducks (on Little Lonely Lake) snapped here. There are days I want a 600mm tele. But the camera to mount it on would bankrupt me. Sigh.

There are lot of lakes whithin walking distance. Here is Crystal Lake:
The Kayak is as quiet on the lake as the scenery. No fumes, no noise. On a lake, a few strokes of the paddle will do twenty meters. Ah, summer. But eventually the fall cometh:
This is the Susitna river, which flows from the Susitna glacier. Geographically I live in the Matanuska-Susitna borough, which takes its name from the rivers which drain the glaciers with the same name. Got that? There will be a quiz at the end of the lecture.

Well, eventually, winter, like the Iceman, cometh:
This is Little Lonely Lake in midwinter. There are lots of nice things about winter. For instance, I can get on the skis, go about 2 Km and I get a lovely view of Denali, weather gods cooperating:
In the middle of the picture is Denali. Maps and Geography books call it "Mt. McKinley" but nobody else in Alaska does. It is 6194 meters -- the highest in North America. Since it rises almost from sea level, it has the highest sweep of any mountain, including Everest, because Everest rises from a --- ohhh call it 5000m level. Of course, when you get up to the 9000-meter level you have other problems besides the vertical, i.e. Oxygen lack. Denali is about 200 Km north of my house, according to the map.

And to conclude the scenic tour, here's Mount Susitna from almost exactly the same spot, on a different day:
Mount Su is the anchor point, so to speak, of the Alaska Range, which delimits the Mat-Su valley from the west. On the East, a similar function is performed by the Talkeetna mountains, full of legendary pots of gold. Literally. People still extract gold from the Talkeetnas, and trespassers may not be persecuted, but they will probably be shot. By the way, the place where the last two pictures were taken is called the Willow Swamp. It is just about impassable in the summer, but in winter you can ski on it.

Alaska is truly wonderful, four seasons and all.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Winter coming on -- break out the looms.

Fall has lingered on this year. The grass is actually green, and it has rained a lot. No snow yet. Temperatures mild, about five frosts this month, always above zero C in the afternoon . Can this idyll go on forever? Of course not. So it is time to think about my winter crafts, which can be done indoors, because soon the -10C, -20C and -30C temperatures will be here. One of my favorites is weaving. I have put together a number of looms, of which I have saved two. My favorite is the Inkle loom, which is a loom adapted to weaving long narrow pieces such as belts. My currrent version looks like this:
It is strictly home-made, of course. I suppose you could buy one, but I'd consider that a copout.

The Inkle loom originated in England, as far as anyone knows. My father built one and that was my introduction to the contraption. As you can see, it consists of a horizontal beam and (in my case) three uprights -- the classic Inkle has but two -- with pegs. The long threads, called the warp in the trade, go around the pegs in zigzag fashion. At the left is the tensioning arrangement, held down by a bolt (I need a wrench to tighten it, wing nuts are not up to the job no matter what the books say). An inkle takes a continous warp, that is, there is one great long thread going around all those zigzags. You cross it with the weft threads. Once you get the hang of it, it is not too hard.
By the way, the reason I put in a third upright on the loom is so that I could do short belts. It is disconcerting to come out with a three or four meter belt. I know of no person with a four-meter waist. In the picture, I use a shuttle to hold the weft. My right hand raises or lowers the shed -- the place where the warp threads go. It does require some concentration:
All great fun, and since I picked up the yarn at a thrift store for oh, three bucks, it is not expensive. Yarn, however, is sticky stuff; it is hard to do the sheds. I have since switched to embroidery or craft thread, just as my father did about 40 years ago.

A good book to start from is Helene Bress, Inkle Weaving; in these days of Google I no longer do citations in full. The book that started it all is Mary M. Atwater's Byways in Hand Weaving which dates from 1954. I doubt that it is still in print, but you never know. Maybe Dover has come to the rescue. Wonderful book.

Now, we come to real looms, on which you might weave cloth. These are horses of another color. For one thing, a full floor-standing loom takes up more space than a grand piano, and costs about as much. Roy Underhill's The Eclectic Woodworker has a description of building a full four-harness loom. I could do it, just. But it would be a strain, and I have no place to put it! So I built a two-harness table loom.
My son calls this thing the Macrame Torture Rack. It has a 96-thread wide capacity, the white strings with knots tied in them to guide the warp. In the picture, I am doing a 3 cm belt on it as an experiment. It works, but it needs some major revisions. Tying 2x96 heddles (the name of the strings with the knots) is excruciating work which I do not wish to repeat any time soon. Commercial looms use manufactured, machine-made heddles, and I envy them. Sort of. Back in the day, you tied your own heddles or didn't weave. With two harnesses, your options for patterns are limited. But it's all clean fun. Maybe this winter, Macrame Torture Rack v.2.0 will emerge.

On the other hand, there is the Navaho loom, a simple contrivance on which the Navahos have woven incredible rugs. If you Google R.M. Meluch, a Sci-Fi author who is a favorite of mine, you will come up with her home page. Click on "Navaho Loom".

I am surely tempted to build a Navaho loom. Only I will weave Navaho placemats; I have no room for a rug loom.

Friday, October 9, 2009

A bullrake

In the old days, you cut your hay with a scythe. The scythe is a marvellous tool. See, for instance, the videos and pictures on :: Scythe Supply :: Scythe blades, snaths, equipment.
I have no hay to cut, but I do have a great deal of brush. So, after much soul-searching I bought a scythe with a brush blade on it (45 cm long) from the above link. Their kit comes with scythe blade, custom-fit European-style handle, a peening kit (anvil and dies, you supply the hammer), instructions, and The Scythe Book by David Tresemer and Peter Vido. This was definitely a Good Idea (tm). Oh, yes, a whetstone and a waterproof sheath (called a Steinfass in Drew Langsner's book Handmade). The stone is a wet stone, so your sheath must be waterproof.

It takes a bit of doing to master the thing, and I do not consider myself an expert scytheperson. See some of the videos that are lined form, above.
But I will say this: I have tried everything to remove brush, short of a brush hog (USD 5000, more or less) mounted on a tractor. I have tried machetes, or what passes for a machete in this country. They are not real machetes, they are long flat knives with no backhook. After half an hour my back aches. I have tried the motorized trimmers with Lexan blades. After half an hour I feel like a milkshake. They vibrate, make an awful racket, and run out of gas all too soon. And one big sapling breaks the blade. A lawn mower is totally outclassed by the Alaska brush, a mixture of fireweed, small birches, small aspen, and the never-ending alder. And you have to push the blasted thing. No way.

With a scythe, I can go for two hours and feel tired but not exhausted. So far so good, but what's this bullrake thing? Well, the scythe piles the brush up in neat windrows. Now you have to do something with the windrows. For this we use a bullrake.

A bullrake is just a very large rake. This one was made up out of bits and pieces of logs I had lying around, shaved on the shaving horse, of course, and whacked into holes drilled into the crosspiece. I have a double handle on this thing, because it is heavy; I also left lots of room on the tines on top because I thought it would behave like a garden leaf rake. It didn't.

What it does instead is to roll the brush windrows up onto cylinders. So I don't need the tines on top; I will cut them off. Sometime. So now I had these long tubes of "straw." What to do with them? Why, build a compost pile, of course!
According to Eliot Coleman, straw is the best material for a compost heap, because it decomposes eventually and all the air space promotes circulation, and I think this is pure serendipity.

The bullrake is another example of a tool that has been (almost) lost. In the old days you would have had many of them, for your crew to get in the hay. Nowadays nobody knows what a bullrake is, because hay is made with giant tractors and equally gigantic equipment that produces vast amounts of low-quality hay. It is low quality because it is not allowed to dry properly ("tedded" is the word). It is not allowed to dry properly because the machinery doesn't always work if you do. The more old-fashioned your equipment, the better the hay.

In my case I'm after brush clearing, but it's nice to get straw for free. Oh, yes, and you can use your bull rake to gather your grains, such as oats, after you harvest them with your scythe. Plans for the future. My plans (unlike Darth Spader's) are not yet complete.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Mush! No snow? No problem!

Many people in Alaska enjoy driving dog teams in the winter. Indeed, when the famed Iditarod race is going on, nobody pays any attention to anything else. But dogs must be trained, starting right now. And there is no snow on the ground! What's a musher to do? Ah, no problem:
Simply hook your team to your ATV (or 4-wheeler, or quad bike) and you're set to go. This ingenious Alaskan solution to the no-snow problem could become a fad, come to think of it; you could even find an ATV with a bad engine on the cheap. Excellent gas mileage, too; but you do have to clean up after the dogs. Not recommended in urban areas.

The dogs, by the way, are started, steered, and stopped with voice commands. "Gee", "haw", "whoa", "let's go" will get you left, right, stop, and start.

More on dog racing will come later.