Posted tagged ‘cabin life’

overnight at Roundrock

June 7, 2021

The dogs and I made a dash down to Roundrock on Friday afternoon. My wife had driven to St. Louis the day before to help care for Small Paul, leaving me unsupervised. My work day ended early, so I packed a few things, got the dogs into the truck (harder than it should be), and drove to my little cabin with plenty of daylight to spare. (Also, it was neighborhood garage sale weekend where I live, so I was happy to get away.)

I had no firm agenda for the trip, in large part because the dogs need to be managed. The little one, who is willful and disobedient, is coyote and bobcat bait, so I either have to keep my eyes on him all the time or shut him in the cabin. The big one can protect himself from any likely predators but not from his own insecurities. He is terrified of distant gunshots and nearby buzzing flies. Either will send him into the corner of the cabin where he’ll pant and drool. And if he’s not kept stimulated (that is, me throwing a stick for him), then he will pace through the trees in the same circle. He probably needs a therapist.

So getting anything done was going to be spotty. I had an idea of weed whipping the grassy area in front of the cabin, but when I saw it I realized it could wait till a later visit; it wasn’t very tall yet. I also thought about spreading more gravel around the cabin, but that would have involved pulling up a lot of grass and weeds first (see the background in the photo above), plus the gravel pile is diminishing, and I want to have some left for when my NYC grands come for a visit next month. I expect playing in that to be the biggest hit of their visit.

But I did have some unfinished business from my two most recent trips. I had cut down a tree earlier with a specific intention two trips ago. On my last trip I did a little refining of the stump, but the screws I had brought to finish the work were the wrong size (their heads were too small), so that left getting the job done for a later visit, this last weekend’s visit.

Well, I had better screws this time, so I got to finish what I had started. Behold:

That weather vane had perched on the peak of my garage roof for many years until we had a ridge vent put in. (We later had the ridge vent removed. Too leaky.) For at least a decade the weather vane collected dust in my basement, but when the four offspring were here for Mothers Day, they took some time to paw through their things in the basement, and this resurfaced with their efforts. So out to the cabin it went, and after three visits, I managed to get it installed, more or less vertically, and showing the cardinal points as accurately as I can without knowing the angle of declination for my bit of the world. (Basically, your compass doesn’t point to true north.)

And so the job was done. Sunset was going to be around 8:30 that evening, and campfires are at their best after dark, but building a successful one-match fire takes sufficient preparation, and I wanted the wood to burn down to mostly glowing coals by dark (so I didn’t have to worry about controlling a loose fire in the dark — I’ve never had a fire get out of control, and maybe it’s because I worry about it so much that I can say that).

My only other desire for this visit was to hear a whippoorwill call, and that generally happens after dark, so staying up tending a campfire seemed like a good way to be in the right place at the right time.

Seemed like, anyway. I did not hear the bird even once. That was disappointing. I think this is the prime season of the year for hearing them too. I’ve read that they are diminishing in their range, but surely my forest can support a few.

I eventually retired to the cabin for the night and slept in until the shameful hour of 5:30! I had been ambitious to make myself a hot breakfast (oatmeal and tea) and give the dogs a can of store-bought food, but when I rose, I lost enthusiasm and instead fed the dogs more treats and had a piece of cheese and some iced tea for my breakfast. The day was wide open for other chores or just knocking around, but it’s bug season, and the dogs still needed their management, so when I suggested we just go home, they rushed to the truck and stood by eagerly for me to open the door so they could get it.

With them corralled, I got about shutting down the place. Mostly this involves putting things away and cleaning up. I always make sure to close all of the windows (having forgotten only once). I swept the braided run in the cabin (how does it get so dirty when no one is there to walk on it?), made the bed the dogs and I slept in, swept the front porch, and locked the door. (Twice we’ve come to the cabin to find the door open! Not sure how that happened, but I’m guessing I didn’t latch it properly when I left before.) Then we drove out. I made a couple of detours to the small towns I pass along the way just to see how things are going, but I was home with most of Saturday still before me. Laundry. A hot shower. Fresh clothes. All of the usual comforts of a weekend.

another tree falls in the forest

April 21, 2021

But first, this nice photo of some native phlox that was blooming downhill from the cabin. It’s getting to be spring flowering season in my Ozark woods, and while I used to try to identify each type I found, I gave that up and just enjoy them as they come.

So it looked as though we were going to get a break in the weather on Sunday, and since we’re occupied this coming weekend, we decided to make a dash out to the cabin when we could. Despite the weather not cooperating fully, we did have a productive time in the woods.

Arrival at the cabin involves a few routine chores. I will fill the bird feeder with safflower seed, and in the coming weeks, I’ll replace that with a hummingbird feeder. I always set (unsalted) peanuts on the old log near the cabin for the wood rat who lives in it, but I think the birds take most of them. I’ll rake the leaves away from the wooden cabin if there are any (not this trip). I’ll light some balsam incense in the small burner on my table so the cabin won’t smell (too much) like gym socks when the summer heat comes. I’ll inspect the water level in the lake (full pool this trip). I’ll think in the abstract about a hike to some far corner or working in the pines or the pecans. We set the comfy chairs on the shady deck overlooking the sparkling lake, and there we will have our lunch when the time is right.

On this trip I had not intended to cut down another large tree, and instead I began my chores with shoveling nine wheelbarrow loads of gravel to the west side of the cabin to clean and level the area (and to bury part of a drain pipe that the critters have moved into). I considered that a day’s worth of work: shoveling the gravel into the wheelbarrow, pushing it across un-level ground, spreading it evenly, then going back to do it eight more times. There is a good possibility that most of my grands will be visiting the cabin this summer, and I’d like them to spread marbles in the gravel, so I need to get it laid down while I can. (I’ll also need to get another load of gravel delivered so I can cover the area properly.) I was just finishing this work when the rain that was not in the forecast began. It was really a drizzle, but it was a good time for me to retreat.

When that was done, we sat down to lunch (cheese sandwiches on pretzel buns, fruit, and for me, iced tea, unsweetened, of course). Some geese visited the lake, and we watched for an appearance by the beavers. They’ve been busy in our absence, cutting down more trees across the lake (and trimming some cedars on the cabin side of the lake), and they’ve built a large pile of sticks against the mud bank to protect their den. So far, though, no appearances.

As we sat and mused, something like sunshine began penetrating the clouds overhead, and I got the notion that I could cut down a cedar tree beside the road down to the dam. We have an old weather vane that once caused leaks in the roof of our garage, and I thought I could mount it on a stump, if not for actual weather prognostications then for whimsy. I had been planning to put a mailbox on the stump (if I ever cut down the tree) but the weather vane took top position when that idea struck me.

So with the rain stopped and a weak sunlight reaching the ground, I decided to fire up the old chainsaw and bring down the tree. Once I got started, it was quick work. For some reason, the wood was easy to rip through. I did the wedge cut and then the back cut (a little too low, but I wasn’t killed, so that’s a win). The tree landed in the road just as I intended when I cut the wedge where I did. Behold:

There’s the stump on the right. My trusty chainsaw in the foreground. The fallen cedar tree. The bright green strip you see beyond the tree is the top of the dam. (It’s farther away than it appears.) And through the trees on the right you can see part of the lake. The water was muddy because of the recent rains. I don’t think the fish mind. When it rains, all kinds of good things to eat wash into the lake.

You can see I had begun trimming the branches from the fallen tree. My wife and I dragged them into the forest here and there, and then I began cutting the trunk of the fallen tree into manageable lengths for carrying into the forest as well. Cedar is aromatic when it burns, but it pops a lot and throws embers out of the fire ring.

I’d say we were about a third finished with this project when the rain began again. It was more than a drizzle this time, and we had to retreat to the cabin porch and wait it out. We could have just packed to go home then, but I didn’t like the idea of leaving a tree in the road like this, so I paced and looked to the sky and fumed a little. And it seemed to have worked, for the rain let up and we could finish the job. The rest of the trimming and cutting went quickly, and soon we had the tree parts dispatched in the nearby forest.

Here is the top of the stump in raw form:

It won’t retain that rich red color, which is a shame. I need to trim this into two angles down, both to shed water so it doesn’t rot too soon, and to accept the bracket that the weather vane is mounted on. But that will be a chore for another visit since the rain decided we were getting too much work done and resumed its falling.

So with gravel shoveling and tree felling, I decided I had gotten enuf work done too, and we began packing up to head home. It was then that I discovered that during the two downpours, the windows of the truck and been left down. No serious flooding though since the slope of the ground where it was parked meant the truck was tilted away from the rain. Still, I seem to need this kind of lesson a few times each year.

Here is what fresh cedar sawdust looks like:

another day at Roundrock

April 6, 2021

I could regale you with the unremitting string of rejection letters I’ve received this year, or I could tell you about my trip to the woods last weekend, which is what I’ll do.

My wife and I (and the dogs) made use of the good weather on Saturday and went to our little cabin for the day. I had no agenda for the visit, though I did think in the abstract about maybe taking down another tree to expand the parking area and maybe throw a little gravel around. Neither of those things happened.

Instead, we sat in the sun and listened to the birds. The turkey vultures have returned to soar over the ridge across the lake, but several of them were making low swoops over the water, which I’d never seen before. I suspect it’s a courtship behavior. Occasionally one would pass low over the cabin. We could see its shadow racing across the ground before we saw the bird. I guess it was checking us out since we sat still and lethargic and may have looked like a meal.

Green is just beginning to return to the forest. The tips of the cherry trees are beginning to leaf out, and it won’t be long before the rest of the trees follow, though the hickories will be the last to bring out leaves, just as they are the first to lose them in the fall. The photo above shows one of my red buckeyes near the cabin. It’s leafing out, and many branch tips have nascent flower buds. I think I’m going to get a good display this year.

Sometime during the morning, I broke myself out of my languor and went for a hike. Flike decided to join me, though my wife and Queequeg stayed back at the cabin. We walked across the dam and then down the south spillway. this one passes over bedrock, so it’s not eroded the way the north spillway is (and always has, despite repeated efforts to fix it). From there we diverted up onto the south-facing slop and toward the southeast corner, which is a part of my woods I don’t visit too often. We didn’t go to the corner, but we did visit a spot with a bit of exposed ledge that I thought might make a good spot for a small fire ring. We continued toward the eastern fence just to see what there was to see. Not much, it turned out. My neighbor had maintained a broad open area just beyond my fence that he could drive on, but now it’s growing out with small trees.

I did see this:

That cedar post is suspended there deliberately, though not by me. My guess is that it is a deterrent to the cattle that sometimes graze in this meadow (and sometimes get through the fence and onto my land). The fence is missing its lowest strand here, and certainly a calf could stroll right under while a cow could probably muscle through pretty easily as well. My guess is that by having this substantial object in their line of sight, the cattle turn away from this weak part of the fence, thinking it more than it is. If it works that way, it’s pretty ingenious.

Flike and I continued our walk along the eastern fence and then turned west because I wanted to check on a brush pile I had created with a bunch of willows I had cut out of the pecan grove. (Note, beavers are said to favor willows, and they are welcome to take down as many of mine as they want.) The brush pile was less impressive than I remember, and Flike wasn’t interested anyway, so we dipped into the pecan grove where I cut some locust that shouldn’t be there. It was then that Flike saw my wife and Queequeg up on the dam and took off to visit them. I continued to poke around as I wove my way back to the cabin. Along the way I found this:

I’m pretty sure it’s from the shell of a large turtle, The piece was translucent and as large as my hand, and that would have been maybe only a sixth of the shell covering, so it must have been a big turtle.

When I got back to the cabin, my wife and the dogs were not there. Nor could I see them across the lake. I waited a while, thinking they’d find their way back, but my wife has gotten lost on our 80 acres before, so I began to worry. I decided to head west from the cabin in the direction I thought most likely to find her. I didn’t get far, though, because I heard them coming, and when Flike saw me, he bounded through the scrub to say hello.

The thermometer on the porch said the day had reach 70 degrees, which is nice for early April in my part of the world. But there were things to do back home, and we were soon packing the truck to head there.

something new under the Roundrock sun

March 1, 2021

I’ve been stomping about my little bit of forest on the edge of the Missouri Ozarks for twenty years. In that time I’ve seen a lot of things and made a few discoveries (including, possibly, a bear sighting a couple of months ago). I like to think I keep myself open the the possibility of surprise — I’m still hoping to find an arrowhead before I shuffle off this mortal coil — and I like to think I’m a pretty good steward of the earth in my 80 acres.

Since the climate in Missouri decided to change from -13 degrees two weeks ago to 60+ degrees last weekend, I made a dash down to Roundrock, the second-to-last day of the month and the first time in February. I had a few things on my agenda, including a hike to a particularly nice spot about in the center of my 80-acre rectangle. Here it is:

This stream feeds my lake, and it’s a wet-weather stream, so often when I visit this spot (it’s a bit of a hike) I’m standing on the bedrock below the water you see. But what you see in the photo is what I saw on Saturday. I think most of this water is snowmelt, which was still on the ground a few days before. In fact, the lake still had some skim ice on it when I visited. Anyway, this is a nice spot, and Flike and I made our way to it as a way to enjoy the nice day after our first chore of the morning. You don’t see any round rocks in this picture because they’re shy.

And our first chore of the day was do some work in the pines. They are in the tall grass, which is more or less impassible most of the year because of the bugs. (Ozark chiggers are the worst!) So it is in the winter months that I can dare to venture in there. It seems that my pines are favorites of the deer who need to thrash the velvet off their antlers. A couple of years ago, when I last planted pines there, I decided to save some money and not buy steel fence posts to use for the caging about the baby pines. Instead, I cut down cedar trees, trimmed them, and pounded them into the ground beside the pines. I then wrapped chickenwire around them and had a pretty good defense system. For a year.

The cedar posts rotted quickly in the ground here. The pine plantation is about the only spot in my entire forest that has actual soil, and it’s just down hill from my neighbor’s pond, so this soil is often wet. Pretty good growing conditions for pines, but not so good for rotting wood. As the cedar posts weakened, the deer, I guess, saw their chance and used the pines to thrash off their velvet. The poor pines got pretty battered — some were lost altogether — and I knew I had to get more serious about protecting them. To this end I’ve been collecting fence posts from around Roundrock. Some were from trees long gone but some were from the older pines now fifty feet tall and no longer needing protection. All I needed was a reasonably warm winter day to replace the cedar posts with the steel ones, spruce up the chicken wire all fallen and full of weeds, then pat myself on the back for a job well done. Which is pretty much how it went down. Flike was not much help, and he decided if I wasn’t going to throw a stick for him full time, he was just going to chill in the truck.

I managed to rescue four of the battered pines, but the rest in that area are hardly worth saving and I think it’s time I ordered more from the Conservation Department and start again. (It is good soil, and the setting gets sun and water. I ought to do it. I really should.) As I worked in the pines I saw that many of the mature ones had lost their leaders or large branches to the ice storm last month. They’ll recover, but I did spend a little time collecting these fallen limbs where I could. (Some were deep in the blackberries!) I also found a deer antler as I poked around, so that was nice.

And then it was time to go back to the cabin for lunch. Normally, I sit on the porch for my meals. I can look down at the lake and watch for water birds or turtles (none of the former and still a little early for the latter). But as I gazed across the lake I saw a downed tree on the far shore. Another casualty of the ice storm (I thought). The exposed core of the tree was white in the February gray, so it was easy to see even at that distance. Well, I have a lot of trees, and I can’t fight the weather, so I decided to be at peace with nature.

But then I saw another white spot nearby. And what looked like white flakes underneath it. Keep in mind this is probably 300 feet away. So I decided that when Flike and I took our walk to that nice spot (above), we’d first detour to the spot across the lake to have a look at the fallen tree.

And this is what I found:

This was something new under the sun. I have beavers in my lake! I feel like a good steward of the land if it’s attracting new tenants. All of this work was relatively fresh. The chips on the ground were still white and clean, and the weather had only turned tolerable in the last week. (My neighbor lost four calves to the bitter cold just two weeks before.) I wonder if the beavers would have been busy with their work had I not arrived with a barking dog that morning. Actually, I understand they’re mostly nocturnal, so I guess my presence wasn’t a factor on Saturday.

The beaver don’t need to build a dam to create a pool of water for their den since I’ve done that already, so I think they’re bringing down the trees (about a half dozen) in order to get at the tips that they will eat until more palatable food becomes available. A couple of the downed trees were stripped of their branches, which were not around, so I suspect the beavers carried them to their den, which is probably in the muddy little “cliff” just below these trees. (In the very top photo, this area is just out of sight to the left across the lake.) I think their den entrance is usually under the water, but with the fluctuating levels of my lake, it may be exposed later.

My lake has been around nearly as long as I have been stomping around my woods, but it was only this year that the beaver moved in. My assumption had been that my elevation was too high for them to venture that far from the nearby river. Plus, there is a massive Corps of Engineers lake only a few miles from my woods. Seems like there is plenty of beaver homesteading opportunity there. But I’ve read that beaver were nearly completely extirpated in Missouri in the early part of the last century and that restoration efforts have thoroughly turned that around, so maybe the beaver in my lake are part of that rebounding population effort. If so, I’m glad to play a part.

This looked like a Golden Retriever to me. Wearing a Covid mask, of course.

several visits to Roundrock

December 29, 2020

The weather has been mostly unseasonable lately, and with the surfeit of days off of work I’ve been able to visit my little bit of forest on the edge of the Missouri Ozarks often. I think I’ve made two or three visits since I last wrote about it.

Most notable has been the wildlife we’ve seen (or nearly seen). Specifically, two critters.

One was a bald eagle that was hanging out in a tree across the lake. In my fifteen-or-so years coming to my woods, I’d seen a bald eagle there only twice before. One time I saw the bird circling in the air far above. The second time, last year, I saw it only briefly as it rose from the shore and flew away. Perhaps it was feasting on a dead fish there. But on a recent visit, the eagle flew into the tree across the lake, hung out for ten or fifteen minutes, then flew off. Back in my journalism days, I wrote an article about efforts to bring back nesting eagles to Missouri, so I was always eager to see them in my own bit of woods. They are getting to be a fairly common sight now during the winter, and I doubt my tiny lake has enuf to offer to draw a nesting pair (given that the massive Corps of Engineers lake is only a few miles away, as the eagle flies). Still, it warmed my black and shriveled heart to see one for a little while.

The second critter is more mysterious. On the same day that we saw the eagle, as we were driving in, we saw something on the road ahead of us that was running away as quickly as it could. We never got a good view of it, but what we saw was black, the size of a large dog, and had a shambolic gait as it ran. Now, a sensible conclusion would be that what we saw was a large black dog with a limp. But there have been reports of black bear sightings in the area, and last year I did find some droppings that matched bear droppings I’d seen online. My woods are pretty far north in the state for the known range of black bears, but their numbers are growing. I’m thinking of investing in a game camera (one that will interface with my Macbook Air, which is sometimes problematic) that might provide better evidence of what we may have seen. I had a pair of low-end game cameras in the past, and they provided grainy photos of mostly deer and squirrels. They stopped working after a while and I discarded them. But maybe it’s time to try again.

Having a black bear in my woods presents its own set of problems, of course. Powerful and fearless and potentially destructive. A threat to my dogs. Elusive, so it wouldn’t even offer majestic viewings of itself occasionally. And just as with a nesting bald eagle, if I reported a black bear, the state Conservation Department might get involved with rules and proscriptions. But I’m probably worried about nothing.

When we were down to the cabin last weekend, we had no wildlife sightings. The lake was frozen, which is hard to tell in the photo above. The ice was thin, and as the temperature crept into the 60s, it was thawing slowly. (It is also oddly greenish, meaning it’s had an algae bloom. When my neighbor to the north was farming his 100-acre field and fertilizing it, these blooms were common since part of that field is in my lake’s watershed. But I have a new neighbor now, and he’s preparing the field to graze cattle. He’s put up some nice barbed-wire fencing, set back from the property line. He’d also called me to tell me his plans and see if I had any concerns. Nice.)

Something we’ve done on recent visits that we don’t normally do is have a fire to cook our lunch burgers. Usually, I’ll only have a fire in the evening on visits where we’re staying the night. That way I can monitor the coals and be sure they’re fully out when we leave the next day. But these last two visits had fires that I quenched with water I keep at the cabin for that specific purpose. And the forest hasn’t burned down. (It helped my worried conscience that in both cases, there was rain/snow in the forecast in the days soon following.) Cooked burgers beside a campfire on a warm winter day is one of the small pleasures of life I enjoy. (Though does the smell of cooked meat attract black bears?)

There are many chores we can’t/don’t engage in there until the winter months. A critter that is plentiful in our woods is the chigger, and we don’t want to be afflicted with them, so we save wading into the tall grass and scrub until after the first couple of frosts. Which was the case on our most recent visit. One failed effort of mine was an attempt to grow a stand of short-leaf pines on one of the islands in the lake. Several years ago I had planted fifteen of them on the island and then slammed about that many steel fence posts in a square around them, wrapping the whole thing in two levels of chicken wire. I hoped that would be enuf to thwart the vandal deer (who seem to like small pines for thrashing the velvet off their antlers). The pines did not flourish. After a couple of years, only two remained, and they were being overtaken by the scrub growing in their enclosure, which I couldn’t get to to cut down without some fence undoing. On recent visits we’d found our fencing pushed to the ground and the scrub within matted to the ground, a pretty sure sign that deer were spending the night within the enclosure, ironically. And so, our winter chore for this visit was to begin disassembling the fencing on the island — accessible since the lake is down, which is typical for this time of the year — and transferring it to the other pine plantation near the possible black bear sighting. We have some young pines there that have been sorely used by the deer, and we’d never had sufficient fencing and posts to protect them. Thus failure in one part of the forest might provide opportunity in another.

Doing this, however, meant pushing ourselves out of the comfy chairs around the fire ring, quenching the fire sufficiently, gathering the tools, and hiking across rocky Ozark terrain to the island. Which we did. The posts proved mostly easy to wrest from the ground, though we only grabbed five of them since we had to carry them back to the cabin and the bed of my truck. We’ll save the rest, and the chicken wire fending, which I think is salvageable, for our next mild-winter-day visit. Then we’ll need to use the chigger-free weather to shore up the defenses in the pine plantation, which is also growing a nice crop of grasses and scrub. And there’s some work I need to do down among the pecans in the grass and scrub below the dam. And more cedars that need clearing so I can grow more grass and scrub.


November 23, 2020

Taking a mental health day from work, my wife and I (and the two dogs) went to my little bit of forest on the edge of the Missouri Ozarks last Friday. We had no agenda for the day other than to sit in the comfy chairs on the shady porch overlooking the sparkling lake and relax. Sometimes we can even do that, but we only partly relaxed on this visit.

You see above what greeted us when we arrived. My neighbor to the west, who grazes cattle on the open parts of his land, was burning away the leaf fall and scrub in his woods, which is normally done in the spring since quenching rains are more reliable then. But the forecast called for rain on the coming weekend, and this man seems to have more energy than ten men, so I guess he was taking the opportunity.

If you look closely in the photo above, you can see the wires of his electric fence, marking the line between his woods and mine. He had created a fire break along the fence (something he needs to do anyway so that the scrub doesn’t ground his fence), and there was no wind to speak of that day. Still, the breeze was blowing smoke to the east — to my woods — and it wouldn’t have taken much to push the flames past the fire break and into my woods.*

This is a view of my forest just to the east of the flames in the top photo. Notice all of the combustibles on the ground. And those green cedars have needles that are filled with oil, just waiting to burst into flames and lift the fire into the canopy. (One of the reasons I “liberate” as many cedars as I can from their earthly toil.)

But my neighbor has all of the tools, and he said he couldn’t stop to chat, which I took as a good sign that he knew the risks of his operation and needed to get back to managing it.

We drove on to the cabin (the one with the shady porch overlooking the sparkling lake) and saw that it was still standing. It’s about a quarter mile from my western property line, so if the fire did get out of control, we’d have a fair amount of time to panic.

What you see here is the back of the cabin. Between the stone wall on the right (that’s Flike’s tail you see in the corner) and the wooden wall on the left, autumn leaves like to collect. This time of year, raking the combustible leaves away from the wooden cabin is usually my first chore on arrival, and it was especially so on this visit. That gravel verge is there specifically as a fire break — and it would have been wider if I could have dug into the hillside farther when I was building the wall — though a raging fire would likely cross it. Flike was eager to help me with the leaf raking this day, running back and forth through the pile I was accumulating.

The day passed without incident. We returned to the western line, which had been my plan anyway just to hike in the forest there, which we rarely do any more, and noted the progress of the prescribed burn and its mostly finished state.

My neighbor had a few extra seconds to chat this time, and I asked him why he was doing the burn. My guess had been that he intended to clear the scrub and then seed the ground with some grass that he could graze his cattle on, but that wasn’t the case. He told me he needed to clear some space to work in as he pushed down more trees for his father-in-law’s . . . runway.

His father-in-law, who has a very nice cabin about a mile to the west, is building an ultralight airplane that he intends to fly from a runway he is building on the ridgetop of their land. In a past life he was an auto mechanic, so he knows something about engines and is learning something about airplanes. He’s even built a hangar for the plane, which is currently in parts in the workshop at his cabin. The maiden flight is supposed to be in the spring, which I think will be sufficient time for them to complete the runway.

We more or less relaxed. We didn’t undertake any big chores. I need to spread more gravel, but I’ll wait until the winter winds blow more of the leaves away from the cabin so the preliminary raking of them is less of a chore. The fallen oak leaves lay crisply on the ground right now, so we could hear a lot of nearby rustling. It was mostly squirrels, I guess doing their last-minute things before winter hibernation. But I did manage to see a chipmunk and the wood rat who lives in the large log near the cabin. I had left an apple core on the log earlier, and just before we left for the day, I checked and the core was gone, likely taken deep into the log to be kept in the winter larder there.

There was rain in the area on the following day, and there is more in the week to come. (My diminished lake could use it!) My plan is to go back to the cabin this Friday — I always go on Black Friday as an antidote to the crass consumer culture — and I’ll be able to inspect the fire work again.


*Years ago, a grass fire they had cultivated got out of their control and reached onto my land too. Fortunately, my new gravel road through the trees served as a firebreak and contained it. They apologized profusely, and the whole event cemented our now long-standing friendship.

back to Roundrock

September 2, 2020

I received a call from the man working on my washing-out spillway that he and his crew were down there last week getting some of the work done. My goal has been to refill the washed out area and then lay a concrete slab over the same to prevent it from ever eroding again.

He said he got about half of the work done and that maybe I didn’t want the other have done.

I’m no concrete expert. Nor can I read a forest to understand how water flows across it. I don’t have years of experience doing the kind of thing I asked this man to do. He suggested we meet at the cabin so he could show me in situ what needed to be done. I said I would be out there on Saturday and would stay until 5:00 p.m. to wait for his visit. (His son had PeeWee football that day, and I suggested the boy’s game had priority over my spillway.)

Rain was falling when we left the house in faraway suburbia Saturday morning, and it rained nearly the entire drive down. When we got to the turn off from the paved road, we had outrun the rain, but while we could still get a signal on our phones, my wife checked the weather map and saw that another huge system was approaching. By the time we drove two miles over the rutted, axle-snapping gravel road to my humble cabin, the rain had caught up with us.

This was fine. It meant I didn’t have to do any of my usual chores, like cutting firewood, cleaning up fallen limbs around the cabin, go looking for snatched marbles, or sling gravel. I could just sit on the porch and watch the rain, which I did. I updated my visit journal. I wrote a letter to a friend. We ate our pieces of fruit for lunch. We watch four ducks (gadwalls?) on the lake, oblivious to the torrents. We talked about this and that. And we waited for the dam man to arrive.

Eventually I decided there was one chore I could undertake. You may recall from my last post that something has chewed a few holes in the ceiling insulation just above the table. Here is a picture of the scene of the crime that I took on Saturday:

I had only noticed this because there were tiny silver shavings on the rug below. That was on the prior visit, and I brought a step ladder on this visit so I could do the repairs.

There were a few more shavings on the rug this time, but nothing substantial. I sprayed the holes with an insecticide, wiped the area clean, then applied a five-inch length of metallic tape over the holes:

I don’t know who the culprits are or if the insecticide will matter to them. I suspect they’ll not chew through this tape, but if they’re still up there, they may chew through another area.

And so I got one chore done. When the rain lessened a bit, I crept through the trees (for what protection they could give me from the rain) down toward the spillway. The repairs were done as the dam man told me, including a bit of on-the-spot engineering. His thought is that the erosion is really being caused, not by lake water rising high enuf to go into the spillway, but by water coming down my road from the ridge to the north and coming into the spillway at a right angle. He said it was likely that this right-angle water would undermine any slab that was there and cause an even bigger (and more expensive) mess.

We do have huge volumes of water come down the road. There is a ditch beside it that can handle the normal flows, but there are often great wads of leaves in the road beside the ditch that have washed out of it because the water went over its banks. The ditch turns away from the lake when it gets nearer to the cabin, but if the volume is great enuf, it ignores that turn, washes over the road, and heads down to the spillway. I’ve dug out the ditch at this turn a couple of times, but it fills with sediment and rocks quickly. I think raising the road at this point might help, but even that won’t always be enuf.

So the on-the-spot engineering the dam man did was to build a berm in the spillway just where the road water would enter it, steering the water into the rocky part of the spillway (rather than across the part with soil that may some day have a protective carpet of grass on it).

Although it rained the entire time we were at the cabin, the flow in that ditch was never more than a trickle because the ground was so dry from a few weeks of drought. The ground was absorbing most of the rain. Had it been otherwise, we might have been able to see the torrent coming down the road ditch (we’ve only seen the evidence of it) and what would happen when it reached the berm in the spillway. But that much water would be scary. The cabin is snug and dry, but getting through the two miles of gravel road to the pavement involves crossing three wet-weather creeks. So if there were enuf rain to overwhelm the roadside ditch by the cabin, we probably would not want to be at the cabin anyway.

The hours passed. The ducks passed on the lake below. We waited. I imagined that the rain would have cancelled the football game and that the dam man would be out earlier, but that didn’t happen. In fact, by 4:45 when we were packing up to go, he still hadn’t arrived.

As we were driving out, the rain stopped. The clouds parted. The sun came out. And the dam man never showed.

return to Roundrock

April 20, 2020

Our trips to Roundrock are as much governed by opportunity as by desire or need to go. I watch the weather forecast to see when a weekend day might be tolerable or even blissful and then try to make it happen. With all of the social isolation, I find I have far fewer obligations for my weekends, so dashes to the woods are more feasible.

And so it was on Saturday. A reprieve from the chill and a day before the rain. You found us on the road mid-morning with no real agenda for our visit. (I did inspect the work on the spillway: no change. And the state of the overflow drain: still clear. And I did add two blocks to the wall retaining all of the gravel I’ve spread around the cabin. And I did schlepp two steel fence posts to the NE corner where the cattle got in, in preparation for a more permanent answer to the issue. But aside from those trivialities, I just took it easy.)

You see above that the phoebe now considers her nest on the side of my cabin fully rebuilt and ready for occupancy. She came and went as we visited, and it’s possible that she will add to her current clutch of three eggs. It’s equally possible that these three will be hatched by our next visit and little babies will be cheeping in the nest.

We also set out the hummingbird feeder. On our prior visit — two weeks before — a hummer visited us, though there seemed precious little to feed on then. We had made up our sugar-water brew at home and took it with us. The glass feeder stays at the cabin to reduce the chance of breaking it by taking it back and forth. This means, though that we must have sufficient clean water with us to rinse out the feeder since we don’t want to leave sugar water residue in the cabin, and the marauding raccoons have shown us that we can’t leave a feeder out when we’re not there.

As far as we could tell, we had no hummingbirds visit, but they are quick and small, and we are lumbering in general, so we may have missed it. Our plan is to bring the sugar-water each visit.

On my old blog, there was a controversy over whether the creature depicted above is real or not. This may have arisen from the possibility that as photo of a rubber blue-tailed skink may have appeared on that blog. Or maybe not. It’s hard to know, and that was so long ago.

In this case, I had gotten on my hands and knees before the wall before the cabin to take a different picture, and this little fellow made a sudden appearance. He lingered long enuf for me to get this pretty-good photo of him.

The photo I was originally after is this one:

This is a not-quite-open flower of a Mayapple. There is a “grove” of these carpeting the good soil in the pine plantation, but the one in the photo above is growing in the (former) flower bed behind the retaining wall before the cabin. Since we amended the soil there prodigiously, it’s good soil too, which Mayapples favor.

The fruit of the Mayapple is poisonous, except when it isn’t. And when it isn’t, it still can be. I don’t try to decipher it. Like Sue Hubbell, I’ll just live the question.

We did little more than sit in the comfy chairs, though we moved them to the sunny side of the cabin because the day was still cool. We did not have a fire, though that had been my intent, I suppose I didn’t because it would have meant more bending and tending. And though we keep water in the cabin specifically for putting out the fire, and though rain was in the forecast, I am always uneasy about having a fire and then leaving it, no matter how well quenched it was.

more social distancing in an Ozark forest

April 1, 2020

Last fall I had pressure washed the cabin and then put fresh stain on it. I was pleased with the result, but I knew it meant I had to remove the phoebe nest that had been on the outside wall under the porch roof for years. My hope was that phoebe would return and rebuild her nest, and on Saturday’s visit I saw that she was doing just that.

This is only the beginning of her new nest, but it’s in the same spot as the one she had before. As we sat in the comfy chairs on the shady porch overlooking the sparkling lake, phoebe darted in the trees before us, chastising us for being in what she must have considered her private space. With the rain of the night before, I imagine there was a great deal of mud currently available to her, and I guess she wanted to get busy with building the rest of the nest.

Along with sitting in the comfy chair and adding a layer of blocks to the fire ring, I had also marched down to the dam with the pitchfork to clean the debris off the overflow drain. This is the primary solution to the full lake. There is a basin set in the side of the dam with a screen atop it, and when the water gets to the rim of this basin (set a foot or so lower than the spillway level) the water drains into it and then comes out a large pipe out in the pecan plantation. The pipe is a foot in diameter, and the lake’s watershed is 100+ acres, so in a big storm, the lake can fill faster than this pipe can drain it away. That’s when the spillways work their magic. But the rest of the time, this overflow drain does a decent job of bleeding off the excess. However, it also collects the sticks and leaves that wash into the lake and then are sucked onto the screen. When this happens, the draining capacity is severely diminished. Thus my work with the pitchfork.

It’s not easy. Not only is this drain on the slope of the dam, and so I must find a way to place my feet as I wield the pitchfork, but the debris sits on top of a screen, meaning I have to angle the pitchfork so that its tines don’t go into the screen, thus making it impossible to lift off the debris. And then I must throw the debris I’ve forked over the dam (rather than back into the lake for it to accumulate again). And I must do this will standing above the drain and reaching down and out, while trying not to fall into the lake. They don’t tell you these things when you’re having your dam dreams.

Here is a photo (from years ago) of the drain showing the screen:

And here is a photo (also from long ago) of the drain needing a little housekeeping:

social distancing in an Ozark forest

March 31, 2020

The weather always makes visiting Roundrock tricky. In the winter it’s often just too cold to want to hang out in a forest and fight to stay warm. In the summer, it’s the opposite (though the evenings around the campfire are nice). Fall tends to be easier to manage, especially after the first frost and the bug presence diminishes. Spring it always the tough time though. Even when the average temperature is warmer than winter, it’s often too wet, and wet cold has a misery all its own. Plus, when it’s wet, the road into the cabin in spongy, and we can do real damage to it when we drive across it.

But when the conditions are right, even some but not all, we tend to take advantage of a free weekend and dash out to the cabin. And that’s what we did on Saturday.

The area had a brief but monstrous storm on Friday, and apparently a lot of water fell. The Corps of Engineers lake we must cross (three times) to get to our cabin was clearly much fuller (though not like last spring — not yet). In the old days, I always took encouragement from these signs as we drove the hundred miles to the cabin. It suggested that our own little lake would be fuller too. And it generally is when this happens. Now, though, it gives me anxiety because the spillway is still not repaired, and a full lake can mean a lake that is overflowing in the spillway. It’s eroded enuf that any more water passing over it will erode it further. And if that keeps up, the dam will be breached and the lake will wash away (possibly drowning some of my neighbor’s cattle).

When we drive down the hill in our forest to the cabin, we always watch through the trees to see if we can spot water in the lake or whether it will be mud. On Saturday’s visit, we saw . . . both. The lake was still there, and at full capacity, but the storm had washed in so much mud and plant matter that the turbidity made it look like brown mud from a distance. (This is a natural occurrence in a forest lake, and the mud does help a little with the leaking under the dam. At least this is what I keep telling myself.)

The spillway erosion had continued further. It is getting serious now, and I’ve contacted the man who promised (a year and a half ago!) to fix it, expressing my urgency. He told me it would happen this week. (We’ll see.)

But on to happier things.

My chore for this visit was to add another line of blocks to the fire ring. It has been my sentimental goal to have the ash build up deeply in the fire ring as a sign of history and use and even mystery, and we seem to be doing that since the ash was getting close to the top of the second tier of blocks. Within that ash is a lot of metal that was part of what has been burned: nails and screws mostly, but also brackets and hinges and the spiral rings of notebooks from my college years. You can see this ash level in the photo above.

I had ordered a hundred blocks from the local hardware store and paid their reasonable price, which included free delivery and even orderly stacking right beside the cabin.

They even left me the pallet, which will eventually go in the fire, along with the nails and screws holding it together.

I had learned a lesson when I built the first fire ring with these kinds of blocks. If you’re familiar with them you know that they have a lip on the bottom at the back so that when they are stacked they are offset, leaning into whatever is within the wall. If you’re building a retaining wall, you definitely want the wall to lean into the hillside, both to better retain the dirt but also to resist the push of the earth when it is frozen and expands.

In the case of a fire ring, there is no hillside-like pressure from the ash. But there is another issue, a lesson I learned the hard way. The levels of blocks in my kind of arrangement are concentric circles. However, the lip that pulls the upper levels in by a quarter inch each time means the upper levels have smaller diameters. They are smaller circles on top of larger circles. And the problem lies in the width of the blocks (which are one foot at their widest point). They determine the outside diameter of the circle on each level. So there are 18 blocks forming each level, but each level going up is a smaller circle of 18 blocks. And those 18 blocks each have their standard widths. So the lower level must be made larger (in diameter) than it normally would be if the blocks abutted.

I didn’t know this when I first laid the second level. I had butted the first level tightly and then found that the blocks on the second level wouldn’t align because I tried to use the same number of blocks, with their same standard widths, in a smaller space. I managed to make it work at the time through a combination of kicking, misalignment, and colorful language. But if you looked closely — and I always did — you could see how some of the blocks were cock-eyed and force fit. That always bugged me. Eventually, when it was clear I was going to need to put a third level of blocks in place soon, I disassembled the original ring and pulled the first level blocks outward by about an inch. This made the lowest diameter larger, which allowed the second, smaller diameter of blocks to fit in an esthetically pleasing way. And I hoped that it would be enuf to do the same for the eventual third level of blocks.

And that was my chore last weekend: add the third level and make it look like I knew what I was doing. And by the point you see in the photo at top, I began to think I wasn’t going to succeed. It’s hard to tell in the photo, but the blocks were creeping past the midpoint of blocks below them. If this continued for the rest of the ring, I would eventually have a block sitting directly atop the one below it, which would not be aesthetically pleasing.

Nevertheless, I persisted. And through some combination of kicking, colorful language, and the beneficence of the universe, the last block fit neatly into place with barely any misalignment.

You see the grill replaced and ready for burgers. Also, Flike because he was all over the place as I was working. And you can see the tarp with the pieces of wood on it, which is my chemical-free method of weed control since I’m uphill from the lake. If I had that pile of gravel I’ve been waiting on (also for a year and a half), I could move the tarp, put down the landscaping fabric, and then spread a nice layer of gravel over it.

The temperature reached 70+ degrees while we were there, and the sun came out in a clear blue sky just as we were packing up to leave.

I had intended to pack up about ten of those blocks to take home for shoring up one low spot under my new fence, but I forgot them. Looks like I’ll have to make a trip out there again this coming weekend.