Posted tagged ‘Ozarks’

a recent visit to Roundrock

June 28, 2022

Though the temps have been miserably high for mid-June in my part of the country, last Sunday was much more seasonable, and Libby and I decided to dash down to Roundrock for the day to enjoy our little bit of forest on the edge of the Missouri Ozarks. We passed through a little rain on the way there, so the forest was wet when we drove in (on our nicely solid, recently re-graveled road through the trees). We had talked about maybe having a fire in the ring, but the wet kindling would have made that a challenge, and inertia made it impossible, so we didn’t.

We had no agenda for the day. I wanted to cut the grass below the cabin leading to the lake, since my New York grands will be coming next month, and it’s likely they’ll want to try fishing since we’ve recently pulled some lunkers out of the lake (though I worry that the lunkers may pull my grands into the lake). That involved firing up my cantankerous weed whipper, so I put that off for as long as I could. But the day progressed, and the sun was beginning to peak out of the clouds, which would make the shoreline work hot, so I finally got my gear together and got started. It’s now my policy to buy power tools that are made in America so that I can use English swear words when I’m trying to start them. I aired a lot of English as I tried and tried to get my weed whipper going. It eventually happened, and I made my way down the hill to the lake where I attacked the mix of grasses and scrub. But the engine died a number of times as I worked, and I only got about half of the work done before it died and would not start again. I called it good and retreated to the shade of the cabin porch.

I had put off cutting this grass on previous visits in part because the daisies were blooming there and I didn’t want to mow them down. But I also wanted to cut the grass and scrub as close to July as I could so it would have less time to grow tall again before the grands arrived. About halfway up the hill to the cabin these beauties were blooming, and I’m glad the whipper’s engine gave out before I got to this point.

In my old blog, Roundrock Journal, I used to identify these plants by using several trusty references. But now I just take them as they come. A pretty white flower tower. That seems sufficient.

So we sat in the comfy chairs on the shady porch overlooking the sparkling lake and ate our lunch of salad and cheese and crackers. (We might have had chicken sandwiches if I’d gotten a fire going, but that didn’t happen.) I drank my iced tea (unsweetened, of course). And we watched the lake. A few turtles were surfacing on the water to get a breath of air before diving to the bottom again. A few times a hunting bass created ripples as it struck at an insect on the water. The dragonflies patrolled the surface, eating plenty of mosquitos, I hope. The turkey vultures circled over our south ridge. But the beavers never made an appearance. They’d done more work on their lodge, including packing the sticks with mud, because a nice crop of grass was growing on it.

We did take a hike onto the dam, in part to check on the repaired spillway. It’s in good shape, but it doesn’t look as though we’ve had any rains strong enuf to put it to use. The dam was thick with tall grasses, and we waded about three quarters of the way across, as far as the overflow drain. It was still free of sticks and debris since my last visit when I cleaned it. That also tells me we haven’t had a strong rain in a while. The grass beyond this point was too dense for our tick-avoiding selves, so we turned around and hiked back to the cabin. Even though it wasn’t excessively hot, it was more pleasant in the shade, so we retreated to the porch again.

I’m not sure how long we sat there, but the clouds had begun massing again and I feared a storm was coming (there was a small chance of it in the forecast), so we began packing up to leave. If the storm came, it was after we left, for we drove home in strong sunlight.

I’m not sure what the grands’ schedules are for July, so I don’t know when we’ll all be coming down again, but I think I can probably squeeze one more solo trip down there to tidy up for their visit. Always something to be done in my forest.


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.

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.

Ozark Autumn – Skywatch Friday

November 1, 2019

Back when the temperatures around here were still moderate, I enjoyed a day at my cabin in the Missouri Ozarks. One thing I do regularly this time of year is rake leaves away from the base of the cabin. Not only does that create a (temporary) fire break, but it removes the cover burrowing animals would otherwise have, and it removes generally wet leaves from the wooden logs of the cabin walls, reducing mildew. And since I just re-stained the cabin a few weeks ago, I’m all about keeping it up.

I had paused in my raking to look at the unbroken vault of blue in the sky above. You see the corner of the cabin roof, the cluster of oak trees about to drop more leaves, and the autumn blue sky beyond. I read somewhere that the skies are bluer this time of year because there is less humidity in the air. That may be true, but it takes all of the romance out of it.

staining the cabin

October 17, 2019

My wife and I, plus our two canine helpers, spent the weekend at our little cabin on the edge of the Missouri Ozarks with the goal of beginning to stain the freshly pressure-washed exterior.

I mentioned here before that when the man who built it handed me the key to the door (ten years ago next month!) he said I should stain it every three years. And so a decade passed without me doing this big chore. Fortunately, the pressure washing mostly restored the wood (or washed away the dirt and stripped the original stain so at least it looked restored).

They photo above, with one of many large walking sticks we found on the cabin — this one was about four inches long without its front legs extended — shows the “logs” under the porch roof. These were the least dirty and best retained the original stain, but after mastering the mad skillz of deploying a pressure washer, you see how I got down to basics. I loved the look of the wood, and I half wished I didn’t have to stain it, but I needed to protect it, and I organized a three-day weekend at the cabin to get started.

We brought along three gallons of the stain that Craig and his father-in-law recommended. I had calculated the square footage I needed to cover (about 750 square feet of logs and soffits and ceiling), read the greatly varying coverage reported on the cans (anywhere from 200 to 400 square feet), and figured that we could make a good start of the job, and then I could determine how much more stain we would need.

I had brought a ladder from home to reach the high spots, and my wife would work on the window frames then the lower logs. We had our brushes, our masking tape, and our drop cloths, plus we had just about perfect weather, with an unbroken vault of blue sky above us. (You could set a novel in a place like this!)

And so, we began. The wood was thirsty. My biggest worry was overlapping brush work. I really didn’t want the stain to be marbled with darker and lighter spots due to double application. I needn’t have worried. The cedar logs took the stain evenly despite the number of passes my brush made over it. (The only place where there was even the slightest bit of obvious overlapping was on the finer grained tongue-and-groove soffits and porch ceiling, but even then it was only noticeable because I was looking for it.)

With this worry out of the way, I was able to work more quickly, and in less than an hour I had all of the ladder work done (except for the entirety of the porch). My wife had moved at a similar pace, finishing the window frames and staining the lower log siding swiftly and smoothly. Having made much faster progress than I expected, we broke for lunch (sandwiches and cold, refreshing beverages).

After lunch we returned to the work. Each of us had a separate gallon to work from, and it seemed to me that we were actually going to have enuf stain in the three gallons to finish the entire cabin.

I think we spent 4.5 to 5 hours working that Saturday, and in that time we stained three sides of the cabin. We still had about a half gallon of stain left besides the whole unopened gallon. All that was left for us was the porch, which was actually the hardest part because of the ceiling and the extra soffit and the support posts and the desire not to get any stain on the concrete floor there.

But we’d done enuf for our first day, so we cleaned up as well as we could and put our gear away. Then it was time to build a one-match fire to cook our burgers over. It happened that only two days before the area had received nearly three inches of rain. I feared that the tinder would be too wet to catch, but that wasn’t the case. I soon had a fire roaring, and we added logs as well as the last of the scrap lumber I had brought from home to get enuf coals to shovel under the grill for our (and the dogs’) burgers. All of this happened in daylight (since my wife hates to cook in the dark for some reason), and after we’d finished eating our food and drinking our cold beverages, we continued to stoke the fire as the sun set.

A barred owl hooted occasionally, and far-off farm dogs barked, plus what sounded like fireworks came from well to the southwest, but it was too late in the season to hear a whippoorwill. Still, the fire burned and crackled, and the crickets chirped, and the full moon rose through the trees to the east. There is a point with a campfire when you have to decide whether to add more wood and stay with it longer as it burns or stop stoking it and let what’s there burn to ash. We reached that point and decided to stop stoking. We still had work to do the next day. I eventually quenched the few remaining coals with a gallon of water, and we retreated to the cabin.

Of course it smelled like wood stain inside the cabin, and despite repeated washings with soap and water, I’m sure my hands were part of the reason. But rest came easily after a day of work, and even the dogs let me have most of my bed this time.

I woke as I habitually do sometime after 3:00 a.m. and stepped outside. The forest was quiet, which is something I rarely experience except in winter visits. But then I crawled back into my warm bed, the approximately 44 degrees outside on the porch was not so wonderful to someone with barely anything on. Somehow I managed to fall back to sleep for another two hours, but the sun was preparing to peek over the trees to the east, and there was breakfast to be had as we waited for the temperature to rise enuf to apply more stain to more wood.

Breakfast consisted of instant oatmeal (pretty much a staple at the cabin) prepared on a propane stove. There was also fruit, and my wife made herself some instant coffee that she declared acceptable. I had my iced tea (unsweetened, of course). The dogs disdained their kibble and would only eat their soft treats (and any of our food they could cadge).

Then came the second day of work. Once again, I did the ladder work, which involved the eaves and the entire ceiling plus the first three logs from the top. My wife did the rest. By careful maneuvering of the drop cloths, and some additional taping, we managed to make our way across the porch, staining as we went, and barely getting any drops on the floor. Because the ground slopes away from the front of the cabin more steeply than elsewhere, some of the ladder placement was sketchy and challenging. But by then I had been up and down the ladder dozens of times, and I was so near the end that I didn’t let myself worry about things like falling to my death.

By lunch time, reader, we had finished. I had taken Monday off at work so we would have a three-day weekend to do as much work as we could, and we managed to do all of it in less than two days. (Yes, I found that I could have been more thorough about pressure washing some parts of the porch, but it’s all so much better than it was.) Plus we still had about a third of a gallon of stain left. And here is the result of our labors:

It’s actually a little darker than I had hoped, but it may lighten as it dries. Even if it doesn’t, it’s fine. It looks good, and I feel that the wood in protected (for another three-to-ten years). Next up is repainting the door and frame. The critters have chewed up much of the lower door frame, and I doubt they’ll respect a fresh coat of paint, but it will look good.

So on Sunday afternoon we packed up and headed home, leaving ourselves an entire Monday free to do with what we would. (And what we did was tend a barfy three-year-old as his mother coped with her own stomach cold and her infant daughter.)


My cabin sits about a hundred feet uphill from my lake. Much of the cabin is surrounded by gravel, and it’s been a ten-year job to keep the weeds from overtaking the gravel. Part of the solution is to have four inches of gravel on the ground, but even that’s not enuf sometimes. I also have begun experimenting with landscaping fabric under the gravel, to prevent weeds from finding light. I don’t want to use herbicides on the weeds since I’m so close to the lake, so I also use the old tarp you see above, moving it to various gravely places to sit for weeks or months to starve the weeds of sunlight. The best time to do this is during the growing season, and the move I made last weekend (just to the east of the fire ring) will probably remain there all winter.

This old tarp was our original shelter in the days before we had the cabin. It did a pretty good job, trussed in various ways to stay taut and shed water and snow. Where the cabin now sits there was once this:

wet weekend at Roundrock

September 30, 2019

I made a solo trip to my little cabin on Friday for an overnight, with the promise of chores and the threat of rain.

My little cabin has stood mostly neglected for more than a decade. When the man who built it handed me the key to the door, he said that I must remember to stain the exterior every three years. Somehow, “next season” was always the time I was going to get to that job.

Well, I’m getting to it finally.

The eastern-facing side, which is what you see when you arrive or fool around by the fire ring, was showing some of its age. Much of the original stain had faded out of some of the “logs” there and a few near the bottom were specked with mildew (or is it mold?). I had once tried spraying the mildew (or mold) with a bleach/water mixture, but that didn’t seem to make a difference. And one other time — likely years later — I tried scrubbing away the mildew (or mold) with a stiff brush, but that accomplished about the same.

The log siding under the porch, protected from rain and sun as they are by the roof above them, showed the least age, and since that is where we spend most of our time — siting in comfy chairs overlooking the sparkling lake — the chore of re-staining the cabin somehow never seemed urgent. Plus there was the mud nest that the phoebe had built on the wall under the porch roof. That had been there for years, and we watched each summer as she successfully raised several broods. It seemed wrong to destroy that.

But a few conversations with my neighbor Craig, and a little gentle but insistent prodding from me, lead to him agreeing that I could use his pressure washer to clean the “logs” of my cabin prior to staining them. And the stars aligned last weekend for this to happen.

I had asked at the hardware store in town about renting one of theirs, and the price was right, but the problem was having a sufficient supply of water to do the job. Sure, I had a 2.5 acre lake just down the hill, but lake water, the man at the hardware store assured me, was too dirty to use in a pressure washer. Fortunately, along with a pressure washer, my good neighbor Craig also had a big old truck with several large stock tanks on the back and a deep well that provided plenty of water to fill them.

When I got to my cabin late Friday afternoon, Craig’s big old truck was already parked beside it, ready for the next day’s big old task.

From the left that’s the east-facing exterior of the cabin, Craig’s big old truck, and my red Prolechariot. (Also, you can see the slowly diminishing mineral block in the foreground that doesn’t seem to be doing anything to prevent the critters from eating my cabin.)

We agreed that they (Craig and his father-in-law, Tom) would come by my cabin on Saturday at 11:00 with the rest of the equipment and show me how to use it. And promptly at 11:30 they arrived. Tom has more or less lived at his own cabin (a little over a mile and half from mine) for a long time. (It helps that he has heating/air conditioning as well as a full kitchen, television, and a flush toilet!) Yet in all of his years, Tom professes that he’d never visited my cabin. I appreciate that he respects private property, but I think he is fibbing. More than once in the past he commented about how beautiful my lake is, which, of course, he couldn’t know unless he visited it. (Also, this man is building his own ultralight airplane!)

I had never used a pressure washer before, but more than ever I understand having the right tool for the job! Craig got all of the attachments made and the flow going while Tom held the wand and pulled the trigger, test spraying two logs on the east-facing wall.

I was immediately surprised and impressed by what a few seconds of pressure washing did to the two-foot section of a couple of logs on the side of the cabin. What had looked like a pretty good patch of cedar showed itself to be filthy but then suddenly clean. I had no idea. (Also, gone instantly, was my wife’s original suggestion that we just stain the cabin without washing it first.)

Nor did I have any idea how big the job before me was when Tom handed the wand to me and stepped back. The pressure from the nozzle was constant, but the closer I got it to the wood, the more dirt it would remove. I was learning as I was doing, and all the while I was getting wet. I had once calculated that the exterior wood of the cabin came to about 750 square feet. The pace I had to maintain to clean the logs properly — and I could easily see the difference if I did it right — meant I had several hours of work ahead of me. (Add to this six windows that needed to be worked around gingerly. I had taken out their screens so I could use the pressure washer to spray out their exterior sills, filled as they were with dead bugs.)

Tom and Craig, meanwhile admired the view of the lake from the cabin porch and then made themselves comfortable in the chairs over by the fire ring. They would answer any questions I threw at them, but otherwise they seemed content to sit under the shade of the trees.

What you see above is typical of what I saw as I worked. I truly had no idea how dirty the logs had become over the years. I’m not sure if I was merely washing away the dirt or ablating the wood itself. When I got to the porch, which has a concrete floor, I noticed a lot of cedar-colored wood fibers gelling on that floor.

You can also see the flaw in my technique. I was cleaning patches rather than swaths, as shown by those vertical contrasts on the left. I figured these would go away as the wood dried or certainly once I had fresh stain on, but Craig corrected my mistaken notion. The stain, he said, would likely enhance this contrast. But we didn’t discuss this until I was all finished (finally) and the equipment was taken apart and loaded onto his big old truck.

And so, I wasn’t finished. I now had misgivings, and I knew I would regret these markings forever, and Craig said something like “Well, the equipment you need is still here,” so we put it all back together and I took a second shot at the cabin walls. My goal was solely to smooth these vertical contrasts, and I pretty much did, but I also found on my second pass, that there were several logs under the porch roof that I was able to clean even more thoroughly. (I think I was less vigorous there on the first pass because I believed the logs were protected and thus not so dirty.) And so, just as the clouds that had gathered during the long morning finally began sending down fat raindrops, my work with the pressure washer was finished.

These three are shots Craig came back and took after the rain had stopped and I had gone home. To my jaded eye the cabin is glowing. He sent me a text saying I used about 250 gallons of water. That would have been a lot of three-gallon buckets of water hauled up from the lake!

So now I have to let the wood dry, which is going to take some time since we have rain in the forecast for the next ten days, and then get about staining it. I don’t want to darken the color; I really just want to enhance the grain and protect the wood. I am hoping to use a sprayer for most of the work rather than a brush, but I’ve never used a sprayer before either.

So the adventure continues.

return to Roundrock

July 30, 2019

What with babies being born and travel coming and such stuff, my weekends have not really lent themselves to overnight trips to the cabin. So when a window opened this last weekend, I took it despite conditions not being perfect (meaning: hot and dry and buggy). We left on Friday afternoon, and when we reached our woods, Good Neighbor Craig was on his tractor pulling his brush hog, mowing our road in because why not? (He sometimes grazes his cattle across our easement through his prairie, and he’s certain we’re greatly inconvenienced by this, so I think he is trying to buy our good graces by mowing our road. And I don’t object because why not?)

The bug most prominent on the buggy weekend was a black wasp that was busy building the nest above. This is on the ceiling of the porch where we spent most of our time. Nest building is apparently a noisy business for wasps. The wasp would return to the nest with a daub of mud and then go into the newest chamber and buzz ferociously. This was repeated throughout the afternoon and the next morning (once they day warmed enuf).

We sat on the porch for several hours, just getting attuned to cabin time. There hadn’t been much rain in the area lately, though one storm did pass through earlier in the week. The surprising result is that the lake is still holding at nearly a full pool. For this late in the summer, that’s a real win (for my ego and for the fish that will have to winter over in whatever water remains).

It wasn’t all indolence though. After sitting around, I slung more gravel and pulled some weeds encroaching on the cabin. Then I got busy building another successful one-match fire:

We cooked some (really awful) Salisbury steaks on this fire and otherwise sat around it well into the darkness. And though I didn’t expect to hear one this late in the summer, a nearby whippoorwill serenaded us a few times. Distant owls hooted. And my wife said she’d heard coyotes yipping after I was asleep. Also, a neighbor was busy in a field to the east apparently, tilling or harvesting or mowing well after nightfall. It was barely audible, so it didn’t intrude on our campfire musings, but it was constant, and odd.

On Saturday morning I finally did what I’ve been meaning to do for months: I cut down that oak tree that had thwarted me for so long. (Actually, it was my inept understanding of my chainsaw, but I’ll blame the tree.)

Not the best picture, but you can see the base where I cut the tree on the left and the fallen tree behind my chainsaw. I cut the trunk into two-foot sections and took off the limbs. The logs I carried up the hill to the wood rack by the fire ring, and the limbs I dragged through the trees to a brush pile I’ve had for longer than I’ve had the cabin. And since I had the chainsaw warmed up, I took out some other branches that were reaching into the open space betwixt the cabin and the lake as well as a cedar tree that was doing the same (though not the one you see in the photo above). Later, when I sat in the comfy chair on the shady porch overlooking the sparkling lake and gazed down the gentle hill, I saw new trees and branches that would now have to go too. (Though not on this day.)

This was hot and dirty work. I’d forgotten how much sawdust a working chainsaw can throw on a person. And even though I had tackled this job early in the morning before the sun would scorch that bit of earth, I was sweating. So I did what any sensible person would do in 75-degree weather in the Ozarks; I went swimming.

This was only the second time this summer I had gotten into the lake. I’m not sure why, though fear of flesh-eating bacteria and brain-eating amoebas may have something to do with it. Happily, I don’t have the rafts of blue-green algae floating in the lake this year. So I donned my suit (and cap and sunglasses and shirt to ward off sunburn) and stumbled down the hill and into the water because why not? The water was much warmer than the air, and as usually happens in these cases, I was soon deliciously warm and buoyant. My wife soon followed me in, and we paddled around the water for easily an hour, just taking it all in. A pair of curious turkey vultures circled overhead, and the dragonflies patrolled the water’s surface. I did gaze up toward the cabin once, just to see how open the open area looked from that perspective, and I agreed with myself that more work needed to be done.

Eventually we had to reacquaint ourselves with gravity and stumbled up the hill to the cabin to dry ourselves and do more power relaxing. But there were no more chores that were going to be done that day, and we slowly began packing up and sweeping the cabin and porch, putting away this and that, cleaning, and straightening. The dogs would have none of it and chose to do their own relaxing in the truck, which was fine with me. Flike, the bigger dog, is terrified of horseflies, of which there were many that day. And Queequeg, the smaller dog, is coyote bait. So better for them both to be in the car (with the windows down).

We packed up slowly, which is always the best way because we tend to overlook and/or forget fewer things by doing so. Eventually we were all set to go and locked up then pulled out.

I’m not sure when I’ll be getting back to my cabin. I’m driving to Kentucky soon for a long weekend, and then my daughter and three grands will be coming to Kansas City for two weeks. I think she’d like to expose her kids to cabin life (that is, building fires!), but August is miserably hot, and who wants to have three toddlers with bug bites driving them crazy on their long drive back to New York? So it may be the end of August before I get back.

back to Roundrock, again

June 24, 2019

With so much rain lately, my visits to Roundrock are governed by whether or not the roads to it are passable. A decent couple of days, weatherwise, last weekend suggested I could have an overnight at my little cabin on the edge of the Missouri Ozarks. And so I snuck out of work a little early on Friday, threw some things in the Prolechariot, and took off for the woods.

My neighbor down there, with whom I maintain a texting friendship, reported that although the county road was no longer underwater, the weather was horrible, with hail and lightning and a sky that was green! I had seen the weather forecast, though, and told him I was still on my way and that I would bring some sunshine along with me.

The rain had stopped before I arrived, but the forest was still dripping when I left the paved road and drove the two graveled miles to my cabin. It was still standing, and the lake was still there (not washed away by a breach of the dam from all of the rain and high water). Branches were down here and there, but otherwise the forest and cabin endured.

When I’d last visited, two weekends before, the phoebe nest on the side of the cabin, under the protective porch roof, held four eggs. On this visit, I saw what you see below:

I count at least two chicks in the nest, and while momma phoebe perched on a branch nearby as I passed in and out of the cabin, scolding me the whole time, she grew a bit more comfortable with my presence in her realm and didn’t always fly off the nest when I appeared or even moved as I sat in the comfy chair overlooking the sparkling lake.

I had fully intended to swim in the lake this visit. The forecast called for 92 degrees, and I had even brought my swimming gear this time. But the storm had left behind cooler temperatures after it passed, and it never rose above 70 degrees that afternoon. I suppose swimming was still possible — the water temperature was likely warm enuf — but I chose not to.

I had also brought the chainsaw — with the chain on it properly this time — but I’m always reluctant to use it when I’m alone in the forest, on the wrong side of the ridge where we don’t get a cell signal. There was still that oak that defeated me before, and there are two closer to the cabin that I want to remove to have more parking space (for when you come to visit, natch!), but I didn’t fire up the machine.

The only chore I did undertake when I visited was to do something about the spillway that continues to wash out. I’ve mentioned here before that I have hired a man to fix it and even pave the top part of it to prevent further erosion, but the rain has kept him busy in other parts of the county, and he got himself elected mayor of the nearby town, so he has myriad responsibilities now, and a small job like mine probably isn’t high on his list.

The high water that rushes into the spillway has now cut a six-foot drop. It still carries the excess water away, but every high-water event erodes a little more of the spillway, and if that six-foot drop reaches the lake itself (at least fifteen more feet of linear distance) then the lake will begin pouring out. Short of carrying buckets of washed-out rock a hundred feet up from below the dam to the drop — hundreds of buckets — about the only other thing I figured I could do was cut a bunch of smallish cedars and throw them in the hole then throw some heavy rocks on top of them. And this is what I did.

My thought is that the presence of the cedars in the hole will blunt the force of any water pouring into it, thus preventing the hole from getting any deeper. Also, the fine needles and branching pattern of the cedars might collect some of the silt from the overflow, filling in the hole at least a little.

As I was doing this, standing in the bottom of the hole, I could see at head height some old cedars protruding from the ground. They were from my last attempt at slowing the erosion, and now they were above my head.

The boulder you see in the photo at the top of this post is the size of my truck. It sits farther down the spillway, and in a perfect world it would be under a few feet of soil, lush with grass that would prevent erosion.

Nature always wins. (That’s actually the title I would use for any sequel I write to One-Match Fire.) My little efforts will make not much difference at all, but sitting on the porch, wringing my hands, will make even less. Also, it’s something I can continue to do as I wait for the contractor to come and finish the job. (I texted him over the weekend and made things sound dire. He promised to get a crew out there this week. That would be dandy, but I don’t think there are any heavy rainstorms coming soon, and the lake level is slowing lowering anyway, so maybe the crisis will be over for this year.)

After doing what I could down in the spillway hole, I retreated to the cabin and began thinking about building a fire. It was the solstice, so the sun wasn’t going to set for several hours. I’m fussy about fires in my forest. Once I have them going, I feel that I should tend them carefully, keeping them safely within the ring of blocks and not rampaging through the forest. Thus I did not want to start the fire too soon and then be stuck before it for hours of daylight, waiting for darkness to fall (and the whippoorwills to sing).

The forest was wet from the recent rain, and my fears were not very substantive, but even so, I didn’t want to set match to tinder too soon. So I returned to the cabin (at momma phoebe’s dissatisfaction) and wrote in my visit journal and made notes for the stories I write that seem to come to me in waves when I’m at the cabin. (I am grateful for this.)

The hours passed. I watched as a fawn walked along the shoreline across the lake. Later, I saw a raccoon wading the shallows there, hunting, I suppose, for frogs or tadpoles or insects. I had seen four quail as I drove in from the paved road earlier, which is something I’ve wanted to see ever since my feet first touched the ground there. I think I’ve mentioned before the idyllic summers I had spent at my grandparent’s farm in Kentucky as a boy. That was when I had first heard the call of the bobwhite quail, and I had hoped that my own time in the woods and fields would deliver that call to me again. Not yet, but just seeing the quail was encouraging.

At around 7:00 p.m., an hour and a half before official sunset, I walked to the fire ring and began assembling my evening fire. I’d been collecting tinder for a long time. I prefer paper bags. They light easily and they seem to burn hot but not fast, giving the kindling a chance to ignite in its turn. (Also, going to the bagel store often results in a paper bag.)

My concern was that the kindling itself was wet from the rain. I don’t cover my wood pile, and the kindling I collect is from the forest floor nearby, so it faces all of the weather that comes. I have built fires with wet kindling that sputtered out, and I allowed myself more than one match to get this one going.

I built the fire, adding more than my normal amount of paper-bag tinder (also gas receipts, empty instant-oatmeal packets, and such) then mounted the kindling over it. When I judged that I had enuf, I drew a single match from the box and struck it, lighting the exposed paper bags where I could then dropping the match into the kindling when it had burned down too far to hold any longer.

My tinder burned robustly, but the kindling seemed reluctant. Once all of the paper was ash, I had only a few small flames licking in the top of the pyramid of kindling, which isn’t how the plan was supposed to go. (Normally, you want your fire to start at the bottom and consume the fuel above it.) But I fed those flames with small sticks and kind words and somehow, I managed to get a real fire going on that first match.

As this was happening, I was preparing the larger sticks as fuel for the long haul. I carefully added them to the fire — along with some scrap lumber I had brought from home as well as yet another picket from the rotting fence that surrounds my back yard — and watched as they joined the effort.

I had succeeded in building a one-match fire despite having wet kindling and fuel, and if it wasn’t the same as a Jack London story, it was still satisfying to me.

The fire carried me past sunset and into the night. I was not cooking my dinner over these flames, so all I really had to do was enjoy them. And I did.

Not the best photo, but here is the “mature” fire, filled with hot coals and warm flames, ready to accept and consume whatever else I would add to it.

I lingered before my fire well past my usual bedtime because I was waiting, as I always do, to hear a whippoorwill. Simple pleasures, right? I did hear some calling farther in the forest, but the randy frogs down the hill in the lake were croaking so lustily that it was hard to hear anything above their chorus. (I did hear a whippoorwill through the open cabin windows sometime in the night.)

In the morning I rose and thought once again about jumping in the lake to rinse off the grime of my chores and fire building and general sweating in the Ozark humidity. But I did not. My son and his wife had arrived in Kansas City the night before, and I felt obliged to return home sooner rather than later to spend time with them (and see if they had any news, which they didn’t). I slept two hours later than my normal time, and I didn’t rush as I prepared to leave. I straightened around the cabin site, putting fresh (bug-free) sheets on the bed I had slept in, taking extra time (at the phoebe’s consternation) to sweep the porch thoroughly, and pretty much satisfying myself that I had set thing aright as much as I could.

I’m entering the season when I feel daunted by my feeble attempts to maintain a small cabin in a small forest. The plants are growing so vigorously now that any idea of imposing human order in that space seems futile. But it’s only temporary. By August, when the heat of the summer asserts itself fully, all of the febrile growth begins to question itself. The plants begin to wither and fall back, and once again I feel that I can establish my presence in the forest.

And already, I’m looking at this coming weekend for another visit.

chagrin and humility

June 6, 2019

Sure, we can all laugh about it now. But at the time it was a peak moment of embarrassment for me.

Winston Churchill was credited with saying, upon hearing that some political adversary was a modest man, that “he has much to be modest about.” I try to live by that maxim.

On our recent trip to Roundrock, I went to the hardware store in town to see about a few things, and I thought I could get a new chain for my chainsaw and just be done with the inexpertly sharpened old chains (sharpened at the hardware store in faraway suburbia) that had let me down. The hardware store had an entire corner devoted to Stihl chainsaws and equipment. Those are fine tools, but my chainsaw is a Husqvarna. I described the saw to the man (“a chainsaw whiz” he was described) and said I had a 16-inch bar that I needed a new chain for. I also told him about my misadventures with the sharpened chains.

He must have been able to read me easily, because he said he was reluctant to sell me a chain if he wasn’t sure it would fit. Well, it happened that I had my chainsaw in my truck, so I said I would bring it in and he could see for himself what kind of chain I needed.

I pulled the dirty saw from its case and set it on the counter before the whiz, and then I had one of the most humbling moments of my life.

“Did you know you have the chain on backward?”

Never, until that very moment, did I have any idea that you could install a chain backward on a saw. It never entered my simple mind as a possibility. I had changed the chain on my saw dozens of times over the years, and it seems that those dozens of times I had just happened to put it on correctly. Only this last time had I happened to put it on backward.

The man showed me the direction the teeth needed to face as the chain whirled around the bar, and then he kindly offered to put the chain on properly, at no charge.

The last time I had tried to use the saw, my daughter-in-law was at the cabin and I was going to give her the “treat” of cutting down a tree. But instead of sawdust we were only producing smoke — because the chain had been on backward! Sooner or later I’m going to need to confess this to her.

When we were at the cabin last week, after I had climbed down from the roof from doing my repairs, I thought briefly about firing up the chainsaw and finally removing that tree that was blocking some of my view of the sparking lake, but lethargy had me in its thrall by then and I decided to save that chore for a later visit.

another dry day in a wet wood

June 5, 2019

Copious rain is a double-edged sword, one that cuts both ways, a mixed blessing, a two-way street, a pis aller. It fills my lake and makes it hospitable for fish and humans that venture in, but it threatens the dam and washes out the spillway. It reduces the threat of a fire in the forest, but reduces the ability to make a fire in the ring too. It brings the green but also the humidity.

And, apparently, it leaks through the roof of the cabin.

What you see in the photo above is the ceiling of the shady porch (overlooking the sparkling lake). The black and white business is, to my best guess, a water stain, and it’s an old one since I’ve been watching it get bigger for a couple of years. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have let it go on so long, but at first I didn’t realize what it was. (I’m not sure what I thought it was, but since the roof had never leaked inside the cabin, I suppose I thought it couldn’t be water.)

Once I resigned myself to the idea that it was a leak, I decided that on my next trip I would bring a ladder so that I could have a look at the roof over the porch and see if my untrained and uniformed eye might see something so glaringly obvious that I could a) fix it, or b) get someone out to the cabin to fix it.

The ladder I brought, a six-foot folding step ladder, was sufficient to let me peek over the roofline and have a look-see.

The roof of the cabin meets the roof of the porch with a joint that has an overlapping metal piece. And beneath that, screwed into place, is a foam gasket of sorts to fill the gaps created by the ridges and valleys of the metal roof material. What I saw was this:

What you see bulging from that overlap is the foam gasket. And you see it after I had used a stick to attempt to poke it back into place. It was bulging out much farther. (To the right and left of it the gasket sits beneath the overlap properly.) My guess is that water running down the roof (from the top right) and across the overlap could not then continue down the porch roof (to the lower left) with the gasket bulging, so it collected there and eventually backed up under the overlap. And then into the ceiling of the shady porch. And so the sword cut the wrong way.

The step ladder I had brought was not tall enuf to let me climb onto the roof without great peril to life and limb. (Plus my wife wouldn’t let me.) (Plus, I was too scared.) So my desperation solution was to try to poke the gasket further under the overlap and then walk away and not think about it. I did that, poking it so far that it disappeared altogether, and I had no idea if that was better or worse.

Since the morning was young and the sky was blue and all things still seemed possible (not really), I thought I could take myself into the nearby town where there was a hardware store (where I’ve spent thousands of dollars) and perhaps an informed solution. And so that’s what I did.

The town is on the banks of the great Corps of Engineers lake, and while we were there, we took the chance to see how close the water had come. Turns out it was VERY close. Many of the streets, that I have driven upon, were underwater. The new playground ,that seemed far beyond the reach of the lake, was underwater. The walking bridge, that connected the bisected town, was underwater. I don’t think the good people of the town were traumatized by this. It seemed to be treated as an inconvenience, and the town square was bustling with cars and foot traffic. (Remember, this was a Friday.)

At the hardware store, I showed the man there some photos I had the presence of mind to take of my cabin roof, and he knew exactly what I needed. And he even had the part (another gasket) in stock. He explained to me how to install it, which I was grateful for since I never would have thought it through if he hadn’t. It cost me all of a dollar and a half, and I bought some chain oil for my saw, and I thought about buying a new chain, but I’ll leave that story for another day.

While I was there, I figured I would also need to rent a ladder tall enuf to let me climb onto the roof of the cabin. But before I did that, I called a neighbor down there (who runs cattle, has a shop big enuf to fit my house in, and is an all around nice guy) to see if he had a ladder I could borrow. He did, and he told me he would have it waiting at my cabin by the time I returned from town. Nice guy!

So with our goods in hand, we returned to the cabin to find a nice tall ladder waiting against the roof of the shady porch. All I needed was a small socket on the end of a screw driver handle, and I could get right to work.

Getting on the roof was a challenge, not due to the physical requirements, but due to the mental challenge of it. I can’t recall the last time I was on any roof, much less on a metal one, in the sun, with large rocks on the ground all around it, about twenty miles from the nearest hospital.

But up I went, and I got to work removing the screws that held the overlap in place. They were also holding the gasket in place, which was nice to see. I had to take out a half dozen in order to get enuf play in the overlap to get the bad gasket (about three feet long) out and the new gasket in. Kneeling on the metal roof was the hardest part of the job, but the view was nice, once I grew confident enuf that I wasn’t going to roll off the more-or-less gently sloping porch roof.

As evidence of my heroic time on the roof, I provide this photo:

That’s the lake well below. (And my booted right foot.)

I got the new gasket installed, and I think it was even properly installed, and then I took my timid self over to the ladder and began my effort to get on it so I could climb down. It was actually easy to do, and I wondered why I had any fear at all.

The rest of the day was anti-climactic after that. (I leave it to you wordsmiths to tell me if that sentence can be taken literally or not.) I remember sitting in the comfy chair on the shady porch overlooking the sparkling lake and contemplating attacking that oak tree that has bested me twice before. But I decided against it and realized that if I got home soon enuf, I could get on my bike and put ten miles of the trail behind me before a few craft beers in front of me washed away the dust of the trail.

We had lunch. We cleaned up around the cabin. We packed the truck, And then we drove over the mostly solid gravel roads out of our forest. Along the way, we met my neighbor who lent us the ladder, and I thanked him again. Then we reached the county road and took our detour to get around the flooded area. Soon enuf we were on the highway home, another nice weekend at Roundrock in the books.