Notes from Windward:

October Update

Greetings from Windward:

After eleven winters here, we know that the chill in the autumn air is Winter breathing down our necks. I'm writing this in mid-October, and we're about a month out from our first snow date, so we're in the "home stretch" on many fronts. Need more hay put away, more wood in the woodshed, more construction completed before snowfall, etc., so in that sense, it's business as usual.

Each fall it seems like we're almost, but not quite, ready for winter, and that by next winter we'll surely be ready. Standing on the threshold of our twelfth winter, all I can say is that we're not there yet. Maybe next year.

Our current primary project, the extention of the underground powerline another 650', is still on hold. One of the challenges of doing things in the deep country with minimal dollars is that you have to schedule your work around the availability of the equipment needed to do the job. We need the use of a big track-hoe to dig the deep ditch to lay the 7,200 volt power line in, and the trackhoe owner is busy finishing up a government job.

The state's been renting him and his equipment at high rates for 10 hours a day, so we just have to wait until the "big money" job is done. Word is that he'll be ready to start before the end of the month. That will still give us time to finish the project before snowfall, but it will be close. Maybe the snow will hold off an extra month this year. But then again, maybe it won't.

We usually do a lot of brush buringing October, but not this year. The rainy season usually starts in September, but so far we haven't had any appreciable rain for months. The County Commissioners decided to take the unprecedented step of extending the burn ban for another month, so any fall burning won't start until November at the earliest. Surely, by then we'll be into the rainy season.

Folks often ask "What's a typical winter like at Windward?" We just shake our heads and mumble something about the extreme variability of the weather, and that in the ten years we've been here, we haven't seen any two winters that were very similar at all. "Muddy, some snow, but not too bad" is usually about the best we can come up with. We're looking forward to seeing what this particular year has to offer.

The primary area we're wanting to clear by burning brush and stumps is what we're calling Northumbria. That's an area about 100' deep by 150' long that lies along our northern boundary. It's a marvelous flat spot that was clear cut by the loggers, and we figure it will make a great addition to our gardens.

This spring, we had a bulldozer dig out the oak stumps, and they've been lying out exposed all summer drying. Now, it's time to burn them so the garden will be ready to till in the spring. I know that folks in the rest of the country think it rains in Washington all the time, but it really doesn't, and especially not on the eastern side of the Cascades.

We're currently working to get Finney and Alpha trailers online before winter sets in. This summer we added another four septic systems, and are currently running an underground web of power, sewer, water and phone lines, so we're anticipating a substantial improvement in housing. It's taken a while, but we've come a long way since starting with raw land ten years ago.

Everyone on site is in good health, with the exception of Heather. She blew out a disk in her back this spring, and underwent surgery to repair it. The doctor thought there was a good chance that her spine would fuse itself in that location, and elected to not install a titanium cage. Sadly, that has not come to pass, and she's going back under the knife later this month. It's been a long, painful summer for Heather, but we're hoping that this next surgery will get her started on the road to recovery.

Our herds are at full size, around 40 ewes and 40 does, so we're culling the young ones pretty hard this year. Actually, in the case of the sheep, predators did much of the culling for us. Over the course of the summer, we lost a dozen lambs, two adult ewes and even a young doe.

We expect to lose one or two a year that way, and consider that as sort of a "nature" tax. At this point, we're well into a "tax revolt" mentality, and are looking seriously at ways to cull the predators.

One side effect of the increase in predation is that we're seeing other forms of wildlife decide that they like hanging out at Windward. This morning, a flock of twenty wild turkeys wandered through. Normally, they keep their distance from two-leggers, so this was most unusual.

One big development that this summer brought to Windward is the reworking of the county road. We're 1,200' above, and 3 miles back from, the Klickitat river. The bumpy, winding gravel county road has been one of the reasons that Windward was able to establish itself here. A sustainable community requires a substantial amount of land, and the result that the upfront capitalization can be preclusive.

Lots of flat-land city folk start up that hill and quickly decide that it's "too country" for them, with the result that land prices up here have always been low. I expect that day is done and gone.

The county has spent about a third of a million dollars to widen and raise the road bed, and finished up their work with two layers of asphalt. They're even putting in guard rails! The trip up the hill is much faster, but there are questions in my mind as to whether or not it's safer. Before, when portions of the road were sort of like a two-mile long speed bump, people went slow, but now there's no impediment to "the need for speed" that is so characteristic of our culture.

There's no doubt that the new road will bring changes. Already people are buying up subdivided parcels around us, and it's clear that a tide of development is coming.

Update - Oct 22

As I was writing the above lines, the phone rang to let me know that the trackhoe would be arriving within the hour. In the week since then, we've been working steadily to complete the excavations for the power line extention. Much has been accomplished, but we're still "highly focused" on this task.

While digging the power trench is a huge task, it also triggers a series of secondary and tertiary tasks. For example, we're having to reroute the water line that runs from the pump to the storage tank. We can't have water running in the same ditch as the power line, and since there's a section of the water line that runs where the power needs to go, the water has to be rerouted.

We're having to do a similar reroute of some sewer lines at the other end of the installation. In some ways it's a hassle, but in other ways, it's a chance to redo old work while taking advantage of the skills and equipment that's been acquired since those lines went in almost ten years ago.

The tertiary tasks have to do with projects that can make good use of the trackhoe. While it's here, we want to take as much advantage of it as we can. We're using it to dig two more septic tank holes, to run the underground propane service for Finney trailer, and to install our underground water tank.

It can get cold enough here for us to worry about having our 3,000 gallon above-ground storage tank freeze. I have these nightmares of going up there to find the side of the tank swelled out and burst like a frozen water pipe. One of the tasks that's become a part of Thanksgiving weekend is to shut down the big tank, drain the connections, and switch over to the winter tank. We've been using a 1,000 gallon horizontal water tank covered with bales of straw, and that's gotten us by so far.

We've purchased a water tank that's designed for installation underground, and once it's installed, we'll be able to rest assured that the water will continue to flow regardless of how cold it might get. While the big trackhoe is onsite, we'll have it excavate the hole for the underground tank.

On a different note, we're very glad to relate that our predator problem appears to be solved. We're accustomed to losing an animal or two a year to predators, something which we think of as a sort of nature tax, but this year it's gotten way out of line. Heather contacted a predator control officer with the USDA, and he came up to investigate.

His assessment was that our primary losses weren't from coyotes at all, but rather that a cougar had moved into the area. One reason for that call was the lack of carcasses from the kills. Lambs and yearlings were disappearing, and we wouldn't find anything. After our most recent loss, an 8 month old lamb, we made a dilligent search and found the kill site. There was notable amounts of wool on the ground, wool which Joyce positively identified as having come from the lost lamb, but that was it.

The control officer said that while coyotes feed on the animal at the skill site, cougars take the entire animal back to their den, with the result that often you don't ever find any sign of the lost animal. Well, it was good that the problem was identified, but that was a long way from a solution.

Deciding to "bell the cat" is easy enough; finding the cat is an entirely different matter. Fortunately, the solution to our problem came in the form of hunting season.

Windward's western edge is bounded by Wahkiacus Creek. If you follow the creek bed downhill, you come out on the Klickitat river near the old ice house. At dawn on the first morning of hunting season, a hunter was watching the old logging road that crosses the mouth of the canyon, and spotted the cougar coming down to the river for a drink. In a heartbeat, our predator problem was solved.

The cougar was a 165 pound male, about the largest cat that any of the local hunters recall seeing in these parts. Joyce says that a cat that size puts an entirely different light on her morning walks in the woods. The fact that there haven't been any reports of cougars attacking people is scant comfort when something rustles in the bushes.

There are lots of challenges that come with living close to the land. A sustainable lifestyle is complex and there are always things to attend to. That's sort of worry is the warp of the life we're weaving here on the land, but this problem with the predator attacking our animals was very different on an emotional level. It was only with the death of the cougar that we realized just how great a shadow he had cast over Windward.

And so, it's back to the routine tasks that come with the season. Lots to do, and the rapidly shortening days add a special urgency to the work. Next week, when daylight savings time ends, it will seem as if we're suddenly cast into the darkness of the coming winter. Even though we know intellectually that the change is merely a two-legger convention, the change still carries an emotional impact that isn't trivial.

with best wishes from Windward,


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