Notes from Windward: #61

The Winter Update

Winter, 2001
Greeting's from wintery Windward :-) Time to put another log on the fire, pour a cup, and take some time to share with you what's happening at this end.

Every one of the twelve winters we've spent here has had its own distinct characteristics, but all in all, this has been a middle of the road sort of affair. I should add, "at least so far" since winter is a long way from over, and there are certain to be surprises yet to come before the spring flowers return in April.

Still, it's easy to feel in January that we're past the worst of it, since its the transition into winter that puts the strain on the group, not actual winter itself. As the hard frosts come, we work to finish securing the living quarters by putting plastic up on the windows, checking pipe insulation and preparing shelters for the animals. By the new year, that work is pretty much done, and it's just a matter of nestling down with a good book to wait it out and rest up for spring.

One of the reasons we discourage visitors in the winter is that it's a demanding time of year if one isn't prepared, but also because it's our time as a group to recharge and prepare for the year to come.

Mt. Hood at sunset
The longer we live close to the land, the more our schedules conform to the day cycle. In the summer, that means rising early to do things before the day heats up. Some may value the quality of their lifestyle by the amount of stuff they can acquire; we tend to value instead the amount of nap time we can get in on a summer afternoon.

Since most of us are of northern European heritage, there's always the problem of dealing with Seasonally Affected Depression. One of the insights we've arrived at is that we're just naturally constructed to sleep while it's dark, and one of the roots of systemic depression in modern society is simply a lack of sound sleep.

The modern lifestyle requires people to get up at the same time each day, and to get by in winter on the same about of sleep as they get in summer. That's a cultural norm that's only recently (in terms of the human experience) come about, and most of us are ill-adapted to living an existence which doesn't take the seasonal differences into account.

It's amazing how much of a difference it makes to be able to sleep until you wake up with the morning light. It's a simple thing, but it makes a profound difference in one's quality of life.

When folks inquire about Windward, we're often asked something along the lines of "Does Windward provide therapy for people undergoing stress related disorders?" and my half-joking answer is usually something along the lines of "Not so that you'd notice." Getting enough sleep is part of what I'm talking about, as is nutrition and exercise. A person's psychological state is built on a foundation of flesh and blood, and if the body isn't working well, the spirit isn't going to work well either. No rocket science there.

Windward lies on the east side of the Washington Cascade mountains. We're where the cold air of Idaho and Montana runs smack into the warmer, moist air coming in off the Pacific. The upshot is that we spend much of the month of December encased in fog. Some winters we've gone as much as three weeks in the fog before seeing the sun finally break through.

One interesting thing about that experience is that a fog is only a cloud that's laying on the ground. In our case, we're 1,200 feet above the Klickitat river, and when we drive down the hill into the clear, it becomes obvious that we've been in a cloud. Somehow, that's psychologically different. Not sure why.

By January, the season has pretty much cooled everything down, and we get our usual clear skies back. January is still the heart of winter, but icy, cold and bright is very different than icy, cold and dark.

The biggest problem we're struggling with this year involves our water system. We're in the third year of unusually dry winters, with this year being the driest yet. Rainfall west of the mountains since last November has been less than half of average, and even more scarce on this side of the rain shadow.

By this time of year, the rain has usually saturated our ground to the point where you have to be very careful where you drive. In a usual December, just venture off the hard-pack roadway, and you'll probably sink to the axles before you can say "don't do it."

Lake Windward briming over
Since our primary well draws from the water held in the first thirty feet or so, it's replenished each year by the fall rains and winter snows. Only that's not been happening recently, and the production of our primary well has been falling off. In an ordinary winter, there's so much water in the canyon where our well is located that for a few months each winter we have what we call "Lake Windward."

This year, "Lake Windward" is dry as a bone. Since we didn't need to wait until the well ran dry in order to appreciate how much we'd miss having water :-), we started work last spring on expanding our water options. We had a well that hadn't been brought on line before that's almost 200' deep, and tap into an entirely different water situation that wouldn't be affected by yearly precipitation cycles.

We had that project underway when the loss of our kitchen forced us to divert work and resources away from the water system and into the new dining hall. So, now we have two necessary projects going forward. Given our limited skills and funds, we have a hard enough time doing one major project at a time :-)

We had hoped that fall would bring enough rain to replenish the water table and provide at least a short term solution to the problem of our reduced water supply. Unfortunately, it didn't work out that way, and now we're scrambling to bring part of the new water system on line in the old well in order to tide us over until all the snow finally melts. It's hard to realize when looking out at snow covered woodlands that the ground under that snow is still dry, and is going to remain dry until the melt comes.

It isn't that the well we rely on isn't producing _any_ water, rather it's just not producing enough. The problem there is that the standard sort of pump that's installed in that well, a 1/2 horsepower submersible pump with a centrifugal pump head, isn't designed to deal with low-flow conditions. It's quickly pumping the well dry, and then just sits there trying to pump air.

The new solar powered submersion pump
The type of pump we're going to install in the well we're working to bring online (we call it "the village well") is a solar powered type pump. Instead of pumping water by slinging it through thirteen progressive stages, these pumps are "positive displacement pumps" which shove the water forward in the same way that the fuel pump on your car shoves fuel to your carburetor.

These solar pumps can be configured one of three ways: high pressure/ low volume, medium pressure/ medium volume and low pressure/ high volume. It's sort of like having first, second and third gear in your car. The engine turns over at the same RPM, but the speed/power output varies according to which gear you're in.

"The Plan" (tm) is to install the new pump in the old well since it will deal effectively with the low flow situation we're stuck with until the spring rains come (keeping our fingers crossed for luck, of course). Then, once the water table has had a chance to recharge, we'll pull the solar pump, and install it in the deep well in order to be able to access that water source to irrigate next year's gardens.

Each spring we bring more garden space into production, and this year we're looking forward to seeing things start to happen in the new "North garden." Shawn and Q have been burning up the remainder of the stumps, and it should be ready to till when the ground dries up in April.

Three years ago we purchased a strip 150' deep by a quarter mile long which moved our northern boundary further back from the dining hall area. Part of that land is a broad, level bench which will add more than an acre of permanent garden when it's finally cleared and prepared. Converting a clear cut into a garden is a challenge, but the work is almost finished.

We're looking at planting permanent crops like lavender, blueberries, holly and saffron. Those crops aren't as water intensive as tomatoes or corn, but they'll still need a certain amount of drip irrigation to get established and be fully productive.

The east end of the dining hall
looking north
We didn't make as much progress on the dining hall as we would have liked before serious winter set in, but that seems to be the case every winter. The thousand dollar building permit put a real damper on our ability to get the roof onto at least the east wing of the building. As it is, we almost made it before an arctic front came down and sent the overnight temps down into the single digits.

This is a shot of the east end of the new dining hall looking north. This room will ultimately be the "mud room" or entrance room, but come spring we expect to be using it as an initial kitchen as we work on the rest of the building.

The east end of the dining hall
looking south
This is the north side of the "mud room." As you can see, we took advantage of the "openness" to locate the 15 Kw diesel genset before we poured the retaining wall that will turn this space into a power-room/root-celler. The door will be wide enough to get it out if we ever need to, but it sure was easier to set it in place using the backhoe, and then build the room around it.

Now that winter's really here, we just focus on making sure that the animals have their food and water, and keeping the roads clear. With more than a mile of roads in daily use, that last bit is almost a full time job when the snow's falling. We use a scraper blade behind the Fordson tractor, which is effective for up to about six inches of snow, so we have to tend to that task right away before the accumulation gets out of hand and we have to turn to the snow blower to clear the path.

The snow blower is self-powered and will handle snow up to a foot deep, but it only blows a swath some 24 inches wide, so just clearing out our 1/2 mile driveway involves some two and a half miles of travel. We've had to do that once or twice, and I can assure you that's the sort of experience that makes one get out there and hustle before the snowfall gets too deep for the tractor to handle.

Part Two