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Our Off-Grid Thanksgivings

Tamara WilmA few years ago, my husband and I started a new tradition for Thanksgiving: going to an off-grid cabin on the side of a mountain in the southern Adirondacks. After years of spending the holiday the old-fashioned way, we decided that we wanted to do our own thing. We already had the spot—a cabin we frequented the rest of the year.


Our off-grid "home"

This cabin is an old Sears Home. With a faded blue paint job on the outside, and six cozy rooms inside, all kept warm by a cast iron wood burning stove, the cabin is the place we consider our real home. The kitchen, where we cook our Thanksgiving meal if there’s snow on the ground, has a small apartment-sized stove, refrigerator, microwave, and a wooden table.

While the cabin has power, and baseboard heat if we really need it, there is no phone, TV, radio, or other modern amenities. Hence, we are off-grid, in the woods, in the middle of our own Adirondack dream. What more could we possibly need?

 

Well, food.

Locally purchased groceries

What we’ve eaten on Thanksgivings at the cabin has varied from the traditional—turkey, cranberries, vegetables, potatoes, and even a turkey-shaped butter, all the regulars—to rib-eye steaks on the grill. This year, facing both snow on the ground (so no grill), and the requirement we’ve given ourselves to buy everything we eat locally, we have no idea what we’ll have for dinner. And frankly, we don’t care.

My man grilling dinner!

Steak

Last year's Rib-eyes

What’s important is that we’re together in this beautiful place, and grateful to be there. We also enjoy some early season treats, like cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, when the elements allow. It’s one of those rare places where you can literally ski right out the front door. And when you are inside, you can watch the other skiers go by on the trails that wrap around the cabin.

So, this year, we’ll sit down to eat whatever is on our plates, we’ll share what we’re grateful for, and we’ll quietly while away the dark hours reading next to the wood stove, until our eyelids are too heavy to remain open any longer. Then we’ll trek the short commute across the cabin to bed, and be up the next day at first light, perfectly content to remain where we are.

Dinner on the table

pie!

Locally made apple pie

If Thanksgivings, and other holidays are this way for the rest of my life, I’ll consider myself a very fortunate woman.

Thankful for each other


Photos Property of Tamara Wilm

Bone Broth Season

Tamara WilmIn my house, November marks the beginning of the Bone Broth season. While we use the broth for soups and such, mostly, we drink it straight for its health benefits.

We like its immune boosting and digestive soothing properties. The naturally derived collagen also helps to fortify joints and maintain bone strength.

When it comes to taste, I liken it to a deep, caffeine-free cup of nourishing coffee. You can choose to dilute it if you wish, or need the broth to go farther.

The recipe outlined below creates about 12-14 pints. We prefer lamb bones and beef ribs.

We also think it's important to use high-quality organic/local bones and ribs. If you can get your bones from a local farmer, or from your own farm, all the better!

It's also important to note that we tend to be a little liberal when making our broth, often eyeballing, or going by instinct, so feel free to do the same. One thing we stress, however, is that the broth needs to cook low and slow. We take an entire weekend to create a full-flavored and nutrient dense broth.

My husband, Keith, is the head bone broth chef in our house. You'll find his recipe below. Enjoy, and feel free to ask questions in the comments.

You'll Need:

  • One 12 qt stock pot
  • A second pot that is at least 8
  • Large roasting pan
  • Large ladle
  • Large strainer
  • Large tongs can be useful
  • Cheesecloth
  • 12-14 Mason Jars — 16 oz, straight sided

Ingredients:

  • 3lb lamb neck bones
  • 2lb beef short ribs
  • 1/2 to a full bunch of celery (use the leaves, cut off the white bottoms)
  • 1lb carrots 1/2-1.0" thick, cut into 1" long pieces
  • 4-6 hardball size onions, quartered. Leave skins on
  • 1-2 full heads of garlic. (Peel, cut into bits — you do not need to finesse this)
  • Cold water to cover all ingredients in pot
  • 1 bay leaf
  • Liberal splash of cider vinegar (maybe 2 Tbsp)
  • Salt and Pepper

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven for 45 min to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.
  2. Put bones in roasting pan lined with foil. Sprinkle both sides with salt/pepper.
  3. Put the bones and ribs in oven, drop temp to 350 degrees F; brown 30 minutes each side.
  4. roasted broth

  5. When done, remove, and put all into stock pot.
  6. On top of the bones, add the: Celery, Carrots, Onions, Garlic, Cold water, Bay leaf, Cider vinegar
  7. homemade broth

  8. Put on stove, covered, on low. It will take a while for it to simmer. Let the pot simmer for 48 hrs.Stir occasionally.
  9. homemade broth

  10. After first 24 hr, try to get marrow to come out of bones.
  11. After 2 days... put 3 layers of good cheesecloth in a big strainer on top of a second pot in the sink. We use a second 12 qt stock pot — remember, it has to be big enough to hold all of the liquid with room to move it around.Ladle broth into strainer; the cheesecloth with hold back the small bits. Once the bulk is separated, pick out the meat and eat it. Toss the rest.
  12. homemade broth

  13. Decant the broth into mason jars. Let it cool, the fat will rise and form fat discs on top.
  14. Pick the pucks of fat off the broth and toss them. If a little bit remains in the jar, that's fine.
  15. Cover jars loosely, put in freezer. Once frozen, tighten lids.(Only use straight sided 1 Pt Mason Jars in the freezer.)

Yield is roughly 12-14 pints of broth.

Do you make your bone broth? What bones do you use? I'd love to hear how everyone is making their broth!


All photos are courtesy Keith V. Johnson

Homestead: My Family's Roots

Tamara WilmBack in 1927, my great-grandfather, Josef, moved his Polish family to the cold, snowy, and seemingly desolate area of northern Wisconsin, known as "up north" to locals. There, they were farmers, raised nine children, and started the story of the Bugalski family in America.

My grandfather, Thadeus James Bugalski, is now the owner of the homestead. In his 80s, the land has always been his home. Throughout his life he has returned to this place over and over, sometimes for weeks on end, to be where he feels most comfortable.

My grandfather with family photo

While the house has undergone changes over the years, the original structure has remained. Sometimes I think my grandfather's favorite place is sitting at the kitchen table, looking out at the barnyard.

The kitchen being remodeled

The hay in the barn's loft is the last load of hay my grandfather put up there in 1959, before he would leave the homestead and move to southeastern Wisconsin to raise his family. With his mother still living on the farm, he returned often (nearly every weekend) to help her with chores around the 500 acre property.

Hay from 1959

An avid deer hunter, Grandpa Teddy, as I call him, had a deer named Bucky for a pet. Bucky would live with the cows, grazing and herding them. At a certain point the deer was too much for my grandfather to care for, so he gave Bucky to another local farmer.

The pet deer was unfortunately killed by a car, while crossing the road with the cows one day. To this day my grandfather cannot eat deer meet. Lately, he gives any deer he shoots in hunting season to his chiropractor.

Winter on the farm

Winter on the farm is an especially harsh time of year, even now. Six foot drifts are a common occurrence, and with the plow only coming around every two weeks — and nearly 1/4 mile long driveways — it's quite possible to get stuck there. Old farm equipment like this is scattered around the property.

The original barn

The original barn still serves a purpose on the land. It's used mainly these days as storage for relics past, and is home to more critters than one wants to think about. But it's also a monument of sorts to a time long gone. If you look closely (and squint) there's a baseball sitting in the crack of the milk house. It's been there for decades.

Morning light fills Sue's room

Much of the house still remains in an under construction state. Yet, the quiet beauty and memories that fill this place lend to sentimentalism on my part, and that of my family. The rooms of the house are divided up by family members, this one belonging to my Aunt Sue.

The original stove

My great-grandmother's stove remained in the farm house until quite recently. It was most-likely in good working order until the day they removed it. More often than not, the stove was used to heat the house on cold mornings, rather than fire up the gigantic wood stove.

Photographs of my family

My grandfather and his mother, and brother Leo were the last inhabitants of the farm, with all the other siblings having left as soon as they were able, and my great-grandfather, Joself, having passed away. The youngest of nine children, my grandfather took it upon himself to stay faithful to the homestead and help his mother as much as possible.

The house with original siding

The farm house has been given a facelift since this photo was taken, but its essentially still the same building. I remember family reunions, quiet weekends with my grandfather, and family vacations centering around our family's first real home in America. We're lucky to have homesteading roots, and to still have this place after more than 90 years.


All photos are the property of Tamara Wilm Johnson.

Raising Pekin Ducks: A Rewarding Commitment

Tamara WilmRebecca Jackson and her husband Dan live in unincorporated Harrisville, Wisconsin on a 130-year old farmette. They purchased the land in an effort to return to her homesteading roots growing up.

Working from home, and the property's chicken coop, gave Jackson the opportunity to raise livestock. Once the farmette had more than twenty chickens she decided to expand.

Jackson says, "I decided on ducks because they were less likely to be aggressive, and [they were] smaller." After going through learning curves with drake (male) ducks — who didn't get along well with the resident chickens — she received a box of three peeping babies.

An early morning call from the Post Office signaled their arrival. "I found a hatchery in Missouri where I could request all females in a small quantity, and they were overnighted to me the day they hatched!"

Photo courtesy Rebecca Jackson
Photo courtesy Rebecca Jackson

The Pekin ducks are named Adelaide, Luna, and Pudder. These days, the three-year old birds live with the chickens in the coop, but they started out in the house.

"I kept my ducklings inside (in a spare bathroom) until they were feathered out enough to stay warm outside — approximately 6-8 weeks. Ducklings grow at an absurd rate — which means more poop and frequent bedding changes (multiple times per day). Within a week they outgrew their Rubbermaid bin and were moved into a temporary home in the spare shower."

Copyright Rebecca Jackson
Photo courtesy Rebecca Jackson

Once the ducklings feathered out, they moved outside. A secure structure was necessary so they moved in with the chickens in a 12 x 13" coop. "Some people use a simple dog house with a door they can close at night. Mine have also been trained to head into the coop each night at dusk," Jackson said.

Jackson feeds the ducks a layer feed that her chickens also eat, but mostly has them free-range, eating bugs, grass, and weeds, among other things. "I've spotted them eating frogs and mice too!" she said.

"As adults, they will eat all the food in sight (three ducks will eat 50 lb of feed a week if you let them — at $14 a bag), so that is another main reason I free-range, but supplement with feed. [It] helps keep food costs down.

Jackson has sensible words of caution for anyone considering ducks, "Raising ducks is a commitment! They can live up to 12 years and are pretty messy! If you're looking for a manicured lawn and don't want droppings on the walkway, ducks aren't for you."

She also outlined some harsh realities, "Ducks, and poultry in general... aren't a good choice if you aren't prepared to be your own veterinarian. Culling and treating sick/wounded animals is inevitable."

Ducks have large soft feet, making them highly susceptible to bumblefoot, an infection that can happen from a slight scratch or injury. Jackson describes it as "a solid cheese-like substance." Removal of the infection is required, along with persistent cleaning and treatment until the foot heals.

Overall, her experience with ducks has outweighed the sometimes-harsher parts. "I mainly have ducks for their eggs... Believe it or not, ducks lay much more dependably than chickens — even through the winter."

The three girls also provide "endless entertainment." According to Jackson, "They're hilarious to watch waddling all over the yard, digging through the grass, playing in their pool, and best of all, when they're called."

Photo belongs to Rebecca Jackson
Photo courtesy Rebecca Jackson

Jackson shared her "Quack Facts," for those considering ducks:

  • Ducklings imprint on the first thing they see after hatching, thus concluding that object is their mother. They also identify as this object in life. So my ducks think they're humans.
  • One way to identify the sex of a duck is by their quack. Females have very loud (often obnoxious) quacks, while males are quiet and more like a whisper.
  • A second way to identify the sex of a duck is by its tail feathers. Males have feathers that curl up, while females have flat feathers.
  • Ducks love routine. They are happiest when the same person lets them out, feeds / waters them at the same time daily — even when their owner wears the same clothes.
  • Ducks have nearly 340 degrees of vision due to the position of their eyes on their head. One eye specializes in near sight, while the other specializes in far. If there is a bird of prey flying overhead, I usually see all my ducks frozen in place with their heads tilted to give the far-sighted eye the best view.
  • Ducks have a comb-like structure along the inside edges of their bill called a pecten. This enables them to filter food out of the water.
  • Ducks sleep with one eye open to watch for predators. This means only half their brain is asleep at a time.

How to Properly Start a Wood Stove

Tamara WilmStarting a wood stove to heat your home or cabin can be a daunting task, especially if you've never done it before. However, once you get the basics down it becomes second nature and is a practical — not to mention cozy — way to provide warmth in the colder months.

Many people in the Adirondack Mountains — where I go every chance I get — heat their homes and camps this way. Seeing smoke rise out of the chimneys in the park is both picturesque and reminds me of simpler times. The smell is also deeply embedded in my scent memory.

Yet, when I first went to the Adirondacks I wasn't too confident with the stove. Even though I had grown up in Wisconsin with a campfire pit in my backyard — that I knew how to light with confidence — a woodstove is another animal all together. Experience and the advice of local friends taught me what to do.

First, I need to acknowledge that all wood stoves are different. While there are some universal steps to getting one going, there can be differences depending on the make and model. Be sure to read the manufacturer's instructions that come with your stove.

If you're staying in a rented cabin ask the owners for the instructions or about any quirks you need to be aware of. That being said, let's start that fire!

  1. Make sure the flue is open. This usually means that the handle is pointing up and down horizontally. Although, depending on the type of stove you have there could alternatively be a lever you pull in and out, or a dial, to adjust the air control. On the wood stove I most often use the flue handle is on the stovepipe.
  2. Once you're sure the flue is open, it's time to build the fire in the stove's firebox. Open the load door and start out by placing crumpled up newspaper in the bottom of the box. Now, there is debate on exactly the best way to crumple the paper, but — at least in the neck of the woods I hang out — general opinion is that wringing the paper into long (or short) log-type pieces, or wicks, is best.
  3. On top of the paper place your kindling. It's important to have dry, aged wood that has been chopped into small pieces. You'll want a lot of kindling at hand. I usually place these pieces in a box pattern to start out — two pieces on the outer part of the paper, and two pieces on the ends, making the box. I then add smaller pieces in the middle. On top of that I place a small log.
  4. Now you're ready to light. Using box matches or a long gas lighter, set the paper on fire in multiple places. You may need to blow (gently) on the paper and kindling to get it to catch.
  5. Tend the fire until it gets going and the log begins to burn. You may find that using the metal poker, to move the kindling or logs around, is helpful. When you hear crackling sounds that's a good indication that you have a strong fire started. You may need to add more newspaper or kindling to ensure a sufficient fire.
  6. After everything in the firebox is burning well, add another small log or two and shut the door. You can then turn the flue handle down to 45 degrees, or adjust the lever or dial in a commensurate way. In some cases, you may need to keep the flue open longer to ensure enough airflow.
  7. Once the fire is burning well without being tended to you can let it be. Just be sure that you have closed the load door tightly. Check on the fire every now and again and add more wood to keep the fire going. Do not overfill the firebox, especially if your stove has a glass front as the glass can break.
  8. Once things are rolling you can relax and enjoy your toasty cabin.

One more tip: leaving some ash in the bottom of the firebox can actually help the next fire get started more easily. I'd recommend clearing out the ash once or twice a week, depending on usage.

wood stove
Photo property of Tamara Wilm







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