Looking Back 2: The First Winter

Reader Contribution by Steven Gregersen
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I was recently asked to provide some photos for a blog post I made awhile back. That led to searching through some photo files I haven’t looked at in years, which led me to relive some fond (and not so fond!) memories. I thought I’d share a few of them with you.

It’s important to note that when we began this adventure I was 48 (almost 49!) years old. My wife and I had been married only about a year, and we still had five children living at home. One opted to stay in town with friends while the rest of us made the move.

This segment shows a few more photos from the fall of when we first took possession.

In these first two photos you can see the new window we put on the left (west) wall. The cabin had very small windows and because we planned on being off-grid (we didn’t even have solar power the first two years) we wanted all of the natural light we could get. One of the neighbors cautioned us that the windows would also make it hard to heat the cabin in the winter, but we really wanted the natural light. His concerns proved unfounded though. In the first hard cold spell (several days with 25 below zero lows and highs around zero Fahrenheit), our cabin stayed toasty warm while that neighbor’s home never got above 60 degrees inside.

I cut holes in the log walls to put in the windows. (All of our windows were double-paned and either scrounged from the dump, given to us by people who were remodeling their homes, or purchased from the Habitat for Humanity outlet store $10 each.) This part was the dirtiest segment of our remodeling efforts. After the first one we began putting up tarps from floor to ceiling in order to contain the sawdust as much as possible. I wore ear protection and a painter’s face mask while doing this. I looked like “sawdust man” after every session with the chainsaw.

It’s important to remember that we had no running water for bathing. Initially (until the cold weather hit) we took our showers using a plastic “solar shower” hung outside on the back corner of the cabin. We can still take a shower with less than a gallon of water.

This is the east wall of the cabin with its new-used windows. The northeast corner leans inward. We knew it and decided to look at it as adding “character” to the cabin rather than a defect. This cabin was originally built by a man with his children and considering their ages at the time they did a fine job building it.

My wife caulking around the windows and front door. In the first photo you can see the insulation stuffed between the logs. Initially we did this to make the cabin tighter and keep out mosquitoes. In the second photo you can see that some of the front (north) wall has been chinked with cement. We drove rows of small nails in the logs then worked cement (mortar) over the nails and into the gaps between the logs. This was tedious work and required a light touch. My wife and children did all of the chinking while I (whose hands are much more at home with a hammer or chainsaw) was busy at other tasks.

We only had time to finish the chinking on the outside of the walls before winter hit. The inside still had fiberglass insulation stuffed between the logs. It didn’t look pretty but it got us through the first winter. Remember, time was not on our side!

Meanwhile we were finishing up the root cellar. We were extremely low on money so we built the root cellar intending for it to get us through the first couple of years. We’re still using it over 10 years later.

We used logs cut on our 20 acres for the “rafter” supports and nailed used 2X6s over them. We spread a layer of plastic over this then threw on about 6 inches of dirt then another layer of plastic and more dirt. We kept this up until we had dirt about 2 feet thick over the root cellar. We had no problems with the roof leaking. We did have some problems with water coming around the door and going into the root cellar, but we used more plastic and mounded the dirt up to channel run-off away from the door and stopped the leaking.

I had to work the opening day of the firearms deer season so I didn’t get to go out until I got home about 3 p.m. I got home (I ride my motorcycle to work most times), quickly grabbed my rifle and orange vest and walked about a hundred yards where I spotted this guy in an open meadow. I fired once, and we had this guy hanging and ready to butcher about 20 minutes later.

I still had tags for elk and bear so my hunting season wasn’t over just yet! Three of the children and my wife also had deer tags to fill. Our meat was provided the first year (and every year since then) on the game we shot during the fall hunting season.

We have a nice fishing lake about a mile down the road that kept us supplied with fresh fish all year long (Perch and Pike). If you’ll look past the deer you can see the wood we had cut and stacked for winter use.

The boys gathering up the day’s supply of firewood from the wood pile. If you live in heavy snow country, this is poor way to store firewood. By late winter the snow was over 2 feet deep on the tarp. Every time you finish a row, you have more snow on the tarp laying on the ground, which makes it harder to lift the tarp to get at more wood. If you get a quick thaw the snow melts under the tarp then when it gets cold again it freezes the tarp to the ground. One of our priorities next summer was building a covered wood shed.

This photo of the boys and I cleaning the stove pipes was taken in the following spring. We cleaned the pipes about three times that first winter and still clean them at least twice each year. Brushes are cheap, and we attached them to a section of electrical conduit tubing. Since it wasn’t threaded, we clamped a rubber hose to the tubing then clamped the brush in the other end of the tubing. It worked and since the tubing was salvaged the only purchase we made was the brushes.

We had two stoves going that first winter. One was an old Franklin stove we found on the place that we only used when it was really cold. It was not air-tight and ate wood in prodigious amounts. It had a 7-inch pipe, and we had some salvaged 8-inch stove pipe hooked to it. The fitting expanding the 7-inch stove outlet to the 8-inch pipe acted like a venturi and cooled the hot exhaust coming out of the stove. This created large amounts of creosote in the pipe and it needed cleaned often. Like I said, we only used it occasionally.

The other stove was one we took from our previous home. It was homemade and air tight and we’re still using it.

This is the west side of the cabin also showing part of the rear of the cabin the first winter. The squarish brown object partially buried in the snow beside the dog is a solar food dehydrator I made from scrap lumber. The corner of the (green) canoe visible on the left of the photo is a canoe that my wife retrieved from a dumpster. We’re still using it too. The dog’s name is “Bear.” You’ll see more of her in the future.

I’ll continue our story in future posts.

If you’ve enjoyed what you’ve read so far, you might want to check into my book, “Creating the Low Budget Homestead” (available in the GRIT Bookstore). It’s filled with homesteading advice you won’t find anywhere else. Most homesteading books tell you how to raise livestock, grow a garden and preserve your harvest. My book focuses on how to pursue your homesteading dream on a budget that would make Ebeneezer Scrooge envious.

You may also view my blog.

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