Wednesday, July 27, 2011

That's not an ATV. THIS is an ATV!

There's one thing you definitely need when you're surrounded by forest, and that's an ATV.  Of course, there are ATVs and ATVs!  We have a Terra Jet, which was a hot and upcoming brand back in the seventies, but I'm not sure they're even made anymore.  Regardless, it's a great vehicle to have around, and comes in very handy, especially for breaking trails.  Plus, it's a two-seater!  :)

As you can see, the design is quite simple, yet rugged.  It has a winch on the front and chunky go-anywhere tires.  And guess what else?  It’s amphibious!  Yes, it floats on water … and we’ve proved it.  :D

Believe it or not, this was once driven into a lake … and back out again with no ill effects!

Tackling a climb up into the bush.


… and off into the bush to break trail.

She’s a handsome beast … and so is that cute guy with the hat! 

The Terra Jet is extremely useful around our place, from such tasks as pulling downed trees out of the bush, to clearing a pathway into the forest, and as a service vehicle to get into inaccessible areas.  Plus, it’s just really good fun to go charging down the road with the wind in your hair! She gets up to quite a decent rate of speed, and from time to time lets go a loud backfire.  Maybe we should call her Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang? :P

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Conquering the Pit

When folks visit Willow Retreat, it's a fair guarantee that they're going to be in for a bit of an adventure.  Just how much of an adventure is up to the guest and their willingness to jump in, as it were.  One young lady who visited was up for pretty much any challenge, and I think we made it worth her while. 

One afternoon, while walking the trails, we took Robyn to see the big pit that borders our hydro line.  It's actually a sinkhole, and is lined with tree roots with a muddy puddle of water at the bottom which gets deeper when it rains. 

It's difficult to get a true idea of the size and depth in a photograph.

At the time, a quantity of beer and/or rum having been imbibed, an idea emerged:  "Let's go down there!"  Seeing as it was (1) quite late and the light would soon be fading; (2) One of more of the participants may or may not have been intoxicated; (3) Nobody had a rope; (4) Nobody had a camera; we decided this adventure would be better left to the next day.

So, the next day dawned bright and sober, and with rope and camera in hand, off we all went to the pit.  Robyn had never abseiled before (or rapelled as it is termed in North America) but she bravely volunteered to go down.  Paul tied the rope to a sturdy tree and tested it himself, then explained to Robyn the proper technique. 

Getting some expert instruction.

Notice that Robyn is wearing leather gloves and stout boots. 

Ready to go - excited and a little bit scared!

Robyn started to climb down, with Paul at her side every step of the way.  This is something that a beginner should never try to do unless accompanied by an expert instructor.

Going down ...

A little pep talk halfway down ... it's not as easy as it looks!

Time to climb back up!

Almost there ...

Out!  And well done.

Robyn did great and had a lot of fun.  I need hardly add that this is something that should only be attempted in the company of an expert instructor.  Quite apart from being an interesting feature, the pit lends itself perfectly to various training exercises.

More soon!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Wildlife Report

Just saw a beautiful white-tailed deer on the lawn.  Paul had just cut the grass, we were chilling in the gazebo, and suddenly there she was, walking casually down the grass path from the woods.  Unfortunately I didn't have my camera, but I can tell you that she was a lovely creature, a warm brown colour with bright eyes and the classic white tail.  She paused and looked at us for a few moments, twitched her ears, flicked her tail, and then ambled down the trail back towards the woods.

This set me thinking about all the animals we've seen since we arrived here.  We've seen plenty of moose tracks and scat in the woods, but had not actually seen a moose:

Moose track. 

Then one morning, suddenly and to our astonishment, there was Mrs. Moose, standing at the bottom of the garden:

This picture was taken from the kitchen window, which is quite a long way away, hence the poor quality. 

She looked in our direction, sniffed the air, then turned and walked back into the woods.  It was a real privilege to see her, and it really made our day!

We have an abundance of wetland wildlife as well, due to our pond and the general health of the forest and garden, which has always been organically maintained, and so frogs are a common sight:

This green striped frog was hanging out on the forest trail.  We've also seen green spotted frogs in the potato patch, and brown frogs near the pond.  Grass snakes (garter snakes) are also abundant, much to my husband's disgust.  (We have a mutual agreement: I tackle snakes, he tackles spiders)

Mr. Brown Frog chilling on a leaf.

Of course, as in any healthy garden, we also have birds, butterflies and bees.  There are so many bees, actually, when you walk past the spirea it sounds like a buzz-saw convention. 

Here is one bee who managed to stay still long enough for me to take his picture.  His legs are packed with pollen.

A butterfly enjoying a chive flower.

A flock of goldfinches in the silver willow.

Somewhere in this picture there are brook trout.

We've also seen Mrs. Grouse and her babies, at the bottom of our road.  Apparently in Cape Breton, a grouse is called a partridge.

So, the comprehensive fauna list, to date, goes like this:


White-tailed Deer
Grouse & Chicks
Red Fox
Black Bear
Monarch, Tiger Swallowtail & Black and White Admiral (?) Butterflies
Eagle (at Baddeck)
Heron (at Baddeck)
Falcon or Hawk (?)
Whimbrel or Snipe (?)
American Goldfinch
Blue Jay
Green striped Frog, Green spotted Frog, Brown Frog
Brook Trout
Garter Snake
Many varieties of bug: blackfly, mosquito, beetle, woodlouse, dragonfly, moth, deer fly, house fly, and many more.

Seen tracks only:



Hooded Owl

I think that's it for fauna for now.  Next post will be flora!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Stronger

So, you know how, when you walk out on the deck, your foot goes through a rotten board?

And you know how, when it's been raining for a couple of days, half the roof falls in?

And you know how, when you're clearing trails with a 5 ton tractor, it gets stuck up to its axles in a bog?

No, I didn't think so.

The week started out well enough, a little cool for July, but at least we no longer had to endure the sweltering humidity of Toronto. In the Highlands, when the rain descends, it's like living inside a cloud. Now, you have to remember, the house had been standing empty for (according to the real estate agent) around 3 years. Since being here fulltime, we've come to the conclusion that it's more like 6 or 7 years. With no consistent heat in the house during the winter, and the action of heavy snow loads, freezing and thawing, rain and wind, not to mention the intense UV rays of summer sun, one would expect certain parts of the house to be in need of a little TLC.

The thing is, a roof is supposed to be able to withstand weather over several years, and the main roof is actually holding up quite well. The same cannot be said of the extension (which we call the sunroom). Our first clue was a steady drip-drip of rain from the ceiling; a well-placed bucket caught the drops, and during a break in the rain, Paul went up on the roof to check it out. Next thing I know, the ceiling has a big hole in it.

Um, you know that skylight you wanted?

The problem was that, although the builder had used red cedar (which should have lasted years), he hadn't put in any roof vents at all.  He'd then stuffed the entire roof space with thick insulation, and installed a drywall ceiling.  With no air circulation, heat and moisture built up inside.  As the wood began to weaken, it only took a little bit of rain to get in and start what amounted to a petrie dish of mould and damp.  The timbers that fell away had been steadily destroyed by wet rot, which was in the process of spreading to the entire roof.  It's a real shame to see beautiful wood like red cedar ruined like this.

A temporary fix to keep the rain out.  You can clearly see the rotted timbers.

When we finally got a couple of dry days, Paul cut out and replaced the damaged timbers.  We'll spray the rest with mould control, and cut in roof vents. 

Not sure yet how we're going to finish this.  The roof needs to be insulated, of course, and we need space for air circulation, but we really don't want to lower the ceiling too much.  Any ideas?

So, while the GTA was steaming with a 40 degree humidex, the Maritimes were enjoying overcast skies, 12 degree highs and a constant drizzle.  Good Scottish weather, perfect for clearing trails and making a path into ... a bog. 

There's one problem with tractors: they're really, really heavy.  The hydraulics had failed on the bucket and it was stuck in the down position.  The end result of this was that it acted like an anchor, pinning the entire tractor axle-deep in thick, wet mud.  The days of constant rain had turned the slightly marshy area into a bog.  Paul tried to reverse out, but the giant wheels just span in place, the right rear wheel fouling on the roots of a large tree stump.  We tried pulling it out with the old Suburban, but even with 4 wheel low engaged, the Burb's wheels just span on the slick mud.  We tried shovelling in wheelbarrow-loads of gravel, but she was stuck fast.  As it was getting late, Paul decided to shut the tractor down and try again in the morning.

See, the trouble at the moment, is that the tractor has to be started with a boost from our other car.  So as I stood in the kitchen and listened to the all-too-familiar sound of spinning wheels and cursing, I realized with a sinking feeling that the Mitsubishi was also stuck.  Even with its excellent four-wheel drive system, the Mitz's tires just didn't have enough tread to bite on the wet mud.  It's an older car, but it's successfully negotiated both rough trails and snowstorms.  Luckily, the Ford F150 stepped up to the plate and proved its worth: the Mitz was pulled out with ease, and didn't even make a single rut in the grass!  Now we were back to square one: saving Boris from a boggy end.

Several wheelbarrow-loads of gravel later, and I'm pleased to report that Boris was successfully rescued from the mud.  We stand in awe of Russian engineering! 

Finally free!

The bucket was stuck down in the mud, making it almost impossible to pull out.

This picture shows how thick and deep the mud was.  The only casualty was the battery box (the small red box on the side) that got slightly dented!

This is where Boris was stuck.  What a lot of greasy muck!

The view from downhill ... and Paul making a triumphant face at the top!

So, next time you stub your toe on your office chair, or trip over the pavement while you're walking down Bay Street, just think of us, and what fun you could be having if you were living off the grid.

The adventure continues ...

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Here There Be Pirates, Part II

Are you going to Scarborough Fayre? Parsley sage rosemary and thyme ... 

Well, my first herbs are planted, and no prizes for guessing what they are.  I know it's corny, but at least I'll remember what I planted!  The soil here is rich and you can definitely tell the garden has never been touched by artificial fertilizer or pesticide.  I was going to start the seeds indoors, but what the heck ... I roped off four small squares of soil and scattered the seeds randomly, then just blended them into the top inch with my fingers.  I have no idea if anything will grow, but you never know until you try.  I still have half the seeds from the packets, so if nothing comes up I'll try the indoor method with some potting soil.

So I thought I'd change the banner and the title of this journal, as we're now here fulltime.  I hope you like it.  The photo, taken at dusk last summer, shows the hummingbird on his favourite perch atop the very highest branch of the honey locust tree.  "Whispers on the Wind" refers to the contrast I find here, coming from a busy suburban town where there was continuous noise, to this haven of quiet where literally at times all you can hear is the soft whisper of the wind in the trees.  This peaceful atmosphere allows me the peace of mind to listen to my thoughts, to write, to dream, to create.

Well, that's quite enough of that for one blog.  So what have we been up to?  This seems like the perfect time for a photo diary:

For the Solstice (which also happens to be Paul's birthday) we had an excellent bonfire, despite the damp.  Of course there may or may not have been a certain amount of accelerant used.  *cough*  As well, we set off a ton of fireworks. :)

Can you see the fire spirits? :)

Paul received a gift from an eagle (?) - a beautiful feather, and very appropriate as he is an Air sign.

A frog came to visit.

An entire flock of American Goldfinches seems to have taken up residence, and loves to sit in the white willow.

This is the very old grapevine close to the house ... that now serves as the final resting place for our golden retriever, Blue.

This old Nash Bros. tiller has a tree growing through the middle of it.

So we've been extremely busy once again.  Paul sanded and painted the window frames and facia boards on the front of the house, which were peeling quite badly and rotted in places.  He also had to repoint the chimney, which was letting in water.  I pruned the heck out of the grapevine and lilacs, which was way overdue.  Paul set up an irrigation system for the garden, and cleared a whole bunch of trails.  But you're all wondering what the heck is this about a red Russian?!  Well, feast your eyes on this:

We had been searching high and low for a suitable piece of equipment to do the donkey work around the place.  Most were out of our price range, or simply wouldn't be capable of doing the work.  Then we found this: a Belarus tractor with bucket and snowblower!  With this we will be able to clear trails, grade the road, shift gravel, and clear snow!  It was quite a find and an excellent deal.  Paul looks extremely pleased!

"Boris the Beast" stands ready to take on a multitude of tasks.  The Belarus tractors, made in the old USSR, were built to be a solid workhorse.  They are four-wheel drive, which is essential for our purposes.

Just don't get in the way of it when it's coming towards you!

The snowblower attachment weighs 1200 lbs. by itself.

Ready to make short work of this pile of gravel.
As you can imagine, this was a major purchase for us.  It's good to know that we have something heavy-duty to take care of the fairly major work that needs to be done on the property.

So on we go.  It's July now, and that means scraping and painting, pruning and planting, watering and clearing trails.  There's a lot to be done, but we'll get there, bit by bit.  Next blog I'll have pictures of flowers and frogs, a very unique ATV, and an adventure into the bottom of a deep pit.

And now, beer!

Friday, July 1, 2011

Here There Be Pirates, Part I

Wow.  First of all, sorry about taking so long to write another post.  Moving, as I’m sure you all know, is hell, and we’re not done yet.  But we’re finally here, and this is now home.  Here is how it all went down:
June 10, 2011:  The sale of our house in the GTA closed.  After a nightmarish couple of weeks packing and moving everything into not one, but three storage units, we were almost done.  We spent the night before closing day in a hotel, and a good job too because we needed the rest.  Closing day dawned, and we still had last-minute stuff to pack, dispose of and store.  It felt strange to sweep the floors and clean the bathrooms for the last time.  Our friends the Fay had, of course, to play one last joke on us, and they stole the bag with all the keys.  Now, if you know the Fay, you’ll know that the keys were found in the last place we would ever think to look.  But found they finally were, and off we went to catch our flight to Sydney, Nova Scotia.  Our two cats were wrestled into their pet carrier, and thence to Toronto Pearson International Airport, where they promptly ordered us to take the cats out again, so the carrier could go through the x-ray machine!  Given the trouble we had getting them into the carrier, we had visions of two cats running loose in the airport … but amazingly, they went limp in our arms and waited, most un-catlike, until we put them back into the carrier.  They survived the flight, or should I say the baggage handlers survived, and off we went to drive home.
Arriving at the house, we found everything in order: we had water, we had power, all was as it should be, except of course that the grass was a foot long.  By the time we arrived all the grocery stores were closed, so we chowed down on MREs, which are great in a pinch.  The next evening however, we celebrated our wedding anniversary in true pirate fashion, with a bottle of champagne and a hearty steak dinner. 
The cats explored the house, nervously at first, but as soon as they picked up the scent of Mouse they were off.  We let them put their scent in cupboards and under the floorboards, and they even found a way to get inside the staircase!  It’s funny, our mouse problem seems to have suddenly disappeared … !   Here are some photos of a pair of very happy cats:

Exhausted after a hard night's mousing.

Chillaxing on the deck.

Strange how, even when you have several acres, you still have nowhere to put anything.  We hired a local guy to prepare hard standing pads for three areas: a future power house (for a large generator as well as fuel storage), a garage, and a guest cabin.  I took pictures of the progress:

If a dump truck like this can make it up our road, anything can!

Prepping the garage pad.  Sadly, the crabapple tree had to go, but it had already suffered quite a bit of animal damage.  This side of the barn was essentially spare space and the perfect spot for a garage.

The finished garage pad.

Breaking ground on the cabin.

The prep work for the cabin is done - next step is concrete.

Preparing a short driveway for the cabin.

Finished driveway.

Paul inspecting the finished pad for the power house.

View of back of house from power house pad.  This is a good location for a shed to store fuel and a heavy-duty generator: not too close to the house, but not too far away either.

The week went by in a flash, and all too soon we had to fly back once again to Ontario to get at least one of our storage units cleared out.  We rented a U-Haul trailer, hitched it to the back of the pickup and drove to Cape Breton, with our other car in convoy behind us, driven by our daughter and her boyfriend.  It was their first long road trip together, and a real adventure for them.  It felt good to be finally getting the cars out of Ontario for good.  The drive was long and tedious, but with one overnight stop in New Brunswick we made it to the Cape.  Nothing feels quite as good as seeing that “Welcome to Cape Breton” sign on the Canso Causeway bridge.

It was damp and buggy when we finally arrived after a long and tiring drive.  The fog banks that sweep in from the sea settle over the highlands in dense clouds of moisture-laden haze, making it difficult for the sun to break through.  The kids did enjoy their time with us in spite of this, and of course as soon as they left the sun came out.  More about their Willow Retreat adventures later!
We're having surprising success with the garden.  We had, somewhat rashly, bought a sack of seed potatoes back in May, and used our brand new rototiller to dig up a stretch of the vegetable garden and planted them.  I never expected anything to grow, and when we arrived back the patch had been filled in with long grass.  But after I cleared some of the grass away, guess what?  Potato plants!

Our very first potato plants are growing!

My not-very-well-tilled potato patch, which was thick with grass, but the potatoes are growing regardless!

I walked past a patch of grass and said "Oh look, asparagus!"

I walked past another patch of grass and said "Oh look, rhubarb!"

The garden is looking really great now that we have our Cub Cadet ride-on lawnmower here. 

View of the garden looking towards the grapevine.

Nicely tilled vegetable beds.  (Anything "nicely tilled" was done by Paul, not me!)

It did seem strange to drop the kids off at the airport and realize that we didn't have to leave.  It's slowly sinking in that this is now Home.  We are now officially Nova Scotians: we have our NS driver's licences, car registrations and Nova Scotia licence plates!  We only have to return to Ontario once more, to pack up a 26 foot U-Haul truck with our remaining belongings.  Luckily, we conned persuaded our daughter's boyfriend to drive the truck out to the Cape for us!

Well, this is turning into a really long post, and so I think I'll gather some more photos together, and make a Part 2 shortly.  I promise not to leave it so long this time!  Part 2 will feature some exciting items, including fireworks, a huge bonfire, poppies, and a shiny red Russian named Boris the Beast!