Sunday, March 22, 2015

Maple Sap Harvesting

Our neighbors had good success last winter harvesting maple sap and converting that to syrup, so we all anticipated the products of this year's harvest. Even though the trees were tapped a week earlier than last year, the weather this year has not been as ideal for producing lots of sap.

The sap flows best when nighttime temperatures are well below freezing, and daytime temps are well above freezing, preferably with some sunshine thrown in. Prior to March 6, the temperatures tended to be too cold, but the forecast for that day and those following looked promising enough to put Philip and his sidekick Josh into action. I didn't see Josh helping with the tapping last year, so I presume he was in training when they stopped by our house this year. In this shot it appears I distracted Josh from his responsibilities.

With all three of our trees tapped, the guys were ready to move on to the next target.

Unfortunately, the weather has tended to be too warm most of the nights over the last two weeks, so the sap hasn't been flowing as well as it did last year. This picture shows the first 24 hours of production on one of our trees that had two taps running into this container. The low temperature that first night was 29°F while the high the next day was 51°F. There appears to be a little less than a gallon in this jug since I think the container holds about 5 gallons when full.

After 48 hours the container appears to be over half full. The low hit 27°F the night before, and 51°F again during the day, so conditions were sufficient to keep a decent flow of sap moving.

We've had a few good days since, but more poor days than good ones so far. It appears that the sap production may be lower than last year's harvest, which means the syrup may be in shorter supply. Our neighbors have boiled down a couple of batches of sap in the last two weeks, producing about 9 gallons of syrup which is a far cry from last year's total.  Although the near term forecast doesn't look ideal, the maple syrup season may not be done yet!

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Happy Pi Day 2015!

Once every century our calendar and clocks order themselves in such a way to duplicate more than just a few digits of pi (the number representing the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter). Using American dating format, today's date is 3-14-15 which is the first four digits (not including the 3 on the left side of the decimal), and only occurs every 100 years. If one includes the time of day, we could represent 9:26:53 which would give us another 5 digits.  Since seconds can be represented with fractional parts, we could technically represent an infinite number of pi digits: 3-14-15 9:26:53.589793238462643383... I think you get the idea.  We'll stop at nine digits today and be happy with that.

To celebrate, we ate three pies for supper this evening as shown in the photos below. 

The overview of the table before we began this evening.  Not visible in this view is the bunting that crossed the room five times. It added an air of festivity to the celebration, but alas, it wasn't directly related to the number pi.

Our first course was this Chile Chicken Potato Pi decorated with the first 15 digits of pi on little banners around the rim of the pedestal supporting the pi. This was our first try for this recipe, which received thumbs up from the family and will be repeated again some day!

The first dessert course was this Chocoroon Pi that is a family favorite.

Costco provided the second dessert course with their jumbo Apple Pi. We had one of these a few months ago, and found it to be one of the best apple pies we've ever tasted, hence it's appearance on our table again tonight. At 75 ounces, this monster would challenge any contestant at a pie eating contest!

As I'm writing this, it occurs to me that there was one moment in history when the date and time matched pi even better than today: March 14, 1592, at 6:53:58. I guess we'll have to content ourselves with the second most significant celebration of Pi Day.

I'm also aware that some guides to the Greek language suggest pi should be pronounced "pee." When considering celebrating this important number, I'd rather trust the common modern pronunciation than spend more than a few seconds contemplating celebrating per the other pronunciation.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Colonial Williamsburg at Christmas: A Beautiful Saturday

Our first full day in town on this trip included delightful weather which was about 15 degrees F warmer than average for December 27, and gloriously sunny.  Not surprising then that the crowds in the Historic District were the largest we've ever seen here any time of year.  Combine beautiful weather with the weekend between Christmas and New Years and festive decorations around Colonial Williamsburg, and it's not difficult to understand why others would want to be there with us.

 The decorations around CW are different at each building (as far as we could tell), and usually consisted of a wreath or similar arrangement of natural materials, often including food. Here's an example on one door whose peacock feathers caught our eyes.

Although Bassett Hall is a modest home from the Rockefeller's perspective, I think the main entrance has some elegance and is enhanced by these holiday decorations.

A closer view of one of the arrangements next to the door...

... and a closer shot of the wreath above the door.

This arrangement graced the entrance to one of the taverns.  Apples seemed common to many of the decorations, and often included apples of different colors like in this example.

Finally, lest you doubt the beauty of the weather, I include this shot of the girls approaching Bassett Hall -- beautiful enough to almost make you wish you lived there.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Colonial Williamsburg at Christmas: "Twelfth Night" Performance

We've attended several wonderful concerts in the Ballroom at the Governor's Palace, but we've never seen one of Shakespeare's plays performed there -- until now.  Although there's no record of any theatrical event taking place at the Governor's Palace in the 18th century, this adaptation of Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" was our first opportunity to see Shakespeare performed in a colonial era setting with 18th century costumes.  I'm glad we went.

Although the play was performed ten times in December, we were unaware of its existence until about a week before we were scheduled to begin our trip.  Karen saw a Colonial Williamsburg blog post that offered two free tickets through a random drawing, and decided to enter.  To her surprise, she won!  The only problem was that we won tickets for a sold-out performance scheduled for the day BEFORE we planned to arrive in Virginia.  Fortunately, our schedule was flexible, so we were able to leave home a day earlier than planned, and made it to town a few hours before show time!

The performance was not a disappointment.  The actors were all very talented, and presented Shakespeare's 16th century language in a way that was relatively easy to follow.  The costumes were nicely executed, and the actors even made some references to the room in which the play was performed.  The fact that we got to visit with most of the cast after the show was simply icing on the cake.  In the photo above, Karen and I are in the middle surrounded by eight members of the cast, and Ralph and Dotty on the right, who also won tickets to the play.

The moral of the story: if you see a contest, enter it!  Especially if entering is free, and the prize is something fun you can't do every day!

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Basement Remodel Project: Angled Board Cuts

Some aspects of this remodel project have been intimidating since they involve skills I don't have, or techniques I've either never tried, or seldom get to use.  Even worse when the results will be prominently displayed when the project is finished.  The wainscoting on the stairwell presented one of those challenges.

My goal was to continue the spacing of the vertical stiles (visible on the left side of the photo above) up the the angled section of wall next to the stairs.  A couple of simple angled cuts on each end of each board was all that was involved, but I didn't have a tool to help me transfer the angle to the boards, so I left this project until I had a clear idea of how to tackle it.  I took special care to make the angled upper rail board parallel to the stringer trim board next to the steps based on the geometric principle that the angle would then be the same at the top and bottom of the boards.

This handy little tool proved to be the key that made this project a lot easier.  I've seen simple wood and steel angle finders used by others, but never had one for my tool box.  This Harbor Freight Multipurpose Angle Finder isn't terribly accurate due to its size, but since it is based on a four-bar linkage, it's actually pretty versatile beyond the simple application I employed it for.  In my case I placed the tool in the angle between the stringer and vertical stile at the bottom of the staircase since that was the angle I wanted to duplicate on the other stiles.  I checked the stile for plumb and was reassured that it was true enough to ensure the other stiles parallel to it would also be plumb.

The angle finder was then used to set the angle on my miter saw table.  After making one cut on one end of a board, I fit the stile to the stringer and checked for plumb.  I had to make a couple slight adjustments to the angle of the table before I was happy that the saw matched the angle on the staircase, but eventually was confident the stiles would fit as desired.

Four stiles later, I'm pretty pleased with the results.  The distortion caused by the camera lens makes the spacing seem to decrease up the staircase, but in reality it's uniform with the rest of the wall.  After a short confidence-building exercise like this I find myself wishing I had more opportunities to practice my new-found technique, but life seldom works that way for me.  In the mean time, I've got another tool that should reduce anxiety in the future.

Monday, November 24, 2014


Farmer Wagenbach informed me recently that the corn harvest in the field behind our house was larger this year than ever before.  The yield averaged 258 bushels per acre, which is exceptional no matter where the field is located!  Growing conditions were good this summer, but it's obvious that God has blessed Farmer Wagenbach with a good bit of knowledge and skill when it comes to growing corn!

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

A better mousetrap

I can't claim to have invented a better mousetrap, but I'm pretty sure I've found a way to improve the effectiveness of even the cheapest traps.  We first tried this idea about ten years ago when we discovered a mouse had found our candy stash.  That mouse was particularly fond of chocolate, to the extent that he ate all the chocolate of a caramel filled chocolate drop and left the caramel!

Because we didn't have much experience with catching mice then, we baited a trap with peanut butter and hoped for the best.  The next morning I found the trap still cocked but the peanut butter licked clean off the trigger.  Since the mouse was obviously attracted to candy, we decided to bait the trap with some chocolate instead of peanut butter.  It was also obvious that this mouse could be gentle enough with the bait to be able to steal it without disturbing the trigger.  So we devised a plan to make it more difficult to get away with the bait without springing the trap: we glued an M&M candy to the trigger with hot craft glue.  The results were most satisfying.  Not only did we catch the mouse, but he left teeth marks on the candy to prove he was in the act of trying to wrestle it off the trap.

About ten years have passed since we last had the need to set a mouse trap out, but we found evidence this week that convinced us we had at least one unwanted guest.  Unfortunately, we didn't have any M&M candies in the house, so we initially had to try a different strategy.  Since M&Ms worked well before, perhaps a chocolate chip glued to the trap would work as well.  We set two traps, baited identically, and found the next morning that the mouse had removed the chocolate chip and left the glue on the trigger undisturbed.  I think the chocolate may have been too oily to adhere to the glue securely.

Still being without M&Ms, we turned back to peanut butter in desperation, but our experience was like that of before: the bait holder was licked clean by the next day while the traps sat cocked and ready.  After finally acquiring the right candy, we were able to bait and set both traps like that pictured above.

To my satisfaction, the bait worked again!  In fact, both traps contained victims after the first night.  One only managed to lick the "m" off the candy before he tripped the trigger, while the other was able to break the candy shell, but gave his life in the effort.

By our experience, we were able to reuse the bait two times out of three, but even if one has to glue an new candy on the trap for each victim, that seems a small price to pay for a solution so effective.  If you've had trouble with mice stealing your bait without getting caught, I encourage you to try this method!

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Basement Remodel Project: Wood Burner Surround

This Lopi Endeavor wood burning stove was already installed in our house when we purchase it in 2007, but we've only used it sporadically since then.  Even so, it has been valuable enough to us that we wanted to include it in our plans to remodel the basement.

Even though much of the previous wall treatment was removed when I took the photo above, one can still appreciate the brick and tile surround the previous owner used as heat and debris protection on the wall and floor.  The platform under the stove is a small concrete pad topped with tile and ringed by brick.  Initially, I intended to leave the core of that platform and reshape and cover it with a different tile, but the further I proceeded, the more that platform appeared to have only one purpose: stubbing toes.

The updated version of the surround uses Ply Gem Durata Mortarless Stone as the primary non-combustible wall surface.  My skills with stone and mortar are very limited, so I was happy to find this mortarless product that satisfies my aesthetic requirements.  As you can see, we included insulation behind the stone to limit the heat loss through the stone and avoid any potential issues with a significant temperature gradient in the wall.

In this shot the top several rows of the stone have not been cut to size, and one can observe the plastic brackets used to anchor the rows of stone to the wall.

Several provisions were included before the gypsum board was hung in order to make it easier to trim around the stone, and insure the wall was sound.

As you can see in this image, the tile base for the stove was affixed directly to the concrete floor so the possibility of stubbing toes on that feature would be minimized.  This image was taken shortly after the tile was laid, and before it was grouted.  Our wall paint colors are also visible in this shot, although I can't vouch for the camera accurately capturing the shade of the green on the upper portion of the wall.

This final image shows the tile after grouting, most of the trim on the wall, and (obviously) the stove set in place.  Gretel cleaned up some rust and chipped paint on the stove before we repainted it, since it could be difficult to paint it in the future.  Although it has a coat of dust on it in this shot, it looks much improved.

As is typical, I learned a few things while mounting the stone, setting the tile, and repainting the stove, such that I could probably improve each of those activities in the future.  But for now, I'm content with this section of the basement and look forward to the warmth the stove will radiate this winter.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Corn in the backyard, 2014 -- Harvest!

Farmer Wagenbach harvested this year's crop while I was at work on September 25, and this photo was taken a few days later.  No word yet on how the yield this year compared to other years, but to my amateur eye, I'd say it looked pretty good.  The crop was in the field for about 21 weeks, and experienced about 8% more growing degree days than normal this summer.  Our rainfall was also noticeably above average, which seemed to do more good than harm.

The 39 acres behind our house will now rest for about seven months until Farmer Wagenbach plants the crop of 2015.  Make sure to check back next spring for all the details!