Building An Earthship In Darfield, B.C.

We are a family of five living in Darfield, BC.
Our house is six hundred square feet in total and we are feeling cramped.

We have decided to build an earthship!

So starts the adventure ...

Sunday, September 20, 2009


We have had a very quiet presence on the blog recently. That's because we have been busy filling tires. We are now about half way through round #9. We ran out of stored tires a week or so ago and had to make some tire runs.

For some weird reason the recyclers had not been around at the tire shops. We'd never seen the piles so big! Kal Tire's van was overflowing and Rivershore Auto Wreckers pile was about 12 feet high. Going through these piles was essentially an exercise in skimming anything new off the top and sides. The Rivershore pile was an adventure! My father had snagged 38 from it one day for us and a few days later we went back . Chris managed to dig down to ground and just started flinging tires out. I had to try to locate them once he flung them out and then throw them off the top toward the trailer. I also managed to dig down to ground and hit pay dirt. The last 235 was wedged under a few others and as I pulled the tires started to wobble. I had the sense to look up and see 10 feet of rubber jiggling and climbed out of there before the whole mess caved in! Sometimes a person can get too focused on the goal!

A few days ago we ventured north to Clearwater and the dump, which we'd never been to before. A grand total of 4 tires! Kal Tire in Clearwater had been cleared out too! Yay! Insight Auto in Barriere was cleaned out and if we are lucky, the recyclers emptied our regular haunts in Kamloops, too. On Tuesday we are on our (hopefully) last trip to gather tires. Five or six days is enough time for the busy shops to build up a decent supply of scrap tires, without creating the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

We have also been preserving like crazy. There are so many things we've canned, frozen and pickled that I can't even remember all of them! Lots of great recipes from friends, which maybe one day I'll post here. We have three apple trees of our own and one of my father's so we still have to come up with some more apple recipes.

We started to run out of canning jars and through the Buy and Sell I located a couple east of Kamloops who are moving and had 300+ jars for sale. All quarts and half wide mouth. All for about $40! Less than $2 per dozen. On Friday night I arrived only to discover they didn't have them in boxes! So, rather than arrive home with a pick-up truck of shattered glass, I am returning Tuesday to pick them up, along with their canning shelf, which they generously offered to where to put that shelf in my 600 square foot house???

4-H is looming large this week and Winter Fair fast approaching. We will return next week with three fewer lambs. Whew! Less work over the winter.

Last week Katie stubbed her toe and after Chris and I spent most of the weekend essentially advising her to suck it up, we took her to the doctor and an x-ray. It was broken! The orthopedic surgeon who was consulted (the doctor was worried the growth plate was cracked) we decided she would have a tough time keeping the toe immobile if she were just on crutches. So we were given the option of putting her in a cast with a foot peg. So now Hop-a-long Katie is now exempt from the wettest chores. He 4-H friends have all rallied around her and will help her shampoo and coif her lambs in preparation for showing on Saturday.

This week Chris and I hope to complete round #9 and begin round #10. Still no working camera. If you'd like to see pictures, please leave a comment about how much you miss the photos and I will work on Chris and getting that Nikon D90 I have my eye on!! :)

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Am I a closet Luddite?

The arrival of cooler fall weather has forced me to focus on all of the things that 'need' doing before the snow flies ...

Yesterday I got up on the roof of the chicken coop and finally installed the last of the tin and the ridge cap. I used up the last of the roofing screws and the kids had fun lobbing screws to me that had fallen on the ground as I worked. They really had fun when in desperation of ever catching the screws they were throwing and finally being able to get off the roof I told them to throw them at me ...

I still have to winterize all of the water lines for the animals as some of them will be with us this winter, and the list goes on and on ...

The one that really caught my attention and I've since been worrying away at it is improving our heating situation. The house and the shop are both heated by electricity, and I would really like to change this. Let me explain ...

Over the winter I hope to work on energy systems for the house. I have been researching both wood gasification, and wind turbines. I think both of these options have some promise for us given our location (a windy valley), and our resources (lots of wood).

The shop is a logical place to work on these projects except it is always cold. The cost of heating the shop with electricity is high, so we only turn the heat on if we are out there and it simply never warms up adequately. It is better than working in an unheated area (feeding wood into a planer at -20 degrees celsius is a drag ... trust me), but makes it difficult to get excited about layering on the long johns, sweaters and jackets and getting down to work.

The house is always warm (tolerably so), but we spend a lot of money heating this small place. The insulation in the ceiling leaves a lot to be desired (in some places it is non-existent), and really the same is true of the walls. In the spring our ceiling tends to leak in spots ... and no it is not raining outside. Over the winter the warm air escaping through our ceiling turns to ice deposits above the ceiling. In the spring we get all this moisture back as 'leaks' ... recycling at its worst. Last spring the keyboard on Sandra's laptop fell victim to one of these leaks.

My first thoughts on this problem were that we could install an outdoor wood furnace and pipe hot water to both buildings. The hot water could then be used in radiators to warm the buildings. This appealed to me for a while but my aversion to most outdoor wood furnaces finally won out. These units are not efficient and generate a lot of smoke.

From there I replaced the outdoor wood furnace with a wood ga\sification system because these are super efficient. Now I was really getting excited! I love technology! I would kill two birds with one stone; I would heat the buildings, and I could experiment with generating electricity from the gasifier. Brilliant! The gasifier would only cost $10,000 dollars plus the installation cost ... or I could build my own and have it ready for the spring ...

Somewhere in all of this I slowed down and started identifying problems ... happily I did not get to the point of floating these ideas with Sandra. These ideas were expensive and would take a lot of time to get working. Its not like I am trying to build a house and my time and money might be better spent.

Sadly this has happened to me before. I had to have a PDA when it first came out. More than one if the truth be told; my iPAQ was replaced by a motoQ when I could have a cell phone and a PDA. All of my parts lists for the business would be computerized! I would be organized! Sandra looked skeptical at this particular justification, but refrained from saying anything. I wasted a lot of times with these brief technological dalliances ... and sadly nothing really came from them.

I find that my technological love affairs often ends this way; bitterly and with very little to show for them. The problem is that technology is sexy (I am probably losing half my audience, but the rest of you know what I am saying), and difficult to resist. Time and again I manage to come up with really complex solutions to fairly simple problems.

Maybe I will just insulate the leaks in my buildings ...

Fall and the Building Site

Cooler temperatures arrived around here right at the beginning of September. We no longer have the oppressive heat of July and August, and we have had a significant amount of rain that we were sorely lacking over the last two months.

Sandra and I have been working away on the eighth round of tires since the beginning of the month, and we are now a third of the way done. We hope to be done this round of tires by early next week. The kids had their first full day of school today, and we packed 18 tires while they were gone.

We used up all of our tires today, so hopefully Gary (Sandra's dad) has some luck in Kamloops today and brings back lots of tires. Thanks Gary!

Because we are now bringing in tires as we are using them the last two courses of tires have been layed out slightly differently. I am mixing different sizes of 235's much more as I lay them down. I started doing this for the simple reason that I do not have tires all of one size to do an entire row anymore. The results have been amazing! I have eliminated most of the spacer blocks that I used in courses four and five. Had I thought this through at the beginning I would have used multiple tire sizes in every course. Using multiple sizes makes getting everything to fit MUCH easier.

Most of the last week has been a write off due to the Barriere fall fair last week end. The kids showed their sheep. This did not go as well as hoped for, the kid's Suffolk meat sheep did not compare well against other breeds at the fair. There are three weeks left before we go to the Kamloops Winter Fair and the kids sell their sheep. We are increasing the food for the sheep and the kids are exercising them more. Hopefully, this will improve the sheep's finishing, and lead to better results and prices!

We also had some really positive results at the fair! Stephen entered a trio of laying pullets (chickens) and got a first! Sandra and the girls entered baked goods ranging from cakes to rustic bread, and walked away with a number of ribbons for their efforts. Sandra was most pleased with a first for her rustic bread, and the girls both got ribbons for the cakes they baked.

There are some ominous clouds on the horizon. The dump truck has been running poorly the last couple of times I used it; it is backfiring, has no power and is belching white smoke. Some discussion with Gary and Mike Casey leads me to believe that one of the cylinders may not be firing or compressing. I borrowed a compression tester from Mike Casey, and popped the hood this evening to see if I could track the problem. I've got problems ...

The white smoke I saw last time I ran the truck was obviously more than smoke. There was a fire in the engine compartment. The oil and sawdust mixture glued to everything in the compartment (not something I recommend having on you engine, but it is an occupational hazard) ignited and burned off. I am assuming this happened after I parked the truck as there were no obvious signs of an on-going engine-fire when I stopped the truck.

Fortunately the fire did not spread, and went out on its own. The bad news is that the covering on a number of wires was burned off, and some hoses are burned through. These will all need to be replaced. The worst damage seems to be an aluminum housing attached to the engine that is now a puddle of aluminum (three puddles actually). I do not know how significant this housing is (or more importantly what it housed), and will have to dig around over the next couple of days. This is a very common engine (a 427 V8) so parts should be easy to track down. Amazingly, I turned the ignition on and the engine cranked over ... that is a very good sign! I spend my days cursing the old equipment I use, but it sure takes a lot to put it down for the count.

If the truck is unavailable for a while we will have to figure out an alternative for moving more gravel to the building site. A problem for tomorrow ...

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Getting through the Chute!!

The following morning at 6:30 Chris started moving around and after a few minutes announced he was going to take the Pungo down the Chute.

We had decided the day before, after the group had surveyed the white water while it was still light, that we were not comfortable with any of the three kids taking the single kayak down the river. Chris would run the Pungo down and then if the kids wanted to go with us in the double kayaks we would consider it (depending on how Chris and the Pungo fared on his solo trip!)

So Chris and I got dressed and went out to the kayaks. It was still raining but was not the downpour of the previous night. After handing me his sweater and rain jacket, Chris grinned at me (his grin is one of the nicest things about him!) and put his life jacket on and pushed off. I ran around the point and down to the bottom of the Chute to watch him and to take a video.

As you will see in the following video, the Chute is roughly 30-40 feet of whitewater (class II). The more challenging part was turning the boat at the bottom to head down the river. Failure to execute your turn meant...not turning! We weren't sure what would happen, but we had been advised at the orientation that making the turn was the important part. For Chris' test run he turned to his left to get out of the river and back to the campsite.

Pretty cocky, huh?

So based on how rainy it was I decided I wasn't too keen to dump my kayak and have to re-dry myself so I opted to walk the portage trail with Stephen, who just didn't want to go down the rapids. The girls wanted to go so Chris took them down in the doubles. Simmie wasn't too keen on going down the rapids portion of the chute so Pawan and Chris took the Pandoh's canoe down unloaded and they pulled left to load up gear and Simmie. Linda was also not keen on getting wet again, so she and Mike portaged their canoe.

Here's Helen and Chris coming down. Listen for Stephen changing his mind (Katie had previously offered to let him go down in her place but he declined after repeatedly pestering her about taking her place).

Stephen was in quite a funk after this! Ever the thrill seeker, he was a man with regrets on this morning!

We took video of Katie on her camera but she can't find it! The search will have resume after Fall Fair.

Next is Chris and Pawan. Due to a miscommunication/shift of weight Chris and Pawan didn't actually get the canoe to turn left and I was so shocked I dropped my hand (which had the camera in it). The tree was o.k. Pawan was o.k. (he shot forward in his seat) and the canoe was o.k. Chris too. The video after this one is Simmie and Pawan trying to inch along the edge of the river to get past the big swirl in the middle, only to be sucked right away into it. An incurable backseat driver, you can hear me shouting directions at them (I just really didn't want to see anyone have to dry out later!)

As I seem to be having trouble uploading videos, I'll post more next time and continue on with the adventure which includes more video, a seemingly sudden increase in traffic on the river/lakes/portages during the next 15 kms or so, navigating the Cariboo River (a fast flowing, silt laden river) and our short brush with sunshine...

More bears, the start of the rain!

As we were being chased from campsite #7 into our water craft I was thinking that it wasn't an auspicious start for the kids. Although on one hand, I think they were quite thrilled to see a bear up close, at least one of them was a bit jumpy after our #7 experience. Within minutes of pushing off and paddling along the shore, another bear appeared! At first we thought it was the same one following us! However, this one was doing what bears were supposed to do...nonchalantly ripping apart a rotten stump looking for ants. We were within 20 feet of it and I whispered to Helen to get some pictures. She hit the button, but for the life of us we can't find the photos!

Suffice it to say that Mike's opinion was that this was a bear not accustomed to feeding from campsites, and he looked better for it. His coat was glossy and he was looking and eating from his intended nutritional palate. I don't imagine the smarties did much for bear #1...

We had a shorter portage on the second day and entered the west arm of Isaac Lake, the longest lake on the Bowron Circuit. We found site #14. At least it had a bear warning sign on it. (Remember that site #15 had been closed because of a bear.)

That morning had been what I had forecasted in my truncated journal entry. Glorious sunshine. However, by the time we stopped at site #14 it had clouded over. Another dilemma faced the shortest Newtons (I include myself in this category!): The campsite had 7 tent pads (there were 7 tents in our group), but four were on one side of the campsite and the other three were on the opposite side, separated by a substantial stand of trees. With our junior paddlers we were often last into camp each day and we arrived the rest of our group had graciously left the three isolated tent pads for us. Except that some of the Newtons would rather camp next to Mike.

After a bit of discussion we decided that we would camp on the same side as everyone else, even if it meant pitching off the pads. The kids really wanted to be close to us and I pulled rank when Mike and Linda offered to share their large pad. In the end, the kids pitched their tents in the middle of a circle made by the other tents.

Tom decided that since it was looking a bit rainy, we should put up a tarp and lash it to trees to provide shelter for dinner and whatever festivities we could muster up while anticipating our nocturnal visitors.

The group deferred to Mike's experience in the woods and there ensued a 1/2 hour demonstration on how to elegantly provide cooking shelter with an 8x10 tarp and several pieces of rope. It occurred to me that Chris and I have been fortunate in our 20 years camping together in the backcountry: we've rarely had enough rain to warrant putting up a tarp! When we have, I'll admit it was not elegant. A properly attached cooking shelter should look like a jib sail reefed right in, in 6 knots of wind. Ours always looked like the sail when it was in irons...flapping madly.

After putting up the tarp, there ensued a 1/2 hour lesson on the best knots to accomplish the shelter installation and to minimize cursing and swearing the next morning after the rain has swelled those "never come loose, homemade knots".

We were just in time, too. Rain started to splatter. We weren't worried. We'd all heard several different versions of the forecast before we arrived. And although they were all a little different, they had one thing in common: mostly sun. Right.

Helen and I went to my tent to read a bit before dinner and we were caught there for a good 20 minutes as the splatters turned to a torrential downpour. Gradually over those 20 minutes I realized that the edges of the tent seemed to feel a lot like the water bed I had as a kid. Bladder like. Inch by inch I started to move our thermarests to the centre of the tent, but the water puddle under the tent grew.

Eventually the rain slowed and Chris poked his head in the tent to tell me he thought there was a problem with the tent. Gingerly I poked my head out and looked down. Mike and Linda's tent was on the high side of the pad and all the water had flowed down and accumulated at the end of the pad, stopped by the wood edges of the pad. Stephen and Mike had a good time using sticks and such to divert the water, creating rivers and holes from below the pad. Mike said it reminded him of the hours he spent as a kid playing in the rain and making rivers just like these.

After a bit of discussion, Mike and Linda offered to move to the isolated part of the campground and let us take their spot. Although we felt better with them near, I thought I'd be drier if I took up their offer.

In the end there was no bear although we got a lot more thorough unpacking the kayaks. I'd like to say that each morning I rose early and wrote in my journal, but between packing up, cooking, and dealing with the effects of way-off-base weather reports, my first entry was to be my last of the trip. I'm thinking that as notebooks get smaller I may be able to effectively journal on one of these trips. A solar charger and 80 words a minute would take care of it! The photo below is of us packing up to leave campsite #14!

Our first day on Isaac Lake was our longest paddle, about 15 or 16 kms. We swapped Katie and Stephen a few times in the Pungo to keep them fresh. We spent a bit of time figuring out how to take off sweaters from underneath a life jacket and put raingear on as the day was alternately hot and rainy. We did get caught in a fairly steady downpour before lunch that forced us to beach and take stock of our sweater situation. Stephen's sweater was completely wet, as was Katie's. It was here on Day 3, that I handed over my new, fluffy, water-wicking, fast drying (white!) camp sweater, never to be worn by me again on the trip. Chris gave up his "outer" sweater to Stephen, who truth be told, suffers the cold more keenly then the rest of us as there's not much width to him. Chris didn't see the sweater during the trip again either. When Stephen gave it back occasionally, Chris gallantly allowed me time to warm up in it.

We arrived at campsite #21 in the afternoon and this turned out to be my favourite campsite. It had a sandy beach and was nestled in trees. And, it was windy when we arrived so it gave us all a chance to pitch tents and let them dry. Clotheslines appeared and wet clothes were hung. The cooking shelter was hung and most of us went swimming. I had a solar shower.

I discovered the solar shower last year and after 19 years of backwoods camping and canoeing (and never much complaining about the lack of showers) I bought one. I've had some eye rolling since I bought it but in my defence most women in their 40's suddenly stop tenting and demand a 25 foot fifth wheel. I bought a sunshower for $20. And I LOVE it. Having always had a frugal nature with water, I can completely shower in less than 2 gallons, leaving the remainder for Chris, who so far hasn't refused. When I shower, I enlist Chris and one of the girls to hold our tarp up and when Chris showers Stephen and I do privacy duty. Here is the link to the sunshower

No bears that night but we were visited by that other regular nocturnal visitor: pouring rain! The morning of day #4 we packed up all our wet equipment and headed across Isaac Lake to follow the north side to our next stop at the end of the prepare for our passage through the Chute!

We managed to cross as the lake was getting choppy (for once we Newtons were ready first!). By the time everyone had crossed the lake was much choppier. We stopped a fair bit this day as the kids' arms got tired much faster. We discovered that Stephen LOVED the choppy water which seemed to make him forget the fact that he doesn't like swimming. He powered through almost-whitecap water for quite some time, never missing a stroke. The Pungo, being mostly a river kayak (and no rudder) bounced a fair bit in the waves. The two sea kayaks Chris and I were piloting cut through the waves like a knife through butter. It was amazing.

When we decided to brave the choppy water after lunch, a fellow with a beautiful canoe whose campsite we were using for our stop, asked me if he could take our picture as we rounded the point of the campsite into the waves. Without stopping my paddling I said "sure, I should give you my email!!!" I could hear him say I should give to him if we met up again along the circuit. (We did and Mike and Linda have that picture, which I will post later).

It was a hard day paddling and it seemed that we would never get to the end of Issac Lake. But we did, in pouring rain. Before setting up we surveyed our tent pads and cleaned out and widened the little rivers that would wick the rain away from our tents. After we were set up we grabbed our food and cooking gear and ran through an increasingly loud downpour to the open air shelter that all campsites at the end of the lake shared. These shelters have picnic tables, a woodstove, places to hang wet clothing, and a satellite phone for emergencies (and apparently running out of chocolate bars is NOT an emergency).

It was cold, we were wet, our gear was wet. We hung stuff everywhere in the shelter and eyed the woodstove longingly. Nobody could leave the shelter without getting drenched. The paths to our tents were a connect the dots of little lakes and rivers. We made our dinners, chilled, but thankful we could at least cook and eat undercover. I was doing a mental inventory of the few dry items I had left that I could give to the kids and cursing The WeatherNetwork.

After an hour or so of huddling, our beautiful canoe friend and photographer showed up with his group and set up on the table we cleared for them. After another 20 minutes a fellow in their party asked if we would be upset if he started the woodstove. Nope, nope, nope. We were seriously considering it anyway as it was difficult to contemplate carrying on without drying out. The kids were a little bothered by the fact that with a campfire ban on, we were lighting a woodstove, so we had to explain to them that there are exceptions to the rules and how we have to weigh risks and consequences. We talked about the effects of hypothermia, the chances of starting a forest fire with all the rain, and the consequences in terms of the $345 fine.

The park administration had said they'd prefer if campers didn't light the woodstoves in the drying huts during the campfire ban (these weren't campfires), but I honestly don't know how we would have fared without being able to dry out some of our essential equipment, like sleeping bags, sweaters, footwear and socks.
It was so wet, I didn't actually think they'd get the woodstove going, but eventually they did and after about an hour, steam started coming from our clothing. Children became happier and the end of my sleeping bag finally dried. After another hour or two, we Newtons took our dry stuff and dashed as fast as we could to our tents, leaving the rest of them to play poker!

The next installment: the group shoots the rapids, all captured on video, in the rain, of course!