Archive for August, 2011

Memorable weather during our first year back in the US

Monday, August 15th, 2011

Last February, I started this post about weather extremes.  I planned on finishing as soon as the weather settled down.  Six months later, I’m still waiting.

Living in England for so long, we found that if anything, the English tend to be especially preoccupied about the weather, which does have a tendency to change without warning in England.  When asked by the English how I like their weather, I used to to reply that I like English weather better than American weather, because it lacked the uncomfortable extremes.  This was usually not an acceptable answer, apparently being received as yet another example of American braggadocio. Totally disregarding my social need for climactic parity, 18 months after our return to the US, the weather continues to be a lot harsher than I remember from my first 40 years here.

Narrowly missing December 2009 snowstorms in England and Virginia, last season’s harsh weather finally caught up to me in Ohio, with a storm compared to the epic blizzards of the late 70s giving me and the Subaru a refresher course in snow driving. The first half of Virginia’s record snowfall started during my return drive on Jan 30. It started snowing during the day on Friday, 5 February 2010, and didn’t stop until Saturday night. The fourth largest snowfall on record for DC (as measured at the airport), everyone in Vienna/Reston feels that this was a bigger snow than the ’96 storm. We had about 28 inches here, which brought motorized life to a near standstill.

Unprecedented snowfall was followed by an unusually warm and short spring. After at least 2 weeks without any frost, I decided to plant my first set of tomatoes 2 weeks early. They did fine, and the frost didn’t return until November, making for about an 8 month growing season. Although there were periods of heavy rain, precipitation was on the low side for the year, and the long hot summer meant that neither green beans nor limas produced any fruit until September.

The entire eastern half of the country experienced extremely violent weather during the summer, with tornado-producing fronts working their way across the continent over a period of days.  We never saw any tornadoes, although we had a number of violent little storms, and I was close to a tornado in Chatauqua, NY (3 blog posts from last July with storm videos).

2011 did not see any DC area records for snowfall, but we did have one memorably harsh snowstorm that snarled traffic for hours, and stranded many people overnight.   Dropping bad snow on top of worse, it hit just before rush hour, creating impossible driving conditions in much of the DC area, which many police and bus drivers were quoted as saying were the worst that they’d ever seen. The heavier snows the previous years had not resulted in as many power outages (650,000) nor had they resulted in 8 hour commuting times.

The blizzard of late January 2011 did result in record snow falls for NYC. They were still shoveling the place out when Elizabeth and I arrived a couple days later to celebrate our anniversary. We’d already spent a very cold January day in Ohio, meeting Sam the builder, Sheldon the excavator, and several other interested parties as we decided exactly where to put the cabin.  This was followed by a miserably rainy day in February while I followed the surveyors around the northern and eastern boundary of our property.  Both of those trips were punctuated by memorably snowy evenings in the Millersburg Comfort Inn, watching the pickup trucks sliding around SR 83.

After last year’s early and short spring, I started my vegetable garden on March 1, and planted my tomatoes and squash early.  The spring garden had a bumper crop of peas, spinach and lettuce, the last of which was pretty much gone by June.  Meanwhile, the country was experiencing its worst ever outbreak of tornadoes from April 25-28.  I watched the Weather Channel in morbid fascination as a deadly tornado raked across the northern side of Birmingham, Alabama. Heroic work by the National Weather Service and local media meant sufficient warning so that the highest ever level of tornado damage was not accompanied by the highest level of tornado fatalities.

Besides all that, it rained. A lot.  Parts of the Mississippi and Missouri river basins saw the worst flooding in almost 80 years, and the Corps of Engineers was forced to deliberately flood some communities to save others. We had hoped to start construction of our Ohio cabin in March, but heavy rains in the central part of the state delayed our start. Photo club friend Tom Shevock and I went on a photoshoot on March 3 along the Potomac Valley.  After a couple hours of pouring rain, we had lunch in Brunswick, MD and called it quits.  It turned out to be the rainiest day in 44 years of record-keeping at nearby Dulles Airport.

In May, it was recognized in Ohio as the worst farming season in over 50 years, and it has continued to rain since then. Although none of the individual floods have approached the violence of the July 4th 1969 flood, Elizabeth has seen the Killbuck over its banks during several spring trips back to Ohio.

July set heat records across large swaths of the USA. Texas, Kansas, Oklahoma, and previously battered and now fried Arkansas all experienced record high temperatures and set multiple records for highest highs, highest lows, and highest consecutive temperatures.  Northern, VA had what was probably the hottest July ever recorded, and an all time record high of 105 was set at Dulles Airport.  Spending 3 weeks in Ohio, where it was merely well above average, I missed the worst of the heat, but Kirk and Elizabeth reported that the A/C seemed to be struggling.

Although many parts of the country have had noteworthy levels of rain, other parts are suffering unprecedented levels of drought. The US Drought Monitor shows virtually all of Texas and large parts of the south as experiencing extreme to exceptional levels of drought, while a swath from Ohio through Kentucky and Tennessee shows as a drought free area between two abnormally dry areas (what the map does not show is how abnormally wet Ohio has been).  Although we continue to have heavy showers in Northern, VA, it isn’t enough water, especially in all this heat, to keep us from away from the edge of a moderate drought.

The good thing about the weather is that there is always something to talk about.


Sunday, August 14th, 2011

Its been a quiet week at Lake Heiserbegone, with no activity, other than the delivery of a trash bin for our new disposal contract with J&J.

My parents had spent the previous week on site to supervise construction after I returned to Virginia. Their first news was the appearance of an ominous looking foundation crack.  Elizabeth diagnosed it through Google, deciding that it was a normal characteristic of poured concrete walls. I confirmed that it was at the joint spot, where the last concrete to be poured went on top of the first concrete, and as this was on the front wall, which will stay above ground, water is not an issue.

Sam the Builder, driven by his cousin James, arrived on Wednesday, and Dad had a chat with them.  They confirmed that the cracks were normal, and not a concern, and then proceeded to make what were described as ‘mysterious markings’ on the side of the foundation walls.

That Thursday, Mom reported: “The Eco-Seal Basement Waterproofing guy arrived in the early afternoon.   He had a good sized enclosed trailer behind his pickup for his pump and all his supplies.  Now we know what the mysterious markings Sam put on the foundations yesterday are for.  They show Mr. Waterproofing just where to waterproof — the areas that will be back-filled with dirt.  He sprayed on a dark brown substance along Sam’s drawn lines, then installed what he called insulation boards.  Progress is being made.”

Mom and Dad were still at the Hollow last weekend, which brought yet another two and a half inches of rain. Although it wasn’t enough to cause a 4th flooding of the township road, it was enough to raise the pond 8 inches overnight, filling it back up again.  In most years, the pond is looking pretty sad towards the end of summer, shrinking as much as three feet (no, it never gets so low that the fish die).

These August rains brought enough water to damage the new and the original driveways.  By my count, this is three driveway-killing downpours in four weeks. Dad spent a couple more hours with the Kubota, carrying bucket loads of gravel, and smoothing out the ruts with the blade.  Sheldon is already planning on replacing two of the drainage pipes under the original driveway, and I’m increasingly thinking that we need him to grade it.

Sam will be working on plumbing and drainage during the next two weeks. Hochstetler Milling has apparently had our logs on ice in a big barn in Loudonville for a couple of months, but they didn’t start on the interior wood until they were sure that we’d be ready.  We’re tentatively planning on returning in two weeks for the delivery of the logs and the start of stacking.

[The first entry for Building the Cabin was July 18, 2011.  The next entry is The Logs Arrive.]

Basement Walls

Thursday, August 4th, 2011

Last Thursday was probably the high point of activity for the entire project. The morning started quietly, albeit before 6am, with 2 people spending the morning putting the finishing touches on the wall forms. This involved capping off most of the openings, and ensuring that the walls were square and level. A series of diagonal braces (visible left in lower left corner) were staked into the dirt floor of the site, and then carefully twisted to adjust their length so that an entire wall form was equidistant from a string stretched between the corners. As the day went on, more and more people arrived, raising the noise and activity level.

The cement pump returned during my last business phone call of the day, just after 2pm, soon followed by a cement mixer. By the time I’d hung up the phone, and chatted with the cement pump and mixer drivers, both of whom worked on the footers, at least one more cement truck had arrived. In no time, the site had 2 big double-axle trucks from the foundation contractor, 3-4 cement mixers, the cement pump vehicle, at least 2 pickup trucks, along with my car, my folks’ motorhome, and the Kubota. It was pretty clear that the foundation crew, up to at least 6 people by now, was behind schedule.

Finishing the barn first, the wall crew and cement pump moved to the cabin, where they started with the ground level doors.  Filling up to the top of this part of the form, they carefully smoothed the top of the walls along the lower-level doors, and then clamping forms across the top to keep the cement from squishing out when the walls filled up with concrete.

The wall crew worked their way around the perimeter, pumping in a steady flow of concrete, which slowly flowed around the inside of the frame. A kid with a long 2×4 methodically walked around the top of the walls, pumping the stick up and down to ensure that there were no air pockets in the walls. Someone else came along behind with a board to smooth the top of the wall.  And after the forms were full, they carefully rechecked the plumb of all the walls, readjusting most of the diagonal braces (visible above in the interior).

I want to go on record and say that 4 hours of playing host to 10 truckloads of concrete, various other heavy diesel vehicles, and several dozen people is a hell of a lot more fun than my day job. It was a lot like having a birthday party.  Sadly, by 6:30, the walls were poured and straight, the concrete mixers had hosed themselves out all over our meadow, and most of the wall crew was gone forever.  The cement pump took the most time to cleanup, including the astounding trick of sucking a large plastic plug backwards all the way through the metal pipes on the lengthy boom.  While he sprayed leftover concrete into some of the big new ruts on our abused driveway (Diane’s visit seemed so long ago), I cranked up the tractor to start smoothing it back out–again.  I’ve learned a lot about picking up gravel in the bucket, and I’m conquering the mysteries of the blade.

I’m going to miss being woken up at 6:30 by the precision concrete guys. Friday morning turned out to be the noisiest day so far, as they enthusiastically attacked the forms with large metal mallets, stacking the pieces, and hoisting them back onto their truck. They must have thought it was pretty noisy too, because they were all wearing hearing protectors.

By mid-morning, they were gone, leaving in peace, and alone, with two slightly warm and slightly damp concrete boxes.

What will this place look like in another month, when the logs arrive and get stacked on top of these walls?

I wandered around for an hour, staring at the bare walls of the cabin and barn, trying to picture what it will be like when this is the family home, and what memories ours and future generations will store up here.  Having lived so far away from the Hollow for so many decades, I’d always found it painfully difficult to tear myself away.  At almost 3 weeks, this was probably my longest stay at the Hollow, and I knew that Elizabeth and I would be coming back soon. It just didn’t feel like my business there was complete.

Its  hard to leave a place where such a large piece of your heart lives, with so much yet to do, like photographing all the butterflies on the newly blossoming Joe Pye Weed. Reluctantly, I packed the last of my stuff,  locked the Kubota in the shed, took one last look around, and headed down the gravel driveway in my cement-spattered Subaru.

[The first entry for Building the Cabin was July 18, 2011.  The next entry is Waterproofing.]