Day Zero

Project 31 is off to a good start. I wanted to spend a month here during the winter, and I’m getting exactly what I asked for. After weeks of warm and sunny days, winter is finally back. It snowed about 4-5 inches last night, then after a beautifully sunny (albeit short) interlude this morning, it snowed another 5-6 inches. It’s about 16F (-9C) outside, which is respectably winter-like.

I started the day with a short walk around my property to take in the snowy scenery, snapping pictures along the way. But, I couldn’t idly stand by as the sun melted the snow away, so I also spent some time piling snow into my water bins. I packed snow into 5 gallon buckets to make snow-cylinders, which stack up nicely. After brunch (tortillas with scrambled eggs, cheese, and mixed greens sauted with mushrooms and onions, topped with salsa verde and yogurt), it started snowing again, so I retreated to Hut 2.1 to do some work inside. I continued work on the floor, accompanied by music blaring out of the new iPod speakers I’d picked up earlier this week. I’ve been thinking of getting speakers for a while, but it seemed like a luxury item that I could ill afford. After much consideration, I decided to get them for Project 31, partially because they were down to $39 at Costco, but also because music could be a real morale booster. I’m happy to say, I had a great time singing along (poorly) to some of my favorite songs. After all, one of the perks of being out in the middle of nowhere is that you can listen to music really loud and sing along poorly without worrying about your neighbors or roommates throwing rotten tomatoes at you.

People have asked what I planned on doing for a month up here, and the truth is, I have more to do than I probably will actually accomplish. Obviously, there’s a lot more work to do on Hut 2.1, and apart from that, there are various chores, like gathering snow, collecting or cutting firewood, and filtering water. As far as entertainment goes, I’m trying to not waste too much time online, and will try to get through some of the 20 or so books I borrowed from my friends. One of my friends also lent me her guitar and a book about playing guitar, so I spent over an hour this evening repeatedly strumming the G7, C, A7 and D chords (the first 4 chords in the book). That’s another thing your neighbors might throw tomatoes at you for, but out here, nobody can even hear me. Not being very musically inclined, I doubt a new career as a guitarist is in my cards, but making your fingers do new things is a pretty good exercise for one’s brain. Along similar lines, I also have yarn and a crochet hook, if I want to learn how to crochet (and also make myself something warm). And if none of those activities seem interesting, I also have a software project I’m working on and would like to finish while up here.

And then, of course, there are meals to be cooked. I’m going to try and cook as many of my meals as possible, at least while I still have fresh ingredients, which means I could easily spend 20-30 minutes cooking a couple of times a day. Other than brunch, which I mentioned earlier, I also cooked dinner today. Granted, it was just rice and stir-fry (with onions, carrots, brussel sprouts, zucchini, mushrooms, asparagus, green beans, and turkey, seasoned with a secret soy sauce, vinegar, sugar and rum sauce), but, it still took close to 30 minutes to prepare. So, including the time it takes to eat, I could easily spend a couple of hours a day just cooking and eating.

Ultimately, though, I’m not here to live a productive little life. In fact, my goal is to slack off, and show that you can get away with it, at least for a while. In order for me to come out the other end of the 31 days, I need to eat, drink, and keep warm. Anything that doesn’t directly relate to those three things isn’t all that important. Work ethics in western societies can be traced to Christianity, and the belief that hard work will lead to either salvation or grace, depending on the denomination (or so I’m told). If you believe that hard work in this life will lead to something better in your next life, by all means, go at it. But, personally, I believe we only get one shot at life, and you can spend it working, or you can spend it trying to do something interesting, or fun, or awesome, or different. Which is to say, I’m not going to judge my 31 days based on how productive I was. In fact, I’m not going to judge it at all, other than based on the goals I set up for the project, and try to simply appreciate it for what it ends up being.

D-1: Final Preparations

I got back to Serenity Valley yesterday, after spending a little under a week in the cities celebrating my birthday with friends and soaking up human contact before entering Project 31. I was surprisingly successful on both counts, and managed to squeeze in a birthday brunch, birthday dinner, a hike to the beach, lunch with ex-coworkers and friends, a BBQ, and a party all in a few days. After having spent over 3 weeks up here mostly alone, it was good to see friends, and I feel better prepared, emotionally, for a month of isolation.

As far as logistics goes, I think I’m just about ready. I got a ton of food yesterday on the way back, though I haven’t pulled everything out of the car yet, so I haven’t itemized everything that I ended up getting. I’ll post the list once I have it, but it’ll be a long list. Rather than buying large quantities of the same stuff, I bought small quantities encompassing a wide variety. I figured diversifying would be a good idea, since I don’t know what I’d be in the mood to eat, and also because I don’t want to risk losing a ton of one thing if it turns out that it doesn’t keep as long as I think. My original list was pretty light on dry goods, but I ended up buying a lot of cans and other non-perishable goods, mostly as backup.

I also hooked up my new Xantrex inverter last night, so now I have real sine wave AC power in Hut 2.1. I still have the modified sine-wave inverter as a backup, in case the Xantrex experiences a premature death. I also ended up buying another 45 Watt solar panel kit from Harbor Freight (the same one I bought then returned a couple of weeks ago). I haven’t yet set it up because it’s been super windy today, and I didn’t want to walk around with large flat fragile objects. Once I have that up, I’ll have two sets of panels, again, for redundancy. Hopefully the addition of amorphous panels will boost output on cloudy days.

Today, I also got my DIY water filter set up. It’s just a plastic bottle with gravel, charcoal and sand, and I was somewhat disappointed when the water coming out ended up being dirtier than the water going in. The gravel was dirty, and even though I rinsed them a few times, I think it took a while for all the mud to come off. I ended up passing a gallon or so of water through the filter before the water started coming out reasonably clear. If my hypothesis is correct (that the filter needed cleaning first), I should get cleaner water the more I use it. Of course, I’ll also be passing the water through a Britta filter and boiling it too. The first pass using the sand-gravel filter is mostly to remove the big stuff, which should keep the Britta filter from clogging up too quickly.

The weather’s gotten rather nasty, but I suppose the month of nice weather we had was more of an anomaly. I woke up several times this morning, starting right around dawn, with strong gusts slamming into my cabin. The structure would noticeably shudder with each gust, which was a little disconcerting, though I was also concerned the wind might knock over the chimney. Although the winds today were about as bad as it normally gets, I might reinforce some weak-points in the structure, just to be safe. Otherwise, it was gusty but clear during the day, up until late afternoon when it started raining. It’ll be good for my water supply, but I would rather have snow, which was forecasted, but has so far failed to materialize. Perhaps the rain will turn to snow later tonight when it gets colder. It also amuses me that, while sunshine is good for my electricity supply, rain and snow are good for my water supply. In some ways, I win either way. I guess that’s one of the benefits of taking advantage of what nature can provide…

In any case, I think I’m pretty much ready to start Project 31. After all, there’s no sense in eating my Project 31 food and spending days alone if they’re not going to count. So, tomorrow (Wednesday February 16) will be Day Zero. If all goes well, I can come out on… March 19th.

Wow. That really is a month, huh. I guess it hadn’t really sunk in, even though I’ve been spending weeks preparing. I’m not too concerned about logistical issues. I’m sure I’ll find things that I wish I had, equipment will break, and things’ll just go plain wrong. But, I’m pretty good at solving problems and improvising. If it’s a problem that has a solution, I’m not worried. I predict that the biggest challenges won’t be logistical, but emotional. The longest I’ve stayed here without leaving, so far, has only been a week or so. Granted, that’s usually been because I try to go online at least once a week to update my blog, and to make sure I haven’t missed any important emails. Now that I have internet on my property, I obviously don’t have that excuse. But, over the past year or so, I can also remember times when I just got in a funky mood, and went to the city to get a change of scenery. If that were to happen over the next month, well, I’ll have to find some other way to unfunk my mood. One way or the other, it’ll be a challenging month. Let’s see how it goes…

Food for a month

I’m down to my last few days before starting Project 31. I’ll be going on what will likely be my last supply run on Monday. I’d originally planned on “starting” Project 31 three days before the official Day Zero, so that I have a few days during which I could still leave if I think of anything missing. But, if current weather forecasts are accurate, I may be snowed in after Monday, so whatever I get on that run might end up being all I’ll have for a month.

Fortunately, I’ve got all my gear, so I’m down to just picking up a few odds and ends at the hardware store, then going on a big grocery trip to buy a month’s worth of food. This is easier said than done, as I’ve never planned a grocery list to last me a month. In fact, I don’t really even plan a week at a time, because I know I can go to town if I need more (though, generally, I buy enough fresh provisions to last me 5-7 days, and have weeks’ worth of non-perishables as backup).

The other limitation is that I’m not using my fridge/freezer, which means I need to buy food that won’t spoil in weeks of sub-freezing temperatures (which could be tough on vegetables), or above-freezing temperatures (which could limit the shelf-life of meats). Stocking up on non-perishable foods would be easy, but I don’t want to eat out of cans everyday, and having fresh food and diverse options is pretty important to me from a quality of life perspective. So part of the exercise is anticipating the kinds of foods I might crave, and to ensure I have the ingredients to cook them, and to make sure the ingredients last me as long into my stay as possible.

Obviously, there are trade-offs there. For example, in addition to fresh meat, which may not last longer than 2 weeks, I’ll have salted and cured meats that will last a month if kept cool (and I ignore “best before” dates). Instead of my favorite leafy vegetables, I might add root vegetables that have a better chance of surviving freezing temperatures without going bad. Instead of fresh milk, I’ll have canned milk and dry milk. And so on and so forth. There are some things that simply won’t last past the first week or two, and that’s ok too. At least if I can have, say, yogurt during week two, I’d only be without it for a couple of weeks thereafter. In some cases, it’s hard to guess what the shelf life would be (as advertised shelf lives are all super conservative), so finding out how long things actually last would be an interesting experiment in itself.

So, with all that said, here’s my list so far:

10lb bag of rice, 3 loaves of bread, 80-100 tortillas, one bag of bagels

Fresh Vegetables
4lb carrots, mushrooms, 2lb zucchini, kabocha squash, 5lb onions, 5-10lb potatoes, 3 bags mixed “southern greens”, 2 heads garlic, fresh ginger, 2 heads of cabbage, 3 bags brussel sprouts, 3lb beets, 2 tomatoes, 3 avocados, 4 bell peppers, cauliflower

3-5lb pork, 1-2lb chicken, 1-2lb ground turkey, 2lb sausage, 2lb sandwich meats, 3lb salted pork or bacon, 6 cans of fish, 3 pouches of chicken meat, 36 eggs

2 boxes dry milk, 4lb cheese, tub of yogurt, cream cheese, 2lb butter (salted & unsalted)

Dry goods, non-perishables, misc
canned soup, canned chili, ready-to-eat indian food, chef boyardee, canned coconut milk, energy bars, chocolate, peanut butter, jam, honey, maple syrup, flour, sugar, baking soda & powder, yeast, dried fruits, nuts

I’m sure I’ll add more when I’m at the grocery store, so this is kind of a baseline. Ultimately, I’m also not terribly worried because this is mostly a quality of life problem, not one of survival. I’ll have plenty of calories to survive off of — it’s mostly a question of whether I’ll have a high enough quality diet to be reasonably content. I also realize that no list will ever be complete, and that by day 15 or 20, there will be something I’d want that I simply don’t have. And that’s okay too, because the whole point of Project 31 is to discover the things I’m missing. In fact, I’d be pretty happy if by day 15 or 20 what I’m missing most is sushi, and not something actually more critical.

Internet! Lights!

As those of you following me on Facebook or Twitter would know, the big news this week is that Serenity Valley has Internet! In the previous post, I said I was going to get an iPhone, but I changed my mind. I went into town just after midnight on the night of the 2nd (early the 3rd) to pre-order a Verizon iPhone, but failed to do so because I have a pre-paid account which isn’t eligible. By the time I was able to switch my account to post-paid later on the 3rd, the first batch of iPhones had already sold out, and I would’ve had to wait until the 9th to get in on the 2nd batch. That, I decided was too close to my planned Day Zero for Project 31, so it was time to switch to plan B. Additionally, I decided that I didn’t really need an iPhone. I have a first generation iPhone that was given to me for free as an award when I was working at Yahoo!, but shelling out $200 for a new one? And get locked in to a 2 year contract where I have to pay $75/month? I eventually decided that was too rich for me right now.

So, I decided to get a Verizon MiFi. With a 1 year contract, it’s $70 + tax (came out to a tad over $90 with various fees), and $35/month for 3GB ($10/GB after that). If I also have a pre-paid phone, that will only cost me about $15/month, so for $50/month, I can have internet & phone service. Plus, I can keep using my old iPhone as a mobile internet device by using the MiFi’s wireless connection.

For those of you unfamiliar with the MiFi, it is a thin, credit-card sized device that does one simple thing: it connects to the internet via Verizon’s wireless network, and turns into a WiFi base station (you can see it in the photo above, where it hangs near a window). To put it in simpler terms, I push a button on the MiFi, and then I hop on my laptop, connect to the MiFi’s wireless network, and presto, I’m online! And, I have to say, it works beautifully. The connection is fast enough to deserve the label “broadband,” though it probably doesn’t hurt that nobody else in my area is using that network (so, ironically, connection speeds may be lower in the city).

The speed is really a mixed blessing. Because it’s so fast, I can use the internet as I would on any broadband connection. Except, I have a 3GB cap (or, rather, would have to pay if I exceed the cap). On the one hand, this is somewhat frustrating. The connection is fast enough that I could watch TV shows on Hulu. But I have to restrain myself if I don’t want to exceed my limit. On the other hand, I think this works well for me. I have a finite amount of resources on my property, including a finite amount of electricity. It only makes sense that I have a “finite” amount of internet as well. When I’m in the city, I’m horrible at regulating my internet consumption behavior, so I’m actually glad that my electricity and bandwidth limits will force me to restrict my internet usage, at least when I’m on Serenity Valley.

Also, Hut 2.1 has electricity! By which I mean, I got a 100ft extension cable to draw AC power from my “power station” (solar panel + battery array + inverter, located in a clearing) all the way to the cabin. In the picture above, I’m using a 13W CFL bulb, but I’ll be switching to the LED bulbs soon. I also recently got battery-powered LED spotlights, but I’ll write about those in a separate post.

In other news, I’m getting better with the stove. In the last post, I wrote about how I was having a hard time keeping a small fire going. This problem has now effectively been solved, by doing two things. The first was to fill in a big hole in the stove with aluminium foil, so that the only place where air can get in is the actual air intake. So, now, I can actually control the air flow, which helps control the fire. The second thing I did was to put some rocks in the combustion chamber. What was happening before was that, as soon as a “log” (in my case, a peice of mountain mahogany 2-3 inches in diameter and 6-8 inches long) finished burning, the remaining hot coals would scatter over a large area, and the dispersed heat would be insufficient to burn the next log. By filling about a third of the combustion chamber with rocks, I am forcing the glowing embers into a smaller area, and the concentrated heat is sufficiently hot to get the next log going.

With these two changes, I can now keep smaller fires burning longer, and keep the hut at a comfortable 65F (18C) degrees. The one remaining issue is that, while it may be nice and warm up in the loft (which is great), it’s a good deal colder downstairs. This may be less of an issue once the floor is insulated, but I’m also planning on running some ducts and fans to circulate the air and even out the temperatures. (Question: should I blow hot air down, or cold air up?)

With Project 31 approaching, and with this strange spell of sunny weather bound to end with it (I mean, it just has to), I’ve been thinking about how much firewood I should store up. After all, if the weather gets wet, I may not be able to harvest more fuel for a while. But how much wood is enough? Well, that depends on how much I burn. So, to get an estimate of my burn-rate, after I got a couple of backpack loads (second load was less than full, so call it 1.75), I split the wood into smaller piles of 5 pieces each, with each pile weighing probably 4-5 pounds. I ended up with 13 such piles, which lasted me 4.5 evenings (though, a few of the evenings were pretty warm), burning 2.5-3 piles per night. So if 2 backpack loads give me 5 evenings’ worth, for 31 days, I should have 2x(31/5) or about 12 backpacks’ worth.

Having done all that work, though, I can’t remember exactly how many backpacks’ worth of wood I have right now… But I’m out of space under the hut, so, well, I hope what I have is enough. The nice thing about this mountain mahogany I’ve been harvesting is that its bark is usually stripped, leaving the hard wood, which doesn’t seem to soak up much moisture. So even if it snows (or rains), I should be able to find reasonably dry fuel, especially from trees that are dead but still upright (and therefore won’t accumulate much snow).

Update on Project 31 Preparations

A quick update on preparations for Project 31 (though, in reality, it’s hard to say what’s just part of my life and what counts as “preparation”…) I still haven’t decided on the exact start date, but I’m guessing I’ll be ready by mid-February.

It’s been surprisingly dry for the past few weeks, but it’s quite possible that the weather will get wetter during Project 31. I have about 30 gallons of rain water so far, so even if there’s no precipitation, I can probably live off of that for a month if I don’t shower (I also have 55 gallons of potable water as backup). As for sanitizing collected water, I have a length of PVC pipe, along with some sand, gravel and charcoal to make a filter out of. For actual drinking water, I’ll pass the filtered water again through a Britta filter. It might not remove 100% of contaminants, but that should make the water clean enough to not kill me in 31 days.

Progress on Hut 2.1 has been slow but steady. I finished putting up the last of the exterior rigid insulation boards last night, so practically every square inch of the walls and roof are insulated at this point. The next step is to put in the insulated raised floor, and continue with the interior “furnishings”. But I can work on that during Project 31, so I’m not in a huge rush.

I had a bit of a scare yesterday & this morning, when I realized that the charge light on my charge controller was conspicuously off, even though the batteries had run down to 12.5 Volts. My multimeter showed an unusually low voltage across the solar panel cables, which lead me to believe that the solar panel had stopped working. After trying a few different things today, I realized that the solar panel’s voltage was fine, as long as it wasn’t hooked up to my charge controller. In other words, when it was connected to my charge controller, some kind of anomalously huge resistance was dropping the voltage to almost zero, without actually sending any of the current to my batteries (I’m guessing a short of some sort). In fewer words, my charge controller is broke. Fortunately, I had another charge controller lying around, so once I did a little rewiring, I got some juice flowing to the battery array again. The broken charge controller is still under warranty, so I should be able to send it in for a replacement, which, hopefully will arrive before I start Project 31.

This incident had me thinking that I might want a back up to my 100W solar panel, in case it did decide to break. A week or so ago, I bought a 45W solar kit from Harbor Freight because it was on sale, but I ended up returning it because it didn’t seem like I’d need the additional capacity. But it might be a good idea to have another set of panels as backup, just in case. Without a backup solar panel, my backup-backup would be to use my car battery, but that would require running the engine to keep the battery charged.

Also on the topic of electricity, I ordered a Xantrex ProSine SW600 pure sine-wave inverter, which should be arriving soon. It’s only rated for 600W, but I don’t think I even own any appliances that use anywhere near that much power. The most power hungry device I own is probably my laptop, which should pull no more than 85W.

I’ve been using the stove every night since I finished the chimney, and it’s kept me nice and warm even when it got down to 15F (-9.4C) outside. In fact, keeping the heat low enough has been the bigger challenge, especially when I’m only burning wood. It’s hard to have a small self-sustaining wood fire that doesn’t burn out in 10 minutes, yet stays hot enough to ignite and burn bigger chunks of wood. I’ve been burning a mix of charcoal and wood, and might look into making my own charcoal once I’ve burned through the bags I bought for my previous experiments. I’m also continuing to gather firewood while the weather is relatively dry, with the goal of actually stocking up on a month’s worth, so that I won’t have to worry about fuel even if it gets wet and cold during Project 31.

I’ve also tried to cook using the stove, but that’s proving to be a little harder than I’d anticipated, because the cabin gets uncomfortably warm if I get the stove hot enough to cook with. I also only have the wood stove going in the evenings, so I’d need to use propane to cook meals or heat water during the day. This isn’t a huge problem, but I might need to revise my projected propane usage up, since I might be using my propane stove for cooking more than I’d anticipated.

I was originally thinking of getting a Verizon MiFi for internet, but I’ve since decided to get a Verizon iPhone, since it has the same capability as a MiFi but would allow me to cancel my AT&T iPhone plan, and have one phone instead of the current two (I have an AT&T iPhone which doesn’t work on my property, and a Verizon feature phone on a prepaid plan for when I’m on my property). The Verizon iPhone goes on pre-order tonight, and becomes available on the 10th.

Heading Back to Serenity Valley

I apologize for the somewhat lackluster blogging activity these past few weeks. But, vacation is over! I’m on my way back to Serenity Valley right now, and am looking forward to sleeping in my own bed and resuming work on Hut 2.1. For the next few weeks, I’ll be pretty busy preparing for my next Big Adventure which means I should have plenty of stuff to talk about here 🙂