Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Maps and Questions

France in about 1035. Toulouse, Mirepoix and Leran are part of the County of Toulouse. Across the Pyrenees is the County of Barcelona. This is the first I've seen France broken down into counties. Is this because it was produced by English speakers or were there counties in France at that time? Anyone know? The legend breaks down the Counties, Duchys, Kingdoms, Maquisates, Seigniorys and Viscountys. Most of the south of France is designated as "Other fiefs held of the Crown". In other words, irrelevant, backwater, not worthy of our attention. It also shows the boundaries of the Roman Empire of the German Nation, or the Holy Roman Empire. Our neck of the woods was not part of that empire but Provence was. Hmmm. What's up with that? It's not a particularly old map; my guess is that it was produced in the early 20th century.
What jumps out at me on this map is the mountainous topography in the eastern half of France, and down near the Pyrenees, while it is relatively flat in the north and west. No other map I've seen shows this as readily. Now look at the previous map. Did topography dictate those politics? I'm forced to look at this from a perspective of geography because that's my background. I had only one semester, perhaps two, of Western Civilization and we might have discussed Southern France for 5 minutes. What do you think? Was there some historical event that made the south irrelevant? Or was it topography?

Here's France in 1791 showing the Departments and former Provinces. The French Revolution wasn't over yet. Ariege shows up on the map, the Aude is there too. What I like is the nomenclature of "Seine Inferieure" just to the north of Department of the Seine-et-Oise which is no doubt "Superior". Not too different from today, but I would bet that someone who intimately knows French history and geography, well, like a Frenchman, could pick out lots of differences. What interesting things do you see?

These next two maps are totally correlated. Population pretty much follows industry, or perhaps industry follows population. Again, the people and goods are in the north and the swath along the Pyrenees is blank, irrelevant. You can look at the map below and see where the money and influence are, and they are not in the Ariege. The industrial and population centers generally have easy access to transportation. Paris has the Seine as an easy route to the sea. Bordeaux has an easy outlet to the sea and has always shipped lots of wine. Marseille is the French window onto the Mediterranean. Toulouse had the Canal du Midi but it must have had only regional impact. Lille and Metz puzzle me but I can only guess that population and industry there must be related to the coalfields, the Rhine and the industrial powerhouse of the Ruhr Valley of Germany. Can someone enlighten me? In any case, the striking thing to me is the lack of population to the south of Bordeaux. Another map claims it is heavily forested, the biggest patch of green in all of France, so there must be little in the way of agriculture. The topography map shows it is relatively flat. What is the story of that huge flat triangle?

Allright class, that's it for today. Answer my questions and get those term papers on my desk right now. And remember, click on 'em to enlarge 'em.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Finally, A Post About France, Roque Sainte Christophe

In May of 2006 Nancy and I took our tour of France with the intention of finding the region to buy a house. We started in Provence, (beaucoup euro) then went to Mirepoix and Leran, which we found both beautiful and reasonably priced. Then we went off to the Dordogne. It was very beautiful and expensive, and in addition, we heard so many English voices we knew it had already been discovered. While we were there we saw the Roque Sainte Chistophe. This large prehistoric settlement complex is found about 9 km north of Les Eyzies, on the south bank of the Vezere River. It's in a very scenic and attractive location, and by a stroke of luck, we rented a house for a week about 100 yards from the entrance. La Roque St Christophe is the largest such settlement in Europe and our first impressions were how similar it was to Mesa Verde in Colorado. The differences are obvious, of course, the climate and the relatively short length of time Mesa Verde was occupied. The similarity is of course how a culture took a natural feature, such a overhanging rock, and made a fortified village. Another striking difference is that in Mesa Verde much of the structures are intact, whereas the buildings here have been cannibalized for other villages in the region.
Roque Saint Cristophe is an extensive series of caves that have been carved out of the soft limestone cliff, initially by the action of the river. The cliff is at least a half mile in length (800 metres) and around 90 yards (80 metres) high. Over the years man carved all kinds of artifacts into the limestone, including shelves and passageways. The walls are covered with all kinds of slots, hooks, steps, handholds and other indentations too wierd to figure out.

The site from the air showing the river on the far right.The village was in the dark crease between the new road and the forested top of the cliff.

Approximately 55,000 years ago man first started to inhabit these natural caves. From the 6th - 16th centuries that the cliff also became developed as a village, with numerous buildings and fortifications backing onto the cliff. It seems likely that the village was occupied continuously during this entire period, until it was finally abandoned in 1588.
Lifting tools were quite massive and must have hauled up considerable amounts of food, firewood and water too.
Notice the carved archway, the scaffolding and the knotted rope hanging down. Your guesses are as good as mine.

Models of the tools they used to haul up supplies are actually in working order although we didn't get to see them in action. The must have used some of the rock from the site itself and other from elsewhere in the region. This one relied on men going around in a circle. A capstan winch on a sailing vessel is very similar.

Fortified stairways were carved out of the limestone. Luckily, limestone is a very soft stone.

The site has re-creations of what the settlement might have looked like back in the day, both in miniature, and in life-size. There would have been structures on the ground level as well. Impossibe to defend but easy to access. No elevators to the second level. Nancy took all of these pictures, with the exception of the one I stole from another website about this most amazing place. Remember kids, click on 'em to enlarge 'em.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Death in Yellowstone (with apologies to Lee Whittlesey)

One of my first summers in Resource Management, I got a lesson in Murphy’s Law. That is, if it can happen, it will happen.

The hot pools, mud pots and geysers of Yellowstone can be very dangerous. People regularly burn themselves in the pools by sticking their fingers in the water to test the temperature. We would often see visitors walking around West Thumb Geyser Basin holding a "scalded" index finger in their other hand. When nothing else was happening, we would patrol the Geyser Basin, look for weeds, make sure people were staying on the boardwalks, and generally give people the impression that rangers were out and about.

The boardwalks run around the geyser basin and people are required to stay on them at all times. They were constructed for the visitors safety and to give them a good (and safe) viewpoint for all the thermal features. A valuable side effect was to lessen the visitor’s impact on the geyser basin itself so that people weren’t wandering around where they shouldn’t. Nonetheless, there were always a few footprints in places that would make you question the sanity of visitors.

As a visitor enters the boardwalk he would encounter signs that would advise them of all the dangers of thermal areas and how many ways a person could kill himself. But it seemed on every one of my visits to the thermal basin, there would be children running along the boardwalk, way ahead of their parents. Often I would see them trip on the rough wooden planks and take a fall. It didn’t take much imagination to see that if a kid took a tumble in the right place they could roll right under the guardrail and end up in a thermal feature. And if they did, they would not be the first person to die from burns in West Thumb Geyser Basin. I would warn parents to keep their children under control and many times would get a "Mind your own business" kind of look in return. (If you want to find out exactly how many people have died in Yellowstone’s Thermal Pools you can read Lee Whittlesey’s Death in Yellowstone.)

There were other deaths in Yellowstone, but only one visitor died in West Thumb Geyser Basin while I was working there. I didn’t see it first hand but I heard how it happened from a family member. Let me set the scene. West Thumb Geyser Basin had a large parking lot because if you entered the park from the South Entrance, this would be the first thermal features you encounter. After the construction and paving of the parking lot back in the 60's, a new thermal feature boiled up through the pavement, right near the entrance. Maintenance put up a fence. What else could you do?

A family arrived one day in a pickup truck with a camper on the back. They pulled into the West Thumb Geyser Basin and parked. The mom and dad and two kids got out of the pickup. The older of the two kids went to the camper and opened the door to let the dog out. She put a leash on the golden retriever and brought the dog out onto the pavement where it promptly took off. The girl could only hold on so long. The dog raced across the parking lot, under the fence and went into the pool. It probably died instantly. By the time the family got to the pool there was no dog to be seen and nothing we could do. Of course the family was devastated.

We monitored the pool for several days looking for some evidence of the poor dog. We saw nothing but a little fur and scum floating on the surface. The dog had boiled into broth and there was almost no evidence other than a foul odor that persisted for about four days.
This is the pool the dog went into. At the time of the incident, the water level was much higher.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Merry Christmas

Nancy and I are notorious Scrooges. We don’t send Christmas cards, we don’t give each other gifts anymore, we don’t get a Christmas tree. Perhaps there are others out there who are in the same boat as we are. If you are not religious and you don’t have kids, and your parents are long gone, and you don’t have family in the area, there is no reason whatsoever to get all worked up about Christmas.

However, we have had some wonderful Christmases with all the trappings (see North of Andorra, December 16, 2007). There is a Christmas that sticks in my mind and I think of it every Christmas, not to mention almost every time I ever put on the National Park Service uniform.

One year, I was the Seattle Center Santa Claus. More accurately, I was one of the several Seattle Center Santa Clauses.

Nancy was going to school at the University of Washington and I found myself unemployed. She had seen an ad in the paper that said if one were to successfully attend a class on how to be a Santa, one could get a part time job as a Santa. I did attend successfully and was chosen to be one of the Santas at the Seattle Center. The Seattle Center is where they staged the World’s Fair and it’s where the Space Needle still sits. As far as Santa’s go, I had a pretty good gig.

Kids love Santa Claus. If you had four or five actors in costume and portraying, say; Jesus, Abraham Lincoln, God, Albert Einstein and Santa Claus, kids would swarm Santa Claus and ignore the others. And their parents would too.

Youngsters would sit on my lap and respectfully tell me what they wanted for Christmas. When they were finished they would almost always tell me that they loved me. Toddlers, teenagers, grandmas, kids of all ages. Young mothers would sit on my lap and flirt. It was one of the perks of the job. Very rarely, some smart ass teenager would tell me he knew I was an imposter, or tug on my beard. But they didn’t say Santa Claus didn’t exist. One day I decided I could manage to forego the extra pillow padding (I was smaller then). As I was walking to my throne, I heard a teenage kid say with derision, “Look, a skinny Santa”. (I never got a better compliment.) But for the most part, I got plenty of adoration and attention.

After six hours of getting all this love, an elf would escort me down to the dressing room to change into my civilian clothes. All the way to the dressing room, kids would wave, mothers would blow me kisses and teenagers would point and smile. Then, the denouement would occur. I would change clothes and walk out into the Seattle Center, and I was nobody. Walking out of the dressing room was possibly one of the most lonely feelings I ever experienced. Nobody waved, nobody smiled, nobody pointed. I was nobody. I felt invisible.

I often had similar feelings years later in Yellowstone. When I would take off the Park Service uniform in the evening, shower up and go to the Lodge for a beer, for awhile I would feel invisible. Nobody would ask questions, nobody would tell me about the bears they had seen, nobody would ask when Old Faithful was going to erupt.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Cabin Building Volume Four

After our whirlwind winter of traveling, Nancy went to work down in Grant Village in Yellowstone and I took the summer off to finish the cabin. Nancy came up each weekend to help me, but her main task was to do the chinking.

For those of you who do not know about chinking, let me give a short explanation. The old-timers used to stack the logs pretty much as I had done, leaving a two or three inch space between logs , which you can see in the picture above. We used this method because it takes far fewer logs and far less time to complete. There are log building methods that do not leave this gap and have logs scribed to the logs below them but it incredibly labor intensive and time-consuming. Instead, Nancy now had to fill the space between the logs. The old-timers used mud, horsehair, straw, moss, concrete, i.e. anything and everything. Thanks to the miracle of modern science, we used Styrofoam with an acrylic substance called Perma-Chink over that. Most of Nancy’s summer weekends were spent filling the cracks with chinking, inside and out. Perma-Chink is elastic and doesn’t fall out with changes of temperature and shrinking logs. The Styrofoam provides some R-value for insulation and between the inside and outside applications is a dead air space for more insulation. It was an exhausting task and boring as well. But, bien sur, Nancy did a fantastic job.

My summer began by getting ready to have the roofer come. The roofer was going to be the first hired help we had used on the cabin, other than Elroy, Belle and Bobbi. I had gotten a quote for a green metal roof and he had told me what needed to be done before he could begin. We needed to finish the dormer exterior walls because they would become almost impossible to do when the roof was on. We needed to have all roof protrusions installed; meaning the chimneys for the two wood stoves and the vents for the kitchen sink had to be in place.

In the above picture, take in June of 1996 you can see we had installed board and batten gable siding and we were just finishing the shingle siding on the dormers. We had cedar fascia board around the roof, windows installed, porch and porch roof constructed and the roofing felt was on. The exterior was mostly finished with the exception of the chinking which would take several more months. But, we were ready for the roofer.

The roofer spent about a week doing the roof and when he was finished, we were “weathered in”. The cabin would stay dry unless the rain came down sideways, which was not totally out of the realm of possibility. I could now take the tarp off the radial arm saw and begin construction of the interior. I spent July, August and September building the kitchen from scratch and trimming the windows inside and out.

Many times during that summer, as I was working on the front porch (and elsewhere), I used to dream about the day when I would have time to sit there in a rocking chair and have nothing to do. When that day came I was immensely satisfied. Several years later, I would sit in the rocking chair on the porch and I was bored. We needed a new project. But that’s another story.

My entire family came for a week in August and helped do all sorts of tasks that would have taken Nancy and I forever or just would not have gotten done. (From Washington: Darrell, sister Leslie, Sarah, Noah, Andrew, Cooper. From Colorado: Tony, sister Peggy, Anna, Ellie, Kate. And from Texas, sister Amy. ) Many hands make light work, it is said, and so it is. They gathered rocks from along the road to enclose the foundation. They cleaned up the building site and made massive piles of firewood. They installed insulation underneath the floor in the crawl space. They painted cabinets and stained window trim. They did some carpentry work enclosing the crawl space. I know I’m forgetting some of the things my family did, but I appreciate them just the same. I did hardly any work at all that week, but spent a lot of time supervising the various tasks that were taking place. Everyone worked very hard and claimed to have a wonderful time. Andrew stayed on for a week and helped me with the masonry for the hearth and install the wood stove. To this day, there is no way to thank them for all the help they provided, and since they can’t go to the cabin, I hope they will come to Leran.

My sister Leslie and niece Kate, who was perhaps eight, spent one night with me in the tipi in late August. Incredibly, that night there was an early snow of an inch or so. Late at night we heard raindrops on the tipi, and then they stopped, but we did not imagine that it was because the snow was silently accumulating on the tipi walls. This tipi had seen a lot of abuse and was in pretty bad shape. A year before, a black bear had clawed his way in while we were gone. He left big muddy paw prints and a huge rip in the side. By this time the tipi had been standing for a couple of years and the fabric had begun to deteriorate in the relentless sun. We had apparently gotten some bad fabric when Nancy constructed the tipi. We had painted the tipi with latex paint in a faux Native American design of a yellow sun with blue hailstones. Where there was paint, the fabric was protected and strong. However, you could put your fist on a blue “hailstone” and push your hand right through the tipi, but have in intact blue circle. We had to tie plastic tarps to what we now called the “tarpi”. It only had to withstand a few more weeks of the elements before we moved into the cabin.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Cabin Building Volume Three

By the end of September 1995, we had the cabin walls up and our season in Yellowstone had come to an end. Earlier, we had rented the house we owned in Bozeman, thinking we might just come up with Park Service jobs for the winter. We were not that lucky, so we lived in the tipi for the rest of the fall. We took showers at friend’s houses and at the truck stop in Livingston. We worked on the cabin each day, that is, with the exception of the days we’d make a jaunt into town to do laundry, buy food and get building materials. And things went along okay until it snowed. More about that later.

The cabin itself began to look like something with the roof framing starting to take form. In the first picture you can see that I have installed the floor joist for the loft. I put up some temporary sheets of OSB (oriented strand board) to walk on and began framing the roof. At this point two things happened. First, building with dimension lumber instead of logs, and working five or six days a week, made it seem as if the process was going in ulta-high speed. Secondly, our expenditures skyrocketed. All summer they were practically nil, except for food and gas. The logs were free. Suddenly we were buying lots of lumber. The second picture is the south side roof framing, looking out a window opening at the north end of the Absaroka mountains and the Yellowstone valley.
Framing the roof was very exciting. Nancy was my gopher (gofer this, gofer that) and laborer. Each day I could stand back and look at the cabin and it would seem like we had gotten lots done. Compared to the slow going stacking logs for a wall, the framing was going at lighting speed, and therefore, very gratifying.

During the summer, sometimes it was difficult to stay cool, now it was difficult to stay warm. We were toasty at night in the tipi with the barrel stove blazing, but it was impossibly cold in the mornings. It would warm up in the afternoon and we would be able to work without gloves.

The forth picture shows the roof framing substantially finished. We had one delivery of lumber to the end of the county road and we hauled it the rest of the way up the hill in our pickup. For the most part the weather was pretty good for a Montana fall. However, November brought snow and it presented a huge problem. It meant we no longer would be assured that we could drive up and down the road in the 4WD pickup. At times we walked in and out with our dirty laundry and back with clean clothes and food. Drudgery. We had enough snow to block the road in places, but not enough snow to snowmobile. And we didn’t have one anyway.

In the fifth picture, you can see winter had arrived. We broke down and purchased a used snowmachine. We got a sled/trailer that we pulled behind the snowmobile and that hauled our tools, water, food, and building materials. O’Malley loved snowmobiling. He ran alongside the snowmobile or behind it depending on how deep the snow was. You can see in the picture that we were able to put sheathing on the roof and beadboard insulation on the gable walls. I would have liked to get roofing felt up before winter set in. But after the first snow, I could not safely get up on the roof again. Just after this last picture was taken, we had some really cold weather and we decided it would be a good idea to head south for the winter. And we did for awhile. We visited friends in New Mexico and Arizona, took a backpacking trip in Utah, stayed three weeks with my sister Amy in Houston, Texas, housesat for friends in Marysville, Tennessee, visited Nancy’s family in Indiana and then headed back to Montana. It was still February so we didn’t stay long and we didn’t get much done. We had an offer from friends to do some work on a summer cottage on a lake in Saskatchewan so we spent three weeks in Lake Q’appelle. We stopped to see friends outside Glacier Park on our way to Washington State. We then spent a month building a guest cottage for my sister, Leslie. Spring arrived and we headed back to Montana. Nancy took a new job in Yellowstone and I went back to work on the cabin.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Good News and Some Really Bad News from Leran

Dear Doug and Nancy

The Walking Group completed another expedition today, Wednesday 10 December. Over 20 of us, plus two of Fergus' four-legged friends, Gemma and Obie, set off from St Colombe sur l'Hers into the mist covered hills behind the village. A damp and chilly start soon turned into light snow that persisted until we emerged into clear air at the top of the ridge. There we were bogged down in some dreadful clinging mud - the boots belong to our Canadian team Peter, Angela and their visiting daughter Kate. Eventually we caught a glimpse of a lovely valley view to the east before completing our circle down to Rivel and back to St Colombe along the old railway track. Only six miles or so but enough to build good appetities, important because ...

... back in Léran we all sat down to a great pre-Christmas feast in the Bar. I expect that others will publish pictures of this event, keep an eye on Angela's blog. We toasted our 'Absent Friends'.

You will remember the derelict building opposite the bar that was covered in scaffolding all summer. It has now emerged as a beautifully restored house. In due course the ground floor will be the Mairie. You can see that the plane trees, providers of welcome shade in hot summer weather, have had their biennial pollarding. They look like long rows of abstract sculptures.

One sad note. Your near neighbour at 20 rue du Four, Jean-Pierre, died suddenly. Many of your friends here will miss his friendly conversations, his camera, his smelly old pipe and his willing help with translating things. He spoke French slowly and with a perfect Paris accent so that we could relatively easily understand his interesting points of view about everything around us.

A final snippet of news is that the popular Léran choir will give its first concert at the weekend, in the Bar. In only three practice sessions Alan Simmons has done an amazing job of coaching us into a surprisingly competent team - last week there were 27 enthusiastic participants including a good sprinkling of our French neighbours.

Have a good Christmas and New Year.

Julian and Gwenda

The new Mairie with the newly pollarded trees.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Cabin Building Volume Two

In June 1995, we began to put logs up on the floor deck we had created on top of the piers and joist. Of course the major problem was the weight of the logs and how to get them from the log pile on the ground to where they would begin to form walls. Most log cabin builders in a suburban subdivision do this with a crane. Old timers did it with horses and sometimes oxen. They rolled the logs up poles forming inclined planes. I couldn’t afford a crane, even if one could get up the road to the cabin site. At that time the road was strictly four wheel drive all the way from the end of the county road. It has since been widened and straightened. The topography didn’t allow inclined planes, so the secondary method was not available to us. I had to invent a system and I had no clue whatsoever if it would actually work.

Here’s the outline of the idea. I bought the biggest hand cranked boat winch that I could find. I needed to have a steel bracket made in Livingston so I could attach it to a large tree. (See the drawing.) On the same tree that I attached the winch, I attached a pulley as high as I could with a wooden ladder I had built out of 16 foot 2x4's. Over on the other side of the cabin site I tied a couple of trees together with aircraft cable. Then I ran cable from the winch up to the pulley, over the cabin site to the other trees. On the line I put a pair of log tongs riding on a pulley. The idea was, I would crank on the winch, make the cable taut, and the log would be lifted. In reality, it never lifted the logs entirely off the ground. But it would take most of the weight off the log, and therefore we could position the log on the deck. It required a come-along to control the logs and keep them from running downhill and smashing into the foundation.
Nancy and I spent hours cranking on the winch, hooking up the come-along, muscling the logs into position. Nancy would crank on the winch until it became too difficult, and then I would run back and forth from the tree to the cabin doing both jobs, meanwhile yelling orders at poor Nancy. But, one by one, we got the logs onto the deck.

As you might imagine, there are hundreds of steps I am leaving out because this is not an instruction booklet on how to build a cabin. But as you can see, the logs began to form a wall. Notching the logs was a time-consuming process, among others. To prepare a notch, I would have to position the log in place, scribe the notch with a handmade tool that looked like a big compass, and then cut the notch. Not a problem at first, but as the walls grew higher it became more of a problem. My balance was better then. I could not perch atop the wall and cut those notches with a chainsaw today.

The task was made easier by a tool we had found at the chain saw dealer. It was basically a planer that mounted on the end of the chain saw tip. You can see it in use here in some of the pictures. It attaches to the bar with a couple of bolts and is driven by a slightly longer saw chain. For a while we took the notch cutter off the bar after every notch we cut so we could use the saw for other purposes. Fairly quickly, we got tired of that time consuming task and so we bought another chain saw, a $99 "disposable" Homelite.

Eventually, the walls became too high for the winch system to get the logs into place, and I had to invent/construct another machine. Using 2x6's (that later became rafters) we made a hoist. We called it the rocket launcher, for obvious reasons. It required another boat winch, another pulley, another 30 feet of cable and a hook. I spent a lot of time sitting on the rocket launcher positioning the logs and it was really quite easy, except that it required a lot of running back and forth between winching systems. Note that the stump on the rocket launcher is a counterweight, and the two log hoist systems shared the weight of the log.

Every grade school kid learns about simple machines in class. Levers, inclined planes, screws, pulleys, wheels, fulcrums. Believe me. We used them all.

Unfortunately, the rocket launcher had to be moved from wall to wall........constantly. You can see me in this picture moving the rocket launcher one more time.

During the summer we put up most of the walls working only on weekends. O’Malley would spend the day chasing chipmunks and squirrels, sleeping under the deck where it was shady and cool, and gnawing on log chips. I remember being totally exhausted at the end of every day. Nancy, O’Malley and I would trudge up the hill to our camp and turn on NPR news (like the BBC, only better) which came on at 4:45 each afternoon. I’d open a beer and drain it in two or three gulps. Nancy would cook dinner, we’d have a few more drinks, do the dishes, and look at an old newspaper or read the cabin building "bible". Sometimes we’d build a campfire and watch it for a few hours. Sometimes we crawled into our sleeping bags before it was even dark.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Cabin Building Volume One

Forgive me. This is yet another post that is not about France. It is entirely too difficult to keep up a blog about France when you are not there. This will be about Nancy and I building our cabin outside of Livingston, Montana. If you've tuned in to see something about France, I apologize. But I can refer you to two blogs that we follow, that are about our part of la belle France. http://deepsouthoffrance.blogspot.com/ and http://blog.possumworld.com/ It may be that no one is interested in stories about our cabin building, but I know Linda, the present owner of the cabin, will be. (The photos below are pictures of old prints in a scrapbook, so they are not up to the usual digital standards.) A year before we started building our cabin, we bought the land and Nancy worked tirelessly to construct the tipi that we lived in off and on while building. It was the second one she had made in her life. (Someday she can tell you about that.) A tipi is a wonderful temporary structure, and is portable if you have a couple of horses or a pickup. We had also constructed a small shed to store tools and other gear. It quickly became the "cook shed" and we spent more time in there than I ever would have imagined. We had a barrel stove in the tipi to keep us warm in the winter but it was not like living in a real house. We split our time, living in our Park Service housing and the tipi in the summer, and in the winter we travelled when the snow and cold prevented us from building.

But as you might imagine, we spent a few winter nights in the tipi while trying to get things done. One night it was -28 degrees F in Bozeman. It wasn't too much different where we were. We slept in five sleeping bags. That is, each of us in two bags and one unzipped and thrown over both of us. I got up three or four times that night to build another fire, and it would be warm for a few hours. As soon as the fire died, the temperature inside of the tipi was pretty close to the outdoor temperature. O'Malley slept on a thin rug on the frozen ground, and I don't think he minded too much. But we're not stupid; we got up in the morning and decided to take a trip somewhere down south.
This is the basic pier foundation in March of 1995. We had started construction the summer before. We laid out the footprint of the house and we had a rough idea of what we were building. We'd spent many hours drawing the floor plans and elevations. We had about four books on building log cabins, one of which was the "bible". Our expectations were very modest. We wanted a cabin similar to the Forest Service and Park Service cabins we'd stayed in. Except on a slightly larger scale. But the plan was: composting toilet and outhouse, sun showers, kerosene lights, wood stoves and french drains.

Most of the piers were concrete block filled with concrete and rebar, sitting on concrete footers that in turn were sitting on bedrock which was down a foot or two in the thin rocky dirt. One pier had to be a large tree stump, which you can see in the picture. In about a hundred years, someone is going to have to jack up the cabin and put a real concrete pier there.

Because we didn't want to trash the building site by getting a conventional logger with motorized equipment, bulldozers and donkey engines, we searched for a horse logger. Later that unseasonably warm March we hired Elroy Martin to bring his two draft horses up to the property and cut us some house logs. The cutting was the easy part. Hauling them to the house site was the hard part. He had two Belgians named Belle and Bobbie. Belle was the young one, just learning the trade, and Bobbie was the old hand who had done this a thousand times. We went up the building site one day to watch. Elroy had cut about fifty trees a few days earlier. He would hook up Bobbie and she would haul about three or four logs to the site. It would take them about 15 minutes per log, depending on how far away they were. Then, Elroy would give the old girl a rest and hook up Belle and we would get to see a minor rodeo for a little while. Eventually Belle would get one log to the site in 45 minutes to an hour. Elroy would then harness up Bobbie again. I would imagine Elroy spent about the same amount of time with each horse, but Bobbie did three quarters of the work. (No different than any other workplace in America.) I can tell you it was one of the most fascinating sights I have ever seen. Very elemental and satisfying. Not much had changed in this process for a long, long time. Leather harnesses, steel chains and horsepower. Only the chainsaw gave evidence that we were in the twentieth century.

Later that summer, about six months after Elroy, Belle and Bobbie had gone, we wandered over the area. The only evidence of logging were piles of limbs, some stumps and horse manure. It was the least destructive, best looking logging site I have ever seen. The amount Elroy had charged us was a bargain, cheaper than with having it done with machinery. I still can't imagine why this method is not used more often.

Then the real work began. You can build a log cabin without peeling the logs, but it harbours insects and dirt in the interior of the cabin, and it's definitely not as handsome. We had approximately fifty or fifty-five logs to peel. As you can imagine, they were extremely heavy. Much of the weight was moisture and bark, and by peeling them we took off a significant amount of the weight. As the summer progressed the logs got lighter and lighter and took much less effort to move. In the photo you can see one of our drawknifes and a partially peeled log. At this point we measured the length and girth of each log, gave it a number, marked the number in crayon on the butt and wrote the information in a little book. As we were building the cabin, we could determine what we needed in the way of a log, consult our book and go find that particular log.

Nancy and I set to it, peeling logs until our backs were sore, our hands were blistered and our arms were about to drop off. We peeled about a quarter of the logs together, and I had enough to begin building. Nancy, poor soul, kept on peeling logs while I was having the time of my life.

At about this point, we went back to work in Yellowstone. We would drive up to Livingston on our "Friday" evening and head back home on our "Monday" morning. Work was basically a rest from our labors on the weekend. Our boss, Kathleen said to me, "I know about five hundred people that say they want to build a log cabin. But you two are the only ones I know who are actually doing it."

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The Curious Case of the Yellowstone Tiger

Sometime during the summer of 1999 a visitor reported to the Grant Visitor Center he had seen a tiger in the area. I suppose they could have laughed in the man’s face, but they did the right thing and reported it to Resource Management by using the Rare Animal Sighting form. Tigers are not native to Yellowstone, or the Rocky Mountain region, or North America for that matter, but we had to take the report of a tiger running around Grant Village with some seriousness.

The likelihood that it was actually a tiger that the visitor saw was almost nil. However, he could have seen a cougar, a very similar animal in many ways. They are approximately the same shape with long tails. The average weight of a tiger is 540 pounds, says Google. The average weight of a cougar is about 100 pounds. But if the cat wasn’t standing next to a man, or a horse or a car, how can you judge scale? And besides, if it really was a tiger, maybe it was a tiger cub. It would not be the first time a exotic animal had been abandoned in the park. People do strange things and someone could have decided their tiger cub was too rambunctious and needed the freedom of the wide open spaces of Yellowstone. If they couldn’t find water buffalo, maybe they could try out American Bison. So, we tried to find the visitor but had no luck. He had left the park and his whereabouts were unknown.

Now, in the U.S. Government, you can’t just ignore reports like this. First, a tiger would be exotic and not allowed to roam the park. And, if you ignore a report of a tiger running around Yellowstone, however unlikely, and later it kills a busload of tourists, you are in deep trouble. It would probably be the last Rare Animal Sighting form you would ever look at.

It was probably a cougar, perhaps sighted in bright sunshine with lodgepole shadows across it’s flanks. However, cougars in Grant were almost equally as rare as tigers. None had been seen there, ever, as far as we knew. Cougars are not rare in Yellowstone, but are rare in the Grant Village area because deer are present in pretty small numbers. Deer happen to be the cougar’s primary source of food, and where you find cougars you usually find lots of deer, and vice versa. Deer don’t hang around Grant because it is not particularly prime deer habitat due to the heavy timber and heavy snow in winter. They migrate into Grant in summer but in small numbers. It is prime elk habitat, but cougars aren’t big enough to take down a medium sized elk. So Grant Village has almost no cougar sightings.

But again, the report had to be taken seriously. If a cougar was in Grant village and was bold enough to be seen by a visitor, it might be sick or wounded. A vulnerable animal like that might attack kids or small adults around the village. Our sub-district ranger made the only call he could. He sent Resource Management out to find evidence of a tiger. Or a cougar.

Off we went to look for tiger tracks, a first for me. If we perhaps found cougar tracks, that was equally important to report. Because if a cougar attacked a visitor, and we had let this report sit in the basket, someone would pay with their job. I went out with absolutely no hope of finding a tiger track, but had some hope of finding the track of a cougar.

We started on 1167 Creek because it was the closest creek to the sighting. (Where it got that name, I don’t know.) It was a creek bed we knew well because, once a week, all summer long, we walked it, along with four other creeks, with the purpose of counting spawning cutthroat trout. We counted spawning trout with a hand held counter, we also noted bear tracks (which we measured and guessed at the species, grizzly or black), bear scat, wolf and coyote scat, fish carcasses, wolf and coyote tracks, and any other fish predator tracks. We measured the water flow and the water temperature, judged the clarity of the water, measured the air temperature, weather conditions, and a bunch of other factors. After all, we were supposed to be scientists.

So we knew where to look for tiger tracks and where not to look for tiger tracks. A tiger or cougar would need to drink, so we went to the creek’s sandy bends and carefully examined the sand. Before long, BINGO, we came across a cat track. We looked in our books and determined it was indeed a big cat (for the Rockies), not a wolf. But, it was nowhere near the size of a tiger track, or a lion for that matter. But it was definitely a cat track. Probably a cougar, but maybe a tiny tiger. We broke branches and framed the print and put a couple of large sticks over it to protect it for awhile. We hustled back to the ranger station and made our report. The sub-district ranger made the difficult call to ask for a team with dogs to run down the cat. Classic cover-your-ass.

The cat, whatever it was, was long gone by the time the team showed up. I showed them where we found the print and they agreed it was feline. But the dogs never caught any sniff of a cat. We never learned what the critter was, and no tiger sightings were made known to us for the rest of the summer. No doubt, it was a cougar. But who knows? What I do know is this. I am probably the only National Park Service Ranger ever sent out to look for the track of a tiger.