June Gloom

Plow blade with bent corner

June was a month with a lot frustration, but also some success. For example, despite our best efforts, our permit to repair the forest service road behind the house remained completely stalled due to bureaucratic logjams within the Forest Service. Everyone involved agreed that we needed to act fast, before the streams dried out. And yet week after week, there was no progress. At all.

Still we tried our best to make our own progress wherever we could. Most of this was on the build site itself.

Grade A Road (or two)

Before we could start building we needed to stabilize the hillside just below the main home building site. You may have noticed that rocks (of all sizes!) are quite easy to come by on this building site. So our plan was to use those native rocks to build the retaining wall.

This area was where last year our grading contractor had cut into the slope while expanding the old picnic area, to create a larger flat area that would become our new septic system drain field.

That grading contractor suddenly bailed on us in May, just as the weather was allowing us to resume grading work. Fortunately though we were able to retain a new grading subcontractor for this work. He turned out to be an excellent choice.

But the new grading contractor had to be able to get his equipment where we needed it,. So his first task was to finish the access road started by our previous grading contractor. The new guy made short work of that task.

The new road meets the driveway right at the upper switchback.
Speaking of native rocks…this boulder was almost too big for him to move, so it now permanently marks the road’s entrance.
The new road even has a fork! To the right leads to the top of the rock wall (where the main house will stand); to the left takes you to the septic system drainfield area at the bottom of the wall.
Here is the left fork leading down to the drainfield area (which is barely visible in the center of the image)

Grade A Wall

Our grading contractor started building the wall by placing the largest boulders available at the very bottom of the cut slope. Then he carefully, patiently stacked additional boulders on top of those, slowly working his way up the slope.

The grader places the first of many boulders against the raw cut slope. (For future reference, note also the yellow and orange water cooler resting on top of our picnic table on the right side of this image.)
Eventually the grader had to place the last few boulders from above
Here is the wall of boulders, now mostly finished.
Here is a more close-up view of the grader’s handiwork.

It took the grading contractor about 2 weeks to complete the rock wall. We rated his efforts “Grade A.” We were so happy to see this finally finished!

Another Clogged Pipe

As the calendar quickly progressed from Spring into Summer the building site dried out, turning a muddy mess into a dusty mess. It was clear to all of us that the builder would need water on site in order to compact fill dirt and even just to control dust.

We have a water well, but the well head was damaged in the fire. We also have no electrical power on site, other than portable generators. But we do have a gravity-fed source of water on site that runs year round, all by itself. This is what the septic system engineer had used for his percolation tests back in January.

That water source seemed like the ideal solution to our current water supply problem. Unfortunately the March rains had clogged it up again, reducing the flow of water through the line to barely a trickle.

Back then I was able to restore flow by attaching a string of garden hoses to the outlet, running that hose down hill, and then using the force of gravity on the water inside to essentially suck a mix of water and the mud restriction through the line, flushing it out.

In January this technique worked well enough to clear the line. After we cleared the line, the resulting flow rate was pretty comparable to a typical garden hose. So when I learned that the supply line was clogged again, I assumed this technique would again flush out the clog and give us garden-hose flow rates.

But I assumed wrong. This time, trying to pull water through the supply line only seemed to make the clog worse with each attempt.

Time to look for a new strategy.

On closer inspection at the spring-water source we found that something (probably sticks, branches, and other storm debris) had poked holes in the intake bucket’s filter screen. This allowed coarse-grained sand to fill the bucket, which then got sucked into the supply line when I tried to clear it.

Emptying the bucket of sand was the easy part. But now how to remove the clogging sand from 500 feet of long-ago buried water pipe?

Our next attempt was to try flushing out the sand from the intake end. A trip to what is fast becoming my favorite local Fresno-area hardware store (which caters to San Joaquin Valley agricultural customers) allowed us to purchase a 100 ft reel of 3/8 inch ID clear vinyl tubing and the appropriate brass fittings to connect that tubing to a garden hose. (Try finding all that at your local Home Depot.)

This time I used one of the garden hose sections to create positive pressure instead of vacuum. I hauled the inlet end of the garden hose far enough upstream of the intake bucket to establish a reasonable flow of water (again by gravity alone). Then I attached the 100 ft length of vinyl tubing to the other end of the garden hose.

I inserted the (now spurting) free end of the vinyl tubing into the inlet end of the clogged supply line, and was immediately rewarded with a backflow of regurgitated mud and sand coming up and out of the clogged pipe. Encouraging!

Using this method we were able flush out sand and mud from about the first 10 ft of the upper end of the supply line. Beyond that I was able to force the tubing another 30 ft or so down the supply line.

I was hoping this would break through the clog so that water again would start flowing down the line as before, flushing out the mud and sand as it had back in January.

Alas we were not able to break through. Furthermore, by forcing the hose down the pipe into the clog, I may have actually just compacted the obstruction, now making it even harder to clear.

Try Try Again

My well pump contractor thought that pressurizing the supply line from below, (reversing the normal water flow direction) might push the clog back out the intake end, or at least loosen it up.

The challenge with this concept is building up sufficient reverse water pressure on site — with no AC power readily available.

Amazon provided a fast-delivery solution in the form of a small water pump and pressure tank designed for marine and RV use, which was rated to deliver up to 60 PSI from a 12v DC power source. Truly portable; I can run it off of a car battery.

It does pump!

It’s really a pretty nice little pump. It’s self-priming — drawing water up from as much as about 10 feet below the pump.

Pressurizes too!

Charging nearly the entire 500 feet of supply line to 40 psi or so made quite an impressive “gush” of water when the pressure was finally released. But impressive as that was, unfortunately all that backpressure still did nothing to dislodge the clog. Nothing at all.


Ever the optimist, I periodically tried again to pull water through the line from below using gravity (like we did to clear the line last January). Each time we would attach about 300 feet of garden hose to the lower end of the pipe, and then extend the hose all the way down the hill.

The force of gravity on the water inside the hose has created enough vacuum to flatten the garden hose, but not enough to clear the line again.

Each attempt would start with an encouraging trickle coming out of the line, but end with no real improvement. Throughout the month of June, we were not able to clear the clogged supply line at all. I began to doubt we would ever open it up again.

Well: Well

As the weeks passed and June continued to dry out, the need for water on site only increased. We knew that eventually we would have to resurrect the well anyway, so now seemed as good a time as any to see if our old well still worked.

This is what the well head looked like after removing all the burned components.
Here the well contractor has restored the electrical system and attached a 1 inch diameter plastic hose to the well head. The 220 volt plug on the end allows us to power the well pump from a standard portable generator.

The initial tests went “well” enough. Despite the fire damage, the pump still worked and we got a normal flow of water from it. This was good news! We might have water after all.

But it is not practical, and in fact risky to deliver water from the well pump directly to a garden hose. Water is incompressible. Restrict the the flow of water enough (by perhaps closing a hose nozzle, or even just kinking the hose while the pump is running) and you are likely to damage the well pump — located all the way down in the bottom of the well. Replacing a pump down there is not an easy (or inexpensive) thing to do!

Well pumps normally avoid this risk by filling a tank, which you then draw from as needed. So what we required was a storage tank between the well pump and the user.

We had already planned to add a storage tank for the spring water system, to store water for irrigation use. So we ordered one from the well contractor, who delivered it and also filled it with water from our well. Yay!

Our new 2500 gallon storage tank, in place just below the spring water outlet

Now at least we had 2500 gallons of (low pressure, gravity-fed) water on site to use for compaction and dust control. This satisfied our immediate needs for water on site.

Well: Not Well

Even though the 10 year old well pump still worked, and our new tank was now full, the well contractor did have his concerns. Electrical measurements showed the pump was not likely to last long. He recommended we pull it up to at least inspect it. Of course once you have gone to the trouble to pull it out, it’s best to replace it — which is what we did.

But what happened next was even more concerning. During extraction, half way up the pump jammed in the well. Only with some luck were the workers able to free it again.

Then they had trouble installing a new 4 inch diameter liner. It also jammed, this time on the way down, only to free itself when they weren’t expecting — and then fall most all the way down the nearly 800 ft deep bore hole!

With some more good luck they managed to extract that new liner, which also brought up more pieces of old liner. Some were melted. The story slowly came into focus, aided by an inspection camera we sent down the well, just so that we could know all we could know about the true condition of the well.

Here you can see the old galvanized well pipe (underneath), the new plastic replacement pipe (on top, white), and a shattered section of 4 inch liner. The new well pump is the stainless steel cylinder on the right.

During the fire, the steel well head above ground got hot enough so that the metal fasteners inside melted the plastic liner, which then let go and fell several hundred feet down into the water, eventually coming to rest on the well pump 600 ft below. The impact shattered the liner, and shards of it are what jammed the old pump when they tried to extract it. Likely it was also liner shards that temporarily jammed installation of the new liner, before it too fell into the well.

For awhile it seemed there was more stuff going into the well than coming out of it.

Finally they got the new liner extracted and then reinstalled (securely this time) in its position at the top of the well. Time now to lower the new pump into place 600 feet below the surface.

But it too hung up at about 480 ft. Try as they would, they could not get it to descend any lower.

We had only two options at this point. If we wanted the pump placed any lower, we would have to bring in a drill rig and essentially ream out the bore hole, grinding up any plastic the bit encountered.

But these drills are designed to cut through rock, not plastic. There was some risk that the plastic might gum up the bit and jam it way down deep inside the hole, which would be a real mess. Plus, just getting a drill rig to the well head, and stabilized, on a steep mountainside, would not be an easy task. About the only thing that was certain was that the price tag for this would be both large and unpredictable.

The other option was to leave the pump at the 480 foot level and call it good enough. They ran flow rate tests which confirmed that there was ample water flow at this depth (today anyway).

Who knows what the future might bring? If the water table ever drops low enough, the pump might run dry at 480 feet. If that does ever happen, then we’ll have no choice but to ream out the bore hole.

We decided to call 480 feet good enough. We’ll deal with a dry well later, when and if it occurs.

Let the Trenching Begin!

As June came to a close, with our access roads now completed, rock retaining wall in place, and well water available, we could start actually building! Or at least we could start digging the foundation trenches.

The first trench goes in — this one is for the main concrete retaining wall that will become the west side of the driveway and also the west side of the garage.
In this close up of the trench, you can see the remains of the vertical posts that secured the old railroad-tie retaining wall — proof positive that the new wall will rise in the same spot as its predecessor

The Logjam Breaks!

Just prior to the end of the month — June 27 to be exact — the Forest Service issued its permit for us to repair the fire road — after more than two months of bureaucratic delay.

Finally, we had permission to fix their damn road!

Here is the Forest Service map from their issued permit.

If you care to see the full permit in all its bureaucratic glory, click on the link below.

April Showers Bring May…Snowstorms?

Spring wildflowers making the best of a wet Winter.

Our wild winter precipitation tapered off this Spring more or less as expected. The chart below shows the history for the entire 2018-19 wet season recorded by our weather station at the Logger’s Retreat.

The official rain year goes from July 1 to June 30

Adding all those bars up, the station’s total for the year was just over 33 inches. This is lower than the NOAA record because of two factors:

  1. Anything more than about 6 inches of snow in one storm fills the rain gauge completely, so thereafter the gauge won’t record any additional snow; and
  2. Typically once or twice a year leaves or pine needles manage to stop the gauge from recording (despite the installed debris screen), until we get a chance to clean it out.

NOAA’s official observed record for the same location puts the total for the year between 60 and 70 inches — well over the normal average of around 50 inches.

The Logger’s Retreat is located near the top of the zig-zag county line just above and to the right of image center — where the colors transition from medium red to darkest red.

All that precipitation brought to the area’s burn scars a welcome fresh green carpet of Bear Clover and grasses, as well as an impressive show of spring flowers.

Tulips behind the Trestlewood Chalet were some of the first flowers to appear
Two of many rhododendron blooms behind the Trestlewood Chalet
Even one of the new apple trees we planted in January put out some flowers!
Flowers were not the only ones enjoying a wet Spring

Too Much of a Good Thing

In April we discovered several problems caused by all that winter rain. The first was that all that rain created a lot of trouble on the forest service fire road (aka “Happy Camp” road) that runs behind the Logger’s Retreat property.

This portion of the road is dry now, but still rocky and rutted from winter rains

In many places the runoff itself etched ruts across the road. But worse than that was that across the burn scar areas there is little vegetation left to hold the soil in place; the atmospheric rivers in the sky above created rivers of sand and mud on the land below.

In turn those mud flows clogged drainage culverts that normally channel stream water under the fire road. Instead, now the still-swollen streams were running over, and even down the road. Happy Camp road was not so much a road as it was rutted, muddy mess.

All of this water should be running through a culvert, under the road

South of our property the streams were larger, and the resulting damage greater.

The orange pipe is Sierra Telephone’s fiber optic cable. For reference those cables are about 2 inches in diameter.
Here the water has eroded a hole several feet deep, that extends nearly half way across the road.
This one is not quite as deep, but much wider. It also extends almost half way across the road.

This road damage will be a BIG problem for us if not fixed soon.

Small vehicles like our 4Runner can still get around the damage. But there is no way that large trucks carrying building supplies (including concrete!) could safely use this road. Even if they could, with water still flowing on the road surface the heavy traffic would quickly make the mess a quagmire.

The fact that we still have flowing water is actually an opportunity too. We knew from past experience that the easiest way to unclog a culvert is to use the stream to do much of the work. If we can just dig through the mud to find the mouth of the pipe and then redirect the flow back there, the water itself will cut a new channel for us.

We also knew that the rainy season was ending soon. So would the water. This opportunity would not last.

Inspecting our handy work the day after opening up one culvert

With a couple of shovels and lots of elbow grease we were able to reopen the smaller culverts north of our property. But south of our property the road damage was too great, and some culverts too deep for hand work. There we needed actual road building equipment.

My first step was to call the Forest Service. It was, after all, their road. They were not surprised to learn of the damage but of course had lots of other damaged roads that they considered higher priority to repair than this one. They would not guarantee any timeframe at all for repairing the road.

Yet we simply cannot build without the ability to use this road for deliveries!

I also called Sierra Telephone, to find out what plans they had for re-burying their fiberoptic cable. They were also aware of the road damage and were eager to protect their equipment. But they needed to have the Forest Service first get water flowing through those culverts again before they would even try.

Restoring the normal drainage paths was clearly the key to breaking through this logjam.

In early May we arranged for a conference call which finally occurred May 13. In it we agreed that I would hire contractors to re-open the culverts; Sierra Tel would then re-bury their equipment; and the Forest Service would get its road repaired (nearly for free). They agreed to provide fill materials (rock and gravel) should we need it.

All we need now was a Forest Service permit to allow us to do the work on their road. Despite being assured that they would expedite approval so that it would only take “a few days,” that process has now taken more than two weeks (and counting).

The permit application process required us to provide a map showing exactly where the repairs were needed.

We Have Company

As bad as our road problems are, I guess they could be worse. Caltrans was forced to do some emergency road repairs on Highway 41, between the Logger’s Retreat and Fish Camp. Here the winter rains and snowmelt eroded the structural road base under the asphalt, and threatened to collapse the entire roadway.

This is what the repair work looked like about half way through the effort. These “gabion wall” tiers are now covered with a layer of large rip-rap rock, similar in size to what you see here at the bottom of the wall.

Oh Yeah, Snow Too!

If you pay close attention to the precipitation chart at the top of this post, you’ll notice a group of several bars occurring after May 5. Yes that was not one, but in fact two separate snow events in May, with the last one occurring on Memorial Day Weekend no less!

On May 26, local resident Pamela Salisbury posted this image on Facebook of southbound Hwy 41 near the general store in Fish Camp.

Trampled by March

The last remains of Winter snow cling to the hillside and driveway.

March continued the impressive storm trend set by February, with two big rains (1.51 and 0.99 inches respectively) in the first week, a third large storm (1.89 inches) in the last week, and a total of just over 8 inches of rain for the whole month.

Yes — it was mostly rain and (thankfully) not much snow at 5000 ft. By mid-month the word from those folks in a position to proclaim such things, was that California’s drought was “over.”

Well I think I’ll side with Yogi Berra on that one. But regardless, Winter in 2019 has come back with a vengeance.

The top of our propane tank peaks out from below a heavy disguise.

The first excitement for us was learning from the caretaker that we had an empty propane tank. February’s snow had made it too difficult for the propane truck to navigate the driveway; so they just didn’t.

Worried about freezing pipes, I called to report the need for a refill ASAP. They replied that they would not try again until we had not only cleared the driveway of any snow, but also exposed the tank so that the driver could easily reach it. Time for another quick trip to Fish Camp!

I spent the morning digging out each propane tank at both properties in preparation for the driver’s visit later that day. After he refilled both tanks I had to relight all pilot lights at the Trestlewood Chalet to make sure the next guests would have a working stove and hot water.

There are still some remnants of February’s 4 ft of snow on the deck…
…but most of the snow on the ground has been melted (or more accurately washed) away..

Despite another 8 inches of rain in March, the erosion control mats were doing an amazingly good job of keeping the mud in its place. And of course, whereever there was no mat, the rain had carved deep channels into the hillside.

The fire road itself has taken a beating, but the steep driveway up to the top of the knoll (where our water tanks will reside) is virtually unscathed.
Not much snow left at our elevation, but just above on Mt Raymond there is still plenty!
Rye grass has taken hold among the woven mat’s fibers, while the path down to our “picnic area” is deeply rutted.
Notably, the “picnic area” aka future leach field survived the rain pretty well…
…while the hillside that used to be held back by a large railroad-tie retaining wall, has finally slumped.

Pop Goes the Tire

A few inches of heavy, wet snow remained on the driveway just above the last hairpin turn. PG&E crews had been up and down the driveway inspecting their lines for dangerous trees. (Good idea! :-/ ) I decided to take the Bobcat and snowblower up there to clear away what remained of the snow.

The trip up the driveway was fine. I ran the blower up the snowy section to clear it, turned around at the top, and made a second pass back down to the sharp turn.

All was well and good., except for a little snow left on the actual turn itself. So I turned the Bobcat back up the hill to clean up those last little bits.

In doing so I heard a brief, strange squeal. “That’s odd” I thought. Then I noticed that I could not get the snowplow to lay flat on the pavement; one end was much higher than the other. Something was amiss.

The strange squeal turned out to be the sound of a nearly flat tubeless tire as it separates from the wheel rim, rapidly becoming completely flat. Oops.

Very gingerly I managed to crawl back down the steepest section of the driveway, only hoping that I was not destroying the tire in the process. And as it turned out, being on that particular section of the hill was a blessing, because all the weight was forward, which meant the flat rear tire carried very little of it. I was able to bring the Bobcat safely back to its turnout parking spot.

The rear tire has separated from the rim exposing the inside circumference of the wheel.

Now suddenly my new challenge was to re-seat that tire before I could go home. But I had no tire pump, and my lug wrench was approximately 250 miles south of here. Time for a quick trip to the auto-parts store!

With fancy new lug wrench, the wheel is removed!

More Yogi Berra Wisdom

The rest of this story is a bit of “Deja Vu all over again.” Many years ago I failed to maintain the Bobcat’s tire pressure, with similar results. That was when I bought that first lug wrench (the one that was now 250 miles away).

After using the Bobcat hydraulics to lift the tire off the ground, I removed the wheel, threw it into the back of the car, and headed down to a tire store in Oakhurst.

Back then, I felt pretty stupid for not checking tire pressures, given how easily things could go very bad, very fast. After the first incident I adopted the habit of always checking tire pressure before doing anything with the Bobcat. But since buying the new (used) Bobcat, I had lost that habit, as these tires did not have a slow leak. Or so I thought. Oops again.

In the first incident, the guys at the tire store were understanding and helpful. They re-seated the tire, re-inflated and tested it…and then refused to charge us for their effort! I vowed then and there that they would get my business again.

Well, here I was, back again at their shop with my “business.” For exactly the same problem. (*Blush.* ) They quoted me a price and an estimated time. I waited outside patiently. And when it was done…again: no charge! What can I say?

Oh, and that habit of checking tire pressure before using the Bobcat? No surprise: it’s back again.

Here’s a view of the upper driveway, now cleared of its remaining snow.

An Update on The Case of The Missing Railing

Enough snow has melted in Fish Camp so that the Little Pine’s deck is clear of snow, and you can now see how snow sliding off the roof took out the deck railing. The railing itself however, is still buried under a rock-hard pile of snow.

We still need some more warm weather before we can fix this damage.

Snow Me a River

The civil engineer’s concerns about the end of mild weather turned out to be not only prudent, but prescient as well.

Our mild, wet January was pushed aside rather abruptly by a February that was more reminiscent of our “snowmageddon” of 2011 — when our own snow depth reached the top of the garage doors (!) at the Logger’s Retreat, and PG & E needed a week and a half to restore power to the area.

NOAA’s precipitation record confirms the similarity. (I’ve also included 2017 as a “dry” year for comparison. )

February’s switch to more “normal” winter weather was the result of 2 major storms, both of which were “atmospheric river” events — which delivered a lot of moisture. The key difference from January storms was that these were accompanied by cold polar air, which finally brought the snow level down well below our 5000 ft elevation.

Despite that cold polar air, February’s snow depth at the Logger’s Retreat is still less than it was in 2011, but only because these storms were warmer; more of the precipitation fell either as rain or very wet snow that melted quickly.

The first significant storm arrived in the first week of February — only a few days after we had finished our percolation tests. This is what the Hanford cumulative radar map showed at on the tail end of the storm.

Oakhurst is in the middle of the pink region just below the word “Yosemite.” Fish Camp is at the northern edge of that pink blob. Pink = between 6 and 8 inches of rain equivalent.

After the storm I headed up to clear the driveway, and this is what it looked like when I arrived. Our driveway was completely blocked by a nearly-5 foot wall of snow!

Snowfall from the storm itself reached the bottom of our mailboxes, and Caltrans snowplows created a wall of snow well above that.

I managed to find a small place to park alongside the road near the Narrow Gauge Inn’s driveway and then crossed the road on foot. After climbing over the snow wall, I strapped on my snowshoes and started on my way up to the Bobcat.

After walking about 20 feet, a key strap on one of the snowshoes broke. Grrr. I fumbled around in the deep snow and finally managed to make the snowshoe work despite the now-broken strap. I set out again.

After another 40 feet or so, a strap on the other snowshoe broke! Double-Grrr. This one was more difficult to work around. But the snow was definitely too deep to forego the snowshoes altogether, so I really had no choice but to make it work, somehow.

Note to self: rubber straps suck.

It took my fumbling around for another ten minutes or so for me to get that second snowshoe to stay on my foot — as long as I held my foot in just the “right” way. Which made climbing the hill, in deep snow, very slow and tedious.

Eventually I made it to the Bobcat, where I then had to use the snowshoes as shovels to free the blue plastic tarp covering it. The tarp was now mostly frozen in place by several feet of snow. Altogether it took me nearly two hours from arrival to actually start plowing.

I was reminded once again that before the fire, when I stored the Bobcat in the Logger’s Retreat garage, how little I had appreciated then the real value of that garage for times just like this. And it didn’t take much reflection to convince me that after plowing, the Bobcat would reside in the Trestlewood Chalet’s garage — at least for the next few weeks.

Done with plowing. I decided not to brush since the forecast was for a return to warmer temperatures.
Snow on the Trestlewood Chalet’s deck. as the morning sun peaks over the ridge across the valley.

My task for the following day was to clear snow from walkways at the Yosemite Forest Lodge in Fish Camp. The hard part here is that you have to work the snowblower uphill, fighting gravity. Add to that a snow depth that exceeds the height of the snowblower, and you’ve got a tough job ahead.

Not quite finished, but the hard part is done.

But this time I was able to get the snowblower to ride up onto the top of the new snow and then guide it along the path. This allowed me to remove an upper layer of snow first, and get the snowblower all the way up to the Little Pine cabin fairly quickly. Then for the return trip down the path snow depth was no longer a problem and gravity was my friend.

I realized that this is the best technique to use whenever the snow depth exceeds the height of the snowblower.

Round Two

After about 10 days of rest, California got hit with the second storm. It was another “atmospheric river,” delivering roughly another 5 inches of rain equivalent precipitation to the Logger’s Retreat weather station. (Total recorded rain for the month was 10.73 inches.)

Hanford’s radar image after the second storm.

The complication with this storm was that the first few inches of precipitation came down as rain — saturating the foot or more of snow still on the ground. Then we got another few feet of cold, dry snow on top of that.

Again, the relatively warm temperatures were in many ways a blessing, in that if February had been just a few degrees colder, Fish Camp would have been digging out of more than 10 feet of snow!

By the time I was able to drive up to clear the second round of snow from the driveway, several groups of visitors had decided that our driveway would make a great snow play area. All that new snow had been trampled, packed down, and much of it polished smooth.

A visiting stranger enjoys our driveway.

That might be great for sledding, but it’s not so great for a driveway.

Ah well; no harm no foul. The visitors wrapped up their snow play and moved on, while the Bobcat’s snowblower was able to chew up and spit out even the hardest snowpack they left behind. By sundown the driveway was clear again.

Not done, but nearly there!
Another beautiful morning at the Trestlewood Chalet
There is easily a good four feet of snow on the ground now

As with the first storm, my task on the second day was to clean up the walkways at the Yosemite Forest Lodge. This second time was tougher than the first, because the snow was deeper overall, and the rain-on-snow event had created a thick, heavy layer that was hard to get through, while the top foot or so was completely opposite: light, fluffy, beautiful.

Mostly finished. The shovel gives you a good idea of the actual snow depth.

Half way through the effort I got into a little argument with the snowblower and it responded by punching me a good one in the ribs. I must have either cracked or broken a rib because not only was it painful to finish the walkways, but the pain has only slowly diminished with time.

The moral to that story is: don’t pick a fight with your snowblower.

One of the casualties of this second storm was the front railing on the deck of the Little Pine cabin. The rain phase of the second storm saturated the snow on the Little Pine’s roof, and it slid off… all at once.

Normally the snow will just pile up on the deck in front of the railing. But it must have come down pretty fast this time because it went all the way to the railing, and then just kept going.

Now the remains of that railing are buried under about 5 feet of rock-hard snow. It will take a lot of melting before we’ll be able to even see it, much less repair it.

The Little Pine deck, now somewhat occupied.

Water Works

I returned to the Logger’s Retreat property at the end of January to help the civil engineer complete some tests required by the new septic system design.

A series of storms a few weeks ago (just after our last visit) brought lots of snow to California’s Sierras. But at our 5000 ft elevation all of it had been rain — more than 4 inches fell in that set of storms alone. In fact the Logger’s Retreat weather station has recorded a total of 7.1 inches for January alone. That is a lot of water!

In many ways we have been lucky that January temperatures were so mild. Had the snow levels been just a few hundred feet lower, that amount of precipitation could have left as much as 7 feet of snow here!

Our civil engineer was mindful of our good luck too. He was pushing to get these tests done as soon as possible; NOAA’s long-range forecasts were suggesting that our mild January conditions might not last.

While our driveway has remained completely free of snow, those January storms still left behind plenty of evidence of their visit.

Mud and debris left on the driveway just above the Trestlewood Chalet
The hillside protected by erosion control mats looks fine, but for the path just below it, not so much.
It’s pretty clear here exactly where all that rain went.

County code requires percolation tests of the soil in the area the septic system design designates for system “expansion” — i.e. where someone could build a new leach field, should the primary leach field fail at some time in the distant future. We don’t have to actually build this secondary leach field, but we do have to demonstrate that it would be possible to build one there.

To perform a percolation test, the engineer fills a partially-buried PVC pipe with water, and then carefully measures the time it takes for the water level inside the pipe to drop.

There was a possibility of more rain overnight, so the engineer had draped plastic sheeting over the pipes, which made them look a bit like Halloween ghosts trick-or-treating across the hillside.

Of course the percolation tests require a supply of water, both before and during the actual test.

Fortunately we still have a gravity-fed water system on site, mostly undamaged by the fire. Unfortunately the engineer called me while I was driving up, to let me know that the water flow had just plain stopped shortly after he started filling his test pipes!

So my first (and essential) task upon arrival was now to restore that water flow. I poked around a bit and found the cause to be largely due to clogged piping. I spent the afternoon flushing mud and silt from the lines, and was finally able to declare victory.

Water flows once again…now stronger than it has for years.
This gives you an idea of how much water pressure we can get from the gravity-fed system.

Once I had running water again, I used the remaining daylight to stake out roughly where the septic system’s primary leach field lines will go. I did this mostly to prove to myself that we really did have enough space there for the leach lines as designed — another bit of “ground truth” to double-check the accuracy of our drawings.

Looking south across the primary leach field area. One leach field tranch will go north-south between each pair of these tall stakes

The next morning, before I headed back home, I used the Bobcat and its broom attachment to sweep up the mess of mud and debris left on the driveway by the January rains. As you can see, the weather was sunny, dry, warm, and just plain beautiful.

The repeating white lines at the bottom of this photo are scratch marks left by the Bobcat’s tire chains rolling on dry pavement.

The trip home turned out to have a surprise of its own. Just before sunset and about an hour away from home, the left rear tire failed — in a rather big way.

I have no idea what managed to puncture a tire with this much deep tread left, but clearly something did.

I was able to slow down and pull over to shoulder safely with what remained of the tire complaining greatly, but thankfully still protecting the wheel rim from damage.

I quickly switched into an almost automatic mode as I knew there was only a little daylight left to swap out the blown tire with the spare. I worked as fast as I could but also carefully so as not to make any stupid mistakes. The entire swap took a little over one-half hour, start to finish. It was dark by the time I rolled away, heading home again.

The hardest part turned out to be largely psychological — staying focused and productive while working on the left side of the car, alone, with cars and large trucks flying past only a foot or so away. All it would take would be a little bit of drift on the part of any one of those drivers and in an instant I would have been history.

Being in that position — on the side of the freeway, so close to oncoming traffic — really illustrated in a very visceral way the reason for, and the value of, “Move Over or Slow Down” laws.

So the next time you see someone outside of their car on a busy freeway, try to imagine what it must be like to be in their shoes at that moment. And then move over, or at least slow down!

It’s not just for emergency vehicles!

The Labor of our Fruits

One of our ten new bare-root fruit trees now ready for Spring to come.

January has continued December’s trend of mild temperatures and rain instead of snow. Several times the transition from rain to snow occurred just above our 5000 ft elevation.

A mid-January view from the deck of the Trestlewood Chalet. There is some snow on the ridge above us to the East, but none at our location just a few hundred feet below.

This shift from snow in January to rain has been the trend for the last three or more winters. It is in obvious and stark contrast to winters of the prior decade, when December through February were historically the most difficult months for me to keep the driveway free of snow and ice.

It has not been a “dry” winter; just a warm one. Total precipitation for just the first half of January as measured at the Logger’s Retreat weather station was close to 2.5 inches.

We took this opportunity of a mild January to plant ten new bare-root fruit trees in the yard space around the Trestlewood Chalet.

My landscaper/arborist brother had suggested this as a way to replace the previous fruit trees that the Railroad Fire had either damaged or killed. We thought is would also be a good “practice run” for the eventual tree planting we will do on the Logger’s Retreat property, after the house and garage are rebuilt.

The first step was to dig holes in the rocky hillside below the Trestlewood Chalet’s deck. We were fortunate to have the generous assistance of two very dear friends who probably ended up having more of a “working weekend” than they had anticipated! But the soil was quite soft and workable after several months of rain, so the digging of ten holes in steep, rocky soil went fairly quickly.

The now-pockmarked yard below the Trestlewood Chalet’s main deck awaits its new residents.

By the following afternoon all of our new fruit trees were resting comfortably in their new homes.

The new fruit trees take their places around the survivors of the Railroad Fire.

As you can see, the weekend weather was absolutely beautiful — cool and sunny, with bright blue skies and puffy white clouds.

The green of young rye grass is clearly visible among the erosion control mats now.

It has been a month since we last saw the rye grass we planted for erosion control. We can tell that even the grass has been enjoying this mild winter weather.

Good Weather and Crappy Designs

close up image of rye grass sproutsRye grass sprouts poke through the erosion control matting.

December’s weather turned out to be relatively warm and mild. The Logger’s Retreat weather station recorded a total of 1.82 inches of rain, all of it coming in the second half of the month. We used the mild weather to try to make progress on the septic system design.

Most of the original design had been approved, but code requires you to also designate a 100% expansion area for the leach field — in other words, a place where you plan to put a second leach field if at some time in the distant future the primary leach field fails.

For reasons I won’t bother to explain here, the designer had specified that expansion area to be under the driveway (!) — which is a definite no-no for many reasons, not least of which is explicitly the California Plumbing Code.

So to get a new design approved, we needed to identify a second area large enough for our leach field that was not under any paving. (We also needed to find a new septic system designer.)

The obvious (and pretty much the only) place for an expansion area that size has always been the large, unused, steeply sloped area at the south-east corner of the property.

A sketch showing a possible expansion area (in yellow) near the southeast corner of the property

We were also fortunate to find a (very good BTW) civil engineer in the area who was comfortable designing conventional septic systems on steep slopes. He could start working on the design in January, after the holidays.

Measuring Up

While the December weather was cooperating we spent some time making sure our sketches matched “ground truth.” Now, I’m not a Surveyor (and I don’t play one on TV either), but still I tried to act like one as best I could.

I mounted a commercial laser measuring tool on a tripod and used short lengths of 2 inch diameter PVC pipe as targets. (They slip nicely over wooden grade stakes and make it easier to see the laser dot from far away.)

Using a laser measurement tool to accurately map out the drain field area

The laser tool is fancy enough to have an inclinometer built in, so I was able to use it not only to verify distances, but also confirm slopes and elevation profiles.

That little vertical white line in the distance is the target.

Finding, and then placing the tiny laser dot on the target are the biggest challenges with this method, especially in bright sunlight! (Don’t even try.) And there is no way to do this without the tripod, because you simply cannot hold the laser steady enough by hand.

A later, now accurate sketch showing possible leach line locations for the septic system.

But the technique worked well enough for me to have confidence that the sketched designs were accurate enough to be buildable. Progress!

An Erosion Update

While on site playing Surveyor, I also took some time to “survey” the erosion control mats and the rye grass seed my brother had planted in November. In the last week of that month the Logger’s Retreat weather station recorded 1.32 inches of rain. I was curious to see whether or not our erosion control efforts had done any good.

In the warm, sunny spots some of the grass seed had sprouted, but just barely. Still, the erosion control matting itself was doing a great job of holding the soil in place.

The erosion control mats are doing their job nicely…

Wherever we had placed the mats, there was virtually no loss of soil to speak of. Whereas only a few feet away, it was a different story.

…preventing erosion like this.

So while the green rye grass sprouts may be nicer to look at, it seems pretty clear to me that the loosely-woven, ugly coconut-husk erosion control matting is really all that you need.

My December site survey also noted that we were not the only ones surveying the property….

Someone else had been visiting the Logger’s Retreat..

Indian Summer Projects

October and November have been sunny, dry and cool, but not cold.  In other words: absolutely beautiful.

Seemingly surprised by all the extra sunshine suddenly available in the burned-out forest, even the Lupines have risen to the occasion.

As for ourselves, we have used the beautiful Fall weather to prepare for Winter.  Erosion is again a big concern of ours as the wet season approaches. 

Last Spring we had no real problems with erosion on the undisturbed hillsides, even where the terrain was steep.  But it was a different story wherever we had disturbed the soil by digging or grading.  The worst area for erosion was just over the edge of the building pad itself, near where the garage will be. 

Our first task was to discourage water from flowing over the edge to begin with.

Here we used soil and rocks to create a berm along the steep edge of the building pad.

We also picked up two 200ft-long rolls of “erosion control mat” and a 50 lb bag of annual rye grass. You’ve probably seen this type of matting staked out along the roadside in construction areas. We chose annual rye grass because we don’t necessarily want the rye grass to grow here permanently.

A closeup view of the matting staked into place

Made of coconut husk fibers, the matting helps keep the soil in place until plant roots can take over, and then eventually decomposes.  Its open weave allows you the option of seeding the area before or after the matting is installed.

This is where we saw the worst erosion last season.
This is the road up to the knoll where we plan to have our water tanks

For these two areas we used only one of the two rolls of matting.  We’ll see how these work after the rains come, and then use the other one wherever it is needed most.

Another new addition is 75 tons of gravel.  We got the gravel for the septic system drain field, but it has other uses as well (such as erosion control).

This was only the first 50 of the 75 ton delivery.

No, the delivery truck did not bring 75 tons of gravel up that steep driveway! Instead they came up the forest service fire road, behind and to the south of our property.

Another project was to repair last Spring’s erosion damage to the asphalt sections of our driveway.  The paving company had quoted this work in July, and scheduled for September, after the peak rental season was over. 

But the paving company kept rescheduling. September became October and then November.  Finally, the grading guy who had expanded our “picnic area” offered to take over the asphalt patching work. 

By mid-November that part, at least, was done.  They still need to crack-fill and seal it, but a forecast of the season’s first storm has now put that part off, perhaps until next Spring.

Despite the frustrating delays, I was glad to see them lay down new asphalt in the driveway turnout area that we had created last year.

This was none-too-soon, as the incoming Thanksgiving storm might include snow!  Time to move the Bobcat and its winter attachments down from their summer storage locations at the top of the property.

To do this required driving 4.5 hours to the property, moving the equipment, and driving back down the same day.  November’s change to Standard Time meant that daylight ended before the job did.

Headlights illuminate the Bobcat in its new home on the new asphalt turnout.
All buttoned-up and ready for Winter!

Mission Accomplished.  The storm has now come and gone.  It brought only rain to our elevation, and the amounts were just about ideal for the rye grass seed we scattered.  The forecast calls for another storm next week.

Now if we can just get that septic system tied down…

One Year Out: Digging, but Still Not Building

As of late September, the Ferguson Fire is contained, air quality is back to normal, Yosemite National Park is open for business, and yes, even the cows have come home.

Hoofprints at our south gate tell me the cows have come down from their summer pastures.

But we have given up all hope of starting any real construction this season. 

One problem has been construction bids, which have come in much higher than we had hoped, and also higher than what insurance has covered so far.  We have even seriously considered abandoning this rebuild, and using the insurance money instead to purchase another property entirely.  It would certainly be the easiest, and fastest way to restore the rental income that the fire took away.  But at least for now, that is a path we are not willing to take.

The other persistent problem has been coming up with a septic system design that the county will approve. Among other things it requires a drain field area built on a relatively flat area of absorbent soils.  This has to be larger than our previous drain field because we’ve added living space over the garage.

To that end we decided that expanding the old “picnic area” was worth the expense of moving dirt around, for multiple reasons.  And, it was something we could still accomplish this season!  So off we went.

The start of grading: my, there are a lot of boulders here!
Rental equipment is not immune to its own set of problems.
Speaking of boulders…
The newly expanded “picnic area,” viewed from above

Of Dog Days, Crappy Plans, and Second Hand Smoke

Large oak trees, dead above ground, are still very much alive, and making the most of their summer.

Continuing what has become an emerging trend, I’ve not posted here for two months because, well, there’s not been a lot of progress  to report.

It’s not for lack of trying mind you.  And we have made several trips to the property in the time since my last post.  Here are some images from those trips.

We’ve widened the access road to where the water tanks will be. We also received some budgetary quotes for paving the dirt road above the house (not cheap!).  This access road is too steep for them to pave, so we’ll probably just stabilize it with gravel.
We also expanded the water tank area itself.  More space = more water = better.  This is the view north, towards the Tenaya Lodge.
This is the view south from the water tank area, roughly towards Oakhurst.  There is enough room for 2-3 large tanks here now, plus space for service vehicles and a “dog house” for pumps, etc.
It is surprising to see how quickly the hillside is recovering from fire.  This is the path down to the picnic area
And this is looking back up that path.  Notice how much green is now visible across the burned-out landscape.
Another example of the green recovery.  This is looking north-east, just below the path to the picnic area.  These trees are all dead and will have to come down.
Wildflowers are everywhere, happily doing their thing
This is the view looking south across the picnic area, with our weather station in the foreground. Both of the oak trees in this image are still alive! They might just survive.
I’ve been collecting any remnants I find of the old weather station, just for “fun”

About those plans

Construction has not started because we’ve been waiting for the county to approve building plans.  Here’s a sample of what they have:

Floorplans of the main residence
Floorplans of the detached garage and 2nd floor living space

As of late last week we heard confirmation that the building department has approved the design.  Yay! 

But we still can’t start construction, because the septic system design has yet to be approved.  This requires, among other things, proof that the soils can absorb what comes out of the septic tank.  The fact that we’ve had a fully functioning septic system on site for 25+ years didn’t seem to be good enough.  So we had to do more digging.

Trenching begins for several “perc” tests.
These are the two access ports for the old septic tank.  That tank was damaged by the demolition crew’s heavy equipment, so it looks like we will need to replace it.
As usual, the finesse of a good operator is avoiding unintended damage to the surroundings.  This guy was pretty good!
Here is the completed trench, now with perc test in progress
They also dug a second test trench at the south end of the picnic area
Here’s a closeup of that trench.  They are about 7-8 ft deep!

Ferguson makes a big stink

California has had more than its share of wildfires this summer and for the second year in a row, our area was not spared.  This time (thankfully!) the fire itself did not directly threaten our property.  But the fire was close enough, and large enough, so that air quality was a major issue — for several weeks!  This is what it looked like at the Trestlewood Chalet (just below the Logger’s Retreat property) during a visit in early August.

It looks like fog, but no, its not!
Morning sun filters through the smoky haze.

The air quality varied greatly depending on local weather conditions.  So a day like this could be followed by a bright, sunny day that looked nearly normal.  But when it was like this (which was most days), the air stung your eyes and was hard to breathe for any length of time.

We spent most of our time inside the house, with windows and doors closed, air conditioning on.  Hardly a way to enjoy the natural beauty that makes this area so popular.

That is highway 41 through the trees below the house.  Oddly, there was hardly any traffic on the road during this entire visit (because most of the national park was closed)
Despite the smoke, you can still see plenty of green on the terraces behind the house.

It should come as no surprise that fire and poor air quality took a major bite out of the local economy, closing much of the park and driving away visitors for the better part of a month during prime tourist season.   Like everyone else in the local area, our rentals suffered badly due to many vacations plans being shortened or canceled entirely.

What is now obvious to me is that this is what we, in California (and indeed across much of the world) should expect in future years.  Yes summer is the tourist high season in Yosemite, but it is also fire high season as well.    There will be more fires, more closings, and more cancellations, not fewer…at least until the bulk of dead trees have been consumed.

The beauty of the Sierras and the Yosemite Valley is eternal.  That will not change. But it is also a dynamic beauty, and we are currently in a state of rapid change.  This is not simply the “new normal.”  It is only the beginning of greater, more rapid change to come.

Hang on tight; it is likely to be a bumpy ride!

On a more positive note, the neighbors have rebuilt their burned-out retaining wall.   I kinda like this style; you may see more of it!