Archive for November 22nd, 2010

Building a Fire

Attention wannabe Girl Scouts and pyromaniacs!

Today’s lesson will be on starting a fire in the woodstove- with only a single match!

Although it is easier to start a fire on a bed of hot ashes and coals, we will start with a clean stove.  But first, you have to clean the stove!

Use shovel to remove ash (click to enlarge)


Using a shovel, you carefully scoop out all the old ash.  I say “carefully” because you want to minimize the amount of ash that escapes into the air.  Escaped ash means you will be doing a lot of annoying dusting and cleaning around the house, and you certainly don’t want to breathe in that stuff!

Ash can

You need an ash container to put the ashes in.  I use a small metal trash can which I bought at a yard sale and painted the outside black (with high-temperature paint).  It’s important that the ash can has a secure lid, so the micro-particles won’t escape and make a mess, and the container must be able to handle high temperatures.  Even though it may not look like it, some of the ash may still be hot.  Some people use a specialized ash vacuum to clean out their stoves, but they are rather expensive.

Ashes may be dumped outside once they are completely cool.  When applied thickly they act as a weed killer.  They can be added in very small quantities to a compost pile.  Ash can be used on ice and snow for traction for one’s car – but be forewarned that if you step on it, you will be tracking the ash back into the house.  The point is, you have to get rid of the ash!

After a cursory cleaning (click to enlarge)

Next, you’ll want to shake out the grate in your woodstove.  Ours has a special collector plate underneath the stove.  So I will dump the ashes that are in the bottom of the stove into the ash can as well.

Removing tray with ash from special compartment at bottom of stove (click to enlarge)


Next, I take a razor blade and scrape off any creosote (the dirty black stain) that has collected on the glass door of the woodstove, and dispose of it in the ash can as well.  Cresote build-up inside the stove and the chimney is potentially dangerous, and impedes the efficiency of the stove.  That’s why it’s a good idea to have a professional chimney cleaner come once a year.  Too much cresote can cause a chimney fire and affect airflow.

With newspaper underneath to catch the shmutz, I scrape the creosote off the glass door with a razor blade (click to enlarge)


The amount of creosote can be controlled by the type of wood you burn.  Soft woods with a lot of resin such as pine, or wood that is “green,” meaning freshly cut and not completely dried out, will cause creosote to form inside the stove.  It’s best to use hardwood that has been thoroughly dried out to avoid this problem.  This is referred to as “seasoned” wood, meaning it’s been cut, split, stacked and stored out of the rain for at least 3 – 6 months or longer (a year is best).

Now I take old newspaper (avoid color newsprint) and crumple it into balls, or roll it, and line the bottom of the woodstove with 5 – 8 pieces.


Rolled newspapers form the base of the fire (click to enlarge)

On top of that I place kindling, which are wood scraps from when we cut the firewood.  Some people use ‘fatwood” for this purpose – small thin pieces of pine, softwood, or wood that has lots of resin, as this ignites easily.  However, because it produces creosote, it is to be used in very limited quantities.  Birch bark works really well – it acts like paper and ignites quickly.  I try to place the kindling in a teepee shape over the newspaper.

Kindling is laid in a conical "teepee" shape (click to enlarge)

Checking to make sure the damper is fully open, I use my single match to light the newspaper in several places around the inside of the stove.

The single match used to start the fire (click to enlarge)

Keeping the woodstove door open, I make sure that the kindling is catching fire.  Once it glows red, I blow on the kindling.  By increasing the airflow, the fire gets hotter and burns brighter, and ensures that the log will catch on fire and stay lit.

Kindling is burning well (click to enlarge)

Over the kindling I place a small log, with the cut side down and the bark side up.

Adding the first log to the burning kindling pyre (click to enlarge)

Once I am confident the log has caught on fire, then I can think about additional logs.

First log burning nicely (click to enlarge)

After a couple of minutes, I add another log, blow air on it once again to ensure it has caught, and close the woodstove door.

Going well! (click to enlarge)

After a few minutes, with the fire burning nicely, I will close the damper slightly so the fire doesn’t burn so quickly.  I don’t want such a hot fire because I don’t like an overheated house, and also, the faster I burn through wood, the sooner I have to trek to the shed to bring in more wood, which isn’t such a pleasant task on a bitterly cold day.

Do I get a Girl Scout merit badge, or what? (click to enlarge)

Log cart (click to enlarge)

We bought this log cart to make the job easier.  The large 10″ wheels go up the entry steps easily, and the design allows you to shlep about 4x the amount of wood you could carry by hand.  The red oak and maple logs in our woodpile are very dense hardwood and extremely heavy!

What’s nice about our woodstove is that the exterior walls are made of soapstone. The stone tiles get very hot and radiate additional warmth into the room.  Hours after the fire dies out, the stones still radiate heat.  The soapstone is attractive looking, too.

Iron kettle: steam puts moisture into the air (click to enlarge)

We keep an iron kettle filled with water on top of the stove to humidify the dry air created by the heat of the woodstove.

It’s a potchke to take care of a woodstove properly, but we enjoy it, and there is an abundant supply of wood here in Maine.

Crocker Pond and Patte Marsh

Runoff from a small dam at Patte Marsh (click to enlarge)

Just beyond the transfer station (aka the Town Dump) in Albany, Maine is a road that veers left.  Following it for about 5 miles, it goes from paved to dirt, and becomes White Mountain Forest land.   There is a small sign indicating the presence of a boat launch, a campground, and fishing, so I decided to see what it was all about.

Beautiful campsite overlooking Crocker Pond

At this time of year, when temperatures are in the 20s and 30s, it’s important to make sure one has the proper clothing for even a short outing.  I was wearing warm leggings under my denim skirt and thick wool socks; waterproof ankle-high hiking shoes, and a turtleneck shirt topped by a fleece sweatshirt and a down vest.  This in turn was topped by a thin neon orange  vest to let hunters know I wasn’t prey.  My hat was made of wind-blocking polar fleece.  My knapsack held water, my camera, a small pair of binoculars, an apple and a protein bar, a heavy windbreaker jacket, a map, and my cellphone.  My hands were encased in fleece gloves, which was a good thing because otherwise I couldn’t have grasped my walking poles, which despite their cork handles got so cold they were impossible to handle otherwise.

On the trail from Crocker Pond to Round Pond (click to enlarge)

What a treat!  I had the entire forest to myself, and I followed a trail from Crocker Pond to Round Pond.  Conditions were perfect for a moose sighting but, alas, the moose were hiding.

However, 2 beavers swam from the middle of the pond to their dam along the shore. (Unfortunately they were camera shy.) As  I reached the dam, I noticed several trees that had been recently gnawed, including one that looked like today’s lunch, based on the freshness of the shavings at the base.

Beeaver teeth marks (click to enlarge)

Lots of beaver cuttings (click to enlarge)

Crocker Pond (click to enlarge)

A short walk away was Patte Marsh and dam – – again, no moose – – but a beautiful pond full of ducks and a thin coat of ice on the water, signaling winter is not far away.

Even though the walk was a short one, it was not without challenges.  The area was filled with little streams and brooks, which had frozen with a very thin coat of ice.  Millions of fallen leaves were on the ground, covering stones, exposed roots, and the areas of standing water, so without the walking sticks, which probed the ground ahead of me, I probably would not have been able to do the hike.  Several times my feet broke through thin patches of ice and met up with soggy ground, so I was glad that my boots were waterproof.  The poles also helped stabilize my ascents and descents since the thick carpet of leaves was very slippery.  As an additional safety measure, I let someone know where I was going before starting the hike and approximately when I thought I might be back.  The weather report promised a cold, clear sunny day and it was!  I got an early start since it gets dark so quickly these days.

I was back at home by 1 pm, where I added a log to the fire and had some leftover vegetable soup that really hit the spot.  What a great day!

Half the water at Patte Marsh has turned to thin ice (click to enlarge)

Patte Marsh (click to enlarge)

Patte Dam runoff (click to enlarge)


Online with a view

Probably the biggest risk of our Maine adventure was whether we’d have a DSL connection.  I realize the irony of this statement – after all, we’re coming to the woods to get away from “civilization” and enjoy the beauty and quiet of nature.  The reality, however, is that my husband makes his living designing computer software, and in order to work from home he needs a connection to his work via the Internet.  When we bought the property, the chances were admittedly bleak.  Not only was there no internet access – –  the closest was the library 10 miles and one town away – – there was no cellphone connectivity within 3 miles, although there was one tiny pocket of reception on our property about 18″ square if you stood outside on a certain rock at a certain angle and shouted really loud.

Because it got really tiresome driving somewhere every time we wanted to communicate with family and friends, we decided to get a land line through the local telephone provider.  They said they’d try to see about gettting us an internet connection, too, since although the closest neighbor after our property didn’t have Internet access, the closest neighbor before us did. It had to do with how far away the RT (remote terminal)  was – it could only be up to a certain number of feet away – and if we fell within that range then we’d be online.  Although the technician warned us that the signal might be weak, he felt he could make it work; we were at the tail end of that limitation.

The result:  He did! We do!  We are!

A few months later we found out about something called a “network extender” sold by our wireless network cellphone provider.  It’s a small box that is basically like having a miniature cellphone tower in your house; but it uses the Internet to make the connection to the carrier’s cell phone network.  Before I get into technical jargon that I don’t understand, suffice it to say that we now have good cellphone reception inside the house, too.

Sunday Shiur Skyping

Besides the fact that I can communicate more easily with friends and family, and my spouse can work his normal 10 hour day from home in the middle of nowhere, he also uses these technologies to stay Jewishly connected.  My husband  “Skypes” with his chevrusa on Sundays via computer, and on Wednesday night he “attends” his regular shiur via cellphone.  Early every morning he listens to a shiur on

Recently my husband has revisited a beloved hobby that he hadn’t touched in 30 years: ham radio.  With the ease of Internet and cellphone access and use, the popularity of ham radio has dramatically declined, but it still has its diehard fans.  If you think back to 9/11,  cell phone communications were abysmal during this emergency – – and ham radio is an important and effective form of emergency communication that gets through when other forms of communication cannot.  More recently, ham radio operators  were able to relay and request assistance and provide communications to and from Haiti when that country met with its earthquake disaster.

Especially because we are not dependent on Maine power companies for our electricity, my spouse’s ham radio has important value in a region where weather-related emergencies are frequent. He is looking forward to regularly communicating with local ham radio operators as well as with those from afar.