Friday, September 18, 2015

Permaculture: Dying Spruce = New Deck

Several years ago, my husband and I tried to build a birdhouse. No bird wanted to live in it. Then we built a stool. No person wanted to sit on it. And then we concluded that we never wanted to work together on another construction project!

I have full confidence that marriage counselors would be out of work if engaged couples attempted to build something together (or share a canoe or put up striped wallpaper). Let's just say that such endeavors clarify the yin and the yang in a couple and those who stick it out will last. In our case, because he can't cook and I can't fly, we need each other, so we stick together. However, we mutually agreed to never attempt future constructions together – never ever.

I like building “rustic” furniture and accouterments (which means eyeballing measurements) with willow and birch bark (that look great as long you don't lean on them). Bryan focuses on construction that involves levels and plumb lines and saws and wood mills and just about anything requiring a purchase from Alaska Industrial Hardware or a big box construction store, where he is invariably greeted with hearty cha-ching of recognition by whomever is manning the cash register.

This summer, we had to fell a spruce tree that was clearly dying. I sent photos to a DNR  (Department of Natural Resources) entomologist who determined that it was not spruce beetles. From the stump, which is now a handy four foot high “table” outside the food shed, to the crown, the tree that crashed through an adjacent alder thicket measured 83 feet. On ensuing windless or drizzly days, we hauled the dry limbs to the rock lined fire pit situated between the front porch and the lake. What marvelous ”snap, crackle, pop” fires with that wonderful spicy scent! But the massive trunk remained. What to do with it – most of which was healthy?

Bryan bought a portable Granberg Alaskan log mill that weighs a meager 40 pounds. What a clever gizmo! Instead of having to haul enormous tree trunks to a large, stationary wood mill, he can cut the wood in situ.
First, he attaches metal frame rails to the top of the tree, which, of course, is lying on the ground. They remind me of the child's construction toy, K-Nex. The aluminum rails support guides that clamp a chain saw blade at the desired angle and depth for straight horizontal and vertical cuts. Understandably, the outer, curved shape of the tree, with its rough bark and knobby branch bumps, is frustratingly slow to cut, but once he manhandles a flat surface, the rest is faster and easier to work. He decided to cut the widest (lowest) circumference of the trunk into 12 foot long planks (2 inches thick). He allocated the slimmer (upper) circumference for 4 x 4 and 4 x 6 posts. Once he determined that the quality of the wood and his cuts were adequate, he measured out the space for a free standing 12 x 12 deck located a convenient 75 feet downhill from the tree, in a pretty dappled glade near the lake. It is adjacent to the shower house, where I hope we will be able to use the existing water supply for a future hot tub, and the natural slope for drainage. (I don't mind the outhouse, but I sorely miss a bathtub).

Since it always rains in the autumn here, Bryan works incrementally, between the rain drops. First he positioned the edge of the deck four feet away from the roof line of the building, to escape the snow berm that will form below.
Then he laid out a square of nine cement footers to elevate the deck, and adjusted the ”necks” on each one to provide a level surface for the three sturdy posts he laid across them. Next, he dragged a dozen heavy spruce planks down hill and spread them across this base so we could select the best looking pieces. Once chosen, we marked each with a chalk line along the length of each plank, inside the bark borders by “plinking” the chalk laden string to leave a temporary blue line. Quickly, before the next rain, Bryan cut the ragged excess to this new edge. My meager contribution was to sweep off the birch leaves and wood shavings so he could stain the tops of the boards, leaving the lower side unstained, to “breathe.” Each one he screwed to the three horizontal support posts with four inch long wood screws. Perhaps the screws and this winter's snow and ice will restrain natural warping.  A thorough staining and trimming off uneven ends finished the project.

Such a project probably sounds like an awful lot of work to people who drive past a Home Depot  or a “Mr. Fixit Shop” every day. One way to rationalize the effort is a different version of work and fun. Instead of driving to a gym to exercise indoors, Bryan prefers shedding calories through practical outdoor projects, like this, while breathing clean air in our lovely setting.

The second way is a cost/benefit analysis of time and effort. Since we choose to live 42 miles from a road, we accumulate supplies one of three ways. We can transport light and small items in our plane (less than 180 lbs) or heavy, bulky materials by snow machine sled in Feb/Mar (up to 1000 lbs) or by creating them ourselves. Those snow machine trips across two rivers to pick up a pallet load of Home Depot construction supplies take about 7 hours, round trip. During the first few winters, my impression was that when he got cabin fever, Bryan actually enjoyed these excursions. But certainly they are cold, jarring, and exhausting, especially when a steep section is too icy to ascend with a pallet load or when a woodsy path is blocked by a downed tree or an ornery moose. Over the ensuing years, he has accumulated materials and tools (and skills) to construct structures with the wood that our forest provides. Less business for Home Depot. They must miss him.

The companion spruce to the last one is ailing now. I see a gleam in his eye. No doubt, my husband has plans for future castles or something. I better learn to build sturdier furniture to fill them!
Staining the new deck


  1. I found your blog through a basic Alaska Off-grid Living search. Yours was one of the firsts I found. It's a great resource for anyone thinking of or already living off grid! I found it very informative. I would definitely recommend getting a Facebook page to tie-in to your blog. It creates a community for people to interact with each other better. I find it hard sometimes to communicate through blogs.

    Good luck!

  2. hello Laura, sounds like you found a way to work together. Different styles complement one another. Great deck, cant wait to read about the hot tub blog!

  3. That is a textbook example of how NOT to fell a large diameter dead spruce tree here in Alaska! Whoever the sawyer was is very, very fortunate -- life saving luck is what it's called. The 1st 2 cuts should always be in the direction the tree is to fall. The depth of the hinge (shown on the bole that the woman is sitting on) provides this evidence. Please, please, please get familiar with proper tree felling technique via both UAF standards and OSHA requirements for loggers both commercial and resident property owners. Your life -- and ability to live off grid -- depends on it.

    1. Dear Brian McD: Your advice is excellent and this is exactly what my husband does. I'm not sure what you see in the photos contrary to that - the tree fell forward in the intended direction and the "hinge" snapped last, residing on top of the downed trunk. Elsewhere on this blog, I devote a blog entry to how he fells trees ... carefully. Thanks for your well founded warning to readers.