Friday, November 21, 2014

He made it

Mission accomplished – the dog was saved, and we’re back home.

Sunday morning brought an email from the pilot, letting me know that she was on her way. I had cranked up the heat in the cabin to 25°C, moved the most important items that shouldn’t freeze into our small root cellar, most of the electronics upstairs where I covered them with sleeping bags, stacked wood inside for quickly heating up the cabin upon our return, packed a few things for the dogs and myself – and went outside to listen for the heavy whup-whup-whup of rotor blades.
When the helicopter landed, the pilot didn’t shut down, and while the old dog who had been in a chopper before tried to climb in, my sick boy was rather terrified. I eventually carried him over to the machine and lifted him inside, and flying through a small hole in the fog blanket we were finally on our way to the village where a friend was already waiting for us in her van for the two-hour drive to Whitehorse.
An x-ray at the vet’s showed a huge mass in the dog’s guts, effectively sealing off his stomach from the intestines. From then on, it was a waiting game – because his vital signs were still good, the vet opted for IV fluids, enemas and laxatives instead of an operation. We left him in excellent care at Alpine Vet Services for the night and tried to make the most of being stuck in the city: soaking in a bath tub (my friend also lives off-grid), eating fresh food and just hanging out together.
By the next day, only some of the impacted mass had left the dog’s bowels (mostly soil as well as moose poop) and he was doomed to another day and night of ceaseless attention to his rear end, while my friend, my old dog and I resigned ourselves to being stuck in town. I was allowed to visit the poor poop eater, who looked scared and stressed, but finally relaxed a bit after inhaling my smell as I gave him a good long ear rub.
On Tuesday morning, I called the clinic again.
“I have good news”, said the vet. “The best news, actually: he pooped!”
Rarely has such an expensive pile of poop been greeted with such jubilation. I was ecstatic that he was well again and couldn’t wait to pick him up and go home. Because it was already afternoon by the time we made it back to the village, I spent the night at my friend’s and witnessed the most amazing transformation of my old dog, who was inspired to trot around at a fast clip and even lift his leg again for peeing because he wanted to show her dog who was boss! I guess I should take him out more often.
Wednesday dawned warm and cloudy, and after loading the dogs into the helicopter, the pilot flew us back through the mountains to our lake and home, sweet home. As I hunched down low over my cardboard boxes of fresh groceries and frozen moose meat in our meadow, the Jet Ranger lifted up into the air and grew smaller and smaller until utter silence fell, shrinking me back into place.

Sunday, November 16, 2014


It’s still dark. The low grey blanket of fog that’s been hanging over the lake for days blends into the darker grey of the lake, while I sit here waiting. I have a sick dog with an intestinal obstruction, and had hoped to fly him out to the vet yesterday, but there was no helicopter to be had in the closest village until today – weather permitting. If they can’t fly, we’re stuck.
We’re all exhausted: the younger dog from the pain, vomiting and trying in vain to squeeze out whatever is stuck in his bowels; me from trying to soothe him and organize the trip out; and the old dog from observing it all.
The dogs are asleep again, their breaths mingling with the ticking of the clock and crackling of the fire. There is nothing to do now but wait.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Off-gridding woe

This is the time of year when things tend to go wrong; or maybe it’s just more noticeable because replacing broken equipment or seeking medical attention need to be either postponed until late January or early February when the lakes are safely frozen – unless it’s important enough to spend over $700.- for helicopter transportation (and that’s just for one flight).
our 85W solar panel
I hope we got our late season problems out of the way early this year by having to replace half of our solar power system. Depending on your own alternative energy system may have a ring of freedom and sustainability to it, but in reality you just accumulate highly toxic batteries and an expensive collection of components made from non-renewable resources. And the more components something has, the more can go wrong. Especially when you help problems along through poor decision-making.
When the two deep cycle batteries that store our energy wouldn’t charge fully anymore, we were annoyed – the solar charge controller that monitors the batteries’ state of charge and regulates how much juice comes into the batteries from the solar panel (you don’t want to overcharge them) told a sad tale of rapidly dropping voltage. We had expected to get more than a measly three years of usage out of the batteries which had cost over $500.-, but what could we do? Not much other than buy new batteries – of course the warranty on these guys had just expired.
That was back in August, and I was planing boards when my partner set up the new batteries – different ones, because we wanted something that hopefully lasted longer than three years. He came out and asked me if the old batteries had been two 6 Volt or two 12 Volt.
“Six Volt”, I said. Of course. The ones before them had also been 6 Volt batteries, which we hook up to effectively become one powerful 12 Volt battery. “Doesn’t it say anything on the label?”
“No. Are you sure?” He looked confused and nervous.
“Yeah.” I shrugged and continued planing, only to be interrupted minutes later by my now decidedly pale-faced partner.
“I think I screwed up the batteries”, he said. “There was a huge spark when I connected them. It partly melted the battery poles.”
My knees went weak (all that money! It didn’t even occur to me at the time that the batteries could have exploded). I followed him into the cabin and stared in disbelief at the battery poles. “The cable goes on the positive pole first. Did you …?”
“That’s what I did.” He swallowed, tried again – and it sparked.
We used the f-word in unison, stared at the by now not so new-looking batteries, then at each other. Then at the two old batteries.
“I think”, said my partner hoarsely, “the old ones are 12V.”
I cast a doubtful look at them and scoured my brain (I had bought them, after all), but my memory chose to say nothing. In order to connect two or more 12V batteries and not add up their voltage as you’d want with two 6V batteries, they are hooked up differently (in parallel instead of in series). By now, we were both so rattled nothing seemed to make sense anymore. I hunted up an ancient catalogue from an alternative energy supply store and as we looked at the diagrams quickly realized that we had shorted our brand-new batteries, and that the old ones had indeed been two 12Vs.
After our mistreatment, the two new 6V batteries had only the same poor capacity as the two old batteries and it became obvious that we needed to replace them again. Which we did a few weeks later – but the story doesn’t end there.
The newest batteries
As we hooked up (correctly!!!) the replacement 6V batteries, the solar charge controller displayed their voltage as 11.8V. How could that be when they had had 12.4V the day before at the store? An unpalatable realization dawned on us: the solar charge controller was shot. We checked the batteries with two other volt meters and found our suspicion confirmed.
The new solar charge controller
This was in September and the time to quickly replace things was running out, unless we wanted to do extra town trips. But since I now had the expediter and one last delivery of goods scheduled for mid-October, I simply had a new solar charge controller sent to them and asked to please put it on the plane. The only problem for the meantime was that because of the malfunctioning charge controller, not much charge came to the batteries from the solar panel and we never knew exactly how full the batteries were (our two other volt meters gave only a ballpark measure). For batteries to last, it’s important to not draw them down too low, to fully charge but not overcharge them. Charging them with the generator was a guessing game until…
…until our 1,000W Yamaha generator which had been acting up occasionally broke down completely. It still ran but produced no power. It was late September by now and though we felt sick at the thought of yet another large expense, it was extremely lucky that the generator died when it did. I fired off another email to my expediter to please pick up a new generator – we now went with the 2,000W Honda, a model that has an excellent reputation for reliability and longevity among off-gridders.

Oh yeah, and since the malfunctioning solar charge controller kicked off this sequence of events, we’ve also realized now that our old batteries didn’t need replacing yet. We’re using them to power our three LED lights now and want to set them up as extras next summer, so we can switch the charge from the solar panel between the two sets of batteries when one set is fully charged.
All this expense and trouble to run a satellite internet modem, laptop and three LEDs!
And here ends my tale of off-gridding woe. Lessons learned:
– Double-check on how to hook up batteries before doing so, and not after the fact
– Invest in a second volt meter that shows the exact voltage
– Always look on the bright side of life!
For those of you interested in off-gridding or proper battery maintenance – I’ve found this webpage to be one of the most straight-forward and easiest to understand.