St Croix River Road Ramblings

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Monday, February 23, 2015

The Kitchen Office

On these cold winter days, (-20 today -- Feb 23), when the sun shines I move into the sun room that becomes my morning office.  It is bright, filled with green plants, and doubles as the kitchen nook, office, project table, and the center of the morning activities. 

  We painted it with a $5 gallon of  "oops shelf" yellow from the local hardware -- a mistake in mixing that cut the normal cost from $35.  Margo and Sis-in-law Connie put the wallpaper border.  Mom, Alberta, designed it and Dad, Vivian, built it with the help of his brother Maurice and his sons back in the 1950s.  

Mom loved winter plants changed a dark house with no south windows into a burst of sunlight and outdoors and a place to eat breakfast, dinner and supper for the farm family of six big eaters. 

The flaws are mostly it was built on a poured concrete slab with concrete blocks as the foundation and no insulation around the base.  That means the floor is cold!!!  We keep an electric space heater running on cold morning just to add a little feet heat.  

So what is in the room this winter?  

Twenty flower pots on the extra wide window ledges -- geranimums, cacti, forced bulbs starting and some geranium seed germinating. 

The 1950s porcelain topped table bought new by Mom in the late 40s to relace the old round oak table that was not bright and modern! It disappeared after a few years in the dining room replaced there with a stainless steel formica topped modern table (still here).  

The chairs are 1960s vintage going on their second or third coverings and in need of the next one.  Stainless with hard seats and backs that mom redid as needed.  

A few wall hangings, calendar, clock, weather dials, binoculars (the birds are fed outside the windows) and of course my computer and camera. 

And a full view to the east so we can check on the neighbors and the south that used to be to check on the livestock barns. 

The wave petunia didn't do much this winter, but is starting to grow with more sunlight. 

The maple syrup bottles are to dissuade birds from thunking into the windows. The morning sun shining through them is golden. 

A tomato stem begins to root -- cutting from the tomato plant we brought in last September. 

A maple tree grows in a geranium pot.  All of the potted plants were outside all last summer, so interesting plants sprout and grow in the winter.  Red maple I think.  
Mom had us plant a row of pines, cedars and spruce to the SE of the yard.  In the winter that blocks the morning sun from about 8 am - 10 am, good for my computer work.  When the sun streams in earlier and later it is too bright to see the screen.  The row was planted in about 1960 anticipating my need for a few hours of morning shade.  

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Facebook Activity

I post a lot of photos on Facebook -- nearly every day.  If you do the same, and your posts are original rather than reposting others posts, you can collect all of the posts and turn them into a single file or book if you want to. 

The software is at  You can select what posts to avoid (i.e. political ones by automatically removing posts with selected words--Democrat or Republican for instance).  

I did this for January and February of 2015.  It is free to do and is somewhat interesting to collect the items that are otherwise transitory -- they come one day and go the next. 

My pdf file is at Russ' January and February Facebook posts.

Margo is impatiently waiting her Tuesday appointments to find out when she can have back surgery and get out of her chair and again be able to do things without worrying about further damaging her back.  Hopefully the surgery will be in March and she will recovered by early summer. 

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Maple Syruping for Dummies

Maple Syrup Making for Novices

Dad maple syruping 1950s
1. Find any tree in the maple family including box elders.  Identify by carrying a Canadian flag with the maple leaf symbol and look at the leaves on the ground under it, or ask a neighbor who makes syrup. (or use the Internet – search identify maple winter )

2. Put one tap in your test maple tree and wait until it begins to run before tapping the rest.  Within 4-6 weeks tap holes stop yielding due to the normal healing process.  If you tap too early, you may miss later runs.  Mid March is usual, however when the days are above and below freezing is when the sap will run – but sometimes it takes a week of that to get them started.  Don’t tap too early. Wait until your test hole shows sap is running.  

3. Sugar maples yield about 10 gallons of sap per tap in a normal year which will boil down to about 1 quart of syrup.  Four taps = 1 gallon (some year much less).

4. Get some taps  (spiles).  Tapered tubes—beg borrow, steal or purchase.  Anywhere from 25 cents for a plastic one to a few dollars for a stainless steel one.  Pick one that suits your buckets.

5. Drill a 2 inch deep hole anywhere in the maple tree – size to fit the tap –white wood
If the drill wood shavings come out other than white, do a different hole. The tap is gently tapped into the hole until it is snug and will support a pail.  Don’t pound it in or you will split the opening hole. TAP IT.

6. Hang a container from the tap – any kind will work. Sap flow is from 0 – 5 gallons/day with most days being very little and a few very much.

7. Collect the sap as the bucket fills.  Sap spoils in a few days in warm weather

8. Setup some kind of out-of-the house cooker.  Boil the sap until it gets 7 degrees F above the boiling point of water.  Use your candy thermometer.

9. Filter and bottle hot.  Filtering the thick syrup is impossible cold, so do it hot.  You can buy a syrup filter or try a clean cotton or wool sock.

10. To make filtering easier, put the unfiltered syrup into a large covered container boiling hot and let it settle for a few days, pour off the clear top and bring it to a boil and then filter and bottle it.

11. If you cook it to the right density and bottle it hot it should keep for many years.
When you tap the tree, you have to stay away from old tap holes – a few inches either side and at least 6 inches above or below.  Doesn’t matter where on the tree you put the hole otherwise—high or low, over a root or not, any direction—just needs undamaged wood.  Look for the white shavings only.

You can tap birch, nut trees and probably others, however sugar maples are the most concentrated and yield the best.  Any other maples work too, just more boiling.

The biggest error novices have is underestimating the amount of cooking required to get 40 gallons of sap into one gallon of syrup.  It will overwhelm your kitchen with all the steam, require you to buy several tanks of propane on the grill so most of us figure out a wood fire with big kettles or pans and then graduate to specially made equipment.

When you are done, you leave the hole open.  Putting in a wood plug is worse for the tree than letting it naturally heal over.  In 2 years it will be all nicely healed.

Tap about 1 bucket on a 10 inch diameter tree and 2 -3 on a large tree.  The small percent of sap removed has little effect on the tree’s health or growth.  Many trees have been tapped for 50-100 years and are still thriving.

Enjoy doing it.  Don’t worry if you have to dump some sap because you can’t keep up.  Sap tends to come in bursts – what is called “runs.”  During a normal season of 6 weeks, there may be three runs where the buckets run over for a few days, then everything quits for a week or so before the next run.  That lets you catch up.  Some years, like 2014, the sap ran late –into later April and ran almost continuously for 10 days making it difficult to keep up with the cooking and letting some sap spoil because of the warm mid April days.  

Early season syrup is light colored and very mild flavored.  End of season syrup can be very dark and bitter  (called “buddy” as it runs when the buds come out).  Stop collecting when the buds swell if you don’t want bitter syrup.  The bitter syrup actually can be used in cooking so it is not wasted.

A cover on your bucket is nice.  Keeps out the rain, snow, wood chips, bugs and the occasional mouse that could climb in and drown.  Used food grade 5 gallon buckets are widely available on for $1 each and up.

Any other questions—ask a neighbor who already syrups or buy a book on it or go on the internet where you can watch videos of everything about the process.  
Maple syrup making gets into your blood.  You start the season when winter is still on us and end it when the very first wild flowers show up close to the ground.  You get to watch spring come in from a “out in the woods” vantage point.  Not only that, you impress your friends an neighbors by updating them on what is happening and when you share that pancake breakfast with them with your own pure maple syrup.

For answers to your personal questions about syruping or life in general, email  and include a paypal payment for $10

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Update on Margo's back

Margo visited with the surgeon about her upper back shoulder pain after having talked to a clinician who thought the best option was surgery. 

You never go to a surgeon first--as their answer for everything is surgery.  So you check with the clinician (non-surgeon) who considers the other options -- pain killers, shots, physical therapy, pain management, etc.  When they refer you to the surgeon, you can be sure that is the best solution 

The surgeon said we need to do this as soon as possible as the pressure from the vertebrae on the spinal cord can leave permanent damage if not relieved soon -- think paralysis below the damaged area. 

So, Tuesday, Margo has a round of tests to see if she is able to have the back surgery #2.  The December surgery was for the lower back, and this is for the upper back.  

They have an emg test -- shock your upper arm and measure what comes out at the finger end (or something like that).  Margo had it dones many years ago for carpal tunnel and said it is torture!  With her cerebral palsy, she is more sensitive to these tests than the usual person.  

She also has to have a bone density test to make sure her bones are strong enough to handle the surgery. If not, then she has a delay of a month or more as she takes a daily shot of some magic bone growth drug.  Since she had a test like this in 2014 for the lower back and it was OK, we are hopeful that won't delay things. 

If things are OK on Tuesday, we will expect surgery in the next few weeks.   Anything pressing on the spinal cord can cause pain to come from limbs or trunk as the bundle of nerves from all over the body come up through the spinal column--and a squeeze on them anywhere can cause pain just about anywhere. 

The rehab will be 3 days in the hospital, two weeks in a rehab facility and then home for a year of recovery.  The surgeon told Margo that after the surgery her back would be less flexible and her head turning range would be limited quite a bit--no looking to the side. 

As Margo is already looking straight ahead to get through this second surgery and to once again live a life that is not filled with pain, we are optimistic that by summer she will be out and about again and enjoying life.  

Why You Should Never Buy Another Computer!

Chromebook example 
(Update since I posted this-- chromebooks do not have cd or dvd players nor can you get one for them, so that is a limitation. However, if you have an external CD reader/writer, you can open files from a CD.  Supposedly you can't write them.  Haven't tried and external DVD yet.)

The last two months have been a busy time as I helped a few of my friends with their failing computers.  A couple were hardware problems (both an IMAC and a Windows Laptop).  Most were just slow having been filled with advertising popups and viruses from folks clicking things that they didn't know what was behind them.  Never click anything that asks you to "check your computer" for anything.  Never download something that pops up on the screen.  Always find a corner with an X to close it-- and you probably will get by without.  

The biggest scam is the message that says "check your computer for viruses" or something like that where you click on the popup and end up with what is called malware (bad stuff) on you computer.  

Would you like to be free from this worry?  There is a way and it is called a "Chromebook."  

I have come to the position that the average person should never buy another computer! This conclusion has also been reached by many school districts who have begun supply students with $200 chromebooks instead of tablets or computers.   No management needed for the software, updates, viruses etc.  

That does not mean giving up your Facebook, email, photo sharing, and reading this blog, but rather I advocate buying a Chromebook instead. 

A Chromebook looks like a laptop computer.  However, it gets its brains off of the internet from Google each time it starts up (very very quickly).   If you have WIFI (wireless internet) at home, this will work for you -- as well as anyplace you go with WIFI--the library, the motel, the restaurant, etc. 

Chromebooks don't get viruses, you can't mistakenly download any bad programs as nothing gets downloaded -- the programs just run of the internet.

Each time you start it up, you are starting with a fresh computer system, devoid of the junk that accumulates on regular computers.  

You switch to a web based email -- such as google, microsoft, apple or yahoo mail or use the web interface into your local telephone company email (I do both).  Your emails never are stored on your chromebook, but stored in the servers at the telephone company or google or yahoo.  This not only is much safer, but lets you read your email on any computer anywhere in the world if you have your acct and password. 

My brother, Ev, bought one to test it out.  After his bout with cancer back in 2007, he got a little less worried about saving for the long term and has enjoyed trying to stay current with technology from bookreaders, tablets, phones and Chromebooks.  

Then my son, Scott, who is quite high tech, bought one to replace his old notebook computer and desktop computers.  

Each spent about $200 to buy one. All the software you need including an office (word processing, spreadsheets, presentation...) come with it as well as a lot of cloud storage. 

What is cloud storage?  On a normal computer with a local email system like Microsoft Outlook, when you go to your mail, the mail is downloaded and erased from the phone company's computer to your computer.  If you read it on the phone company computer and leave it there, it is "in the cloud."   Which really means it is still out there where it was before you brought it to your computer.  You can read it, but you don't store it locally.  

Do you put photos on flickr? on Facebook? or other places on the internet. You are using the "cloud."  They are copied to a computer out there someplace and stored there.  With a chromebook, everything is stored "out there."  

The folks who have the cloud computers, like Google, Apple,Microsoft, IBM and hundreds more, make money by advertising on their displays as well as charging a little for using large amounts of storage.   I pay $20/year for 100 gigabytes that is my personal cloud storage. That is enough for 20,000 high resolution photos.  

Printing is also somewhat complicated with a chromebook -- much like that with a tablet.  You have to set up your printer as a cloud printer.  My latest printer, an Epson WF 2670 (big format scanner and printer) is fully WIFI and can even print a photo I send to it in an email.  So that is a complication that requires a little expertise to overcome.  Best solution -- buy a new wifi printer.  I hooked my old printers up to my router (my router has a usb port and also a direct network cable).  One printer had a network connection and the other used the USB.   Old printers can be connected but it is messy unless you can connect them to your network by wire in your house. 

When my friends take their computer to the repair shop to be "cleaned" it typically costs $100 to $200, and some do this every year.  You don't have to do this with a chromebook.  

For some of the details of what does and doesn't work with a chrome book read this link
Is a chromebook for you?

My next computer will be a chromebook.  Small, long battery life, and does 90% of what I need to do 90% of the time!


Sunday, February 8, 2015

Sunrise, Sunset

Living on top of the hill in open country we see sunrises and sunsets much better than when we stay at the cabin, down in the woods behind the east and west hills, or in Pine Island where our east and west views are also blocked by the woods. 

So, I have been trying photos of the sunrise and sunset and have added a few for your inspection. 

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Rambling Along the St Croix

Had to travel to Rochester this week and took a leisurely tour down and back up the St Croix river -- MN side down and WI side back.  The river is mostly frozen, but here and there are open areas. 

Nevers Dam landing 

Taylors Falls looking NE
Hastings bridge over the Mississippi near where the St Croix joins

I saw three trains traveling along the Mississippi -- this one at Hastings and the others going south at Prescott.  All seemed like 100 cars or so. 

I stopped at Prescott, at the Great River Visitor Center

A sculpture at the visitor center -- looks like frozen roadkill stuck together.  

Reminds me of my own relatives who lived along the St Croix and sometimes ate clams, canned clams and searched for pearls.  Grandpa made mom a mother-of-pearl cross, hand cut out form a shell in the depression days of the 1930s when buying something was impossible.   She thought it was beautiful.