Wild Game Fence Construction and the Values of Naivety

One of our primary motivating factors for moving out of the City two years ago was to be able to produce, grow, harvest and consume our own food. Although we’d been “distracted” in the building the house (see previous 75 blog posts) for the past year and a half, with this now (relatively) complete, we could focus on the land and start to establish our garden and orchard.

We planned to get started with some of the orchard plantings this year, but before we did anything we would need a fence… And not just any fence but an Ungulate Fence! Also known as a Wild Game fence (although ungulate is much funner to say). This is no ordinary fence, mind you. This is a serious beast of a fence – at 8′ in height and made up of high gauge tension wire and heavy large posts, this fence will keep all large animals (deer, in particular, being the problem in our area) from decimating the garden, berry bushes, and fruit trees. You see, ungulates (deer and elk) can jump pretty darn high – up to 7′ straight up – and they like food, especially fresh tasty grade veggies and ripe berries. So, an 8′ fence is the minimum height to ensure your area will stay protected.

Last year we’d plotted out the site of the garden – between the shop and riverbank’s edge. And, well, it would be massive. Growing up, my parents had a large urban garden, which was about 50×75′. It was large enough to feed our family of four all year. My parents would freeze, blanche, and can fruits and vegetables in the autumn, which would last us until the following summer when the fresh produce would be ready again. I really had never tasted vegetables that were not grown in our own garden until I moved out of my parents house. “This is what people think vegetables taste like?”, was all I could think when I first shopped at the grocery store – blech!

So to some degree, it’s been the desire to get back to the land that has led us to this place.

Being that we had to build such a heavy-duty fence, I thought it would make the most sense to build the garden/orchard big. Like big big. My reasoning was that it would be a lot of work to build more fencing and prep the land again if we found we wanted it larger later. And in the back of my mind, the thoughts of a possible CSA food program, market garden, co-op garden, or U-pick orchard, is kind a long term potential but who knows.

Anyways, we plotted the garden/orchard out at just under a 1-acre area. That should do. I imagine it will eventually be likely 60% orchard and 40% garden vegetables.

The area though had never been planted with anything but pasture grass and all varieties of weeds were abundant. I’d tilled the area four or five times last summer in an effort to kill off as much as the weeds and quackgrass as possible. In the later part of the Fall, a friend of mine was able to bring in 25 yards of compost to help the soil.

And so the big project for the 2016 year was to build this mother of a fence and get some fruit trees and berry bushes in the ground.

We’d been able to purchase all of the game fencing used off of Kijiji last year from a farmer who’d raised buffalo (they can only jump 6′ high by the way).

And so in early June, on especially hot week, Darcie and I took a week of “holidays” to work on the fence.

I did find a very good article on how to build the wild game fence, which we read the day before starting. “We got this shit,” we said jokingly… We had no idea what we were about to get ourselves into… But you know what, sometimes a bit of naivety is a good thing when one lives out in the countryside.

The first three days were spent putting the posts in the ground. These are big awkward things – 12′ tall, 5-6″ in diameter and weighing about 40-lbs each. I used a post hole auger on the tractor to dig a 6″ hole which we then filled with water to allow the post to slide in. Darcie and I would then lift and drop it into the hole and get it level. From there, I’d stand on a ladder and using a 14-lbs post sledge hammer (I kid you not), I would pound the post into the hole to secure it as Darcie held it level. Um, it was a lot of work. And we did that 54 times for all of the perimeter posts. I didn’t even take any pictures of this work – mostly because I didn’t want to remember it.

The following day we convinced two of our good friends to come help us with the 12 cross beams that would need to secure the corners and gates.

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We used a chain saw to cut the 12′ posts to the correct length and then drilled pilot holes into the standing posts. We then pounded 10″ spikes through the posts and into the beams.

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The following day was easily the worst day of all though. And probably the one that from viewing you would not know we’d really done anything. At each section that a beam had been placed (12 in total) you need to string a diagonal tension wire to give added support and stability to the fence. This is a crucial part structurally and is terribly difficult. The wire is a 16-gauge high tension wire that comes wrapped on a spool. We needed about 90′ for each section to wrap it twice and secure it with a metal ratchet.

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Unfortunately when you try to unroll the wire off of the spool and cut it, it has so much tension that it would fire off of the spool like a tightly wrapped spring (which is pretty much what it is) and tangle itself into a terrible mess. The wire is crazy sharp too, so as I was cursing and swearing, trying to untangle it, it was cutting and slicing my arms and body. I looked like a whipping boy by the end of the day.

Then we had to hold the wires in place between the beams and ratchet them tight with the world’s worst tool (see above photo) to tighten the wire. There’s so much tension on the wire and it needs to be very tight that I completely buggered my wrist that day. It would be 3 weeks before it would be feeling better.

Sigh.

The next day, which according to the instructions was “the most difficult and tedious” part of the fence build (oh great), was to string the actual fencing.

We had two 440′ rolls of the fencing that we rolled over to the long side of the fence. We unrolled a hundred feet or so at a time and stood it up to the first fence post and hammered it in using the heavy-duty fencing staples. Then we went section by section, unrolling a length, standing it up and hammering it in. The trick is to leave some wiggle room when pounding in the staples so that the fence wire can move a little bit back and forth. Once we got halfway down or around the corner I used the tractor to tighten the wire. The instructions suggested using two 2x4s and bolting them together between the fence and the slowly snugging the wire, which really worked like a charm.

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Once we had it snug we tightened up the staples in the corner and put 4 staples on each standing post (not too tight though). It went like this all around the fence. Honestly, of all of the fence building, this to be the easiest part. (Easy being a relative term of course).

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In this photo you can see those cursed diagonal tension wires.

Once my wrist had recovered sufficiently a few weeks later, we were able to put up the gates.

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And there you have it. A real-live DIY wild game fence.

Let’s never speak of this work again.

Life out here

This is a post I’ve been wanting to write for the past 3-4 months. When I’d been researching the building of the house – and in particular, reading a number of blogs like this one (a cathartic rant on the trials, frustrations and triumphs of building a green home – is that a reasonable tag line thus far?), I’d get to “the end” of the blog and think, OK, how do they like living there? What is your life like now?

I have kind-of written about this before, from an eco-perspective, but now I want to write this from a life-perspective.

The funny thing is that really life just starts to gradually get back to normal – whatever that new normal might be for you. For Darcie and I, we really weren’t entirely sure what that would actually be. We’d lived in the City for our whole lives, except for the 14 months of living in the small cabin down the road from our future home. And this certainly was not a “normal” time.  Living in a tiny space and spending all of our free time dominated by the house build.

Indeed I’ve still been conscious of the house (at times more than I’ve wanted to – more later), but, as I’d told friends when we were nearing the end of the build, “I can’t wait to not have all of my thoughts be entirely about the house.” And over the past few months, they haven’t! I wasn’t sure where my thoughts would go though and what exactly I would start spending all of my new free time on.

Here are a few…

Happily, I’ve been spending a considerable amount of time in the kitchen, which is, most definitely, my favourite place in the whole house. I love to cook and finally having a space to spread out in with a lot of counter space, a big sink and plenty of storage has made cooking so much more enjoyable then it ever had been.

I’ve fallen hard into old-style, traditional artisan bread baking using naturally leavened yeast, which has become by far, the most satisfying cooking I’ve ever done.

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Bread baking like this is an amazing combination of alchemy (turning 3 mundane ingredients, tasteless flour and water and a bit of salt, into deliciously rich and complexly flavoured bread), culture (humans have been baking bread in this way for nearly 10,000 years), tradition (there is nothing like breaking and sharing home-made fresh bread with friends), and art (these things are so darn pretty! And never the same).

I never would have attempted this in our old house, but for whatever reason, this place has inspired me to do so.

Since starting bread making with wild fermented yeast, we’ve also become somewhat obsessed with other means of fermentation. We recently have made sauerkraut, kombucha, and kimchi. And as soon as the garden is up, I’ll start sour pickles, beets and carrots. I’m grateful for the counter space as it is now regularly covered with crocks and jars, in addition to the mess of containers from my bread and other cooking.

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We also decided to purchase a canoe this year to start to explore the river. We’d debated about kayaks and even paddle boards, but a canoe, at least to begin with, seemed to be the most logical.

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As you may have noticed, the scenery out here is pretty amazing. We have a family of whitetail deer living in the valley across from the house, a trio of eagles the frequent us with fly-bys on a daily basis, recently pelicans have been fishing our front and even trumpeter swans have come by, in addition to the usual Canadian geese, multitude of waterfowl, and even the odd stray goat (we woke up to a goat staring in our front window the other day – most peculiar!).

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Did I mention that I found a dog too? No? Well, I did. It was actually several months ago while driving into work that I spotted a black and white streak in the ditch. At first I thought it was a skunk, but as I got closer I realized it was this mutt:

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Pretty cute. This was the day I found her shortly after taking her to my sister’s house. Honestly, how could I not stop and pick her up in the middle of nowhere? We put out “Dog Found” signs and reported her to the local animal shelter, but no one claimed her. For whatever reason we thought, sure, we could keep her (even though we were still not even moved into the new house and had a tonne of work yet to do. What’s a little more stress?). Read: this was a bad idea.

We did try to keep her. We even drove into town each weekend for obedience classes and woke up at 5:30am every morning to take her our for a long walk, but unfortunately she simply did not get along with our long-time French bulldog, Fiona.

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Actually they really and truly hated each other – with a passion. That burned deep inside their little souls. We kept the pup for about 4 months, before finally realizing that we could not have her anymore. Fortunately she ended up going to a really good home. My wife’s colleague trains dogs and was overjoyed to take her in.

As the Spring has turned to Summer, our thoughts started to turn towards the garden and orchard, that we’d been determined to create. Little did I know that although the house took 8 busy months to build that the outdoor work – well, it might take a lifetime.

Oh, to be so naive. Is it a blessing?

It is done.

We were left with no choice for the little chicken. Yes, we could have called up a “real” farmer to do it. But that would be a cop-out. As I said before, we needed to do this ourselves. We came out here to learn about food and see where our food came from. This was going to be an experience we were going to have at one point in our future, so why avoid the inevitable? So Saturday morning we started reading about how to cull a chicken. Well, let me tell you, there is much dispute about the best way to do so. There are more ways than one, and all of them are terrible. I won’t go into the gruesome details, but reading about it made my stomach turn. All I cared about was that it would be fast and would not cause any undue suffering to the chicken. One of the resources I came across in our little personal library of country life/gardening/raising chickens was The Encyclopedia of Country Living. There was a whole section titled “killing chickens.” I had to laugh, although it was quite morbid, but killing chickens was clearly not considered a big deal to the author at all. She recommended killing chickens who were late layers, slow layers, too broody, didn’t lay often enough, were sick, were old and definitely those that were egg eaters. We also came across a very “interesting” YouTube video that Treehugger.com posted. In this video, the lady kills an older chicken, but does it with a fair bit of compassion for the animal. The actual killing part is quite horrific to watch, but everything before and after was very good (and highly informative). There was this strange inconsistencey in my mind while watching the video – like, she seems too nice to be able to do that, or something – I’m not sure how to explain it. The video also went onto show how to process the bird (the nice word for gutting and making it into food). So armed with some knowledge we set out to do something we’d dreaded doing. We picked up our little chicken, thanked her for all of the eggs she’d provided us, said our good-byes, and then just like that it was done. The actual moment of the axe swinging down and that “oh my God” realization was terribly overwhelming with the weight and emotion of what I had just done rushing over me. But after a few moments, I composed myself and we went about the rest of the job. We got a bucket of hot water and took to plucking her feathers. Strangely, when this was complete (which was as easy as the book and video had said) our hen, that only a few minutes before had been scratching around eating grass, had transformed into “chicken.” In fact she looked like any other chicken that I’ve bought from the supermarket dozens of times before. She had suddenly become… food. Well, not quite yet. We still had to “process” her. My wife, Darcie, the pretty, sweet and gentle lady that she is, did this task. Who knew she was a natural? This part of the process was actually fascinating. Both of us had taken human anatomy in University that had labs with cadavers (the nice word for real human body parts) so this was just really interesting to see everything. I’m sure a lot of people would think this might be the worst part, but to us, it was interesting and, although it was gross, it also wasn’t that gross at all. And then there it was, a ready to roast chicken. We bagged her up and into the freezer she went. For the rest of the day and for about a week following, both of us felt pretty horrible about it though. I actually woke up a few times in the night with the vision of my axe swinging and her dying. I thought about it a lot, although I didn’t want to think about it at all. But now, I feel better about it. Both of us feel that it was a right of passage. Not something we wanted to do. Not something we enjoyed. And not something that I want to do again (although I’m sure it will only be a matter of time). But it was something we did and something that we had to do to learn about ourselves and about where our food actually comes from. We feel a sense of accomplishment that we did what was best for the chicken, for ourselves, and that we did it together.

Can you pull the trigger?

I don’t know. We have a chicken that clearly needs to go. She must be culled. We have no choice now. The big risk with keeping an egg eater around is that sooner or later she will teach the others to do it too. Then you not only have to cull the one, but the entire flock. And I definitely don’t want that. When I read the book “Omnivore’s Dilemma” a couple years ago, I recall the description that Michael Pollan wrote about taking part in a chicken slaughter for the first time. He’d never killed an animal and here he was with a knife in his hand and everyone waiting for him to kill the chicken. Strangely it was a very spiritual description of his experience.

Certainly taking the life of another being in order to feed yourself is a powerful act and not something to take lightly. I imagine that it would teach you something about your own mortality. I recently took a hunter course with the sole intent that sometime soon I would like to hunt. I feel that if I am going to eat meat, rather than passing the dirty deed of death onto someone else, I should experience the feeling of killing an animal. I should experience what that feels like. I do not think in anyway that it would be a pleasant experience. In fact, I think I would feel quite terrible about it. But is it not hypocritical to eat animals and not be able to pull the trigger yourself?

And so here I am, facing this dilemma, much sooner than I thought I would have to. We eat chicken. We have a chicken that we need to cull. And I don’t want to do it. Sure we could call up our friend who raises chickens and ask him to do it. That would be easier. But, I feel that I have a responsibility to do this. I feel that I should know what it feels like. I’m sure this won’t be the last time we have to cull a chicken. So am I just putting off the inevitable if I don’t do it now? And then if I can actually do it. Then what? Do we just bury her in the ground? Well then that seems like a waste, doesn’t it? They are food after all. And didn’t we move out her for food? To see and learn where our food comes from. Well, here it is…

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The snow

When we first bought the property and told people we were moving from the city, one of the (negative) responses we’d get would be something to the effect of: “how’s it going to be in the winter?” or “it’ll be great until you get snowed in” or “I hope you have a 4×4” or “it’ll be good except for the winter” and other such tongue in cheek comments. F-you guys, I’d think to myself, what do you know?

However, I’ll admit, we were a bit worried about it. We’ve always lived in the city where snow clearing is taken for granted. Someone does it for you with the exception of your sidewalk and driveway. Although both Darcie and I had travelled for work to rural towns 3-4 times per week for the past several years and were experienced winter travellers on the highway, we were not sure how this road would be. And, we had no idea if it had a tendency to get snowed in or, really, if it is maintained much at all.

In fact, this question was one of the first things Darcie asked our neighbour, Ray. He has lived here for the past 15 years. His home is on a ridiculously amazing spot just around the corner from us. Both he and his partner drove to and from the city up until last year when he retired. He told us, “two years ago was the first time we were snowed in in 13 years. The RM is very good and they are always out taking care of the roads.” Hmm, impressive, I thought, but I was still skeptical.

Still, when we talked further, even he didn’t sound super happy with winter. He told us the summers are great, but the winters are… well, not as great. Whatever, I thought, we’d take it as it comes. Gotta have the good with the bad. Not everything is going to be perfect. Etc etc. But you know, if we get snowed in then so what? We get a day off, I’m cool with that. Besides we were living in one of two houses on the tree farm, so we could learn from Doug (the owner) as to what we’d need to do for clearing snow while not having to worry about it ourselves. Although we are only three months into a relatively peaceful winter, I must say that we have been thoroughly enjoying it so far. There’s something about the snow and white and cold out here that’s a lot different than in the city. We have a much greater appreciation for it. Instead of thinking, “ah man, it’s snowing.” We’re saying, “It’s snowing, isn’t it nice!” Everything is clean white, crisp and totally peaceful. Sure there have been some bloody cold and windy days already, but I really haven’t minded them, at least not nearly as much as we had when we lived in town. It’s funny, we get up and drive into work while watching the sun rise shining across the snow covered prairies, listening to music, chatting about the day to come and drinking coffee. It’s nice. When we get to town, it’s crazy. People rushing to get to work, driving like a-holes, the roads are dirty and brown, the sky is much further in the distance behind the buildings puffing exhaust from their heating systems, and the roads are way worse in town then what we just drove in on! I dunno, I kind of prefer winter in the countryside…

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Exploring our new backyard

The “Cottage” we were now going to be living in for the next year or so was located on a large tree farm just off of the river. Being a tree farm, it afforded some pretty awesome paths, trails, and secluded hideaways.

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This is one of new favourite walks. Through the towering spruce and fir trees that are row upon row through the property.

Walking the property, and just beyond it, has many changes in scenery. The the heavy rows of trees to prairie and grass and down to the river valley.

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Ok, so these dudes are a bit down the way from us, but still, buffalos.

Settling into the country side

The move itself went surprising well for the most part. However while driving from the city with our last load of stuff in the back of the truck, driving down our grid road, the power steering of our truck locked up and I was no longer able to turn. Great. It was 10:00pm at night, but fortunately we were literally pulling up to the gates of the yard. Had this happened even 5 minutes sooner we would have had a long walk to our new home.

The following day, (and being a ruralite and all now), I figured I’d better try to fix my ol’ truck myself. That’s whatcha do in the countryside, right? I’ve never dared to touch my vehicles before. I’ve never even given my car an oil change. I’ve changed a tire once. And I have added window washer fluid… but that’s about the extent of my car-fixin’ abilities. Still, for whatever reason, I thought I could fix this truck.

Naturally, I called my dad the next morning. “Dad, I gotta fix my truck.” I explained what happened. “Did you check the engine coolant and power steering fluid?” He asked. “I don’t know where that is,” I replied, “I know where the window washer fluid goes though.”

“Well, what about the alternator? Can you see the fan belt? How does that look?” he asked. “Um, I don’t know what those things are either.”

“Jesus Christ.” (My father is a very religious man, as you can tell).

I finally decided to just use FaceTime and show him where things were. “Tell me what to take apart, k?”, I requested.

He figured he’d better come out before I caused irreparable damage to my truck.

I felt very manly the rest of the day: denim shirt and jeans + greasy hands + a bunch of socket wrenches (metric and imperial, of course) = Badass.

Over the course of the afternoon we took apart a bunch of stuff (they probably have names) and realized that the fan belt had come off. After watching a couple of YouTube videos we figured out how to put it back on. I really hoped it would just be a simple task of putting the belt back on and Vroom, the truck would live again. Unfortunately, it was not that easy. Despite our best efforts and several hours of work, it became apparent that Wwe’d have to get it towed into town.

Now getting a tow truck all the way out here would have been a small fortune. Thankfully for us though, Darcie (so smart) had just bought us a CAA membership, which for $180 would give you five free tows and they would be available for roadside assistance whenever needed. About a week later Darcie locked the keys in the car while it was running (not so smart) and CAA came out again to jimmy the door open. Clearly the membership has paid for itself already.

As you can tell, we are settling into the reality of the countryside quite nicely already.