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November 25, 2013


t’s inevitable that the cold will come and slow the chore pace down.  That day came mid-week, inside the barn the thermometer read 20°F.  Jane’s leather halter is stiff from the cold. I toss it aside at night after taking it off her, and it’s warm and pliable then from her body heat, now by morning it’s hard to buckle, and she’s impatient to get to her milking stall where rolled barley and carrots await.  I’m impatient to get my hands on those warm teats!  Just keepin’ it real, it’s the truth.  I didn’t want to roll out of bed, and start the day or the fire.  Once I got going though, I had the same kind of feeling about quitting milking.  When the last drop of milk is stripped, I have to anoint Jane with stiff-from-the-cold balm before she goes out for the day.  Now she is impatient to go out, and I am on the fence about wanting the milking to be over, but also wanting to go in to get close to the stove.  I’ll be going from warm to cold, back and forth all day.  The weather reports from Portland don’t really cover our little spot of heaven, except to call us an “outlying area.”  We can usually figure about 10 degrees cooler because the strong Gorge winds that moderate the temperature in Ptown, don’t affect us here at the farm too much.  All day Wednesday I had been mindful of the water system.  Also on my mind were things that needed checking or rounding up because of the cold.  I needed to find my water trough sticks, barn tea kettle, set water buckets out in the sun to melt, and get our heavy water use out-of-the-way early so the overflow would start overflowing again by dark.  Except the overflow wasn’t running…and it’s Thursday.

I go over the water use the day before in my mind as I’m milking.  Two people home, showers early, one small load of laundry, normal dishes.  The overflow should be running. That means a walk up to the tank, to see if in fact the ram is running, and since it’s really pretty obvious that it isn’t, due to the overflow being stopped, I need to see how low the tank is.  (And then make plans in the already over-scheduled day to go down to the spring and start the ram.)  That will tell me how much water I need to conserve this day to get that tank full and the overflow going again to the water trough.  Mental note:  Boil water notice, not because there is anything wrong with our water, but that I need to heat water to do dishes, it’s churning day, I will need to be washing lots of milk jars, cream jars, churn or food processor, that’s in addition to all the other dishes that cooking three meals per day from scratch require.  If I heat the water on the stove that is just providing heat…I can turn that first tap water into hot water.  I’ve done the same in the summer in low water times.

But before I can wash those dishes, I need to start the ram.  This is where true self-reliance comes in.  Not feminism, women’s lib and all that.  Just plain self-reliance.  My husband has to go to work to keep a water system flowing for people who couldn’t care less about their water, until it doesn’t come out of that tap.  Trust me, they don’t care at all, and by darn sure many of them don’t go without.  You would not believe the calls he gets in the evening or the middle of the night about people’s water supply.  Not enough pressure, my toilet won’t stop running…too many to list really.  And you know what?  Most of them he can’t help them because IT’S NOT THE CITY’S PROBLEM.  The municipal workers cannot do plumbing on the other side of the meter.  Sure a main break, or some failure with the wells or sewer system, yes, those things need to be assessed and fixed, but those calls rarely come.  Try diagnosing someone’s water system over the phone at 2:00 am when you’re groggy.  One lady didn’t have any water, and it turned out her vindictive ex had snuck in and turned off the water.  She didn’t even know where her main shutoff was.   People have become pretty helpless these days…as I type this I can hear the weather report on the television and they are telling you what type of jacket to wear, if you need an umbrella etc.  Gah.

If I don’t go start the ram during the day, that means my husband has to go do it in the dark after he gets home from work.  Since there is a chance I can’t get it running, because I don’t know yet why it stopped, he may have to go down in the canyon in the dark anyway.  But if I don’t go and at least try to start it, the chance he will have to do this task is 100% .  He’s the ramologist, I’m not, I’ve lucked out lately I haven’t had to start the ram at all for a number of years.  The ram is pretty much an automatic water delivery system until it’s not.  We don’t have to wait for the wind to blow, or hope the electrical grid stays on, we just rely on the water to flow.  Water flow pumps the water to a high point, and gravity takes care of the water flow to us.  It’s so simple it is complicated.

Columbia Ram system illustration

Columbia Ram system illustration

This drawing depicts our water system fairly accurately so you can get an idea of using water to pump water from a low point to the high point on a piece of land.  I guess in the south you would say our water comes from the holler.  Here we call it a canyon.  Where our farm is located the flat ground is on the ridge top, and the water is down deep in the canyons.

There are several differences between this drawing from our hydraulic ram manual and our system:
♥  Our water comes from a spring and our ram intake is tapped into the spring subterraneanly.

♥  Our tank setup is also a little different as ours is placed at the highest point on the farm instead of having a water tower tank close to the house.

♥  Our holding tank is also plumbed with an overflow system to provide water for the barn, and to give us constant idea of how the ram is running down in the canyon.  The overflow system consists of a standpipe equal in height to the discharge pipe from the ram and has a separate line to the water trough at the barn.  The parallel underground line to the house drains from the bottom of the tank.

at the spring

at the spring

Whether its summer or winter the overflow commands our attention on a daily basis, as it is the indicator of what’s going on down in the canyon at the spring. If we use a lot of water at the house, say laundry, showers, washing milk jars etc., it will stop the overflow at the trough.  We are mindful of that, but if no one is using any water and the overflow is stopped we know something is going on at the ram.  We watch the overflow summer and winter, in the summer it may mean the water level of the spring is dropping and the ram stroke needs adjusting.  In the winter we don’t want the ram to stop during a cold snap and freeze the pipes, a stoppage in the winter may mean an intake screen is plugged or that the water flow to the ram has been stopped or slowed somehow.  This system depends on running water.  The overflow management has been part of my subconscious since I was a child.  I can see the overflow stream sparkling from my station at the kitchen sink, and when I step out the door I automatically listen for the music of that water.  Water makes everything on this farm flow.

New water tank - 1926

New water tank – 1926

Present water tank off to the left of Jane.

Present water tank off to the left of Jane.

Water is pumped 24/7/365 to the tank in the field above the barn.

water trough - 1920's

water trough – 1920’s

We have water on demand at the house, and the water trough at the barn receives the overflow.

Art at the overflow

Art at the overflow

After seeing that the tank was down eight inches or so, I knew it had been stopped for some time, and that it would take many hours to replenish that eight inches.  So it was up to me to make the jaunt down to the ram, and rack my brain on just exactly what to do.  I know that when the ram is stopped air gets trapped in the drive pipe, so I would have to bleed the drive pipe to get the air out, and then try to get the ram to start.  Sometimes but not always, there is more than one thing wrong at the ram, troubleshooting and eliminating possible causes is the name of the game.  Ruthless went with me for moral support, plus it’s kind of fun to go to the ram anyway, until you have to climb back out of that canyon :p  I was hoping it was just a water supply problem and not a leather gasket problem.  Hopefully we could get the water flowing again.

I bled the line by opening the waste valve and letting the water rush through, hopefully carrying any persnickety air bubbles on out with it.  At this point you shut the waste valve and if everything is right it will start opening and closing on its own and be pumping water again.  The you listen and count.  Does it sound right?  Is it running smooth and even, or sloppy and uneven?  Count to one thousand, or if it’s ccccold, you (or least I do) you count to five hundred.  In the summer the cool canyon is a respite from the heat up above in the light, this time of year, when the sunlight never hits the stream, it’s cold down there.  Does it sound right?  How on earth can I explain that?  Well, once you’ve heard good and bad you know what “right” is.  It has a certain ring to it, and it’s a wonderful sound to behold…behear?  In me it stirs the same tears, and gladness that the sound the baler plunger makes during haying season.  Tears of gratitude, a comforting feeling that only a full tank of water and a barn full of hay can bring to a farmer.  It’s also relief, that “it” works.  Whatever “it” is.  It makes you feel independent and free to be able to take care of yourself.  There is nothing wrong with being dependent either, we are all dependent on others for many things.  I wish more people could feel the independence though, I think that is missing in a lot of lives.

But I digress, the ram took off, although a little haltingly, so tired of the cold, I made my way up past the drive pipe to the barrel, and too my horror I saw there was no overflow from the front of the barrel.  Uh oh!  Brain racking time.  Okay – ram stopped because it was out of water despite water everywhere!  Okay – screen plugged.  I should have went to the barrel first instead of just looking at the ram and starting it.  In the summer this would have been critical, due to low water, but this is not low water time so I was safe, even though I did my troubleshooting backwards.  I cleaned the screen and restored the water flow to the barrel.  By this time the pipe was really ringing, and we had counted to three hundred maybe.  We decided to just go back to the house and if I had to go back down to the spring later I would.  Cows needed to be moved, fires tended.  As it was, the water beat us to the tank.  It was running into the tank by time we hiked back.  Phew!

I saw this later – the ramologist notes in the ram notebook:

11-21-13 Lots of water but screen plugged stopping ram.  Nita and Lyd cleaned it out and got it started!

The exclamation point says it all 😉

28 Comments leave one →
  1. November 25, 2013 12:01 pm

    what an excellent idea to make notes of these things too. i do agree about indendence. i worry for some people in crises. even weather crisis. they all become like babies. and i bet you felt a deep old fashioned pride in analysing the problem and fixing it.. we have well water here with an electric pump to bring it up.. everything else i can do by hand, heat, cook. farm.etc, but i feel uneasy about depending on electricity for water. c

    • November 25, 2013 5:07 pm

      C., I am glad we don’t have a well, but in many places that is the only way to get water 😦 Hoping your electricity stays on and especially when Daisy calves too.

      • November 25, 2013 5:10 pm

        I am better at hand milking now, but she gives such HUGE volumes and has a short attention span, just imagine!. c

  2. Laura permalink
    November 25, 2013 2:09 pm

    If you want local weather go to and input your nearest city (left column). Then find where you are really located on the map that appears and click on the map at that spot. That way you’ll get weather for your location. Great for real rural areas.

    Thank you for all the really great posts. I always look for your posts and read them first.

    • November 25, 2013 2:25 pm

      Laura, noaa only tells me what it’s doing at the noaa weather station, I need to combine about 3 of them to even come close to our weather conditions unfortunately. 😦

  3. Laura permalink
    November 25, 2013 2:18 pm

    Oh, I forgot. Where I have aggregations of animals on my farm, I find a 30 gallon garbage pail and fill it with water as an emergency water supply. I only use the garbage pails for feed or water so they’re always clean. I guess I have about 4 or 5 garbage cans that hold emergency water.

    I carry a small bucket around with me on my ATV (I can’t walk very far due to arthritis) and can just scoop up the amount I need to fill the tubs for my potbelly and weaner pigs after I break the thin skim of ice (water is covered).

    I also put two large water tubs in with the cows and sheep and can generally refill them if they get low when the afternoon sun unthaws the hoses enough to get a trickle which eventually turns into a flood as the ice inside the hose melts. Otherwise they’re always filled with the automatic waterer.

    If things get really desperate, we have a creek behind our house that rarely freezes. I can drive the tractor down to the stream with a 55 gallon tank on it and just fill it by hand using my small bucket. Takes awhile but that’s as much weight as I can handle. And the water is always flowing.

  4. November 25, 2013 3:14 pm

    You are a true Prairie Woman, Matron, and that’s a true compliment.

  5. November 25, 2013 3:38 pm

    Awesome – it’s cool to find independent like minded people out there. Our winters often hit 30 – 40 below…. We have hydro but can easily do without when it frequently goes down this time of year. We have about 350 gallons always stored in the barn for the animals, and a wood heater to keep it from freezing. We also have a small generator that will run the well, barn, heated water buckets and heat lamps should there be any on. I absolutely love not having to rely on anybody but ourselves……and yes – there sure are a lot of people out there that have zero clue and no plan in place for when things go haywire.

    • November 25, 2013 5:05 pm

      Luckily we don’t have to battle that cold here! Sounds like you’re all set 🙂

      I met a family named Bjerke in South Dakota when I was a child. I had the good fortune to go with my surrogate grandparents/babysitters on a month long trip home to visit family one summer. I haven’t heard that name since.

      • November 25, 2013 8:11 pm

        Hmmm….South Dakota – oddly enough, my great grandparents came over from Norway and settled in Minnesota. Of the sons (twins) my grandfather came to Canada and settled in Alberta. His son (my dad) was born there, as was I and my brother, though I now live in Northern BC. I’m always interested when somebody mentions ‘Bjerke’ as yes, it’s no longer a common name. I kept it after i married for that reason. I might do some digging and see if you might have met a relative all those years ago. 😊Btw – you have an excellent blog – glad I came across it.

        • November 25, 2013 9:40 pm

          That is interesting, it is not a common name at all, I was delighted to see your name as well.

          Your blog looks quite interesting as well. It looks like we’re on the same page.

  6. Bev permalink
    November 25, 2013 3:38 pm

    You brought back lots of memories. We were blessed to have gravity flow water from our spring. We used to laugh. Our family and friends would say. Wow! Free water. Right. First build the spring box. Then the Investment in a 2900 gallon water tank. Over 1800′ of water pipe. To the tank and then to the house. We would get a major storm, plugged up lines or the water level would drop. Clean the debris and air out of the line and hope. Sometimes the bears would fuss with the pipes up in the canyon. They like the humming sound. Connections would come loose, etc. Need I say more. It depends on how you look at the word free. So we understand perfectly just what you are talking about. Of course it always happens when you are having lots of company. Glad your water is back.

    • November 25, 2013 4:07 pm

      Bev, I had to laugh at the bear comment, our dogs just want to “get” water ever is in that drive pipe. They cry and bite and just can’t get it out of there. Needless to say, much like when the cow freshens, the dogs stay AT THE HOUSE! Our irrigation ram was like that when I was a kid, always cleaning that flume, ugh. I like this enclosed system much better 🙂

  7. A.A. permalink
    November 26, 2013 1:26 am

    This thing you wrote was quite stirring:

    “Tears of gratitude, a comforting feeling that only a full tank of water and a barn full of hay can bring to a farmer. It’s also relief, that “it” works. Whatever “it” is. It makes you feel independent and free to be able to take care of yourself. There is nothing wrong with being dependent either, we are all dependent on others for many things. I wish more people could feel the independence though, I think that is missing in a lot of lives.”

    It seems to me the in the past, people placed this kind of trust in and had this kind of gratitude for the land. Nowadays the trust, if you can call it that, is placed in technology and there’s hardly any gratitude anymore, just an urge to get more and control more because the “trust” really isn’t working. It seems to me homesteaders are somewhere in between the real deal–a kind of indigenous trust in the land and a deep sense of comfort and belonging from living with her–and the disconnect and the forced trust in machines and machine-like living that characterizes the broader culture of control, fear and destruction. Somewhere, someone got really scared, of a violent man most likely, and it was contagious and was projected onto nature and became the culture.

    I had a beautiful experience last weekend. With the snow and the light, you can see your way around the woods in the dark in starlight. I’ve met someone I like, she came over and we went out walking with both our dogs. We took off for this fox hole, dug into a large round or horseshoe shaped mound with trees growing on it, a kind of special place that I found some years back and wanted to go to, with no foxes, badgers or raccoon dogs living there of late though. Out of the blue–or out of the woods more like!–she had the idea of us both hugging this young pine growing there and each other at the same time. I’ve never done that before and we hadn’t hugged like that. But it was beautiful. This was something I hadn’t seen of that place until she did and showed it to me.

    Related, I’ve been pretty evil on the rats poisoning them. They’ve had free room and board for too long, something I have now fixed and will avoid in the future. I couldn’t just take their food away and expect them not to move out and move in with me in the house and with the neighbors in theirs. So poison it was, sheer evil betrayal from their point of view I’m sure, and it’s not like they’re stupid or indifferent to their lives you know. So now that I got the bedding pack cleaned out with the dead rats carcasses also in it, the rats started coming into my dreams, as people who were utterly pissed and out to get me and who I couldn’t shake off or kill off in any way anymore. For one person, it helped him that I listed to what he had to say, but there were others who didn’t want to talk so much as hurt me. Not too surprising taken my act I guess! Anyway, yesterday I woke up from one such dream. A part of it had helped me make clear the connection to the rats and the poisoning, that the pissed people were the spirits of the rats I had run over. During the day I heard a shot from somewhere, didn’t see the dog anywhere, got frightened by that and admitted to myself to feeling generally distraught. That was until I decided to make a place for the rats to be in, somewhere they could be in now that I’d destroyed their field, as they put it in another dream. So I made a small house on top of a short log and carved a rat out of a piece of wood with an axe to put in it. I’ve never done any axe carving, but this just somehow came out of me and the piece of wood and it’s a pretty good rat. So I carefully put that in the barn to give them a place and later thought what other gifts I could give them to make up, like a beautiful little rock I’ve found. Now last night, I met girls from school when we were around fourteen, who really liked me for who I was in the dream, and almost as an aside, asked for that rock as a gift. How nice 🙂 I’ll be sure to put it beside the wooden rat. I guess if I had cats and could figure out a way to keep them hunting rats without destroying the nesting birds, they’d take care of the spiritual maintenance work involved with hunting rats while they were at it 😉

    Tldr, but this is the kind of thing your posts often remind me of, because it seems to be similar to what you’re living with and getting to experience. Glad you got your water running and got the magic restored! 😉

  8. November 26, 2013 2:05 am

    That is amazing information and impressive! We have our own well, and if the pump ever stops, we do have a manual hand pump we can use. It’s no fun, but it is much better than being w/o water!

  9. November 26, 2013 9:05 am

    That’s awesome. I’d love to see your daughter’s photos of all the pieces of that system. We have an artesian well on our property, and I’d love to put in a ram to pump it to the high point, to have flowing water even with the power out.

    • November 26, 2013 9:34 am

      Adalyn, rams are pretty sweet, for every one foot of head you get 10 feet of lift, which works really well in our situation. Our holding tank is about 1100 gallons, it’s surprising how long you can make that last if you have to.

      We did bite the bullet a few years back and hook up to the municipal supply too for the greenhouses, etc. The price was going to double, making it cost prohibitive to wait. We rarely use it, except the greenhouses but it’s nice to know it’s there. That system is gravity too, so no one is this town on “city” water has to worry about the power either, at least for water.

    • snuck permalink
      November 28, 2013 9:32 pm

      It’s got me curious too! I have to get grey water from the bottom of our slight hill to the top and was planning a pump… but if I can do something like this… interesting.

  10. November 26, 2013 2:32 pm

    Such a fantastic post! I love reading about the details of things like this. It’s just one more thing to keep in mind as we plan our own homestead.

  11. November 26, 2013 2:32 pm

    We just looked at a property on Vancouver Island that was serviced by a spring, but the vague ‘there’s a license for water, from the hill across the street’ made me a bit nervous as to water quantity and quality. Do you have any regular testing on your water, or actually know where the source leads back to? Other property we have looked at has been serviced by shallow or drilled wells (or both). Some have logs and regular testing, other people just wave their hands at our questions. Our friend up in Lillooet BC has a spring on his property, and he and 14 other ‘licenses’ have such an assortment of open and closed tubing, pvc pipe, and what looked like dryer venting carrying water away from the source that my mind was blown. There was a lot of jury rigging going on there – it looked like one pipe led from a recycled heating oil container where I assume it was gathering pressure ?!?

    • November 26, 2013 4:03 pm

      Ellen, yes I would definitely do a test for sure before you commit. We don’t test our water, because is originates on our property in an area we maintain as a watershed, so we know what goes on there. Ours is tapped underground, piped to a food grade barrel (purchased new, not from craigslist) for collection to the pump. So our water is contained all the way from the underground spring to us. I know lots of people on shared systems, and then your water is only as good as the worst guy that maintains it. Even if you have your water tested, if it originates somewhere were you don’t have control, the test will only tell you what is in the water on the day the sample is taken. Wells should be tested too for contaminates.

  12. November 27, 2013 10:21 am

    We looked at a 150+ year old house once, that used to be an inn for hunters and travelers at one point. It was for sale and owned by the same family for all those years, until the youngest ones that inherited the house wanted nothing to do with it. I was quite fascinated about the house as it had 2 foot-thick stone walls, a butchering house with run-off troughs for the blood, and had it’s own spring for water. The problem was, which was the number one reason we didn’t go for it, the owner had the electricity cut off which meant the sump pump for the spring was shut off. The entire basement was submerged under more than 4 feet of water!! There were frogs swimming in there!! The realtor said the owner would pump the water out, but what about the cost of repairing all that water damage? Such a shame, as it was a beautiful place, and I still think of it sadly.

    I imagine had we bought the place, we’d have to replace much of the supports in the basement, install a generator to keep the pumps running in case of loss of electricity and install some sort of holding tank for the water.. All in all, a very costly investment on top of the price of house and the repairs.

    The spring on that property has a run-off about a mile down the road from the house and people in town bring their empty containers and fill up on free spring water.

    • snuck permalink
      November 28, 2013 9:30 pm

      Would a windmill have covered your possible water pump outage? Just a thought… they are fairly low maintenance, run on nothing and can handle a small spring fairly well.

      • November 28, 2013 9:48 pm

        We have no wind to speak of, and we just needed to check the inline screen in the water supply line.

  13. snuck permalink
    November 28, 2013 9:28 pm

    How fantastic to have such a handy supply of water! Another huge difference between where you are and I am (wheatbelt Western Australia). Our local area averages 360ml of rainfall a year (and no canyons or fresh streams) – we’re building a new house right now with a total of about 260m2 of roof coverage specifically to catch as much rain as we can – we still won’t get enough to look after a household of four (our rain falls in a set window generally between May and October – not much summer rain, and most falls are of only a few mm each so not enough to catch once you push the first runoff aside) – we’ll have enough to drink and some left over for the gardens (ok a lot but not enough)… and thankfully we are on the main water line (which was built 100yrs ago? Perth to Kalgoorlie).

  14. wildriver permalink
    December 1, 2013 7:53 am

    …” Tears of gratitude, “…

    I have shed a few, those lacking humility probably will never understand them.

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