Now we’re cooking with solar

Over a week ago the Solavore Sport arrived, just in time for a much needed moisture dumping snowstorm. So it sat in the box while I plowed through other assignments and waited for the sun and warm weather to return.  Although we had much nicer days earlier in the week with totally blue bird skies, yesterday was my day to give it a try since another round of rain is on its way. I was a bit dubious whether I was going to be able to do anything when I woke to unexpected cloud cover, but by noon the skies looked more promising so I set it on the picnic table to see if it would heat up enough to give cookies a try.


When I cook, I’m often a, “Turn it on high and say goodbye. When it’s black, c’mon back!” type of chef. I’m always in a rush (which is why the pressure cooker is one of my all time favorite kitchen appliances). Solar ovens are more along the lines of a slow cooker using the sun instead of plugging it in. Once the temperature is over 180 degrees F. you can use it, although if it drops below 150 degrees F. you’re asking for trouble since the lower temperatures can allow bacteria to proliferate. But since we’re not dealing with 350 degrees or more, it’s important to realize that it’s going to take more time. With the clouds and periodic sun, the oven reached just over 200 degrees yesterday, although there was a fair amount of time when it hovered around 175 degrees.  I thought there was no way those cookies were going to bake at all, but I wanted to give it a try.

Cookies in the solar oven
Cookies in the solar oven

We just made the regular chocolate chip recipe, and spooned a dozen in a parched line pan that was small enough to fit in the oven. It took a couple of hours to bake, but they were incredibly hot and yummy! I can totally see pulling out a batch of these while hunkering around the campfire sometime this summer. Talk about a terrific camping experience.

My little experiment opened up a world of possibilities for me in the outdoor cooking realm. When our fire danger is off the charts, what can be a safer way to cook? I can absolutely see bringing this with us to camp, putting a meal in there, and then heading off to hike or fish. You don’t have to fuss and worry about foods burning.

I’m also going to use it this summer when the temps crack the mid-80s, and Grant is grousing at me every time I start the oven since it heats up the house. Since we don’t have air conditioning, it does tend to feel like a sauna in here at times. (And if you do have air conditioning, I would think this could help reduce how hard it’ll have to work.) Although I won’t be able to bake my weekly 3 loaves of Kamut Khorasan wheat bread in it, I can easily put together dinner a head of time, and set it in there to cook for hours. I think my next project will be barbecued ribs, although from what I’m reading, the options are practically limitless.

It’s going to be a lot of fun to play with the Solavore Sport, not only at home, but when we go camping. I see why they are so important in areas of the world where fuel is scarce, and I can understand how they can help us reduce our energy usage, as well.

Chicks, Man!

WhitneyIt’s been a long time since we’ve had chicks in the house. After a season or two of keeping them inside, then waiting months for them to start producing eggs, we went the route of acquiring grown chickens, either from friends or buying them at the fair. A few times it worked okay, and we were delighted with birds that were already laying. But through this process, I also learned that nearly every grown bird you find is “about a year old” and “just started laying.” Let’s just say there’s a fair amount of horse trading techniques when it comes to hens.

Since our 5 birds are down to laying 1 egg every day or so (as in, when the mood suits them) it’s time to refresh the flock with some youngsters. Yesterday the boys and I went to North 40 since Thursdays is one of the days when the chicks arrive. Chicks are certainly a hot commodity. I wanted to be there by 8:30, but we didn’t make it until 10 and a fair number of the chicks were already sold.

They could’ve waited until next week to pick the breeds the hoped for, but who can walk away empty handed from chicks? Samuel wanted leghorns, which I don’t think arrived on that particular day, so instead he brought home  a Buff Orpington and Bantam of some sort. That’s our mystery bird. John picked the last little Spectacled Sussex left in the pen because she looked lonely, and also opted for a Barred Rock. It’s quite the mix.

In previous years we kept the chicks in a metal trough. It worked great. But, of course, Grant sold it at one of our garage sales along with the heat lamp. I bought an enclosure that folds thinking it will be easier to store so it won’t be as likely to end up with a sale sign on it. We set that up in the boys’ little swimming pool in the laundry area. I can’t say that I like the enclosure very well. So far it’s doing the job, but it’s pretty flimsy. I clamped the heat lamp on it, since the stand that came with it does not come close to supporting the lamp, and still had to wrap it around a chair to hold it stable. The set up should work okay for the amount of time that we need it.

One nugget, two nugget...The wild card factor this go around is Luna. Being a bird dog and all, having 4 peeping little fuzzballs at nose level is almost unbearable. She stood over the enclosure literally shaking. Thankfully, I didn’t see drool or I would’ve been really worried. The times she has perched over the chicks has been uneventful. She just intently watches, but to be extra safe, we’re restricting her to the end of the hallway so temptation is out of reach.

Having chicks around is fun… so far. In the meantime, I’m fencing off my front garden so I can move the bulk of the adult chickens in there to till up the area and take out the prickly lettuce and other weeds that have pretty much taken over. When I interviewed Justin Rhodes from Abundant Permaculture last year he said even if his chickens didn’t lay eggs he would have them for garden work. I’m putting that concept to work this year. Right now I’m optimistic that the garden will be taken care of by the old contingent, and by the fall we’ll be flush in eggs from the new girls.

Ready or not, spring is here

One thing I appreciate about Facebook is the ability to look back over the years to see what we were doing in each season. Three years and beyond it wasn’t uncommon to be ice fishing at the end of February into the beginning of March (even for a chicken like me). This year it ended well over a month ago, and we’re now thinking about throwing a line in the open water.


It’s also time to prepare the gardens because whether I’m ready or not, it is beginning. The golden currants, chokecherries, roses, and lilacs are leafing out. If our weather holds, the Nanking cherries and American plums are soon to follow.


Crocuses are blooming at home, and at our neighbors’ home a few doors down they have daffodils in their full glory. I have to check, but I think this might be the earliest date I’ve seen them around here, as of yet. Granted, they are planted against the south side of the house, but this is still early.

Cutting back Polana raspberries
Cutting back Polana raspberries

Last weekend the boys helped me clean the gardens. They both took down the dead hops, and Samuel cut back the ‘Polana’ raspberries, which are a fall-bearing variety that needs to be whacked down each season. Overachievers do it in the fall. I prefer to wait until we have some warm days in the winter or spring so I have an excuse to be outside. They will begin producing towards the end of August, and often continue until a freeze in October. With our mercurial winters, I’m finding this is an ideal variety since there is no risk of losing exposed canes.

We also had to cut down 2 of our small apples trees. The combination of warm and subzero temperatures in 2014, followed by a fluctuating winter, and fire blight in the area was too much for them. I might also have to take out the one in front of our house, which was there since we moved in 9 years ago,  since it looks rather dismal.

And I’m starting to put my soaker hoses and lumber wrap in place preparing for planting. In one section of the garden, I put down the wrap to keep the weeds at bay, and I’ll set approximately 20 straw bales as part of my straw bale gardening experiment on top of it. I’m doing it by the book (Straw Bale Gardens Complete by Joel Karsten), and I want to have everything in place well before I’m ready to plant, which might be within the next month. After I have the bales where they need to be, I’ll start the conditioning process with the high nitrogen fertilizer so they’ll be ready. In my other large garden, I need to set the soaker hoses, and then cover the entire area with lumber wrap. That’s where I’ll plant squashes, pumpkins and other vining varieties and allow the plants to cover the space… while hold down those wraps from being ripped away by the wind.

I’m sure we’ll have inclement weather again before we can safely say that spring has arrived, and since we desperately need moisture even a big dump of snow would be a welcomed sight. But it’s time to shift gears and enjoy the warmer weather with all of the pleasurable tasks that make it a joy.

Weekend Winter Getaway

A couple of weeks ago friends invited us to join them a the Glacier Wilderness Resort near Essex where they own a timeshare week, and make a point to spend time there every winter. Even though I worked at the Izaak Walton Inn many moons ago, and have driven past the Glacier Wilderness Resort at least a thousand times, I had no idea it was such a lovely place to stay. The cabin was large and comfortable with pretty much everything you needed (except for food and such, of course). And the hot tub on the porch was a big hit with the boys. The Lodge has a nice little fitness room, pool table, and reading area. There’s even a swimming pool that’s kept at 95 degrees F. It’s truly everything you’d want, and it would be easy to spend a week without leaving the grounds. 

Shortly after we arrived, which involved driving in blizzard conditions over Marias Pass, we donned our snowshoes and headed out on the trails behind the cabins. A short walk took us to a beautiful waterfall where the bridge allowed us to walk close to the flowing water behind the snow. We continued a little bit farther, but the lure of opening birthday presents for our youngest got the better of him, and it didn’t take long before he wanted to go back. Even though it was a brief walk through the beautiful woods, the possibilities didn’t escape me. 

By the next morning the weather had improved so we decided to head to Apgar and Lake McDonald to snowshoe or ski on Going to the Sun Road.  The winter in Glacier is one of my favorite times to be there because it is a completely different world than the insane overcrowding during the summer. It was a popular place on that particular Sunday, but it was nothing compared to what the parking lot looks like in July. 

We parked at the end of the parking lot at Lake McDonald Lodge, where there is a great vault restroom you can use before you start your trek. (This is important stuff to know!) Our eldest and I put on our skis, despite the slick conditions. John started with snowshoes, but switched to skis. Even then, he was resistant, and his dad ended up pulling him with a ski pole for the entire 3 mile trip.  We went down to the bridge at the head of Lake McDonald where we grabbed a snack, and spotted a large whitefish in the water below. It was absolutely gorgeous blue-sky day, and I thought it was very interesting that our trip back to the car took half the time as it did to reach the bridge. 

Being outdoors at any time of the year refreshes the soul, but it’s especially rejuvenating in the middle of winter when outdoor recreation is often limited by inclement weather or shortened days. It was a fantastic opportunity to show the boys how beautiful it is, and how fun the winter can be.

Fishing the hard water on Holter Lake

Ice fishing is one of those activities that makes winter pass a bit more quickly, and depending on the thickness of the said hard water, might make your life pass more quickly, as well.  But it’s my husband’s favorite type of fishing,  so we occasionally join him during the season.


Those occasions mostly depend on the ice conditions. While the standard recommendation is ice is “safe” for people walking on it around 4 to 6 inches thick, I’m more comfortable with an excess of 9 inches after we’ve had days of sub-zero temps. We had cold temps the previous weekend, but when it warmed up to the upper 30s for a couple of days, I’ll fully admit that I was a bit anxious. Rationally, I knew it wouldn’t melt the ice significantly, especially since it was freezing at night, but that lovely warm sun nagged at me that the ice was weakening. Thankfully, my concerns were for naught as it was a good 11 inches thick where we went on Holter Lake.

Catching trout

Holter has been fickle this year. One day people will limit out at 50 really nice fish per person (we’re talking 8-10 inch perch); other days you’re hard pressed to hook a couple. Yesterday was the latter. We had multiple lines in the water, but didn’t catch anything except a 10 inch trout and a single perch.  Yet, it was a mild day with a little sun to make it nice, and with thick ice under our feet, it was still a good time for the most part. (I have to add “for the most part” since a few brotherly squabbles turned into some somber moods.)

While they fished, I took the opportunity to clip into the Nordic skates once again to see if I could at least stand without falling. I tried them on Gibson Pond last weekend with the realization that I didn’t have a clue how to move forward.  I had John pull me along, then I bit the ice. (Or, as John says, “Mom fell on her tush!”) So I came home and looked at videos to see how these things work. The big difference is you ski skate with these. They’re not figure skates where you push off with your toe, and once you get the hang of it they really look amazing and effortless. I’ll keep working on it so hopefully I can get to the point where I can be off skating while they’re fishing (if the bite is slow… if it’s on I want to be there). Nordic Skates

I didn’t do anything too exciting yesterday, but managed to shuffle around in circles without taking a dive.  As Grant reminded me, he really didn’t want to have to drag me off the ice, which was probably a good 1/4 mile walk just to the trailhead back to the truck, and I fully agreed. They did feel better, and I can see how these can be a whole lot of fun once I get my “ice legs.”

Overall we had a great day outdoors. It’s always good to take this time  outside with the boys. We saw osprey and heard them call, watched dozens, if not hundreds, of geese fly in and land, and spotted numerous duck species. They always learn something from these outings, and they’re going to remember these things.


So with warming weather in the near future, I’m not sure if we’ll make it on the ice again this season, but we’ll undoubtedly be fishing the open water within a month, and hitting the hiking trails before we know it!

Ask North 40

Lush garden

One thing I love to do is answer gardening questions, and help people have a successful growing experience. So this week I answered a question for the folks at North 40 Outfitters on what we can grow in Central Montana.

Here’s the answer at Ask North 40 Episode 1.

Embracing winter

Winter can be rough on people, and I must admit, that I can whine along with the best of them when the temperature plummets and the snow falls.

IMG_1591When you look at it,  it’s simply not that fun to have to put on snowshoes to take care of the chickens, or to take 10 minutes just to dress to feed the horse. On the other, there really are a lot of fun activities that we can only do in the winter. So I’m making a concerted effort to change my attitude. The reality is, winter isn’t going anywhere, and complaining about it does nothing to make it better.

IMG_1740Obviously ice fishing is a sport best done when it’s been very cold for a considerable amount of time. When they’re biting, you don’t notice the weather. And, to add to the fun on the ice, this year I’m experimenting with a pair of Nordic skates. They’re fast, more stable, and can glide along the rough surface of the frozen lakes. Hopefully, I’ll be able to cruise around while waiting for the bite to come on, although I’m guessing I’ll be the go-to person for tip-up duty.

Sledding is a simple adrenaline rush for those of us who aren’t used to swooshing down the ski hill. It’s great fun, and a tremendous workout hoofing it back up the hill.  Plus, it lets you feel like you really earned your hot cocoa.

IMG_1593Along these lines, although preferably with less of a thrill unless you find yourself on a steeper-than-desired incline, cross-country skiing can take you places deep in the woods or the prairie, allowing you to really get out and enjoy this peaceful time of the season. Or, if you totally want to keep your feet on the ground, strap on the snowshoes. They’re kind of like the tanks of winter travel. While they’re not as graceful as skis, they certainly are stable and reliable.

This year I’m looking on the bright side of winter. Every opportunity will find us out either skating on the local pond with our friends (since an impromptu hockey game can’t be beat for winter fun), or snowshoeing in the nearby National Forest or Glacier National Park. Winter won’t last forever so it’s time to wring every bit of enjoyment out of it as we can. You just have to make the best of what winter has to offer. Grisak