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December 10, 2011
Lunar eclipse

At 6:00 am, Gail watches the beginning of a lunar eclipse

There were two reasons that we went up to our mountain home on the weekend of December 8-10. The first was that we were finally going to finish the deck rails. The second was that there was going to be a once-in-a-decade lunar eclipse.

On Saturday, December 10, the moon would pass completely through the Earth’s shadow. This particular eclipse would be most visible in the Pacific and Australasia, but a few areas of the northwest U.S. would get to see it in the early morning just before the moon set before sunrise.

Though we drove up on Thursday evening, Russell spent the entire day Friday working remotely. Any mountain home business would need to be done before we drove back home Saturday afternoon.

The first thing we did after we arrived was try a new phone gizmo. For the past several months, Russell has been trying to find a telephone solution for the remote area. Our cell phones get intermittent and unreliable reception. We have landline service, but it costs $30 a month and we’d like to find a cheaper solution.

Russell investigated AT&T’s MicroCell, which uses the Internet to mimic a cell tower. It worked for one weekend, then never again. Russell actually went through three MicroCells before finally returning the device and getting his money back (not without some argument from AT&T).

The latest attempt is a VOIP (voice over Internet Protocol) device called MagicJack that Gail came up with. We installed it on Russell’s laptop, hooked it up, and tried calling home. It works beautifully.

Gail calls home using the MagicJack. (Note the USG Christmas tree. ’Tis the season!)

On Saturday morning, Gail set the alarm for 4:30 am. We tried finding a good vantage point from anywhere inside the house, but the view was obscured by trees. We finally bundled up and went outside in the 40-degree cold, where the full moon shone in the northwest sky. Gail advocated sitting on the bench swing covered in blankets. Russell had a better idea: why don’t we just sit in our car and watch through the front windshield?

The moon approached full eclipse two hours later, just after 6:30 am. Unfortunately, we did not get to see the famous orange glow that accompanies a full umbra. Right at that point, the cloud cover obscured things. In addition, the sky started getting too bright as sunrise approached. Still, it was both fun and thrilling to participate in the event.

Some photos of the eclipse

But the big project for the weekend was the deck rails. We didn’t start on this until Saturday morning after the eclipse.

The deck rails – which are required for our occupancy permit – have long been a thorn in Russell’s side. We had rejected traditional wood railings in favor of less-visible cable railings. Over the past year, Russell has installed, uninstalled and reinstalled the deck posts. We have needed to reinforce the corner posts with aluminum angle iron bars and hose clamps to keep the cables from ripping through the post holes.

When our inspector Dennis last examined them, he declared that the cables for the two small decks were fine. But the cables for the big deck – which takes up three sides of the house’s octagon – would need to be tighter. Russell dutifully tightened the cable turnbuckles as far as they would go (there are turnbuckles at both ends of the eight cables on the big deck), but the cables were still too loose.

Gail contacted Hayn Enterprises, who had provided the original hardware to Topsider for our kit home. After numerous exchanges, we decided that the best and only solution would be to splice additional turnbuckles into the middle of each 45-foot cable.

Russell approached this project with apprehension. Once we cut a cable, it could never be “uncut.” We had to do everything right the first time. Russell drove Gail crazy with his analytical approach, making sure that each side was secured by vise-grip pliers before we cut the wire.

Gail and Russell on the large deck. We used vise grips to keep each cable taut as we cut it.

As it turned out, the process ended up being easy and straightforward. Hayn had provided us with new “swageless” turnbuckles that no longer require triple crimping. Instead, the cable ends are screwed into a socket and held in place with tension. Russell had estimated more than an hour for each cable. We ended up getting all eight done on Saturday morning before lunch. The cables are now nice and tight, with plenty of room left in the turnbuckles for retightening over time.

Hayn offers new “swageless” turnbuckles. They are more expensive, but worth it.

The mid-section of the big deck, before and after

Our early success left us with the energy and time for a couple of other projects.

Russell’s pet project for the weekend was to reinforce the external glu-lam beams that support the entire post-and-beam house. Over Thanksgiving, our brother-in-law Matt had observed that the glu-lams were beginning to separate. Indeed, we have heard from other Topsider owners that their houses have collapsed as a result of these beams completely failing.

Russell’s solution was to prevent further separation by running hose clamps around the beams. After Gail covered a couple of the beams in Varathane, Russell attached the clamps. Two down, six more to go.

The glu-lam beams that support the house are starting to separate

The glu-lam, before and after hose clamps

Gail’s pet project for the weekend was to rake the approach road. With the arrival of winter, the hundreds of oak trees around the property all drop their leaves. This is especially troublesome on the main gravel approach road, where a layer of leaves can make the road too slick to drive on when it rains.

Throughout the weekend, Gail used an electric leaf blower (connected by long extension cords up to the house) while Russell raked. The road is now clear – at least until the trees drop the rest of their leaves.

And finally, the approach road – before and after

On Saturday evening, we dined at Eddie Papa’s restaurant in Pleasant during the drive home. We remarked on how productive the day was, beginning at 4:30 am with a lunar eclipse and ending with the deck cables finally finished and a nice dinner out. We can hardly wait for our next adventure!

Gail enjoys beautiful weather as she applies Varathane to the exterior of our mountain home. (The photo looks distorted from the panoramic lens.)


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