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The Pike Log: Random Entries About Making His Story Mine

How to Survive Spider Poop, and Other North Woods Tips

Tall dog or bear cub: What do you think?
If you, like me, never heard of fly tape, don't feel bad. Means you live in a well-sealed suburban-looking home with a concrete cellar floor, factory-direct vinyl windows with fitted screens, and floors at 90 degrees to their walls.

Good for you!

When I moved from the Jersey Shore suburbs to 50 miles south of the Canadian border, never once did the details of daily survival speak to me. It was always the BIG decisions like snow tires and the right kind of boots in case I had to walk through a three-mile drift to buy a ham sandwich. Or, the must-have of a washer and dryer. Twenty 20 years of owning both convinced me the 20-mile, round trip to clean my socks could be spent on some other destination, to say nothing of hand washing and waiting 2 days for laundry to air dry into cardboard.

So consumed with the notion of writing the Great American Novel (otherwise known as a memoir about my father who came out of these North Woods to live in a suburban house) that the fine print about living nearly off the power grid escaped me.

To live in a camp built in 1907, tucked into three acres of a former apple orchard, what more does a rustic-lodge lifestyle require? There was my inherited hand-woven Oriental rug, curtains made from IKEA (back when it had a fabric department at New Jersey Turnpike Exit 13a), and a five-piece matching set of bookcases I was willing to break up because every wall featured a window for cross ventilation.

An oil furnace provides room warmth while propane heats the stove, the shower water and the clothes dryer. After some merriment trying to find a grounded outlet for my orange utility cord (never leave home without one is a pre-tip), House Guest #1, Tim O’Shea, ended the limbo moves across the kitchen with cup hooks into the ceiling seams, and I no longer worry about a lightening storm frying the computer equipment in the second-floor bedroom.

The unglamorous devil, however, is in the details nobody talks about until after you've moved in. Specifically they are those tiny, no-seeum-size insects that crawl and fly and poop when you're not looking. Not only did I not believe Sharon Pelletier Payeur, daughter of a female sawmill worker, when she suggested arachnids dropped the spots on the walls, my incredulity stretched even further at the Facebook responses when I offered up "Spider poop. Who knew?"

Turns out a number of people did, but none better than fellow Ranney alum and author, Ron Beecher. (He must have taken earth science with Dr. Biespiel.) Here's what the urbane Chicago dweller typed: "Everything that eats poops."

So, not pooping where you live doesn't apply here? Whose home is this anyway?

Cosmically speaking, my little hillside patch belongs to these pooping spiders, the wandering bear cub, the loping teenage deer, the chipmunks, and even the humming bird because in all likelihood they descended from the creatures that predated my ancestors' arrival in the Upper Connecticut River Valley back in 1700 something.

But in the food-chain rhetoric of eat-or-be-eaten (or pooped upon), I needed a way to survive this move, and there's only one of me. Here are my first six tips in case you, too, are contemplating an adventurous transfer from the manicured 'burbs to the unruly North Woods:

Tip #1: Mr. Clean's 'magic' eraser. If you're going to live in a cabin with historic gravitas where spider poop is a hazard to a good night's sleep, the little rectangular sponge is damn handy. It's as close to the Merry Maids' afterglow of cleanliness that can be achieved when your cellar floor is made of dirt. So far, it hasn't taken the paint off the walls. The splotches disappear with a little elbow grease, and when this sponge is used up, you can bet I'm buying a replacement.

Tip#2: painter's tape. Easier-to-use than duct tape, it's a multi-tasker, handy for storyboarding, cat-hair removal, and bandaging a paper towel over a wound. It also seals all the spaces where the screens don't meet the sills, halting the multi-legged creatures that advance from above the frost line. Those that fly up through the heat vents or come in the front door when you're lugging the garbage and recycling to your SUV for the weekly drive to the dump need a different approach.

Tip #3: fly tape. My childhood friend Gail Kimball from Littleton who grew up in a post WW II suburban house her father built asked with some disbelief, "They still making that stuff?" Had we done this in real time, former Montclair resident now ensconced on the other side of Waterford, Beth Kanell would have responded loudly: “Oh, yeah!” Fly tape is a sticky, two-sided strip you unfurl from a little canister and hang from a ceiling or window, out of a pet’s way, but not out of a pest’s orbit. I’m now on my sixth one, and the kitchen sink window is the best place to catch the little buggers. By the way, it also comes in wide, thick rolls like super-sized crime tape you can spread across an expanse when you’re putting out an APB (all pest bulletin). If you happen upon my camp and think Christo has been here, you'll know I've gone over the edge.

Tip #4: Diatomaceous earth. Having a hard time sounding that one out? Dia-toe-ma-sush: it's not phonetically correct, but it will get a retail clerk's attention. According to Beth, you spread this organic matter around your house’s foundation. Whatever’s in that soil dissuades the creepy crawlies from accessing your space. I looked the ‘d’ word up on line. Turns out one of the places it ‘grows’ is on the floor of Lake Memphremagog (sounds just the way it looks). If I survive to next spring, I’ll buy early and spread often.

Tip #5: Felines. If you’re going to live in an old camp, or even a new cabin, get a cat. Get two and let them do the pick-and-roll with whatever ventures from under the stove in search of food. Don’t get me wrong. Dogs are nice. Schnauzers were especially adept at catching and killing barn rats on Jane Allard Wright's family farm in North Conway, NH. And even a dog from the pound can go after the pesky woodchuck tunneling through your vegetable garden. Just ask Gail’s sister, Ellen Greaves. She finds them and Lucy exterminates them. Good dog. My cheese-farming neighbor up the road, Roberta Gillott, has both. Survival is sometimes a team effort.

Tip #6: A packet of shims. Anything built before WW I lists. If they're pulled too far, the kitchen drawers fall out here. Not only are all the bookcases propped up, so is my platform bed. First two weeks the mice chasers and I fought to sleep on the upside of the mattress; they won. Third week I had put shims under the bottom drawers on the side tilting into the closet and bathroom. Fourth week, more shims went in between the top set of drawers and the plywood that’s the flat layer before the mattress. Fifth week I took a blanket I wasn’t using, rolled it like a sausage and fit it inside the elastic of the 15-inch-deep side “pocket” of the mattress pad, under the mattress. The cats still sleep on the upside, but I’m no longer fighting gravity.

There are more solutions for transiting out of suburbia. But for now, those basics can assure a modest measure of North Woods comfort. Remember: a successful adventure is all about paying attention to the details.
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