malcolm.jpg                                                         Tales from North Frontenac

Malcolm Leith





One of our first retirement projects was to care for a friend’s cottage for a couple of years while they were off in foreign parts doing what we had done for more postings than most normal people would consider reasonable. In the course of this house sitting enterprise, we came to the conclusion that we might like a place of our own where we could putter around while waiting for future grandchildren to appear on the scene.

Our search took us north, south and west of the city, in ever increasing arcs until we finally found a property within our budget, which had potential for improvement.  We looked in summer and winter, spring and fall, making mental note of all the qualities to avoid and our wish list of must haves.  We chatted with locals and consulted real estate agents for at least two years. Eventually we followed up a lead for a property which was small enough for us to manage, yet large enough to have the privacy for which we were searching. Little things such as the absence of power, water and telephones were to become some of those challenges to fill the long winter days with endless hours of planning, designing and consulting experts about possible solutions.

The first year was spent lobbying Bell and the CRTC to get phone service with at least a dial up internet service. Party lines don’t work for the essentials of the retired set hooked on the internet. We played all the arguments we could muster including the public safety card since cell phones do not work in our remote dead zone of North Frontenac County. Thinking of the future we were able to convince the powers that be that such a service was absolutely essential. To everyone’s surprise in the short span of two years we ended up with a 95 foot communications tower being installed across the road from our place and we have, along with our 20 neighbours, access to reasonable phone service.  A few glitches needed to be overcome in the process.  The supply cables had to be buried for about 200 feet to avoid having to cut down our stand of red and white pine trees. A summer’s trenching with the help of the local backhoe operator solved that one. Then we looked around the house to see where we would need phone jacks. Ah, in rural areas, Bell does not offer that service except on an hourly rate from their depot in Bellville, only 120 km distant! Enter the ever helpful son in law and phone jacks appeared around the house and bunkhouse/studio/ workshop.  Lessons learned include the fact that cordless phones don’t operate very well when hydro is iffy. The $10 variety with an old fashioned cord works amazingly well, even when the hydro is out!

The property we found had lots of potential, accessible year round; a wonderful view over a lake, deep water for swimming, and the majority of the shoreline is crown land. Rocks we have lots of (they don’t need mowing or need weed killer to keep them in line). The original central heating was an airtight stove in the middle of the house. This is good as long as you have a plentiful source of dry hard firewood.  That used to be the case in our parts ‘till the local wood cutters realized that they could turn a tidy profit peddling their hardwood to city folk.

 Thus we arrived at last year’s project, install baseboard radiators with telephone activation. The concept was wonderful, but definitely challenging for those who were not brought up pressing the buttons of a remote controller. Even when that part was mastered, the reliability of the power supply renders the remote operating system of questionable value.  The fun part at the start was to find an electrical contractor prepared to undertake the installation.  Three chaps came around and looked over the site. None were enthusiastic after inspecting the accessibility of the crawl space under the house since I didn’t want them to tear down the drywall to install the wiring from the inside.  After a couple of false starts our electrician agreed to hook up the wires to the electric panel if I ran all the wiring and could show pictures of how it was done to satisfy the electric safety authority’s inspectors. Three cheers for digital cameras!

 Design was a challenge as the need for heating is a function of the insulation value of walls, windows and volume of airspace. Thank goodness for Google which pointed me to some sites for estimating heat loads, insulation and wiring requirements.

While the original house had a foot of excellent insulation installed under the floor, the installers had overlooked the habit of the local four legged neighbours to hibernate in fluffy insulation. We knew something had taken up residence since the strange sounds during the night were definitely not from our cat. It was a mother raccoon and her two young kits right under the kitchen sink where the crawl space is only ten inches deep. Floors had to be lifted, baseboards removed and wire carefully fished from the location of each heater to the electric panel.  After this was all done the insulation was restuffed between the floor joists and anchored in place with a few hundred feet of plastic snow fencing. On paper, the task looked rather simple. In Practice however, it is unwise to start such a task in the heat of mid summer, clad in one’s best quality grubbies and wearing the necessary face mask and eye protection, snaking one’s way over sharp rocks into an ever narrowing crawl space while pulling an extension cord for the power stapler, a hammer, and flashlight, only to hear the phone ringing somewhere in the space above the floor.  Any excuse to wiggle my way out of this summer refuge and pick up the message was welcome.  The rest of the crawl space work had to wait for cooler days when wearing a dust mask was marginally tolerable. 

No insulation job is finished until all the draught leaks are stopped up, so it was back into the crawl space with a can of “Great Stuff” expanding foam stuffed into a pocket. The first twenty feet or so was alright, but then I had to roll over to squeeze around the kitchen drain pipe. A strange sound was coming from somewhere underneath me and as I felt down my leg came, across a sticky substance which I promptly wiped off on my jacket. Eventually reaching the Raccoon hole to be stopped up, I realized the origin of the sound was the can of Great Stuff was mostly empty and my hands were covered in permanent gobs of quickly hardening plastic foam. Back to the outside world I read the instructions on the can a bit more carefully and realized that the only way to remove hardened foam is to let it wear off, as their suggested options of cutting off excess foam with a box knife did not seem a wise route to follow.

 My solution to the foam removal from my hands was to proceed with patching the drywall, repairing the baseboards, replacing the flooring where the crawl space was too narrow.  I then called the electrician to let him know that I was ready for his professional assistance and a few weeks later he arrived to connect the wiring. The electrician was intrigued by my picking away at the scabs of plastic foam and asked whether I was suffering from some type of skin disease.  My response was a polite smile and comment that I thought I should return to the consulting business and leave electrical installations to him.  He smiled and accepted my cheque.

Tags: Malcolm Leith