Archive for July, 2015

cutting board retirement

Tuesday, July 28th, 2015

cutting 1

#1 Son, Seth, had a little mishap with his wooden cutting board making too intimate of contact with the electric coils on his stove. Certain that the thing was no longer safe for use, he brought it too me the last time he was in town, which was a while ago. I carried it around in the bed of my truck for weeks, intending to take it to Roundrock and burn it in my next campfire.

On my next trip, I didn’t build a fire, so the cutting board bided its time. On a subsequent visit, when I did make an evening campfire to cook our dinner (and then didn’t stay the night after all), I saw my chance, retrieved the board from the cabin, waited for the flames to subside a little and the coals to mellow. And then I tossed the wooden cutting board onto the fire.

cutting 2

A good amount of time passed — more than I would have guessed — before the board really began to burn. As you can see, the joins separated as the wood charred, but at least ten minutes passed before I saw actual flames licking from it.

A friend reported that a cutting board she and her boyfriend has found at a craft show sat prettily on their kitchen counter until one day when hundreds of black insects emerged from it. Had she given the board to me, I would have brought it to Roundrock to join in my next campfire.

In the last chapter of Walden, Thoreau speaks of a wooden table that had been in a family for generations. Yet when a hot kettle was placed over a certain spot, the family heard scratching sounds, and not long after that, an insect bore its way out of the table top and, having bided its time, went about its business.

I’m not hoping for either of those things to happen to me however.

in other news

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2015

wood rat's place

It hasn’t been all mayhem and destruction at Roundrock. We’ve made a couple of trips since the big-water event (and may get out there this weekend too). The dam is still holding back the water (aside from the slow leaks that have always been there), the fish seem to be thriving (for the most part), and the forest is as alive as ever.

What you see above is the fallen snag near the cabin where I put peanuts for the birds (cardinals especially visit them) and for, I strongly suspect, a wood rat who lives in the log. This business of placing sticks over a den entrance is the pattern of behavior for wood rats. I’ve never seen the critter, but the peanuts get cleaned out quickly after I’ve placed them and before I’ve seen any birds visit the log.


Here is another peanut; I found this one recently:


Co-joined round rocks. Twins, if you will. Each of those is the size of a grapefruit, which makes this one a real keeper. I’ve not found another like it in all of my ramblings about the place.


The phoebe nest on the side of the cabin was empty on our last visit. Several full-sized birds were flitting about in the trees in front of the cabin while we were there, and when we went inside the cabin, we saw them dart under the porch ceiling, presumably to revisit the nest where they were raised. Mama phoebe has already pulled off two successful clutches this summer. They are known to have three under proper conditions, and it warms my black and shriveled heart to think that I’m contributing to those proper conditions.


After we had successfully both opened and closed the valve on the drain under the dam, after the torrent had ceased, we found a dozen or more fingerling fish flopping around in the gravel below the drain opening. They were evidently small enuf to fit through the holes in the drum at the bottom of the lake and come shooting through the drain pipe. I then, of course, found each one and tossed it into the permanent pool that has formed below the dam at the overflow outlet. I couldn’t let them flop about in the drying gravel and get crispy. As Libby pointed out, though the pool they’re in will remain full, the herons will probably soon discover all of these fish in a contained area.


I’ve spent most of this week in Portland, Oregon, visiting my son and his wife as well as my daughter, her husband, and my grandson, who are in from NYC for Dad’s work. It was the chance to visit my two farthest-flung offspring — and my new grandson — all at once. Two days before we left for Portland, my youngest son — one of the twins — announced that he and his wife are expecting, the arrival coming in March. Then, the day we arrived in Portland, my son there — the other of the twins — announced that he and his wife are expecting, the arrival coming in December or January. It would be great if my twins each had twins, but that’s not to be (this time). A year ago I was lamenting that I would never have grandchildren. Next year at this time, I’ll have three. I may never have to mow my lawn again!


that other thing

Thursday, July 16th, 2015

top of lake

I mentioned yesterday that we had only two things on our agenda during our most recent trip to Roundrock. One was to open the drain valve on the dam (achieved). The second was to hike to the top of the lake, where it forms from the stream coming down the Central Valley. We wanted to see what surely had to be devastation from the torrents that must have cut through.

So once we got the valve open the second time, and left it open to flow, we steered our feet to the west and made our way through the woods to the top of the lake.

I should tell you that this furthestmost point of the lake almost never has water in it. Even at full pool, the area is only good for six to ten inches of water. And with all of the gravel that has accumulated in it over the years, as well as the plants that have called it home since it’s rarely inundated but generally moist, even those few inches wouldn’t make much of a show.

And so it was when we ventured up there. What you see in the photo above is the very top of the lake, and the lake itself would proceed to the lower left (including where I was standing when I took the photo). Beyond the photo, to the upper right, is the Central Valley.

It’s not as though our open valve draining efforts had already achieved this. The area is now filled with gravel where it is supposed to be filled with water. (Note the random round rock there at the bottom.) That pool you see is from the gouging the torrents had done a week or so before. The gravel is mostly just addition to what was already there. Someday, when I have lots of money to spare, I’ll have the dozer man come up here and clean all of this gravel out.

Just to the left of this photo is Libby’s Island. We half expected it to be washed away. Instead it merely had a lot of gravel washed up against it.

No devastation, but there was clear evidence of the force of water at one time. I sure would have liked to see that happen.

We continued our westward hike up the Central Valley. There were a few uprooted trees, though not many. And the grassy/scrubby areas showed signs of recent scouring. There were new deposits of silt here and there. And new round rocks revealed, though none so perfect as to collect and schlepp back to the cabin a half mile away in the withering heat.

The dam continues to hold back the water. Aside from the destroyed spillways, most of the damage to the dam is “cosmetic” and as long as the repairs get done soon (soon!), this whole big water event should become nothing more than a vivid memory (and some money spent).

drain valve success

Wednesday, July 15th, 2015


We went down to Roundrock last weekend for a day trip. We had two goals for the day, one of which was to attempt again to open the drain valve in the dam. The man who built the dam had told me that it likely was not rusted shut but rather just sticky from lack of use over the years. Thus I was determined to keep trying; maybe it was merely my pathetic upper body strength that was the problem.

The angle is bad for applying any kind of force to the handle. I was alternately standing and kneeling in the gravel below the barrel, leaning in toward it and then trying to grasp the handle (to release the latch) and simultaneously push it with the awesome power of my wrists alone. So my plan this time was to use the shovel handle as a lever. I would release the latch and then push on the long, oak handle of the shovel wedged against it to get the horizontal force I needed but couldn’t apply on my own.

I worked my plan, there in the full sun and 4,000 percent humidity with flies and other insects buzzing around my face, determination and Libby being my only allies.

My plan didn’t work.

At first.

I had wedged the blade of the shovel into the gravel below the handle and had Libby pull on it as I released the latch. The blade just pushed the gravel out of the way, never grabbing enuf earth to hold it in place.

Somewhere in my fevered and frustrated mind I thought that maybe if I shoved the top of the handle into the gravel in the barrel I might get more purchase and thus a better lever. And so we tried that.

And it worked.

The drain handle moved a half inch or so, and with that came a burbling ooze of stinky, muddy water from the front of the barrel, right where my foot was. You can see the result above.

Long ago, the end of the drain pipe had extended six feet beyond the barrel. But when I’d had the dam worked on five or six years ago, I asked that the drain barrel be moved farther out (since it was being buried by the slow erosion/settling of the dam). I guess that took up the six feet of extension because the end of the pipe now is merely the outside of the barrel itself. I was uncertain where the exit was since the the accumulation of gravel and dirt over the years had buried it. You can see how some of that muddy water had backwashed into the barrel.

With this little success in hand, Libby and I tried for a little more. We wedged the shovel handle into the gravel inside the barrel and repeated our combined effort. And the valve opened further, resulting in the torrent you see below:

flowing 2You can see some of the valve mechanism inside the barrel here. The handle is opened nearly all the way, the wall of the misshapen barrel blocking it any further. The white object at the top is the actual drain pipe, and that comes from all the way under the dam and out about twenty feet into the bed of the lake (where is enters a similar barrel that is drilled full of holes to act as a screen so all of the fish don’t come pouring out of the lake when the valve is opened). The muddy water that first emerged from the pipe (in the top photo) shows the silt that had accumulated around the barrel in the years of disuse.

The whole idea of opening the valve was to bleed off some of the water in the lake so that it could absorb better the next big rain and possibly not pour over the dam. And that was our intent for the day. We would leave the valve open during our visit and see what water we could drain off. Then we would close it before we drove back to faraway suburbia.

Instead, however, we decided to close the valve then. I wanted to make sure I could actually do so, given how much trouble we had opening it. We reversed our efforts and “easily” had the valve closed. So we knew we could do it at the end of the day too.

We opened the valve a second time, greeted the torrent of now clear water, left it open, then went about our day at Roundrock.

At the end of the day, when we had returned to close the valve, I could not see any noticeable difference in the level of the lake, but a few hours of draining of a full-pool two-acre lake through a six-inch pipe would not make much difference. Had we left it open overnight, I might have been able to see the difference.

But we had worked our plan, and it was a success. And in the meantime, the leakage under the dam will continue to bleed off the water. Nor are there any big storms forecasted soon. Now it’s just a matter of waiting for the repair work on the dam to get done, and poor Pablo can rest more easily.


poking around

Monday, July 13th, 2015


Yeah, I hope you can forgive that lame title.

I mentioned in my gloom and doom post about the damage to the dam that the roots of the poke plant that was growing there seemed to help retain some of the soil that otherwise might have gotten washed away. The photo above shows the poke plant before I cut it down. There were actually four growths like this.

They were easy to cut since the stalks hadn’t grown too fibrous yet. I used the loppers and just kept at it, throwing the cut stalks farther down the dam.

The result was this:

post poke

Quite satisfying at the time. I didn’t want the poke growing there since I feared it might provide shelter for burrowing animals. As it turned out, the poke was providing shelter for an animal, just not a burrowing one.

When I cleared all of the poke from the sloping side of the dam, this is what I found:


This nest had been placed in a bit of scrub that was growing in the shade of the poke. After my efforts, the nest was in the full sun. I guessed that was not the mother bird’s intent.

I lay one of the poke stalks against the bit of scrub to give the nest some shade, then I stepped away and hoped for the best.

It was a vain hope. A week and a half later, the water came over the dam in this spot, and though the nest was still there, no egg was inside. I guess I merely hastened what was inevitable in this case, but I didn’t feel much like a steward at the time.

releasing the pressure

Wednesday, July 8th, 2015

filled valveLong ago, when we’d had the dam built, we put in a drain pipe with a valve we could open. The idea was that we could drain water from the lake should we need to. Had we been down there just before that big rain (some reports are that it was up to an 11-inch rain), I could have opened the valve and drained off some of the water in anticipation of the huge influx that was to come. That didn’t happen, of course.

My thought when I was down there last week was, instead, that I could drain off some of the water then in anticipation of any rain to come for the next week, thereby allowing the lake to accept more in the form of rainfall and, perhaps, not go over the tattered spillways (or the dam itself).

A great idea, but it failed in execution.

You can see in the photo above the barrel where the valve handle is that opens the drain. And if you look closely, you can see that the barrel is filled with dirt and gravel. At one time, this barrel had a tight-fitting lid, but that is long-gone. (I never knew that that had happened until I went to it last week. Bad management. Bad.) So before I could open the valve, I had to dig my way to it.

Fortunately, it was mostly dirt and gravel that had filled in. There were no large rocks wedged in there for me to wrestle with. I had remembered the valve handle being pretty far down, and in the long-ago days when I had even looked at it, it was sometimes underwater (the seepage from the dam finding the barrel and collecting there).

less filled valve

Here you see, after some bad-angle digging, I had uncovered the handle. While I was there, I wanted to clear out as much of the dirt and gravel as I could so I wouldn’t have to do it again (at least not soon). So I kept at it.

Eventually, I got myself to this point:



The handle was sufficiently exposed for me to kneel in the wet dirt and sharp gravel and give it a turn. Simple idea, right?

As far as I can recall, I’ve only turned this handle one time before. That was soon after we’d had the dam built, so that was more than a decade ago. It opened, spewing an intense stream of very cold water on that hot day. (The end of the pipe is about ten feet behind the valve, so “down” in this photo.)

I could not budge the handle. I could not move it at all. It was stuck. Of course the angle was bad and my arms are pathetic, but it should have worked. I feared that it had rusted shut, having sat in water for most of that decade of disuse.

When I spoke with the dam builder a few days later, he said that it was likely not rusted but just tight from disuse. (He uses plastic components as much as possible for this reason.) He said I should have been opening it once or twice a year just to keep it limber. Good to know going forward.

So I didn’t get the valve open to drain off any water. If I had, we would have likely stayed the night and let it flow that entire time. But that didn’t happen. Libby offered the consoling thought that the dam still leaks as much as ever, so the lake level would be dropping on its own in the coming days. Hard to believe I’m grateful for that right now.

The long-range forecast suggests we’ll be going to Roundrock this coming weekend, and I’ll give it another try then.


spillway washout

Tuesday, July 7th, 2015

north upper

The two spillways on opposite ends of the dam were designed to take the excess water that the overflow drain could not handle. They are a vast improvement over the single spillway we had originally on the south end of the dam that was really little more than a crease in the hillside, much too close to the dam itself.

As Libby said several times on our visit last Friday, it must have been both awesome and terrifying to see the overflow overwhelm the dam’s capacity.

The photo above shows the top of the northern spillway. That gouge in the ground drops four feet before heading down the hill. Had the erosion continued another ten feet (to the right), the dam would have been breached and likely the lake would have been emptied.

Here is another view of the top of the north spillway:

north upper two

I’m trying to imagine the force of the water as it did this. Awesome and terrifying, indeed.

Here is a view of the north spillway from below:

north lower

Even sure-footed, crazy Flike was careful as he made his way down this slope. Most of that exposed bedrock you see had been buried before; only the smooth tops of two parts of it had been exposed. Now it serves as the side of the spillway.

This northern spillway is still somewhat intact. The berm/retaining wall (on the left in the photo immediately above) is still in place, though another big water event would likely chew through it.

The south spillway is pretty much gone altogether.

south upper

This is looking down from the top of the south spillway. The drop off you see in the foreground is about five feet from the slab of bedrock to what’s left of the soil and gravel that had comprised the spillway itself and its berm.

Here is another view from the top:

south upper two

All of that gravel you see down in the pecan plantation is from the spillway and its berm. The flow had pushed rocks the size of tabletops down the hill. Fortunately, none of the plantings (pecans and a few cypress) in the area were damaged. That lonely looking little tree you see on the right was growing in the dry-side of the berm. Conventional wisdom says to remove these as they can fall and pull the earthen wall down with them. I thought otherwise, believing that its roots might actually help hold the wall together. You can see that it survived, though its retention powers were no match for the deluge.

south lowerThis photo shows the southern spillway from below. See the lonely tree at about 9:00? Notice also, the grass at the lower right and how it is all laying down, pointing downhill. That is from when the water went over the top of the dam and flowed down the face of it, which is something you never want to happen.

Fortunately, the dam is still standing and holding back the water. Barring any big water events before the repairs can be made, there should be no utter disaster. Other than to my bank account, that is.

The man who built the dam had come out over the weekend to survey the damage. To his eye, it didn’t seem too bad. (He has an experienced eye. When I had called him, he wasn’t available, his wife telling me that he was out inspecting other ill-fated dams in the county.) He gave me a quote on what he thought it would cost to put things right, and the number came in much, much lower than I had expected (so I will be able to buy groceries for a few more months). He said he won’t be able to get out to do the repairs for a couple of weeks, so I’m crossing my fingers that the rain in the forecast for the next ten days won’t be significant.

near disaster

Monday, July 6th, 2015

Flike on dam

Well, we managed to make it down to Roundrock on Friday (July 3) for an overnight stay. There had been a lot of rain in the area, and we were looking forward to a full-pool lake to swim in during the 90+ degree weekend days that were forecasted.

Funny how quickly plans can change.

We had a near disaster at Roundrock in the days just before we arrived.

You can see from the photo above that the lake was at full pool. But if you look closely, you can see that it was more than that shortly before our arrival. The lake had been filled to the top and then over the top. Water had overwhelmed the two spillways and went over the top of the dam itself. This is not good.

Flike is standing in the northern spillway in the photo above. The grass before him is matted down, washed that direction by flowing water. But what you can’t tell from the photo is that most of the grass on the top of the dam is also this way.

side of dam

This is a picture of the side of the dam, the side that is supposed to be dry. It has been gouged and scarred by the flow of water, which must have been intense to rip out the tough fescue that was growing lushly there. This photo is representative of five spots on the face of the dam that had this damage.

Not much more gouging would have been necessary to create a breach in the dam, which would then widen by the flow of the water until it drained the entire lake (and likely flooded my neighbor’s cattle field to the east).

dam poke


I’ve written before about the poke growing on the side of the dam. On a recent visit, I had cut it all down (surprisingly easy), considering it a nuisance that might harbor burrowing animals (that you do not want in your dam). You can see from this photo that the thick roots of the offensive plant had actually helped retain the soil. That gouge on the right is between two former poke plants. (Not so former, though. They were sprouting new leaves where I had cut them a week and a half before.)

One of the things we like about going to Roundrock is that we can unplug. We rarely get a cell phone signal at the cabin, and the day of this visit was one of those signal-free days. I had to drive about a mile up and over the ridge before I could use my phone. When I could, I called the man who had built my dam to let him know I had a near disaster. (Another strong rain might be enuf to breach the dam.) I didn’t reach him at first but got his wife. She said that he’d been getting a lot of calls like mine recently. In fact, he was out touring other lakes and ponds with damaged dams when I called. I finally did get to talk to him, and he said he would try to get out to see the damage. I told him we would be there until the following afternoon.

But as the day passed, Libby and I saw little reason to stay the night. I think we were dispirited by what we’d found. Plus, the temperature never got warm enuf for us to swim. The lake water was muddy brown, which wouldn’t be a problem. But part of us thought that we could be in the water when the dam finally gave and we were washed away with all of the fish. (That wasn’t going to happen, of course, but even the idea of it was unnerving.)

We could have slept in the beds in the cabin comfortably and rose to a breakfast of tea and oatmeal. Or, as Libby pointed out, we could be home by dark, sleep in our own beds, and I could get in an extra day of running I hadn’t expected.

In the end we did decide to leave. There really was no need for us to be there when the dam builder examined the damage. He would know better than we did what needed to be done. It’s likely that we will be back down to Roundrock very soon. Unfortunately, there is rain in the forecast for the area this week. Fortunately, the already leaking dam will continue to drain down the water, so it’s possible that any influx from rain will not overfill the lake. And the two spillways (what’s left of them, which ain’t much) will still draw off water before it reaches the top of the dam. Also, it was a 6-inch rain that had caused the damage, and that is not in the forecast.

So, the coming weeks and months will be interesting and stressful.

Also, thanks, Gay Marriage. LOL