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Upcoming projects:
Building a Frame Saw
Forging a Copper Kettle
Making a pair of leather work boots
Forging and Fletching a Bodkin
Flocking a drawer interior

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Where the Waters Fall

Such an incredibly diverse and rich world exists in the Adirondacks, from the barren rocky peaks of the tallest summits to the verdant forests and lush rivers that flow between them, the brilliant autumn colours and the stark frozen winter landscapes, on scales as large as the mountains themselves and as small as the microscopic plants, above ground and below, living or hewn from stone. Whether blessed by views from the summit or in the lowlands, along the trail or in the feeling of seeing the first peaks cresting the horizon, an unfathomable beauty lies here like nowhere else I have seen. In the rain or the sun, the snow or the wind, alone or in good company, that will never change.

Fitting of its name, Tabletop Mountain rises to a long plateau of a summit yet below the treeline. Across its ridge, the trail wound for half a mile or more before coming to the peak, an otherwise unassuming outcropping with a halfhearted view of Marcy and Algonquin. The guidebooks always claim that this is one of the poorer views afforded by the 46, but I did not mind. To me, there are no mountains unworthy of their ascent.

Before making our way to Phelps, we returned from Tabletop to Indian Falls, a waterfall that holds a welcoming view of Marcy silhouetted between the encroaching walls of the forest. When I first came to Indian Falls a few years ago, the water was nowhere near as strong as this trip, given new life by a particularly wet summer.

The path take a turn through the shallows of Marcy Brook whose crystalline waters paint the rock in spectacular shades of blue before plunging over the edge. Small rocks pebble the stream, throwing up the water in a cascade of light and silklike motion.

Over jagged stone the stream thunders like the hooves of horses suspended just barely above the ground in a world so easily overlooked.

Before taking their final turn down into the valleys and lakes beyond, the unassuming brook spills through the falls where it shatters on the rock below.

Time has such a mesmerizing effect on where these waters fall, lending them either the softness of the clouds above or brittle, jagged edges like splintered glass. Raw power rides on those innocent droplets, the power to sculpt the earth and tear through rock over the course of millennia. The water that gives life to so much along its way, the water that began so high up in the mountains, gathers together in a final showing of its true face.

After the nice reprieve, we were on our way once again. Back through the trails that led us to the falls, we wound our way towards the junction of Phelps.

At the top, all that remained of the marker was small hole drilled into the rock. As sad as it is, it is all too common for the brass markers to have been torn away by looters to sell it as scrap. Even here where time stand still, people find a way to destroy it.

All around the summit lay a collection of small rocks, either on the side of the trail of tossed into the bushes. To help preserve the way for those not yet finished, I gathered them and began to build a cairn at the peak.

Much unlike Tabletop, Phelps gives way to a great wooded basin stretching as far to the right as the eye can see, following down a valley towards the west. Marcy and Iroquios stand proud, while half a dozen other giants linger on the edge of the horizon.

This marks 15 of the 46 High peaks, and with it, one of the final opportunities I will have to journey here for too may years to come.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Anulum Argentum

For years, I have been hunting for a silver quarter from which to make a ring. Between 1932 and 1964, the US minted quarters that were 9o% silver (the remaining 1o% being copper), and as a result of age and value, are rarely seen in circulation. A few months ago, I happened to receive one in change from a rest stop during a cross country drive. The sound they make is very distinct, nothing like the modern cupronickel; they are light and crystalline like chimes instead of the dense, heavy sound. Another telltale sign is the edge. On cupronickel quarters (and modern dimes, to which there is the variant dubbed Mercury Dimes minted from 1916-1945 and contain equivalent amounts of silver and copper), the knurled edge is a single colour- silver. Otherwise, there is a very evident banding visible that shows the copper and nickel plating of the coin.

Hammering a ring out of a disk is a very different method from casting it out of grain. Constant annealing is required to avoid cracking, despite the ductility of silver. In short, the disk (quarter) is rolled on edge across a hard surface (anvil, sledge hammer head, etc.) while lightly but rapidly hammered.

Progress is slow, but the edge soon begins to mushroom. Because the force of the hammer blows is light, the centre does not deform, allowing the form of a rounded ring to emerge out of the disk. It is important to roll both directions, occasionally turning the quarter around so the faces are reversed. That helps ensure that the ring is centred on the disk (to ward against wobbles and asymmetry later).

Deciding when to stop is a relatively arbitrary decision. Try and find a balance between thickness of the ring and the diameter. If I were to stop at the point in the second picture, it would in theory work, but it would then be a very thin, narrow band. Instead, I hammered until it was around 2~2.5x the original thickness on the edge. Be wary, however, of trying to make the band very wide now will result in catastrophe later when you try to expand it to the proper size (the height of the band grows as the wall thins)

After you achieve the desired thickness, the middle needs to be removed. It can be drilled out, but I preferred to use the rotary tool to carefully cut the edges, saving the scrap for melting later (little though it is). The rotary bits I use are linked on the 'Links' page.

This is perhaps the only part that may require a semi-specialized tool (besides a ring mandrel). Another method of removing the web could be to drill as large a sized hole in the centre, but holding down the coin may be difficult or dangerous.

Next, the spine needs to be filed out. Needle files are great for this, or if you prefer to use small drum sanders, aluminium oxide bits, or other rotary bits they work just as well, but remove material faster so more care is needed. The only file you truly need is a half round file, but a full round and a flat file are nice to have too.

When the last bit of the web/spine is filed away, it is time to begin sizing the ring. Without expanding the ring any, it is as sized above. It may be larger or smaller depending on how much you hammered the quarter. Whether or not it is meant to be used this way, I used the mandrel as an internal mandrel, hammering on the top of the ring and spinning the mandrel around, in a very similar fashion to the initial forming of the ring shape. This gently expands it around the mandrel and, because of the tapered shape, it does not fall off as it grows (assuming you are hammering on the smaller side [left side in the above picture]).

If you do not know your ring size, this is a way to learn. I have never worn rings before, and through this project, learned my fingers are not designed well for rings. The last knuckle is considerably wider than the part the ring sits on, so it wears very strangely. Anyway, I kept expanding the band, annealing it every whole size or so by heating it to a dull red and allowing it to cool either in still air or water (non-ferrous metals do not matter because there is no iron to change molecular structure as a function of time). When it was close to slipping over the last knuckle, I would gradually increase size and keep trying it until it fit.

Notice that the band has become much wider than when it started, and the walls are quite a bit thinner. If you bring the initial quarter toroid to a smaller diameter, the band will be thicker but have thinner walls. If you leave it larger, it will be thinner but have wider walls.

A final point is finishing. Files and sand paper can bring the inside and out from hammered texture to a mirror polish or anywhere between. Half way through sanding the band, I realized I hated it. The hammered texture felt much more natural and authentic, so I went back to the mandrel and re-textured it. In the end, the result was about what I expected for doing this the first time.

Sunday, August 3, 2014


There are many instances in a persons life where they might feel utterly and entirely alone. Whether surrounded by hundreds of others in the wake of a natural disaster, by only a few others at the bed of a loved one, by their thoughts in a time of personal trial; there are thousands of things that tear us away from the rest of the world and make us wonder if we are even part of it any longer. However, rarely are we truly alone, and when we are it is only for brief moments before we are reconnected with everything around us. Through the modern age, communication is never farther than the click of a button or typing on a keypad. We are connected, and suddenly those feelings of seclusion can be torn away. Yet there are instances where all of that can be set aside, the connections broken, and the true sound of silence returned.

Last week, I ventured back into the mountains, but for the first time, alone. I came to know two days of absolute solitude, cut off from the joys and troubles of the outside world, for those mountains became my world. Nothing else mattered, and I had only my thoughts to occupy myself. To some, that would be akin to a nightmare, but for me, it was a well needed step aside from the bustle of the passing days, a chance to return from a place I did not want to come any closer to reaching.

To the mountains I came with the purpose of photographing the stars, but I would soon learn that my own desire was irrelevant to the forces of nature. For I am a spectator- an observer- not a director. I am free to see what there is to see, but not to change anything, and that is how the wilderness survives.

Into the Dix Range, I set out to hike a series of five peaks over the course of two days, making the total trip somewhere around 2o miles. Aside from having no one to hike with, the other difference was that the majority of the trails were unmarked herdpaths. Over the years of hikers passing through the range, foot traffic wore a path into the mountains, maintained only by the passing of people to the summit.

Through the valley I came to the approach of the first peak, Mount Macomb. Most of the ascent was leisurely, winding through the wooded landscape as it climbed higher into the ridgeline. Alone, I was in no rush to reach the summit, and for it I was able to relish in the journey.

Along the winding trail I caught glimpses of the wreckage wrought by the hurricanes of 1999, great swaths of land carved away and littered with deadfall. Even now, fifteen years later, the destruction is incredible. After a few hours, I came to the foot of a tremendous landslide, sprawling nearly half a mile up towards the summit. Loose rock and sand became my home, guided by cairns to mark the way safely through the rubble.

Behind lay the valley from which I came, framed in the foggy haze of cloud that lingers over the distant peaks. For a time, I sat back and watched as the world and I grew a little older together. Ever since a trip I made to northern Wisconsin last month and the conversations I had along the way, I became enthralled with the idea of leaving behind something for future hikers to find. Not in the way that suggests waste was discarded, but rather pieces of the soul of the wilds embodied in ways that nature is incapable of producing. In a sense, it is an attempt to rekindle the ancient mysticism that compelled our ancestors to write the great epics and myths, that unbridled sense of adventure and excitement and discovery that, although we may be alone against the colossus of the world, we are not the only ones to witness it.

In a small way, I wanted to begin bringing that sentiment back to life. On a small bit of birch bark, I idly drew the sight from an overlook, the lake and the ridgeline, the forests and islands, leaving it on the face of the cairn.

When the trail became treacherous to the brink of danger, I realized that I had lost the path. For a long while I wound my way through the rock, climbing higher and higher, following the worn and faded footprints left behind in the dust. With no markers in sight, I decided to build a cairn of my own with the hopes that I could help guide the next generations of hikers through the perilous ascent.

Near the top of the rocky chute, I began to see rust coloured rocks. Naturally, I began to collect a number of smaller, darker ones to examine later. Upon return, I found they were ore with unusually high iron content. If I return to Macomb, I intend to collect more of it to smelt, but with two days and four more peaks ahead, I did not want to carry more than a few pieces.

In the end, I made it past the landslide and back into the forests. By then, many miles and as many hours were behind me, and my 9th peak stood beneath my feet. Mount Macomb, at 4405 feet, was the first of the ridgeline.

On the trail, I began to see a number of large, fist sized toads. Blending into the woodlands or hopping around the trail itself, they always stopped and watched me pass as though curious as to what I was and why I was there.

During the last few months, I have become more attuned with rock climbing. In the north east, most of the outdoor rocks are suited for trad climbing, in which you set your own anchors in the cracks of the rock. However, I have neither the training nor the confidence to do this yet, so I have been contented with indoor walls.

After leaving the summit of Macomb, I came to a number of rocky slopes that were perfect for bouldering. With nowhere to be and no watch to keep the time, I decided to drop the pack and explore the bald face of South Dix.

By then, the sun was ready to dip below the horizon and night was beginning to encroach upon the dusk hours of day. A clear sunset is something I have long wanted to see over the Adirondacks, and this was my first cloudless opportunity. Seemingly every time I hike these mountains, the weather turns and clouds roll into the sky, the winds howl and the views disappear in a shroud of fog. That night, however, the sun hung true and bathed the peaks in a warm red orange light.

At the summit, more than three hours of usable daylight remained, so I decided to continue my journey onto the third peak, East Dix, which was recently renamed Grace Peak after Grace Hudowalski, a long serving historian to the Adirondack 46ers. This peak was set away from the remainder of the ridgeline, demanding the trail be hiked twice- once there and then back up South Dix for a second ascent.

When I reached the summit of Grace, I had intended to strike camp somewhere down its slopes, but the terrain was rocky and sparsely dotted with trees. With the onset of intense wind, I decided to return to South Dix and try  my luck there instead.

Sheltered by the mountain, I set camp by way of a bed of pine needles and a tarp set against the wind. There in my makeshift tent, I waited for night to fully fall and the stars to appear. But to my dismay, the clouds of the evening refused to part. Up through the trees I watched as light faded and darkness fall. At some point in the night, I awoke to a spectacular view of the heavens, clear of cloud and moon. It would have been the perfect opportunity, excepting the bitter wind that refused to let the tripod stand still for the long exposure needed to capture the stars.

Although I would have liked to take out the camera, I let it be. And so I sat there with the one thing that would preserve every detail, the film of human memory. An hour or more could have passed, but time had lost its meaning.

When daylight came, the landscape was as picturesque as I have ever seen it. Vibrant green trees and a placid blue sky, clouds of pure white and a view for miles in every direction. Eating breakfast at the top of the world was as peaceful as ever I have eaten it.

A short hike to the summit of Hough Mountain completed the 4th new peak of the trip and gave me a view of the final, Mount Dix, which jutted another 400 feet higher than any of the others.

The ascent of Dix was steep. In places, the topographical map had near intersecting demarcation lines, indicating sheer climbs of over ten times my own height. Hough descended the saddleback to an approach called the Beckhorns, the south trailing slope of Dix. Winding its way north, the unmarked trail twisted and turned its way through a number of overlooks, each one affording a spectacular view of the summit that stood like a rocky tooth along the ridge.

At one such outcropping, I had sight of the curved ridge and the clouds that whipped over it. Soaring past more quickly than I have ever seen clouds move, the wisps shot over the edge where they were torn apart by the sheer force of their crossing. Easily faster than my car on the way to the mountains, the wind made it almost impossible to stand, even in the shelter of the trees.

Throughout the weekend, I kept seeing an number of these strangely discoloured trees. All of them were deadfall, but for how long they had been downed I did not know. Bright blue in places, darker and richer in others, there were branches or entire trees, shattered bits of the trunk, or mere splinters. Even the insides were tinted blue. Whether a disease or decay, I have no idea what caused it, but each time the stark contrast to the natural hues of the landscape were distractingly beautiful.

After facing another spurt of free climbing, I reached the crest of the summit. Three large boulders stood out amongst the dotting of trees, and the highest of the lot yielded the USGS marker. Smaller than the ones I am accustomed to, this one was at least half a century old.

Eating lunch at the greatest table I have ever known, early afternoon clouds began to roll in and spot the forests below with flecks of shade.

At the summit, I found the end of the marked trail that came from the other end of the ridge. It would be that trail that I would follow to complete the loop back to where I began.

Even still, the way was not without its perils. Another great section of the trial led down a rocky face that would have been better suited for ropes and rappelling equipment. Perhaps one day soon I will return to these mountains with the like and, instead of conquering them afoot, I will ascend by hand and toe.

With the five peaks of the Dix Range behind me, I have now completed 13 of the 46 High Peaks, and come to know the tranquillity of truly being alone.