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Easy Like Pie

(An installment in the Diary of an Inheritance series, which began in July, 2001, when we inherited a little cottage in the Québec woods.)

July 20, 2012

Question One: Which is better?  (a) Sitting in the middle of a forest inside a cabin where it is blisteringly hot, and where going out of doors is impossible due to the hoardes of biting insects lining up to eat you, and it isn’t much cooler out of doors anyway?  Or (b) sitting in air-conditioned, insect-free comfort, at home?

The answer?  (a) Sitting in a hot cabin avoiding bugs.

Question Two: Why did I drive across half a continent at great expense so that I can sit here, melting, and trapped inside a cabin?

The answer?  Because it’s a cottage, that’s why.

Canadians would find these two questions and their answers perfectly sensible.  Other people from elsewhere the world... maybe not.

But I’m a Canadian, and I have a cottage.  And I go to it.  It isn’t always hot, and the insects eventually fade away, and it is beautiful, and wild, and good.

The Pump
There are, of course, many challenges besides heat and biting bugs.  Indeed “challenge” is probably part of the charm of a certain type of primitive cottage.

When opening the place after the winter, for example, we usually encounter some problem that needs to be solved; although this year, when we arrived, to our great pleasure none of the usual challenges presented themselves: the electricity worked; the phone worked; there were no mice; and I had brought all the relevant keys.  The boat was put into the water without incident, and although I had to row it for the first twenty-four hours, that is normal because the battery of the electric motor always needs to be refilled and recharged after ten months of storage.

water pump mounted under the cottage
The water pump, that sits under the cabin
(two major components: the pump, below; and a pressure tank, above)
One of the things that must be done when we open up is start the running water.  A pipe comes up out of the lake to a pump that sits under the cabin.  A smaller pipe goes from the pump into the cabin, to a faucet at the kitchen sink.  A second faucet, located on the pump itself, allows me to attach a garden hose and run water up the hill to our outdoor shower.

The pump must be drained each year at the end of the season, or else during the winter any water left inside the pipes would freeze and burst them, 1 and probably break the pump itself.  Draining the system is not difficult: with a big plumber’s wrench I unscrew a couple of plugs, and the water comes gushing out.  I take the plugs, and some mysterious plastic bits from the inside of the pump, and carefully store them in the cabin.  The pump now sits with two holes open to the elements.  The expansion of any freezing water left inside will no longer do any harm.

If you look into those holes, however, you might be a little troubled by the amount of rust that you can see in there.  This pump is pretty old – it was installed long before we took over the cottage ten years ago – but it is made of thick and sturdy steel, and so far, the rust inside hasn’t seemed to do it any harm.

Anyhow, that’s the process for dismantling and draining the system at the end of the year.  When we come back the next summer, the process is reversed: get the parts that have been stowed in the cabin; find the big plumber’s wrench; put the mysterious plastic bits inside the side opening, and screw on the cap that covers them, tightening it with the wrench.  Now, “prime” the pump by pouring a couple of litres of water into the top opening.  Have the spouse turn on the tap inside the cabin.  Plug in the pump.

It whirrs nicely, and soon Heather calls out from inside the cabin, “Baaa nub de biddle grp, gnrde hnhnh mblerump!”

“What did you say?  I can’t hear you over the noise of the pump!” 

She comes to the window somewhere over my head and says, “I said, ‘the tap is running, but the water is filthy brown!’”

“Okay,” I reply, “just leave the tap open, and we’ll run the water until it looks clear.”

I clamber up the path and go into the cabin.  Indeed, the water coming out of the tap is rusty brown.  Slowly, however, it begins to clear.  Satisfied, I turn the tap off, and go back outside and down under the cabin.

With the tap off, the pump should build up some pressure then shut off.

But it does not.  It runs, and runs, and runs, until the casing begins to feel hot.  This will not do.  I unplug the pump, and try tapping the pressure gauge, and the automatic on/off switch.  Plug it back in; but there’s no difference.  It runs without ceasing.

I unplug it again, mystified, and go back into the cabin.  Interestingly, when I turn on the tap, clear water comes out of it, looking completely normal.  Evidently pressure can built up in the system so that water flows through the tap.  However, if I leave it on for a few minutes, the pressure drops, and the water stops.  I have to go back under the house to plug in the pump and build up the pressure again.

So, we have running water.  That is, I do the running.  When we need water, I go under the cabin and plug in the pump.  When we’re done, I go under the cabin and unplug it.  Simple.

But a vision of having to dismantle the whole system and take the pump into town to a repair shop, and then carrying water in buckets for several days, begins to form in my head.

I figured, however, that we could get by for a while with me plugging and unplugging the pump.  So, a day or two after we arrived, I prepared to set up the next phase of our water system: the shower.

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The Amazing and Improbable Shower
I’ve described this shower previously.  It’s an outdoor apparatus that works from a garden hose.  Located on a platform at the outhouse up the hill, we actually have “hot” water in it because hundreds of feet of hose, between the pump and the shower, sit on the cottage roof and get heated in the sun.  On cloudy days, there is very little hot water in the shower, but on sunny days, a person could be scalded!

When we arrived at the lake the weather was blisteringly hot.  If I did any sort of work, I’d be covered in perspiration.  A shower would be a very desirable thing at the end of the day.  So, I began to set it up, figuring that even if the pump had to be turned on manually all the time, I could plug it in, take a shower, then unplug it again.

First, get the ladder and go up on the roof.  Spend about 45 minutes sweeping a year’s worth of leaves and branches and fir tree needles off the roof.  Next, get out the hoses.  Connect them end-to-end making a single hose that is hundreds of feet long.  Pile the whole thing up on the roof.  Drop one end down to the pump, and drag the other end up the hill to the shower platform (leaving the bulk of the hoses snaking back and forth across the roof).  Set up the shower, attach the leading end of the hose to it.  Go back down under the cabin.  Attach the other end of the hose to the pump.  Plug in the pump.  A nice whirring sound.  Water should be running through the hose, slowly making its way uphill to the shower itself.

Run up the path, all the way up to the shower platform (about forty feet up a steep path, and then up some stairs).  Anything coming through?


Back down to the pump.  It’s whirring and whirring.

Go into the cabin.  Is water available in the kitchen sink?  Turn on the tap.  Yes, there’s water running here.

Tony on a rooftop looking at a hose
No water; only a gurgling sound in the hose
Back up the hill.  Nothing.

Climb up the ladder to the roof.  Check the hose for kinks.  No kinks.  Uncouple one of connectors.  No water.  A gurgling sound somewhere lower down in the hose.

Go back under the house.  Check the faucet on the pump.  Did I turn it on?  Yes, it’s on.  Turn it off, and uncouple the hose from it, turn it on again.  Water spurts out of that faucet nicely.  Re-attach the hose.

Climb back up the ladder to the roof.  Take the first length of hose, the one that is connected to the pump, and drop the whole thing down to the ground. By the time I get back down the ladder and around to the pump, water is spurting out that length of hose.

It begins to dawn on me that the pump can push the water into the kitchen, and push the water through the hose at ground level, but it may have insufficient power to push the water all the way up to the roof and from there a further distance up to the shower platform!

I picked up the end of the hose that was spraying water happily and carried it back around to the ladder, and there I learned the truth.  As I climbed the ladder it sprayed less and less vigorously, and by the time I reached the roof, water ceased to come out of it altogether.  My theory was correct.  The pump can build up some pressure, but not enough to operate our shower.

I took down the ladder and quit for the day.

You may have been counting how often I ran up and down the hill, and how often I ran up and down the ladder.  I myself had lost count.  It was 35° C even in the forest – one of the hottest summers on record – and I was soaked with sweat and trembling with exhaustion.  And there was no way I was going to be able to shower off.  Something was seriously wrong with the pump.

Heather took the cold water that was still available in the kitchen, and sponged me down.  Ahhhh that felt good.

Then we both went for a swim – which is a fine antidote to strenuous labour on a hot day.

But I was troubled.  Was I going to have to buy a new pump?  Could I install one correctly?  Would I have to locate a handyman to do it?  How much did such pumps cost anyway?  (About $400, I later learned)

Well, I just let it rest for a couple of days.  Indeed, Heather only had one week to be at the lake, so we enjoyed our time together, and I turned the water on under the cabin when we needed it.

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Michel Filion
The day soon came when Heather had to return to Winnipeg.  There are things in her law practice that just must be attended to, so we’ll be living apart for about a month.  I drove her to the airport and we said goodbye.

On my way back to the lake I stopped at my favourite small engine sales and repair store: Equipments Saisonniers de Grenville. 2  In my halting French I asked if there was anyone there who can advise me about my water pump – whether to repair or replace it.  I was told that the “boss” – the owner, Michel Filion – was the person to talk to.  He was conluding the sale of a lawnmower at the time, so I waited.  Eventually he was ready for me.

I described my problem, in a dreadful mix of English and French.  He responded in kind, asking me to describe the pump, and drawing various pump styles on a piece of paper until I said, “Celui ci!  C’est le mien” (That one!  That’s mine.).

Michel is a big hearty man with blonde hair.  He laughed and said, “Bien! I know where is your problem!”  He went to the parts shelf, and took down a piece that was identical to the mysterious plastic arrangement that I remove from the pump each year.  “See dis small ’ole ’ere?” he said, pointing to the innards of the thing, “Jus’ take a pen, or a small stick, and poussez it inside ’ere.  You will see: a piece of rus’ will fall out.  Dat rust, she block dis ’ole, so you get no pressure!  You will see.  Hit’s easy like pie!” 3

It looked utterly simple, and easy to remember.  I could do this!

He sold me a couple of small parts, amounting to about $9, that I should fix at the same time, and I went out of there brimming with confidence.

Back at the lake, I took the mysterious plastic assembly out of the pump, and poked away with a small stick exactly as Michel had instructed.  A chunk of rust fell out.  Then I replaced everything, primed the pump once more, and plugged it in.

Everything worked.  Everything!  Flawlessly.  When I re-connected the shower hoses on the roof, water was soon gushing out of the showerhead far up the hill!  And when the pump reached its maximum operating pressure, it shut itself off.  It was, as Michel had said, “easy like pie!”

How I wish I had run into town and talked to Michel when I first tried to get the water going!  Heather and I could have had showers that whole furiously hot week that she was here!

But the old pump is working just fine, and that’s a good thing.

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Next: The Mail Must Go Through (mustn’t it?)


1  Readers from the tropics may not know that when water freezes into ice, it expands.  Pipes full of water will burst under the pressure of the forming ice.
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2  Equipments Saisonniers de Grenville is the place where I bought my chainsaw in 2002, and where I go to get it tuned up and sharpened.
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3  Truth be told, I can’t remember exactly what Michel said here, but it was something similar to this – a genuine English idiom just ‘off’ ever so slightly.  Michel’s English is far better than my French, and if he ever writes a blog about what I said to him in my fractured attempt at his mother tongue, his French readers would no doubt be doubling over in laughter.
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