Photon Quest

by admin on January 1, 2012

December 15th to January 15th, the darkest stretch of the year.
December 18th to January 3rd, this solar-powered network’s highest traffic volume period ever. The amount traffic passing through our access point on the Great Hill Fire Tower is four or five times more than this week last year.

It’s a sunny day with single digit temperatures and frequent 40 mph gusts of wind, for a wind chill of -35.  We are hiking up the trail to the Great Hill Fire Tower to add a third solar panel to our array there.  Declan and I have the 3 by 6 foot panel between us, and the wind keeps trying to carry it off into the woods. Declan is also carrying a gallon of gasoline for the generator,  Gunnar a drill and tools to mount and connect the panel. It’s not the first time today I’m wondering if this is really a good idea in these conditions. The alternative would be to return tomorrow in the predicted freezing rain, and possibly a network outage overnight.  We press on.

The wind keeps picking up as we approach the tower, to the point where we’re yelling at each other to be heard. We’ve been here every day this week to charge the batteries with the generator, and trouble shoot what we’d need to do to keep the network up through holidays. The weather’s been overcast more often than not, and traffic on the network is at unprecedented levels. None of our previous visits were like this though, and we make our way over the icy rocks with the panel very carefully. Declan takes the panel by himself at the foot of the tower stairs, as he did last summer with the other two. It only takes one gust to convince him that it will take two of us. We move up to the stairs to the platform pausing for every frozen blast of wind. We’re going to use the generator to power the drill, so Declan takes off his pack and prepares to start it. The wind blows the gallon of gas and Declan’s pack slowly across the deck. The whole time we’re up there we must hold on to everything not attached.

Between the generator and the nearly constant wind nobody can really hear much. There’s one hole already drilled in the panel frame, to match one already drilled in the angle iron of the tower. We slide the panel out through the tower’s frame work and the three of us get it into place on the outside of the tower. Declan and Gunnar hold it there, and I dig a nut and bolt out of my pocket for those pre-drilled holes. I have to take my gloves off to place the bolt and twist the nut. By the time I accomplish this I am watching my fingers do what I intend them to do, but I can’t really feel them. I put my gloves back on and grab the panel again to help hold it in place while Gunnar drills the other holes, through the frame of the tower and into the frame of the solar panel. Nuts and bolts are placed and twisted, and tightened down with a wrench.

While we’re doing this, I think of a comparison that Declan made earlier on the trail to the Apollo 13 crew – three men, in a small very cold place, with potentially life-threatening conditions and lots of talk and concern about amperage. Once the panel is bolted in place we pause to let our hands come back to life.

Gunnar’s hands worked the drill, and got so cold that he didn’t notice when the drill took a little skin. He’s bled on the platform, and leaves evidence all the way down the trail on the way out. Every hand was needed to get the panel in place so I couldn’t take any pictures while we did it. Gunnar and Declan huddle over the generator and rewire the charge controllers, yelling at each other from a few inches apart. I’m standing on the opposite corner of the platform with both of their packs between my legs and the now empty gas can in one hand, and my other arm wrapped around the center beam of the tower. I dig out the camera and try and take pictures, but it’s so cold that the camera barely works. I get one shot of the two them in front of the box with the top controller removed, and decide to return in better weather to get pictures of the panel in place and the blood on the wood.

Now there are three panels on the tower. Two face roughly southeast toward Tamworth Village, on the “front” of the tower. A third is now on the side of the tower that faces roughly southwest toward Cleveland Hill, and will be collecting photons from that direction in the winter months from about 1:30 in the afternoon until sunset, when the other panels get little or no sun at all. The days will just get longer now, and we are confident that we’ve covered our power needs with this new panel. As soon as everything is in place, we gather our belongings and clamber down off of the tower, hurrying into the relative calm of the woods. No one is warm. We talk about adding more batteries, and another box to house them and the generator.

Gunnar says, “Well that was one for the books!”

Down in the village and out in the woods from Ferncroft to Mountain road in South Tamworth, over Little Young and Red Hill to Sandwich, 93 households check their e-mail, Skype their friends and family, watch their Netflix movies and connect to each other and the rest of the planet. Up on Great Hill, the panels silently collect those photons in the howling wind, powering the whole show.

We walk down the trail awaiting the return of our extremities, fully confident in this moment that we could’ve landed that space capsule, but we’ll settle for Googles for all for now.

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