THE BAILEY LINE ROAD CHRONICLES: Chapter 6 – Water & Shelter

This is the sixth chapter in my book The Bailey Line Road Chronicles, the 30-year story about moving from the city to live a modern homestead life deep in the country on Manitoulin Island, Canada. Missed Chapter Five? Click here to read it.


Ted Wright and his well drilling rig a few hours before hitting the big gusher.

With the outhouse and shed operational, it gave life on the land a whole new quality. It’s amazing how a bit of comfort can make such a big difference. A little comfort goes an especially long way when it’s been in short supply for a long time. The Shed offered only 200 square feet of living space, but it felt like 2000. Rainy weeks no longer meant constant misery, and there was room to store tools and groceries without fear of animals finding the food. The Shed was still just a shell at this stage, but it was my shell. Total cost for my mansion was $550 including paint and shingles. Immediate plans to outfit the palace included the installation of a water pump to draw water from the well I’d just had drilled, a connection to the electrical grid out at the road, and the installation of a little woodstove. But even without these things, The Shed made life so much better than in the tent.

I sometimes wonder if there’s a market for something you might call “deprivation camp.” This would be a place where discontent, affluent people with too much comfort in their lives would come to recharge their ability to enjoy the blessings of modern life. They’d sign a rigorous contract, then be taken to a remote location that’s too far away to leave on foot. Food would be minimal and cold. Accommodations would be stark and simple. There’d be no outside energy inputs, no online connections with anyone and no distractions. Simple hand tools would be available for building things from logs, fishing gear for supplementing the meager diet, and no showers, toilets or running water. One session at deprivation camp would last at least a month. Think of it like a prisoner of war experience but without the violence. I don’t know how many people would sign up,  but anyone who did would return to civilization much better able to enjoy the amazing things of modern life again. I never would have enjoyed my shed and outhouse as much if I’d moved in straight from suburbia.

The day I had my well drilled I’d just finished building the floor frame of The Shed out of poplar logs I cut and squared from the forest. The walls of The Shed weren’t up yet. The whole log endeavour was another one of my misplaced attempts to build as naturally as possible, and I’d just completed the job. The frame was open to view on well drilling day as it sat on chunks of limestone pried from the ground and set into shallow trenches. Even then I knew these trenches were useless, but somehow they seemed like the thing to do. In the climate where I live, the only way to make a foundation that doesn’t rise and fall as winter and summer play their seasonal tug-of-war each year is to extend the foundation down at least three feet and perhaps four to a level where soil doesn’t freeze in cold weather. My little trenches were no better than having stones sitting on top of the ground as far as frost heaving goes, but somehow trenches seemed better. I didn’t have the experience, money nor understanding to make a better foundation back then.

The well driller in our area at the time was a man named John Wright. I’d never met him until he arrived at about 8am to start work. “I see you’re building the hard way”, he smiled, looking down at my floor frame. John didn’t seem like the kind of guy who’d understand the philosophy behind my attempt to build naturally, not that I was feeling very good about it at the moment anyway. I’d burned lots of oily gas making those beams, and filled the air with billows of blue smoke and noise.

John was a hard man to get on the phone, but he arrived when he said he would, driving the drill rig himself. John’s nephew, Ted Wright, was driving a tanker truck full of water and there was a third man in a pickup truck that I can’t remember much about.

When it comes to the kind of drilling rigs I’ve seen work here on Manitoulin, the tanker pumps water down into the hole while the drill shaft is rotating. Air gets pumped  down through the hollow center of the drill shaft too, causing the drill head to vibrate and smash rock as it rotates. The purpose of the water is to lubricate the cutting action of the drill head as it chews through the limestone in the bottom of the hole. The air also forces the water and cuttings back up to the surface.

The thing about having a well drilled is that it’s probably the most financially uncertain thing you’ll ever do. All I knew that morning was that the drilling operation would cost me $15 for every foot the rig went down. There was no way of telling how far I’d have to go before we hit water, either. My burden of worry was made worse by a comment John made just before he revved up the rig and started drilling. “I hope we don’t hit a dry hole today.”

A dry hole? He said it so matter-of-factly. A dry hole! Is that really a possibility? Wasn’t there anything else he could do other than hope he wouldn’t make a dry hole? I wondered how long I’d stick with this game of high stakes well-drilling poker before I folded my hand, owing who-knows-how-many thousands of dollars to a man I’d just met who’d drilled a dry hole for me.  I’m not sure I’ve ever felt more vulnerable than the day I had my well drilled. It was the financial equivalent of a colonoscopy.

Imagine a large truck with a framework tower on its side on top. The truck arrives, hydraulics raise the tower upright, then a drill pipe is put into position with a cutting head on the bottom end. The engine revs, the pipe gets pushed into the soil while spinning, then in less than a minute it’s down far enough through soil to hit bedrock. You can tell because the rig is laboring a little more now. The rod both rotates and pounds at high frequency like a rotating jack hammer, chewing through faster than you’d expect considering it’s making a 7” diameter hole through solid rock. Of course, none of this is very natural.

When the first rod almost disappears below ground, John stops the rig, he uncouples the pipe from the drive mechanism by hydraulics, then another rod is threaded onto the end of the first one before drilling begins again. Additional pipes are added as the drill goes deeper. Each pipe is 20 feet long; 20 x $15 is $300 per pipe.Four pipes go down before noon and I’m still the unhappy owner of a dry hole. It’s amazing how having a well drilled does wonders for your ability to do mental arithmetic while pacing back and forth. I was $1200 into the game before I got my first flicker of hope. But just a flicker.

Normally during water well drilling, small amounts of water bubble up from around the drill pipe continuously – water that’s pumped down from tanker trucks like the one Ted had driven. This water is for lubrication and to clear the cuttings from the bottom of the hole. When John’s not working the levers of his monster, he uses a long handled shovel to clear the wet limestone cuttings away from the drill hole leisurely as they build up. It’s a wet process.

At this stage I’m not sure how John (or any other well driller) knows when he hits water. For no reason that I can see, more water than usual starts spurting up from around the drill pipe where it meets the ground, but only for half a minute. I’m puzzled. The noise of the machine is more than loud enough to make it impossible to hear what John’s saying, but he motions, smiles, then goes back to the shovel. I’m not sure when he’ll stop drilling, but it’s not now. Am I suppose to tell him to stop? I’m a complete novice at this well drilling thing. Will he just keep on drilling until he hits magma? What can a well driller do to me if I don’t have enough money to pay for my deep dry hole?

Seven pipes and $2100 into the game and I’m feeling sick now.  This might not seem like much money to you, but there are two things to keep in mind. First, money in 1986 was worth about twice as much as when I’m writing this in 2017. My investment in the dry hole was more like $4200 in today’s money. More important than that, my total savings at this stage in life amounted to just under $3000. Think of having sunk three-quarters of your total financial holdings into a hole that has no water in it.

I considered waving my arms in the air as a gesture of surrender to John, but hope kept me still. Would abundant water come in the next foot? The next inch? Have you ever noticed that as psychological pressure builds, the mind plays funny tricks? Just before he started drilling, John asked me what I’d be building on the property. All he saw at this stage was a crude 10×20 floor frame built by a Grizzly Adams wannabe.

“I might do a little farming”, I said. “Maybe raise some animals.”

“So you’ll have a dairy barn then? A herd of milk cows?”

“Well, I don’t know about that, I . . . ” John walked away to rev the engine and begin drilling before I finished my sentence.

Was John sizing me up to see how far he figured I could afford to drill? Was he simply going to give a dairy barn-sized well to a guy who he figured was well funded enough to pay for a dairy operation? I could see him glancing over to me from time to time as the day went on, probably sensing my unease.  Part way through the 7th drill pipe – we were still pretty much dry until then – water shot up out of the hole and it kept coming. I was happy because John said we’d hit water, but I also wondered. Why would water jump up out of a hole in the ground just because we hit a vein of it? Where is the source of pressure? Was John just sensing I was coming to the end of my financial rope, shooting extra water into the hole from the tanker truck without me seeing how he did it? Did he want it to look like we hit water “just in the nick of time”? I understand now that the air pumped down the drill pipe causes ground water to spurt up when you hit more than is pumped down from the tanker, but that day I was ignorant and particularly suspicious.

“I’ll finish up this pipe, then call it a day”, John shouted, feeling the air from his voice several inches from my ear. “You’ve got decent water now. Not great, but decent. I don’t like to go much deeper after I hit water in case I lose it again.”

143 feet was the final depth of the well that would serve me and a family of kids and grandkids that didn’t exist yet. I had no idea that literally several million gallons of water would be drawn out of that hole in the ground over the next 30 years. Who knows how many more millions beyond that in the future? The water from this well is stunning, too. It tastes so very good. It’s cold and clear and amazing. Whenever I travel I bring as much of it as I can with me. Over the years we’d wash baby bottoms with this water. We’d wash the grime of many hard days work off with this water. Cool glasses of this water would be given to fevered children. Young adults would take showers in this water on the morning of their wedding. Someday I’ll take my last drink of this amazing water. A well might be just a hole in the ground, but it also becomes part of the family, at least for me.

With taxes and a few other incidentals, the cost of the well worked out to $2350. It took John less than an hour to pack his rig up again, then he handed me an invoice he’d scribbled out on paper in his truck.

“I prefer cash right now”, he said, equal parts request and demand.

“Cash? Well, I don’t actually have that much on me right now”, I explained, wondering how many of John’s clients just happened to have twenty five or thirty $100 bills in their pocket when things got quiet again after drilling.

“The bank’s still open for another half hour”, I offered. “I could drive into town and get the money for you if you like.”

I mentioned this just to be polite, expecting John to say I could get payment to him later. He didn’t, and that’s why I found myself driving faster than I should to make it to the bank to withdraw most of my money.  Good thing Ches Bailey wasn’t on one of his runs to town.   John met me outside the bank and I counted twenty $100 bills and seven fifties into his large, thick hands.  He smiled, thanked me, then got into his rig.

It’s 12 miles from my place to the bank in Gore Bay, population 750 at the time, 900 today. Normally I had a strict rule about not going into town more often than once every two weeks because I needed to economize on fuel, reduce wear on the truck and keep working. But here I was making an unscheduled trip to town for no other reason than to pay out a huge chunk of money. I felt happy about having my own source of water, but sick that I’d spent so much money making it happen. At the time it was always painful for me to spend money. I’ve gotten much better at stress-free spending over the years. This is mostly because raising a family provides so many wonderful opportunities to practice spending money in large quantities, usually on things for other people. I’m more or less hardened to spending shock now, but at the time $2350 was the biggest single purchase I’d ever made except for buying my land. Even though I asked to have a well drilled and needed one, I still felt like I’d been punched in the nose.

Since I was already in town, I figured I’d stock up on a few groceries and gas for the chainsaw. As I left Gore Bay to go home about an hour after arriving, I could see one of John’s trucks parked outside the Legion. In small town Canada, “The Legion” is often the only public drinking spot to be found. The Royal Canadian Legion was set up in 1925 as a social and service organization for ex-servicemen. Even today, most small Canadian towns have a branch of the Legion where people (ex-service or not) go to drink and talk and relax. As I drove past John’s truck, I wondered how much of my $2350 had gone to beer so far.

While John was drinking that day, he never could have known he’d have less than seven years to live. On January 23, 1993, he and another man climbed into a Bombardier snow vehicle to drive out onto the ice of a large lake on Manitoulin to retrieve a pickup truck that had broken through and sunk in 80 feet of water the day before. Imagine a military tank-type vehicle without the gun turret and you’ll know what a Bombardier snow vehicle looks like. How John could think that the ice could hold that thing when it couldn’t support a pickup truck the day before, I don’t know. Sometimes a man’s bravery exceeds his common sense. I’m told they managed to hitch onto the truck, but the ice had different ideas that day. Police divers were the next people to open the doors on the big old Bombardier.

After the dust settled on John’s death, the Manitoulin well drilling scene was taken over by Ted, that young nephew who’d been at my place. Thirty years after my well drilling day, Ted would be the man drilling another well on our property. The day my oldest son, Robert, had his well drilled next to the cabin that would eventually be home to his wife and children on our property, I could see the same worried look on his face that I must have had. Earlier that morning, before Ted arrived, Robert was especially uneasy. If his well ended up being as deep as mine, it would cost him more than $5,000 of his hard earned money. Inflation affects well prices like anything else.

The day before, Robert had marked a location for his well that was convenient for hooking up to the cabin, yet far enough away not to be a nuisance. Drilled wells like the kind they make here in limestone country have a round steel pipe about 7” in diameter that sticks up above the ground a couple of feet. That’s the kind of thing you want to have out of the way.

The morning of well day Robert was nervous enough to ask me questions: “What if we’re telling him to drill in the wrong place, dad? What if there’s no water down there?” I remember thinking the same nervous thoughts when I was in his shoes, though I didn’t have anyone to tell. I suggested something unusual to Robert, and we did it. “Let’s pray over this spot and ask God to bless your well and make it abundant.”

I don’t have enough faith to believe that blind chance could create the universe in all its size and complexity, fine tuned for life as it is. Nor can I believe that all the information stored in the DNA of even the simplest single celled organism could have happened by blind chance – a necessary prerequisite before life could even get started. So if the universe and life have the fingerprints of intelligent design and power all over it, couldn’t that same intelligence give a young man a good well if he asked? There’s no harm in trying.

As the drill rig worked for hour after noisy hour, Robert had to endure more than 130 feet of drilling in a dry hole. I had a video camera trained on the rig the whole time to capture the big event, and the limestone cuttings consistently came up as light grey. That’s the colour of the limestone on our part of Manitoulin.

With no warning, the cuttings got darker as a slowly growing gush of water began coming out of the hole. The gush got much bigger. Ted started smiling, bent down and sifted through the wet cuttings with his hand. As he walked over to me, he handed me a flat piece of limestone larger than the rest. One side was the colour of dark chocolate, the rest was the light grey of Manitoulin limestone.

“We’ve hit an underground stream”, Ted shouted into my ear, smiling big. “The dark side on this piece of rock was on the inside face of the passage where water was flowing.”  As water continued to gush from around the drill shaft in amazing quantities, Ted estimated the flow rate to be at least 50 gallons per minute. Did that prayer have anything to do with a water well that turned out to be one of the most abundant Ted has ever seen? The maker of the universe is funny that way. He usually leaves at least a little room for doubt in every miracle.  What do you think?

The Shed is still very much part of our lives here, and I often think of how I built it with help from Ivan. He left me alone for building the floor and walls, and that’s why they were crooked. Instead of using a carpenter’s level to make the walls straight up and down, I made the mistake of using a carpenter’s square held against the floor. That’s a throw-back to the way we built those little wood frame models in high school, but it doesn’t translate well to full size construction. The floor was a bit out of level, so that meant the walls were out of plumb, too. I didn’t realize this until it was too late, and it took about five years before I stopped feeling bad every time I looked at The Shed with its walls sloped to the south.

Ivan did come over just in the nick of time to solve a problem that I didn’t think was a problem as I framed the roof with those balsam fir rafters I cut earlier. Ivan was 77 years old at the time, but he climbed the ladder and walked on the top edge of the walls like few 20 year olds would do now. “Two pairs of rafters are sitting way above the rest”, Ivan pronounced after eyeballing the assembly. “They’re too long.”

Without asking, Ivan grabbed the hammer he’d brought and started pounding the top ends of the rafters apart. “Do you really think you need to do that?”, I asked, not really asking but just being polite. I didn’t like the idea of bashing and smashing the rafters apart to fix something that didn’t seem important to me. Ivan didn’t answer, but just kept smashing. “I’m not supposed to be up here you know”, Ivan said as he worked. “They always said that a man should stop climbing on buildings when he’s 70. I’m way past 70 now.” I can’t help but think how few men ever climb these days, let alone keep it up as a normal part of life until they’re 70.

The long-handled framing hammers that are so common today weren’t invented when Ivan was in his heyday, so it seemed amateurish to see him using an ordinary 16 ounce claw hammer with those curved claws for framing. His old hammer might have looked strange, but the man knew how to use the thing. It took him about 20 minutes to take apart the rafters, trim the ends, then put them back together again, aligned with all the others. If it wasn’t for that chance visit and imposed correction from Ivan, The Shed would be even wonkier than it is today. Fortunate happenstance would also play a key role at other times in my adventure here on Manitoulin Island – sometimes remarkably fortunate happenstance, as you’ll see.

Want to be a key part of making The Bailey Line Road Chronicles a published book? I’m looking for a few good patrons to partner with me to complete this project. Just a couple of dollars a month gets you your own copy of the story when it’s done, and your name on “The Patrons” page.

Click here to read The Bailey Line Road Chronicles Chapter Seven: Making Friends