Tag Archives: cold

Winter Descriptions and Luxuries Disguised as Necessities

The days feel shorter here than up in Alaska. That shouldn’t seem possible, but the orientation of the lab makes dusk fall quickly. As we approach winter solstice, the sun must clear a pair of hurdles to reach our cabin. First the mountains that overlook Robson Bight and then the collection of Fir and Spruce trees on the southern side of the cove. So even when the sun shines, it only strikes directly for a few hours.

But some sun is better than none, and over the last week we’ve been serenaded by blue sky and sunshine. After the rains of November it’s a welcome change. With the sun comes the northeasterly outflow. A pocket of cold air that has enveloped much of Canada in a classic winter freeze. They are days that lend themselves to wool hats, wool sweaters, and walks through the forest.  The sun reaches down through the boughs like the fingers of Midas, turning all they touch into gold. The humpbacks have vanished. The geese and cranes have flown south, the Varied thrush inland. We are left with the heartiest of the temperate species. The Raven, crow, Harlequin, Scoter, deer, and mink. It’s a vocal and charming collection of neighbors. Some smell, some call with the rising sun, some quietly munch frozen kelp illuminated by the full moon.

Inside the cabin, it’s an hourly effort to keep the temperature comfortable. The weather lends itself to light, dry wood, the moisture of Fall sapped from its wooden tendons to burn hot and fast. But the greatest ally of the wood stove is bark from the Fir tree. It washes up in droves, waiting to be plucked and dried. After a few days out of the water, it super charges the stove and sends heat into even the chilliest corners of the room. Nevertheless, the cat and rabbit curl up at the stove’s base while Brittney and I wrap ourselves in blankets, sweaters, and long johns to take off the chill. We rise every two hours at night to stoke the fire and keep the cabin warm for the rabbit. Each time I rise I turn the tap. The water runs icy cold, but as long as water moves through the line every few hours it won’t freeze.

I love this clear, frozen world. A world that in many ways is not that different from the one inhabited by generations of people before me. The rustic hand loggers and fish packers that used to dot the coastline from Campbell River to Bella Bella. The sourdough and flapjack generation as it were. The Billy Procter all stars. It’s a universe of simplistically over convenience.

Today more people live in cities than ever before. We are urbanized, domesticated, house trained. Homo stationarious. We insist on electric heat, warm water, indoor plumbing, matching granite countertops, and auto start. So many necessities the sourdough people couldn’t have even fathomed fifty years ago. Imagine Billy tortured over the design of his countertops or balking at walking to his car in minus 20 weather. I’m closer to him than the coffee shop in Seattle. Born too late and raised too wild.

Why do we need these things? What are we looking for? A generation of beach combers picking up materialism, taking it home, placing it on the mantle to see how it looks. At what point do we say “enough?”

Don’t eat till you’re full. Eat until you’re no longer hungry.

A bath on Hanson Island, like it was for many years, requires time and effort. It’s an all day affair of collecting wood, feeding the fire, and tapping your foot. But when you sink into that tub with Blackney Pass splayed out in front of you. Oh my goodness. Blissful tub nirvana.

Perhaps that’s it. When the necessities aren’t simple you fall back in love with them. We linger a bit longer over what many would call the mundane, extracting more joy from a trickle of hot water than many will find in a shower with 5,000 PSI. It’s hard to know what warm is until you’ve been cold. Hanson Island has taught me that necessities are not necessities at all but luxuries. They are things that we have simply been told we cannot do without when in actuality we prefer our lives without them. After years of technological “progress” aimed at making our domestication more efficient, the average family still needs just as many hours to clean the house as they did in 1950. It’s a secret Roomba and Hoover don’t want you to know.

Perhaps some will always prefer the high rise apartment, insulated from the faintest breeze and sweetest bird song. But I will take the biting wind as I walk to the outhouse and the therapy of a cup of tea while the cold crawls through the cracks. I’ll take the star scattered night uninhibited by headlights and the songs of Humpbacks in my dreams. May my countertops be wooden, the car cold when it starts, and the days unencumbered by the trappings of modernity.

Blessings of the harbor seals be upon you.

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When the Outflow Arrives

Wool socks, down jackets, long underwear. All them and more have been deployed to combat the latest northeasterly outflow that has descended upon Hanson Island; freezing the intertidal pools, our waterline, and our toes. We had the bright idea last night of dragging our mattress downstairs from the loft and putting it at the base of the fireplace stacked with bark and fir, Penny’s house placed snugly in the corner. And while the cold seemed to paralyze us in the early morning light, numbing any motivation to rise from the comforters, the Orca’s seemed impervious to it all.

Shortly after nine we begin to hear the faintest Transient calls in Johnstone Strait, leading us to the lab where the temperature hovered just a couple degrees above freezing. After just half an hour of sporadic calling the sounds vanished as the whales disappeared into acoustic parts of the strait unknown. Silently I gave thanks that all I had to do to catch my breakfast was crack a couple eggs over a skillet. I don’t think I could catch a harbor seal in this weather.

But despite the cold, the view atones for it and than some. The palest of blue skies and the whispiest of clouds frame the mountains on Vancouver Island, their peaks clinging grimly to their traces of snow, illuminated in the weak December light. The solar panels greedily suck in the beams’ power, giving our generator a belated reprieve. Blackney Pass sits immobile, or at least as still as it can as the tides pull the waters north and south cutting trails in the surface like tiny intersecting roads. It’s still odd to have Orca Lab so quiet. Besides the occasional Transient celebrating its catch the speakers tell the story of cycling hydrophones, insistent tugs, and at low tide, the cries of eagles as they soar past.

The beauty and peace is priceless and there is little more soothing or funny than ten Harlequin ducks bobbing into the cove every morning chirping at one another as they cut tiny wakes through the water. They dive one at a time, vanishing in the blink of an eye, their bodies barely visible in the dark green water, wings flapping incessantly. When they come up for air they shoot clear of the water like little rubber duckies bouncing on the surface, tiny bits of food clasped in their beaks.

But the deep waters of Blackney feel empty with no Guardian or KC or any of the other humpbacks that felt like friends in September, leaving us with the thirty odd sea lions down the beach for company. Today they huddle like a single sentient being on their rocks, stinky but warm I’m sure. It leaves us with nothing left to do but read, drink tea, and chop wood at a frantic pace before running back inside to the warmth of the fire that has been dancing for three days straight. The thermal pane windows have been worth every penny, thank you: Paul and Helena.

That Will Never Happen Again

    Throughout the summer and fall the bathtub perched on the towers of rocks just above the intertidal was our own form of luxury living. Often with a cold beer in hand, I would slip into the tub, perching carefully on the wooden slab on the bottom, the only defense between my butt and the burning fire just below. But once you were in and comfortable, it was hard to get out, especially after enough rain had fallen to justify using fresh water as opposed to the saltwater we’d been using all summer. Saltwater was fine, but had a tendency to leave you feeling as dehydrated as a tumbleweed.

After two days of torrential rain that turned the Hanson Island creeks from trickles to raging rivers, the sun came out, the wind shifted to the northeast, and the mercury sped past zero bound for the horrible land of below freezing. The time seemed right, to break out the tub again, and enjoy the sun and cold air from our very own hot tub. But the water we were filling the tub with was frigid. Bombarded from all sides by the freezing temperatures, our little fire underneath seemed woefully meager. Yet we were committed to this bathing adventure, and we resolutely threw every piece of relatively dry wood we could find onto the flames and watched as the water temperature rose by tenths of a degree. By 4 o’clock the sun had dipped behind the trees, and without the sun’s rays, a cruel chill swept into the cove as our numb fingers continued to feverishly feed the fire.

After four hours, I’d had enough. Plunging my cold hands into the bath water, I declared it hot and ready. Of course, after exposing them to the freezing air for the last 15 minutes, anything would have felt warm. I’d had a great idea for a photo though. One of us, in the tub, back to the camera, silhouetted by the setting sun with steam rising into the chilled air, a Kokanee in hand. In my minds eye it screamed Facebook profile picture. I stripped down and slid into the tub. The warmth my hands had felt moments before was all relative. While the water wasn’t cold, lukewarm may have been a little too generous. Any ideas of a photo shoot vanished as the first gust of cold wind hit my little bath. Every exposed inch of flesh erupting in goose bumps. Splashing water alleviated the chill for just seconds as the cold air pulled any warmth it created from my skin.

Screw this. At lightening pace, I scrubbed soap over my body and passed shampoo over my hair briefly, feeling my hair begin to freeze as I rinsed. As cold as it was, I knew getting out would be even worse, and contemplated curling up in the bottom of the tub with just my nose above the surface for the night like some pink, freshwater sea lion. With a gigantic effort I pulled myself out of the tub and began pulling on every article of clothing I could, dry body or not. Sprinting back to the house I threw open the door, greeted by the warmth of a roaring fire and the insulation of our fancy, new, thermal pane windows. The goose bumps began to recede, my hair thawed, the shiver rolling up and down my spine disappearing.

Form the table Brittney looked up, hands perched above her keyboard, eyeing me skeptically. “How was it?” She asked.

I gave a small smile, trying to think of a positive way to spin it, to convince her that it was worth it, and not to let our hours of fire feeding and frozen phalanges go to waste. “Well….” I start. “I’m glad I’m clean now.”

With a look of grim determination Brittney rose, grabbed her towels, and with a deep breath as if preparing to leap off the high dive, stepped outside and into the growing darkness.

When the East Wind Blows

I’m used to the cold, you kind of have to be if you lived in Alaska your whole life. Anything above 80 degrees shuts my body down, but the cold has never bothered me. After enduring two winters in Fairbanks and dragging my partly frozen carcass through 40 below weather to class, I’d never really considered anything else as, “cold.” I figured this winter would be more of the same. Sure, the weather would dip below freezing occasionally, or as the people of Fairbanks know it as; “September,” but between blankets, thick socks, and the fire I figured it wouldn’t be that bad. I even began to tell people back home that I was looking forward to a warm winter for once. Three days ago the wind shifted to the east and the clouds vanished, leaving us with brilliant blue skies, and a 15-knot gust on a direct flight from the frigid B.C. interior. The mercury began to plummet, and we began to shiver.

Forty below isn’t so bad when you have a heated, sixty-five degree classroom or dorm to duck into that can go from frozen to toasty with a simple turn of a dial. If we want to be warm, we were going to have to work for it. Our big downstairs windows don’t discriminate, letting the view and cold air in while sucking out the fire’s precious heat. We we’ve been chopping wood and kindling, hunched over the chopping block until our lower backs go numb, and scour the beach for bark. The bark from the fir tree comes off in slabs, some as small as your hand, some as big as your torso. Nothing burns hotter than a few dry slabs of bark, capable of sending the mercury skyrocketing ten degrees in an hour if you stack the wood just right.

And through it all, the world outside looks beautiful and cloudless. Just like a glorious sunny day in August, the sapphire and baby blues of the ocean and sky contrasting with the rich greens of the islands. Except of course stepping onto the deck now takes your breath away for a whole different reason. Perhaps the animals feel the change too. The humpbacks have suddenly started to filter out, leaving us with just a couple of sightings a day as opposed to dozens just a week ago. Even the sea lions don’t seem impervious as there’s been far fewer of them huddled on the rocks, though it’s hard to imagine that the water could be much warmer.

At night Brittney, the cat, and myself have huddled beneath a pair of comforters, keeping the draft away and the heat in. None of us are quite ready though, to share our bed with a rabbit that seems to use the bathroom once every thirty minutes. It is the frustrating thing about ensuring your pets comfort, you can never be sure if they’re too hot or too cold. Our solution to keeping the rabbit thawed has been tedious; involving climbing out of bed every hour and half to stoke the fire and add more wood to keep the temperature at a humane level. It’s not a bad routine, if I could just convince my groggy head to turn off the alarm and get up instead of just completing step one.

A reprieve lays insight, with clouds and rain returning in just a couple of days and with them, slightly warmer temperatures. I never thought I’d be happy to see the clouds and rain again, especially after our soggy October. I’ll miss the view with the spotted white capped mountains perched on the mainland to the east a fantastic sight, especially in the evening as the sun sets. But I’ll be relieved to no longer stress about potential frozen water lines, hypothermic bunnies, and habitually numb toes. From now on, Alaska will never feel quite as cold, as long as I have a house with whistling heater vents to come home to.