by Bruce A. Smith
While we watched the snow, sleet, freezing rain, and a mist that seemed to freeze once it landed on a twig or branch – we listened to the torture in the forests – the cracking and crackling of limbs splitting off – or entire trees toppling over. At times it sounded like a wholesale slaughter of the woodlands.
Mother Nature gave us everything she had starting last Monday when the first snows stuck to the ground, building to a couple of inches on Tuesday, to the full glory of 6-8 inches of snow in Graham and Eatonville by Wednesday morning.
At first it was fluffy and beautiful; then the sleet and rain came and tore down the trees. As they crashed the power lines fell as well, and much of the region went dark and cold by mid-week.
Most folks got power back starting on Friday afternoon and evening – although some lost it once or twice before the lights stayed on for good – and everybody seemed to be back to normal by Sunday.
Yesterday – Saturday – my first full day with heat and lights, I was occupied with getting things back together – drying clothes, re-filling water jugs, finding all the things that broke and making lists about what needs to be replaced.
Now, though, on Sunday afternoon – almost a week after it all started – I can recount what happened. Let’s start where I was when my computer screen went black, and I said, “Oh, no; here we go.”
Wednesday, January 18, 2012:
Big Snow – Big Beauty
The snow – about 6 inches in the Eatonville area – has brought a rare wintry beauty replete with a sublime stillness. No one seems to be moving – no cars, no planes, no noise. It’s delightful.
However, I had to invest a lot of sweat to hear all this silence – and all afternoon I brush-broomed the accumulated snow off my tarpaulin cover protecting my little flat-roofed cabin underneath.
The snow was unusually difficult to scrape off, as it was the best packing, snowman-making-snow I have ever seen, and the snow was sticking to the broom bristles and clumping into heavy sludge piles as I dragged the broom across the roof. I had to continuously clomp the bristles clear, along with thromping the broom head on the snow clumps to break them up small enough to sweep them to the roof’s edge, and then down to the ground.
I soaked-out two shirts and found out that my waterproof rain jacket isn’t too waterproof. Or maybe it was condensation from my sweating. Anyway, I was out in the Great White Stillness for a long time. I loved it, but I got pooped a couple times and had to retreat indoors for another cup of coffee and some delicious chocolate mint Christmas cookies that my neighbor had brought over the night before.
Getting into gear; Wednesday, 4 pm
Gotta get heat – the number one thing is to stay warm and dry. I thought. Fortunately, I had some supplies and had made preparations – after all, I am a member of the Self-Reliant Community of Graham.
I dug around and found my little propane heater. It’s a ceramic catalytic portable heater that runs on little butane canisters just like Coleman camping stoves.
“Yuck!” I shouted as I pulled the unit out of a plastic storage bag – its cardboard box was completely waterlogged and rotten. I peeled the schmutz off the heater and it seemed to be okay. Next, I went looking for my butane canisters.
What, there’s only one left? I thought I had six bottles here on the shelf!
Finding only one that was filled, I took it and screwed it in. Then, I had to light some candles – beeswax so that they burn purer and give off less fumes – and after getting some light I searched for my glasses to read the ignition instructions on the back of the heater.
I should remember how to do this – I practiced lighting this not too many years ago…2004?
Oh, yeah, I remember the part about holding down the ignition button to get the pilot light to stay lit. I felt smart, like I had won one round in the survival sweepstakes.
Mother Nature 5, Bruce 1.
Within a minute the heater was purring away and delivering soothing heat. Next, I checked my smoke detector-low oxygen sensor. I unscrewed it from its housing mounted on the ceiling and took it outside to press the test button.
I opened the battery compartment and a white goop poured out.
How did candle wax drip in here? I thought.
However, what I had assumed was paraffin was actually a white-ish powder of electrical corrosion. I cleaned the terminals with a knife and then put in new batteries – but got nothing.
Concerned with burning propane indoors without any safeguards, I began experimenting with opening windows to allow enough fresh air to breath while also flushing out the burnt gases. It’s a trade off – pure, cold air vs. toxic, warm air.
At first I thought the vent over the stove would be sufficient, and it might be for butane for a short period of time – let’s say to take the chill out of the air. But for the long term, and certainly when I switched to the hotter-burning propane from my commandeered BBQ propane tanks, I needed a lot more ventilation.
I experimented with this through out the storm, ultimately having a bathroom window wide open and a secondary window behind the heater open a crack. Combined with the stove vent I had three-way air circulation and I was able to heat my cabin during the afternoon, feel comfortable and not get any headaches from the fumes or excess carbon dioxide, which was my situation on the first evening. However, under no circumstances did I leave the heater on while I slept, and that became a problem.
On the first night without power I piled on the blankets, sleeping bags and quilts – and tried to sleep, eventually dozing off until 4 am, when I awoke, fired up the heater, made some tea, and started writing notes. Amazingly, the lights came on at 5 am.
“Thank God!” I exclaimed, shut off my propane heater and flipped the switch on my electrical heater. When I got toasty I jumped back under the covers. The power stayed on only for 20 minutes, but that was long enough for me to feel safe, and I feel into a deep slumber until 10 am.
Darn, I thought, when I got up and felt the chill in the cabin. My meditation tape, which I had put on to help me fall back asleep, was only half-played. The heat was only on for 20 minutes. Just long enough for me to get a good night’s sleep! The psychological aspects of survival are so important.
The first order of business when I got up was to sweep the roof again. Branches, snow and ice was coming down with a thunderous roar and every time it hit the roof I shuddered.
“Gawd, what happens if the roof collapses?
However, once I climbed back up the ladders and saw the roof, it didn’t seem too rough. Yes, a lot of wood was down, but nothing too big or too heavy. Lots had hit the roof, but even more had come down in the yard and gardens nearby. The downed trees had about a quarter-inch coating of ice along the circumference of the limbs and branches. It had to be a lot of weight. Some branches I couldn’t even drag away from the cabin – they were just too heavy, even though a lot of ice had chipped off when they fell.
In addition, about an inch or two of half-frozen slush was on the roof, and on top of that was a layer of an inch or so of ice shards. As I gazed upon the roof and my surrounding gardens, it looked like the aftermath of the “Largest and Messiest Cocktail Party” I had ever seen – ice cubes lay everywhere!
After clearing the roof I descended back into the warmth of the cabin and put on dry clothes. Now, however, my cabin looked like a soggy gym locker – a dripping raincoat, wet jeans, two pairs of soaked gloves, and now two sweat-soaked flannel shirts – all hanging from hooks and vying for some dry air, along with my wet work boots on the floor.
There was too much dampness for my 20-foot by 8-foot cabin and the condensation ran down the windows in droplets.
Making matter worse, I boiled water for tea and a pot for hot water to wash dishes, and the steam added to the growing condensation problem.
In addition, I had several towels on the floor to capture the muck from my boots and they were saturated with water. I felt like I was living in a cave, and there was no place to hang anything outside to dry.
I tried to wipe the condensation off the windows, but it seemed like a losing proposition. I needed a better plan.
Plus, it was cold – 31 degree outside according to my neighbor’s temperature gauge. I was having trouble getting the cabin warm and dry. I lit more candles – I had thought the beeswax tapers would be ideal for both light and heat, but they didn’t deliver. I cranked up the propane heater, but then I had to open more windows after getting chest pains and a slight headache. I was losing ground on the prospect of warm and dry.
But I learned this: 12-inch beeswax tapers do not burn for 12 hours – it’s more like eight or ten. They don’t give off much heat, either. Three candles is the equivalent of the heater on low with butane, and when the heater burns propane it is much hotter, and has no real candle equivalent.
Out of ideas, I shut things down and took a nap for an hour, waking up refreshed. I made a few phone calls – my corded phone was another success that I had learned in a prior power outage. Cell phones are problematic, and cordless phones are worthless when the power is down. But corded phones seem to carry enough electricity through their lines to allow them to function when everything else is off-line.
Another success! Top of the third inning: Mother Nature 10, Bruce 5.
I called mom in New York. “How are you doing?” she asks. She tells me we’re her news, and that NY TV is saying that Seattle is getting slammed. I tell her they’re correct.
I call a few writers from the Mountain News. I get their message machine on the first ring, so I know they don’t have power – their phone company’s automatic voice messaging system immediately swings into action.
No one has power.
More trees are coming down. The alders seem to be getting hammered – everything I see down is a so-called hardwood tree. The Doug Firs seem to be doing okay – the snow still clings to their boughs, which are drooping almost straight down to the ground, but they’re not snapping branches.
But my neighbor, Dave, nicknamed “Mr. Lorax” by his friends for his knowledge of the Tree World, disagrees with me and says the firs are hurting, too. I defer to the expert of the neighborhood.
Dave also invites me over to his place that he shares with his lady to spend the night in front of his wood stove. After a moment’s hesitation, I accept.
Okay, Grand Slam for Mother Nature – score: Mom Nature 14, Bruce 5. I gotta get out of here and get warm. Even my down quilts are feeling damp. Another night here? No way.
I am radiant warmth, everywhere I go. I feel a little better, but I’m still bailing.
Before I go, I fire up my BBQ and re-heat some left-over chicken. I make some latkes, too, along with fresh green beans. Tastes good. Plus, a bunch of those chocolate mint cookies from my neighbor – they’re excellent.
I’m eating like a king, and I’ve got plenty of water. I’ve got three 2-liter jugs in the bathroom for flushing the toilet and a five-gallon camping jug just outside, plus plenty of old Snapple bottles filled with water for a quick hand-washing.
Since I’ve got a functioning propane stove, I heat enough water to shave. After all, I’m going visiting tonight!
That’s a two-run double down the right side, I say. Mother Nature 14, Bruce 7.
As it gets dark on Day Two, smoke is coming out of Dave’s chimney for the first time in several years, as he has kindly deferred to my smoke sensitivities since they developed in 2005.
Don’t worry Dave, with all this rain I don’t smell a thing.
About 9 pm, I bed down in Dave’s living room in front of their wood stove. It’s too hot to crawl into my sleeping bag, so I cover myself with my meditation cape.
I like this. I like this a lot. I gotta get a house and a wood stove.
This deep realization is like a solo shot over the right field wall. Mother Nature 14, Bruce 8.
I awake around 10 am, and it’s freezing cold indoors since the fire has gone out. Gotta get a BIG wood stove…
Stepping outside to gather firewood, it is balmy – pushing 50 degrees, although it’s still raining.
Yahoo! I feel like the world has turned a corner.
Bases loaded, pitcher walks in a run. Mother Nature 14, Bruce 9.
I have left-over latkes and corn flakes for breakfast. I’ve got milk and half-and-half in the refrig, which feels warm somehow; but nothing has spoiled.
I’ve got lots of food – I’m eating great! How many people had fresh coffee this morning????
Another run walked in. Mother Nature 14, Bruce 10.
But there is a lot of wood on the roof, so I head back up after a morning feast. More branches, and two have punctured the tarpaulin.
I really have to put a new tarp up there, now!
Mother Nature 15, Bruce 10.
I clean things up, wash dishes and then look for my two hurricane lanterns. I was very impressed with the light and heat that Dave’s oil lamps produced.
Where the heck are my lanterns?
I looked everywhere around the cabin, and then realized that I put them in a storage shed on the other side of the property. I hike down there and discovered that alders have fallen everywhere – it is like an entire forest has come down. It’s like a miniature Tunguska – that place in Siberia where the forest got obliterated in 1908 by unknown causes, possibly an aerial burst from an exploding meteor.
Surprisingly, none of the alders has caused a problem – they’ve missed the storage shed. All is good. I retrieve my lanterns.
I filled them up with a lamp oil called Ultra Pure; but I can not get rid of the kerosene stink imbedded in the lanterns and their wicks. I let them burn for an hour outside, but they only clear a bit.
I bring one indoors and open another window. One lantern is worth five candles for light and even more for heat. It gets really hot in my cabin, so I turn off my heater. Then I turn off the lantern and go with five candles.
It’s quiet in the cabin, and I hear the pen scratch across the paper as I write my notes to this adventure.
Wow, when was the last time I heard the sound of my writing? Hmmm.
Dave comes by to ask if I want another night’s lodging at his place. I defer. I ask about a night of cards, or maybe Scrabble?
He declines, but suggests that we have a “game night” tomorrow if we go in to another day without power.
I’m feeling okay. It’s still raining, but it’s warm. I’ve got a lot of soaked clothing laying around, but I’ll survive and I’m sure I can sleep though the night in my place.
The note pages flip quickly as I recount this saga. It’s the toughest weather gig I’ve ever lived through. Draining and hard. I’ve been in longer power-outages, such as the Inauguration Day Storm in 1996 when I lived in Yelm and went 10 days without power, but then I had a home and a wood stove. I even continued to work at St Peter’s.
I make a list of what I need to get before the power goes out again.
Other than a house and wood stove, which entails bigger life decisions than just buying a few things at the store, I need a fire alarm that can tell me the following: low oxygen, high carbon dioxide, high carbon monoxide, fumes, and smoke.
I also need a long-handled lighter, such as a BBQ lighter. I have lots of matches, but I’ve gone through dozens in just two days. A bottle of wine would be nice, and so would a few cans of chili, which has turned out to be a surprise treat. Gotta get fresh wicks for the lanterns, too.
I realized my crank flashlight has been a godsend – I have carried it everywhere and used it endlessly. Another run for the home team:
Mother Nature 15, Bruce 11.
Phone calls start coming in. Pat calls to say she just got power, and that it has stayed on for one hour. She’s in Graham and has Ohop Mutual. Paula still doesn’t have power, though, but she’s on Tacoma Power.
Dave comes over and invites me for dinner. Sounds like a deal.
On my second bite of rice and veggies the lights come on. 8 pm Friday.
He even pours me a glass of wine! What storm?
On Saturday, I clean up some more and get organized, although it is windy and I look to the skies cautiously. I re-fill water bottles and jogs. Things dry out. I investigate what is happening to the missing hikers on Mount Rainier.
My stove suddenly goes out and I discover that I have a broken propane line from my tank – it must have been all the falling ice, cold temps and stuff. Dave comes over to assist and invites me to dinner, again.
I head over, and the lights go out as I walk in. Everyone shouts – NO!
The lights come back on a moment later. Mind as matter….
© 2012 Mountain News-WA