Sunday, November 18, 2012

Northern Lights and 14 Feet of Snow

Solar storms have been active this winter, and we were alert to the possibility of seeing the aurora borealis.  At 5:45 am, Bryan awakened me to see them.  I was surprised to see how much sky they covered and how quickly they moved across it.  We bundled on jackets and hats as we shifted from the front porch to the back, and then peered up and out from the side windows, too.   The color was a pale green with an inner light.  The closest analogy I can think of, and one that seems like an unlikely oxymoron, is of a grass, hula skirt.  The biomorphic shape did indeed seem to dance, and its general shape changed as it “turned.”  But as I watched more closely, I noticed sinuous lines within the larger shape moving too.  Well worth the wakeup call (and I don't say that very often).

Our first night back this winter, the temperature dropped to +3 degrees F, but the wood stove slowly warmed the cabin, and with it, started to thaw a motley array of water containers we had partially filled with filtered lake water before the lake froze over.  Smaller bottles ensure some drinking water the second day after arrival.  Larger jugs of frozen potable water take a few days to melt.  In the meantime, we shovel snow into a pot to melt on the wood stove. 
Since snow melts to water at a 10:1 volume ratio, it takes several days to accumulate any volume significant enough to clean the cabin, laundry or ourselves very well.  So, I turn my initial attention the first two days to cooking, which makes the cabin seem warmer, just by the scent.  I made two loaves of bread and whipped up some onion dip, hummus, and sundried tomato-olive tapenade for handy snacks.  Since we don't have an indoor refrigerator, I store items that can freeze, in a cooler on the back porch (so the scavengers can't get it). Other items, like eggs, dips, and cheese, I store in the coolest corner of the cabin, which is by the front door.
View from the porch

Out house and shed foreground, shower house background

The second afternoon, we took some time out to survey the property by a snow shoe hike. 
Fortunately, this winter had not been nearly as windy as last year, so we found no 40 foot birch treetops snapped off, just a few long dead “widow makers” that had finally given up and fallen over.  Easy firewood source next spring.  Given the snow damage to unshoveled commercial buildings in Anchorage with less snow than here, we were mostly concerned about our roofs.  Perhaps because of the desire to heat limited space during a long winter, bush cabins have numerous unheated outbuildings rather than combining them into one unit.  So whereas a city/suburban house would have bathrooms and pantries and store rooms inside, we have a small heated cabin and three unheated service buildings nearby. Because of the snow, we build all with steep roofs, but still the snow load varied, depending on tree protections, compass orientation, proximity to open areas (like the frozen lake) and the "saddle" in the mountains across the lake.  At an abandoned lodge on the lake, the long neglected wood frame guest cabins, smoke house, and outhouses with flatter or gambrel roofs supported 6 or more feet of snow!  They looked like square cup cakes with a disproportionate ratio of icing to cake.  I will be curious, come spring, to see which ones remain upright once the sky snow turns to icy rain and the roof snow absorbs the water and turns to heavy ice before it slips off.  (A cubic foot of snow weighs about 20 lbs).  I’m betting that some of the rickety smaller buildings with the shallowest roofs will be leaning even more if they haven’t caved in.  Banisters, porches, decks, docks, and picnic tables have already broken through or broken down from inexorable weathering. 

Sisyphus: The window is 10 feet high
Among our buildings and structures, some were completely buried.  The fuel shed, burn barrels, wood pile construction supplies, and wood corral are evident only from suggestive hummocks in the snow, or are those alder thickets?  Next year we will flag them with 10 foot poles.  To burn our trash, we just dug a hole in the snow and dropped a bag of trash below the wind line, lit a match to Kleenex and paper plates within, and let it burn itself out, while simultaneously deepening the newly declared trash pit toward the frozen ground and littering the pristine white snow with fluffy bits of black and gray ash.   Snow completely envelopes the little 8 x 12 power shed, whose apex is about 12 feet high.  The 8 feet of ground snow rises above the eaves, meeting the roof snow that slipped down to meet it, supporting additional snow above.  It looks like a white babushka wrapping a wooden brown face. 

Of all our buildings, the shower house is the closest building to the lake, and therefore, the most exposed to wind driven snow.  The south facing roof, though pitched at a good angle, bore four- five feet of snow. From our cabin windows, you can see the layers of various thicknesses, like tree rings, indicating the major snow falls of the season.  Bryan decided on the third day to climb up on a ladder and shovel off the snow.  This proved too difficult with an unwieldy shovel, so he switched to a narrower and more maneuverable ice spade.  Over several hours, he poked and cut and sliced and swept the dozens of cubic feet of snow that he could reach.  If he didn’t fall off the ladder onto the wooden banister that poked above the ground snow, I guess he’d survive what appeared to me to be a somewhat perilous endeavor.  As I watched him from inside a cozy and increasingly clean cabin, it occurred to me that if the Greeks had envisioned Hades in a cold climate, this would have been exactly the sort of ordeal allocated to Sisyphus:  shoveling snow off roofs in Alaska for all of eternity with nothing but a rickety ladder and a skinny spade.

Afterwards, he came inside, happy from the exertion, peeling off sweaty clothes for a spit bath at the sink followed by happy hour.  Tonight’s appetizer was stuffed mushrooms, a special treat right after a trip to from the city since I cannot yet discern safe from poisonous ones that grow here in the summer.  I stuffed them with two mixtures, one group with homemade onion dip and the other with halibut I had overcooked the night before, but resurrected for a second life with mayonnaise, lemon juice and zest, onions, celery and spices.   It is starting to feel like home.  A toast to my husband who cleared half a roof without slipping and arrived home with a big appetite and a sense of infectious contentment.

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