Cold Comfort: No such thing as getting warm fast in the middle of winter

by • December 7, 2014 • FeatureComments (0)929

It is a welcome break to go Outside for a few weeks in winter, but when we return to the ice-cold cabin, we work with nearly military efficiency to get settled in again.  An off-road cabin in the Bush is certainly not a turnkey operation.
This winter, in order to use daylight well, we flew to our cabin about 10 a.m., seeing four moose along creek beds below. Onto the frozen lake, we unloaded many weeks’ worth of groceries and a new piece of furniture, stationing them on a tarp beyond the wingspan of the de Havilland Beaver’s ski plane’s turn radius. The weather upon our arrival was great – overcast but bright, 10  degrees above 0 and so still that little bubbles of recent snow remained in the crooks of spruce and birch branches.
Once the plane took off, Bryan pulled on his snowshoes to tramp up to the cabin to retrieve the little plastic sled we use for hauling.

Making your off-grid home warm again after being away takes a brave heart and heavy layers. Courtesy Mahalie Stackpole /

Making your off-grid home warm again after being away takes a brave heart and heavy layers. Courtesy Mahalie Stackpole /

During our absence, it had snowed so frequently, and at such optimal temperatures for powder, that even in big, flat snowshoes he sank 12 to 16 inches with every step between the lake and the cabin. When he didn’t find my snowshoes right inside the front door, we knew I’d have a tough time traversing the distance with the boots I was wearing, but it had to be done.
To help, my husband retraced his footsteps, stomping down to compress the snow so I could follow more easily, but even so, I sank below my knees with most steps. Halfway to the cabin, huffing and puffing, I decided to crawl, in order to disperse the weight better across four limbs than two. I probably looked like a winter version of that famous Andrew Wyeth painting.
Welcome home.
It was a relief to reach the solid wooden steps. I carefully straddled the spiky bear mat (put there to thwart marauding bruins during our absence) and threaded my way across a dark room crowded with indoor and outdoor furniture, a marine cooler, tool bags, ladders and shovels that we assembled for our arrival chores.
We had left tinder in the firebox and fortunately, it caught quickly. I gently added kindling in order to get a good bed of coals going, before laying on larger logs. Once I was sure that the fire would not go out, I removed the bear shutter (plywood over the window) on the front porch, which let in some light and the illusion of warmth. I also unscrewed the bear mat so I could start to carry the porch furniture out and the groceries in.
Next task: hot food. I have a theory that half of getting warm is smelling hot scents, like chimney smoke and coffee. My traditional “welcome home” meal is a savory pot of split pea and ham soup, cooked on top of the woodstove, along with spicy apple cider.
Meanwhile, Bryan trudged back and forth with the little sled loaded with supplies, every third or fourth trip fortified by a sip of cider. All needs and wants are clearly triaged out here, and groceries are no exception. First, he hauled the foods most vulnerable to freezing, like fresh produce and eggs. Since we lack a refrigerator in winter, I store these items in a cool corner farthest from the woodstove. Products less vulnerable to weather, like Home Depot tools and a new dresser, remained on the frozen lake overnight so he could shift to more immediate needs.
Once inside, Bryan uncovered the rest of the windows to illuminate my indoor tasks. If the snow is deep and icy, he can reach all the first-floor windows by walking on the surface, but if the snow is low or powdery, he needs a ladder. As each shutter came down, the lovely views of the frozen lake and the mountains beyond helped remind me why I endure these chilly homecomings.
Next, he shoveled out an access path to the back door and finally, he chopped snow steps down to the entrance of the outhouse. There, he found the toilet seat and lid frozen to each other and to the wooden bench below by a three-inch circle of frost. He knocked that off, eased the seat up and back and installed a two-inch thick ring of Styrofoam, which we use instead of the wooden seat in the winter. (The air pockets keep it from getting cold.)
Meanwhile, I cleared a shady section of the back porch to hold a large marine cooler into which I dumped frozen food to last the rest of the winter.  I also turned on the 100-pound propane tank, which powers two interior lights and the cookstove.
Within two hours, the cabin warmed up from 10 degrees to 40 degrees, but there the temperature plateaued for several hours. I shed my gloves, parka and hat but retained multiple layers of  socks, tops and pants. Someone told me that the log walls have to absorb heat before the air within can do so. Perhaps that is why it took five more hours for the temperature to inch up a mere 13 degrees from 40 to 53.
Needless to say, we were tuckered out by evening. Despite forgetting where we put the snowshoes, we felt efficient and effective. I even had time to whip up a salad and dessert. So, after a satisfying meal of Manchego cheese, ham and pea soup, coleslaw, and bananas with a chocolate rum sauce, we tumbled into bed under a thick comforter for a sound night’s sleep. I certainly didn’t want to contemplate transport of that heavy dresser on the lake, now under a layer of snow, until the next day.

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