Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Hunkering down for the holidays?

Here are a few photos of our various efforts yesterday to thaw and chip our way out of the ice that has encased central Maine. The actual ice storm itself occurred in our absence -- we were down in Virginia to see Aimee's family for the holidays.

Although I like my in-laws and most of Aimee's relatives, and enjoy the food and fun we have there, I can't help but deeply dislike leaving home and hearth in the middle of the bad weather season, and driving eight hundred miles away from everything and everyone I'm most responsible for looking after.

It just seems too much like asking for trouble. But Aimee has to see her folks, so all you can do is prepare.

Accordingly, our house-sitters get very long lists of instructions and careful training. Aimee feels much the same, and contributes considerably to the list, particularly where the dogs and cats are concerned. But house-sitters are, by definition, people that don't have their own house and farm to look after and so are not necessarily switched on to all the dangers, while some of the difficulties that might ensue can be hard to predict and prepare for, and so even with the most painstaking of preparations, bad things may still happen.

In this case, a major ice storm appeared several days into our visit. Maine gets ice storms every year, and usually they aren't a big deal. You stay off the roads for a day or two, the ice melts or is scraped away, and life goes on. A weather event that would bring Washington DC or New York (or for that matter, Harrisonburg, Virginia) to their knees, snarling traffic and stopping services, is just a normal Maine winter's day. But every once in a while, the great ice storm of 1998 being the most recent example, enough ice falls to coat trees and power lines with enough weight of frozen water to bring them crashing down. If this happens after a major snow fall, the weight of ice and snow combined can bring down a roof or flatten an outbuilding. And, while the power is out, your house and water pipes will freeze.

This storm was forecast to be one such storm, possibly as bad as the 1998 epic. In the end it wasn't quite so bad, but it was bad enough.

So it was with some urgency and trepidation that we began our long drive home very early Monday morning in Virginia, where the highs had been in the sixties and seventies over the weekend -- weather so ridiculously warm we almost couldn't grasp it mentally.

Despite a warm start, the drive back was no picnic, with torrential rain and spray and the usual horrible and dangerous traffic on Connecticut's crowded freeways. But we made it home after one and a half days of sheer nasty slow 50-60 mph slog, down to 30 mph, 20 mph, and even a dead stop in many places. The closest shave occurred courtesy of a careless Manchester, CT, Christmas shopper, whose last-minute lane change tested the poor old Camry's brakes, as well as my reflexes, which after ten hours of driving were none too good. Whoever you are, Ms. Ultimate Shopper, get some therapy. Whatever holiday pressure you're under, it isn't worth an accident.

But eventually, and several hours early thanks to our worry, we pulled into our own driveway. I'm always deeply grateful to finally be safe at home after these holiday treks across the country. In this particular case, however, some hard work would be required to make everything safe. The first storm-related task, after greeting the house-sitter and the dogs, and checking on the livestock, and after the car was unloaded and the holiday haul of gifts and of that compensatory kind of shopping rural people do when on a urban "spree" was all brought in, was to reduce the weight of ice and snow on various roofs. 

I started by watering the livestock, then turned my attention to the hoophouse. Each section of cover between the rafters was supporting about two or three hundred pounds of unwanted snow and ice, and the whole flimsy structure was groaning under the strain. I was able to shake it off a little at a time, from the inside, first punching hard to break the skin of ice, then pushing and shaking to clear the snow. The cover was damaged badly in three places where the rafters rub against it, and will eventually need to be replaced, but I think I can get another year or two out of it using some patches and glue.

The next job was the porch roof. With some difficulty I broke out the ladder, chipping off the two inches of ice on the rungs, moved it into the right position and climbed up there to evaluate the damage. Several hundred pounds of snow and ice had already torn away part of the gutter and was threatening the rest, hanging off the edge of the roof in giant heavy icicles. Not one to mess around with fine detail when it comes to something like this, I broke this material off with the sharp end of a claw hammer. (On my RAF fitters course and thereafter on various squadrons we techies were repeatedly told, "Always use the correct tool for the job!") Then I used the roof rake and claw hammer to remove about two thirds of the material on the roof itself. I couldn't get up there to get the rest because the metal porch roof we fitted several years ago is too slippy to walk on, so I had to be content with removing what I could from top of the the ladder. Although it's Christmas, I may go back up there today and try to get some more. Even though there isn't that much weight left up there, the danger is that we get another heavy snowfall later and add to the load. Better safe than sorry.

Here's the finished result. You can see about two hundred pounds of ice and snow left where the two roofs meet on the right. That would be the material I need to remove today.

The next job was to "exercise" the generator. Our house-sitter had experienced about a three-hour outage Monday, and at one point more than a hundred thousand households were without power in the state. Although ours was soon back on, much of Maine's power was still out, and with the wind getting up, adding to the existing stress on the trees and power lines, it seemed like a good idea to make sure this machine was ready.

This is a brand new genny but it runs on propane and the last time I'd tried to start it, at about -10 F, it had balked and I had to stop pulling the cord before I threw out my "trick" shoulder again. Propane doesn't like really cold weather. Yesterday, at a positively tropical 22 F, it started right up.

I'm going to have to work out a system for warming this thing in really cold weather. They must make a block heater or something like that for small engines. I'll look online.

The Land Rover was covered in hard ice and needed to be thawed out. Rather than idle the engine for the several hours it would have taken, I simply placed the kerosene heater in the back and lit it. This is what that looked like, except of course I closed the door while the operation was underway. This simple procedure worked a treat, and, accordingly, will have to be stored away in the long list of memorized ideas for dealing with winter I keep in my head.

Once the Rover was ready, I needed to go get some salt for the walkways. The house-sitter had used what we had, which wasn't much. Aimee also wanted some cream cheese for mashed potatoes to go with Christmas dinner. Thinking that there might have been a bit of a run on salt lately, I called ahead to our local store and was pleasantly surprised when the lady said they had some. Accordingly I carefully drove the 3.5 miles there in the Rover, weaving between the sagging birch trees on Great Farm Road, the dogs coming along for the ride as they often do, only to discover there was no salt. The lady who answered the phone had bad information. That ticked me off a little, but at least Aimee got her cream cheese, and at least the Rover was in good shape in case we needed it.

After all that, everything and everyone safe and sound, tried and tested, it was time for a well-earned nap.

Here's the "Charlie Brown" Christmas tree that the house-sitter left for us, along with some Christmas cookies. We're lucky to have power to light our little tree, and that the only damage was to a gutter and the hoophouse, and relatively minor. A lot of Mainers are going to be spending Christmas without power this year. There are warming shelters set up in the main towns, and the linesmen are out hard at work, for which we're all grateful, but there's nothing like Christmas in your own warm home. I feel bad for our neighbors.

I think Gaelin, our youthful house-sitter, did very well to survive the ice storm and power cut without help, a proper Maine girl, but even so it must have been a bit bleak from time to time. Hopefully her tree cheered her up!

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