I leaned out the door and snatched the cast-iron Dutch oven from its spot under the chair on the porch. The chair is little-used since the weather turned, but the porch has taken on a new life as our freezer, large enough to hold cheese, cream, chickens and other supplies for the coming months as well as leftovers still in the pot, waiting to be reheated. With a fleet kick I slammed the door shut, but not before a fog had pervaded the kitchen. Fog, yes, but nothing like the wrap that envelops San Francisco, protecting it from extremes – extremes of temperature, anyway. It reminded me of the fog from a commercial freezer. My hand stuck to the knob, just for a second, as I went out again to check the thermometer. Ten below zero.
November is still new; the calendar claims we’re little more than halfway through fall. But if winter isn’t on-scene yet, clearly the stage is set.
I wouldn’t have said that a few days ago. The temperatures had been running in the teens, but, despite a wintry backdrop with a delicate snow cover, the days were crisply autumnal. Still, now, all I need to do to stay warm is dress properly, stay active, and keep the fire going. It’s been gorgeous weather, really. Sunny days are the cold ones now, but they show off the mountains best and tempt us to make time to hike or ski. Cloudy days tend to be warmer, and bring the most beautiful sunsets. Snowy days cover our footprints and make everything clean again. But I get the impression that a number of my friends in San Francisco agree with my friend and former colleague Steve, who says he would catch the first moose out of here.
Though I find myself startled by the stark shift, it is part of an evolution that has been playing out for weeks and is far from complete. A week or two ago we decided it was safe to turn off the propane refrigerator/freezer so we could close the kitchen windows, which were cracked open to prevent carbon monoxide buildup. With little chance of a thaw now, we can count on the floor space near the door to stay at refrigerator-like temperatures, at least until the nights grow even colder.
The creek changes daily. Ice formed along the shore first, then built up from the creek bed mid-stream. Just as I was gaining confidence that the icy shoreline would hold me while I filled my buckets, I came out one morning to find an overflow of water forced up by the expanding ice left me no choice but to wade in several inches of slush to dip my ladle. This made it harder to know how far I was from shore and how solid the under-slush ice was. When I got back to the cabin with the water, I fretted aloud about falling in.
Gary was reassuring. “Don’t worry,” he said. “It’s not deep.”
Whereas the ice may or may not be strong enough to hold me, some days it is thick, so I bring a shovel along in case I need to punch through to the water underneath. Lately, though, the overflow has flooded the banks, so the slush I find myself in is in the willow brush. Gary’s right: it’s not deep.
I’ve been surprised to see how winter can make things easier. I would much rather pull my heavy buckets on a sled than carry them or push them along in the wheelbarrow. Hauling almost anything, in fact, is easier with the sleds, pulled by hand or snow machine. Cooking is simpler, too; the wood stove is a perfect slow-cooker and warming burner. I have a chicken in the pot as I write, and just hope I remember to pull out the giblets once the bird has thawed enough for me to get at them. The two big stockpots of water on the stove heat quickly and stay warm all day. And with the freezer empty, I have way more storage for pots and pans.
Some things, predictably, are harder in winter. But the mattress? We have a Tempur-Pedic—you know, the kind that sort of reshapes itself around you. My side of the bed is next to the window. Though we close the window each morning—the loft can get hot, so we do like the fresh air at night—through some sort of operator error it was left open one cold, windy day. When I went to bed I found that the mattress had, well, solidified. After five or ten minutes it started to yield a bit, so I got comfortable and reached for my water bottle. It was frozen, too.
Getting dressed is a challenge. It’s not just the magnitude of the task—underwear, knee socks, long underwear top and bottom, wool crew socks, pants and top, maybe another top or sweater or two, jacket, boots, hat, hood, glove liners, gloves, and, for some occasions, down over-pants (for cold) or canvas over-pants (for wind and wet snow), anorak, knee-high snow gaiters, mittens, over-mittens and ski mask—but the task of remembering to put things on in the right order. This morning I got all my socks and long underwear on before remembering my regular underwear. I had to start over. And I’m trying to learn to time it so I don’t go mad in the heat of our toasty cabin with all those layers on. Once I’m dressed, I’m out. Oops, I forgot my sunglasses.
I’ve been here almost three months. Other than the cold, rainy day when we finally got the wind turbine up and working, I can’t think of a single day that I’ve wanted to stay indoors. At first I waited expectantly for the weather to invite us to spend all day reading by the fire, sipping hot chocolate. Those days may yet come in abundance. But so far it’s been one long stretch of beautiful days, fresh and lovely outside, cozy inside.
I had always thought of good weather as sunny, mild days, or beach weather, or the crisp clear days of autumn. What I used to see as bad weather was generally just bad for whatever I happened to be doing or wearing. I’m no longer commuting or having to walk through rain or salty slush in my good work clothes, and I’ve never had to bundle up small children for cold weather. I am learning what to wear depending on conditions and what I’ll be doing. And I’m discovering that beautiful weather can be many things.
“It’s only ten below,” Gary reminds me. “Wait until it’s forty below.”
I can’t wait.
Sunrise: 9:00 a.m.
Sunset: 4:19 p.m.
Weather: High 21, low -4, cloudy with some light snow last night. Early Wednesday morning the temperature dropped to -28!