Thursday, January 29, 2009

Missing the cold

Believe it or not, I've been missing upper Michigan winters lately. I read DaveO's descriptions of his skiing adventures over at The Lake is the Boss, and I find myself waxing nostalgic for the days when I'd step outside, hear the snow crunch underfoot in the subzero temps, and feel my eyelashes start to feeze themselves together when I'd blink.

Of course, I'd probably change my mind really fast if we were actually up there in true snow country dealing with fun stuff like keeping the woodstove fed, trying to start the car at -20, and cursing the county because once again they didn't bother to plow our road.

The coldest winter I ever experienced was in the U.P. in 1993-94. Day after day of highs that never got above zero, lows that went down to Arctic levels, municipal water pipes that hadn't frozen in a hundred years froze solid for the first time ever. The S.O. and I were living in the Shoebox, a mobile home that had basically zero insulation in the walls, and trying to keep it warm with just a woodstove in the back porch (the structure that is now known as The Camp). The stove was homemade, a crudely welded box stove that was about as energy efficient as an open campfire, and went through firewood almost as fast as a wino going through bottles of Ripple. Even with the S.O. getting up in the middle of the night to throw another log on the fire, by the time I got up to get ready for work even the ashes would be stone cold.

There was many a morning when I'd crawl out of bed, check the thermometer, and see numbers in our bedroom registering just barely above freezing. I'd fire up the woodstove, turn on the coffee, hop in the shower, and right about the time I was dressed, done with breakfast, and ready to hit the road that damn stove would start putting out some heat. I'd go out, start the Scamp (or attempt to -- there were a fair number of -30 mornings when the only way that beast would crank would be to connect the battery charger and jump start it), and get going, pushing snow with the bumper because the roads hadn't been plowed yet (I'd usually meet the county grader coming up the main road 6 or 7 miles from our house), scraping frost off the inside of the windshield, watching it snow inside the car, and thinking dark thoughts about the folly of living in the middle of nowhere in the winter. Somewhere around Chassell (30 miles or so from home) the defrosters would finally start working, and, a few miles later as I pulled into the parking lot at the Michigan Tech Student Development Center, the windshield would be clear.

Periodically throughout the day I'd try to remember to go back out to the car, start it, let it run for awhile, all in the hope that when I got off work at 5 it would start again so I could head home. It usually did.

The screwiest part of that particular winter is that as far as I can remember our water pipes never froze. Or, if they did, the S.O. solved the problem fast enough that I don't remember it now. People living in town with municipal water had problems but we didn't. Michigan Tech opened the SDC locker rooms to the locals so they could shower (various neighborhoods in Houghton and Hancock were without water due to freezing, but Tech never lost its water). We had a shallow well with the supply line from the pumphouse to the Shoebox buried, at best, barely two feet down, and once it emerged from the dirt to go into the trailer there was several feet of pipe that was, to put it mildly, poorly insulated. A typical winter in the Shoebox usually featured the S.O. putting on coveralls and crawling under the house with a heat gun, cursing colorfully the entire time at least once, so it's odd I don't recall any from 93-94.


  1. I'm sitting not too far from where you are right now so you know it's kind of cold right now, but still, nothing like up North.

    And I have to say, your description made me shiver. Literally. I remember a similar cold standing on a train platform in Chicago. Brutal!

  2. The Canadians dropped that barbed wire fence for the winter and let the cold North Wind come down!!

    The word is gynerate, what does that mean??

  3. I remember spending a weekend there several years ago when you were off in Minneapolis or somesuch, and there was actually a gas heater by that time. I noticed that, because I had to light the pilot in order to get some heat into the place.
    That was just for one night, because the next day we were off to Tomahawk to spend 4th of July with your daughters. I had a great time paddling Tammi's canoe around the island in the river.

    BTW, got the book back; thanks.

  4. "I noticed that, because I had to light the pilot in order to get some heat into the place.
    That was just for one night, because the next day we were off to Tomahawk to spend 4th of July with your daughters."

    More proof the U.P. is cold -- 4th of July week and you had to light the furnace. Well, at least it didn't snow while you were there.

    The Shoebox did have a forced air furnace but in 93-94 we didn't have a bulk tank for propane; we had optimistically decided to try getting by with the woodstove alone so never used the furnace at all. With a better stove, like a Jotul, maybe, instead of that homemade one we might have been okay.


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