This is a pretty common scene at the homestead
I went for a run out at Buck Pond campground yesterday. The car thermometer said 68, but I don’t put a ton of trust in those things. They’re part of the car, which is warm, so how can it be an accurate reading?
It was only as big as my ring, or about the size of a quarter. I snapped a few pictures and we continued, slowly, down to the beach where the loons were already calling.
On our way back, I started to hear this sound that I hadn’t heard on the way in. There’s a little kettle-hole pond on the side of the road, and the frogs were going crazy.
It appears that spring is indeed, here.
I sat outside most of the afternoon, relaxing in a lawn chair enjoying a good book. As I sat there soaking up the sun, the snow melted around me. The chicken coop roof is clear after being baked in the sun all day, and the snow fossils of old footprints are appearing and melting again in less than a day.
The chickens have been enjoying the warmer weather and longer days too. For a couple of months, I hadn’t gotten more than an egg per day from the three girls, and sometimes not even that. But in the last week, I’ve gotten more than a dozen eggs as they’ve been basking in the sunlight.
The chickens are eating better too, finding food in the melting snow that they missed the first time around. Unfortunately, they are not the only ones scratching around for food by the chicken coop.
A few nights ago, we got a few inches of snow. I woke up and let the girls out and fed them. In my early morning haze, I failed to notice the set of tracks going from behind my cabin, around the coop and run, and then off into the woods via the left trail.
An hour or so later, after I had made some coffee, I looked out the big window and finally noticed the tracks. I was looking at them puzzled, knowing that Pico often walked a similar route around the coop. But then I noticed that the tracks came from my left, behind the cabin. This is not an area that Pico frequents.
I grabbed my camera and went out to do some tracking. I immediately noticed that the tracks were smaller than Pico’s. Working backwards from the coop, I followed the tracks around the cabin to the window right next to my bed. This sly little fox had walked on the snow right up to my window without ever waking up or arousing Pico. What a lousy guard dog.
The fox had come from the direction of the Upper Camp, and even crossed paths with some rabbits over by the woodshed. The previous night I hadn’t locked the chickens up because it was going to be warm, but from then on I have locked them up every night.
I’ve only seen the fox tracks one other time, but it still puts me on edge. I know it won’t be able to get the girls at night when they’re locked in the coop. I just hope that the fox isn’t desperate enough to come around during the day.
The sun is shining later and later each day, and some of the snow is melting and dripping off of the roof in front of the big window. It’s officially been spring for almost a week now, but don’t bother telling Mother Nature that. The forecasted thirteen degrees below zero tonight isn’t as bad as the negative twenty-three we got a couple of nights ago, so I guess, in a way we are getting more spring-like temperatures. But again, temperatures in the negative teens aren’t that spring-like to me.
I’ve been back at the cabin full time, and having a few weeks off from living out here was definitely nice. After three winters having to haul in water and use an outhouse no matter the temperature, the shine of living off grid has worn off. I still enjoy many, many aspects of it, but this winter has definitely been a mood killer for me. I was able to tap a few of the maple trees the other day and start collecting sap, but it’s been slow going with the cold returning. And the hike up the driveway isn’t any easier than it was in February.
But while the winter goes on, I cling to the knowledge that spring is indeed near. I certainly don’t feel alone in my antipathy towards winter at this point, but there are still some advantages to having this much snow on the ground.
Last night I was driving home just after dark and spotted a flash of white on the side of the road up ahead. Yes, I know that everything is covered in snow that there are “flashes of white” literally everywhere, but this small patch was moving quickly. My initial thought was that it was deer hopping the snow bank to head into the woods. But with the more than two feet of snow on the ground at my cabin, deer tracks are something I haven’t seen in quite a few months.
I instinctively tapped the breaks and looked for another deer. Usually when there’s one, there’s more, and hitting a deer and wrecking my car at this point would probably make me throw up my hands and move back to Florida. I looked up and saw a spread of wings in front of me, and realized that it wasn’t a deer but the tail end of a rather large owl taking off that I had caught a glimpse of.
The owl wasn’t very far in front of me, but I never got a good look at it because it was flying directly away from me. It had a wingspan of a couple of feet and was certainly impressive in size, but what species it was I couldn’t say.
I wondered why the owl had been on the snow bank so I stopped to have a look. I had obviously interrupted a kill in progress, and after snapping a few photos, I moved on. I didn’t want to keep the owl from his fresh meal. Plus, after this rough winter, I kind of feel like all of us up here are in it together. Even the animals.
The wild winter weather has continued. Tonight it’s so warm that even several hours after the sun went down, there is still a steady drip-drip-drip coming off the roof. In the forties tomorrow, the season just can’t seem to make up its mind.
That’s not to say that it has been an easy winter. And to me, there has been a recurring theme out here at that cabin that demonstrates this better than anything else. I have had a steady supply of small rodents around the house looking for food.
When I moved into the cabin a few years ago, Amy not so light heartily called it the “Mouse House.” Since then, it has been cleaned up significantly. With Ed and Herbie running nightly patrols, the mice moved out and other than a very occasional rustling in the walls, I have not had to deal with any other rodents inside the cabin.
That is not to say that there is a lack of small rodents at the cabin. Red squirrels used to attack the bird feeders on a regular basis and there is a family of mice living in the outhouse. There are certainly plenty of places for them to hole up for the winter out here. Unfortunately, they seem to have decided to try and spend nights in a couple of buckets I have. This has resulted in me finding more dead rodents in the last month than I’ve seen in well over two years.
The first one was a mole that for some reason climbed into the open bucket in the outhouse that holds the lime. The lime is the off-grid version of a vanilla candle, and is essential to using the facilities. I was not surprised to find the little bugger frozen solid in a bucket that offered no food or shelter even though I had no idea why it went in there. I buried him… Unceremoniously.
About a week later, I spent a nice comfortable night watching TV and soaking up electric light and flushing toilets at my girlfriends, and when I got home in the morning, I found what I think is a rock vole frozen to death. This was in another small bucket on the porch in which I keep some chicken food.
I use a combination of store-bought chicken feed and winter wheat, and when I was making a mix of the two, I had a small amount of the wheat left over. This is a bucket that I can understand the rodents trying to get into at least. It was frozen solid, and since there was only a little wheat left in it I just tossed the vole and wheat into the woods. Hopefully something eats him before he thaws and smells and Pico eats him.
And even though there was only a little wheat frozen to the bottom of the bucket, the very next day there was a deer mouse in the bottom. This was the first of the three rodents that was still alive when I found it, and since it hadn’t been living inside my house, I decided to let it take it chances back out in the wild.
As I laid the bucket down out front, the mouse scampered off. It went a few yards down the trail towards the chicken coop, and then stopped. I went inside to get the camera, and when I came out again, it was making a big loop over the snow back towards the woods. I watched it run and leave a neat little trail across the snow. I got cold and went inside, knowing that I wouldn’t get a good shot of the mouse now.
Later, as I made my way to the outhouse, I noticed that the mouse tracks went right under the shed. I took a little solace in the fact that it’ll be around for the rest of the winter. I like having the wildlife around, even if it does require me to perform funerals on occasion.
It’s been a couple of weeks packed with transition for all of us out here at the cabin. The chickens are out of the tent, Ed is buried and Herbie is acting like he never has before. We’re all making adjustments and getting on with life, even though the bone-chilling temperatures haven’t always made it that easy. The chickens are getting better about laying eggs again after their days in the tent. It took a few days but Whitey finally started laying again and Blondie has dropped a couple of eggs too. Brownie never really stopped.
Two days after Ed died, I decided that I needed to bury him. It had been a long weekend, with Ed passing, then me being occupied in a weekend long task. But that Sunday night I made the effort to bury Ed.
I was worried that with the lack of snow and cold temperatures that I would not have an easy time burying Ed. I also needed to decide on a place to put him that would not be in danger of being torn up at some point in the future when Amy decides to build a house out here.
I decided on putting him the lower field, in full view of my cabin. When he was out and about in the summer, he spent a lot of time in the lower field chasing butterflies and bugs. That’s where the blueberries are, and where I had found the old horseshoe pit. It seemed as good a place as any, and since I was going to have to do some heavy digging, I figured it was better if his grave wasn’t located too far from the cabin.
Even though the sun was down and I was exhausted from hiking all day, I grabbed the spade shovel and post-hole diggers and set out. There’s a large cherry tree in the middle of the lower field and I decided to put him under that. I should have grabbed the hatchet to work on roots, but needless to say, my mind was a little distracted.
I scraped the snow off down to the ground and made a big push with the shovel. To my pleasant surprise, the ground was not frozen. Turns out a full day of rain and forty degree temps made for some easy digging. I also somehow miraculously managed to not hit any major roots of the tree. It was easy going physically, tough going mentally.
After digging down a few feet, I walked back to the cabin and got Ed. He was in a cardboard box, and I wanted to make sure the hole was deep enough. The very last thing in the world I wanted to do was have to re-bury him after finding his body dug up by some scavenger.
The hole was deep enough, and I filled it back in with the loosed soil and some stones. I decided to add a large rock to the top of the grave to help deter wild animals. I knew that a small boulder about two feet across was loose and just sitting on top of the ground about twenty feet away. I had checked this boulder during the summer, thinking I was going to move it to put the chicken coop there, so I knew it would move.
It may have been easy to move initially, but once it was out of its little hole, it was much harder to move. It wouldn’t role across the snow, instead sliding a few inches at a time, even when I pried on it with the five foot rock bar. Honestly, it took me longer to move the rock than it did to dig the hole. All the while I was crying, not making this task any easier.
I finally got the rock into position, and felt a little better. I stood there until my hands were numb and went back inside. I had noticed Herbie walking around and looking over his shoulder a lot, probably looking for Ed, and didn’t want to leave him alone for too long.
I climbed into bed a little while later and Herbie came right up to my face for some petting. He curled up next to my head for a few minutes, and then made his way under the sheets to snuggle. This was the first time in a decade that Herbie had done this. I guess he figured we could hang together and maybe it would be a little easier on both of us. Or maybe he was just basking in the extra attention he was getting.
Pico, however, hasn’t seemed to notice. He’s got me to jump and chew on, and I think he’ll be happy as long as that is an entertainment option for him. I still miss Ed, but after a couple of weeks it has gotten easier. I find myself looking out at the boulder and stones marking Ed’s grave, and miss him greatly, but between the chickens, Herbie, and Pico, I have plenty of other animals to keep me busy.
Well, the low temperature last night was still above zero for the first time in a week. It’s not much, but it’s something to look forward to. And then tomorrow they’re saying that the highs will be above freezing. It has been a wild winter so far, weather-wise.
While the rest of the nation was experiencing record cold last week, we were watching the snow melt and the ruts in the driveway disappear. Then we had bone chilling cold with nasty wind. So much so that if I didn’t check the chicken coop every hour or so for eggs, the eggs I did find would be frozen and cracked.
One nice development out here at the cabin is that Brownie the chicken has started laying eggs too. Nice light brown ones that make the egg carton look so pleasant. With Whitey and Brownie laying now pretty much every day, I’m getting more eggs than I can eat. At least when I find them unfrozen.
But back to the weather. It was so windy the other night that I actually had to prop one of the chairs up against the door to keep it from blowing open. The corner of the old woodshed roof lifted and had to be repaired (the people who built it only used about twenty screws for the eight sheets of metal, so no wonder it pulled away from the shed). I’ll have to keep an eye on it the next time it gets windy like that.
The one upside of the wind is that I had several trees come down. I could hear the popping and crunching of branches falling all night a few nights ago, and when I took Pico for a walk to check on the upper cabin, I found about a half dozen green ash trees down.
This was a huge bonus for several reasons. First, they fell right across the road to upper camp, making them very easy to get to. I can use the sled to bring firewood back or let it sit until spring and use the four-wheeler. Either way, it’s a bunch of wood that I don’t have to work too hard for. For once.
Second, and more importantly, with the ridiculous cold we’ve had, I am burning through wood faster than ever. And it’s not the stove. The new stove is far more efficient. I get about eight hours of burn time with three big logs in there when I put it on the most efficient mode. The old stove would have needed six or seven logs jammed into it to last that long. But, it’s just been so cold that I can’t have the stove shut down all the way for the most efficient burn. I need some air getting in there so that the temperature in the house stays comfortable.
With the wood shed about halfway empty, and three solid months of non-stop burning left in the winter, I’ll be dipping into next year’s firewood before the winter is out. It’s a good thing I started working on that in the fall. I already have about three cords tarped and split, so when the shed gets empty, I have a little safety net. It’ll just mean more work and more money next winter, but I can’t stop burning wood and just turn on the furnace.
I have to admit, I kind of miss the days when the heat was just on. It didn’t require any work or effort, just had to set the temperature and go about your day. And sure, the wood stove keeps it steadily comfortable in here, but at what expense? Year-round work trying to find and cut and haul and split and stack and carry and burn wood. It’s a ton of work, and then add to it the unpredictable length of winter and it becomes a lot of stress too. Luckily for me, one of my favorite ways to relieve stress is to cut trees up with my chainsaw.
As is my new custom, I’m sitting at the table looking out the big window at the winter weather, and I’m sweating. The new stove is amazing, but way too large for my little cabin. A wealth of heat is not necessarily a bad thing in my circumstance, but knowing that the interior of the cabin is a temperature that in the summer I would deem too hot is a little disconcerting.
I open one of the windows a little more, since all four windows that open are already open. I’m greeted with sounds that are both welcome and unwelcome at the same time. The sound of snow and ice dripping off of the roof is nice, but the sound of freezing rain joining the melting is unpleasant. I woke up to about a half-inch of ice covering everything, and while I by no means got the worst of this storm, it is not enjoyable to be living through another ice storm. I can also hear the small stream out back, rushing like crazy. The stream really only flows in the spring normally, and to hear it running now makes a constant sound of traffic. It is eerily out of place here.
Around noon today I went out and started my car. I wanted to get as much ice off of it as possible before the second round of rain/sleet/freezing rain began. It was only a little below freezing, so the ice started to peel off, but because it was so thick, it took me most of an hour with the defroster and an ice scraper to get to the point where I could theoretically drive. The radio playing in the car told me to stay off the roads for unnecessary travel. But I was out of beer.
I had other reasons for making the four mile trip to the store. I only had a little gas in the car, and just in case I needed to use it as a generator for a few days, I figured I better fill it up. I also wanted to get the paper, and of course find out the gossip from whoever was working. I quickly discovered that the most dangerous part of my journey was the driveway. The main roads were fine, but I took it slow anyway.
I got back to the cabin and read the paper and did the crossword. Well, most of the crossword. Okay, some of the crossword. I found out at the store that we didn’t get the brunt of the storm. I’m glad for that, and that everyone around here seems to have power still. Not that it affects me, but everyone else I know relies on the power and phone lines.
It’s not that I got off scott-free though. My firewood is wet. Not all of it, but a decent portion anyway. The old metal roofing that I used had holes in it when I put it up over the summer, but during the summer and fall rains, very little water leaked through the roof and into the shed. The problem this time is that the eight inches of snow on top of the shed got iced up and couldn’t drain fast enough. Every little hole in the roofing started to leak, and that’s the end of that. There’s nothing I can do at this point short of moving all nine face cords or so into another shed that now contains tools, an old woodstove and lots of other crap. Not that I would move all that wood anyway, but that’s my only option.
I’ve been picking and choosing the dry pieces farther down in the wood stacks. I’ve also brought a bunch of the wet wood inside and stacked it behind the stove. That should dry it out pretty quickly. The biggest problem is that this weather is supposed to continue through the night and into tomorrow. After that it’s going to be bitter cold again. The cold will freeze the water onto the wood, and I’ll be thawing firewood for the rest of the winter. This is not something I’m looking forward to.
You’d think that after a full two years out here, I’d have all this figured out. But I don’t, and I’m okay with that. It’s a process, a learning experience. I’ve made many, many things better out here, but there’s some things I just can’t control. Like the ridiculous temperature swings. It’s sixty degrees warmer than it was last weekend, and by the middle of the week, it’s supposed to be almost fifty degrees colder than it is now. At least I don’t have to worry about the stove keeping it warm enough during the cold streaks. I just have to worry about having dry wood to put in the stove.
I would like to take a moment to acknowledge that this is the one-hundredth essay I’ve written in the Cabin Life series. I never expected the amount of readers that have found my stories interesting. Thank you for reading, I hope you get as much enjoyment out of these essays as I do. Thank You.