Monday, May 16, 2011

Quoth the Raven, Nevermore

Big news: the house is sold!  Closing date is June 10, and we can finally move permanently to Cape Breton.  The minute the email came in from the real estate agent with confirmation that the offer was firm, I gave in my notice at work.  It came as quite a shock to most of my colleagues, some of whom spontaneously burst into tears.  My boss ran away and didn’t come back.  The entire day was really quite amusing as far as I was concerned.  When Friday came, I wore jeans to work in a flagrant violation of dress code.  I had lunch bought for me, received some very nice presents, and got docked seven days’ pay for taking too much vacation.  After 14 years of faithful service, you’d think they’d cut me a break.  I’ll miss some of the people there of course, but I certainly won’t miss the commute.  It’s strange to think that I never have to go back.

So, early Saturday morning we arrived at Pearson – only to find that we were actually booked on a flight departing from the City Centre Airport.  Now, anyone who knows Toronto will understand our dismay, as there’s no way we could make it from Pearson to the Island in time to catch the plane.  The Air Canada representative made a few calls, and amazingly, was able to switch us onto the 8 am flight from Pearson to Sydney, only charging us the regular change fee.  Kudos to Air Canada for their prompt and courteous service!  

After a long and tiring flight that involved three planes (Toronto-Montreal, Montreal-Halifax, Halifax-Sydney) we arrived at Sydney Airport, only to find that our car wouldn’t start.  Hardly surprising really, as it had sat in the long-term parking lot for much of the winter and spring, buried in snow, drenched in rain, and now on the day we arrived the weather was chilly and very damp.  We’re not sure what the problem is, but being too tired to fuss around with it at that point, we just rented a car and headed off to Baddeck.

We got to Baddeck just in time to see the grocery store manager put out the “Closed” sign and lock the doors (at 5:30 on a Saturday).  Luckily there’s a small store on the way out of town that stays open until 8, so we were able to at least pick up a few basics, but it was a reminder that this is not the GTA, and we’re going to have to get used to the fact that rural town stores don’t stay open all hours like they do in the Southern Ontario suburbs!

As we drove down our road, it became evident that we’re going to have to invest in a backhoe.  Between the flooding from the beaver dam and the heavy snow, the road surface has been badly eroded in several places.  The rental car (a Dodge Journey) handled it manfully, and we successfully negotiated the deep ruts and gulleys to finally arrive at the house.

We were greeted by glorious drifts of daffodils, and green grass.  No snow!  The roof was intact, no trees down, and at first glance all seemed well.  But as we took a closer look, we saw that an animal had been trying to get into the house.  There were scratch marks around the doors and windows, and the patio door screen had been torn open.  Some of the wood trim around the front windows had been completely ripped off.  The marks on the window brought only one animal to mind: black bear.

When I went to check the upstairs, I saw that the break and enter attempt had almost been successful.  The animal had climbed onto the roof and clawed away a large chunk of our window ledges in the bathroom and both guest bedrooms.  It had evidently cut itself in the process, as there was blood smeared all over the bedroom window.  The most worrying thing was that it had managed to open the bathroom window!  If it had torn through the screen, it would have been in the house.

With a heavy heart, Paul loaded the rifle.  As much as we respect the bears and their right to exist, once they start to invade our home, they have to be removed.  Only a young bear would be light enough to get up on the roof, and so we figured it was probably a mother who had denned in the woods at the back of our property, and her cubs were responsible for the damage on the top floor.  As dusk fell, Paul patrolled the perimeter, but saw nothing.  We had a makeshift supper – once again, no water and no power – then finally we went to bed, thoroughly discouraged and wondering whether we should just sell the place and buy a condo in Florida.

As we were going to sleep, we heard the distant hoot of an owl.  As exhausted as we were, it didn’t take long for sleep to overtake us and then, the very first thing we woke up to was a strange chirruping noise coming from the spare bedroom.  Half asleep still, I thought it was a cuckoo or a dove, but when Paul called me in to the room, I couldn’t believe my eyes: there on the roof, cooing and trilling to each other, was a pair of massive ravens!  They still had the bedhead of youth, and were obviously responsible for the damaged window ledges.  If they had recently fed on carrion, that would explain the blood on their beaks, with which they’d painted the window.  Talk about being caught red-beaked!

It was a huge relief to realize that we wouldn’t have to shoot the bears; but how sick Paul would have felt if he’d encountered a bear, or worse, an entire bear family, the previous night and shot it, only to find the next morning that he had the wrong perpetrator!  There is an important lesson here: when you find animals have damaged your property, don’t jump to conclusions.  It’s better to wait a couple of days and see if you can catch the culprit in the act; that way you don’t run the risk of killing an innocent creature.  

We’re going to have to repair the window ledges and protect the wood somehow – and persuade the ravens to leave our house alone.  We would rather not kill them, so if anyone has any experience with this kind of problem or has any suggestions, we’d be glad to hear your thoughts.  In the meantime, a couple of shots fired into the air with the .22 seems to have sent a message into the bird world, not to mention waking up a rather pissed off owl.

More news later from a rather wet and chilly Cape Breton!

Monday, May 2, 2011

Hell Week, Part II

So, warm now and with enough fuel to keep the genny going, we headed up to the power house to find out why the heck we were still not getting any water.  I have to tell you, I really love my snowshoes!  I had never worn them before, but after that 7 kilometre round trip, a good part of it pushing a loaded canoe, I certainly learned in a hurry.  They're really not difficult at all, and they sure make walking on deep snow easier!

Here is Paul, looking like he's in a snowshoe commercial:

Off we go up the hill ...

It's quite a pleasant walk up to the power house, and when you arrive, this is what you see:

It didn't take Paul long to figure out that the reason we had no water (and therefore, no power) was that one of the nozzles that the water flows through had actually broken.  This is a specialty part, not something you can just pick up at Canadian Tire, and so, for the time being until he can get a replacement, we're out of luck. 

On the plus side, there's definitely nothing wrong with the flow of water:

So essentially this meant we would be without water for the entire week.  On the upside, we were surrounded by snow, as well as a spring-fed pond.  It's not as convenient as turning on a tap, and obviously a lot slower, but it can be done.

Speaking of which, here is the pond, only partially frozen over.

Once we made our way back down to the house, we turned our attention to another problem.  During the long, cold days when the house was standing empty, an animal had stripped the bark from a lot of our trees.  The crabapple by the barn in particular had been almost completely stripped.  Our first thought was that it must have been a bear, but evidence in the form of a fair number of droppings pinned the blame squarely on the moose. 

Our crabapple tree, 80% stripped.  It will probably die.

A good example of stripping.  Most of the trees around the perimeter of the garden suffered some stripping, and a lot of them were seriously damaged.  The moose are very hungry in late February/early March, and they strip the bark to get at the calorie-rich sugar pulp just under the surface.  If the tree is stripped round ("circled") it will most likely die.  It makes me feel sick to think that a lot of our lovely apple and pear trees may be beyond saving - but really, we have a lot of trees; we can always plant more.

There's nothing you can really do to prevent this apart from fencing individual trees.  Some folks say that wolf urine is a good deterrent, but really ... I think I'd rather put up with the moose!

Evidence!  They sell chocolate versions of these at the airport.  Ewwww ...

The weather during the week was actually pretty dreary.  Most days were overcast and damp, with snow flying off and on.  Paul spent the better part of one morning up on the roof, clearing as much snow as he could manage.  The roof is very strong, with sturdy joists, and can take quite a heavy snow load, but it's only sensible to shovel off the worst parts, especially when the layers are over a metre thick! 

It's not so bad when the house is empty and there's no heat, but as soon as you start putting heat through the chimney you get ice forming.  Here are some of the icicles we found outside the bathroom window:

March is a funny month.  In Canada in March the world is still locked in the grip of winter, and yet there's this underlying sense of anticipation, of waiting, as though every living thing is holding its breath.  We looked out of our upstairs bedroom window one day and it was just so quiet.  Everywhere was so utterly still, so lifeless, so grey and frozen, it seemed impossible that there was life anywhere.  And yet, there is life; not only that, there is abundant life.  Here are some of the tracks we found:


Not sure what these are.



... and a chickadee, enjoying a drink of ice-cold water!

We also saw plenty of rabbit and chipmunk tracks dashing back and forth.  And in case you're wondering what on earth these critters found to eat amongst all that snow and ice, here are a bunch of seed husks left behind after a chipmunk breakfast:

As well, take a look at the lovely juicy red berries on this bush near the pond!

There are plenty of creatures around, just that they are smart enough to spend most of the winter in their warm dens and nests, only venturing out to gather food when they need to.  It's only us ridiculous humans that tramp around in the cold all day!

It was a bit of a drab week, mainly because we were stuck at the house with no means of transport in or out.  Melting snow to flush the toilet, and to get enough water to have a hot shower quickly became a chore.  Of course we were able to run the genny for power, but she is noisy and goes through diesel at quite a pace.  By the time Thursday rolled around we'd had enough, and decided to spend our last night in a hotel.  The hike out (on snowshoes) was a breeze compared to the last time, and I couldn't believe it when the Suburban came into sight; the entire walk had taken us under an hour.

I'm always so sad to leave the house.  I don't know why, but every time we leave I have this fear in the pit of my stomach that I may never be able to come back.  It gets me every time, no matter what the season.  One day, we'll be there for good, and I'll finally be able to say "this is home, and I ain't leavin'."

I must admit though, that the hot shower at the hotel in Sydney was out of this world; and we got there just in time for happy hour at the bar.  I've never been so pleased to see a bottle of Alexander Keith's ...

This is Willow Retreat, signing out, until next time. 

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Hell Week, Part I

I can't believe it's taken me six weeks to sit down and write this entry, but finally, here I am.  It just goes to prove that when you go through a traumatic experience, your brain tends to block it out. 

You know when you ask someone's advice, and they give it, and you go ahead and ignore it?  Well.  Back at the beginning of March, we had asked our Cape Breton neighbours (the former owners of our property) about the condition of the road to the house, and whether it was navigable in a four-wheel drive vehicle.  Their answer was, no, you won't get in there with any vehicle that we know of, and snowshoes are your best option. 

Naturally, in the face of this sage advice, we flew out there anyway and drove our 4x4 Suburban with snow plow attachment up to the entrance to the road.  When I say "entrance", what I actually mean is a metre and a half deep solid wall of snow.  It was a Saturday, our neighbour's business was closed, and there was not a soul around for miles.  With the four wheel drive engaged, Paul aimed the snowplow blade at the metre-high snow bank, and pushed.  Nothing.  He backed up and pushed again.  Still nothing, and worse than that, we were well and truly stuck.  Even with four wheel drive, the rear wheels just span on the ice.  The snow was dense and heavy, and it took a great deal of shovelling to get the blade, and the car, finally free.  I breathed a sigh of relief as the car reversed back to the clear area.  Never one to be daunted on the first try, Paul had at it again, with the blade at a different angle.  Once again, it got stuck.  More shovelling followed.  Finally, the 'Burb proved its worth and with a great deal of driving skill from Paul, broke free and we were in the clear once again.

Now, we had a decision to make:  (1) Go back to Baddeck, book into a hotel and spend a week looking at each other; or (2) Walk in to the house.  Did I mention that our snowshoes were at the house?  Right.  Did I also mention it was getting on for 4 o'clock in the afternoon?  Right.  How about the fact that we were wearing regular shoes and light jackets?  Okay then.  Naturally, as any normal person would expect under these circumstances, we selected option 2.

Armed with essential items for the journey (camera, laptops, beer) we set off on the hike in.  You'll remember from my previous posts, that the road in to our place is 3.5 kilometres long?  Luckily, it was a beautiful sunny, mild afternoon, and we set off in reasonably high spirits.  The snow was deep, but my sturdy walking shoes took it on with aplomb and I tried to walk in Paul's footprints.  As we trudged on, I found myself singing the Christmas carol "Good King Wenceslas"  in my head: In his master's steps he trod ...  

The walk in.  The really messy tracks are ours, and the neat row running parallel are coyote tracks.

Paul enjoying a lovely bright March afternoon in the Cape Breton Highlands.  Perfect for a walk ... ?!

Let me tell you something: 3.5 kilometres may not seem like a lot to you.  But in knee-deep snow, without snowshoes, it's a helluva long way.  By the time we made it to the house, our legs were like lead.  When we finally caught sight of the house, our hearts sank: there was a literal mountain of snow banked up on the deck, completely blocking off the front door!  Exhausted but undaunted, Paul kicked and dug away enough snow to open the door a crack, and we squeezed inside.  Home at last!  But once again (and not surprisingly), no water and no power.   Snowstorm after snowstorm had whipped through the Highlands since we were last there, and there was around a metre of snow stacked on the roof.  Inside it was cold, but dry.  The sun was sinking fast, our legs and feet were soaking wet and cold; our priority was clear: get warm.

Survival Tip Number One*: You can do without light.   You can do without washing.  You can do without food for a while.  You can do without drinking water for a short while.  You cannot do without heat.  The first thing we did was stripped off our wet clothes and boots, dried off with a towel as much as possible, then went and found some dry, warm clothes (which we had in the house).  Wool socks (the Redhead brand are great) and wool or thick cotton fleece track pants, a dry cotton t-shirt, and either a wool or fleece hoodie, are essential items to keep in a dry storage area in the cottage or camp that you are headed to.  It's a good idea to add a knitted hat and gloves to this inventory, and always leave plenty of clean, dry towels - believe me, you'll be glad of them.

*Note: I am by no means a survival expert; that's Paul's area of expertise.  But this much I've learned through experience. 

We are lucky enough to have three forms of heat available at the house: an oil-fired stove, a wood-burning stove and a kerosene heater.  The kerosene heater is tremendously efficient as well as portable, and we placed that on the upstairs landing to warm the upstairs.  The oil-fired stove is good but takes a while to start producing heat, but is excellent as a back-up or supplemental heat for the large downstairs area.  The wood-burning Sweetheart stove is fairly typical of any wood-burning appliance: as long as you have dry, seasoned wood and some newspaper or other tinder to get it going, it doesn't take long to catch.  The Sweetheart has a selection of dampers that control the draw of air.  Eventually we'll figure out how to get the oven hot enough to bake bread!  But that's a story for another time.

Once we had a decent amount of heat on in the house, Paul cranked up the generator and we got some lights on.  We did have a store of bottled water, but our First Need water purifier works so well, there's no need to waste expensive bottled water.  It's easy enough for even me to use!  You may say, how did you get water if there was no water on in the house?  Well, you know all that snow surrounding the house ... ?  It takes a while to melt down enough snow to get a decent bucketful, but it's doable.   It's only after you've gathered and melted enough snow to provide water for one toilet flush, that you realize the amount of water one household uses during one day!  You also develop a new appreciation for the simple joy of turning on a tap and having a limitless supply of water.

One of the things I really do appreciate in the house is the propane stove.  Even without electricity, it lights with a match and you can have hot food.  We always keep cans of soup, chili, beans, corned beef, and the like in the house so that we can make a hearty meal.  Once the house had started to warm up and we'd had a hot supper, there was only one thing left to do: go to bed!  For tomorrow is another day.

The next morning, we faced another decision.  If we were to stay the week at the house, we needed fuel, the battery charger that we'd bought in Sydney, some essential tools, parts for the hydro system, and some other gear.  We had no snowmobile, not even a wooden sled of any kind, nothing whatsoever with which to transport the items we needed.  Paul had a scout around in the barn, and then hit on the brilliant idea of using the old canoe that the previous owners had left.  Here is a picture I managed to snap of said canoe, being unceremoniously pitched out of the hayloft doors:

Unfortunately as the weather that morning had turned milder and overcast, the snow's condition had deteriorated.  This is not to say that it had melted much, but instead it had developed the consistency of wet cement.  This meant that the canoe did not slide easily over the snow as per our first assumption; rather it dragged and stuck every few metres.  We taped aluminum cushion wrap to its bottom, but it really didn't help much.  Nonetheless, the decision was made to give it a try, and so Paul slung a rope around his shoulders and pulled it along.  Even with snowshoes now, it was tough going.  Bearing in mind, the canoe on the way down was empty ...

We left the house at 9 a.m. 

When we arrived at the car, loaded up our gear, then turned around to go back, as soon as Paul made that first tug on the rope I knew we were in a world of trouble.  The canoe wouldn't even budge an inch.  There was absolutely no way he could pull it one metre, let alone 3.5 kilometres.  But we had to have the fuel, and the charger, otherwise there was no point in even going back - we might as well throw in the towel and head to a hotel for the rest of the week.  But we'd come this far ...

I looked at him.  He looked at me.  We looked at the canoe, and I could swear it stared back.  Finally we emptied out our cases, taking only the bare minimum needed, and of course the essential fuel, tools and that damned heavy battery charger.  Still, the canoe weighed around 500 lbs.  Paul gave it a try, and the canoe moved .... just a little, but it did move.  He braced himself, and pulled.  I walked behind him, at times pushing, at times walking ahead to break the trail down more.  It was a long, slow, painful process.  How painful for Paul, I didn't realize at the time.  Hour after hour the distance dragged by, stopping every few metres to rest, with a complete stop and a water break every so often. 

Sometimes when I was walking ahead, Paul would shout to me if we were at the beaver dam yet?  It seemed to me that every time I thought we'd reached the beaver dam, I was wrong.  Eventually it got to the point where I was thinking to myself "surely this must be the beaver dam just around this bend!" but it never was.  Funny how a drive that is so short in a car, is the longest walk through hell when bogged down in a metre of soggy, gluey snow.  And funny how the road seemed to be all uphill on the way back!  For the last kilometre we were having to stop every couple of minutes because Paul was just exhausted.  Finally, the avenue of pines that leads to the house, and the pond and the barn came into sight.  Heaving and pushing the canoe up the last stretch of hill took every last ounce of strength, and we abandoned the canoe and carried the gear the rest of the way. 

When we got indoors, and Paul took off his snowshoes and boots, then took off his shirt, I almost cried.  The blisters on his heels had been rubbed raw by the boots, and his arms were covered in purple bruises and welts from the rope.  How he carried on I'll never know, but if the term "British Bulldog" can be applied to anyone in this modern age, it can most certainly apply to my husband.  Here are a couple of photos I took of his heels:

This was caused by badly-designed boots.  Raised stitching inside the heels rubbed and basically acted like a cheese grater.  To compound matters, the boots did not have a moisture-wicking lining.  This is essential in a hiking boot, as sweat builds up inside the boot, waterlogging your skin and making it more vulnerable to blister damage.

Here is a detail of the stitching inside one of the offending boots:

The journey was difficult enough without having this kind of problem.  Needless to say, these boots have now been thrown in the garbage.

Oh, remember I said we left the house at 9 a.m.?  We arrived back at 3:30 p.m.
You know what?  I think this is enough for one post.  I'll write Part II tomorrow.