Relearning Winter Survival Skills
I am completely embarrassed about my winter survival skills.
I’ve always considered myself a “snow pro” after having grown up on Lake Superior with its elephantine snowfalls, I’ve lived and played through just about every kind of snowstorm you can think of. We’re talking about snow drifts so high that you have to shovel out a “tunnel” from your door way to mail box. I’m not kidding – some winters we had more than 350 inches of snow. We grew up with snow coming right off the great lake, falling so heavy and fast it would bend our cedar trees to half-mast, forever deformed.
Sometimes, we’d get more than 50 inches of snow in 48 hours. We’d miss days of school and spend our time skiing or snowmobiling on roads that were closed to cars until the county snow plows came through. I remember one storm when we were let out of school for four days. My friend Jimmy was blasting through town on his snowmobile and got stuck on a ridge in front of the post office. The snowmobile engine revved, the track spun, but he just stopped moving. He thought he was stuck on a sheet of ice, but as he gunned the engine, the snow started to shake off the ridge and he could see the car doors below him. He had ridden on top the roof of a car buried in the snow. We loved the sheer size and audacity of that storm. With the right gear, huge snowfall is fun.
Snow is in my DNA. I’ve always assumed I was pretty much ready for any snowstorm, anywhere – at least that’s what I thought until we encountered our first real blizzard here in the Sacramento Mountains. The forecast warned of 50 mph winds and 18 to 24 inches of snow on Christmas Day, but I didn’t pay it much mind. We were prepared. We had a backup supply of drinking water, plenty of food. We even had boxes of freeze-dried camping meals if we needed them. We had at least twenty 40-lb. bags of wood pellets on hand for the wood stoves. We’d topped off the gas tanks in both of our trucks and we had a backup gas generator, just in case.
Early in the afternoon the wind picked up to a steady howl that rocked the trees around the house. I looked out my office window and could see a wall of snow, miles wide, moving up the mountains. In a matter of hours, I could no longer see the mountains from my deck. The tree line shimmered, dusted in crystal white for miles around. Pretty, I thought to myself as I hummed “Silent Night” to myself. It was a holiday weekend. We had champagne, crab legs, steak, potato chips and Christmas cookies to nosh on. Bob Dylan’s Christmas album set the tone for the evening.
It was getting really windy by now and the temperature dropped down to 10 degrees – pipe-freezing cold for this part of the country. I knew what to do. As a kid, I’d learned to keep the water faucets during the coldest storms as a way to keep the water pipes from freezing at night. We also grew up with wood stoves to back up our gas furnace, so I learned how to start fires and keep them burning for days.
I’m a veteran snow shoveler as well, and know how to move the most snow with the least effort. Some winters, we got so much snow that our long driveway filled in, waist-high. We did not have a snow thrower. We shoveled. It was backbreaking work, so in these instances, we cut a narrow footpath into the waist-high snow and let it stay that way for much of the winter. We kept our car parked out toward the main road and kept a pair of snowshoes at each end of the driveway for easier walking. We hauled our groceries in on a toboggan. We also kept our cross-country skis waxed and spent many afternoons making trails behind our house that we’d hit after school.
So, after growing up as a snow baby, I was actually looking forward to a weekend of winter wonderland again. Silly me. A lot has changed since the blizzards of my youth, something I soon discovered one blunder at a time.
We celebrated a warm, candle lit Christmas night. I stopped to watch the clean, white snowflakes settling under our lights before turning in for the night.
Three a.m. Feeling a little chilly, I rub my feet together because the blankets are cold. Then it hits my sleep-sogged brain – wait a minute, we have an electric blanket. Power is out. We hunker down in the bed to stay warm because by now, the house is at 45 degrees.
Five a.m. Most of the blanket heat gone. We’ve already added all the blankets we can find. The house is getting colder by the minute. We decide to get up and make coffee on the camping stove, which will require a trip outside to the storage space.
I poke my flashlight out the door and see thigh-high snow drifts. The wind has blown our metal patio table and chairs off the deck, across the yard and up the driveway. I can’t see more than 10 feet in front of me. But I really want that cup of hot coffee, so I decide to start shoveling, even if it is still a little dark outside.
The shoveling should have been no problem, but we sold everything winter-related when we left Minnesota, reasoning that we would never need them again. NOT. After digging in the garage, all I can find is the most inefficient of shovels to move mounds of snow – a gardening spade.
It would take five times as long because most of the snow would slide off the sides of the shovel as I worked. Nonetheless, I dug in, thankful for having at least one shovel, and just as thankful that none of my friends from home were there to witness this. They’d be laughing their asses off.
I eventually got to the camping gear, dug up the camping stove and pots and headed to the kitchen. My husband informed me, “We can’t run the pellet stove. It’s not like a traditional wood stove – it won’t operate without power.” Damn. This was never an issue when we were heating with our old wood stoves. “No problem, though,” he added, “We can use our generator to get it started and keep it running until the power comes back on. But first we have to siphon some gas from the truck.”
I remember doing this when we were in our teens and we drove a junky car with a broken gas gauge. We estimated how much gas was in the tank but there were times we ran out and had to siphon gas from our friend’s car to keep on rolling.
I dread this. “We don’t have to suck on a garden hose, do we?” I sort of whine.
“No, never do that!” he said, “I had a buddy who died siphoning gas from his car for his snowmobile!” He must have seen the look of panic of my face because he added, “Don’t worry, I’ve done this plenty of times.” Sure enough, he had a complete siphon kit with a hand primer to get the suction started. What a wise, prepared man I married. We bundled up with our warmest clothes and headed outside. We discover that we don’t have a gas can in the garage. Unbelievable. Who doesn’t have a gas can? We make a water bottle work.
By now it’s daylight. I cut another slim path in the snow from the house to the closest truck. My husband pulls out the siphon hose and tries to push it into the gas tank. No go. It’s blocked by some mechanism that snaps shut when you’re done filling the tank. I wedge my fingers into each side of the opening and we squeeze the hose in. He starts priming. A few minutes pass. Nothing.
“It’s kind of a small tube, maybe that’s why it’s not working?” I ask. We try to push the hose in farther and try again, numerous times. Still nothing. Perplexed, we decide to try the older truck. Again, nothing. I think of the days when we always had a can of gas in the garage to fill up the lawn mower. Living out here in the desert, it just never seemed necessary, but it sure would be handy now. Even if we could run down to the local gas station for a can of gas, I’m not sure we’d make it. There is so much snow it would take four-wheel drive just to get out of the driveway and even then, I wasn’t sure we’d make it up the hills on the road to our house.
At this point, there is nothing we can do but sit down and wait. We made coffee on the camping stove, put on more sweaters and watched the storm. As we sipped, we started to realize which other amenities we’re without – such as running water and a flushing toilet. Disgusted with our lack of planning, we vow to fill the bathtub up with water before every storm warning and a full gas can in the garage. We also realize we gave away our down jackets, snow pants, windshield scrapers, everything we’re going to need for the next storm. We admit that we’ve lost our senses and are now winter dorks.
Eventually, the sun comes out and the snow stops. It’s still windy but I can definitely walk in it if I bundle up. I decide to hike down to the gas station in hopes that the owner will have an extra gas can around to lend or sell me. Wading through the snow takes me twice as long as usual but I’m delighted to see cars pulling up when I get there. As I trudge in, the owner’s brother is there, sharing coffee and weather stories with his friends. I peer into the back room where the camping gear, wood, etc. is sold, and I see a red plastic one-gallon gas can. This guy can’t sell it to me. “Sorry, Mike keeps the gas station closed on Sundays and I don’t have the keys,” he says. “I can’t sell you anything.” The next closest gas stations are 15 miles either up or down the mountain. I don’t think I can walk that.
By the time I walk back, the power has been off for almost 12 hours. I peel out of my outerwear and we start thinking about what we’re going to do if the storm persists. As we’re talking, the power comes back on and I run into the bathroom to fill up the bathtub with water, just in case. We celebrate with a real pot of coffee and a mimosa. We’re not out of snacks yet either so we feast on potato chips and dip followed by chilled crab legs. All my lurid concerns about having to pack up my cat and husband and hitchhiking into town for a tank of gas quickly fade. The power goes out again for a few hours but we’re lucky that it comes back on and stays on.
When we were able to drive out a few days later, we could see huge evergreen trees fallen everywhere, along with massive power poles snapped in half from the wind. I learned that the neighboring towns were out of power for days. Many people had to move out of their homes and into the high school gymnasium for safety and warmth. We were lucky – we had only one day of outage but it was enough to remind me that I wasn’t such a “snow pro” after all.
Later, as we were reviewing our dismal winter storm preparation, I asked my husband, “Was there a hole in that siphon hose? That could have caused it to fail, kind of like a hole in a drinking straw makes it not work.”
“Nope, it’s always worked in the past,” he replied.
“When did you last use it? I don’t remember it in any of the stories of your life before we met and we have never had to syphon gas since we were married.”
“I never used it for that, I used it for my fish tank,” he replied, “It always worked fine.”
Fish tank? “Wait a minute, didn’t you have a fish tank in fifth grade?” I ask. “That thing is 40 years old!”
One thing about the man, he is loyal. Something works for him, he sticks with it. Me? I threw it away with plans to upgrade.
Later that day I hear him talking to his buddy about the storm. He feels compelled to warn him about the new car safety thing. “You know, dude, you gotta be prepared. I don’t know how old your vehicle is but I looked it up online and you can’t siphon gas in new cars anymore. They’ve added a safety mechanism in the gas tank to prevent fires from occurring if a car gets rolled in an accident.”
Pause. Huge laughter on the other end of the phone. “NEWER cars?” his friend says. “Where have you been? You can’t siphon gas on any vehicle made after 1985!!”
Ay, yay, yay. It’s time to revisit our collective notions of what it takes to survive in winter. We’re Neanderthals.