Saturday, January 22, 2011

the cozy log home

The thermometer read zero as I stepped outside into the intense, cold winter sun this morning. While far from the coldest winter temperatures I've encountered living in this log house, zero still carries with it an intense sharpness that takes your breath away and causes all of your body to hug close to itself. The softness of the snowfall the other night has given way to a whiteness that is hard and loud under my boots. There's no joy in zero degree snow and is why I often refer to winter as painful.

But as it is, I can't hide from the cold that feels to actually freeze my skin to my bones. There will be no hiding beside the warmth of my fire or the purr of my cats; at least not until later in the evening when the moon replaces the sun as the sky's light source. For today brings the weekly chore of cutting enough firewood to last me through the week ahead. I've learned how to work through the frozen fingers and aching joints caused by cold winds and frozen clothes, and for almost a month now have been able to store up more than just the next week's requirement of wood. In fact, one or two more weekends and I'll have cut, split, and stacked enough wood to last me through the rest of the winter. Each weekend I get further ahead and by the time February causes a flip of the calendar page, my weekends will once again be my own.

Having just finished, The Long Winter, and marvelling at the trials and ingenuity of the Ingalls family to survive an October-April winter without normal food or heat, I thought I'd share some of the trying times our log house has caused Ell and I over the twelve winters we called it our home.

We moved into our log home in November of 1998. When we moved our meager belongings into the spacious house, only four of the gaping spaces between the logs held insulation and only three of those were filled with the barrier of chinking needed to block out the wind and weather. The downstairs holes where windows should be held only panes of glass without trim, and those only tacked into place with small finish nails. A decades-old furnace sat in the basement and barely pumped out heat through no more than five vents to heat the living room, kitchen, and bathroom; none of which able to force warm air toward the gravity vents that opened into the second floor. The door leading to the side yard was thin wood and held an even thinner pane of glass, that is until our Great Dane broke it out with one try. We wrapped the windows and door in plastic I stole from where I worked, and tried to make it through a cold, icy winter. We spent much of the winter sleeping on the pullout sofa bed in the living room as the upstairs never got above forty degrees, making a full night's sleep almost impossible. Even before the two most recent natural gas rate increases, we spent between $400 and $500 a month on our heating bill. Needless to say we needed a solution.

The next October found my Dad and I lining the 180 year old brick chimney with stainless steel chimney lining which opened into the living room where we had bought a brand new woodburning stove. Every Saturday that next winter I stuffed insulation into every gap between the logs and before the cold weather was over I had chinked the entire downstairs living area. That, combined with the wood fire, was keeping us warmer than any point of the previous winter, but even with the addition of new windows, doors, a porch, and newly built bedrooms upstairs, our future winter woes weren't over.

Normal wells are dug down deep into the ground with only a small pipe sticking up in the yard to notify the lawn mower where it was located. In this house, the well opened up into an actual cave off the small basement under the kitchen. Without a furnace to pump air into the cavernous space, and without the protection of the warm earth to warm the exposed piping, every year our well would freeze. Most people worry about their pipes freezing and bursting, our chore was thawing out the well itself. That meant weeks of showering at friend's and family member's houses, melting snow on the fire in large pans to have water to flush toilets and water the cats, and purchasing drinking water from the store so we could have our tea and wash our faces.

Another hassle of every winter was cleaning out the chimney. Several times a winter, heavy creosote would clog the bend of the chimney, only notifying us of its presence when the chimney would refuse to draft and smoke would pour into the house through every crack and crevice of the stove and exposed chimney pipe. And without fail, at least one of these occurrences every winter would happen right before or during an event where our house was filled with visitors.

Without a backup heat source, our house would grow deathly cold if we were away from home for more than a half day. Coming home to a cold house with room temperatures in the low forties sometimes made the still air inside the walls feel colder and more painful than the outside. If we were lucky, the immediate space around the stove and chimney upstairs would be warm within a few hours.

Providing your own fuel for warmth was often a challenge with my hours-long commutes to and from work. More often than I want to admit we were at the mercy of buying firewood if we had not been able to stock up enough throughout the summer. More often than I want to remember, the wood we would buy would be at dishonest volumes and prices, not cured so as to burn, and always too long and oversized to fit into our stove. And at the end of almost every winter we would spend cold, snowless weekends gathering scraps of split wood, broken branches, small pieces of random woodshop throwaways, and stolen newspapers, all to make pitiful fires than required constant attention to make small amounts of heat needed to fend off the last, desperate storms of winter as they tried to hold back the Spring.

We had purchased an old wooden travel trunk at a local auction shortly after buying the house. That soon became known to our friends as, the blanket chest, and was the first place they visited when they arrived at our house. It was a given that hanging out here required a blanket, and they needed to ensure they got a good, warm one before they were gone. But one of the joys that Ell brought into this house, was that there was always a blanket for each one of our guests; no one went without and somehow there was always one left even if it was the one she was making as it hung across her own lap.

Of course there are more stories --leaking roofs, burnt carpet, bloody hands, falling trees, cold floors-- but this was still a house filled with love and laughter. It could easily have been the kind of place that tried one's soul (and perhaps it finally broke one of them),but it was still a place people liked to come. The one thing that Ell and I held dear to our hearts, was that everyone who came here called it cozy. Our log house was one of those places where you just felt comfortable and happy. No cold air, lack of water, or smoky smells could take that away. And that's what I'll always remember about this house.

6 Comments:

Blogger Dave said...

Sam your house adventures sound trying, amazing, and yet satisfying your soul. Any chance we could get some pics??

11:58 AM  
Blogger Sam said...

I'm lacking a digital camera these days, but one is on its way. As soon as I get it I'll post pics.

1:38 PM  
Blogger Dave and Betsy's Blog said...

I love your cabin. It is cozy. But mostly, I love the people inside it! :)

Bets

5:14 AM  
Blogger jen said...

awww, loved learning a little more about you in this post, sam!

2:28 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

Hey Sam- out of curiosity why are you cutting wood in the winter at all? Obviously our schedules are different, I don't use as much as you but I've always chopped the wood when I got it home. So now that it's cold I just go out and bring it in...

9:16 PM  
Blogger Sam said...

It was a rough summer for me so I didn't get enough ready before the snow flew.

7:45 PM  

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