The Ice Miner's Tale
A Week of Cold, Chaos and Disaster Preparedness.
Here in the Vancouver/Portland area we’ll only get a couple of inches of snow sometime between Dec 25 and Jan 15th. Usually it melts off in a day or two, then flips back to the rainy mild climate which I’ve grown accustomed to since moving here 15 years ago from the East Coast.
Unfortunately though these temperate winters have given me a false sense of security. They made me careless and lackadaisical regarding extremely cold weather.
The result of this indolence began last Saturday, when the weather forecast called for temperatures to dip down below 20F. I foolishly did what any other silly ninny would do: turn the heat pump up a couple of degrees and snuggle with my wife under some extra covers.
The dog, being no fool, also weaseled his way under the covers.
When I awoke on Sunday morning, I looked at my phone and saw that the temperature outside was a numbing 13 degrees, but overnight it got down to -5F with the windchill! Oooph! Too brisk for my liking!
I then stepped into the bathroom to start my morning routine with a nice brush of my teeth. At least that was the plan…until I turned on the sink’s faucet and nothing came out.
“Uh oh” I thought to myself as I then turned the faucet in the shower.
No water flowed from there either.
Dammit. The water in our pipes had frozen!
I was kicking myself for not remembering my East Coast winter training that my Dad drilled into us as kids. His forgotten lessons were now echoing back to my mind.
“Turn up the heat, when they warn of sleet!”
“If sub-zero is a coming’, remember the plumbing!”
“When temps are nippy, make the faucets drippy!”
I can’t believe I forgot these useful little rhymes, especially when it was so reinforced on me as a kid when during each winter in upstate NY, my Dad and I would have to climb under the lousy mobile home we were living in and spend hours thawing out the pipes!
But being that I was between 6 and 8 years old at the time it’s understandable that the words would fade over the decades.
At that age there really wasn’t a hell of a lot I could do under that trailer to help my old man. I guess my Dad just wanted me there for mutual support; or to observe how many expletives he could creatively use while blowtorching a pipe; or perhaps he thought that if he was going to freeze to death under the trailer, he was going to take me with him.
Like I said, you’d think I would have retained these lessons, but alas here I was, with frozen pipes and a wife freaking out.
I’ll admit I was freaking out as well since the plumbing in our house is all old CPVC, which is about the worst piping in use for plumbing. A slight chill breeze on this stuff and it can burst like a piñata – full of water.1
I quickly suited up to go outside to investigate all the pipes. Luckily, the crawlspace and the garage showed no signs of damage. I went out to the water main and shut it off since we were facing several days of sub-zero weather. The only thing to do is shut off the main since I didn’t want to worsen the freeze risk.
In extended sub zero weather, there is no conceivable way to force a thaw. My only choice was to put a space heater in the garage where the water pipe come up out of the ground to the water heater, and then play the waiting game.
When I came back in the house, Deb was still in shock from not being able to take a shower, …or do laundry, …or flush the toilet.
This gave her a flashback to when she was a teen living in Staten Island. Her mother and her new husband, Tony, bought a home in which all the copper plumbing had been stolen from it. Deb and her sisters had to survive a winter in a house with no water as Tony installed new pipes throughout the house.
While Deb’s mind spun out in PTSD memories, I switched into survivalist mode.
I walked out to the garage, grabbed the giant lobster pot we had, and stepped out on the porch where there was a nice layer of thick snow. I packed the pot full of snow and went back inside to set it on the stove.
I calmed Deb down by letting her know that she should consider herself lucky. We still had electricity and heat. Our lack of water only meant we could enjoy the lifestyle of a farmhouse from the early 1900s.2
That didn’t seem to assuage her apprehensions.
I then reminded her that 14% of the world’s population doesn’t have access to clean running water and that this will be a lesson in empathy.
That definitely didn’t help either. But she dealt with it.
I spent much of the week making multiple trips over day to either our porch, or backyard, to shovel up snow to melt for use in our toilet.
The neighbors must have thought I was insane.
“Gladys, Look at this Guy! Who the hell shovels their back yard—AND THEN BRINGS THE SNOW BACK INTO THE HOUSE?”
They must have been really amused on AWednesday morning when there was a 1/4” thick layer of ice over everything.
“Hey Gladys! Check him out now! He’s out there with a pick axe like he’s mining—for ice!”
To all the future Ice Miners out there, experience has now taught me it’s actually more productive to collect ice instead of snow. You get a better return on melted water from collecting ice.
Before the ice storm locked up the roads Tuesday night, I was able to drive to the store and stock us up on water for drinking and minimal bathing.
It’s surprising just how little water one actually needs if you’re conservative and smart about how you use it. I found that with just 3/4 of a gallon, I could: use 2 cups for tea, 1 cup for brushing my teeth, 1 cup for shaving, 4 cups of the warm water for bathing, and 4 cups for washing dishes. Afterwards I’d take the remaining gray water, mix it with the lobster pot snow melt, and viola!, get 2-3 toilet flushes!
Overall this reminded me of a couple experiences from my past.
To begin with, when I was really young, Grampa and Grandma B’s house in Big Flats, NY didn’t have an adequate hot water heater. They also had a sulfur water well. If you wanted to wash up in the tub in the bathroom, you would fill it with luke warm sulfur water and then Grandma B had to heat up a few pots of water to bump the temperatures up in the tub. After the bath, you felt clean, but thanks to the sulfur water, you’d smell dirty…like slightly fart dirty.
Our current waterless and freezing cold condition also made me recall my college years in Buffalo.
Five other guys and myself rented rooms in a rundown two story house near the Main Street campus. The house was conveniently located not only near the campus, but also a short walk to the best dive bars in Buffalo, which to a guy in his 20s is a prime selling point on any rental.
As I said, the house was run-down, in fact it was just a step above “condemned.” The water heater barely worked and you could never truly get a hot shower. Plus, we were all so damn poverty stricken that we could never actually afford to heat the place during winter. So when the Blizzard of 1985 struck, we all spent the week inside the living room bundled up in parkas and huddled together around a small black and white TV watching re-runs of “The Honeymooners” as we existed on cheap beer and pizza. We took turns to see who would brave the storm to go out to get more beers and a pizza. By the end of the week we had pizza boxes stacked 3 feet high.
These were character building experiences.
I tried to console that Deb we were nowhere near the “Honeymooners and Pizza” stage of winter desperation, but she was still bumping around the house in shell shock as she tried to adopt to our circumstances.
Thankfully before she lost her mind, our wonderfully kind friends, Jay and Kate, graciously came to our rescue. They offered one of their bathrooms with a shower for our use. Deb was overjoyed at the offer and the chance for a momentary reprieve from wallowing in our own filth. We quickly packed some toiletries and clean clothes and headed over to Jay and Kate’s house.
On the drive over we were chatting about contingency plans if our pipes were well and truly busted, when suddenly from the side of the road, several small birds flew in front of us. One of the birds had misjudged its flight path and smacked right into the front of our car with a sickening thump!
Deb gasped in horror. She turned to me and asked “What in the hell did you do to bring on us such bad Karma?”
Obviously Karma likes to really screw with cartoonists.
We continued with our creative waterless water conservation for a week until yesterday (Saturday). Once I saw that the weather had warmed up enough to melt any ice in the pipes, it was time to give it go and slowly turn the water back on.
First, I opened up the crawlspace so I could look for any more signs of previous leaks. There still were none that I could see. I set Deb up in the garage so she could give me a yell if the garage turned into Niagara Falls. I then ran to the roadside main shut off valve and started cranking it back to a home bound flow.
To my surprise, and ridiculous Irish luck, the water came back on with no burst pipes or damage! Huzzah!
Now I just have to worry about the next storm, and the ever increasing likelihood that Climate Change will increase the ferocity of future storms. I fear the Pacific Northwest is no longer the passive sanctuary it once was from the torments of old man winter.4
I’m making it a point to upgrade our plumbing this year.
I’m sure my little dog, Zeke, was also bewildered as to what was happening in the house and outside. I’m pretty sure he noticed that his humans had grown a bit of a “funk” after few days. Based on his increase in snuggles during this time, I’m guessing that he found our unwashed odors to be the “perfume of the gods.”
But as much as he enjoyed our stench, he was less than enthused with the snow and ice outside of the house. This how we know he’s a dog from California. His little chihuahua feet wanted nothing do with touching the cold.
I gotta admit though it was hilarious to watch him venture outside to do his business. He slipped and slid around on the ice over the backyard, desperately searching for a steady footing on which he could balance to lift a leg. If ever there was a dog face that said “WHAT THE HELL?!?” Zeke wore it as he tenderly made his way over the ice and on his way back inside the house.
Of all of the beings in our tiny household, I think my dog Zeke was probably the most upset by this disaster.
His Doggy TV viewing schedule had been completely disrupted.
I hope you enjoyed this little tale of crisis. Baring any further outrages from Mother Nature, we’ll be now returning to our regularly scheduled programming of humorous weirdness.
I would also like to give a big shout out to all the new subscribers and the new paid subscribers that signed up this past week! Thank you for keeping me motivated to keep raising the bar on this newsletter and in my book publishing pursuits. Huzzah to you all!
Until next week, stay off the ice and keep your faucets drippy.
In the Pacific Northwest that CPVC plumbing was used in almost every older house since no one really ever had to worry about sub-zero winters before. But it’s even more ironic since the risk of an earthquake busting up your pipes as always been a threat here.
In fact we were damn lucky. There are homes in Portland and whole towns along the Columbia Gorge, just 20 or so miles away, who are dealing with not only a lack of water, but also a lack of electricty and heat! While Portland is warming up to a survivable 40-50 degrees this week, those folks in the Gorge are still dealing with sub-zero wind chills due to the way winds howl through that area. I hope the get help ASAP. These frigid temps are no laughing matter!
That’s right! I won a “Gold Award for Cartooning” from the Society of Illustrators of Los Angeles for my entry in the Illustration West 62 competition! I’m friggin’ overjoyed with the win and can’t wait to brag more about it, but for this past week I had to focus on my home crisis.
For further reading: https://cig.uw.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2020/12/snoveretalsok2013sec5.pdf