Notes From an Ice Storm

There is an ethereal beauty to nighttime snow. White and encompassing of the world, it captures all the available light of the dark and reflects it back out: into and through windows, against neighboring buildings, onto the clouds above. It turns the world into a film set lit for a nighttime scene, with that strange blue tint, that level of sight that is typically unavailable in the real world. It makes a strangeness of the world. It’s one of the things I’ve liked best of the last few nights.

Snow is not the most common occurrence here in Portland, and that is especially so come February. And yet, the same as much of the country, we were hit with a winter blast this past weekend. First came the snow, light at first but accumulating over the course of the night. Layered on top of that came freezing rain, coating the world in a bright sheen of ice. Then more snow and more freezing rain until, once it was all said and done, we saw one of the worst ice storms to hit us in forty or fifty years.

I would look up the exact details to ensure the accuracy of this statement, but I can’t at the moment. It is Monday night and I am typing in the dark, the room lit only by the screen of my battery-run laptop. We are in our third extended power outage. The first came Thursday afternoon and lasted until the end of the evening; the second greeted us upon waking Saturday morning and lasted until the early afternoon; and this Monday outage arrived early this morning and is now in its twelfth hour, with no clear idea on when it will end. Across our metro region, hundreds of thousands are without power. The surrounding streets are littered with fallen branches and broken power lines along with the heaps of snow and slush and gathering icy lakes of melt water; this has not been a joyous Valentine’s Day weekend for our arboreal neighbors.

It has been stressful for us humans, too. The on and off power is a reminder of how capricious the world can be and it at times feels to me like a preview of the world to come, as much as I would like to be wrong about that. We are left to wonder how long this vulnerability will last; when we will once again have heat in the midst of winter conditions; how long until we can cook again; at what point should I make up a cooler, packed with outside snow? Questions, questions, and no real answers but your best guess.

It is times like these that I miss having a wood stove. When I lived on the coast, out in a rural area rather than in the city, I lived in a series of houses that were either entirely or mostly heated by wood. They are a joy. I like fire; I like the effort of building them daily; they do not cease working in a blackout; and you can cook on them, even if they are not specifically made to be cooked on—especially if you have a solid collection of cast iron cookware.

The greatest inconveniences we face with this outage are lack of heat, lack of hot water, lack of cooking, and lack of refrigeration. So merely all the modern conveniences. Our apartment heater is a natural gas wall unit and hooked up to a battery powered thermostat, so in theory it should be able to continue working—but of course, there is a fan to blow the heat, and so it does not run with the grid down. Our stove is electric. Our hot water heater is electric. Our refrigerator is electric. So it goes. At least I don’t have to worry about the chest freezer unless we get several more days in.

If we only had a wood stove. We could be warm and we could cook well enough. I have years of experience cooking on wood stoves, including those not specifically designed for it, and we have plenty of cast iron. But we do not have a wood stove, so it has been a bit more awkward to get by, though we have been fine. I have a camping stove; our water heater has a tank; we have coolers and there is plenty of snow and ice outside. We have blankets and warm clothes and an apartment that seems well enough insulated—it does not lose heat all that fast. And while it has been annoying to have the power go out for extended periods three different times over five days, we also have been lucky enough for it to come back on for extended periods between the blackouts. So the apartment heats back up, our water heater tank returns its contents to a healthy heat, the fridge and freezer cools, and for awhile we live like normal. Then back to the lack of power. What can you say? It’s been that kind of a year.

This morning the sun came out. That was a blessing given our power outage. We opened the curtains and despite the outside still being cold, the sun coming in the living room helped to warm things a bit. Not much, but it ticked us up a degree, and it was also nice to have the light, the brightness. Outside, trees hung heavy with ice, their bare branches prisms of cold light. While more freezing rain had fallen overnight, the air was warming. Water streamed off the roof, off the icicles along the gutter. Once the sun hit the trees, it tipped the final balance: great crashes came from outside as the freeze broke and ice fell from branches, shattering in great silvery cascades. It broke in showers across cars parked along the curb, including our own. It fell as a roar. It was a beautiful sight and a strangely enjoyable sound, if at first a little unnerving.

I shoveled our snowed in porch and steps. The snow was drifted deep and crusted in ice, packed and wet. The plastic snow shovel I had found in our shared apartment basement was for the most part not up to the task, and so after a few minutes of too slow going, I went back downstairs and grabbed a wide, heavy garden hoe. That served well for breaking apart chunks of snow, allowing for better shoveling. After awhile, I realized I could even break the icy snow into large chunks that held together long enough for me to grab and toss them out of the way. I did that with my bare hands, stripped down to a T-shirt due to the workout, and it was a small joy to be out there working. I am not sure when I last had so good an exercise. It almost felt again like my farming days.

Meanwhile, the rest of the city bustled around us despite the winter disruptions. People walked and skied, cars eased along the roads (or sometimes didn’t bother with the easing) and children and dogs played. Kate and I went out for walks and today found our way to an outdoor lunch at a local restaurant that, miracle of miracles, had power and was serving. It was a delight to get out of the house, sit and have a burger and beer, and then wander across the street to browse books at Powell’s. We may be out of power, but we are still far from a deindustrial life.

As the sun cut through the iced trees this morning, birds played in them. As much or more than the sun, the sight brought me a joy. I have no doubt they have their ways of handling such a storm, but I can’t help but worry about the birds. Mostly, it is the thought of them being out there exposed in it; I can’t imagine it myself, and so it seems rather unfortunate the birds have to deal with it. But then, they are better at it than us humans.

I have worried about our local hummingbirds, too—the friendly ones who visit our backyard feeder. After the first night of the storm, I went out to find it coated in ice, the nectar frozen. I brought it in and thawed it, replaced the nectar with some more out of the fridge, and returned the feeder to its hanger. I tried to keep my eye on it over the next few hours, glancing out there to see if I could catch sight of my red-throated friend, but to no avail. Either he was not bothering to dine or he was doing it surreptitiously, out of my sight, though I am usual good at glimpsing him if I pay attention.

The next day it was frozen and iced over again. So I again brought the hummingbird feeder inside, cleared the ice, and this time placed it in some warm water to thaw the inside nectar. Then back out, and again I looked for a colorful glimpse of my friend but did not see him. Online, I heard others tell tale of their local hummingbirds fighting over their feeder, but no such sight in my backyard. I’m sure all is well, but I do hope that they are simply hunkered down, that the storm has not proven too much.

My wife the other day showed me an online post about how hummingbirds respond to cold. Apparently, they go into a kind of torpor, slowing their heart and slipping into something of a hibernatory state. With luck, that is what has happened to my usual visitor. Hopefully he is tucked away somewhere in whatever local tree or shrub he nests in, lost to the cold world around him and waiting for the return of sun and warmth and its thawing to go back out to eat, to resume his normal way of living.

I would not blame him for that. Honestly, it sounds a little appealing at this point, the idea of hunkering down into a slumber and waiting for the world to return to normal. Maybe that’s the best approach. Or perhaps not; perhaps the best approach is to see the world new again, to find new ways of living as necessary, and to know that this too is part of life: new challenges and opportunities, unexpected breaks in the routines, and a reminder that the world is not always going to be what you expect it to be, and that you must always be ready for something new.

I just wish I had a wood stove with which to tackle it. That sure would be nice.

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6 thoughts on “Notes From an Ice Storm

  1. As might be obvious, our power has come back on this Tuesday evening. All told, this most recent (and hopefully final) outage ended up at 30+ hours. Regaining my access to the news, I see that the winter weather spread across the country has caused in some places worse than what we’ve experienced here in Portland, particularly in the central United States. So Kate and I are lucky, in our way, and I’m researching butane stoves for any future outages. I hope everyone else is doing well and . . . *ahem* . . . weathering any trouble that may have come your way. Feel free to post thoughts and experiences here in the comments, whenever you all find your way here, with bright lights and a functional internet.


  2. Oh, yes, Joel, we LOVE our woodstove! Our barn is filled with wood. It’s some work, but we love it, as do our dogs. I hope you are able to get one soon.


  3. Hopefully I’ll have one again someday, Debra! I love the wood, too–I like chopping it and stacking it and bringing it in the house and the smell of it. And lighting the fire to begin with; having that as a small daily chore is also a joy. Yeah, I definitely miss having a wood stove. I’m optimistic I’ll have one again eventually!


  4. Nature is really beautiful, even in a “crisis”, and it’s good to be able to enjoy it. I’m glad you were mostly spared problems with the outage… I agree that a wood stove gives a lot of reassurance. I rarely worry about possible outages, except to get some water into containers because my pump runs on electricity. But this time I was off internet and cell phone for a weekend (not power), and found myself both getting antsy for news, and enjoying the enforced quiet. My priorities shifted because I couldn’t respond to others… I did more writing, which tells me I need to be more disciplined about how much time I spend online.Thanks for the essay!


  5. Hi Cathy,

    One of the benefits of being in the city is that we don’t have to worry as much about water during an outage–the pressure stays up fine. I had the same thing when I was out on the coast; if the power went out, the pump went down, and so water got limited fast. Pros and cons everywhere.

    Happy to hear about the benefits of getting knocked offline, though. I have found the same during enforced internet outages: it sure helps to clear the mind. Just getting rid of my smart phone was super helpful in that it kept my internet usage at least a little more limited. No scrolling before bed, just reading instead. I hope the increased writing keeps up! Maybe I’ll see something from you in New Maps soon. 🙂


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