I could call this post “Nobody Sits Down Until All the Work is Done” or “Lessons on Sustainability” or quite honestly, “How the Hell Did Pioneers Settle This Country???” At our cabin, there is no heat and no running water. And because it’s still only March, all the available water is still frozen. There is no garbage disposal service either, so if you bring it in, you bring it out. Neither is there septic, which means a cold trip out to the outhouse with toilet paper in one hand and a knife in the other. Because there are coyotes out there.
On Tuesday, March 17th, we packed the vehicle with everything we thought we might need for two days and a night at the cabin. This was going to be our first overnight stay here since purchasing it only three months ago. We had two backpacks filled with warm clothes – thermals, fleece, wool socks – and two down-filled army-issue sleeping bags good to -20, as well as two regular sleeping bags good to -7. We packed our camping dishes, bins for washing dishes, bottled water, the camp stove, propane, a box of food, a solar light and several battery-operated lights. The only thing we planned on bringing back out with us was our garbage and any leftover food. Our sled was piled high and reminded me very much of a dog sled bringing supplies to the northern communities. Unfortunately, we had only ourselves to pull it.
The dog-less sled.
The road was ploughed to within a kilometre of the cluster of cabins that dot one side of Bow Lake.When we got to the cabin, we noticed that it was considerably warmer in the main room of the cabin. And by considerably warmer, I mean, 0 C and not the -8 C that it was outside. We unpacked and quickly discovered that we had forgotten the most important piece of the camp stove – the nozzle that attaches the propane. Unbeknownst to me, Bob had packed the minimalist hiking stove and so we heated up some pre-cooked food on it for lunch. This was a major setback. We had plans for real meals that were to be cooked on the camp stove, with a grill and an element. We had plenty of propane for the camp stove but only half a canister for the hiking stove. We had no intention of using the wood-burning cook stove that is actually in the cottage for the simple reason that we had no idea how clean or safe it was. We knew it wasn’t up to code (but I’m sure 90% of stoves in backwoods cabins and hunt camps are not up to code) though it looked like it was in pretty good shape. Neither of us have any real experience with wood-burning stoves so we were being cautious. We really didn’t want to burn the cabin down before ever having spent a night in it.
After a blustery snowshoe through the woods, we settled into our massive sleeping bags for a mid-afternoon nap. Then the cabin started feeling really cold. Because 0 C is really cold. Shivering, we decided that lighting the woodstove was a risk we’d have to take if we wanted to stay the night. We knew the signs of something going wrong – a orange or red hot chimney pipe, smoke in the cabin, open flame outside of the stove, etc. We studied the small cook stove for a moment, opened the flue of the chimney, opened the vent on the bottom to allow airflow, started a small kindling fire in the firebox and waited. We had buckets of snow and a fire extinguisher at the ready. Thankfully, all was good. The smoke was naturally pulled up the chimney, the flames grew and beautiful heat started warming our fingers and noses.
The stove was a game-changer. We would not have been able to stay at the cabin without its heat. In fact, even if it had been warm out, we would have had pretty meagre meals made upon the small hiking propane stove as it’s very small and made to make meals for one person at a time. The wood-burning cook stove made life out there so manageable that we decided to spend another night. We used the stove top to melt snow, boil water, make coffee and cook meals in the frying pan. We used the oven to bake a tourtiere for dinner. We used the warming shelf over the stove top to soften butter and gently warm up cinnamon buns for breakfast. When we were not preparing food, we kept the oven door open in order to help heat the main room. I began to truly understand the importance of the stove to the people who settled this land. It is life support: heat, water and food.
Our lives are so easy here in Canada. We take so much for granted. We leave our heat on all day and let our thermostat regulate it. Some people even turn it up high enough to enjoy wearing T-shirts in winter. In the city, we set our oven to a temperature that we need, let it beep when it’s ready, put something in and let it bake until the stove tells us that the time is up. On the stovetop, if things are too warm or not warm enough, with a simple turn of a knob it’s under control. If we want to heat something up fast, we use the microwave. We simply turn a tap and have fast-flowing, clean, potable water. We turn the other tap and we have water that is hot.
Using a wood-burning cook stove for all these things is an enormous amount of work. First of all, the cook stove in our cabin is quite a small one so the firebox only holds one or two logs at a time. This means the fire needs to be stoked every five to ten minutes. It eats wood quickly (also because all we had was soft wood) and that meant that someone (not me!) had to chop the incredible amount of wood that we would need for several hours of heat in the cabin. The thermometers on both the chimney and the oven door need to be monitored on a regular basis for safety as well as efficient baking temperatures. The iron lifting lever is either biting cold before the stove is on or scorching hot if the stove has been going for some time so sore fingers are a usual thing when getting used to working with fire and iron. We constantly had pots filled with snow on the stove, melting, for our dish and hand-washing water.
Just a small fraction of the amount of wood needed to keep the fire going for several hours. This amount lasted about an hour.
The fire was not on all the time. There is no way we could have chopped enough wood to have it going the whole day. I am the early riser so when I woke up at 6 am and begrudgingly emerged from the coziness of the sleeping bag, I would start a fire. The main room of the cabin is lightly insulated which kept the inside temperature hovering around 0 C, despite the windchill outside being -23 C. Liquids didn’t freeze though the drinking water first thing in the morning was head-achingly cold. We had put thick blankets over the doorways to the kitchen and to the bedrooms to conserve heat in the main living area. Our tiny cottage became a true tiny home – the two of us living in one room. The warmth from the stove heated this one room at approximately 4 degrees for every half an hour. Think about that. It took 2 hours for this one room to become warm enough to wear only two layers – a thermal layer and one other insulating layer. The kitchen became our “cold cellar”, in which we kept our refrigerables – milk, yogurt, cheese, beer. It had some leaked heat and so the temperature lingered around 3 C. The bedrooms, which are not at all insulated and which we did not use, were closer to the outside temperature.
Baby, it’s cold outside. It was frosty in the cabin in the mornings.
After starting the fire first thing, I would stoke it for a couple of hours, getting our one room up to a bearable temperature. Then, when Grumpy Bear awoke, we would set about preparing breakfast. We made coffee in our espresso coffee-maker (which sounds very posh but it’s old-world and does not require electricity) and sat down to eat. After breakfast, I set about doing dishes. Hot water (melted snow, pine needles included) in one bucket with soap and a kettle of cooler water to pour over and rinse the dishes. After rinsing the first three dishes over the grey water drain in the sink in the kitchen (set up for rain barrel water use in warmer times), I realized that the rinse water was perfectly good water that I was throwing away! After that, I rinsed dishes over the soapy bin or in to another bucket for hand-washing. Otherwise, we would have potentially had to chop more wood, to stoke the fire longer, to melt more snow to replace the water we lost. Are you starting to get the idea that pioneering is a lot of work? (And in this post, I’m not even opening the topics of water use and abuse, food preparation, garbage disposal and recycling, or human and dog waste management.)
After all that was done, we let the fire die and went outside. By this time, the sun was warming the world up and dressed in layers, it was lovely to go for a walk, hike out and drive into town for more supplies (wood, water, food and wine), or just sit out on the porch and read in the sunshine.
We would start the fire again mid-afternoon for lunch, dishes, and then a nap or reading, maybe a game of cards and then the preparation for dinner began. More wood-chopping, more stoking, more water. Because it’s more difficult to control the amount of heat in a wood-burning oven, it took us two hours to heat up a frozen tourtiere until it was actually hot in the middle. Oh! And don’t forget to empty out the ash bin before starting all of this.
When the light faded, the candles were lit, the headlamps came out, the solar light switched on. We stoked the fire even more in order to get the cabin as warm as we could to last as long as possible through the nights. On the second night, we managed to get the temperature up to a whopping 25 C by 10 pm. We snuggled into our sleeping bags and when Bob woke up for a 2 am bathroom run, the stove was stone cold and he could once again see his breath.
We know that there are ways to make the cabin far more energy efficient. And we will. Over the years. Those three days and two nights we spent out at the cabin were a fabulous adventure for us. It was a lot of work but it felt completely natural. And honest. And the food tasted smoky and delicious. And the warmth from the natural wood fire was comforting. And at the end of the day, it was okay to be tired because we’d earned it.