-40 and the Polar Vortex

There it was on the forecast . . . ever looming . . . -25 and then -30.  Those were the nighttime temperatures coming down the pike.  The Polar Vortex was headed our way.  In the valley, it can go even lower.  That is where I live. And . . . while I chose to live off grid with my wood stove and no backup heat source, I was not looking forward to this.

We started the week off with 10” of snow.  That I can handle.  There was a lifeline of text messages from friends and family almost constantly throughout the whole ordeal.  The first night of -30, I set my alarm for 3 hour intervals to add wood to the stove.  Had I planned this off grid life really well, I would have been in a passive solar home instead of an Amish cabin on cement piers . . . letting every biting bit of the -40 under my cabin . . . penetrating every inch of my floor inside.  Oh, well, that’s life.  Yes, live and learn.

I had recently purchased a new wood stove, which is cast iron and has a little soapstone in it.  It is an awesome stove.  The inside box is just a little bigger so I can add more wood.  There is an ash pan, which has its own advantages besides catching the ash.  It lets air in which helps the fire.  Even though I have experienced a winter burning wood in a wood stove, I am still learning so much more about burning wood and the wood stove itself.

Yes, it was just a number on my little temperature gauge on the kitchen table . . . but I was glued to it.  It was -24 the week before.  I survived that.  So -30 couldn’t be that bad . . . but if the valley reached -40 . . . what would that be like?  How do people in Canada and Alaska deal with this every day during the winter?  Not for me!

Then there is the creosote issue.  Creosote buildup can start a chimney fire.  I started hearing something falling down in the stove pipe.  Could that be creosote?  I Googled it, and sure enough, creosote can fall down onto the top plate, which can alter the airflow.  Alter airflow with -30 coming?  I didn’t need that hanging over my head.  I had to make sure there wasn’t a huge pile of creosote sitting there.  A friend suggested I call a friend of his to help.  Fortunately, he was able to come by that day.  It was a struggle to get the stove pipe disconnected.  But when we did, there was a minimal amount of creosote there and scooped it out.  One less thing to worry about.

I prepared for the coming subzero temps.  I pumped extra water because my hand pump says ‘no way’ when it goes below zero.  My camping stove on the porch does not do well with subzero temps either.  I got it to work a few times . . . but this time . . . the knob didn’t want to move . . . and the flame came out of the knob instead of out of the burner.  That was scary!  I closed that knob really fast and pushed the tank knob to close.  I found things to eat.  Heated some soup on top of the stove.  It was doable.  Next time, I will plan meals better.

The first night, I started at 67 in the cabin . . . and by morning . . . it creeped to 56 . . . that was with adding wood during the night, too, at -31.  I considered myself lucky.  By the second night, on the other side of the door . . . when I got up at 5 a.m. it was -40.  It was 50 inside the cabin.  There was something like a 90-degree difference between the inside and the outside that morning. Adding the wood during the night was a necessary chore to keep up with the severe subzero temps.  It is survival.  We have no idea what real survival is these days.  How did the Native people do it?

The same subzero temps were hitting Illinois where I moved from.  Each morning friends and family would text in what the temperature was . . . and to make sure I was ok.  New friends in my area made sure I was ok, too. Most everyone is on a wood stove here . . . but some have backup heat, too.  Well, and I am by myself, too.

So, I now have some patch of honor . . . if only in my head . . . that I made it through the -40 polar vortex.

I hope it doesn’t come back!

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