Thawing out after the cold snap

Time to decommission the chicken heater, now that it's a balmy minus 23 Celsius.

Time to decommission the chicken heater, now that it’s a balmy minus 23 Celsius.

I take the gravel-filled bucket off the wood stove where it’s been soaking up heat and spreading a burnt chicken manure smell throughout the cabin, overpowering the usual aroma of dogs and drying boot liners.

The hot gravel is our second line of defence against freeze-dried chicken (the first being a massive snowbank against the walls of the coop and on top of the roof). The gravel bucket makes a fine non-electric version of a heat lamp, although to Sam’s chagrin it hasn’t duped the hens into egg-laying mode. It’s not the hens who need its heat so much as the rooster: while the girls all huddle up closely, the poor guy is usually left on a perch on his own. Perhaps his just reward for treating the hens as pure sex-objects for the better part of the year, who knows. He is my main suspect for adding the manure component to the bucket.

However, with temperatures skyrocketing into the minus 20s now, we can revert to business as usual. It feels positively spring-like out there. Amazing how the body adapts and perceptions change – earlier in the winter when the temperatures first start slipping,

minus 23 Celsius always seems so cold. That’s when my fingers grow chilled and numb despite the insulated work gloves, only to thaw out in similar agony to having slammed a door shut on them. Windpants are pressed into service over the fleece and long johns, scarves and collars pulled up high, and a general feeling of battling the chilly weather takes hold.

Until the real cold arrives. The cold that bites down hard on your wrists if the mittens and jacket cuffs don’t seal, that causes your eyes to tear and nose to drip, and that turns your outhouse visits into experiments in local anaesthesia. Until there is that deep chill that settles on your face and wakes you at three in the morning because the fire in the wood stove has consumed itself stealthily and without much noticeable effect.

It is this frigid greeting of the Arctic that leads you to put a dollop of butter and oil on everything, and to slip a couple of extra meals into your regular eating schedule.

Those are the times when it feels as if it’s us against nature out here in the bush. Usually, it’s more like teamwork with the land, a simple matter of common sense, respect, and abiding by the rules. But when the thermometer’s mercury shrinks to microscopic proportions, it feels as if we’re fighting a battle against an unfriendly enemy that is out to get us. We trundle around in thick layers of clothing, the eyelashes above our squinting eyes studded with pearls of ice, and all activities feel as if they require that much more effort.

And of course, they do.

When the cold snap breaks, a weight seems to lift and living becomes so easy again. Did the minus twenties really feel cold before? A ridiculous notion now. My fingers, having been acclimatized to real cold, suddenly manage to stay warm as I go about my chores at the exact same temperatures that made them seize up before, and we as well as the chickens go back to our regular amounts of food.

I carry the chicken heater outside, to let it spread its poultry incense there and to cool off until I need to press it into service again. The rhythmic sound of Sam chopping wood punctuates the silence, a sharp crack followed quickly by two muffled thuds as the split pieces fall down. Of course he’s not wearing a jacket or hat, why would he in this warm weather?

I wander over to the chicken coop to check on weather effects there. The waterer still sits in its heating contraption, a gold pan filled with hot rocks and gravel. I toss some homegrown parsley to chickens, which is immediately pointed at with great fanfare by the rooster as if the hens were too dumb to notice it without him. Poor guy, he only means well. As I watch them eat, I notice black specks on the rooster’s large comb and wattles, his personal cold snap souvenir.

It seems that size matters, after all – at least when it comes to frostbite.

Lisa Hasselbring is a writer who lives at the headwaters of the Yukon River south of Whitehorse.

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