Like most Yukoners, I can measure the intensity of a cold snap by sagely reading the signs in my environment.
Mould-like ice glaciers forming on the inside of a metal window frame: cold.
Dogs trying to walk on two legs or balancing on their bum with all four feet in the air: very cold.
The slop bucket under the sink filled with a giant solid ice cube instead of dirt water: very, very cold.
At least living without road access and being self-employed (euphemism for the art of scraping by on less than $5,000 a year) frees me of the necessity to coax that hoarse cough out of a solidly frozen truck for the drive to work! What luxury.
Visits to the outhouse take on a movie-like quality when the coffee-can toilet-paper incinerator supplies flickering light and a meagre source of warmth, much like garbage burning in old fuel barrels on slum street corners.
The tomato plants inside the cabin succumbed to the overnight temperatures by the window and chores are done one at a time, with warm-up breaks in between.
Thankfully, the new chicken coop maintained a toasty temperature just below the freezing mark — not due to any high-tech construction technique, but rather the result of snow banked around the small and short building (with the ceiling only a little more than a metre high, there’s not much temperature difference between the floor and roof top).
The chickens received not only warm drinking water four times a day, but also a bucket of hot gravel which I hung into the coop as a heating element on the coldest nights. A good way of heating without the risk of waking up to roast chicken!
With animal traffic in the woods at a stand-still and the temperatures not tempting for long walks, it was a perfect opportunity to re-stock my balm of Gilead supply.
When we moved out into the bush, I finally took the time to start learning about the use of wild plants — not only an interesting but also very handy hobby out here.
With Janice Schofield’s Discovering Wild Plants as a guide, the vegetation around us soon emerged in a much different light than the technical chlorophyll and pistil stuff I remembered with a vague sense of boredom from biology class!
In the grove of young cottonwood saplings up behind the cabin, the resin-covered buds that are the key ingredient in the balm of Gilead salve snapped off with satisfying ease into my mittened hands.
Since the resin acts as a preservative aside from its skin healing and antiseptic properties, balm is a great addition to other home-made ointments as it will help prevent them from going rancid.
Once I had collected an ample amount of cottonwood buds and had them steeping in hot olive oil on the woodstove for a couple of hours, their strong springtime aroma made a pleasant change to the stuffy doggy smell in the cabin.
Balm for the bushed backwoods person!
Thickening the strained oil with beeswax, I spent a pleasant afternoon blending it with other oils and salves I had made over the summer: calendula chap stick, juniper deodorant, arnica joint and muscle ointment as well as wild rose and calendula skin lotion all received a balm of Gilead admixture in varying degrees.
Now that would have been a fun and practical biology lesson in school. These homemade ointments really do work, have the advantage of not containing a long string of unpronounceable chemical additives with dubious health effects, and are easily made during a cold snap when the woodstove is working overtime.
Having thus replenished our stock of home cosmetics, there remains one other important project to complete which lends itself to cold weather occupational therapy: I have to re-string my old bear paw snowshoes.
Our old dog Leshi, possibly in an attack of old age senility or a misguided sense of entitlement as the pampered senior of the pack, ate a good portion of the rawhide as if they were novelty chewies.
But since the window frame glacier is showing signs of receding, I think I’ll make do with an impromptu repair job and leave the proper restoration until the next cold snap.
Lisa Hasselbring is a writer who lives at the headwaters of the Yukon River south of Whitehorse.