Archive for December 25th, 2013

Over the Mountains and Through the Woods

Pine needles coated with ice

Pine needles coated with ice

Because of an ice storm that preceded Christmas, when my husband had two days off of work, our original plans for getting out and doing something nice were drastically altered.  Even though the roads had been sanded and salted, the previous day’s sunshine and then single-digit night temperatures assured the streets would not be safe for leisurely car rides due to a half-inch coating of ice.  Once again, the sun was shining, and the weather wasn’t too terrible – it was in the 20s which was sweater weather; we didn’t even need our down coats (this may sound cold if you are from the West Coast but believe me, you build up to the cold weather and sunny, windless 20 degrees practically feels like a Spring day during a Maine winter.  Which leads me to mention another amazing thing about Maine:  there is this sort of bravado culture amongst young people in winter, and it is not uncommon to see teenagers and twenty-somethings wearing SHORTS outside in the winter – – we saw someone last week doing this when it was 9 degrees F! – – just because they can.)

We live very close to the NH border, and the White Mountain National Forest abuts our property (most people do not realize that the White Mountains stretches beyond New Hampshire into Maine).  As such, wilderness is literally in our backyard.  In winter, there are many snowmobile trails within walking distance,  but because we are in a somewhat out-of-the-way location, they are rarely used.

We do not snowmobile.  Snowmobiles are quite expensive (about $10K – $12K new), and they are also pricey to rent ($165 for a couple of hours), so we haven’t even tried it.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t benefit from snowmobile trails!

A snowmobile trail is an official winter-only backcountry “road” that is maintained by snowmobile clubs or the State of Maine.  By “maintained” I mean that they have trail markers, plus signage telling riders how many miles it is to gas, food, lodging, or various locations along the way.  They are a narrow pathway (about 6′ – 8′ wide in our area) cleared of trees and obstacles.  These trails are found throughout the northeast and there are continuous trails that stretch hundreds of miles, all the way into Canada.  After a heavy snowfall, volunteers use expensive “snow groomers” to compact the snow and ensure that the trails are safe, removing debris such as fallen branches, and covering or moving protruding rocks if necessary.

Our dog Spencer watches the snowmobile trail grooming machine in Evergreen Valley

Our dog Spencer watches the snowmobile trail grooming machine in Evergreen Valley

They also place “caution” signs so snowmobilers will be made aware of stream crossings if there are no bridges (doable only if the water has frozen and is thick enough to hold the weight of the snowmobiles and riders).  But in my area, because these trails are so underused, they are perfect for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing, since one rarely encounters snowmobilers.  (Skiing or snowshoeing would be downright dangerous on a heavily used snowmobile trail:  it would be like walking on a freeway between speeding cars).   They are rare in my area, but occasionally a Maine State Game Warden (that’s a back-country law enforcement officr) will patrol by snowmobile on the lookout for drunk snowmobile drivers (as well as snowmobile accidents and wildlife poachers).

Spencer on the snowmobile trail

Spencer on the snowmobile trail

Snowmobile trail sign in Evergreen Valley

Snowmobile trail sign in Evergreen Valley

The pre-Christmas ice storm spelled disaster for the snowmobilers.  The trails had just been groomed before the storm, and now they were too icy to use safely.  But for snowshoeing, these trails were a delight.  The snow was compacted so one didn’t sink down very far while walking, and the crampons of our Microspikes (sharp pointy metal blades that attach to the bottom of one’s shoe) gripped the ice tightly to make walking easy.  We decided to take a hike in our own backyard wilderness along these trails.  On Christmas Eve we went 3.5 miles; and on Christmas Day we ventured 4.7 miles.  I wore a long-sleeved hiking shirt with a light fleece jacket, leggings, hiking boots, crampons, a wool hat, sunglasses, and I carried trekking poles.  My husband (poor guy!) also carried a daypack in the event of an emergency:  water, flashlight/headlamp, topo GPS, toilet paper, Purell, a face mask, cellphone, chewing gum, first aid kit, fire starter kit, knife, hand-warmers and foil emergency blanket, multi-tool knife, ham radio and extra crampons and gloves.  We take winter preparedness seriously, even for short distances (we were only gone for two hours)!

bwsnow

snowpath1

Crossing a frozen marshy pond

Crossing a frozen marshy pond

We had a wonderful time.  There was no one else out and about (this being Christmas, after all) and the woods were quiet, cold and beautiful.  The ice that coated the tree branches glistened in the sun, looking like a million sparkling diamonds.  We came home to hardy, homemade soup and freshly baked whole wheat rolls hot out of the oven, and later, a wonderful, hot bath.  We still can’t believe how blessed we are that we are surrounded by so much beauty.  There is so much to do literally outside our front door, without having to drive anywhere.

Frozen pond glistens with ice

Frozen pond glistens with ice

Afternoon shadows on the snowmobile trail

Afternoon shadows on the snowmobile trail

Even though I am still very overweight, in terms of stamina and strength I am in the best physical shape that I’ve been in since my youth.   Here in the Maine woods, life is good!

 birch

Birch tree trunks along the trail look like patchwork quilts (click to enlarge)

tree1.20131224_151754_resized_1

Advertisements

Winter Laundry

20131225_133609Many people are surprised to find out that I don’t own a dryer – – by choice.

“How do you get your clothes dry in the wintertime in Maine?” they all want to know.

First, let me qualify this.  Most of the time, it’s just my husband and myself.  Two people do not create a whole lot of laundry.  I usually do only 1 or 2 loads a week.  That gives me several days to dry my clothes and linens if that should be necessary.  Also, I have plenty of things to wear (though we’re talking long johns, denim, fleece, and wool socks, not party dresses) so I never “run out.”

When 11 of my grandchildren came to visit me at the same time in Maine this past summer, the clothesline was ALWAYS occupied every single day that they were here, and I sometimes did 3 loads of laundry per day.  And when they left and I needed to wash 14 sets of linens and towels, I opted for the laundromat, although if I’d had a little patience to wait for sunny summer days (the forecast was for rain) I could have shlepped out this task over a number of days with just my washer and clothesline.

I find it especially relaxing and not at all tedious to hang laundry outdoors  (except at the height of blackfly season in May, when I must wear a bug headnet, have every inch of skin covered, and be doused in DEET insect repellant).  My washing machine is a second hand Miele, manufactured in Germany, but bought on craigslist on the cheap,  and it does a fantastic job of getting clothes clean using a minimum amount of water and energy.  But the really amazing thing is that on the final cycle, my Miele spins the clothes nearly dry at 1200 rpm.  So when the wash is done, the clothes are barely moist and drying takes only about 30 – 45 minutes on a sunny summer day.

Unless I’m desperate, I don’t even bother doing laundry on a cloudy winter day:  the sun is psychologically crucial to success.  But even that is not so bad.  If there’s rain, sleet, snow or clouds, I do my laundry at night, and put it on an indoor drying rack 4′ from the woodstove.  By the time I wake up in the morning the laundry is dry.  That said, I still prefer hanging the clothes outside – – the crisp, fresh mountain air makes the clothes smell so wonderful!  But in winter the timing can get tricky, and the hours of daylight are few.

For one thing, after a snowfall, I have to clear a path to the clothesline and then create a walkway underneath the lines, where I stand to hang the clothes.  Also in winter, it is essential to wear fingerless gloves because otherwise the skin of your fingertips can freeze to the damp clothes as you pin them on the line.  Wearing crampons on your boots is also helpful, lest the path you made through the snow the day before has meanwhile turned icy overnight.

In really cold weather, the wet clothes freeze hard as boards almost immediately, even as you’re putting them on the line.  You also need to work quickly so the damp clothes don’t freeze to one another as they lay in the laundry basket.  If you try to separate the clothes that freeze together you could literally break off a hard, frozen sleeve or pants leg while trying to separate them.

But the trickiest thing is knowing when the clothes are dry, because they are so freezing to the touch one might mistake them for being wet, when really they are just cold.

So here’s the trick:   if they are soft to the touch, even if they are very cold, the clothes are dry.  If they are stiff, they are still frozen, and if they are frozen that means that there is still some dampness and moisture in them.  Dry clothes don’t freeze.  And here is another amazing fact:  you don’t need heat to dry clothes quickly.  Ever hear of “freeze-dried” produce or coffee?  The product is frozen in its “wet” state, and then the air is drawn out in a vacuum. The process of drying laundry on an outdoor clothesline in winter temperatures isn’t much different.  Once the wet clothes freeze on the line, the sunshine and wind and cold air draw out the moisture.  My laundry is dry in as little as one to two hours, even if temperatures are in the single digits!