C'est le lac!
The Adventures of The Roving Route #44
So February has come to an end and it has been just over 2 months since we gave you an update on how the cottage is handling its first full winter! To sum it all up, like most things that are used infrequently, it needed lots of love and some small tune-ups here and there. For both of us, it has been a great learning experience and one that we will remember forever. The good and the bad.
If you have been with us for a while you may remember we mentioned we were having some issues with our heating system. Well, it seems like it is going to be an ongoing battle for the entire winter! To start with, our whole system is a bit strange as our diesel tank is stored outside. As we have found out, diesel contains paraffin wax which starts to solidify at 0°C clogging filters and causing issues with the furnace itself. Thanks to a bunch of research and confirmation from a reader, we have an additive that we now use to help stop the gelling during cold temperatures. Due to environmental laws prohibiting the transportation of fuel by barge, we could not have proper heating oil delivered prior to the winter which is in part causing some of these issues. That said, even with the proper oil it still would not have been smooth sailing. After a few broken pieces that needed replacing let's just say we have learned a lot about furnaces! It may not be perfect but we haven't frozen yet!
Luckily we safeguarded ourselves with other sources of heat during isolation. With electric space heaters and a fireplace, we manage to maintain a comfortable temperature even during the cold snaps. Just prior to the polar vortex we were able to get a delivery of firewood using the ice road. Now it's all about moving roughly 10,000 pounds of wood up and over a hill to the side of the cottage which is just step #1. Having a fire when it snows all the time and is -20 or colder for weeks on end, is not as easy as just tossing a match into the fireplace. The wood can be covered with snow and is cold itself so it needs to be brought into the crawlspace to warm and dry prior to being hauled into the cottage to be burnt. This constant process is quite labour intensive and time-consuming but hey, that’s how it's always been done.
Burning through lots of wood and the fact the chimney hasn't been cleaned for a few years meant it was in desperate need of some TLC. As soon as the ice road came in we purchased a chimney snake, which kind of looks like a weed wacker and attaches to the end of a drill, to clear the soot that has built up. Luckily, we managed to get a rope around the chimney when it first clogged in December so it was easy to climb up there even though there was quite a bit of snow.
As we like to call ourselves the creative type, we set out to see what other sources of heat we could come up with. Using some scrap wood, the glass from a patio table, 4 layers of black aluminum screen, and shingles to absorb the sun's rays, we made a makeshift solar heater. It works surprisingly well- although the average daylight for February is just 10 hours per day so it doesn't last too long! A fan at the bottom has been able to pump out air at 35°C even when it is just 12°C in the room and -25°C outside. We will call it a relative success!
As we said, we have relied heavily on our fireplace lately for heat but there's only one issue- it can't move with us to our desks or the bedroom! With a few rocks warmed up in the fireplace, 2 hanging baskets, and a terracotta pot, we now have a free and silent space heater that provides portable heat where ever we are.
While on the topic of freezing oil and keeping things warm, Northern Ontario winters pose a special challenge for vehicles. While many who live north of the 49th parallel are used to it, we have to plug in our cars to keep the engines from freezing, the batteries from dying, and oil from solidifying. Installed into cars in the north is a "block heater" which helps to keep the engine and oil warm enough to properly run. This was especially important the last few weeks when the temperature dropped significantly. This is so common that office buildings and mall parking lots have extension cords at each stall to ensure that you can get home safe at the end of the day! Just remember to unplug yourself before you drive off into the sunset!
Coming into this winter there were a few things that we knew could always happen but really dreaded if it did. One of them was our septic system. With multiple tanks, 100+ feet of piping, old pumps, and 25+ years on the system, there were lots that could go wrong. Luckily our family loves to camp so we do have a porta-potty on hand in case of emergencies. One day we noticed that the breaker controlling the pump in the holding tank beside the cottage, which stores the wastewater until it is pumped up a hill to the septic tank where it is filtered and degrades, had tripped. After some investigating (which brought us up close and personal with the tank) the only option was to buy a new pump which took a week to be delivered. Overall, a shitty situation but one we could deal with. The package arrived and everything was replaced with relative ease, though we did have to postpone an interview and photo-op in order to take a quick shower.
A week goes by and in the heart of the crazy cold snap, the waste pipe going from the cottage to the holding tank froze. While it is mostly buried underground, it likely got clogged and froze with about 7 feet of solid "ice" leaving us "shit" out of luck again! Luckily, a cheap jet nozzle from Canadian Tire would help to get through the "ice". It's nice that curbside pick-up is now a thing because we don't think anyone in the store would have been too pleased to see or smell us walk by. Speaking of smells, from experience we suggest that you DO NOT leave your HRV unit on when your septic tank is open and the air intake is nearby!!
But life's funny and things seem to come in threes. With the new pump installed, the pipe to the holding tank thawed, and eventually a full tank of waste, we flipped the switch to pump it out but nothing happened. While preparing for the winter we knew we had a drain back system which meant that after the pump turns off, gravity would force anything in the pipe to "drain back" into the holding tank. Eventually realizing there was a low point underground that would make the system ineffective during the winter, we gave up blasting through the ice and laid an above-ground pipe to drain our holding tank until the spring. Let's just say this is all an oversimplification of weeks fighting with frozen pipes, busted pumps, and each other all while being covered head to toe in god knows what! P.S. DO NOT turn on the pump to check if it works when it is not fully secured and the pipes are not attached!
Even though we now have a (mostly) working system, it has been a pretty big change of lifestyle to get through the past month. From cooking big 1 pot curries that last the week and BBQing at -25°C to avoid the extra dishes, we have had to adapt to reduce our water usage. We even had to head to our parent's house to shower and do our laundry which has been quite necessary with all the septic issues we have had! Let's just say it was nice not having to think about our adaptation of the old phrase "if it's ...anything, just let it mellow!"
This all being said, we are not complaining, but rather just trying to be as real as possible about what it's like to be at the lake during the winter. Obviously, the image that many portray on social media is not reality but we want to be open. Especially when you live in a seasonal property, things will go wrong. But that’s okay. There are the days that we sit here overlooking the snow-covered ice and take a breathe questioning if this will be one of the best days of our life. Then there are other days when we just want to say "shit I give up." It's so easy to give blame to problems but at the lake, it's rarely anyone's fault and instead often just circumstances. Just like when camping, a bear or mouse might eat your goodies, swimming in an ocean might get you stung by a jellyfish or bitten by a shark but it's the risk you take for the amazing experience. There is a saying that Derek's grandfather was fond of around here that sums things up really well. C'est le lac- directly translated to "This is the lake." At the same time as it is amazingly simple and positive, it reminds you to ground yourself WHEN things go wrong and remember where you are. There is likely nowhere else in the world that we would rather be during this pandemic even with the issues we may face. As we said in a previous newsletter, "Every morning when we wake up and stoke the fire to brew a cup of coffee, we reap the rewards of all those hours of hard work in ignorant bliss of the issues that may have arisen overnight!"
C'est le lac!
The Roving Route