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Letter from Skunk Hollow: Fresh snow brings cascade of sweaty, joyful chores

Winter road
MinnPost photo by Ron Meador
Making a winter road over gravel isn't about scraping away all the snow. You want to pack and carve it into a protective but passable covering for the rock.

Some snowfalls are decorative and others, when you live in the country especially, are infrastructure. Sunday’s was of the second kind.

All day long it deepened, seeming not so much to fall from the skies as to crystallize from a heavy fog that filled the woods around our house and compelled a list of chores for the people inside.

Sallie filled the jugs of water we’d need if the electricity quit, then suited up to shovel the deck and walkways. I began driving up and down the gravel ribbon that links our house to the paved world, packing a base and marking curbs for the winter road I’d be cutting for use over the next three months.

As of sundown the plows hadn’t reached our part of the township and we were thankful it didn’t matter, yet.

But kilowatts kept arriving to fill the house with the smell of braising turkey and bright images of a faraway football game being played in falling snow.

Next morning, as I write, the snow has finished at over a foot deep and every surface has been contoured anew.

On and off the grid

We don’t lose power often and, luckier still, our wintertime interruptions have been brief. But a string of blackouts two summers ago reminded us how utterly dependent on electricity we are out here, even more so than when we lived in cities. Which seems kind of perverse.

We get our water from a well rather than a city system. But this requires a pump, which requires electricity. When the power quits, so do the taps. The toilets still flush – once.

Cooking is possible without power, thanks to a gas grill we keep ready through the winter and to campstoves we’ve collected over the years and can use in a pinch. Lighting is no bigger challenge than anywhere else, but heat is.

In place of a furnace this house has a high-efficiency fireplace, which uses no electricity, and baseboard heaters, which do. Keeping warm and nourished for a few days wouldn’t be difficult, but after that we’d be going into town for necessities.

Which brings me to the driveway.

Lessons in a gravel road

Most of the seven-mile trip from Stillwater to our doorstep is over pavement, and because this pavement is in Wisconsin, it's in excellent shape until you get to the township’s portion, which is still very good.

But the last eighth of a mile or so is a gravel road, not quite two cars wide, which dips and climbs and kinks through the trees.

Sallie brought a huge, two-stage snowthrower to our household – a self-propelled, knobby-tired, headlight-equipped monster that I imagine can be fitted with one of those little cabs to shield the operator walking behind.

It’s a tank, for sure, but almost exactly two years ago we discovered its upper limits in a storm that kept us snowbound for a weekend with unplowed roads, a clogged driveway and drifts that got higher than our doors. We were expecting neighbors for dinner; they arrived on snowshoes and needed them.

So this Sunday I thought an early start on the snowthrowing seemed wise. The snowthrower held a contrary opinion.

Four years of keeping the beast in service have brought me to a painful intimacy with its controls, its innards and, I sometimes feel, its moods. But this time its nonstarting was a stumper.

We had fuel (fresh gas in the tank, in the carburetor and at the cylinder). We had spark at the plug (starting-fluid test) and enough voltage in electric-start mode to make the headlight bright. We had a freely turning impeller and auger.

 We also had, as it turned out, a fuel line that had ruptured way up out of sight, at the carburetor inlet.

So I took off some parts and fixed the little hose and put things back together and made a couple of test passes in the early dark, with wet gloves and cold feet and a dank sweat trickling inside my clothes, and I was happy beyond measure, without knowing why.

Like lots of guys I like feeling competent, collecting little proofs by solving problems and fixing stuff, perhaps nurturing an illusion of old-time self-reliance which relies on forgetting that I’m clearing my little road with refined petroleum instead of horses, after all, and will soon be showering in hot water made so with the juice of  Wyoming coal.

But there’s something more. In a way I can’t define, working with snowthrowers and chain saws and brush hogs seems to bring me closer to these woods, this house, to everything about the place I live now.

And when the engines stop the silence is complete.

As pretty as gravel can be

Another winter, and once again I won’t be hiring somebody to plow our little gravel road.

Gravel-roadway maintenance is a subject I knew nothing about, and Sallie knew but little about, when we bought our place at Skunk Hollow.

Initially we learned by not doing – by not having it graded, by not keeping wet leaves off the rock, by not varying our vehicular paths beyond a pair of deepening ruts.

Two springs ago, in mud season, the road became impassable for Sallie’s little car and challenging even for my old Jeep, now deceased.

Water had formed a deep pool in the lowest part and a ditch I cut with a pickax and a half-day of swearing didn’t improve the drainage very much, although it did create a little moat that seemed likely to discourage, say, the UPS truck (or an ambulance, another subject we think about differently from when we were urbanites).

So, in the same month that the electric co-op fixed its service problems, we had the road renewed – widened, flattened, retopped with a few truckloads of fresh rock and graded to a fine new slope. It was as pretty as something made of gravel can be.

The men who did the work were recommended by a neighbor, who explained that maintaining a gravel road has two phases: the first in summer, when you hire guys to deliver and grade fresh gravel; the second in winter, when you hire the same guys to bring a plow and scrape it all back into the woods.

The first phase ran into the four figures for us, so I'm sticking with the snowthrower and counting one more blessing of the noncommuter life.

Fresh tracks and deep snow

I’m writing this at a breakfast table with windows on three sides and a monochrome sweep of bare trees and bright slopes in all directions, thinking of our past poet laureate Billy Collins and his ability to see more from a window than any other writer I know.

Thinking particularly about “Ornithography,” based on the notion that writing in China was invented by some ancient who got the idea from bird tracks in the snow. It includes these lines:

and under the feeder, some birds
are busy writing short stories,

poems, and letters to their mothers.
A crow is working on an editorial.

That chickadee is etching a list,
and a robin walks back and forth

composing the opening to her autobiography.
All so prolific this morning,

these expressive little creatures,
and each with an alphabet of only two letters
.

Under our own feeders, right now, is a little narrative written by two whitetail does and two fawns. The tracks come out of the woods from four slightly different directions and converge at a place where deer can often find some seed on the ground, spilled by the chickadees and jays.

This time that supply was under the snow, but as Sallie watched, one of the does figured out how to eat straight from the feeder, which is hanging a little lower than it used to, thanks to a bear's vandalism last spring and my hasty repair last month.

I should probably get the tools out and fix it better this morning, but my mind keeps wandering back to the deer tracks, following them in reverse, into the woods and down into Skunk Hollow, wondering where they go, and how far, and whether I’ll need the snowshoes to find out.

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