Heat, Play, Love

Adapting to a North Woods deep freeze is not without its pleasures.

By Elizabeth Peavey

If you should ever have to haul two weeks worth of gear into a snowbound winter camp, a word to the wise: don’t wait until the day after Christmas to shop for a plastic kid’s sled. I recently made this error and was skunked at two different Renys — nothing left but saucers. And you don’t need to be a seasoned woodswoman to know you can’t lug gear on a wobbly disc without risking toppled coolers and strewn manuscript pages.

I was staying at a borrowed cabin on the South Branch of the Dead River, an off-the-grid chalet belonging to my friend, landscape painter Marguerite Robichaux. For months, I’d been splitting my time between the camp and my Portland home while working on a book. My camp digs were rustic. I had a propane stove, fridge, and heater, but I still had to haul my own water, read by propane lamp, and boil water to do dishes. In the autumn, my days followed a pattern: wake between 5 and 6 a.m., walk for an hour, eat breakfast, write for three-ish hours, eat lunch, then write for two or three hours more or until the battery ran out on my laptop. Then I’d take my computer to Marguerite’s — exactly 212 paces away — where I’d leave it overnight to charge. Sometimes, Marguerite and I would drink a martini or I’d grab a quick shower, but she was busy with her own work, and we tried to give each other space. In the evenings, I read or simply listened to the river. More often than not, I was asleep before what would be dinnertime back home. It was heaven.

But a winter stay would be different. For starters, there was the matter of hauling my gear. Before the snow, I’d driven right up to the cabin. But since Marguerite doesn’t plow the road, I had to plod in on snowshoes, hauling behind me a snow shovel — the wide kind, used for decks and driveways — laden with bags and books. My makeshift sledge worked well enough, so long as I remembered to keep it tilted, blade up, load securely bungeed.

There were other challenges, most of which involved staying warm (on a frozen composting toilet, for example). It was so cold my eyelashes often froze together on my morning walks. Once, I had to shove my hands under my armpits inside my coat just to get the feeling back, which made me look like I was walking in a straightjacket (some might have found this appropriate).

It was so cold my eyelashes often froze together on my morning walks.

During the first week, I blasted through almost half my propane. Since the truck couldn’t bring more until spring, I eased off on the heater and resolved to rely on the woodstove. Every resource is precious in the woods, so I was stingy with paper and kindling, watching my fires until I heard the satisfying tick tick tick of metal warming. I gathered ice-coated twigs out back and thawed them on the porch, then dried them by the stove. In the evenings, I dozed like an old man in a Mission rocker, my feet to the fire. I burned holes in the toes of my best SmartWool socks. Each morning after breakfast, I made coffee in a battered espresso pot, then wrapped it in a dishtowel and clutched it to my chest to warm up. Only then would I get to work.

How glorious to work with no email or other digital distractions. The hours slipped by, the pages piled up. Of course, there were still diversions. One night, Marguerite invited me for a window-kill partridge that she dressed and served with brown gravy and mushrooms (“Don’t have to worry about buckshot,” she said, hoisting a fork). Another night, I met friends at a bar in nearby Stratton, where they treated me to beer and a heap of french fries. I was coming to understand the Inuit affinity for blubber: I craved fat. I plowed through my stores of peanuts and avocados, and I fought back the urge to have at a neighbor’s suet feeder.

I spent one of my final evenings at camp at Marguerite’s, letting my woodstove go out. When I got home, I decided it was too late to fire it up and simply bundled up for bed. Before drifting off, I worried about my laptop, sitting out in the cold, so I wrapped it in my down jacket and slept curled around it. Good thing, too. In the morning, the thermometer registered 18 degrees. Indoors.

There were challenges, sure, but the rewards far outweighed them: sitting in my rocker in front of the fire, watching the stars glint on a pre-dawn walk, seeing flurries swirl in the beam of my headlamp, gazing at a stretch of rumpled white under which my river ran. In the end, nothing could be easier than life in my winter cabin. It was home.