October 22, 2009 post
FROZEN PIPES: Hand to hand combat with Jack Frost!
Fond memories of Seattle’s shiny Christmas lights lingered as the bitter cold Alaska darkness clung to my face. I was grateful for my daughter’s invitation to spend Christmas with her family in wet, damp Seattle and not being alone in my cabin. It would’ve been my first Christmas alone. Unfortunately, my son was unable to join us, and I missed him dearly.
Now I was back in cold country driving HB, my 4WD Ford Ranger, in dry -50o F to my quiet lonesome cabin, three and a half hours northeast of Anchorage, Alaska. HB was a huge source of comfort and safety to me, like a “honey bear,” and she was my best friend, especially driving through rural Alaska during a dark wintry night.
The long ride on narrow winding mountain roads following muted frozen streams was peaceful. No new accumulation of snow in the past 24 hours and the road was dry. No street lights, only piercing blackness with the bright waxing moon, big dipper you could reach out and touch, and the host of arctic stars casting a soft glimmer on snow covered tree branches and boulders within my limited vision. HB hummed along in the icy stillness as I searched the roadside for moose jumping on the road unexpectedly. Their tracks over the four foot snow berms along the highway were quite visible and I imagined they were lurking somewhere among the trees.
My one room cabin, lacking running water and plumbing, nestled snuggly between shadowy bare trees on a steep hillside. I shifted HB into 4WD and we ploughed through several inches of snow up the last road trail and parked close to the steps of my cabin so I could plug the long cord in an electric socket to keep HB’s engine warm through the harsh Alaska night.
Grateful to have arrived safely, I was eager to immerse myself in a good book but had to first check my water and oil supply. I wondered if Angela, a nice Native young woman, had any problems looking after my cabin during my absence.
Lifting the outside hooked key I pushed opened the heavy door and walked into an intensely hot cabin. I held the door open for a few moments to quickly cool the cabin. Then I closed the door and slid the large metal bar across the door frame into a secured bolt and locked myself in. Immediately checking the oil stove’s lever, I noticed the dial indicated ”high.” The 8 inch pillar candles on my bookcases were partially melted and the 10 inch tapered candles were waxy puddles. Heat radiating from the two white bookcases and books warmed my face, hands and arms as I peeled off my parka, gloves, knit cap and kicked off my Sorrell boots. I was just grateful that nothing caught fire, and after the long drive, actually welcomed the warmth of the cabin.
The 5-gallon plastic water jug lay on its side on the kitchen counter with the spigot hanging over the sink. Whenever I left the cabin, I always stood it upright to prevent any drippage. The unfinished plumbing was a double sink with the drains attached to the usual plumbing elbows and fittings under the sink allowing water to flow out through a single pipe to a pile of gravel under the cabin. It worked well for washing dishes, my hair, and pouring out my bath water after my daily ritual of grace and agility standing in a galvanized bucket placed on a thick towel spread out to catch the splashes as I dipped a small bowl first in hot water then mixing it with some cold water and poured it over my body.
Tonight, after bringing in my suitcase and groceries I stopped to pick up at Carr’s in Palmer, the last town before entering rural Alaska, I turned the plastic spigot to fill a coffee cup with water to brush my teeth and wash up after my long trip home. As I rinsed the cup, to my amazement, I heard gurgling water which sounded like a clogged drain back filling. I poured more water down the drain, and sure enough the water rose to the sink opening. What on earth? Did someone install new plumbing and it got frozen? Did Angela try to wash some food down this drain and got it clogged?
I grabbed my heavy parka, gloves and boots, jumped into HB and headed for the office building less than a mile away. Twenty minutes later I stood over my sink with a plunger and repeatedly applied pressure to the drain. Nothing happened and the water was still in the drain. I pulled aside the green Hawaiian print curtains I sewed on my first day at the cabin to hide the unsightly plumbing under the sink, and grasped the pipe. It felt stiff dead frozen. I carefully placed my bath bucket under the cold pipe, heated water on my propane stove and poured it over the pipe.
Then I wrapped the pipe with a towel soaked in hot water, and noted my water supply dwindling. While I waited I wiped down my port-a-potty with sanitizer and poured clean water and a packet of chemical in the bottom tray.
Fifteen minutes passed. I poured a little water down the kitchen drain and this time it took longer for the water to backfill to the sink. Some change was occurring, but nothing significant. The drain was definitely still clogged.
Okay, I groaned. I need to bite the bullet and go out and see what’s under this cabin. Once again I pulled on my fleece lined Sorrells, zippered up the fur-lined parka, slipped on my wool gloves and hat and stepped into the sharp cold arctic air with my flashlight lighting a random trail. The cabin sat at least two feet above the ground, and it was difficult to find a spot where the snow was not up to the cabin floor. However, the area of the floor on which the old pot belly oil stove sat radiated more than enough heat to melt the snow on that side of the cabin.
Crouching low on the icy snow I anxiously aimed the light beams under the cabin, totally unprepared for the “only in Alaska” sight I was about to behold. The light glittered and sparkled rainbows on what seemed like an iceberg building on the gravel pit. In fact a mini glacier was now latched on to the normally open bottom of the pipe attached to my kitchen sink.
Holy smokes! How could this happen and what was I going to do about this? No way was I going to crawl under the cabin and chip away that little iceberg clinging to my pipe. The -50o F was now penetrating my winter gear and I could feel the sub-zero coldness seeping through my gloves and boots. I pushed myself upright and crunched through the snow to the front porch and climbed the three steps into my warm cabin.
Throwing my parka and gloves on the little round table for two that graced a corner of my cabin, I unlaced and stepped out of my boots and pulled out my toolbox which was usually stored in HB, but during the winter months I kept it in the warm cabin next to my emergency bag filled with safety gear and extra food and blankets, that I flung into HB when I drove anywhere. Grabbing a couple of wrenches I went to the sink to tackle that growing glacier under the cabin.
I flung the Hawaiian curtains aside, surveyed my options and ready for my wilderness winter challenge. The bath bucket was still under the pipes. I’ve done this before and it isn’t difficult to undo pipes. I’ve unclogged sinks before the hard way. Now, which joint should I remove first? Well, the first joint attached closest to the sink must contain only water. The pipe was warmer anyway and the joint would twist easier.
I adjusted the wrench until it fit snuggly on the joint and began to twist slowly until I felt a little movement. Okay! Slowly now. As I kept turning the joint, it suddenly slipped from the pipe and warm water gushed into the bucket below.
Now on to the next joint to remove the curving elbow. It detached with no trouble. The last piece was the long pipe that went through the floor. It stood rigid. How was I to disengage it from the mini glacier? I pushed, tugged and tried to wiggle the pipe loose. There was a very slight back and forth movement but not enough to dislodge the icy metal tube. My only weapon was pouring more hot water in the pipe and around the edges of the pipe hole in the floor to dribble down the sides of the pipe to the glacier. I proceeded cautiously rationing my water supply.
As I waited for my pipe project to thaw, I hung up my parka behind the heavy wooden door, placed my boots near the oil stove to dry, removed my wool sweater and pulled on a light long sleeve tee shirt over my silk undershirt. I was perspiring from the heat so I twisted my long hair into a bun and secured it above my shoulders with a hair clip.
The cabin was built with single T1-11 lumber boards with no insulation anywhere, and the floor was way too cold to walk barefooted. A thick white wool knit carpet protected my small floor space and served as some insulation. Any object leaning against the cold walls would quickly be frozen, so I pulled the bookcases, boxes, and my bed toward the center of the cabin. Fortunately, I had two windows I could open during the summer, but in the winter these windows froze shut with a minimum ice build-up on the inside ledge. The only direct opening to the frigid outside air was through my kitchen sink pipe. It seemed as though Jack Frost relentlessly lurked around my cabin seeking a way to creep in to consume my warmth.
I vacuumed the white carpet and the scattered rugs under my little table and the one in the small kitchen area. When I checked my pipe project fifteen minutes later, the soaked towel was cold, so I repeated the procedure of re-soaking the towel with hot water and pouring more hot water in and around the pipe, and through the pipe hole to the glacier.
As the hot water worked its way with the pipe, I unpacked my little suitcase. I placed the new picture of my grandson, Billy, and me on the bookcase. My chest heaved as I thought of my son and daughter whom I missed terribly and the sigh turned into an achy gasp. It’s amazing how your own sounds can startle you when you live alone in silence.
Troubled anxiety produced more than enough adrenalin I needed to resolve my pipe dilemma once and for all. With new found vigor I went to the sink and half kneeling and half squatting under the sink I planted one foot close to the protruding pipe and the other on the cold cabin floor and pulled, twisted, and yanked the pipe with all my strength until with a huge grunt I tugged and felt a little jolt. I didn’t stop there. I kept pulling and twisting, gasping with every twist and turn and transferred emotional anxiety into dynamic physical power until the glacier finally yielded and I pulled the freed pipe up through the floor into my cabin with about 5 inches of ice rounded with the shape and size of the pipe hole, attached to the end of it.
I fell backwards on my ass victorious over this Alaskan wilderness waving the iced pipe above my head. My heart throbbed and tears rolled down my face as I exploded in triumphant laughter and shouted, “Yeah, yeah, yeah!” Ha! I knew I could do it and I did it. I felt like the little engine that could and how he must have felt when he conquered the hill.
I chopped off the ice with my handy little axe and soaked the still partly frozen pipe in the bath bucket which I set over the hole in the floor under the sink to keep the finger of the arctic cold out. A bowl of steaming hot Campbell’s vegetable soup was my victory dinner. Watching the wisps of steam rise from the bowl I swished spoonfuls of soup around to help the cooling process. Oh, Job, was there ever a victory of any significant measure even when you recovered from the loss of your loved ones and all you labored for. I was desirous of the secret of Job’s recovery.
With a full tummy and happy to still have about a gallon of water left I warmed a large cup of water to brush my teeth and to soak a wash cloth to clean and freshen up after the long ride and exhausting episode.
Finally cozy in my warm flannel pajamas and thick socks, I grabbed Charles Swindol’s Tough Times Never Last But Tough People Do, and settled in to the quiet base life in my cabin. I was alone in the Alaskan wilderness, snuggled in my warm winter-hugged cabin, and I had just battled and beat one small but dangerous winter obstacle–frozen pipes.
My cabin could’ve been somewhere on Mars or Jupiter. I, or anyone else would not have cared. My thoughts were on Seattle where my heart will always be with my children and the long ago life of Frederick & Nelson’s thousands of brilliant white Christmas lights, the Bon Marche star mounted high on its building on the corner of 4th and Pine, the three lighted radio towers on Queen Anne Hill, and of course, the torch that lit the top of the Space Needle. Christmas was over and this was a new year. A year for new experiences and victories.
Posted in Cabin Life
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