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Wintry Holidays

December 27, 2013

icy scene 2013I consider the winter solstice the beginning of the December holiday season.  My favorite solstices are clear and cold, with snow on the ground, a beautiful twilight in soft shades of blue and mauve, and a night sky lit by millions of stars. But winter solstice weather in Maine is unpredictable; this year’s solstice was dreary and gray with a forecast for sleet and freezing rain. I got out in the early afternoon to do errands and stock up on batteries for my radio and big flashlight, getting home as rain began to fall and temperatures inched down toward freezing.


I am usually a pretty intrepid winter driver, but I draw the line at freezing rain; I prefer to stay inside when roads turn to skating rinks.  The best way to enjoy an ice storm is from indoors. A coating of ice on trees and shrubs accentuates the beauty of their forms and colors, and it can turn the whole world into a fairyland. icy shrubs
icy branches icy rhody colors
ice prisms icy leaf

In Maine, icy weather and especially forecasts of freezing rain call up memories of the ice storm of January 1998, 3 days of freezing rain that coated trees and wires with more than an inch of ice and brought down most of the state’s electricity grid. At one point or another just about everyone in the state was without power, and some lived without electricity for weeks. Emergency room doctors who had never seen a case of carbon monoxide poisoning became experts as they dealt with case after case of people overcome by the fumes from kerosene heaters and portable generators. In my town, school had to be cancelled because the local school had been turned into a shelter.

The night the freezing rain began in January 1998, I emerged from the café where I had met a friend for dinner to find that the weather had deteriorated dramatically while we were eating. I remember that my 10-mile drive home was more than a little hairy. I didn’t go out again for two days as the rain fell, the ice accumulated, and electricity failed. Especially after dark, the sights and sounds of the storm suggested a war zone – the cannon boom of trees exploding under the weight of ice were accompanied by fiery flashes of electrical transformers shorting out as power poles and wires crashed down.

Compared to many people, I had it easy. The only trees that came down on my property were in the woods, and neither my house nor the electrical wires connected to the house were damaged. My house is heated by a wood stove that provided heat and a means for cooking. The only big inconvenience was being without running water. (In my rural area, each house gets water from its own well, and those wells use electric pumps.) For the first three days, living without electrical power felt like an adventure. Once the storm was over, I spent time outside, cleaning up fallen debris and filling buckets and pots with ice and snow that I could melt for water with heat from the woodstove. I made good use of my camping and backpacking gear (including a backpacker’s shower) to make my life easier. I got news from my battery-operated radio and read by candlelight in the evenings. By the fourth day, however, the adventure was beginning to wear thin. My batteries were almost gone, as were my candles, and it was becoming more difficult to find fresh ice and snow to melt for water. The fifth day began with a hard fall on the ice and was my low point. But then things started to improve. My neighbors and I hired a local contractor with a chain saw to clean up the trees that were down across our dirt road so that we could get out. I was able to drive to a library with power and charge up my laptop computer. While I was driving, I could use the car cigarette lighter to recharge my battery-powered camping lantern. A friend from an area with electricity brought me fresh batteries and a powerful flashlight. One morning, while I was out engaged in my ever-more difficult search for fresh snow to melt, a neighbor appeared with a five-gallon container full of water. It had been filled, he explained, at the home of his son’s girlfriend, where power had been restored the previous evening. It was one of the best gifts I have ever received. On the evening of the 9th day, as I was standing at the kitchen sink doing dishes by the light of my camping lantern, I suddenly realized that I could see light through the trees; there were electrical crews with floodlights out repairing the downed lines on the main road near my house. The next day, out-of-state crews appeared on our dirt road; and by late afternoon, our electricity was back on.

prostrate rhododendron

Although this week’s storm brought back memories of 1998, it was not the same. Only about 1/4” of ice accumulated here – enough to weigh plants down, but not do any serious damage. And power only went out for one hour. Further north and east in Maine, this storm has rivaled the ice storm of 1998 and many people will be without electricity for more than a week. But for me, this has been a beautiful season of wintry holidays.

31 Comments leave one →
  1. December 27, 2013 11:40 pm

    Glad you were able to stay safe in the storm. Your post brought back some memories of ice storms gone by, especially the one where the hail smashed the glass at the Garfield Park Conservatory.

    • December 30, 2013 8:18 pm

      Jason, It’s amazing how much damage ice in its many forms could do. Yesterday, it warmed up above freezing for a couple of hours and a major suspension bridge over the Penobscot River in Maine had to be closed down when ice began to fall from the cables onto the cars below. Fortunately, no one was injured, but several cars were totaled! The bridge remained closed today, but they were bringing in cranes that could be used to gently dislodge the ice from the cables.

  2. December 28, 2013 6:47 am

    A very interesting post, Jean. We think things are awful if we lose power for a few hours but we have never lost water too. So glad things weren’t so bad this time. We are getting far more storms than we used to though.

    • December 30, 2013 8:20 pm

      Chloris, Being without running water for 10 days gave me a whole new appreciation of the wonders of indoor plumbing. I noticed when the power went out for an hour on Christmas day that both my neighbors on my dirt road now have back-up generators — which means that if we ever have an extended outage again, I’ll be able to fill water containers at their houses.

  3. December 28, 2013 7:54 am

    Glad your electricity stayed on this time. We’ve lost ours in previous years for five days and seven days but you certainly get the record. We also had our power boxes pulled right off the house twice and had to replace at our own expense. But in 2012 we got a new, ugly power pole that is the most wonderful gift we ever got because now we might lose power like everyone else but we don’t lose the boxes. Enjoy the rest of your time off. 🙂

    • December 30, 2013 8:24 pm

      Judy, Several people I know had exactly the experience you describe in the ice storm of ’98 — the power boxes were pulled off their houses as the wires went down under falling trees and limbs. This meant that even when the power was restored on their street, they couldn’t get power back to their house until they could find an electrician to repair the meter box. And even with every electrician in the state working just about 24/7, the waiting list to get one to your house was often weeks long. I was very happy to have missed that particular part of the experience!

  4. December 28, 2013 8:47 am

    I am glad that you weathered the ice storm ok. I lived in Portland during the ’98 storm and we lost power for only a short time. I do remember how many in rural areas endured weeks with no power. I make every effort to be prepared now just in case.

    • December 30, 2013 8:28 pm

      Rachel, The friend who brought me batteries and a big fancy flashlight lives in Portland. There were no batteries to be found in any stores in Lewiston-Auburn, but because Portland had power, they weren’t a scarce item there.
      I try to be prepared, too, but the ice storm of ’98 changed my definition of “prepared.” I was well prepared for an outage of a day or two, but it never occurred to me that power might be out for more than a week! I feel for those people in Hancock County who still have not had power restored since last week’s ice storm.

  5. December 28, 2013 11:24 am

    We have been reading over here about the ice storms in the USA and Canada. Glad that you have escaped relatively unscathed and have been able to admire and wonder at the beauty of nature. In the UK we’ve experiencing severe gales and flooding in some parts of the country 😦 Wishing you all the best for 2014 Jean and happy gardening xxx

    • December 30, 2013 8:34 pm

      Happy Holidays, Anna! I hope you haven’t been affected by flooding; that would be far more difficult than being without electricity. I’ve been reading Soren (Flaneur Gardening)’s heartbreaking story of his summer house in Denmark and the garden he has so lovingly created there being flooded with salt water from the fjord.

  6. December 28, 2013 3:14 pm

    What an experience you had in 1998! I’m glad you didn’t have a repeat performance in 2013. It’s hard for me to imagine nature producing a body blow like that – I suppose our closest equivalent would be the repercussions of the big earthquake we’re always told is on the horizon. We think we’re prepared but maybe not…

    • December 30, 2013 8:42 pm

      Kris, I was relieved when the local TV meteorologist reassured us that this storm would not be a repeat of 1998, claiming that was a once-in-a-lifetime event. Ice storms happen here when a warm wet air mass coming up the coast from the Gulf of Mexico collides with frigid air coming down from Canada, and the Arctic air masses almost always win the battle eventually. This means that, when the freezing rain finally stops and the sun comes out, the temperatures plummet down to single digits or below 0. In 1998, power company crews from as far away as the Carolinas and Georgia were trying to rebuild the state’s electricity grid in those frigid temperatures. (LL Bean outfitted them all with cold weather clothing, and then-governor Angus King invited them all back in the summer for lobster.) I was realizing today that it has been more than a week since the recent ice storm, and the ice is still on the trees.

  7. December 28, 2013 5:15 pm

    just read a dry account of the heat wave in the Argentine, with water and power failure. But your story puts me right there with you.

    • December 30, 2013 8:43 pm

      Diana, I was surprised at how vividly this storm brought back those memories.

  8. December 29, 2013 1:44 pm

    I wonder if that same storm affected upstate NY? When I lived there 10 years ago, many locals talked about a severe storm that knocked out power for three weeks and turned the school I worked in into a shelter. I avoid icy conditions, too. Our roads are so crowded, accidents are inevitable. I’m glad you’re headed into 2014 safe and warm. 🙂

    • December 30, 2013 8:48 pm

      Tammy, It probably was the same storm. Eastern Canada was hit even harder than we were in 1998, and many people in Quebec were without power for more than a month. Parts of northern New York were also involved.

  9. December 30, 2013 10:31 am

    I’m happy that you weathered the storm without too much ice this time. Ice can make the trees look like jewels in the sunshine but can be treacherous to both nature and the people living through it. I hope you have a wonderful New Year.

    • December 30, 2013 8:51 pm

      Karen, The ice is still on the trees here and it is still beautiful. This afternoon, I was coming home from running errands at sunset, and the ice-covered treetops were lit up in red-violet. It was amazingly beautiful and made it difficult to keep my mind on my driving and my eyes on the road! Wishing you a Happy New Year.

  10. December 31, 2013 12:31 am

    A fascinating post, especially for someone from a country where neither people nor infrastructure are geared for day temps below 50F. I had never for instance thought of the different effects of ice and snow and how ice can weigh down even power cables! Your evocative photos make me want to experience it all the more. May 2014 bring you great joy and only pleasant changes. 🙂 Jack

    Sent from Samsung Mobile

    • December 31, 2013 8:52 pm

      Jack, I know from my backpacking days just how heavy water is; it turns out it’s just as heavy when it’s frozen 🙂 . It wasn’t just power lines that came down under the weight of the snow; in both eastern Maine and in Quebec, the big steel towers that support the major transmission lines collapsed under the weight of the ice.
      But ice and snow are beautiful.

  11. December 31, 2013 7:41 am

    A very rigorous life style up there in Maine!

    • December 31, 2013 8:54 pm

      Jayne, LOL; it’s true — beautiful, but rigorous. Maine in winter is no place for the wimpy. As they say on a local T-shirt, “If you can’t stand the winter, you don’t deserve the summer.”

  12. December 31, 2013 10:19 am

    You describe the devastation that can happen very well Jean. I didn’t live on the east coast back in 98 but I remember the stories on the news, and how the army was brought in. We are used to bad weather in Canada but that was a surprise to everyone. Luckily this year was not nearly as bad but there were many in Toronto, Quebec and New Brunswick without power for a week or more. You are very lucky to have a home that is heated by woodstove, a real life saver in those conditions but I empathize with the lack of water. That is by far the hardest part of losing power I think.

    • December 31, 2013 8:57 pm

      Marguerite, I love my woodstove; there’s a real sense of security in knowing that, as long as I have a plentiful supply of wood, I can always keep warm and cook, no matter what the winter brings.
      I tend to think of the Ice Storm of ’98 as a Maine event, because it’s such a historical touchstone here. But if you look it up in Wikipedia, you’ll find that the article is primarily about what happened in eastern Canada — far worse than what we experienced in the US.

  13. December 31, 2013 12:03 pm

    I am back to blogging and have a whole year ahead to catch up with your blog. Happy new year Jean!

    • December 31, 2013 9:00 pm

      Happy New Year, Lula! I’m hoping to be a more faithful blogger in 2014, too.

  14. January 2, 2014 12:10 pm

    I also remember the 1998 ice storm. How could I forget it when it hit Montreal so hard! This year, in the Eastern Townships, was like a re-run of the familiar. We lost power only for three days, but many of our neighbours lost it for a week or more. The damage to trees and shrubs from this ice storm is awful. I don’t know if you ever read my blog but the last two posts have been all about this. Happy New Year, Jean.

    • January 3, 2014 5:54 pm

      Pat, I’m happy to know about your blog, which I hadn’t see before. Your photos of the broken and bowed trees look all too familiar. I’m glad you only lost power for three days in this storm. We’re supposed to get warm weather in the next few days, which will finally melt the ice. I wonder if that warm weather will get up as far north as Quebec.

      • January 8, 2014 5:48 pm

        We had one day of 5+C temperatures, warm enough to start ice melting. Then back into the deep freeze which made everything more slippery than before. We’ve started cleaning up the debris on the trails — I think it will take two or three weeks of steady work.

  15. January 2, 2014 10:16 pm

    On Cliff that ice storm was part of a one-two punch because in August 1998 we were hit by a microburst that took out everything for a week. I decided that I could do without telephone and electricity especially since it was summer, but the lack of water was terrible and no snow to melt. Just like you I have a vivid memory of my friend appearing over the top of downed trees, literally climbing a mountain, lugging a giant container of water for our family. A big storm down here tonight and bigger where you are. I hope neither of us loses power.

  16. January 12, 2014 8:57 pm

    Jean your icy trees and plants reminded me of that same storm that happened just North of us in 98. I am glad this time it was just lovely. Happy New Year and spring is coming soon!

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