I 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.
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.
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.