Navigating the Polar Vortex

150208Temperatures this past week plummeted again to subzero, hovering often in the -20s and -30s as the wind swirled and blustered. And, as consequence often splays out, one of the apartment buildings that I manage for our family suffered frozen and burst water pipes. It caused a deluge of water and debris, falling ceilings, stained and puckered walls, and saturated carpeting. It’s been days of juggling the necessary people to put things back in order: plumber, electrician, insurance inspection, contractors, water removers, and tenant negotiation. Amongst it all, I made time for a visit to a friend of mine, the local code inspector, to put my mind to rest about some complications with all the renovation. In addition to assuaging my management concerns, she warmed my heart with her sincere interest and curiosity about how Laura and I are progressing and surviving on Yurtland. My, how easily our worlds become solipsistic orbits; despite having a large and engaged family nearby, we’re actually quite isolated in figuring out the nitty-gritty on our own. It was pleasing, and almost surprising, to have someone step outside of her immediate existence and simply inquire. Why is it such a hard thing, I wonder, to manifest interest and curiosity about how another being or creature (that we actually know) manages their day-to-day? It seems that with such voyeuristic and media-infused lives, many have lost the need and desire for basic, intimate human connection.

The poignant question was: so how ARE you surviving in that round tent in these endless weeks of subzero temperatures? The answer: we are finding our way; we have seemingly endless sleep-interrupted nights to stoke the wood stove and we have readjusted our idea of a comfortable indoor temperature being in the low- to mid-50s. When we can’t get the yurt above the mid-40s, we throw on extra layers and hover closer to the fire. Everything is freezing — our water, the animals water, the composting toilet, the drains, the tractor and generator fuel lines, even the wood decking screams nightly as it is squeezed of any remaining moisture. We are tired. At times we are overwhelmed. But then again, it’s our first winter here, and that begets a rather steep learning curve!

And then, a secondary, tangential question: how have your chickens and ducks survived thus far against coyotes and raccoons, foxes and hawks, and the arctic onslaught? A simpler query for sure. Every one of them is still squawking — despite frostbite, snowdrifts and icy drinking troughs. As yet, both the deepening winter and lurking predators have been kept at bay. We’ve laid out a solid foundation of fencing, housing enclosures, and developed an adaptive project of winterizing.

Around the chicken and duck run areas we put up a 6′ fence. We are lucky enough to have a fair number of black locust trees growing in and around the property. So, although it was quite a labor-intensive process, we pulled out the handy-dandy chainsaw and hewn thirty-two, 8′, logs. To prevent excessively quick rot these were debarked using a painter’s 5-in-1 tool, pry bar, and hammer. Our rain barrels weren’t fully set-up as yet so we hauled water up from the creek in 5-gallon buckets to hand mix cement and set all the posts. Then we attached six-foot, 2”x4”, welded-wire fencing around the perimeter. The posts are spaced 8’ apart and give a total run space of 2500 square feet. It’s uncovered, but our labradoodle, Luna, seems to keep the avian observers at bay. Other than some rabbit tracks under the duck’s supply shed, we haven’t found any mammal penetration. (Oh, well that is excepting that any height fence is considered jungle gym material to our fearlessly inquisitive feline, Scout. He just loves to get the ducks honking and chattering.)

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The chicken coop comprises a 9’x5’ hardware cloth enclosure, inset with a 3’x5’ insulated sleeping area and attached external nesting boxes that are 3-feet above ground. We buried the hardware cloth a foot or so below ground to discourage underground diggers. When there are audible indications of hawks or coyotes, a storm is approaching, or it’s just plain nasty weather, the chickens all migrate into the wire-enclosed roosting area of the coop. We latch the coop door each evening at dusk.
The 8’x8’ insulated duck house is raised two feet above ground, with external nesting boxes as well. They utilize the area below their house for protection from sun, wind, rain, and snow. There’s a weather protected feeding area attached to the lee end of the duck supply shed, and they only eat and drink outside of their house. We latch the duck house door each evening at dusk.

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It has been a challenging first year and winter here, to say the least. And, without the convenience of electricity, brooding chicks and ducklings, and now keeping their water supply available have been extra variations of effort. [As far as brooding goes, luckily our brother, Rob, lives less than a half-mile up through a farm field and generously offered the use of his basement to get our little day-olds growing and thriving. We put together a portable brooder set-up there during the summer and fall for both the new chicks and ducklings.] When we lived back east, in Massachusetts, we simply placed the chickens’ water bowl on an electric heating base and ran a heavy-duty electrical cord out to the coop from the house. Toute de Suite. Not so much any longer. With the recent temps we’ve been experiencing I need to return home at least mid-day to stomp through or clear out and completely refill solid-ice water bowls. And let me say, we’ve tried adding molasses to the water (great for nutrients, but ineffective at preventing freeze in these extremes), wrapping the bowls in hay (oh my are the ducks messy!), and bringing their feeders into the yurt overnight surely doesn’t help with the relentless daytime freezes. Simply put, we put in the time to fill and refill.

Sheltering the Chickens

Sheltering the Chickens

Shortly after the serious winter chill set in, our younger rooster, Jeremiah, developed frostbite atop his majestic single comb and also along his wattles where they rub against the water bowl. Although it’s not a pretty site, I quickly hung tarps around the majority of the coop to keep wind and snow at bay. (This summer we’re planning on constructing aesthetically appealing, removable wood-framed acrylic covers to block the elements more fully, and allow in greater sunlight (wait a minute, do we actually get much sunlight here? Scratch that … let’s just say allow for more “daylight”!). We spend much time shoveling pathways from the house to chicken coop, to the nesting boxes, to the duck house and duck supply shed; we swing a pickaxe weekly to keep the gates still swinging open as the ground swells over and over again with ice; and provide the birds with homemade tallow cakes, fresh vegetable scraps, and extra servings of cracked corn.

Our animals and we are all just biding our time until some small semblance of a thaw brings relief.

One thought on “Navigating the Polar Vortex

  1. It has been a long hard winter with a couple more weeks to go and I think you are both doing a wonderful job with everything. You deserve applause and a pat on the back. All of your animals are very lucky to be there with you as well, you are taking better care of them then some children are taken care of. Hang in there girls.

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