Rambling travelogs from a world traveler

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

More tales from “The Little Cabin in the North Woods.”

Esteemed Reader,

Last Monday, Ann and I loaded the car and took off for an overnight trip to the cabin. There was fresh falling snow and the forecast was for cold weather and more snow. The clubs that maintain the system of trails groom those trails each Tuesday morning and we looked forward to a couple of pleasant rides in search of the perfect $100 hamburger.

We had a very nice ride Monday and a pleasant lazy evening in the cabin that night. We arose late Tuesday to a very cold day. It was in fact less than -10º F but bright and sunny and after some discussion we decided to ride despite the cold. Web Lake, WI is a snowmobile Mecca and there are several very nice places to eat and warm up. In a moment of serendipity, we met the pleasant fellow we have contracted with to keep our cabin’s driveway snow-plowed and had a nice conversation with him.

Around 1 O’clock, we started up and began the ride back to the cabin to store the sleds, clean up and go back home. In less than 10 minutes, we were cruising down the wonderfully groomed trails, deep in the Wisconsin woods, far from civilization. I was leading and occasionally looking back to make sure my gorgeous mate was following me.

Suddenly she wasn’t there. So I found a straight-away and stopped to wait for her to catch up. I was not alarmed as she is much more conservative in her riding aggressiveness than I….but then she didn’t show up behind me in a reasonable time. I got off the sled, removed my helmet and listened for her engine sounds. Hearing nothing, I remounted the sled, found a place in the tight wooded area to turn around and started back to look for her. I grew increasingly worried as I did not come across her.

Then I made a sharp turn in the trail and was presented with this tableau: Ann was off the sled and standing some distance away from it. She had her helmet off but her balaclava was still on and only her gorgeous but haunted blue eyes were visible.

The reason for the haunted eyes was immediately obvious. The sled she was riding – the beloved ten-year old Skidoo touring sled owned by her brother – was stopped in the trail, perfectly centered in her lane, ugly orange flames rising several feet from a growing hole in the fiberglass ‘hood’, oily black smoke billowing into the cold, clear, crystalline blue sky.

The fire is growing rapidly and it is obvious that the fuel tank – the tank that we had just topped off with over 7 gallons of 92 octane high test fuel - was feeding the fire. We did not have a fire extinguisher and even if we had, I doubt we could have successfully fought the fire. All we can do is remain a safe distance away and watch.

I had heard in the past that helplessness in an emergency situation can lead to hysteria and inappropriate laughter. I am here to confirm that it does as both Ann and I, not knowing what else to do, just stood there in the snow and giggled. Finally, I thought of the cell phone hidden somewhere in my parka and began spelunking for it. Finally located, the cell phone proved itself useless as there was no service in the wilderness – not even ‘one bar.’ So, Ann and I quickly decided that I was the best choice to ride the remaining serviceable sled back into Webb Lake to locate a phone and alert the ‘First Responders.’ The closest place I knew of in Webb Lake wound up being “The Cabaret Club” that we had just left. I walked through the door, asked for a phone and a map and dialed 911.

This quickly devolved into a Keystone Cops situation as I did not really know exactly where the conflagration was in the trackless wilderness. After a minute or so of fruitless, “It’s on the snowmobile trail southwest of Webb Lake” type discussions, my new met snowplow friend and I decided that we would drive to the place where the trail last crossed a known road and he would wait there to direct the fire truck while I returned to the conflagration.

As I retraced my path back to my beloved, I noted that it should be fairly easy to find the burning sled – in all the vast wilderness, there was only one thick trail of oily black smoke rising into the sky. As I finally arrived at the scene, the fire was still going but it was obvious that it would not remain ablaze for long. The only things remaining intact were the metal parts of the sled – even the thick rubber track that propelled the sled had been consumed. I have never seen Mrs. Whisler looking as dejected as she stood some distance away from the blackened skeleton of the once beloved sled. She tells me that at one point, the flames were rising 30 feet in the air and there were occasional blue flares of flame that explosively blew to the side. By this time, she had withdrawn far away from the blaze.

We can hear the sirens some distance away through the cold air and I try to call the dispatcher on my cell one more time and to my surprise I connect with them. However, this was not a “Can you hear me now?”……“Good!” situation and I soon hung up, defeated.

Not long after this, a party of four fellow snowmobilers comes around the curve and make an emergency stop. After the mandatory, “Everyone ok?” greeting, we all stood looking at the wreck and agree that “We have never seen anything like this!” I ask them if they will continue their ride to the nearest road and see if they can help direct the emergency crews to us. Off they go.

Now that the fire has burned down, it becomes increasingly apparent to Ann and I that we are standing alone in the Wisconsin wilderness on a day where the temperature is near 0º F. It is cold.

Finally, a bright red, 4-Wheel-Drive utility truck comes down the trail and stops. The firefighters exit the truck, grab a small bottle of Halon and squirt out the pitiful few flames remaining. (Tshut, Tshut!...and the fire is out. How anticlimactic) Not soon after that, a police SUV arrives on the scene and we all stand around looking at the carcass discussing how we are going to recover the wreckage and return the trail to a safe sledding condition. They have called the local Polaris Snowmobile store that is responsible for recovering disabled sleds and the owner of that operation arrives soon after with a towing cable. One look at the carcass and he realizes that he is not going to able to attach the cable to the sled as it is now a loose jumble of disconnected and burned parts. We all agree – somewhat repetitively – that ‘We ain’t never seen nuthin’ like this before.”

Off goes the recovery expert and he returns in a bit with a wooden pallet. The firefighters use their heavy firefighter gloves to put the large and small pieces of the hot sled on the pallet and off he goes.

The firefighters rake some of the snow from the woods into the burned and scarred ground that used to be a beautifully groomed trail. We determine that Ann will ride with the police back to Webb Lake and I will ride back to the cabin and get the car. Then I will return to Webb Lake and retrieve my bride. In the meantime, she will fill out the volume of paperwork required by the police in these incidents and pay the snowmobile store for the ‘wrecker’ services.

This is the point where Ann realizes that there is not room in the Police Cruiser in the front seat and she will have to ride back behind the 'chicken wire' in the perp seat.

I end this saga with that scene of bathos and pathos.

I remain,

Dad / Geoff

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Wilderness Survival

Esteemed Readers,

It has been some time since last I wrote. This is because nothing of interest has happened in my life. Because of vacation and scheduling issues, I haven’t been on a trip since mid December and I got to spend the holidays with Ann and the kids.

Recently, a saga occurred that has nothing to do with FedEx or flying. I thought you might enjoy the story.

One element of the American Dream is to own a second home. My brothers’ in law – both of whom are regular readers of my dribbling here – own such a cabin up in NW Wisconsin, near the small sleepy burg of Webster on Ham Lake. This summer the third owner in the cabin expressed an interest in selling their share to Ann and I. As both of us have long coveted this we lunged at the opportunity. It took 6 months to go through the credit nightmares that our present economy has engendered and we signed the loan mid-December.

The land around Webster, WI is a sportsman’s paradise. The land was formed by the retreat of the massive glaciations of 10 thousand years ago. The glaciers scoured out hollows that filled with ice-melt. This resulted in hundreds of lakes for fishing and boating. In between the lakes are rolling low wooded hills also left by the ice. Local businesses and clubs have laid out hundreds of miles of bicycle trails for the summer that become snowmobile trails in the winter. About every 5 miles along this web of trails there is a bed and breakfast or bar and grille making a living off of the trail riders.

Last Friday, Jaybo, (Middle son) and one of his good friends Sean and I drove up there to ride the trails snowmobiling. Jaybo is a Mechanical Engineering student at Iowa State and Sean, his friend is a Physics/Math major at the U of Wisconsin in Madison. We loaded up and started the two hour drive up to the cabin. We soon re-discovered that we all shared a geekish, technological and scientific outlook on life and we had a great time on the drive up discussing various things in a way that would bore most of you to tears.

Maintaining a cabin in the frozen Wisconsin woods during winter requires some engineering pre-planning. At this point, please recall that the weather here in the frozen north lands has been sub 0º F for the last week or so. It is cold. The most important issue is that one cannot just turn off the furnace, lock the doors and leave. The pipes will most assuredly freeze and rupture if one does that and a flooding catastrophe will follow when the cabin temperature rises above freezing. The cabin is heated by a Liquid Propane (LP) supplied furnace. The LP tank sits outside; a regulated safe distance from the abode.

The cabin is fitted with a motion detecting security system with remotes to the security company. It has two features that apply here. First, as you leave the cabin, you can set the furnace to a ‘Energy Saver’ setting that runs the furnace 10 degrees cooler than when the cabin is occupied. Second, when the security system senses a cabin temperature nearing freezing, it will announce to the occupants of the cabin, the security company and the owner supplied phone number that a freezing condition is drawing dangerously near. Keep these facts in the back of your head; they will apply later in the story.

We arrived at the cabin, turned off the security system and the energy saver option and checked the thermostat to ensure operation. The cabin seemed cool, but we thought that was just the energy saver option. We then proceeded to unload the car, don our warm snowmobiling clothing and hit the trails. We left around 2 o’clock in the afternoon, rode until after dark and had a great time. We returned to the cabin, looking forward to a warm environment, a hot shower, hot food and starting a fire in the fireplace.

Little did we know we were about to be cast into a survival situation in the howling winter. The first thing we noticed as we entered the cabin was that it was not only not warm; it was appreciably colder than earlier in the day.

Yes, esteemed reader, we had ‘Furnile Disfunction.’

At this point, I must admit that despite being employed in an occupation that one would think would require considerable technical expertise that I am somewhat challenged by most household maintenance tasks. The genes that confer this expertise skipped over me from my father to my son. It was good that Jaybo was there.

We began trouble shooting the problem. The cabin’s hot water heater is electrical, so we have hot water. On the other hand, the clothes dryer and the furnace are both LP powered. We soon discover that the dryer is not warming and removing the cover from the furnace that the burners are not lighting.

At this point, the obvious thing to check is the LP gas supply. Re-donning our warm clothing, we re-enter the freezing wilderness, trek to the gas tank, break loose the ice surrounding the cover and try to read the gauge. This is where I discovered one needs a flashlight to do this. Back inside. Once back out again, the flashlight reveals a gauge calibrated in Klingon – The needle is pointing straight down - but from the way the scale is printed, the tank is either full or empty. It is a mystery which is the case.

I know…..those of you reading this are applying deductive logic and shouting: “The two gas appliances in the structure are not working. Of course you are looking a gauge reading empty, you freezing doofus!”

Not so fast…we had been assured by the previous owners that the tank had been recently filled. So, we began calling Ann's brothers to find out the name of the local LP gas supplier in the hopes of gaining a deeper understanding of our problem.

I would like insert an aside of fatherly delight: I am very proud of my son’s conduct during this portion of the saga. I remember when he was a wee lad and somewhat shy. He would never have considered taking charge and calling adults in service industries and grilling them like he did this night. It was a pleasure to delegate this to him and watch him operate.

We got the LP gas phone number and called them. Of course, on a Friday night, after dark, there was no answer. There was; however, an emergency voice mail option that we utilized, leaving the cabin number and various cell phone numbers in the vain hope for contact.

Next, we turned to the yellow pages for companies providing emergency furnace repair services. Here we were more successful and had a nice chat with a service professional. He pointed out the obvious conclusion that if the tank is empty the solution is trivial and can only be solved by contact with the LP Company. On the other hand, if the tank is full, then we have a self-help interim solution available to us.

He reasoned thus: LP gas is not refined pure. For economic reasons, there is a measurable quantity of water vapor mixed in with it. There are pressure regulators at the tank that convert the high pressure liquid gas into a low pressure gas that the furnace can burn. Ice crystals from the water vapor can foul the pressure regulating device and cause it to become blocked. Normally, the LP suppliers mix in an anti-icing compound to prevent this problem but sometimes a batch of gas can slip through without it.

So, we fill containers with hot water from the tap and re-enter the howling wilderness to trek to the gas tank. We pour hot water on the regulators, run back inside, remove our snow laden boots, dash down the stairs and recycle the furnace. Low and behold! It sputters to life only to die again. Misery.

We re-don our warm gear and we repeat the hot water exercise. The furnace sputters and then roars into life and begins warming the cabin. Jubilation!

The jubilation was short lived – the furnace burned for a short 15 minute period and then went out. We reapplied the hot water and the furnace dutifully relit and ran another 15 minute period and then died again. Emotional whiplash!

At this point, our trail of logic tells us we have a full tank of non-anti-iced LP gas. Unfreezing the regulator causes the gas to begin flowing and the furnace to light. The furnace then runs through a duty cycle and turns off. The lack of flow of gas to the regulator causes the regulator to refreeze and we have to go out and re-warm it.

By this time, Sean had the fireplace going strongly and we decided that an evening of schlepping hot water out to the regulator every 30 minutes or so was a bad idea. So we let the furnace go back to slumber and we settled down for a long cold evening waiting for the LP supplier to call. We donned several layers of warm clothing, located all the blankets in the house and began to fitfully sleep. It was cold, but it was not freezing cold and I was not yet worried for the water pipes.

At this point, recall what I said earlier about the low temperature alarm. At 0430 in the morning, the security system sensed penetration of a temperature threshold and a verbal pre-recorded alarm began: “Warning! Danger! Cold Temperatures Will Robinson!

We stumbled out of our bedclothes, noted that the cabin was – in fact – very cold and somehow managed to silence the alarm through our cold and sleep addled stupor. The operative question became: “Now what do we do?” We were in fact worried about the pipes now. I briefly considered braving the wilderness carrying warm water to thaw the regulators but when I opened the door it was too cold to face that.

So, we decided to turn on all the taps in the cabin with the notion that flowing water was less likely to freeze and hope for the best. Wrapping up in the blankets yet again, I realized that the supply pipes to the hot water heater were not being exercised, so I got back up, and went around to all the hot water faucets and showers and turned them on a trickle too. That either did the trick or I was just lucky because the pipes did not freeze and the cabin did not flood.

The LP Company called when they opened for weekend business the next morning. They said they would send the truck out in the early afternoon. This occurred around 0900 local. At that point, we were bone chilled and decided to crank up the car and drive to a local grill for breakfast and some hot coffee.

We stayed there an hour or so and had a pleasantly warm breakfast. We returned to the cabin to wait out the arrival of the LP truck. When we got to the cabin door, we discovered a brown envelope hung from the door knob. It contained a receipt for the dispensation of 850 gallons of LP gas totaling over $1000 American and they would be pleased to be paid within 25 days…thank you so much.

A phone call back to the LP Company reveals that the tank had not been filled 'recently'. It had been filled back in Oct and much colder than normal season so far had depleted the tank.

So much for deductive reasoning…..we now know what an empty tank gauge looks like. We also know that the LP supplier understands that gas in frozen Wisconsin requires an anti-ice additive because the furnace started right up and the cabin was pleasantly warm for the remainder of our stay.

As they taught me in Air Force survival training – your most important possession when you are cast into a survival situation is your “Will to Survive!”

Dad / Geoff