Ice patches and Inverters – Dec 07

It’s been a week of close calls and minor disasters here in our beautiful little corner of the universe. Just as we thought the learning curve was beginning to flatten out.
Since moving to the ranch nearly two incident-strewn years ago, we have struggled through floods, fought off erosion, cowered under the debris of forest fires and duelled with loved-up stallions.
Meanwhile we have done our level best to set up a small, sustainable business showing off the best of our wilderness and its magnificent bears to travellers looking for something just a little special.
As the grizzly-viewing season came to an end and the last car retreated down our driveway six weeks ago, we perhaps allowed ourselves just a tiny modicum of self-congratulation.
The guests had all come and left happy, we had gone yet another year without the bank foreclosing on our beautiful little property and we were even fairly well prepared for the winter.
By mid-November when the first serious snow began to fall we had chopped, sorted, shifted and laid in our firewood. A not exactly gleaming but nevertheless serviceable snow plough sat in our yard.
All the cabins had been winterized and the summer machinery put away.
We had even planned out, and partially paid for, a three-week trip to Europe – our first together back to the Old Country (well, Old Countries, I suppose) since we left two and a half years ago.
Even our winter was mapped out. The offer extended by Alaska University to teach at their journalism faculty last year, had been renewed and accepted.
For several days we took things easy. We watched movies – a rare treat. We read old copies of the Economist and the New Yorker we had received way back during the busy summer.
We even took our two querulous dogs for long walks in the snow each day, a real luxury and something we would never have dreamed of doing during busier times.
We commented to each other on the beautiful Christmassy scenery. It all seemed so pretty, so easy, so nice. Life was perfect, perhaps a little too perfect. Then, as if on cue, everything went haywire.
It started when I plugged our Land Cruiser’s engine heater (in Canada they have such weird and wonderful devices to stop automotive freezing in extreme sub-zero temperatures) into the main generator.
In the house, as Kristin watched startled, the lights burned bright, far too bright, for a fraction of a second and then our entire convoluted electrical system gave up the ghost.
The calm was now officially over. For an hour I frantically investigated with a spanner in one hand and a voltmeter in the other.
I checked the generator fuses, the main panel, the subpanel and the batteries, but all were fine. By now the long and early hours of winter darkness were fast approaching.
As I mentally ticked off all the different components, a horrible thought dawned on me. I hadn’t, I couldn’t have, blown the inverter – the most expensive and precious part of our electrical system that we had bought only last year at huge expense.
I tested it. I held my breath. It was as dead as a dodo. Now under the gun, and with no power running to the house I carefully unwired the proud but inert piece of machinery.
In its place I wired in the old inverter we had removed last year. True, with this old dinosaur, it would take 10 or 11 hours to recharge our batteries, not four, but at least we would have light and water.
“That was quick,” Kristin said as the lights flickered back to life. I allowed myself a tiny masculine swagger – it’s not every day you get praise from an Estonian, even is she is your wife.
And then, like a series of mini IEDs controlled by some malevolent roadside gnome, our prized electrical appliances began to blow. First the wireless phone went up in smoke. Then the computer router.
As we watched incredulous the satellite television died. I rushed to measure the voltage coming through the plugs. 150 volts! This where a modest 120 should have been. Ahhhh! No wonder the electric mayhem.
When we finally sat down to count the cost we had lost four major appliances – including the brain for Kristin’s shiny exercise bike. Among other things it controlled the level of stamina resistance.
Putting a brave face on the setback, Kristin sat on the stationary bike and gallantly pedalled regardless as if to say: “Don’t worry, darling, I know we live in the bush, I can do without the electrics.”
But as her legs spun ever faster and more erratically even she was finally forced to admit that an exercise bike without a brain was no exercise bike.
Heroic measures were now called for. After some searching I found a renewable energy whizz who could sell me a new inverter. It would cost – such machines are not cheap – but we were firmly over a barrel.
The only snag was that his location, Kelowna, was five hours drive away along mountain roads that had just been given a heavy dousing of snow and freezing rain. And the whizz was leaving for the coast in 36 hours.
Next morning early I departed at dawn leaving a worried looking Kristin on the doorstep. The first section of the road – fairly flat – was, well, bad. More like an ice rink than a highway.
When I reached the mountainous section, a single-lane gravel track 20 miles long, with a drop of several hundred feet into a lake on one side, things just got worse.
It was so slippery that at times all four wheels, each adorned with an expensive new winter tyre, spun crazily.
Then, with a wave of relief, I came across another car. The fact that this ordeal was being shared by a second human being somehow brought immense comfort.
There was also a cunning tactical element to my joy. “I’ll just follow him,” I thought slyly. “If he falls into the lake, I’ll know not to proceed and I’ll turn back.”
But my new-found comrade-of-the-highways, replete with a dog as travelling companion, was showing little inclination to move. So, as I pulled alongside, I beckoned for him to wind down his window.
“Are you ok?” I asked. “Just fine,” answered the man, a local as it turned out, probably in his early fifties.
“Been here long?,” I ventured. “Three or four hours,” came the reply. Still, maddeningly, no clue as to his motives.
“Well, what are you waiting for?” I finally demanded to know.
“On this ice,” he said looking at me as if I was a fool. “I’m waiting for someone else to go first.”
So over the mountain we went. Me first. Then him.
At the top of each small slope I selected first gear, four-wheel drive, low ratio. Then I would feel my heart thump through my chest as I slid down the hill with as much control as a spider heading inexorably for the drain.
Each time, as I made it down unscathed, my new friend cautiously followed. My very own plan served up to me with a brazenness that was enfuriating.
I made it to Kelowna and back. I installed the new inverter, replaced the router and fixed the TV. The exercise bike still stands neglected in the corner, but Kristin doesn’t really seem to care.
Outside the snow is falling, the dogs are barking at the shadows and in an hour or so Sunny, our much-loved musical neighbour is coming round for dinner.
As always, the conversation will be earthy in nature, practical in application and, over a bottle of wine or two, the three of us will each tell our own stories of wilderness hardship.
Infused with Dutch courage, we will laugh off the precariousness of our existence in this gorgeous and sometimes immensely inhospitable valley and toast the Gods of Fortune that have kept us here for another year.