The frost covered leaves cracked under her thinly soled shoes, the slight wind whisking away any warmth that her thin shirt provided. The grey sky provided no comfort in the harsh, froze, landscape.
The beginning of a new post apocalyptic novel? No, though it probably would have made an interesting introduction. No this is what happened to me this week when, on the coldest day so far this fall, I managed to lock myself out of the house when I went out to feed and water the chickens at noon.
I had on a pair of rubber soled, non insulated boots, with no socks; an old pair of sweat pants; and an old, and very thin, short sleeved T-shirt. No sweater, no hat, and no mittens. Who knew I would need them for a set of chores that usually takes me less than 5 minutes.
My first reaction was to try to break into the house through the various ground level windows. Unfortunately, we have always made it a habit to keep the first floor windows locked if they are closed. Even when I was able to remove the screen, with much frustration and some swearing, I wasn't able to lift the glass part of any of the windows. Rattling the front and back doors really hard did me no good either, though it may have helped keep me warm.
Being noon, no one was home and even if they had been I couldn't remember PeterC's number at work. I could have walked the 5 km to the hardware store in the village but I would have been even more exposed than I was just sitting in the back yard. Since PeterC wasn't due to be home for more than 3 hours I figured I better find a semi warm, semi-protected area to wait it out. The only place I could think of was under the chicken coop.
Two sides of the under-coop are protected with straw bails, one with glass, and the other is mostly protected from the elements by a plastic car port. The ground is covered with a thick layer of dry straw and there is a light on during the day to give the chickens, and me, an above freezing area to hang out on cold, windy days.
It was uncomfortable, dusty, and not as warm as I had hoped. After an hour I just had to crawl out and stretch my legs a bit. But this point I had stopped shivering and concentrated on trying to start a fire in the fire pit. That turned out to be more difficult than I had hoped.
Usually PeterC has matches and paper stashed near his forge. On this day all I could find was a very thin section of newspaper. Then I remembered that our BBQ has an lighter button on it. I hooked up the gas tank, and pushed the button. Low and Behold we had fire in the BBQ.
Now to get it from the BBQ over to the fire pit, that was 20 feet away. First I used the skimpy selection of paper to make a core, surrounded by dead fall I collected from the fern bed out back. All well and good, until it came time to get the flame to the paper. I would get a stick lit but before i could take 3 steps the breeze would blow it out. After several failed attempts and some singed fingers and arm hair, I did manage to get flame to the paper and I had fire. For the few seconds anyway.
The paper burned so fast that only the driest pieces of deadfall caught fire but the breeze was strong enough to blow them out very quickly. No flame in the fire pit and no more paper to start a fire. Back to square one, I collected some of the really dry straw from under the coop, placed it carefully in the centre of the pit, and tried to restart the flames by blowing on the small embers at the ends of the few sticks that ha burned. With no luck of course.
So back to the BBQ I went for several more aborted efforts to get flame from point A to point B. In the end it was the old dried up stalk from the rhubarb plant that saved the day. Not only was it big and dry, but it was hollow which allowed the fire to stay lit as I threaded the short distance back to the fire pit.
I danced with joy as the straw caught fire and burned merrily. I carefully fed the tiny fire dry sticks, and finally even a largish branch. It all caught fire and even the strongest breeze wasn't able to blow it out. Once there was enough wood to keep the fire burning for a bit I collected a tarp from the pile of firewood, wrapped myself in it leaving the front open, and sat as close the the pit as my chair would allow me to get.
I sat, huddle under the tarp, letting the small fire slowly start to warm up the metal of the fire pit which in turn slowly started to radiate heat into my little personal wind break, for a grand total of 20 minutes. That's right. The entire afternoon was wasted away while I tried to get the fire started, and just as the heat was starting to flow PeterC arrived home from work.
But it was not a wasted effort. I now know that in a winter survival situation I can, given the right materials, start a fire. And fire is the single most important thing you need in the winter to begin the survival process. Thankfully, PeterC wasn't out of town or I would have been in a deeper bit of trouble and the chickens would have had a new roommate for the night.