Getting Ready for Winter

Snowy Cabin

Winter cabin with the snowshoeing gear out

We were reading a great article this morning about how the people in northern Norway deal with the coming of Polar Night, those months of the year when the sun doesn’t rise and the darkness is absolute for 24 hours a day: The Norwegian Secret to Enjoying a Long Winter. I was thinking back to the weeks I spent on a sailing ship in the Arctic two summers ago, and how even the 24-hour daylight took such adjusting to…let alone the dark winters. Where we are at the farm, we don’t get Polar Night, but we do get the long, dark months where the sun is really only up for six hours, and "up" is kind of a euphemism. So this article got me thinking about how we prepare for the coming dark and cold!

It’s that time on the farm, and there’s no denying it. We’ve been incredibly lucky with the fall weather this year, and the forecasters say it’ll be a dry El Nino winter, but we’re battening down the hatches nonetheless. Winter in the North Country is seriously no joke.

We’re blessed where we live with the bright, blue-sky days of northern Alberta throughout the winter, but we’re also prone to deep snow (up to four or five feet some years) and cold temperatures. Most winters, we can guarantee we’ll see a couple of weeks of -30 Celsius, but with the windchill caused by the northwest winter winds, we often drop as low as -40 or -50 Celsius. At that point, any exposed skin freezes in under ten minutes, so it’s definitely all about staying safe and keeping things cozy. We love getting outdoors all through the winter; we do our tracking then to see where the deer and moose are bedding down on the quarter, and we do our major clearing for new fields and firewood when the underbrush is covered with snow and we can get out on our trappers’ rackets (gut-strung snowshoes).

Here’s our to-do list on the farm this November as we get ready for the deep cold. Some of these things are done, and some are halfway there…note to self to pick up the pace before the deep snow flies!

1) Change the tires. Yes, we live in a place where, if you haven’t got snow tires on your vehicle, you’re not going anywhere (safely) for seven months of the year. Jimmy those all-seasons off and get the heavy-duty rubber on!

2) Stack firewood. We have a catalytic converter woodstove, meaning it burns fuel twice: once, the wood itself, and the second time, gas that’s released by the wood. It gives an awesome, clean burn. Yup, it cost us more, and we really had to save up for our Moreso, but it’s the pride and joy of our cabin. It heats our tiny home right through the cold months on not as much wood as you’d think. We go through a couple of cords, and it’s all the better if we can stack a softer hardwood like birch. Spruce just gums up the chimney with creosote, and tamarack burns fast and hot (though we love it for kindling). So birch it is, and as much of it as the two of us can drop, split, stack, and store.

3) Cover the bees. No beehive can be left exposed in our climate, or the bees would never make it through the winter. Our hives are covered in insulated black plastic jackets with vents to allow the moisture to escape. The hives are shimmed up on their bases just slightly so the moisture runs forward and out — our bees’ worst enemy is not the cold, but the damp. Last of all, we put on insulated tops for the hives to keep as much heat in the boxes as possible. With the proper insulation, the bees will keep their queen at between 33 and 35 degrees Celsius all through our long winter, which is truly amazing!

4) Clean up the tools. My granddad worked as a gardener in England, and this is one rule he passed down to us that has definitely stuck. Every autumn, the tools get checked, mended, and cleaned before they’re put away in the shed until the spring. The chainsaw gets a good sharpen or a new chain before winter cutting time, and the snow shovels are brought out of the grain silo because our winter workout is soon going to kick into high gear. Everything has to be ready for the cold days.

5) Take down the greenhouse. We don’t yet have a permanent greenhouse because they’re darn expensive…plus we get a really heavy snow load at the farm through the winter. It would be amazing to have that growing space in the early warm days of April, but we usually still get a couple of blizzards after that, and the thought of clambering around on a glass or polycarb roof to get the snow off isn’t greatly appealing. So we have our home-constructed greenhouse, adapted from a Costco carport and some transparent utility tarps, with wooden end pieces and vents. It works like a charm, grows all our tomatoes, peppers, and tender herbs, and stays up for seven months of the year. We take it down for the snowy months; that’s a half-hour task.

6) Process the harvest. This is something we try to have done by the end of October. Canning! Drying! Freezing! Everything edible from our garden and the wild woods around us is harvested, washed, and processed into something that’ll feed us through the winter months. We buy flour, baking soda, butter, salt, and tea, and we try to live off our stores right through to the spring. It’s a challenge, especially as the harvest and processing time always coincide with us both going back to teaching, but the food tastes great. Knowing it was grown fifty feet away from the cabin is a huge boost, too.

7) Make light. We keep bees, and our cabin is a long, long way from the nearest power pole. We don’t particularly want to be hooked up to the rural power grid anyway, and so we’ve added those things together and started making beeswax candles for our cabin. It’s a small space, and it doesn’t need too many tapers to be bright and welcoming through the nights. It’s also a wonderful way of bringing the day to a natural close: when the light goes down, we turn off any electronics and light the candles, and the night becomes a time to wind down into sleep.

8) Plant garlic. In our climate, spring-planted garlic never amounts to much before the fall frosts set in, so we plant our garlic in October. We keep medium-sized clean cloves broken from the current year’s bulb harvest to plant out for the following year’s crop. The cloves are planted deep into a freshly turned bed and mulched with plenty of leaves. Then we top the bed with offcuts of wood to hold the leaves down against the fall winds. Come April and May, we’ll rake those leaves back and feed the bed with organic kelp; the green garlic shoots are a welcome sight to our bleary winter eyes. We plant daffodil bulbs this time of year, too (October/November), buried half in peat, half in soil around the farm gate. They’re late but lovely in our northern climate, blooming when the peonies do, in June.

9) Mulch the garden. Anything perennial in the garden gets a topping of leaves against the windchill of the cold months. The asparagus bed is buried deep, the roses have their feet tucked into piles of poplar leaves, and the grapes are smothered with anything we think will keep them warm enough to get them through. Even though we plant hardy varieties, it can be hit and miss some years if the deep cold stays too long, or if the spring is particularly wet.

10) Stockpile books! Winter is the season of long nights. The sun rises among the spruce trees of our little hollow about 11:30 am in midwinter and sets just after 3:30 pm; it traces a low arc across the horizon and doesn’t produce much heat or light. One of our greatest pleasures is to sit and read through the long nights — especially when we’re plotting and planning the coming year’s projects and crop rotations for the farm.

What are your winter rituals, friends? What do you turn your hands to as the light goes out of the days?

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