Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Winter/Spring on the Colville 2013


In looking back over past posts, I realize that I post a lot about when I leave home on the Colville, instead of life here.  This is supposed to be mostly about life here on the Colville homestead. So this post will be a summary of winter conditions that make up our life here on the homestead. 

FIVE things define winter in the Arctic here on the Colville:


The sun sets for the last time approximately November 24 of each year.  It has been decreasing in height above the horizon and later the time above the horizon since the “longest day” of the year on June 21st.  Although we do have twilight during several hours of mid-day as the sun approaches the horizon from the underside, most of the 24-hour day is dark. Of course, this period of a little light wans to the very darkest day of mid-winter and grows again as we get closer to the first sunrise on January 18th of the new year.  This lack of sunlight and long periods of darkness does affect our lives. winter twilight


Probably the predominate effect on us is less physical energy. Lack of daylight requires us to need more sleep.  A house full of electric lights lessens the decreased energy problem, but it still exists. We’ve learned to live with it – just get more sleep.

If you are interested in a detailed graph of the sun ‘s movements as we see it from our home, here is the link to a graph I created for our family web site: http://goldenplover.org/user/Colville_Village_Sun_Chart.pdf


Outside is white with snow, and abundant winds cause blowing snow to build drifts around buildings until we are surrounded and covered in blankets of white.  By the time spring thaw commences, we can have snowdrifts over 15 feet high around our buildings. We live in a land of strong winds which beat the drifting snow into rock hard mounds. We often have to dig out windows on the lower floor to see out and let light in.  We cut steps in the hard-packed snow to climb up and over drifts from one building to another, such as when walking between the main house and generator building. Jim is shoveling out the Powerhouse door.

Snowdrifts between buildings

house ground-level yard, grass15 foot snowdrift










Here are two pictures near the same spot summer and late winter to show how deep the snow drifts get.


Although we do have days with blue skies and calm winds, fog or blowing snow and overcast skies produce many winter days of “white-out” conditions. This is when ground and sky blend together in all white, obscuring all shadows that allow a person to have depth perception.  You can try walking or driving a vehicle, like a skidoo, and not be able to see a thing!  It is like being blind in white, instead of all dark. You can step over a drop-off on a drift of snow, or suddenly bump into a wall of snow, never being able to see either.  When I have needed to get between buildings in such conditions, sometimes I’ve had to crawl, carefully feeling my way along.

Outdoors is this world of unending WHITE!  Few breaks in this ground whiteness exist in winter other then buildings or structures added by man, such as our buildings or recent petroleum industry facilities. Below is our house after a storm and the second picture is snow drifts out my kitchen window – snow that is mostly over 6 feet deep.The snow at the bottom of the picture is just out the window on our deck and is over 5 feet deep.

house in white worldsnow out kitchen window 


Winter brings our coldest weather.   Temperatures in the minus Fahrenheit are most common, with –68 degrees the lowest ambient, and –105 degrees the coldest windchill.  Winter temperatures are almost always below zero.  Outdoor chores must continue regardless of conditions, and travel continues in all but the most severe conditions. Teena in parka


We dress for it!  Parkas with fur ruffs, mittens, mukluks (or “bunny” boots), etc.  We travel with survival gear and backup communication procedures. Life goes on.





We heat our house with wood.  Keeping the hungry stove supplied with wood is a major job, involving acquiring the wood year-round, cutting/chopping wood into stove length pieces, carrying it into the house, and maintenance of the stove and chimney system.  Of course, the cold of winter multiplies these chores many times over.wood chores #3




wood choreswood chores#2

Wood is collected and hauled home by snowmachine and sled.  It is cut, split and stacked, ready for use. For many years we had only drift willow that was deposited along the shorelines to dig out and bring home, but now-a-days it is gathered from industrial sites where it is scrap dunnage. It needs procured and hauled home.


Another chore that is greatly magnified in winter involves filling our indoor water tanks with water that is obtained from our nearby fresh water lake.  In summer, this is a chore that is greatly simplified by open water, hoses, and a water pump.  But during winter, when our water source is frozen solid, the chore becomes markedly more arduous.  A hole must be cut through the ice down to water with an ice chisel – by hand.  Five-gallon buckets (repurposed five gallon gas cans, in the old days) are used to dip and carry water - by hand – from the hole in the lake to the tank in the house.  Sometimes a sled is used to help move the buckets. It is hard work! Sometimes we have to carry ice chopped from the lake, and melt it inside, for our water. [See my post on “Water Day” earlier in blog for 5-29-2011]

One more chore that winter makes more complicated is moving 55 gallon drums of fuel.  Our electric generator burns diesel.  Much of our fuel is stored in 55-gallon drums away from the generator house and the adjacent  bulk tank that supplies the gen-set.  That tank needs refilled several times a winter, and big drifts of snow around the buildings in winter make it impossible to easily move those heavy fuel drums up to the big tank for refilling. It must be done with a snow-machine pulling a freight sled, and brute human strength, a few drums at a time. [We do not have heavy equipment for keeping snow cleared away from buildings and roadways in winter in order to facilitate moving heavy things, or other logistics.  We have to manage in other ways.]


There is so much natural beauty to winter in the Arctic, despite its logistics hardships.  The Aurora Borealis is undoubtedly the most impressive example of this.  Although the northern lights are shining year-round, during the darker days of winter is when we get the show.  (We can’t see them during our increased daylight seasons.) The colors, movement, and amazing expanse of sky filled with dancing lights is breathtaking.  It is never the same, and always awe inspiring.  Jim has incredible pictures of the Aurora Borealis as seen from our home regularly on clear nights:

Aurora & house#2Aurora out of space


Another winter phenomena is the bright moon reflecting on the great expanses of snow. You can even read by the moonlight it is so bright.  Yet another atmospheric phenomenon we see in our cold air conditions is ice crystals forming beautiful halos, parhelia (moon & sundogs) and other rainbow-like arc patterns around the moon and sun. These are unique to cold climates where ice crystals can form.

moon & aurora

  Moon, Stars, and Aurora over house.

Upper tangent arc,parhelic circle,parhelian, 22 degree halo, infralateral arc








              Upper tangent arc, parhelic circle, parhelian, 22 degree halo.

halo, upper tangent arc


The snow itself is capable of great beauty.  Wind whips it around into astounding waves and patterns, often called sastrugi.  Sometimes the snow sparkles like fields of millions of diamonds, and when ice crystals fall from the sky on partly sunny days, individual flakes lie on the white ground like scatterings of intricate lace, every flake distinguishable, unique, and beautiful.

Carved snowdriftsSastrugi snow-drifts by Helmericks house on Colvillesastrugi by Jim

Carved snow-drifts can be very beautiful, although very difficult to navigate.  Imagine driving a snow-machine through rough terrain like this that is cement hard.








Probably the most unusual atmospheric phenomenon we get to experience is incredible mirages. Without getting too technical, mirages are images of real objects that have been displaced by light being bent due to thermal gradients.  The object, which may be totally out of view under normal air conditions can suddenly appear in the distance in front of you. Made by reflected light from the real object, the mirage is a mirror image, or inverted. Sometimes there are multiple layers of the image, alternating between erect and inverted, but stacked directly above the real object (even below the real object occasionally). These optical phenomenon can cause what looks like entire cities to appear on the horizon – such as when we look toward oil company infrastructure centers, a  mirage can raise towers of  lights (in dark hours), or strange images in daylight, of unbelievable structures in the sky. Rows and rows of lights/objects that are really reflecting small, distant objects unseen under normal conditions.mirage










light beams

“Light Towers” are other such refracted light phenomenon due to ice crystals in cold air.  These are amazing columns of light that rise high into the sky above real ground lights.


I have tried to give you a little insight into winter life on the Colville.  One of these days I’ll give a summary of summer.

All for now.


I have included photos here taken by both Jim and me.  For more amazing Arctic photography by Jim, go to his photography website: http://goldenplover.zenfolio.com/