The Frog In A Slowly Heating Pot, by N.H.

Do you recall the frog in that joke about how you boil a frog and the answer is by slowly turning up the heat? It’s done that way because he doesn’t notice the heat until it’s too late to jump. Let me tell you the story of how that frog joke relates to me.

The second ice storm hit a few days ago– two days after the first one. The first one was a pretty inconvenience. Schools were closed for the day; we had a day off work; the freezing rain, which coated the branches and power lines, shone like diamond lace in a warming morning sun. People cheerfully went outside to enjoy the wonderful world of ice, sliding gracefully on large patches of ice on the traffic-less roads and taking pictures of the shining canopy of ice hanging delicately in the trees. People took pictures to show those who would not believe the ethereal world we enjoyed that morning. By afternoon, it had melted in the mid-January thaw.

The second storm shrink-wrapped our world in layers and layers of thick, heavy freezing rain. Three inches of ice sat on top of the stop sign on the corner, not the 4×4 post that the sign was attached to but the actual 1/8 of an inch wide sign. This ice destroyed stuff. It tore down power lines and crushed and twisted the towers like cheap beer cans. It ripped foot-thick branches from the biggest trees and bent the smaller ones down into the streets like a bow. It caved in the roofs of garages, sheds, and many older homes that couldn’t take the weight. The roads that were not blocked were worse than skating rinks. Cars, trucks, and vans filled the ditches on both sides. People grimly surveyed their surroundings and took pictures to show the insurance company.

The second ice storm left much of eastern Canada– an area as big as from Chicago to New York and Detroit to Atlanta– sealed, cut off, and vulnerable. Then, it got cold, and people got scared.

We had the hobby farm and were lucky enough to be at it when the second storm hit. We left the city after the first storm, because Sue wanted pictures of the forested hill behind the house, “It will be spectacular– a crystal forest!”

Waking up to our rooster crowing before dawn on the morning after the second storm, I didn’t know what time it was. The clock radio was out.

“The power is off.”

“It’ll come back on soon,” Sue’s voice was muffled by the blankets she was curled-up in. “Is the heat on? It’s cold in here.”

“Nope. The power’s out.”

“Hummpphhh. Can you pass me my socks?”

I was looking out of the window. We had no electrical power. No one did. It was dark outside. There was black, everywhere. No lights at all. It wasn’t that we had no power. It was that there was no power anywhere to be had. I fumbled around for the flashlight, looking in the drawer, the shelf, the closet, stubbing my toe, and finally found it– a lantern-style that cast a pale glow a whole four feet. It was better than nothing.

Under that weak light, I got a fire going. We had the wood stove– a big Vermont Castings Defiant—85,000 BTUs, with a cook-top and a glass door that allowed firelight to brighten the room. A checklist was beginning to form in my mind. We had twenty cords of kindling and firewood, two good axes, a hatchet, and a couple of buck saws. Heat was not a problem. Coffee would be good, though. Water…. Oh, well, guess they’ll be no coffee.

I went to the barn with our two Akitas and slipped and fell on my way there on the ice. I hurt my shoulder but not too bad and made a mental note to spread de-icer and sand on the pathways.

The animals were fine. It was warm in the manger. We had a small herd consisting of cows, pigs, sheep, and horses as well as a flock of chickens and turkeys. I fed our herd but kept them in the barn. I didn’t want them slipping on the ice.

Walking back to the house, I saw the firelight through the windows. It was nice. While spreading de-icer and sand, I worked on the rest of my checklist: a freezer and cold-room full of food, pots and pans, buckets, extra gas and diesel, the generator, the old sleigh and dog-sled to travel, and so on.

I entered the woodshed and could smell that Sue was cooking bacon and eggs. I fed the dogs. They looked at their kibble and then sniffed the bacon, giving me an accusatory look. Sue had the generator going. We had water and some power. Coffee! I was very pleased and said, “Good wife.” She laughed but still threatened me with her paring knife. We were fine; we had nothing to worry about.

The kids bounded downstairs and joined in the fun of adding wood to the fire, cooking on the woodstove, and eating a good breakfast. “It’s like camping,” said our oldest, Morgan. We listened to the solar, dynamo radio and received reports of widespread damage, lots of injuries, roads closed, power lines toppled, no electrical power, phones out, suggestions to wear warm clothing, use candles, crack a window, stay indoors, and so on.

“Dad, how long will this last?” our daughter Sheila asked.

“Shouldn’t be more than a couple of days.”

“Do you really think so? The guy on the radio said the power system was down and destroyed.”

“Well, don’t worry we’ll be okay. We’ve got the wood stove and lots of wood, the generator and lots of fuel, and lots of food. We’ll be fine. It’ll be like in pioneer times, 100 years ago.”

“No Internet?”

“Not for a while.”

We got organized and fell into a routine of bringing in lots of firewood, having hot water and a soup or stew heating on the stove, hauling lots of water (using the dogsled to transport the buckets) to the barn for the animals, and monitoring the generator.

Other chores had to be done as well. We cut down the broken and bent tree branches around the house, barn, and sheds. We cleared the trees from the driveway so we could make it to the road and made minor repairs to the sleigh. (Fortunately, the harnesses were in very good shape.) Morgan and I worked outside all day.

Sue was in the house cooking and cleaning almost all of the time. Our daughter, Sheila, helped, because it was a two person job to prepare the food, cook the food, clean up after the meal, do the laundry, hang the clothes on the line, keep the fire going, and keep the generator going.

On the second day, the temperature dropped. Smoke rose in a single, thin line high into the sky from our chimney. Our neighbours were out checking on the folks nearby and sharing news about what was happening. It seemed everyone in our neighborhood was okay. The neighborhood was full of fairly self-sufficient farmers who were adjusting fairly easily to mid-19th century living.

“It’s rough in the city though,” said Mark, an electrician who lived next door and looked after our farm during the week. “Radio says that many people are suffering from the cold and have no food.” His wife, Karen, said her sister and her family were coming out to stay with them when the roads were safe. Sue said that we were in pretty good shape and, “if you need anything, just holler.” Since the phones were out, we all chuckled at that.

John and Carol from across the road were having trouble with their generator– a Coleman Powermate made in Kearny, Nebraska. It’s a good machine but not made for our weather; it was too cold for it. Mark and I walked over to see what we could do to help out. We managed to figure out a way to keep the generator going and adapted the fuel line to draw from a larger container of fuel so it would run for more than an hour. Mark wired their panel so they could run some things. “The furnace would be good,” shouted a parka-wearing Carol from the kitchen. We all got together that afternoon for an early dinner. We ate chile, homemade bread, and canned pears with fresh whole milk. We listened to the radio and talked about how this situation might become a problem for many who were not prepared.

By the third day we heard vehicles– 4x4s with good clearance and big snow tires– on the road. We carefully drove the five miles into the town near our farm, staring at the vehicles in the ditches that were shrouded in ice. We stopped counting at 20. Stores and gas stations were closed; there was no power. Banks had hand-printed signs in their windows saying they were closed but that a toll-free customer service number was available. In response, someone had taped up their own sign, which read “The ****ing phones are out!!” We parked at the bank and walked around to see what was going on.

People were out walking around, clustering together, anxiously talking about what was happening. Rumours filled the air about how things were in the city. They’d heard that people were hungry and cold, most streets were too dangerous to travel on because of the ice or downed trees; there had been break-ins and some looting; and the cops were out in full force but had extreme difficulty moving around with the roads being impassable. We turned and went back to our vehicle. As we drove out of town, people turned to stare at our truck, amazed and a little jealous that we could move around so easily.

The fourth and fifth days we stayed at the farm, not by choice. We all had to work, all of us, all day long, just to eat, drink, and get the chores done. Living this way was hard work and very tiring. We were all eating a lot. Sue and Sheila could barely keep up. Karen’s sister Wendy had arrived with her husband Peter and family. They had nothing, and since Karen and Mark didn’t have enough food stored away we were feeding them as well. I checked our freezer, cold room, and pantry. Worried, I walked to the barn, got a salt block, and carried it up to the forested hill behind out house, near the cedars and orchard, where the deer came to feed.

The sixth day we went back into town. The ditches were still full of vehicles. The stores were still closed, and the gas stations had signs up that read “NO GAS!!” The pumps were smashed. Morgan said it was a bat or sledgehammer. Sheila said it was a person. Both were right. The bank was closed, but a window had been smashed. It was wide open but still closed, observed Sheila.

Someone ran up to us saying, “Hey, can you drive us to the city?” “A hundred bucks!” they added hopefully. I shook my head and said I didn’t have the fuel. “At least you have a truck.” It sounded like an accusation and a little like a threat, but I thought it was the rueful comment of a cold, tired, and hungry guy. Still though, for some reason, I drove south out of town rather than north, where our farm is. Sheila said, “This is smart, Dad. They won’t know where we live.”

That night, our dogs barked, and it is rare for an Akita to bark unless there is some real reason. I went downstairs, half-asleep. The barking stopped. In the sheer quiet, I woke up. Hearing a growl and a scream, I ran down the stairs, grabbing the hatchet by the woodstove.

Our dogs were standing, fully bristled, out past the woodshed near the driveway. A flat-bed pickup was skewering down our icy laneway, and a guy in the flatbed was holding on for his life.

It took me a moment to realize that I couldn’t hear the generator. I looked around frantically, flipping the outside light switch on out of habit. I saw the generator in the laneway on its side, but it seemed fine. The chain had been cut, and there was some torn denim nearby. The denim had a Levis’ tag on it. It seems one or both dogs bit the guy in the butt as he was making off with our generator! As I laughed, I shrugged this off as a desperate but foolhardy act.

The next day, we had no choice. We needed supplies and had to go into the city. Morgan, Kiko, and I went into the city. We made several stops, buying groceries, camping supplies, fuel, and other items. Heading back out of the city, we went to a Home Depot to buy hand tools. Driving in we noticed a mob out front. A transport truck had delivered generators, and people were buying them right off the truck. As we slowed to park, we could hear a store manager using a loudspeaker and pitifully explaining that the truck brought only 45 generators. Hundreds of people were there, and they became enraged. Two cops were there as a precaution, but they could not stop the mob.

People who bought a generator could not get out of the mob. Desperate men were offering two and three times the retail price to those lucky enough to have bought a generator. Others were threatening those who had a generator. Fights broke out; men fell to the ground, bleeding, limp, and silent. Groups of men engaged each other in a melee. Both cops fell to the ground.

I tried to drive the truck around the mob. A small group of men saw our fully-loaded truck and surrounded us. They carried baseball bats; one had a knife; one had an axe.

While Kiko growled, I could hear my son’s thin voice ask, “Dad, what do we do?”

This is what that frog must feel like. Since the second storm we had had a hard but fairly comfortable lifestyle on our little farm. The small warning signs were not heeded; they were ignored as pitiable acts by a few lunatics. This danger was so immediate and real it shocked me like a touch of frozen iron.

The men wanted our gear and were reaching for it. I yelled to get away from the truck! The clubs rose and fell denting our truck. The man in front lifted his axe. I did not stop the truck. I held my son’s head down and drove my Ram 2500 4×4 with a fender high bush bar right at him. He swung the axe clanging off the bush bar. He was hit and spun to the ground. One guy held onto the box of the truck. I hit the brakes and then spun the wheel while accelerating wildly. We shook him off and got out of Dodge.

Mark, John, Peter, and I talked about this long into the night. Peter, who had had pavement under his feet his whole life, couldn’t believe it. He kept saying, “Civilization is not over!” Mark, John, and I thought differently, and we acted.

The fallen trees made a convenient barricade that had the advantage of being fully camouflaged. From the road, all of our laneways curved up to our homes through stands of hardwoods and cedars. We dragged the broken trees into our lanes, making an effective screen in every sense of the word.

We traveled by foot, skis, dog-sleds, or sleigh over the fields in the waning light of dawn and dusk. Our newly-formed paths could not be seen from the road, but we still had to be careful. We could not do without fires or generators, which caused a major problem– we could be seen from a distance. Our house was the biggest and with the most food and fuel, so we all decided to move into it. It was crowded but more efficient and safer.

We moved the usable supplies from the other places and then checked on them daily. The tree barricades worked, thankfully. No new tracks were in the laneways. We kept watch; someone was always awake and alert. We patrolled day and night with the dogs, baby monitors for communication, and the one shotgun we had. (We kept the rifle in the kitchen.) Canadian gun control laws were no longer seen as a blessing. We took shifts, and even Peter recognized the need for security. Six days after our reorganization, Mark heard trucks coming down the road. The baby monitor crackled a warning, and Sue yelled out to John, Peter, myself, and our boys. We all grabbed our gear and went to the barricade.

Sounds travel a long way when it is so quiet and so cold. We waited and listened to the trucks approaching. We heard them slow down as they passed Mark and Karen’s and then again at John and Carol’s. They stopped at our laneway. There was silence for a moment, and then we heard a guy yell, “I’m telling you, this is the place! I saw him in town a few days ago in his truck.” The trucks proceeded up the laneway.

They pulled apart our barricade.

Peter whispered, “Maybe they just want supplies.”

“Maybe,” said Mark.

The trucks came up the laneway. We had chopped two troughs in the laneway. Into each trough we placed a long log sawn in half lengthwise. The log ran from treeline to treeline. We poured water along the logs’ sides to freeze them into place. We placed the vertical sides facing each other with the round sides facing up and down the laneway. To get in or out, we could simply place another log, sawn in half lengthwise, beside these anchored logs, and the vehicle could drive over the wooden speed bump.

However, with the logs so placed, we created a space just long enough for a truck to get stuck between the 8” high vertical sides of these wooden curbs; the stuck truck couldn’t get up enough momentum on the icy surface to jump over the curb.

The first truck got stuck between the logs. Eight men poured from the trucks. I yelled out,

“You guys make fine targets.” They looked around but couldn’t see us for the trees.

The leader yelled back, “We don’t want any trouble. We need food.”

Mark looked at me, warning me. “We shot a deer yesterday. We’ll give you some meat. Get in your trucks and back down the laneway. Wait by the road. We’ll put it and your stuck truck by the hole you cleared out for us in those trees back there.”

“How will you get it out?”

Mark whispered, “They’re not so concerned about the food now!”

“You don’t need to worry about that. Just get in your trucks and get going.”

“You can’t stop us all.”

“No, but we can stop you. And you with the red hat. And you with the blue scarf. And the dogs will get you in the long coat.”

They left, grumbling. We put the venison in the truck and drove it down to the barricade. Mark was riding shotgun. The men were waiting by the road.

“Send one man up to get the truck.”

A small guy–the man who wanted a ride to the city–came up the lane. We melted into the trees. Looking around fearfully, he quickly jumped in the truck and drove away. They all left heading back towards town.

The next day– 13 days after the second storm– we heard several very large trucks coming down the road. We manned our hastily rebuilt barricade and saw a huge five ton monster of a truck coming up the laneway.

At the barricade, a burly young man, dressed all in white, got out of the truck and yelled, “Captain, should we pull this apart or cut through it? It looks man-made.” He turned towards the barricade. I saw the Maple Leaf on his shoulder. The army was here checking on us to make sure we were safe.

One Comment

  1. The “frog” story makes an excellent point. Often personal emergencies are not sudden and obvious. Sometimes they are, but many times they creep up on us. There may not be a single bad decision that leads to a situation becoming an emergency. It can be a series of events and reactions based on normalcy bias, or “it isn’t that bad yet” thinking. Modern society tries to train us not to “over react” and trust that things will get better, somehow.

    Just as in wilderness survival training, the number one rule is when you are no longer able to stick to your normal plan: STOP AND THINK! Don’t keep on trucking and ignore the unusual circumstance. If something has happened to upset your normal activity then pause and consider worst case scenarios and preventive or mitigating actions you can take now, and what will be an indicator you should escalate to more mitigation.

    We recently had a sudden and explosive fire in the Portland area (Eagle Creek) and 150 hikers became trapped between it and the Indian Creek fire (uncontrolled as well) 3 miles away. It was the calm and decisive action of an Air Force medic in the group that probably saved the entire group. At the very first report of a fire back on the trail, he immediately had everyone stay together, count off, help each other, and combine resources. It took 24 hours to get 150 people 14 miles to safety but they all made it. Some were wearing just swimsuits and flip flops for the waterfall pool swim. Without that clear thinking how many hikers would have continued on thinking it could not be that bad and ended up trapped?

    Anyway, this is a good article and reminder to pay attention to every event during a disaster and reassess your circumstances and options early as possible.

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