Staying Sane (and Happy) at Your Winter BOL, by Mrs. Icebear

Thursday, Feb 14, 2013

I laughed my way through the entertaining and informative (even for me – I had no theoretical knowledge of waxing skis whatsoever, just did “what the other kids did”) recent article on the “exotic Norwegian” cross country skis. So I thought that maybe a couple of other Norwegian experiences might be of interest to survivalblog-readers:

Having lived the first 30 years of my life in Norway and had ample experience with both skiing and offgrid living as a part of everyday life, I have some personal tips on not just surviving offgrid, but actually having a good time even though:
(Before I go on about offgrid living: Nowadays most cabins (“hytter”) in Norway have electricity and outdoors electrically heated bathtubs, but my tips are from a time without electricity and tap water in the cabin.)

To get to our family cabin/Bugout Location (BOL) or “hytte” in winter one has to use skis some kilometers from the car parking (there is only car access in summer). This can, like mentioned in the ski-article last month, be compared to a bug-out situation, although without the psychological stress. The cabin was, by the way, a real life BOL during the occupation of Norway in the 1940ies when my grandma lived there all summer long with two children. There were mountain farms nearby so there was fresh milk available; drinking water had to be fetched in pails from the brook - and the family walked “cross mountain” for a whole day to get hold of the famous sweet and brown goat cheese that is for Norwegians almost like chocolate, for anybody else rather, ahem, challenging to eat… Blueberries and cranberries grew uphill, cloud berries in a bog below the cabin, and fish from the nearby mountain lake made life all in all worth living there.

 Anyway, to get there in winter one still has to carry personal things like clothes, toiletries and first aid essentials in a rucksack and to load a “pulk” or cargo sled with any children or pets, and with necessities like concentrated fruit syrup for juice, mashed,dried potatoes, spaghetti, powdered spaghetti sauce mix, dried onions, rolled oats, powdered or concentrated milk, instant coffee, tea, cocoa and some strong alcohol – just in case. The point is to assume you might be weather locked by snow storms and/or fog for days, and bring enough stuff for everybody (and of course enough pet food) to stay in the “hytte” without buying anything at all for at least two weeks. Nowadays I would include rice and lentils and dried or fresh carrots (assuming you have things like salt, sugar and spice already stored in your BOL). We used to joke about bringing instant water as well, but normally Norway in winter usually has enough clean snow, so that is ok for drinking when properly boiled (remember – at high altitudes water boils at lower temperatures, so I suggest to keep it at a rolling boil for at least five minutes to be sure to kill as many bugs as possible if your BOL is located substantially above sea level.) We melted the snow first in an enormous pot on the woodstove – this was good enough for washing up and so on – but drinking water got properly boiled in a tea kettle.

A word about the weather: There has been cases of otherwise weather-experienced Norwegians dying in a blizzard ten meters from their own cabin because they went to the “outhouse” in a snow storm without a guiding rope and never found the way back. I once experienced fog so thick it literally squeezed into the cabin when doors or windows were opened – in this kind of fog one also better either stays put or uses a rope for any movement outside the cabin. Fog has the strange effect of making distances seem totally different than usual, so even if you are doubly sure of your way, please don´t take any unnecessary risks .
So, a typical arrival at the cabin would be: first of all, get the fire going, then collect snow for melting, then bring in enough wood from under the shed to dry inside, then cook while storing provisions away.

One woodstove in the kitchen running day and night and one fireplace (only burning when guarded) in the living room kept the cabin warm and dry, and since one bedroom was an open “halfloft” under the main room ceiling, just to be reached by a ladder, and the other bedroom opened to the kitchen, both rooms were cozy and warm in almost no time.

Now we come to the part on “good life”: Since this generally was a freely chosen situation, the real challenge was staying entertained if skiing was impossible because of extreme weather. The jobs of cooking, fetching snow, tending the fire, hacking wood, cleaning and shuffling snow to keep walkways free were divided, and then the job was just to keep oneself and everybody else entertained. So, here my tips for staying sane when a group of people are cooped up for some time in one or two rooms: You can never have enough board games, card games, jig saw puzzles and old magazines! Books like fairytale collections, old crime novels (like Agatha Christie or Dorothy Sayers where there always is some kind of happy end), the Chronicles of Narnia books, the Perelandra Trilogy and, for a good morale booster, “The Screwtape Letters” by C.S. Lewis are maybe even useful as read- aloud-material for almost all ages; throw in books on the flora and fauna of the area and an old encyclopedia that take up too much space at home and you have saved everybody´s sanity. A map of the area, (preferably one of the many extra ones you already have in store) and a compass can be used to teach children “how to” in the middle of a storm since the compass works anyway.  Don´t forget knitting wool, fabric and needles  for “grown up” projects – I once read that a female south pole explorer unraveled and re-knitted her own and her team members´ sweaters to avoid going crazy when they were snowed in for weeks.

For kids: a small knife for carving stuff out of wood rests can keep the older ones entertained for hours while they learn useful things; and crayons, paper, scissors, fabric and wool rests guarantee that younger kids can stay entertained while making boats, cars, (paper-) dolls and doll clothes.( A sailboat my father made from wood rests as a child one summer, complete with hand sewn sail and tin foil keel, still decorates the cabin wall). Some Lego or other building toys or some toy farm or zoo animals, maybe made out of fabric or wood rests there and then, can keep kids happy for days. Musical instruments can be fun for kids but might drive everybody else crazy, so they are best used in a closed bedroom. Having your kids happy instead of bored makes an enormous difference in a cramped area! A hand crank charger for mobile phones and USB is a great help to keep games electronics going… Please remember to pack all essential part: After we got electricity in our cabin my husband and I ended up taking our son and his friend for a day trip to the nearest town to hunt for a missing Playstation connection. After a whole day of searching the bigger town shops we found the missing part in the end in a drawer with odds and ends in the local tourist trap shop, and the boys were happy for the rest of the holidays. This taught us to make sure that ALL parts for such things are along, and that kids, even if they feel like they can´t live without something – still can forget to pack essential parts! (And by the way, they also went outside swimming in a nearby mountain brook for hours on end!)

Building snow lamps outdoors for a party evening is by the way a delightful job for children: with some snowballs you build a mini tipi or igloo with an air hole on top, put a burning tea light inside and enjoy the sight in the evening!  Another fun winter game for “staying around the cabin” is a bottle racing track: fill a straight glass or plastic bottle (without paper) with snow and make a racing track in a snow heap for it, complete with tunnels and open parts. Try to make the track long and complicated without stopping the bottle in it´s tracks.

Back to offgrid living: A dart game on one wall can keep everybody entertained for hours, and can give the need for movement a fun outlet if the blizzard shakes your cabin. A propos of blizzard: have your tool shed connected with an inner door to your cabin/ living area – it might happen that you are so snowed in you just get out through a window with the help of a snow shovel.  For very extreme weather, it is a good idea to have a high up window big enough to crawl out through if the snow is above your ground floor windows!  And keep your pet on a leash if you have tons of snow – then you can pull it out of deep, loose snow if necessary! As far as I know there are snow shoes available for dogs as well, and anyway you should have leather snow socks along for your pet since some kinds of hard snow otherwise can scratch paws bloody in little time. Making these would be a good project for a weather locked day.

Things to store in your BOL BEFORE winter or WTSHTF : firewood enough to last all winter, batteries, flash lights, jams, heavy cans of stuff your family likes to eat; all food of course stored in your earth cellar (with access through the kitchen floor!) Assume that mice will keep your house company while you are away, so plan accordingly with packing sugar, oats, tea etc. in glass or metal containers. Forget plastic containers – mice have no problem eating plastic that smells of food – I have dolls with grisly looking mice-eaten lips to prove that. It is also a very good idea to hang all your bedding from sturdy wood cross beams under the ceiling – anything else invites mice to use the nice, soft, warm, fluffy stuff humans have provided for them.

Another important thing to store: woolly house shoes for everybody and to spare! Wet, muddy or snowy boots need their own place for slow drying by the entrance door and have no business whatsoever in the living area. And when you leave the cabin: ALLWAYS store any rubber/ rain boots you leave in your BOL upside down – a hungry but dead mouse that was unable to climb the steep rubber walls out again is NOT NICE to discover in your boots and really sad for the mouse...  The same counts for tea kettles, water buckets and other stuff a mouse cannot climb out of. Speaking of rodents: In Norway we have the original Vikings: the lemmings. These fearless mini-fighters (here are some examples – reminds me of Monty Python´s “come here and I´ll bite you to death”:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_8zVo8IkMQs
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MNW3B-lAodQ )

They usually stay out of human habitations, but they can fall into cisterns and pollute surface water sources. What they don´t like is if you throw graywater, especially hot water where they live, (and they will let you know by cursing your carelessness in loud lemming language if you transgress), so please take care that you throw used water in the same place if possible, so you and the lemmings can stay out of each other´s way.

If you are stuck for longer in your BOL in winter weather – and vegetables are getting low – remember you can eat the shoots of pines and juniper – and these shoots are full of vitamin c – make best use of the vitamin content by eating them fresh. For medical help: Blue juniper berries are a good medicine against bladder infection : steep (maximum) three berries in a cup of hot water for ten minutes or longer for a disinfecting and healing tea, repeat three times daily until well. The blue berries are best since they are ripe – leave the green ones on the bush. For a disinfectant wash you can steep juniper needles or berries in water, for disinfecting the air in your BOL let some juniper needles smoke on the top of your wood stove.

Assuming you are staying for longer in your cold weather BOL: Take care to have a book on plants that grow around your BOL and their medical uses available: A  certain fungus that grows on birch trees is called “kreftkjuke” in Norwegian; “Chaga” in Russian and has traditionally been used as a medicine against cancer as the Norwegian name also shows. If you search for “Chaga mushroom” on the net you will see that it looks very different from a nice, healthy mushroom, but if you find it (and you are sure you have found the right mushroom) you obviously have a fantastic medicine at your disposal! Check the net for “how to” – I have no personal experience and can give no specific advice other than: don´t take all you find, and get the help of a local expert if you can, to learn to find and recognize Chaga.

Oh yes, I almost forgot: take some nylon hose along – the sock part protects against blisters if you wear them under your woolen socks.  Re. skiing: as a child I had to use skis to get to my friends´ homes, so based on that I recommend: ALWAYS put reflective “dangles” or bands on your kid´s clothes in case they ski on or near roads. Children don´t understand the concept that a car driver cannot see what they see themselves. Emergency rockets or walkie talkies for older kids (if reliable) is also definitely a good idea.  Always wear double mittens: a pair of wool mittens underneath and then a thin pair of (woven fabric) wind protection mittens over that to stave off wind chill and save fingers. A kid having fun in the snow can forget tingling fingers a little too long… The same goes for dressing for winter weather generally: silk or wool underneath, more wool and then wind protection on top.
And in the end, a short lesson in world politics and a really fun game in the snow is “King of the Hill”: A gang of children try, like in musical chairs, to be the one that manages to stay on top of a snow heap while the others try to take it´s place.  After having played this with other kids in a situation where one doesn´t get hurt falling off the “peak” a child has learnt to see through this as the childish game it is. Wouldn´t it be nice if some people in power had had the same lesson?


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