Camping at Home


November 4, 2017 by Jean

camp kitchenDuring the last week in October, the local meteorologists kept warning us about a big storm that would crash into Maine at the end of the weekend. By the time I went to bed on Sunday night, the storm was imminent, and we were under a high wind warning – meaning that damaging winds were likely. I rushed around outdoors on Saturday and Sunday, taking in all the patio and deck furniture, moving container plants from the front deck into the relative safety of the screened porch, and getting the canopy and screens taken down from the gazebo on the back deck.

During the night, the wind howled and rain came down in torrents. Sometime around 4 a.m. on Monday, I woke up to find the electricity out, but it came back on again a few minutes later. When I woke up again at 5:45 and the power was still on, I thought we had lucked out and were safe. I was lounging in bed, listening to the morning news on NPR when, about 6:30, the power went out again, this time with a loud bang that sounded like a transformer short-circuiting somewhere in the neighborhood.

I naively assumed that the electricity would be back on within a few hours, but by the end of the day, it was clear that wouldn’t be the case. Trees and power lines had come down all over Maine, but especially in southern Maine, where Central Maine Power, the electric company that serves the southern (and most populous) half of the state was reporting 400,000 customers without electricity. The electric company that serves the northern half of the state was reporting an additional 100,000 customers without power in their region. (To put this in context, you need to realize that the entire population of Maine is only 1.3 million people.) In the afternoon, after the rain had stopped and the winds had subsided considerably, I went for a walk through my neighborhood. As soon as I turned the corner from my dirt road onto the paved road, I saw a tree down on the electric lines. Some good Samaritan had cut off and removed the part of the tree blocking the road. The remaining tree trunk was being held at a 45-degree angle by some lines that were still attached. Other lines had snapped and were lying on the ground.

On Monday, CMP was predicting that they would have all power restored in 3-4 days. By Tuesday, they had backed off from that rosy scenario and were saying that they expected to have power restored to “the vast majority” of customers by Saturday night. By Wednesday, they had quietly dropped that promise. This was beginning to look like the ice storm of January 1998, when three days of freezing rain left most Mainers without power, and when I lived without electricity for 10 long days.

In 1998, my saving grace was my woodstove, which kept the house comfortably warm and on which I could do some rudimentary cooking. Each morning, I would heat a pot of water, using some for my morning tea and some to put in my backpacking “shower” (a plastic bag with a shower nozzle attached). I would get into the bathtub, hang the bag of hot water on the shower head, and indulge in a quick shower and shampoo. Those daily hot showers kept me sane. The greatest difficulty for me in 1998 was getting water to heat (and to drink, and to flush the toilet). In my rural town, we all get our water from individual private wells. When the electricity is out, the well pump stops pumping, and you have no running water.

This time my situation is a bit different. In the years after 1998, my neighbor’s late husband installed a big generator that automatically comes on within a few seconds after the power goes out and keeps their whole house running normally. I have been taking advantage of her generator (and her hospitality) to fill containers of water for my own needs from her faucets. My biggest problems this time are heat and cooking. I wasn’t planning to light my woodstove until December, preferring to use the electric heat in the shoulder seasons, and my chimney has not yet been cleaned in preparation for the wood-burning season. (It was scheduled to be done on the day the power went out, but it was too stormy that morning for anyone to be up on a roof cleaning a chimney.) Until the chimney has been cleaned, I am not willing to risk using the woodstove; and, of course, I don’t have electricity for the backup heat. I have never before gone into November in Maine without turning on heat, and the house has gotten nippy! I am coping by wearing many layers of clothing and hoping that the power will be restored soon. When I got up on Thursday morning, the house was so cold that windows had steamed up because it was warmer outdoors. Today (Friday) was another warm day and I opened windows to let warm air in and get the interior temperature back up to about 60F.

For cooking, I have dug out some of my old camping equipment. I have a camp kitchen of sorts set up on the screened porch, with a two-burner Coleman stove and a cooler for food. Happily, I still had a partial can of gas for the stove in the basement. On the second day the power was out, as I realized that my refrigerator and freezer were starting to warm up, I moved most of my frozen food to my neighbor’s chest freezer (blessedly powered by her generator), filled one of the crisper drawers in my refrigerator with two bags of ice, and used a third five-pound bag of ice in my cooler, where I am storing the foods that are most vulnerable to spoiling.

My wonderful neighbor has given me carte blanche to use her house while she is at work, so I often go over there in the morning with my electric kettle and boil water to make a pot of tea for breakfast. My front porch camp kitchen, however, allows me to cook and eat a hot supper each evening.

On Thursday morning, I took a hot shower at my neighbor’s house and logged on to the internet. When I checked the power company’s web site, I was thrilled to discover that they were estimating that we would have power back that evening. Alas, that turned out to be a false hope. On Friday morning, they were giving a restoration time of 10 p.m. that night for our neighborhood; but as I write this, it is 8:45 and there is no sign of the power company working on our downed wires – which means that the 10 p.m. estimate was another pipe dream. After five full days without power, camping at home is quickly wearing thin; let’s hope that the electricity comes back on soon.

11 thoughts on “Camping at Home

  1. JeanR says:

    Your resourcefulness doesn’t surprise me. People in Maine are hardly and handy souls. Bless your neighbor! I keep thinking I need a better plan for power outages. But if they happened in the winter I couldn’t stay at home anyway. So I’d have to check my Red Cross apt to see where to go to a shelter. Four hours is as long as I’ve been able survive the inside house temperature dropping to the low forties. I was in bed the whole time trying to stay warm. I live in an area with underground wires so our outrages rarely last more than four hours. Knock on wood.

    • Jean says:

      Jean, I don’t know how long I would last if the temperature in my house got down to the low forties. I think I would have been sorely tempted to light that woodstove and warm things up. Fortunately, we have been having unseasonably warm weather and the indoor temperature only got down to around 50.

  2. Margie Stankoven says:

    Your email regarding the power outage is fascinating. You’ve thought of a few coping mechanisms that are new to me and very smart. The topic is one of my favorite subjects, probably because I am aware of the problems but remain mainly unprepared while Iook longingly at whole house generator ads. As another country dweller, I experience many of the same challenges that you do, particularly no heat, no means to cook, and no running water. If the power goes out where I live in Northern Indiana it is usually during the colder seasons and I am too much of a coward for outdoor cooking when the weather is cold outside. I worried about this for months and came up with a few ideas for indoor cooking. I started with a small ceramic cooker that has a slot for sterno fuel. That gets hot enough for instant coffe or tea, oatmeal, and other foods that mainly use hot or warmed up water. It’s far better than nothing. This year I discovered butane burners. They can be used indoors or outdoors, where propane cannot be used indoors. My burner came in a carrying case and is about 12 or 14 inches square. The fuel source is a small canister of butane fuel. It’s terrific. It cooks like a regular burner indoors. I love it and can cook a full meal on it, indoors. Mine is by Coleman but there are many choices out there. I got a bargain on Amazon at less than $17.00 but now they are running in the twenty to thiry dollar range. My next purchase will be the Coleman oven. It can sit on a double or single burner and it bakes things. It is also less than $30.00. I look forward to warm muffins after the next power outage. Although, it’s clear that the best adaptation to a power outage is having a next door neighbor like yours. I hope your power is back by now. Thank you so much for your blogs. I enjoy them immensely.

    • Jean says:

      Margie, Thanks for your comment. I had no idea butane stoves could be used indoors. I used to have a butane backpacking stove, which i got rid of when I realized my backpacking days were over. I should check out the possibilities online.

      • Margie Stankoven says:

        I have been watching them on Amazon and the price has not yet dropped for the winter. There are many of them but I have and like the Coleman-bright blue with carrying case. Also the butane canisters come in packages of a dozen. You are not going to want to cook a Thanksgiving dinner for a family on these iittle guys but you can cook about anything you would cook on a stove top. There are a ton of videos on YouTube-just enter butane stove or butane burner and many homemade videos will be offered. If you eventually try this I would love to hear how it goes for you. These are similar to what is used on serving buffets for big events and so on. Is your power back on yet?

  3. Ellie Leight says:

    Jean, I am so sorry you had to go through that, especially the cold. I didn’t even lose power here, just a few blocks down the road. I also have a generator so if this happens again, please come and stay or at least spend a few hours warming up. I have plenty of space. I’ve just gone through a spate of things breaking down left and right. And the previous week a giant maple tree fell right next to the house at 3:00 AM. The top of the tree fell on the bushes next to the big picture window in the living room, just missing the window by inches, though it did bring down the rain gutter. And the trunk broke into 3 sections–quite a big bang. I’m hoping to get back to normal soon after all of the repairmen coming and going. One thing I know about living in Maine is that the old checkbook needs to be ready at all times for all of the fun things Mother Nature brings us. I hope you’re nice and toasty again by now.

    • Jean says:

      Ellie, I’m amazed that you didn’t lose power. When CMP showed 38 customers without power on Empire Rd. and I knew people at my end had power, I figured it was your neighborhood that had been hit. (This assumption was reinforced when I saw the road was closed at the big curve near Clair’s house.) So glad for you that you lucked out this time. I was glad I had taken down two problematic trees in the spring.

  4. Diana Studer says:

    Are you back to normal? I do hope so. We have rain tanks and a woodburner. Also a tiny gas camping stove – can’t live without a supply of tea.

    • Jean says:

      Diana, All is back to normal for me. (Although, more than a week after the storm, there are still several thousand households in Maine who are still without power.) Like you, I can’t live without my tea. I would get the teapot all set up in the morning and then go next door to my neighbor’s house to plug in my electric kettle. When the water came to a boil, I would run home with it and pour it over the tea leaves.

  5. Brenda says:

    That was quite a week, wasn’t it? We are pretty well set up for outages, with a wood stove and propane cook stove. Our biggest concern was two freezers packed to the gills with garden harvest and meat. Fortunately, we have a portable generator from our year in the RV and it kept the freezers going. Even with all that we have, it is difficult to weather several days without power. With likelihood of increased storms, we may be facing more and more long outages. Solar anyone?

    • Jean says:

      Quite a week, indeed! My greatest concern was also losing frozen food; thank goodness for my neighbor’s generator and almost-empty freezer. At least in the ice storm of ’98, I could keep food frozen simply by storing it outdoors.
      CMP is getting quite a bit of grief about the way they handled this. I heard news reports of people who were without power in areas that CMP’s web site said had no outages. I think their psychology for communicating with the public was fundamentally flawed. If you’re going to give people an estimate of when their power will be restored, it should be a conservative one. No one is going to complain if their power comes back on before they expected it.

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I am Jean Potuchek, a professional sociologist who has just stepped into the next phase of my life, retirement, after more than thirty years of college teaching. This blog is about my experience of that new phase of life.

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