We’ve had some rough nights lately. As Texas writer Leon Hale would say, it’s been cold without mercy. On one occasion, twenty-four below and windy.

The other day I saw two guys in the TOPS grocery store parking lot leaning on a pickup, talking. They had on windbreakers and gimme caps. No gloves. A front was blowing in on a strong wind. Across the street, the bank’s big thermometer read two above. About a quarter of an hour later, when I came out of the store, it said one below. The guys in the parking lot were still there talking. Must have been an interesting subject.

So I’m feeling like an outsider, rather than the proud naturalized Adirondacker that I am. Learning to be at home up here is kind of like taking up the piano in middle age.

I have, however, made progress on one winter-weather matter—the intricacies of heating the monastery. On New Year’s Eve, we observed the sixteenth anniversary of our dazzlingly impetuous decision to buy the place, so I’m a little embarrassed to be only now coming to terms with this. But I guess it was to be expected; this is the first time we’ve been here right through the cold weather without a break.

Autumn was a pleasant interlude of easy North Country living. I kept the four thermostats set on fifty-two. That was a little chilly, but it saved money on the fuel-oil bill, and wearing sweaters and wool pants and sometimes a stocking cap was not a hardship. Anyway, it made the cast-iron stove in my study all the more enjoyable. Then, in a regrettable and unexpected irony, when it started to get cold last week, that was the end of cool house and cheerful wood fire. Here’s how that worked.

Thermostats have to be located at some distance from heat sources (radiators in our case) in order to register a reading of the whole room’s temperature. Learning that was Lesson One in my North Country heating-system education.

Lesson Two was that if it’s fifty-two inside a room and minus twenty outside, pipes in exterior walls will probably freeze and burst. So like it or not, when it’s as cold as it has been lately, the house must be kept significantly warmer than fifty-two.

That’s not all, either. Thermostats control the flow of hot water from the boiler to the radiators. Then, on each one a regulator controls the rate at which water flows through the radiator, and that determines how much heat it throws off. Now, there are a lot of radiators in the house, and keeping all of them set so that they make exactly the desired amount of heat would require a full-time staff. We don’t have one of those. And if the flow rate is too slow during extreme cold, the water can freeze and cause major damage. It’s happened twice.

The best story involves a room the nuns had used as a sacristy and confessional. We converted it to a sitting room. Like many actions during our time in the house, it’s not clear why we did that. We did not need another sitting room. Certainly not one that was very difficult to heat, which that one was. It was an enclosed porch that rested over a high crawl space full of Arctic air.

The radiator froze and burst at about my bedtime one evening and ran all night, spewing several hundred gallons of hot water, much of which turned into steam. When I spotted the leak early on a Sunday morning, the room looked like one you’d see at a gym with a bunch of guys sitting around in towels. The slate floor was covered with water, but not a drop ran into the house and onto the newly refinished maple floors.

The floor around the radiator was slanted toward a sacristy sink that we’d kept as a memento. All the water ran out through a space around the sink’s drain pipe, which had been poorly installed. (The nuns had promised to keep us and our stewardship of the house in their prayers.)

Back to the unexpected irony. When thermostats are set high enough to keep pipes in exterior walls from succumbing to subzero weather, the radiator in my study gets all excited about being called into action and makes the room too warm to use the wood burning stove. As of this writing, I’m still trying to get control of it, but I’m not making much progress.

The five open fireplaces are also best used when the outside temperature is relatively warm.

Fireplaces are definitively inefficient; much of the heat made by a fire goes up the chimney. Even I knew that. An open fire is more about creating ambience than warmth. But this winter, as we’ve used the fireplaces more, we’ve learned that there is more to the story.

If it’s zero outside, and we go to bed with the fire across the room creating a cheerful glow, the warm air created by the oil-burning boilers gets sucked right up the chimney. That raises substantially the cost of having an open fire, and this cost continues until the fire is completely out. Until that happens, the damper must remain open to keep from smoking up the house. After I’d looked at a few oil bills, heating the outdoors seemed a little extravagant, no matter how pleasant the crackling wood fire was.

So we adapted. Now on the coldest days, we do without wood fires and turn up the thermostats and enjoy the enveloping warmth and try not to think about how much it costs. Then on the relatively warm days—there are some now and then when the temperature gets up into the thirties—we turn the thermostats back down and light a cheerful fire. Surprise; doing that involved more than we expected.

I don’t know exactly how long it takes to change the monastery temperature appreciably, but it’s more than I had thought before this winter. As a consequence, some of the time I used to spend reading and thinking about non-weather matters is now given to studying weather forecasts. (Want to know what tightly packed isobars are about? Call me.)

If it’s going to drop twenty or thirty degrees on Tuesday, the thermostats have to be adjusted on Monday morning. I turn them up a few degrees, and go to the boiler room. I can hear the boiler chugging away as I approach. The lights on the computerized control indicate that hot water is about to make its appointed rounds. That’s all to the good. But with so much water and so many radiators, it’s like waiting for the world’s biggest kettle to boil and the world’s largest serving of tea to steep.

 * * *

Last summer a skinny little tabby cat took up residence on the back porch. She had a collar, so we assumed she belonged to a neighbor. But when we’d give her a bite to eat now and then, she would fall on it like it was the only food she was getting.

When granddaughters Talia and Lucy came for a visit, the weather was rainy, so we brought the hammock in from the yard and set it up on the porch. Stray kitty was most appreciative. She stretched out on it with the girls and snoozed in peace for several days. Ann explained to the girls that this honeyed interlude was but a summer romance; stray kitty would be back with her rightful owners the next time they came up from Austin.

They were here only a week, but by the end of that time, slight and charming stray kitty—by then Audrey Hepburn by name—was spending the night on the hammock and waiting by her empty bowl when we’d go out in the morning.

Against our better judgment, Ann and I continued to feed Audrey after the girls left. But it was going to be cold pretty soon, and what would we do then? We have an indoor cat, Baby Kitty, who is twelve years into total dominance of our family life. She is ill-tempered and eccentric in all situations other than when sleeping with Ann and me. If the doorbell rings, or someone comes into the house, she dives under the covers of the nearest bed. On one occasion, she burrowed under the fitted sheet of the bed where Ann and I were sleeping. When approached by a child, she goes into full attack mode, hissing and screeching. She seemed unlikely to welcome winsome little Audrey Hepburn into the house.

We tried to find where Audrey had come from so  we could return her. We tried to give her away. We thought about taking her to the animal shelter, but since she was an adult, her chances of ever leaving there were too slight for us to accept. So we just kept feeding her and trying to come up with a plan before the weather got cold. Things came to a head around the time of the first frost.

When I’d go out in the morning, I’d find Audrey’s dry food scattered around the porch, and sometimes her water bowl was turned over. I assumed it was the work of raccoons, but I was wrong. When I saw the first freeloader, I didn’t know what it was, but it was not a raccoon. It wasn’t at all shy, so I bent down and took some close-ups.

A little time with Google let me know how lucky I’d been in this little tête a tête. It was a skunk. I know what skunks look like, but this was no ordinary skunk. This one had reverse markings—white where most skunks are black and visa versa. Remarkably, it didn’t spray me when I went out to get acquainted. A couple of weeks later, Ann’s brother Paul encountered another one, this one the common kind. He didn’t get sprayed either. Perhaps they were expressing their gratitude for their lashings of Iams, no doubt an improvement over the grubs skunks usually make do with.

Finally, hoping for a happy outcome, unlikely as that was, we took Audrey to the vet for shots and spaying and brought her inside. Maybe Baby Kitty would get used to her, just like we’d accepted the impracticality of having wood fires when the weather is especially cold. Baby Kitty turned out to be less flexible than we are.

We went through a period of putting the girls in the same room for short periods of conflict then separating them and sending them to neutral corners. It never got any better. They would encounter each other by chance now and then, and Baby Kitty would behave quite badly and make a great deal of noise, and poor Audrey would cower for a moment then run for cover, and we’d have to search for her in this house of a thousand hiding places. (Neither Saddam Hussein nor Osama bin Laden would have been found, if they’d been on the lam inside the monastery.)

After a week or so of skirmishes, Baby Kitty let us know that this situation was not to continue; she went around and relieved herself in various beds. The only reason she still lives here is that she limited herself to beds other than mine.

Audrey is now restricted to the basement (not to worry2700 square feet with windows and TV), and Baby Kitty to the second and third floors.The ground floor is a DMZ.

For company, Audrey has a stuffed moose toy (size XXL), and Ann has heaped up so many pillows and blankets, her nest looks like a homeless encampment. We see her at visiting hours, and she seems reasonably happy. She would like more attention, though. And that nasty rejection by Baby Kitty is no doubt gnawing at her kitty self-esteem.

Until we can come up with a better arrangement, we take comfort in the realization that little Audrey Hepburn no longer has to share her food with skunks. In fact, she’s grown a little fat, and her name seems less suitable than it did last summer. Also, it’s a lot warmer in the basement than it is outside.

If you’d like a nice cat—young, good looking, spayed, great disposition—we’ll ship her to you, free of charge. Act in the next ten days, and we’ll throw in a toaster as a token of our appreciation.

* * *

To view a new short video from Mountain Lake PBS on Saranac Lake, cure cottages, and the monastery click HERE.  



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