Day One (Sunday Jan 5th):
9AM - For a week the talking heads on TV had been warning us in ominous voices about a coming storm. According to them this will be the worst winter storm most of us have ever experienced. (Of course, old-timers like me remember when we had to regularly walk to school through five foot snowdrifts; uphill both ways.) This coming storm will supposedly combine incredible amounts of snow with deepfreeze temperatures; all backed by howling blizzard-class winds. In fact, if only half of what these voices of doom are prophesizing comes to pass, life as we know it will likely disappear from the face of the earth.
Now I have been around the block a couple of times. Therefore, I understand that with 24 hours of air-time to fill every day, the multitude of reporters on cable TV will latch unto any newsworthy story and work it like a dog with a bone. Consequently, I take their breathless pronouncements of catastrophe with a grain of salt. However, that having been said, if this storm is even a fraction as bad as predicted, it will threaten our alpacas; which is a definite no-no as far as my wife Roxanne is concerned. So while I try to ignore the doom and gloom pouring from the TV, Roxanne announces in no uncertain terms that she is elevating our preparations for this storm to Defcon 1: all-out nuclear war. Seeing the glazed look in her eyes I realize that further discussion is pointless, so I reluctantly pull myself out of my comfortable recliner and together we head over to our alpaca farm to prepare for the worst.
Now our farm is located about ten miles from our condo. Normally this is not a problem, as we travel back and forth a couple of times a day to feed and water our alpacas. But when the weather turns nasty, an otherwise routine drive along the shore of Lake Erie can become a nightmare. To combat having to make this drive too often in bad weather, Santa Claus gave Roxanne a surveillance system for the farm. This wonder of modern technology will allow her to keep an eye on her alpacas 24-7 from the comfort of her bedroom. However, trying to get the cameras at the farm to talk to our computer back at the condo has required more technical knowhow than I seem to possess. I have spent the last two weeks trying to get everything to work, but all I have to show for my efforts is a paraphrase from a famous inventor, “I now know a thousand ways how not to hook up this system.”
11 AM: When we arrive at the farm, we find things pretty normal, as the predicted storm is still just a gleam in the mad eyes of the weather forecasters. In fact, the temperature is a balmy 37F and our alpacas stare at us in resigned boredom as we scurry around making our last minute preparations. Roxanne and I have learned from hard experience that the three keys to livestock survival during bad weather are protection, food and water. For protection we have a stout barn that has withstood many a storm. And for added security from the elements, this past autumn we added a new wall to the windward side of our paddocks. This new wall means that our alpacas can hunker down in the paddocks and be almost as comfortable as they would be inside the barn.
As far as food that is never a problem at Lands End Alpacas, as Roxanne believes in keeping our alpacas well fed at all times. I, on the other hand, being distantly related to Ebenezer Scrooge see only the diminishing stack of grain bags and a shrinking pile of hay. But Roxanne is the boss, so on this day we load up the feed troughs. Also as part of our preparations we move hay from the pastures into the paddocks, where our animals can munch on this delicacy in relative comfort. This is a move that we take reluctantly, as alpacas do not subscribe to the old admonition: “don’t poop where you eat.” Rather they do just the opposite, so moving the hay inside insures a paddock full of alpaca poop the next morning.
But water is where we really shine. Roxanne grew up in a house where the water pipes regularly froze every winter, so she likes to regale me with stories of how terrible it was to haul buckets of water from the neighbors. And I, quite frankly, didn’t believe her. After all, how bad could it be to carry a few buckets of water? Well, here at the farm I have found the answer to that question: first, a bucket of water is heavy; second it is awkward; and third it is wet! I quickly learned to hate this job so much that I built a little cart on which to haul the buckets. While this made life a little easier it still required a fair amount of sweat, so Roxanne and I soon installed a water distribution system inside our barn. This was much better, as turning a valve is about as much energy as I wish to expend when it comes to filling a water bucket.
For people who reside in Florida or Texas installing a water system in an unheated barn is no big deal. But for us hardy souls who live north of the Mason-Dixon Line, this job is much more complicated; involving several miles of insulation and heat tracing to keep the water in liquid form during the cold winter months. The coming storm with its deepfreeze temperatures will certainly test our system; but on this day I confidently open a water valve and laugh at Mother Nature as the water runs freely into a drinking bucket. Hopefully I will still be laughing in a few hours.
3PM - I am back at the condo and once again safely entrenched in my recliner, when it starts not snowing but raining. The weather people assure us that this rain will turn to snow in a few hours, when the temperature starts to plummet. But in the meantime it gives Roxanne something new to worry about: namely, that her alpacas will become big icicles as their wet fiber freezes solid during the night.
8PM – We make our last trip of the day to the farm to check on conditions. Unfortunately, Roxanne’s fears about the rain seem to be confirmed. Normally, if more than three drops of rain falls, our alpacas dash for the barn like depositors running for a bank during the Great Depression. Not so today, as we watch in dismay as our animals proudly display their soaking coats – so much for having enough sense to come in out of the rain. Since there is nothing we can do (there are not enough hair dryers in all of Ohio to dry out this much fiber), we put the matter in God’s hands and head home for the night.
Day Two (Monday):
10 AM - If the weather people are to be believed, today we will see the temperature drop almost 50 degrees – ending up at a bone chilling minus 15F. Add in the wind chill, and we will be looking at temperatures the equivalent of 40F below zero. Even I am starting to wonder if our farm is up to the task of withstanding these terrible conditions. Of course I would never share these doubts with Roxanne, who is already a basket case by this time. The good news or bad news – depending on how you look at it – is that during the night the soaking rain has indeed turned to snow. About an inch of the new white stuff covers the four inches we already have on the ground; but the alpacas, despite their wet appearance of the night before seem fine this morning. In fact, with a bright sun shining the day seems almost pleasant.
11AM: There is a stiff, cold wind blowing out of the southwest which portends the coming blizzard somewhere below the horizon. The weather maps are indeed starting to look ominous. Whatever else this storm may be, it is big; covering the entire United States east of the Mississippi. And here I will interrupt my story to mention one of my pet peeves of weather reporting: namely the New York City syndrome. We in the Midwest can be suffering under an onslaught of terrible weather, which barely rates a bored mention on the news. Yet let this same storm get within a thousand miles of the Big Apple and suddenly it becomes THE story. Hours are devoted to the most mundane details of how this storm will impact New Yorkers; while we in the Midwest are left to dig out unnoticed and unheralded.
1PM: But enough whining, as back at the farm our preparations move into high gear. Here we encounter an unforeseen complication with precious barn space, as Roxanne has set up our new cria and his mother in a private suite worthy of a five-star hotel. This means that our four little boys must be evicted from their comfortable stall in the barn. Fortunately, the paddock to which they are relegated is well protected, having the barn on one side and the hay storage on another. The third side abuts the girls’ paddock – leaving only the south side open.
Since the monster storm is coming from a southerly direction, we decide to cover this open side of the boys paddock with a tarp. We quickly learn that trying to hang a tarp with a cold wind blowing at 30 mph is an exercise in futility – we feel like sailors of old “rounding the Horn,” as the tarp threatens to take off for the next county. But with some good old-fashioned perseverance and a few frozen fingers we manage to get it in place. Our efforts are worth the pain, as our little boys are as snug as a bug in a rug in their new home.
2PM: Moving inside, we next tackle the west end of the barn. This is where we keep our big herdsire, Joshua. Joshua’s paddock faces directly west, which is normally where our worst weather comes from – but he is a tough boy. The real problem is the door to his stall, which faces directly into the wind. Several years ago we built a windbreak around this door. This was a big improvement since it allows the door to be left open for access for Joshua, yet keeps the worst of the weather out of the barn.
Unfortunately, the architect who designed this windbreak – yep, that would be yours truly – did not allow room for the door to shut completely in times of really bad weather. (Yes, it is hard to get good help these days.) Again, 99% of the time this is not a problem, but with the storm of the century bearing down on us, we decide something needs to be done. Thus we find an old quilt and nail it up over the doorway. By the time we are done Joshua also has a nice, cozy place to ride out the storm. (Note: we have found old quilts to be a real blessing around the farm, as they can be used for everything from floor covers for new crias to windbreaks.)
9PM: We return to the farm to make one last check as the temperature continues to drop like a rock. I fill the water buckets (I note with smug satisfaction that the water is still flowing) and stuff the hay feeders, as Roxanne gives everyone a last meal (hmmm – that doesn’t sound too good). We double check all the doors and gates and throw some more carpeting on the floor of the barn where our big girls hang out. These ladies have first-class accommodations with access to most of the barn and a large, covered paddock area. As we look around we note that these grande dames are already staking out their spots for the long night. Most are inside the cozy barn, but others against all logic seem content to bed down outside in the howling wind.
Roxanne decides these alpacas are not smart enough to come in out of the cold and thus must be locked in the barn. (Sort of like big brother government running my life for me.) Normally we never close them inside, preferring to give them free run of the barn, paddocks and pastures. But extreme circumstances require extreme measures. As for the alpacas, they are not happy being locked inside either. This forces them into a small area that puts them within spitting distance of their neighbors. Since many of these alpacas can best be described as matriarchs, this imposition on their personal space is not taken lightly. But cramped alpacas aside, we have done all we can do. We therefore ask God for His protection over our herd and head back to our nice warm condo. The temperature as we leave the farm is five degrees below zero and heading south.
Day Three (Tuesday) –
6AM: This is D-Day. We awake and hurriedly dress to get over to the farm. A quick word about what we are wearing is in order, for despite our concern for the alpacas the truth is they are much better equipped to face the cold weather than we humans. The alpacas have nice thick coats made of incredibly warm fiber which DuPont has yet to duplicate in the laboratory. We homo-sapiens, on the other hand, are stuck with thin, naked skin which if we are lucky will protect us from the elements for about two seconds on a day like today.
Fortunately, God in his wisdom gave us frontal lobes and opposed thumbs in place of fiber. Today Roxanne and I put both of these gifts to use as we clothe ourselves in high-tech thermal underwear, smart socks and balaclavas. Several years ago we learned the hard way how to dress for blizzard conditions, when we signed on for a snowmobile tour of Yellowstone Park. Not having a clue as to what to expect, we stopped by our local “Backpackers Shop” for advice. (Most cities in America have a similar shop – you know the ones: they are full of very expensive high-tech coats and sleeping bags designed for use at the North Pole.) When we told the sales clerk what we wanted he got a sparkle in his eye and starting rubbing his hands together. I now realize he was calculating just how many of his kids we would be putting through college with our shopping spree. But he did his job well and Roxanne and I later faced minus 20 degree weather on the back of a 40 mph snowmobile without blinking an eye. Lesson learned: dress for the weather!
6:30AM: With the wind chill hovering around a deadly -40F, we are ready to venture out. Unfortunately, since our garage is filled with exercise equipment (that is a story for another day), my truck has had to spend the night outside. I can remember my dad plugging in our car every night during the winter to insure that it would start. Then when I was in college my normal morning routine included a set of jumper cables, a can of spray gas and a little luck. But I have come a long way since then and now I just hit the remote start button while sitting at the breakfast table. This morning my truck starts right up, but it lets me know that it is not happy as it makes a lot of strange noises.
Fortunately, we have not gotten the huge snowfall that was supposed to accompany the cold temperatures. (Toledo, a city just an hour from us, has been completely closed down by snow.) I slowly edge my truck out unto the streets. We are almost the only car on the road this morning, as our more cautious (and intelligent?) neighbors are hiding in their warm houses. At the farm we find that things are generally in good shape – if you ignore the several inches of alpaca poop on the barn floor. But the animals seem none the worse for wear, including our little blind cria. We fill the water buckets – surprisingly our water system is still working (more on this later) – and then distribute more hay and grain. We even try to clean up some of the poop, but most of it is frozen rock solid.
Realizing that there is not much else we can do we retreat to our nearby basement hideaway, which is thankfully heated. Here we drink hot tea and congratulate ourselves on a job well done. We also take the time to thank God for the safety of our animals – He is the one who really deserves the credit. We then make a last quick check on the alpacas and head home. We will come back two more times during this long, cold day to check on things; but other than putting out additional hay and insuring that the water buckets are filled there is not a lot to do. Again, it is all in God’s hands at this point.
Day Four (Wednesday) –
9AM: Nature has thrown her worst at us and we have bent, but not broken. Today it is supposed to warm up to a tropical +19F. It is amazing what a difference one’ s point of view makes, as normally this temperature would be considered extremely cold – but today it is a welcome break. We decide it is time to let the animals out of the barn and they seem to appreciate their freedom as they prance around in the crunchy snow. The poop is still frozen to the floor, so again there is not much for us to do other than handing out still more hay and grain.
10AM: Throughout the storm and sub-zero temperatures our fodder system has performed above and beyond the call of duty. This system provides fresh green grass for our animals even at times like this when our pastures are buried under a foot of snow. Simultaneously, it supplements our precious and expensive hay supply, which I have watched shrink alarmingly over the past week. As noted before, Roxanne and I have a constant battle about hay. As a retired engineer (and a full-time tightwad) I measure its use closely and constantly calculate whether the remaining supply will last us until spring greens up our pastures. Roxanne, on the other hand, sees only the present welfare of her animals and distributes hay like a politician handing out promises before an election.
But now we take the drastic step of shutting down our fodder system. Our reason for this is the safety of the animals. (And to a lesser extent us humans.) The drainage system which collects and disposes of the excess water from the fodder process has long since frozen up in the frigid temperatures. (Yep, also designed by yours truly.) This means that every time the spray system is energized to nourish the grass, water runs out onto the barn floor and proceeds to freeze instantaneously. This has created a good sized and dangerous skating rink in our barn.
The other system that deserves special recognition is our water system. As noted previously, this system is still operating even with the subzero temperatures. But not being a believer in the old saying “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” I now decide to make some “minor tweaks” to the system. These “tweaks” will later come back to haunt us.
2PM: Our water system is frozen solid! My adjustments of earlier today have backfired and not a drop of water is flowing. This means that we have to lug water buckets from our basement kitchen up a flight of steps to the barn. As a gentleman I turn the water hauling job over to Roxanne, while I unselfishly tackle the really difficult job of trying to fix my mess. I first get out my trusty blow torch and try to thaw out the pipes. However, I quickly learn that PVC does not take heat very well and as the pipe starts to distort into various weird shapes, I decide that another tactic is needed. I resort to the old hairdryer we use to dry out newborn crias. While this has the advantage of not melting the pipes, it works much slower. Leaving the hairdryer running and crossing my fingers I move on to other jobs.
4PM: I am in the barn helping Roxanne with out little blind cria who has caught a cold in all of this. As I suck the snot out of our new cria’s nose – ah, yes, the joys of owning an alpaca farm – when I suddenly hear what sounds like Niagara Falls outside. This is music to my ears and I run outside to verify that the frozen pipe has finally given way to my persistent hair dryer. Yes! Water is gushing from the faucet! Forgetting my earlier tweaks, I quickly return the system to its original configuration. I may be a slow learner, but in this case I have learned my lesson well.
6PM: Roxanne and I send up one last prayer of thanks and then hit the road for home. It has been a long four days and we are tired, but feeling good. Our alpacas are healthy and the weatherman is predicting a warming trend starting tomorrow. Life is good!