Wednesday, March 2, 2022


 In February, I taught a class for the Guppy Chapter of Sisters in Crime, Inc. to help students learn how to revise and self-edit their novels. In one lesson, I challenge the students to take a scene and brainstorm for five minutes on how to ramp up the stakes for the protagonist.

And then, I lived my homework assignment.

I own 80 acres on an inland lake in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. (Fact check: Seamus McCree, the protagonist of my series, claims he owns the same property. In fiction, he is correct; but if you check the register of deeds, it belongs to me. But I digress.)

My bucket list includes me producing maple sugar from the sugar maples on my property. I’ll spare you my enthusiastic and long-winded discussion of what that will entail and instead mention that ticking that off my bucket list meant I need to arrive at my camp many days before daytime temperatures rose above freezing. My home is 15 miles from where you can buy anything. Fourteen of those miles are logging roads. Because of where the timber companies were logging this winter, they were not plowing the last 2.5 miles of my journey.

I had arranged for someone who lives six miles away to keep those last 2.5 miles open, which he had done, until a week before I planned to arrive, his snowplow broke. (Increased obstacle #1) And then it snowed 10” (0bstacle #2). My neighbors who were coming up just for the weekend (because I had kept the road open, so why not?) contacted a business who agreed to plow the road—at a cost six times what I had been paying (obstacle #3). A shared expense. It only hurt a little.

My original plan was to arrive on February 24, but looking at the snow forecast, I decide to drive up instead on Saturday, the 20th to arrive before the snow. Driving the last 2.5 miles, I note several places where the road is just wide enough to get my truck through.

I arrive at noon and snowshoe my driveway through thirty inches of snow, sprawling several times (a minor additional obstacle). My neighbor follows behind to help me reinstall my water softening system. We were halfway down the driveway when he spots my first problem: the platform we had installed on my garage roof to hold the Starlink dish, has toppled onto the roof. (Obstacle #4). I still have a week of teaching the revision and self-editing class. If the Internet is out, I’ll have to drive twenty-five miles to gain internet access to post and respond to class assignments.

My neighbor returns home to get a plastic snow shovel to clear the roof without damaging it so we can reinstall the platform. I plod to my generator shed to turn on power to the house and garage and discover my inverter has no power. (Obstacle #5) The generator kicks on, and I bypass the inverter to provide power directly to the house, which I need to run the well-pump.

But before I deal with the water supply, I need to light a fire in the wood stove. It is ten degrees outside and twenty degrees in the house. I place crumpled paper and kindling in the wood stove, click the fire starter—and nothing. Okay, we’d used that one last year. I had spares. I try the spares—same result. It is too cold for the fire starter to work. (Obstacle #6) I eventually find matches and light the paper. The thirty-five-foot stove pipe and cold temperatures require several efforts before the stove creates a draft, but finally, the wood stove is operational. Yay!

When my well pump hasn’t run for months, the water in the well can become sullied with iron-oxide particulates. I let the well pump run for an hour and by then, the water runs clear. I have a drain to the outside in the basement floor where I can dump the water. The well pump starts like a charm. Water fills the pressure tank. I open the spigot at the bottom of the tank so the water can run out through an attached hose to the drain.

Except, the drain is frozen. Water pools onto the basement floor. (Obstacle #7) I shut the spigot and wonder what else could go wrong.

Upstairs the answer is clear: the woodstove fire has gone out. I have been home for an hour, and other than starting the generator, have accomplished nothing.

I restart the wood stove fire, babysitting it until I am sure it takes. My neighbors return with a snowblower to cut a path down the driveway (they don’t want to wade through that snow) and set about restoring the internet platform to its correct position. My fears that when the platform tumbled it cut the cable turn out unfounded (best news so far).

We turn our collective heads to figuring out why the inverter isn’t functioning. I flip every switch I can think of off and on to reset something—anything. No success. No inverter. No solar power. No functioning batteries. I think to test the voltage of the batteries. My 48-volt system is measuring around 12-volts. My batteries are frozen. At least I have electric when the generator is on.

The neighbors decide to snow blow the driveway so I can bring my truck down rather than schlepp everything in by hand, and I return to the water situation. Although it would take less time to run a hose from the water tank outside, that requires me to crack a door to the ten-degree temps. Instead, I plan to run water into five-gallon buckets that I will throw outside until the well water runs clear. I take the bucket to the basement and discover most of the spilled water from my first attempt has frozen on the basement floor.

I skate to the pressure tank, turn on the water pump, open the spigot, and nothing happens. Not only is the water on the floor frozen, but frozen water also plugs the hose. I no longer have access to any water. (Obstacle #8)

No problem, I begin to melt snow on the wood stove. It’s not fast, but I can create a sufficient supply of fresh water and eventually enough for a flush toilet. And, because I don’t want the water that is freezing in the hose at the bottom of my water tank to break something else, I use a portable propane heater to (hopefully) warm up the fittings.

Day turns to night. I cook dinner, wash the dishes, read a little, and clamber into bed. The house has warmed up to 50—perfect sleeping temperatures, but every time I wake to use the bathroom, I add more wood to the stove.

Sunday arrives with bright sunshine. I sweep accumulated snow off my larger bank of solar panels, continue to run the generator to create a hothouse to warm my batteries, and melt copious amounts of snow. The basement makes it above freezing and the directed heat on the water tank thaws those fixtures. I start my project of getting clear water and can stop melting snow. I run ten gallons of water through my pitcher with a Brita filter to create drinking water. The house reaches sixty degrees by noon.

A local friend who is an electrician at the open pit iron ore mine stops by to look at the inverter. He flicks some switches and first the solar panel controller comes alive and then the inverter. All switches I had tried before, but we conclude that the power from the solar panels was enough to allow the controller to reboot. Progress, but the batteries are still very frozen.

That evening the snows begin, dropping 4” by morning. My Bobcat works like a charm plowing the 2.5 miles. I need four passes and spend time in a few areas getting the road wider where it is drifted in. I’m a happy camper. However, Jan, who has wisely stayed behind until I have camp opened, wants certain conveniences, like running and hot water. I don’t dare put water into the pipes until I know the basement will stay above freezing on a -16F night. Otherwise, I risk freezing the indoor plumbing.

I try using fans to push warmer air down the basement stairs. It works, the basement warms to 42. I turn off the fans, and the temperature drops. I turn them back on.

Monday night into Tuesday it snows another 7”. Wednesday morning, I fire up the Bobcat, pull it out of the garage and the rope attached to the garage door becomes entangled with the skid steer, pulling the door down. The Bobcat cracks into the partially closed door, pushing it off the track and wounding the bottom section. If I can’t get the Bobcat out of the garage, I will quickly become snowed in. (Obstacle #9)

I wrangle the garage door up enough to slip the Bobcat out and leave that issue for later. The skid steer plows, but because the snow walls are so close, it is hard work to get rid of the new snow. I make it out the 2.5 miles and notice a grader has gone up the next road. (Logging companies use graders to plow roads.) I wait and flag him down on his return. It’s a guy I don’t know, but he stops. (Out in the near wilderness, we always stop to make sure people are okay.) I ask how much it would cost for him to widen my 2.5 miles. I agree to his $300. (I’d spend at least that in diesel to widen it with the Bobcat.)

He does a fine job and now I don’t have to worry about the road closing in with a major snowfall. And I’m thrilled when I check and see the batteries have thawed enough that the inverter can control their charging. I remove the bypass, hold my breath, and am thrilled when the inverter turns on the generator and the batteries charge.

Things are looking up, big time.

When the grader pushes back big snowbanks, some snow will tumble back over the blade. I decide to be a nice guy and clean up the road now before my neighbors will be up tomorrow for “Girls’ Weekend.” At 2.25 miles from my house, I veer too far into a snowbank, bury the Bobcat, and because at that point the road slants, I cannot extract it. I will need to tow it out. (Obstacle #10)

I walk home, which I don’t mind, and after consulting with my neighbors, decide to leave the skid steer in place until they come up because it will be much easier to extract it from the snow with one person in a truck and another in the Bobcat.

Thursday arrives with more sun, charging batteries, neighbors arriving safely, and late that afternoon, we extract the Bobcat with my truck.

Friday the house has been warm enough for long enough that the basement is staying over 40F, and I risk turning on the water. It is always a worrisome time because if I didn’t successfully drain the house of water the previous fall, I learn I screwed up when I hear water flowing from the middle of a burst pipe. Everything works. I soon have hot water, too, and celebrate with a shower.

We had minor bobbles installing the water softener system (and need an O-ring to complete the task), but as of this writing, the systems all work. The house is a comfy 70F and Jan will arrive March 1.

Next time I teach, I think I’ll try something like writing dialogue without the use of “said.”

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James M. Jackson authors the Seamus McCree series. Full of mystery and suspense, these thrillers explore financial crimes, family relationships, and what happens when they mix. You can sign up for his newsletter and find more information about Jim and his books at

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This first appeared on the Writers Who Kill blog.