As a child growing up on the north shore of Long Island, New York we had a consciousness about ocean-effect weather events. The proximity to Long Island Sound had a significant impact on our daily lives as the winds, temperatures, moisture, and changing sea levels, especially during hurricane season, made me aware at an early age of the force of the natural world.
I remember hurricanes named Hazel and Carol in the mid-1950s which swept us in their heavy rains, and the mega storm Esther in 1961 which brought floods and extended power outages. For each warning, we would stockpile flashlights, drinking water, blankets, and Wonder Bread and Skippy peanut butter in case the power went out for long periods of time. My mother would fold up the clothesline in the back yard and all the backyard furniture would come into the garage. There was a ritual and a respect paid to the preparation.
After moving to New Hampshire in the mid-1970s, the consciousness switched to cold and snow events. The winter of 1978 brought the eponymous blizzard. My son was five months old and we were living in a renovated 1834 Colonial with electric heat so when the power went out for eight days, with over two feet of snow on the ground, it got my attention. That same winter, there was a stretch of cold when the temperature stayed below zero for over 14 days. Hard to prepare for that.
So on the evening of Wednesday, January 7, 2015 we prepared as best we knew how as newbie campers for the predicted Arctic cold snap at Hunting Island State Park in South Carolina. Our campsite was about 50 yards from the ocean, with sand dunes between us. We were nestled under tall longleaf southern pines and palm trees which protected us from the winds which were predicted to top 25 MPH overnight. Peter disconnected us from the city water to eliminate a possible burst water hose. We checked our propane gas heater supply, secured the 120 V connection so we would hopefully keep power, and battened down as the temperature dropped below freezing.
As night came on, the wind howled. The pine cones from the tops of the trees, about 50 feet over Traveler would come barreling down exploding like little rockets as they hit and then bounced off our fiberglass roof. At 3:00AM, the temperature was 25 and with the wind chill, it felt like 12. As sunrise, we still had heat, and power. All good.
We checked with our neighbors, experienced campers from Nova Scotia, to see how they fared during the night. We found him pouring hot water on the city water pipe connection, thawing it so he could re-connect and get running water. Peter recalled thawing frozen water lines at his cousin’s dairy farm, over 50 years ago and the procedure came back. Our neighbor lent us his electric teakettle and provided a brief tutorial.
After thawing the hook up, we cheerfully filled the kitchen sink to wash the breakfast dishes when I noticed it was slow to drain. Peter, outside cleaning up debris, noticed water pouring out of the overflow valve. “Houston, we have a problem”, kind of sums up this discovery. Peter checked the hook ups and the control panel and it showed that the grey water holding tank was now reading “full” when it had registered ½ full the day before. Oops. He went out and realized the sink drain leading to the grey water holding tank was most likely frozen. I noticed that the bathroom floor was getting wet with water backing up from the shower drain. Then he tried to drain the grey water tank and found the valve was frozen.
I spent the next hour mopping up the bathroom floor, which was now under about an inch of cold water. I used small sponges and wrung them out in the cassette toilet while Peter thawed the holding tank with hot water from the teakettle that we had gone to town to purchase. He thawed it enough to get it somewhat drained. While in town, we also bought a ceramic space heater, at our neighbor’s suggestion, and while using both appliances, we inadvertently overloaded the circuit at the campground plug in. We lost all power to Traveler. Eventually, Peter figured out the problem and reset the campground circuit breaker.
By Thursday evening, the temperature had stabilized to the high 30s. Our take-away instruction from Hunting Island is that we are called to be aware and alert to the constant variation of camping which is unlike the experience of staying at a Holiday Inn, for example, where consistency and predictability are the desired outcome.
We’ll no doubt have more stories later in the week as set up camp in Florida, thankfully leaving the freezing temperatures behind us.