Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Way of Winter

Ravenseyrie is a landscape of variable beauty, always changing moods, ever shifting its aesthetic offerings, and often times demanding much of those who have chosen to live in such a wilderness.

Situated roughly 450 feet above Lake Huron's North Channel on the East Bluff of Gore Bay on Manitoulin Island, Ravenseyrie's most frequent elemental spirit is the Wind. Rare is the day when some breeze isn't sweeping across the bluff. In the warm months, such a breeze is easily embraced and even the sustained gusty winds that sometimes linger for days, polishing the tops of the supple prairie grasses is given a nod of appreciation. But come late autumn and winter this same, predominant elemental can present no trivial danger to us intrepid inhabitants.

This December finds Kevin and me seasoned and primed for our fifth winter at Ravenseyrie. Most everything we expected to have ready before our first snowstorm has been neatly tended to. Even so, every year, the first blizzard tests our fortitude in ways that we cannot forsee. This year, it was the 9th of December that Mother Nature popped her cork and gave us our first taste of the full-bodied harshness of winter's brew--and, because Altamiro now insists on keeping his family band separate from the rest of the equine inhabitants of Ravenseyrie this first blizzard served as a catalyst for a rather harrowing experience that particular morning as Kevin and I attempted to get hay out to the horses. (Better get yourself a cup of coffee or a good tall stout, this is a long narrative!)

Kevin gets ready to take his load of hay out to the forest on a cold and gusty day, but thankfully no snowstorm this time!

Probably, before I take readers on our journey into feeding horses during a blizzard, it may be helpful to provide background into the setting we find ourselves in this time of year. I have already mentioned the nearly ever-present wind that our bluff receives. I should relay also, for those who are new to the blog, that there are no run-in-sheds or barns or man-made livestock shelters here at Ravenseyrie. The horses and mules take their shelter during inclement weather in a variety of woodland copses and thick forest. All well and good, these--and likely healthier than any barn could hope to be...the difficulty is not for the horses, rather it is for the humans who want to get food out to where they are.

I'm just now leaving the yard with my load of hay, while Kevin is well on his way ahead of me as the horses finish up their breakfast oats. The destination is the north woods. Kevin will leave his load well to the right of the lone Zen Elm tree and I will leave mine on the left.

Living with (and being born in) the wind, our horses are not made agitated or flighty by the raucous gales and persistently stiff breezes that frequent Ravenseyrie, however, when these same winds occur during heavy rain or snow or during excruciatingly bitter temperatures, the horses and mules do not cross the open grasslands to wait by the house for the feed we provide in winter, and so we bring the feed out to their sheltered woodland cathedrals.

Most days, when there is no winter wind, we are able to feed the horses near the house, and even with Altamiro's "split herd policy" in force, we manage handily by feeding the family band on the west side of the yard and Mistral's group off to the east side. Feeding chores are a snap on such days. On the days when the wind is too brusque to feed in the open, we must work a little harder to assure that the horses are able to dine in relative comfort.
On gentle winter days, Mistral's group takes their meals on the east side of the house.

Altamiro's family band takes their meals on the west side of the house/yard.

We have discovered three favorite windbreak "zones" that the horses generally retreat to during inclement weather in wintertime, two of which are north of the house and the other is to the west.

This year, we began feeding breakfast hay on the first of December after we received a light dusting of snow, but by December third we were committed to morning and late day hay feedings some of which we took to the windbreak zones because winds were cold and strong enough to blow they hay away if we fed in our near-the-house locations. Even with Altamiro's "split herd policy" strictly enforced, we managed to keep everyone happy by arranging Altamiro's group on the lee side of the first copse of trees to the north, and placed Mistral's group in a slight clearing in the forest-proper just to the northeast of Altamiro's spot.

On the day of this year's first island blizzard, the horses of course did not come up for oats and hay near the house, so Kevin loaded up our toboggans, even heavier than usual, and the two of us tightened our scarves bid each other farewell and boldly strode out into the swirling snow towards the northerly wooded windbreaks. As we got halfway to the tree line, Kevin veered off to the northeast and I continued on due north, each of us expecting to find the two herds in their respective locales waiting for us.

It wasn't long before the blowing snow hid Kevin from me. I couldn't see my destination, but along the way, I could discern necessary familiar shapes of shrubs and trees letting me know I was still basically on track. When I reached the natural sheltered area, I was dismayed that Altamiro and his family were not waiting there for me, but I quickly determined that because it was a northeast wind, they may have gone over to the alternate windbreak around the bend in the westerly tree line. I wiped the moisture from my cold nose, shook the snow from the brim of my hat and set off to the westerly woods and even found some tracks which seemed to confirm my sense that this is where Altamiro and his family were waiting for me.

On windless days, the horses can eat out in the open, not far from the house.

When I got to the windbreak spot, after much trudging across the open area, with snow and wind pummeling me all the while, there was no hungry group of horses waiting there either! I followed some tracks deeper around the bend of the woods continuing to intuit that I would find the horses very soon, even though the tracks began to look rather old. In windblown conditions, it is hard for me to determine how fresh the tracks are because often times they are partially already filled in with blown snow. In the end, it would seem my intuition was befuddled by the chaos of the elements and wishful thinking.

Our kitchen table, looking to the north east

By now, my legs and arms are feeling rather rubbery, but I set out again off into the open, charting a diagonal trajectory back towards where I imagine Kevin probably has fed Mistral's group. Part way across the open grassland, during a extremely brief lull between gale driven snow, I imagine that I am seeing snow-clad dark forms moving on the landscape. I stop and lean forward, squinting through the flying snow and listen through the roaring wind, trying to sense if what I am seeing is actually nothing more than distant shrubs swaying with the gusts, or if it is horses on the move. It's Altamrio's group! We meet in the middle and they follow me to the nearest windbreak where I quickly lay out piles of hay for them. They are all completely adorned with snow, even the faces of the foals are wearing white masks, but they seem to ignore all that and gratefully bury their muzzles deep into the welcomed mounds of dried summer. This is the first big winter storm for Encantara, Silvestre and Segura, who look small surrounded by so much whiteness--small, but extremely robust and absolutely at ease with the events of the moment.

Our kitchen table, looking toward the northwest

Quicker now, I head back in the direction which will bring me to open area and though I cannot see the house, I put myself on course to where I know it must be. I'm imagining Kevin has all this while been back in the kitchen sipping coffee by the wood stove and wondering what is taking me so long. As I round the bend of the arm of the woodland copse, I nearly run into Mistral and Zeus. Each of us are surprised and startled, and in moments I am surrounded by the rest of Mistral's group, who are mightily disappointed to see that my toboggan has not one speck of hay left in it. "Oh! No! Where's Kevin?", I exclaim to them. They shake the snow from their heads and follow my tracks soon discovering that Altamiro and his gang are eating hay and rush over to join them.

I decide to keep heading back to the house. I'll reload my toboggan, bring hay out for Mistral's group and then look for Kevin. With my toboggan freshly loaded and halfway back out to the section of the woods where I had left the horses, I meet up with Kevin, who still has his first load of hay. Through the roaring wind and swirling snow, I tell him to follow me and off we go with our hay once again. When we get to the windbreak zone we are dismayed to see that Altamiro has taken his harem and left! (Damn this split-herd policy of Altamiro's) Kevin instructs me to lay out my hay for Mistral's group while he follows the tracks where it appears Altamiro has gone. Expecting that the family band is only a little ways off, tucked into another windbreak, I tell Kevin I will wait here for him and we'll go back to the house together. He agrees and I watch him head off to the northwest, keeping to the edge of the woods, dragging his load of hay.

I see him go in and out of different extensions of the forest, each time expecting him to emerge with an empty toboggan and come back to me. Instead, each time he emerges, he still has a full load and he still keeps trudging to the northwest, until the wind and the snow shroud him from view. I wait and watch the swirling snow, trying to see what might be occurring out there. I can see nothing but white and hear nothing but the wailing, roaring, moaning, rushing noise of the wind. I walk in circles, trying to stay warm, always coming back to Mistral's group, keeping a good sense of where I am in connection to where they are. During one of my circular walks, I spot Altamiro and his group nestled in a copse of trees just to the southwest of where we are! I walk way out into the open in the general direction of where I had last seen Kevin and I jump up and down, flail my arms and try to make myself visible and try to see if I can spot Kevin out there. I'm jumping up and down and pointing to where Altamiro's group is, imagining maybe Kevin can see me even though I cannot see him. The snow swirls on gale winds and I feel suddenly very alone. Where is Kevin? How far away was he going? Even if he went all the way to the far northwest property line, shouldn't he have been back by now? I continue to wait, and walk circles and keep aware of where Altamiro is and peer into the white distance expecting to see Kevin emerge at any moment.

I have grown quite cold, and I begin to imagine all manner of awful possibilities and begin to worry what I should do about this situation. It feels like a lot of time has passed and I decide to go back to the house, put more wood on the fire, warm up a bit, reload my toboggan and then come back out to look for Kevin and feed Altamiro's group the hay. On the walk back, without knowing if returning to the house is the right decision to have made, some truly horrific scenes play in my mind as I think of what tragedy has befallen Kevin. During that time completely dark and hopeless thoughts overtook my usual optimism and I contemplated what on earth I would do if Kevin were laying injured or dead out there in the would I find him? What could I do when I did find him? If he is dead, what will become of me? How could I possibly carry on without him? Where is Kevin? Where is Kevin? Where is Keivn?

I make it back to the yard. One of the tarps Kevin has covering things there has been torn loose and the wind is trying to steal it completely. I stop and re-secure the fastenings and before going into the house, I scan the open fields one last time hoping to see Kevin. And I do! There he is, emerging from the west, his toboggan empty...he must have found Altamiro's group! I run out to meet him. I hug him tightly while simultaneously admonishing him for having gone so far away for so long. "Never, never, never again do such a thing!", I scream to him in the wind. Poor, weary, cold man--with crusted snow and ice covering his eyebrows, mustache and beard, the last thing he needs is to be scolded by his wife--yet my frustration and relief must be expressed in this way, for I was truly frightened by this episode. "This type of weather is not to be trifled with!" "We cannot do something so foolish ever again!" "We could die out could have died out there, Kevin!"

We got back to the house, we restarted the fire from the remaining coals and noted that we had been trudging out in the blizzard with toboggans of hay for over three and a half hours! As we each begin sharing each other's experiences, Kevin reveals to me that at one point, he was so utterly exhausted from pulling that toboggan through the snow that he just had to sit down for awhile. He says he can imagine how people become fatigued and cold and give themselves over to just sitting still and falling into a sort of sleep until they freeze to death. He only allowed himself to sit there long enough to regain a little strength and then he made himself go back to searching for Altamiro's group, which he eventually found. He never felt completely lost, though a few times a little disoriented, mainly because of the fatigue and the chaos of the storm. Thankfully both Kevin and I are intimately familiar with the landscape here and so despite the white out conditions, what tree and rock forms we could discern were apt indicators of where we were in relation to the lay of the land.
Our trusty Jøtul F 602 has us soon warmed up again (see Kevin in his study on the computer?)

Our mistake, when we didn't find the horses in the usual windbreaks was to take it upon ourselves to go searching for them in blizzard conditions. We've decided that in the future, whether the horses are in the usual windbreak zones or not, we will leave their hay there, in two different spots for each herd and just allow them to find it on their own terms.

There are some other options we have for feeding arrangements in winter which we discussed as we returned to our senses after the morning's ordeal. Keeping in mind that we are working with 800lb. round bales of hay, here are some of the options we reviewed:

--strategically place the hay bales out in different windbreaks prior to the onset of winter, keeping them well covered with tarps and opening them up to the horses as needed.

--until the snow gets too deep, use the tractor to bring hay out to the windbreak areas for both morning and late day feedings.

--once the snow is too deep for a tractor, buy a snowmobile and use it to haul our toboggans of hay out to the windbreak areas.

--build a windbreak shelter up closer to the house

--some day we will have a barn sure to structure it so that it provides a means of a two separate windbreaks for feedings that can support Altamiro's split herd policy.

For now, we have decided to stay with our usual manner of manually delivering hay for the horses to the usual distant windbreaks when the wind necessitates it. Why do we do it this way? Why not get a snowmobile and make it easier on ourselves? Both Kevin and I feel that to use the body as much as we can to accomplish the various chores that need doing is not only better for the environment, but better for us physically as well. We don't want an easy life, we want a fulfilling, healthy, wilderness-inspired robust life with a good balance of aesthetic beauty and hard work which benefits us body, mind and spirit. And we want to experience this environment in all its moods which assists us in appreciating what it is like for the horses to live in such a rugged setting.

So its a choice we have willingly made, to experience winter in this manner. It feels like a rich life to me...exhausting and sometimes frightening, but exquisitely alive! If Kevin and I learn from our mistakes, and be sure to respect nature in all her moods, we will continue to be part of all that is so exquisitely alive here for many, many years to come.


Annemiek said...

Dear Lynne,

I just had a cup of cappuccino in front of my computer and read your story. The Netherlands is covered under a snow blanket about 25 cm thick by now, the perfect setting for reading your thriller.

The photo’s you posted are so wonderfully illustrating your story. Ravenseyrie looks perfectly wild and so beautiful in this snow. While I can appreciate your motivation not to use a snowmobile or tractor, I would certainly try to have some means of communication with me when going outside like you do. I was wondering do mobile phones work at Ravenseyrie, or walkie talkies or a GPS or something? At least that way you could always locate each other in case of an emergency. I have no personal experience with the extreme weather conditions you live in, but from what I have read, the cold permits you few (if any) mistakes. It is ruthless and it can kill in a matter of hours. I think you know that better than I do, that’s why you were so worried about Kevin in the first place.

I think delivering the hay at the same place every day is a good idea. The horses will find it I’m sure.

Thank you for sharing this story Lynne, I will think of this when I am “struggling” through our 25 cm snow to clean the horses paddock!

A big hug for Kevin, I am so happy he got back safe. I felt your worry myself while reading the story : -)


Leslie said...

Ditto the above comment Lynne!! Walkie talkies at the very least would have been a minimum safety net for you both. Glad everyone's ok!!

eva said...

Wow, Lynne, what an adventure, and some valuable lessons learned. Isn't it strange? the impulse to scold a loved one when they emerge unscathed from mortal danger? I am prone to the same idiotic behavior and have installed an alarm that goes off in my head when I am about to commit such folly.

As often is the case, creative new ideas emerge from surviving an almost deadly ordeal. This one seems to be a winner:

"strategically place the hay bales out in different windbreaks prior to the onset of winter, keeping them well covered with tarps and opening them up to the horses as needed."

Do you think it is too late to haul one of the round bales out with the tractor or truck to the wooded area? I guess you would need two to accommodate the two herds. As Miek said, the horses WILL find the hay if it is always in the same place.

Google "round bale feeder" and you get ideas for building feeding stations around those bales to protect them from the elements and minimize spoilage. Some of them are metal cage like things, but also wooden man made made ones.

Now here is a question i really don't know the answer to: what would happen if you didn't feed at all during an actual blizzard? At Shadow's pasture they will not feed during a heavy winter storm, and the reason that was quoted to me (apart from the truck getting stuck) is that the horses will hide in the wind/rain protected woods and the hay gets wasted. Of course this is california and there is always something to eat on these 250 acres, even at the beginning of the rainy season when the grass is not there yet.

Wild horses in the wild will dig through snow to find edibles, but during an actual blizzard they are probably just staying put somewhere waiting it out.

I would think that the risk of one missed feed would be miniscule to the risk of you and Kevin perishing in the ice scape. But to be honest, i simply don't know the impact of missing a meal. Horses are not cats.

Another thing you might consider: don't ever go out alone in that kind of weather, even if it takes more time.

Lynne Gerard said...

Do you know what Kevin got for me as part of my birthday present last week? A FOX 40 "Sonic Blast" whistle, and one for himself too. We've already tested them out during hay delivery to the woods and boy-howdy! they sure carry their sound through the wind and distance. So, for the present time (since our telepathic connection is yet reliable) we have a rather "low tech" means of alerting each other to our location when out in the elements.

Eva, with all the roots, branches, shrubs, grass under the snow, etc. probably if we had waited to put hay out until after the blizzard the horses would have been fine, since they do supplement their diet regularly by browsing on things other than hay or grass. On the other hand, Mistral is almost thirty years old and there pregnant/lactating mares and foals which I sure don't want to become weakened by the harsh elements, so Kevin and I did feel it was important to get the food out there for them. Our mistake was not trusting that they would come back to the usual windbreaks to find the hay and instead we went searching for them. And the split herd situation makes for even trickier variables. I think we're all (horses and humans) understanding now that food will be in the two nearest windbreaks (or nearby them depending on which direction the wind is coming from) and each of us can rely upon the other to "be there".

We have an old set of walkie-talkies which we might get new batteries for and use when the weather is really dicey...but to be honest, I don't want to carry those things all the time, they are a bit cumbersome. My "Sonic Blast" whistle is safety-pinned to my vest and east to use--and I'm maybe Kevin and I are a little more storm savvy than we were a few weeks ago!

We actually like the physical labor and exercise of hauling hay and will keep doing it ourselves for now, but we may put machines to use or incorporate strategically placed hay stations in the woods years down the road when we get too old for this kind of physical exertion.

Monica Bretschneider said...

Hi Lynne,

Ever think of harnessing the wind to your advantage? You could do "windsurfing" on that flat stretch before the woods...with Kevin. Could be fun! When I was 6 yrs old , I would always be out on those " School Snow days" with my ski glasses on and like you scarf, long skidoo mits etc.. going down the backyard hill with my crazy carpet! Good idea to use a whistle and if you would be in an area that have bears, I would add "bells" too.

Anonymous said...

What a fantastic idea...putting a sail on each of our toboggans would sure get us out to the forest quicker than trudging and pulling on snowshoes!

I'll present Kev with this idea, as a joke, but who knows maybe he'll be inspired to engineer some workable contraption.

Winter can indeed be fun, whether one is still a child, or just young at heart.

Thanks for reading, Monica.