Power, water: you don’t know what you’ve got till they’re gone

Power outage at the Manse

This was the scene in the Manse’s dining room a week ago this evening, when, by candelight and kerosene lamps, I was desperately trying to finish a presentation for the next morning on two computers that were quickly running out of battery power. The hydro outage lasted six hours.

Ah, country life. The silence of the mornings, save for gentle birdsong. The absence of traffic jams. The wide open spaces. Neighbours helping neighbours.

The power outages. The water shortages.

Of course I fully realize that power outages and water shortages can happen when you live in a town or city. But let’s just say that my recent experiences – or in the case of the water, close encounters – have reminded me that, as with so many other things, it’s different when you’re in the country. That said, the experiences have also been a healthy reminder of how fortunate we are to have ready access to those luxuries – electricity and water, I mean – almost all the time.

The power outage happened a week ago this evening, and is the reason why regular readers did not get their usual Monday instalment of Meanwhile, at the Manse last week. “Severe thunderstorms predicted for tonight,” said the text Raymond sent me while I was driving to work that morning. “Oh great,” I thought, knowing how I absolutely had to spend several hours on my laptop that evening finishing up a big presentation to be delivered at a municipal conference the following morning.

But then again: the weather forecasts are so often wrong. And we often get thunderstorms without there being a power loss. What were the chances it would happen this particular evening?

The chances were excellent.

When the power went out a little before 6:30 p.m., I still had a long way to go to finish getting the text of my talk into digital form and putting together the slideshow that must accompany a presentation if you want to keep the audience awake. (Plus a slideshow is always a great chance to show off how pretty Queensborough is, which was one of the themes of my talk.) Stupidly, I’d been working out on the Manse’s front porch until that point – that is, working on battery power rather than with my laptop plugged in. Which meant the battery was already low when the lights (and Raymond’s Red Sox game on TV) suddenly went out.

Raymond by candlelight

Raymond by candlelight on a power-free night at the Manse.

I can laugh about it now, but at the time it wasn’t very amusing: trying to get as much done as I could while battery power remained on my laptop and Raymond’s, awkwardly transferring files back and forth between them on a USB stick and knowing that even in a best-case scenario (like, say, the power coming back at a reasonable hour), it was going to be a late night and a stressful next day. (I had to be at the scene of the talk, a drive of almost an hour and a half, early in the morning.) We lit all the candles in the house and our two kerosene lamps, and it was all very quaint and cheerful-looking, as you can maybe tell from my photos. But looks can be deceiving. It was hot (and made hotter by all those flames); I was stressed; and we were hungry and tired.

Did I mention hungry? The last time the power went out at our former home in Montreal at dinnertime, we walked up the street to a very nice restaurant that was fully lit and operational, and used the outage as an excuse to treat ourselves to sushi. Obviously that wasn’t an option in Queensborough, so Raymond tried for the next best thing: pizza. But after several attempts at calling a place we like in Madoc (which is “town” for us, most of the time), we realized that it was without power too, along with everyone and everything else in Madoc. Ah, but there was the pizza place in Tweed! (Which is also “town.”) We called. It was a little before 8 p.m. They were closed.

Ah, life in the country.

Anyway, to end that story, the power did come on again, though not till 12:30 a.m. I’d given up trying to work and, after a cold supper of prosciutto and melon (we don’t live that badly), gone to bed and failed utterly to sleep in the all-pervasive heat. Got up at 5 a.m., did my best to whip the presentation into shape, and survived. With another tale to tell.

But the power outage leads me to something else: being without water. As most of you doubtless know, probably the single biggest inconvenience about power outages is that your water pump won’t run (unless it’s powered by something other than electricity). So: Taking a shower? Flushing the toilet? Forget it. And that’s no fun. Fortunately we have a rain barrel and were able to get toilet-flushing (and hand-washing) water from it. But let’s just say thank goodness the outage didn’t last any longer than it did.

But that’s not the only low-water story I’ve got. As everyone in my part of the world knows, we’re suffering through an extreme lack of rain, and water is becoming a big issue. Here – I’ll show you what I mean. This is how the Black River usually looks as it flows over the dam in the heart of “downtown” Queensborough:

Dam when there's water

And this is how it looked late this afternoon:

Dam without water

You will notice there is precisely zero water going over the dam, and the river is very, very low. Here are some photos that I took today of the millpond above the dam, normally a popular swimming spot:

Low water at the millpond No water going over the dam

It’s been a good many years since anyone in Queensborough has seen so much rock and dry land where normally there’s lots of water. Everyone is worried for the farmers; while most of the local ones have managed to get off their first cut of hay (thanks to the heat making the season early), unless we get some rain soon that hoped-for second cut may not materialize at all. As for those who grow vegetables – yikes! Our fingers are crossed for them.

To show you one small impact of the lack of rain, here are a couple of photos of the Manse’s dried-up brown lawn right now:

Dry lawn with Honey Bunny

Let’s call this one “Dry Lawn With Cat.” That’s Honey Bunny, the tortoiseshell cat who enjoys her outdoor sojourns (tethered for her own protection) on the Manse’s front lawn.

It's always greener over the spetic tank

And this one is called “The Grass is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank.” Hey – wasn’t that the name of a book by Erma Bombeck? But it’s totally true. And septic tanks (as opposed to a municipal sewer system) are yet another sometimes-challenging aspect of only-in-the-country life.

We had a period of summer drought here in Queensborough in 2012, the first year that Raymond and I owned the Manse; I wrote about it here, and here’s a photo from that July:

Drought of 2012

Our poor tortured plants during the drought of July 2012.

Mercifully, the rains did finally come that summer. But what I’m realizing this time around is that there’s a big difference between spending the odd weekend in a house in the country when the water levels are low (as Raymond and I were then, still living and working full-time as we were in Montreal), and having that water-challenged house in the country be your one and only full-time residence.

Suddenly you start thinking seriously about how often and how long your showers are, and whether you really have to flush the toilet, and whether you’re willing to risk combining whites and lights in the laundry to make a single load where normally there would be two. Because what you desperately want not to happen is your precious well running dry. I understand there is a remedy if it does – you pay for a big tanker truck to come and fill it up – but that brings with it expense and the hassle of priming the pump and so on.

The sand bar

Looking across from the millpond to the sand bar on the Black River where the water was shallower and where my sister and brothers and I swam when we were small children in Queensborough.

As a result of this arid state of affairs, I have started to better appreciate why we did some of the things we did when I was a kid growing up at this same Manse. Things like going swimming often in the river, and taking a bar of soap and shampoo with us, to avoid taxing the well with baths or showers. Or filling a cup with water for toothbrushing at the bathroom sink, rather than running water from the tap for a minute or two. Or washing your car at the river rather than with the garden hose. It all makes sense now.

Having plentiful water, and power that doesn’t go off for long periods – or, if it does, having ready access to places with heat and light – are things that urban folk take for granted. But as Joni Mitchell so wisely reminded us (speaking of paradise, as opposed to power and water – but really, when you think about it, they have a lot in common), you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.

But us rural folks know.

And I wouldn’t change it for the world.

20 thoughts on “Power, water: you don’t know what you’ve got till they’re gone

    • Thanks, Bev and Gerry – always wonderful to hear from you! We’ve had a few smatterings of rain in the last few days, but not nearly enough. Yesterday it poured while I was in Belleville, and we got not a drop in Queensborough! Amazing how much this matters when one lives in the country… Prayers indeed!

  1. We have fixed that problem on the farm by purchasing a large generator. This saves our food in the frig and freezer as well as keeping the air conditioner going. Maybe even a little tv. It is a good idea to have on hand even when neighbors need it water their animals. Now is the time to purchase. Remember the big freeze we had. We were without for days. Luckily I was in Florida but my mother in law came to stay with her son. We were one of the few who had a generator and were able to eliminate her fear. It is really too bad about the pond in our little hamlet but it will return I am sure! I enjoy your blogs and keep up the good job.

    • Thank you for the kind words, Nancy Lou! We actually did go out and buy a generator a while back, but hooking it up will require some rewiring work here at the Manse that, to be practical, should be done at the same time as other electrical work – and that all leads us into the big renovation, yikes! So for the time being the generator sits in its box, and we just hope the power doesn’t go out. I look forward to the day when it’s operational and a power outage will not have to mean a water outage for us!

    • Re-using grey water is definitely something I grew up with, Dave – using a dishpan rather than the sink to wash dishes, and then tossing the used water onto the garden plants that needed it most. We also had a basin for washing hands, and that water went to the same useful end. You’ve conjured up yet another don’t-waste-water memory from my past! We still have water in our rain barrel (albeit rather green and yucky), but I am now thinking we should get at least one more rain barrel. Such useful things!

  2. When my sister’s alternator broke down in Prince Edward County, her fella, Apocalypse Tim, rigged up a solar panel to the roof of her car and powered it all the way to Toronto. Ingenuity is something you need in the country — along with electricity and water (and maybe a generator.”)

    • Okay, that car story is great, Hilary! Apocalypse Tim should swing by the Manse sometime. As I said in my reply to Nancy, we do have a generator – but unfortunately they don’t work all that well when still in the box…

  3. Hi Katherine & Raymond… I was intrigued by the photo of the green grass over the septic tank. The following info comes with no warranty as to its accuracy or especially its relevance… I think the grass would normally grow greener over the septic bed, not the tank. The tank should be sealed going in and coming out and then the liquid would provide more moisture and nutrients to the area over the entire septic bed, which is quite a large area compared to the actual septic tank. In Ormsby the area over out tank is quite a bit browner than the grass around it, as there is not much soil depth over the tank. We did have two green spots develop at either end of the tank a few years ago. The grass was very green and lush. Unfortunately for us it meant there was a leak from the pipes at both ends of the tank. When we dug them up, sure enough there was a problem. We had them fixed and now the grass is sadly brown again all around the tank. The grass over our septic bed doesn’t benefit from the extra liquids beneath, I think because our fill was too sandy when the system was installed. Our grass is just too thin and needs some TLC. So as I said, none of this may apply to your lawn at all. I just remember seeing that lovely green grass the year we had a problem. Meanwhile, I’m back for the summer and we’ll certainly try to get down your way someday! Hopefully by then the rains will have returned… we have had some the last few days… and all of Queensborough will be lush and beautiful!

    • Gary, I think you are completely right here. The patch of lush green lawn is in fact immediately adjacent to where (according to my understanding) the septic tank is – and, as at your place, the grass immediately on top of the tank is in fact more dry and yellow than anywhere else on the property. We’d love to see you and Lillian “down south” in Queensborough one of these times! We stopped by the Old Hastings Mercantile last week on the way home from a talk I gave in Maynooth, but unfortunately it was a bit after 5 p.m. and the store was closed. We’ll get there before the summer’s out – it’s always a treat!

  4. Despite all of your trials and tribulations the evening before, you totally nailed your presentation the next day! Thank you for your words and inspiration!

  5. Even though I’m in the city now, Katherine, the memories of Skinner’s Pond in rural northern Ontario still linger, and I keep a large jug of water in the basement ‘just in case.’ Up there, though, when the power was out and the pump inoperable, we could at least fetch a bucket of water from the stream to flush the loo. With that and a BBQ for cooking in the summer and the woodstove for heat and warming food in the winter, the occasional power outage wasn’t too painful or frustrating. But I’d have hated it if one had coincided with a writing or editing deadline! Yikes.

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