There comes a time when one has to give homage to who is the most powerful, and in this "Bad Weather Big Year" it is the weather that rules Olaf. I have talked about blizzards, rain, wind, tornadoes, floods, waves, etc etc etc, but until Christmas day those were just jabs, repeated jabs to the head but the weather had a massive one-two left, a right cross followed by a devastating left hook.....and as they say, "down goes Frazier..oh I mean, Olaf."
Northeastern South Dakota was visited by Santa this Christmas and instead of toys and goodies, Ole' St. Nick brought coal, coal in the form of snow, wind and freezing slushy rain that well went okay until some time after 4pm on Sunday when the power went off. This was no ordinary power outage or even ice storm as the ice brought down the main transmission lines into the region. We have underground power at my house and underground lines, good thinking if you ask me. I wrote last summer about birding in North Dakota when the power company was putting in underground to my cabin and accidentally cut my underground power line. I had to rush home. Well I got a new RV hook up for that but I thought that was a good thing.
But what I didn't expect then or now was such a massive damage to the big lines transmission lines, a substation without power is not a good thing. We were in Minneapolis for Christmas and well it would not even be possible to get home for 48 hours and then, no heat, no power, nothing....4 nights at the house like this but well, at 1038 last night....I had Christmas lights!!
I was looking for my flashlight when all of a sudden I could see....red lights make a lot of light when there is only blackness. The house was down to 44 degrees, we had just drained the hot tub, I was pitching the fridge and freezer and I was thinking about draining the water system....but now crisis averted! Whew!!
The cabin, though, about 40 miles west of here was where the ice meets the road, it is ugly. "Prepare for power outage for the foreseeable future," the Power Co-op said over there. They basically had to start from scratch. It took them 72 hours to even get to the Grenville Substation to even see if it was salvageable. They had to fly over the mainlines to assess the damage. It was not good. I was hearing horror stories so today (12/30) I headed over to see what was up and to make an attempt to try to even get to my cabin. I prepared for the worst, at least I'd finish winterizing if I could get close enough, it was 20 degrees and blowing 15 mph , so not all that bad weather wise around here, next week-20- minus 30, wind, so the time is now to try to salvage anything. We heat it all winter and well, being gone so much, the winterizing wasn't complete.
Getting there now 5 days out.....The roads nearby were some of the most treacherous roads I've ever driven on, thick ice, the gravel is covered and it is just rough and pulls the car. You can't stop, you can't turn, you can't do much of anything.
At one point on County 1, which is actually closed, but the sheriff let me through as I had property....this normal corner, banked, all properly engineered, is totally impassable.
The road is banked but at 5 mph, which is the best speed you can go, you will just slide sideways and off into the ditch. Even just standing on it, gravity pulls you into the ditch. It was almost impossible to walk past the orange cones. I tried until the deputy yelled at me to move along. They diverted you into a field, then a dirt road, generally the power trucks drove past this point in the fields. Imagine a truck pulling trailer with powerpoles trying to make that corner, the trailer would just slide down sideways as momentum meets gravity without friction.
I got to the road for my cabin 2 miles away, more like the corner of disaster and mayhem
It took me 30 minutes to go a mile and a quarter, although to be honest, I was distracted, I flushed 6 gray partridge and some grouse (20?), mostly sharp tails but there could have been prairie chickens intermixed, as they are in my local flock but I didn't pick out any specifically, I was just trying to stop, which took over a hundred yards.
I've written before that the way to identify Gray partridge at a distance flying is that grouse just fly to the next field, gray partridge fly to the next section, or the section after that....they go and go, ...and go...
the grays went over the hill and were gone, the grouse stopped a quarter mile across the road. Definitely sharpies in the tree but the birds in the shelter belt were too far to ID completely at least the ones obscured....I was too geared up for cabin salvage than to get out and scope them.
Okay, I got about a quarter mile from my cabin, which ended up being a mistake as the only way to get out was to drive backwards through crusted snow drifts with my hatch open. That was tough, actually. I'd have taken my F250 but it is encased in ice in my pole shed and was too much work to extricate.
My favorite shade tree and I only have 2 shade trees on this property took a beating, poor white ash...not sure what I'm going to do next summer. Trees here are a lifetime project.
As I feared, large hard drifts blocked my back yard, making it hard to even get to my door. That fence is exactly 6 feet high, btw.
Eventually I got in, poured antifreeze in the toilets, looked things over and began a laborious process of getting access to my crawl space, removing a 3 foot drift and then chiseling and pounding 3 inches of ice from my crawl space access through my deck. It took an exhausting hour. Finally using a crow bar, it gave. I looked below...
There in the six feet between me and the foundation, solid hard, snow, so hard, I could not even poke the broom handle through it. The snow had blown through the cracks in the deck and all the rain made it settle into a cake of hard pack. It looked like an 8 hour project to get through. I swore and put the door back. Maybe my crawl space is sealed so tight it would stay warm enough down there for weeks of no power....IDK. Sigh.......
I made sure the water remained off, I have no pressure as pump and well on power, so what else could I do? I walked to my car and went and watched a line crew repairing a line 1.5 miles as the crow flies from my cabin....
Drill baby drill I say as I watched them put in a new pole. They will just chainsaw that old stub down. I almost got hit by a sliding line truck so I decided that I better go.....for the area around Enemy Swim Lake and Summit SD, it is going to be a while.....in the meantime, everyone is hanging out at the local truck stop.....here in South Dakota the weather has defeated many of us, but well, Dakotans are tough, no power in winter....no problem....-20 next week, it will be a badge of honor or the saying will be well, it could have been -30 like that blizzard in 1998.....
So where was I when all of this went down?
I was heading to Newfoundland...seemingly away from the storm to get a kelp gull seen on 12-25 morning, unfortunately while I was flying the plane I was heading to meet in Toronto was coming from Winnipeg, Blizzard central....it came late. We boarded late, and then after circling St John's for 2 hours, unable to land as a different storm hit them literally a few minutes before we got there....we diverted to Halifax.....sigh. It was 5 hours in the air.....Yet another night, this one unscheduled, in an airport terminal. What does one do stranded at an airport in winter? Not much....use up battery power checking things, being on hold for 2 hours (2:04 to be precise) to get your new flight...trying to sleep worried they might just leave without you.
I did make it out the next day getting to the Rock at 6pm....I picked up a car that had the meter running from the day before and checked into a hotel I had also paid the previous night for....glad I had a hotel room on Christmas night (LOL, ha ha...sigh)....some guy did try to sing Christmas carols in Halifax to liven the mood but he was sneered at and so he promptly stopped.
I birded St John's for 2 days. 12/ 27-28th, according to locals, gull numbers were down since the storm and well, finding a kelp gull in a sea of Great black backs is not easy....slightly smaller, legs greenish different bill structure but we had bad flat light they weren't always close on out of the water so what really does even color look like in this light?
You can see it in the throng...correct? Clear as mud...
Well none of us could....the kelp gull did NOT show....I assume the storm disrupted it....maybe it moved on? I got a headache looking so hard, all the while tufted ducks swam by....
Not even really worth counting...a code 3 not even worth counting....the kelp gull dip weighed on me...I wanted that bird.
Then a bit of a 2nd storm came in on the 27th and the wind picked up and with the ice storm home, on the 28th, I had to bug out in the afternoon on a three hopper home or I wouldn't get there. So did I just go home? After making my flight to Detroit in Montreal, as customs was a zoo, and the security line in St John's was worse and I had misread Newfy time, I said what the heck...
I added the 4th leg of the journey. I flew to Spokane, say I was crazy, but well, I figured, what damage to my house was done already, I'd get there tomorrow.
I ended up in Lewistown, Idaho at 2:30 am and then at dawn went to look for the red-flanked bluetail, always a fun bird. Some eastern Idaho birders joined me and then I spotted it for the day, working a Russian olive and then hiding down near the water. "There it is" I shouted and soon I had company
bird #776 plus 2, and the rarest bird ever or so the locals say, to visit Idaho.
Cool, I talked to so many Idahoans (and local Washingtonites, as they are just across the Snake River, here at Hell's Gate, who knew me. They patted me on the back, one thought what I did in Hawaii was great, he actually trained Jack Jeffrey. Another wished me well. Still another asked me if I wanted to get this bird nude and why wasn't I nude? I said I was too tired and had not thought of that yet...I was tired....it was the support I needed. I had to leave those fine folks and I did it proud, it was the moment of the year but I had to get back to Spokane to make a plane and avoid the wrath of Silja.
My wife texted me and asked how the house was, did I feed the cats?...."Do you want the truth or do you want a lie?" I replied. I fessed up I was in Spokane...."Spokane?" she responded, at least it wasn't in caps.....I needed to get home to check on cats...drain water...etc....the cabin...yea...
Now I wanted the Kelp gull as that is a life bird....this is mostly, in my opinion, about lifers, year numbers...oh well....I've seen bluetails before, but I seemed easy enough....I could have went and seen the graylag goose in Rhode Island but I don't like that bird's story....the story is strong...very strong for a domestic bird. They say it was with a flock of Canadas, but well then it was by itself, near a golf course, not far from a repeat sighting in CT which disappeared just as this one showed up AND also another bird across in Long Island, in fact domestic graylags are seen all over the eastern US Seaboard, look it up on ebird, it will shock you.....give me that bird in Newfy or Nova Scotia...maybe but heck, they don't even see that bird all that often in Greenland, the two Newfy records....Oil derrick and a ship, not even seen ever on land......I don't think it is real, just like I won't count a white cheeked pintail in VA--- Delmarva....and that bird is closer to the Bahamas than that goose is to Iceland. Maybe Rhode Island will accept it, but I honestly don't know how they can. I hope I'm proved wrong but well if it is accepted, I guess, anything really and truly goes in the hobby.
If so, I'll add this bird to my lifer list ....
Looks an awful lot like the Rhode Island bird and well this Minnesota bird could be wild, it was with Canada geese following behind it. It flew off with them and oddly it too, was at a golf course. I don't see a band,....I only chased that reported spot-billed as it seemed so odd and few are kept in captivity but well, I also needed something to do.....I guess if others want to add this bird, it IS their list, and well, I'n surely not the birding police. The end of the day, all I got for this year is a severely injured ankle, a wife needing TLC, and a cabin that may be in need of new plumbing...oh and don't forget the credit card bill.
Many people have lost their property and even their lives in this storm, as such dwelling on air miles and bird numbers, etc. doesn't seem to matter. I'm just lucky and feel lucky really that I only lost a freezer full of food and maybe a couple grand worth of plumbing. When you go to bed tonight, think of the linemen of your power company and what they do to keep your lights on. Electricity is a wonderful thing, very wonderful, without it, life sucks, Hell even. I have gas and hot water heat, but it needs power to run, the water needs a pump and well, I am using my new power to write this blog.
Thank you Ottertail Power Linemen for putting your life at risk to lay out that new feeder transmission line I documented, and all of the coops and other crews from all over the place, Lake Region Electric Coop and Whetstone Valley, my power companies....thanks, I wasn't swearing at you, just the situation