John Harrigan: Late-season snow, keeping the Cold Air Beast at bay

JOHN HARRIGAN March 23. 2013 10:43PM

Two days ago, more than a foot of snow fell on South Hill, around 400 feet higher than downtown Colebrook, which got about 10 inches. Saturday, as I wrote this for today, it was snowing on and off again, as it had every day during the week, light stuff, what the old-timers (that would not be me) called sugar snow.

Rather than cussing and complaining, many people north of the notches see late-spring snow as a godsend. We lost the two snowmobiling weekends before Christmas to unusually warm weather, so every weekend we gain into the spring makes up. Skiers, meanwhile, revel in spring skiing, when every little dusting of new snow adds to the fabulous base built up during the winter. Now, with little to fall back on save its scenery and its tourism, the North Country savors every single snowflake.

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One of my favorite lines is that I live in a solar-heated house, which in fact I do. The qualifier is that the heat is 30- to 40-year-old stored sunlight, in the form of tree-length beech, birch and maple that I drag to my outdoor furnace.

I was one of the first in the territory to set up an outdoor furnace, and it was one of the better moves in my life, another good one being, back in 1992, to get hold of a DR field and brush mower, the original model, sort of like a Model A Ford, in that it has no superfluous add-ons and you can see down around the engine to the ground. This original DR, with its spoke wheels and 11-horse Briggs and Stratton engine, is a bush-hog on two wheels, small enough to go where a tractor can't or shouldn't. It's been welded here and there where the cowling took some abuse, and I took it down to Vergennes, Vermont, where it was built, for some reconditioning, but it's still going strong. The newer models are huge, with puffy tires and all kinds of control options, which makes me glad I've got the old one.

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After several readers had requested it, a couple of months ago I wrote about how to build fires out in the snow. This was not good enough. A couple of readers thereafter asked about how to build a fire in a cold camp or shop, because whenever they try, there's a huge downdraft of smoke.

You have to think about cold air like water, always trying to seek its lowest level. In a cold camp, cold air is sitting in the stovepipe and chimney like a sci-fi monster, waiting to get in.

And so you have to push it out. Newspapers are key here. Take that, all you doomsayers about print being dead. Try this with radio or TV.

When I go to camp or out into the shop on a 20-below day, the cold air is sitting there like a monster on the roof. Since in the division of labors my job always seems to be getting a fire going, I reach for a newspaper - the New Hampshire Sunday News and the New York Times are my favorites. I use other papers for dog-beds and bird-cage liners, or to wrap fish.

So here is the system:

Lay a good fire in your stove. This means four or five twisted-up newspaper pages, topped by two or three criss-crossed tiers of finely split kindling, with two or three finely split hardwood pieces on top.

And then (this is the key to get the Cold Air Beast out), crumple up a page or two, loosely, and stuff them right up into the stove-pipe, and then lay a trail of twisted paper right atop the pile of kindling, right to the stove-pipe.

Finally, open the door a crack to give the cold air beast another way in, and light the paper in the stove, and without fail, you'll hear a "whoosh" as the hot air drives the cold air out. Don't forget to shut the door.

For many years when I owned the Coos County Democrat, we ran a parlor stove in the front office. The chimney was high enough, all right, but it was in between tall buildings, and Lancaster, as one of the lower spots in Coos County (Dalton being the lowest) was infamous for the settlement of cold air.

In fact, right after I bought the paper in 1978, we experienced back-to-back days of 48 below and 50. I got my vehicle running all right, having taken the battery indoors, but the wheels would not budge due to their lubricants freezing to the consistency of peanut butter, so I walked to work.

Anyway, by the time I got to the office I was cold enough to sharpen one end and drive me into the ground, and was desperate for some good wood-fired heat, but it was impossible for me to get a fire going in the office stove, unless I wedged the front door open with a piece of wood.

John Harrigan's address: Box 39, Colebrook NH 03576, or

John Harrigan

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