It’s not quite seven in the morning as I write this week’s column, tapped out on the computer during an early January frigid morning. I have been checking the weather conditions down in Tidewater, Virginia, my old stomping grounds before I moved back to this area some years ago.
From time to time, local people have asked me to write about those days. Others, more interested in swapping recipes for deep-fried cheese casseroles, roll their eyes and gossip about their neighbors instead. Guess who won this week?
Up here in the wilds of western Pennsylvania, we scoff at a four-inch snowfall and 10-degree temperatures. In coastal Virginia, those conditions cause real suffering for folks who aren’t used to them. So, being an Armstrong County, Pa., girl has its advantages.
I lived aboard a sailboat for a few years down there. To the average bear, that sounds downright eccentric. To others, it sounds like bliss.
Both are correct to some degree.
If you seek peace on a winter’s day, step outside when the winds are calm. The fishing boats knocked off work early because of the cold, so there are no engine noises. Even the careless weekend boat owners remembered to tighten up loose rigging, and there is no noisy halyard banging against a mast.
The result is absolute silence, a rarity in our everyday world of beeps, clicks and honks. Even the seagulls seem to be holding their breath. This perfect peace holds only until a steady breeze stops by.
If it has been cold for several days, even brackish water will freeze, coating marina water with a half inch-thick layer of ice. With the sun shining on it and the slightest puff of wind blowing across it, the ice sings eerily before breaking up. That sound has no price tag.
Ice is not good for boat hulls. Its embrace can become too familiar if it is thicker than a fraction of an inch. The remedy is a bubbler, something like an underwater pump and fountain which breaks up the ice. Connect the hose to a power supply, pitch the bubbler over the side and the ice shatters, never to return.
Cleaning the docks is the same as shoveling sidewalks, but it is a group effort. This task is done by hand because, while leaf blowers are normal there, snow blowers are not. And after you are done, you get to eat oysters on the half shell.
A peck of fresh oysters, six people, one dog and one cat make a cozy group for a winter picnic. The humans bring saltine crackers, butter and hot sauce. We politely refuse offers of dead birds and kibble from the other two.
A little digression about the cat is in order. Prone to diving overboard in pursuit of cute bufflehead ducks, Joshua can swim but he doesn’t like it. You haven’t lived until you have scooped a squalling cat out of the water with a fishing net, also known as a Joshua Retrieval Device.
Saltine, butter, oyster, one drop of hot sauce. The combination is perfection, and much less trouble than oysters Rockefeller. If you sit close together at the picnic table, you don’t notice that the thermometer is barely hitting 30 degrees.
On another January day a year in the future, some careless waterman will dump a bucket of fish scraps over the side of his boat. The tide will come in, washing the scraps into the marina’s waters, which will attract all kinds of waterbirds.
If you like to watch them, this is the place to do it. On this fishy day, there are three species of seagulls circling and yelping overhead, along with seven different species of ducks. A sweet little ring-necked duck paddles by with a fish scrap hanging from her bill, while three buzzards standing at the waterline snack on what was bait an hour ago.
This is also the winter of the cormorant, a black and prehistoric-like diving bird that visits us when it feels like it. With its yellow popeyes and long skinny neck, a cormorant always reminds you of something from a cartoon. You take turns scaring each other, but not on purpose.
A cormorant can dive and swim under water for about 25 feet, and it is always a mystery, to both human and bird, just where it will surface. It pops up a few feet behind where you are standing on the dock. You both jump, scream and go home for the day.
As night falls, it is time to button up the boat, checking the dock lines to make sure your home doesn’t bang against the dock in the dark. The hanging oil lamp is lit, both for atmosphere and as a complement to the cabin heater. Dinner may be a quick stir-fry, leftover beef stew or something more elaborate.
Once the dishes are done, it is time to snuggle under the comforter, read or watch a movie on the laptop. It starts to sleet, and you listen to the ice pellets bouncing off the cabin’s ports. The owl that has adopted you practices touch-and-go landings in the rigging.
Thud. Twang! Over and over again for an hour.
Lights-out comes at 10 o’clock or so, because you always wake up before the sun rises. Fishing boats’ diesel engines are very effective alarm clocks. And you don’t mind, because their skippers are good hardy men supporting families.
The sun has come up here in Pennsylvania now, the mercury stands at zero and the wind is buffeting my porch. The spell is broken.