The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.
The growl of the generator, just twenty yards away, was the first thing I noticed before the sun came up. It powers a nearby cell tower and the moment the power goes out, it kicks on. This wasn’t a surprise as the wind was fierce overnight and trees were surely down. The infrastructure of Orcas Island is improving, but outages still happen a few times a year. The question always becomes: how long will it last?
I took my phone off the charger and saw it still had about 20% left. Strange. The one thing I needed to take advantage of the functioning cell tower didn’t charge overnight. Hmmm. Then I stared at the coffee maker before realizing it, too, needed electricity.
Sachi said the power had been out since about midnight, when it interrupted her TV show and sent her to bed. This meant the effects of the outage were well underway by the time dawn broke. With every minute that passed, the freezer was becoming less frozen, the guest house was becoming less warm and our devices less charged. Precious resources all trickling away. Just in case, we went into conservation mode. Sachi had learned from past experience, and dutifully posted a sticky note on the door of the fridge that said "No!". It stopped me more than once.
Power outages are like snow days; a novelty, or perhaps an excuse. As long as the power was out, we could claim that normal work was not a priority and we should probably just focus on building our fat reserves for the potential of a long winter night ahead.
We dug a camp stove out of a closet along with a bottle of propane that seemed to be about 25% full. Another precious resource. We got started by heating water on the porch for instant coffee in the form of Starbucks Via, a single serving powdered coffee that we use for backpacking. Coffee was done and the day could truly begin.
The lack of power was both an inconvenience and an interesting challenge. We could get by with very little effort. But that’s no fun. It’s a snow day, sort of, and a reason to maximize. We both started to brainstorm.
We found a couple of rechargeable battery packs we could use to charge the phones and stay connected. They were both about half full, but more than enough to get us through the day. The extra power was particularly helpful in understanding our plight in terms of news about the outage. The power company on Orcas is OPALCO (Orcas Power and Light Cooperative) and their outage map showed the entire island was without power and about 500k homes were dark on the mainland as well. This was bad news. Without mainland power, we had nothing, and as a county, were probably last on the repair list.
I ate a handful of granola while Sachi looked around the kitchen. We had leftover rice, a couple of strips of cooked bacon, tortillas and unopened bottles of artichoke hearts and red peppers in the pantry. These were the makings of breakfast and Sachi had an idea. She arranged our toaster oven pan on top of two bowls and placed candles under the pan to create a surface for sizzling the leftovers. Before long, our breakfast burritos were in-hand and like anything by a campfire, they were impossibly good. At the same time, the storm passed and light came through the windows and added extra warmth.
After breakfast, we sat in silence and worked with what power was left on our laptops. Normally, music plays in the background and without it, the guesthouse seemed lonely. We could play music from our phones, but it would drain them quickly. Then, I remembered that we had recently adopted a new device that was perfect for this situation. It’s called a Sonos Move. The Move is a portable speaker that has a ten hour battery life. We could connect to it via Bluetooth and listen all day. I’m a huge fan of the Move.
OPALCO updates came in every couple of hours. The island’s power system was repaired and ready to go. All that we needed was the mainland to come back online. This highlighted one of the risks of living where we do. Our island of a few thousand people depends on the mainland for both power and internet. If the connection fails, or is cut, we have no other options outside of our own self-sufficiency.
Many permanent residents have wood burning stoves, reserves of water, and generators for getting through the outages, which used to last for days. People have encouraged us to invest in a built-in propane generator that will keep us going in the new house. They’re very expensive and a pain to maintain and I think we can do better. Soon enough, we may have a big battery in our garage that will serve as our backup electricity. In the future, the battery can be fed by solar panels. I believe that’s the new, more sustainable version of island self-sufficiency.
As the day wore on, work stopped and we switched to a snow day orientation. We took a nap and listened to an episode of Smartless, the podcast hosted by Will Arnett, Jason Bateman, and Sean Hayes. We thought through the albums we have stored away and what we’ll listen to once we have the record player set up again. We chose the loungy sound of Koop.
In January, the sun seems to hang just above the horizon throughout the day. Sunlight dwindled with each passing minute and I wanted it to happen more quickly. What fun is a blackout during the day? I wanted to live by candle light.
The OPALCO afternoon updates started to broach a sensitive subject: it was not too early to start gathering candles and flashlights. I appreciated the kindness in their status updates.
In the last bits of sunlight, we hatched a plan for a decadent dinner. The previous night, Sachi thawed 1.5 pounds of Dungeness crab from our summer fishing and made crab mac and cheese which resided in the no-go refrigerator. We decided it was worth opening the fridge for dinner.
First, Sachi opened the chest freezer and grabbed a steak and two ice packs. Then, working as a team, we listed what we needed from the fridge and discussed how to open and close it as quickly as possible. I held the door and used my phone’s flashlight to light the shelves for Sachi to quickly grab the items and place an ice pack under the milk. On a whim, I thought it would be fun to capture the moment in a video. When I hit "record" the flashlight went off, leaving Sachi in the dark. As she scrambled to recover, all she could say was "SERIOUSLY!!!". I had one job. I’m not proud.
I put on a headlamp, fired up the Smokey Joe with charcoal and got ready for dinner. Grilled rib-eye and a pan of warm crab mac and cheese came off the grill in the dark. Off-the-grid surf and turf, served by candlelight. After dinner drinks of whisky and a serenade by Lionel Richie. It was perfect.
We chatted about our pleasurable predicament with our island friends online. In referencing the power line from the mainland, I wrote, "We are but dogs on a collar". Our friend, Paul, asked if I was writing a haiku and I took it as a challenge:
We are but a dog Leashed from land over there And always at risk
Then, at 7:30pm, nearly 20 hours from the blackout, our friends reported getting power. It seemed like the electrons were making their way across the island to us at less than light speed. Two minutes later the gadgets beeped, the fridge hummed, and the cell tower generator outside finally quieted. And honestly, it was a disappointment. I immediately turned off the lights and tried to savor the last bit of our candlelit night.