Hiking a couple of hundred yards uphill through deep snow at dusk on a cold evening to mess with water pipes may not appeal to everyone; but water is always tricky in the winter, even if you aren’t managing livestock. Across the hollow our neighbors have to leave the tap running at night to prevent their pipes freezing, and, even as we write, downtown Steubenville (the nearest town of any size, about twelve miles downriver of us) is in its fifth day without water, the mains having frozen and burst sometime last week.
Our lower farmhouse draws its water from two springs, a small one right behind the springhouse, and a big one about three hundred fifty feet away. Springs take some maintenance; we’re learning by experience how to manage. For one thing, they can silt up pretty quickly after a big spate; when the water starts coming slowly we know we have to clear the intake. Right now the issue is ice; the long ¾ inch pipe from the upper spring runs overground, and if too little water is coming down it doesn’t carry enough geothermal energy to keep from freezing. If the flow is compromised the whole pipe will freeze very quickly, and then we have to wait for warmer temperatures to thaw the pipe and start the flow again. The best remedy we’ve found is to disconnect the pipe when we expect the thermometer to drop below ten degrees. The pipe drains automatically, since it runs downhill, and we can reconnect as soon as the weather gets above twenty degrees or so. The cistern holds more than eighteen hundred gallons, so with some care we can go a couple of weeks before we have a problem; and, if the lower spring doesn’t freeze, we can do without the upper spring indefinitely.
But you can’t put it out of your mind; you have to keep a part of your brain alert to weather conditions, and you have to check the spring flow regularly. Some winter evenings you have to hike up the hill, take your gloves off, and get your hands wet for a minute. It can be cold, and slippery; if the snow is deep, there are hidden obstacles to trip you. Getting out of a warm chair by the fire to tend the spring isn’t always what we were thinking we wanted to do.
Oh, but did we mention how beautiful the woods are in the dusk, with the snow laid down like a blanket, and the tracks – some we know, and some we can just guess – stitched across? Snowfall in the woods sounds like the tiniest of glass wind chimes, and the farmhouse lights, warm in the crook of the hollow, make the dark woods more fascinating.
And while the folks in town pick up water from the city drop-off centers and do goodness-knows-what about flushing toilets, we, when the water stops running, know what we can do about it.