VERNON COUNTY - Little Bitty is swimming in the creek, squawking for the rest of the flock to join her, but they are hunkered down in a sunny spot near the duck hall. The sun is shining like gold on this brittle, narrow valley but it’s still cold. Damn cold. And, it’s afternoon.
It was minus 17 degrees, when I went out to do chores this morning. I had to use the heel of my boot to crack the layer of ice that had formed overnight in the heated water bucket. My only flying duck, Bitty, a mallard, came out of the duck hall with gusto when I opened their door. The rest of the flock waddled down the ramp and soon lay down in the thin layer of snow in their pen. Bitty flew straight to the creek for her morning dip.
Louisa, my well-insulated pig, barreled out of the goat palace the minute she heard me sliding the bolt open. She is so quick that she butts her head against the door and starts squealing before I can even get it opened. Down the ramp slid Louisa, making a beeline for the warm mash and banana in her blue feed bowl.
I peeked inside the goat palace and there were the goats, Luna and Peepers, still snuggled against each other deep in the straw, with no desire to move. Their look said it all: “We’re not crazy. We know it’s damn cold out there. Unless you bring our food in here we’re not getting up.”
The donkeys, Diego and Carlos, were patiently waiting for their hay. As soon as they saw the light come on in my attic bedroom thirty minutes before I set foot out of the house, they began braying their cold heads off, saying, “Hurry! Hurry!” Now they stood near the fence eyeing my every move.
Yesterday, the poor dears had ice balls under their hooves from the frigid weather. The farrier made a special trip over to knock the ice off each hoof with a small hammer. I’ve learned to leave that job to the experts. The first time Diego had ice balls I tried that trick with my own hammer—and missed the ice ball. Ever since, if Diego sees me with a hammer in my hand he is off like a thoroughbred racehorse.
That same day, when the hammer trick failed, I built a huge bonfire in the donkeys’ pen. I gathered the pieces of wood that were too big to fit in my stove, the loose bark and wood chips from the wood shed, empty paper feed bags, and bailing twine from the snake shed, and lit a hundred matches until it caught and a blaze of fire roared. My theory was that the nearby heat would melt the ice balls off their feet. Diego and Carlos enjoyed the fire, but the ice balls remained.
My next step this morning was to grab a good chunk of hay from the snake shed, keeping my eyes open for the stray opossum that was crawling through my backyard yesterday toward the shed, looking neither warm nor happy.
Every opossum that makes its way to my place ends up in the snake shed, under the loose hay, and doesn’t bother moving until I’m bent over, reaching for a slab of hay. Then out they pop! No matter how many times this has happened, I scream and wet my pants. I now refer to this routine—getting feed, screaming, and peeing—as multitasking. Why do they not just play dead when I come close, like they do when the dogs run after them?
After feeding the dogs and cats, I ended my morning chores by carrying out buckets of hot water for everyone from the utility sink in the basement, spilling enough on my pajama bottoms to make me crabby.
Preparing to leave for work on cold winter mornings takes time. My headlamp is my helper, my insulated Kinko gloves are my best friends ever. I move as quickly as I can, but the cold moves faster, and I’m outside in my barn jacket, winter boots, and pajama bottoms with my thighs and rear end freezing.
I returned home after morning classes to check on everyone. The temperature had risen nearly to zero. The valley was quiet except for Bitty, who hadn’t given up on trying to coax her fellow ducks to come and wash up in the creek.
Now, after a mid-day run through all the pens and making sure everyone got a snack and more fresh water, I’m back inside my house. All four cats and two dogs are with me. Luckily, they—and I—don’t have to live outside for the duration of this cold, cold weather.
Thanks to the crazy cold of 2018, I’ve just ordered my first pair of insulated bib overalls to wear under my barn jacket. I’ll bet once they come it starts to warm up. Maybe I should have considered a wetsuit, so I could keep Little Bitty company in the creek!