A Winter Solstice Story: What Boilers and 5 hours of Daylight Taught Me About Energy Conservation
by Carol Rosskam
Sustainability Program Mgr. – Office of Sustainability
This story is dedicated to the Energy folks who make it all happen: [Our late] Jerry Ziola, Joe Ranahan and Northeastern’s Energy Management Group; and all the boiler guys in the Yukon who kept us warm
Photo by Carol Rosskam, Whitehorse, Yukon
This is a gold nugget of a tale.
Have you ever heard the famous poem by Robert Service, “The Cremation of Sam McGee”?
It begins like this:
There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.
Now anyone like me who lived for any length of time in Canada’s Yukon Territory knows about Robert Service and Sam McGee. I’m not going to talk about Sam McGee or the Arctic trails and tales – that’s for another day. As we approach the Winter Solstice on December 21st, the day with the least number of daylight hours in the Northern Hemisphere, I can’t help but reminisce about what I learned in the Yukon about energy conservation and sustainability and how it wound up shaping my entire adult life.
When I lived in the Yukon, in a 90-person educational community that offered an experiential, high school alternative to mostly young Canadians and a few Americans, we resided in the former Chooutla Indian Residential School building. The building history had a tremendous impact on all who lived in it when it served as an Indian Residential School and later as the Carcross Community Education Center. In fact, one afternoon during my last trip there in 2015, one of the First Nations students from the Community School told some of us that the building’s use as the Carcross Community School gave a new sense of happiness to many who had lived in it as residential school students. The building was renovated in the early 1970s and opened in 1972 as the Carcross Community Education Center, and was my home too for a couple of years
On arrival as a semi-clueless teenager who didn’t even know what a “boiler” was, never mind how to live at 40 degrees below zero, I was in for some serious experiential learning! The building boilers operated on a cheap form of diesel called stove oil, were low pressure, meaning they didn’t require a steam engineer present in the boiler room during operation, and demanded significant maintenance.
Vancouver Iron Works boilers – exactly the same ones we had in the building
The year before I arrived, the boilers ran on wood, endless cords of wood that the community members of the Carcross Community Education Center were solely responsible for cutting, splitting, transporting, and feeding to the boilers. The small village of Carcross with a population of 250 was a mile away on unpaved roads, and the city of Whitehorse, being 50 miles away via unpaved roads. With nobody immediately available, preparedness and prevention were a vital part of survival, for if things didn’t work properly it could quickly become a life or death situation. Therefore, everyone at the center had to come together as a community to contribute by being mindful of energy conservation and efficiency, shutting off lights when not in use, doing four-hour boiler shifts to help maintain the boilers, pipes, and other infrastructures, and containing costs. With all the responsibilities thrust upon us, I quickly learned that the boilers were the heart of the institution and essential to the community’s ability to exist. The boilers required 24/7 maintenance, which was a shared effort by everyone rotating two people every four hours. Reluctantly, sometimes I had to get up and start a 4am boiler shift in the middle of winter with temperatures at 25 degrees below zero, to conduct building rounds, physically walking through the building, to the barn, the garage, and other outside structures around the school, turning a key in the many Detex Watchclocks, to record points checked, serving as fire safety checks. I recall more than one building round check on the fourth floor, the former residential school infirmary, or going outside with winds howling in the dark, cold night, and I was terrified, thinking I’d seen the ghost of Sam McGee himself!
Everyone pitching in to complete tasks helped created a very unique sense of community that evolved from living together and was essential for survival, especially throughout the long winter months. Through this community and hardship, I’ve learned important lessons in individual responsibility on behalf of the greater community, that work can be fun when you are with good people, and that hardship can often be more easily overcome together.
Photo of the Detex Watchclock we had to carry with us on building rounds and use the key to check at multiple locations inside and outside, regardless of the temperatures
During one very short, exceptionally cold winter camping/cross-country ski trip, a friend and I decided to embark on a trip down the frozen lake adjacent to the Community School. When we left during the day, the temperatures were 30 degrees below zero. We packed the essentials and gear that I knew about from my earlier winter mountaineering trips. At low temperatures, preparation literally meant life or death. A mandatory checklist included a hat (“toque” as known in Canada), parka, decent socks and boots, mittens, mukluks if it’s dry snow. We skied out to the planned camping area, setting up camp, it was a lovely day that quickly turned into the overnight from frozen hell. I can’t tell you how or what we ate, and I honestly don’t recall the enormous effort it took just to make hot tea. What I can tell you is this, it was bloody cold, probably going down to near minus 40 degrees below zero that night. To stay warm enough and not become a permanent fixture on the frozen lake, we put our sleeping bags together as one, and slept in it together with the two of them overlaying us to avoid hypothermia. Energy conservation literally meant eating enough calories and fat to stay warm. At those temperatures, which were new to me even with my winter camping experience, there is a very fine line that exists between life and death. Water was difficult to make at such temperatures, we ate a lot of snow to remain hydrated, and slept with our water canteens inside the sleeping bags next to our bodies so they didn’t freeze. The memories of that camping trip were this: it was brutally cold, we slept poorly, the stars were amazing, and we had fun. The following day, we woke up cold but alive and skied back to the school. To this day, I never told my parents about this trip.
It’s funny how I carry all the lessons learned from that short adventure with me today. The importance of energy conservation took on a new personal meaning for me that year. When I’m prepping my trek to work on the (usually very late) commuter rail during a bitter cold snap, I overpack preparing for the worst scenario, and since that trip, I’ve never camped at minus 40 below zero again.
The Winter Solstice, and this time of year in general, always makes me reminisce and feel nostalgic. I see so clearly now how the Yukon, the boiler house, and what I learned up there really framed my adult life and set me on an endless journey into energy and sustainability. The short, dark, cold days in December and January taught me a profound and new appreciation for “light” and what it takes to have heat and electricity – and to this day, I never take them for granted. Up there, at that time, I was introduced to fundamental energy concepts, pretty fun adventures, and strange tales that I still draw upon. Number one: certainly in the north and more isolated communities, you must learn how to “mickey mouse” things because there was no quick fix unless you figured it out. PSI – pounds per square inch – became part of my vernacular thanks to those boiler shifts. Infrastructure – its role and importance in our daily lives, and why good operations and maintenance are so critical. I not only learned, but “lived” how things are so interconnected – water, infrastructure, electricity, fuel, the weather. All of this eventually led me to completing an energy systems degree, focusing in University on sustainability, natural resources and community planning. It continued through my work at Northeastern when I joined the Sustainability/Energy Group with Jerry Ziola, Joe Ranahan, and soon after, Beshad Moghaddam. The little pieces I learned about energy four decades ago helps me in my professional life, but fully circles back to those boilers and the sense of community we lived in the Yukon. In fact, living there, led to an entire cadre of community members who learned the operations and maintenance skills that eventually grew them into becoming Steam Engineers, and Master Electricians, Gas Fitters, Plumbers, and Mechanics. They are a fantastic group that I’m so happy to know in this life.
Learning the nuances about a place and identifying its unique challenges has let me stay connected with natural cycles: regardless of where we are, each of us can behave with more – or less – respect for that which is around us. We can try to fit in, instead of imposing ourselves on the place where we are. We can make so many choices each day that do make a difference towards how we live as part of the earth. Nowadays, I live in an apartment and try to use what I’ve learned so far – letting the water remain in the tub so it continues heating up the space; keeping flashlights fully charged in case the power goes out; using natural lighting to the fullest extent possible; LEDs in every lamp and fixture; cooking when I’m cold; encouraging the landlord so the State’s MassSaves Program can help us improve the living spaces; wearing layers of clothing and socks to stay warmer on a cold day and reduce the fossil fuel heat I consume so I can remain warm and have light.
May this year’s winter solstice remind us that ebbs and flows of the seasons continue, but what a connected life we can live when we internalize the changes and how we react to them. During short, dark days leading up to the December 21st Winter Solstice, I still have that feeling like I did in the Yukon: the strong sense of connection with the physical environment and weather, and the yearning for community as a light in the darkness. Like so many who have lived in the north, it got “under my skin” long ago and is always in my heart, but it also gives me a visceral memory about ways to live with less impact and be more respectful to the planet. But – we have to pay attention! May this year’s Winter Solstice remind us to be open to the changes of season and how that translates into choices we can make each day. Happy Winter Solstice, and remember, the light will return, for it’s all energy.
Photograph from the Indian Residential School history & Dialogue Centre of the four-story building that was the last iteration of the Chooutla Indian Residential School, and ultimately served as the Carcross Community Education Center. The Carcross/Tagish First Nations eventually demolished the building (1980s/90s) after the Carcross Community School closure in 1979, in great part because of the reminders the building represented from its residential school days. So much has changed since I lived there: Canada recognized the legacy of the residential school system through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. May the people continue to heal.
by Carol Rosskam, December 21, 2020
Sustainability Program Mgr. – Office of Sustainability