On a warm August afternoon in 2003, as we lazed on the dock at our home on the lake in cottage-country, basking in the sun, chatting amiably, the electric power grid shut down. Boom! Just that quickly.
We didn’t know, of course, not right away. Not until one of us headed up to the house to replenish our drinks and shouted the news back down to the rest. And even then, none of us worried much about it.
Power outages were a fact of life in our rural setting. Living in the north was a glorious experience, one we enjoyed for fifteen years, but the infrastructure was not nearly so sophisticated as in large, urban areas.
Telephone service was usually reliable, the operative word being usually. But everything else in the house depended upon electricity—heating, all appliances, lights, the internet (rudimentary as it was back then), and most importantly, running water, which flowed through an elaborate purification system in our basement, powered by a pump submerged in the lake.
On the many occasions we had lost power in the past, it never lasted long. Thinking back on it now, I realize how naïve we were, how foolish not to have a generator on stand-by. But we didn’t. The need had never arisen.
As this latest outage dragged into the early evening hours, we decided to ‘rough it’, which meant cooking everything but the meat (which we always did on the barbecue) on an old propane camping-stove I hauled down from its shelf in the garage. Afterwards, we stowed the dirty dishes in the dishwasher for cleaning, fully expecting the power to come back on momentarily.
Before dusk gave way to the almost-total blackness of night, when the forest seemed to creep closer around us and the stars winked on by the thousands in the sky overhead, I lit our two propane lanterns, complaining, I’m sure, about how long the outage had lasted.
And then we went to bed.
By morning, the power was still not up and running. I trundled large pails of water from the lake to the house, placing one in each bathroom to refill toilet tanks after flushing. We resurrected the old cottage credo, When it’s yellow, let it mellow; when it’s brown, flush it down.
Another large pail went to the kitchen for boiling in a pot on the camping-stove. We opened the refrigerator as little as possible, the freezer not at all. And we washed our dishes in the sink.
Both our daughters were home from school for the summer, working at a resort restaurant some distance from the house. The phone was working, and they found out after calling that the place was also affected, and would stay closed until power was restored.
Absent electricity, we had no way, short of phoning neighbours and family in the city, to ascertain what was happening. The news we got from them described a huge power blackout encompassing much of the eastern seaboard, both in Canada and the U.S.
Resigned to that, we enjoyed another lovely summer day, boating, swimming, sunbathing, all the time expecting the power back at any moment. Around mid-afternoon, we began to plan for another camp-style dinner, just in case. I had begun to feel like the pioneers, I think, hardy souls who could manage off-the-grid. I remember remarking to my wife that we could probably survive like this indefinitely, thanks to a ready, natural food supply.
She had long been cultivating a large truck-garden behind the house, full of asparagus, lettuce, peas, beans, radishes, beets, tomatoes, and a variety of herbs. Poppies had been strategically planted, too, to keep the deer from harvesting the crop before we could. Eating that fresh produce was a season-long delight, and one which we now gave renewed thanks for.
The lake was stocked with fish, as well, and we had enjoyed many a fine feast of bass and pickerel over the years.
Nevertheless, my wife was not enamoured of my clueless remark.
On the following morning, day 3, we were still powerless. Our early-morning swims were taken with soap, something we normally did not do for fear of fouling the water, but which was proving necessary, given the lack of hot water for baths and showers. That was especially important for the girls, who were called into work that day when the power came back on in the sector where the restaurant was located. We rejoiced at the news, fully anticipating the same thing for our neighbourhood. Alas, it was not to be.
Following their shift, the girls drove home in the dark to find us huddled around the propane lanterns in the living-room—sunk in a funk, to be honest, in contrast to our usual sunny, optimistic natures. The initial excitement of roughing it had given way to resentment at our plight, still engulfed in blackness when everyone around us (we had begun to imagine) had been restored to the light.
Day 4, another wondrous late-summer morning, brought more of the same. By now, we had emptied the freezer, either cooking the items before they thawed and spoiled, or throwing out those we could not get to. The girls had brought bags of ice home after work, and we had packed perishable goods from the refrigerator into two large coolers. We were still wonderfully self-sufficient and in control, or so I tried to assure myself.
Except, we no longer cared about that! The bloom was long off the rose by then, and all we wanted was our old lives back. By mid-afternoon, when the girls were readying to leave for work, my wife and I decided enough was enough. After a hasty phone call to book a room at the resort where the restaurant was located, we threw a few things in our overnight bags and jumped in the car with the girls.
I could tell you that we never went back, but that would be untrue. In fact, we returned the next day after electricity was finally and fully restored in our area, and resumed our enjoyment of the summer. Powerless no longer.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about that experience back in 2003, as I sit now in our condo home in the city, older and wiser (I hope), confined by the pandemic sweeping the globe. And as much as I like to think we can survive this indefinitely, I know from experience that just isn’t so.
We are so dependent upon so many others to maintain the supply-chains for our food and medications, our communications, our hospitals and other essential services. And every one of those is reliant upon that one indispensable need: electricity.
I pray we will not become powerless again.