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Ammi Midstokke: More things we never recommend you do

Let me preface this week’s adventures with a very hearty do-not-try-this-at-home. Unless you have to. Then ignore the warning.

I often speak to the importance and benefits of learning new things every day of our lives. It encourages mental growth, increases our sense of well-being, and even reduces brain atrophy. I did not realize exactly how much learning I would be do last weekend.

It all began when my hot water heater exploded. Hot water heaters, I have decided, are somewhat resentful of their caged flows, their limitations, the way we humans can change their settings. Occasionally one goes rogue, blows clean through a pipe, and tries to convince you it is Niagara Falls.

When your hot water heater is in your living room this is inconvenient, unless you happen to be standing in a five gallon bucket and in dire need of a shower. I was neither.

When I grew up (in similar fashion), I remember watching my dad sulk and stomp around the house when life happened. Pipes froze. Generators needed oil changes. Dogs chased porcupines. Determined to accept the happenings of life as the odd additional chore here or there, I decided not to worry about the water heater.

I called seventeen plumbers – to no avail – put a pot of water on the wood stove to heat and dragged my rear end to the gym to work out just so I could take a shower. “Meh,” I thought, “people lived swell before showers anyway.” Then I patted myself on the back for being so calm and mature about it all.

I cranked up my wood stove, cozied up with the kid and had enough hot water to do the dishes daily. Eventually, I hoped, a plumber would want to come over and install a new water heater.

Unfortunately, the recent snow fall had my road almost impassable – unless you know how to chain up and white-knuckle your way up a mountainside in a trusty Subaru. There would be no service people headed my way until perhaps spring. They didn’t seem too interested anyway.

By then, I’ll be a handball and squash expert, a force on the treadmill and playing bridge with the aquatic gymnastic team. If the gym had an espresso stand I’d just move in under the stairs with a sleeping bag and a cardboard sign: CAN’T PLUMB. WILL PLAY SQUASH FOR COFFEE.

But then I started detecting the earthy smell of smoke wafting through my rooms. I wasn’t sure if I was getting a brain tumor or burning the wrong wood. “Do you smell more smoke?” I asked my person. “No,” he said before he caught a plane across the country, far, far from impending disaster. It’s like a sixth sense.

I let the fire go out and cleaned out the stove. I’d just done the pipe and burned one of those creosote logs weeks before. I started a new fire, chuffed by my proactive house-owner, responsibility-facing sort of work.

Smoke billowed from everywhere. The stove door, every joint in the pipe. In an instant, the air was unbreathable, the house a cloud of black smoke. We shut the fire down, the smoke stopped. Now we had no hot water and no heat. It was dark, cold and everything smelled like campfire. I laid in bed all night, wide eyed, wondering how I would get onto my third floor roof come daylight.

There had to be a clog in the little silver thingy at the top of the other silver thingy.

I don’t know a lot about wood stoves and chimneys. I don’t know about extension ladders in snow piles or how to drill into the metal and make an anchor. But I do know that chimney sweepers don’t work on Sundays, even if they could drive to my house. I also know how to climb.

I needed to get on that steep, metal roof somehow. I geared up, grabbed my rope and harness, and set to work. The snow piles from the roof were so big, I could easily hop onto the first floor. From there, I weighted the end of my rope and after several failed attempts, launched it over the ridge and fed it to the ground. Right next to my trusty Subaru. The roof rack served as a beautiful anchor.

Several concerned men subsequently noted the lack of reliability of a roof rack as an anchor. The rack was fine. I was never going to tax it with a fall because I had a double prusik system and a belay device, remaining in tension the entire time. To them I say: where the hell were you and your ladders?

Moments later, I was yanking the clogged spark arrester – the real name of the silver thing, apparently – off my stove pipe and poof, out came the billowing smoke! Just like that, the problem was solved.

The fire was stoked again. The pot of water got hot. I could do dishes. Almost all was restored once more. I whistled chim-chim-cheroo for the rest of the day.

Now I just need to learn how to install an on-demand water heater. It has a lot of copper thingies on it. Someday I might figure out what they are called, too.

Ammi Midstokke can be reached at ammimarie@gmail.com. Her newly released TEDx talk about the adventures of self-reliance can be found at www.tedxspokane.com.


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