Almost closing the cabin

IT was mid-September, and we had come to perform the annual equinoctial rite of closing our mountain cabin. All around the lake, boats were lashed to docks or stood tied to trees with bows pointed skyward. Outboard motors had been run dry of fuel and stored along with oars, life jackets, beach balls, and swim fins. Cabins with shuttered windows and smokeless chimneys looked inward, doors locked, walls already girded and roofs braced to guard arcane family lore through the long, snowbound winter. But a few stalwart folk had managed to fit in one last visit ``in the autumn, when the mountain ash are turning red and the quaking aspen gold and the lake waters are low,'' one more visit ``before the snow flies.'' Evenings our next-door neighbor's windows glowed golden. Smoke drifted from a chimney half a mile away and from others more distant still.

We were four, my octogenarian parents, our septuagenarian cousin Eve, visiting from England, and me, not yet retirement age. The weather was perfect the first day. Mother and Eve walked or sunned. Dad caught a limit of trout. He and I towed the canoe and carried a load of luggage down the lake to the car.

I slept outside that night and watched the stars, brilliant golden against blue-black, so vivid no low-elevation sky can rival it. In the morning there was frost on my sleeping bag. By the time we finished breakfast, a high wind was whirling snow.

This was the day we had planned to leave. Midmorning, a distant neighbor arrived to report the lower lake too rough for the water taxi; we would need to stay another day. Like us all, she was dressed in winter clothes of bygone fashion, left at cabins for emergencies like this one. She looked a real Brunhild in ancient hide mukluks, thick wool serape in cream and shades of brown, and woolly knit cap. Her Doberman pinscher, whose own coat was too thin for frigid weather, was wearing a man's blue woolen sweater with sleeves rolled to the elbows.

She had plenty of staple food but was running short of some specifics. We gave her our cabin's supply of dry dogfood.

Dad and I locked outbuildings and braced cabin beams, drained water lines, placing the plugs on the shelf beside the wrench, handy to put them in next spring. We stored the ladder in the living room along with the splitting maul, but the wedges were somewhere under the snow. Mother and Eve put away bedding and ``slicked up'' the cabin.

Eve said, ``How can I ever admit to my family and friends in Yorkshire that we had snow! They've all been envying me my trip to sunny California. They think I'm lying out getting a suntan!''

We settled down to make the most of our enforced stay. We heated the 11-inch cast-iron frying pan on the stove, then put it, bottom up, on the floor, swaddled in newspapers, for a foot warmer.

Of course, there was no radio nor TV. I read aloud a P.G. Wodehouse novel. The misadventures of Bertie Wooster in warm, holiday France were just right for the cold, snowbound Sierra.

LATER Dad entertained with snatches from the guestbook. ``Oh, yes! That was the summer we built the bunkroom. It was the teen-agers, Marian and John, who shingled the roof. They spent a lot of time climbing to look over the cabin ridgepole and see who was boating up the lake.''

As I lay down for a nap, he was saying, ``That was the summer we carried rocks to build the fireplace. And Beth brought a brick instead. And....''

That evening our next-door neighbor brought ground beef and dessert (two items we'd exhausted from our stores) and had dinner with us. She had decided to leave next day, when we did.

By morning the wind had died, but the snow was three feet deep. Closing up became a community undertaking. Dad and I shoveled paths. Our neighbor cried for help; her kitchen floor was awash, and the flood was invading the storeroom. We hurried over, repaired a broken pipe, and used a two weeks' stack of thirsty newspapers to absorb the water.

When we saw the water taxi glide ghostlike through the falling snow to the dock, we padlocked doors and left our cabins slumbering. The bearded driver wrapped Mother and Eve in a tarpaulin and boated us down the lake. He helped start the car, put the chains on, and escorted us up the treacherous first hill.

Our heads whirled with unforgettable memories and thanks for neighborly sharing. Mother observed, ``What an adventure! I've been coming here for over 60 years, and this is the first time I've ever been snowed in.''

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