Hot summer day; neighbor calls me over. “Do you know that there’s a shovel on your roof?” Raised eyebrows; his, not mine. I assured him that I did know.
He asked, “Why?” and I told him that was the shovel I used to clear the roof in times of heavy snow. He seemed clearly perplexed and when he asked why I left it there I replied that way I’d know where it was when the time was right. It’s easy to misplace tools.
There was that awkward moment when it was clear that what was logical to the one was not to the other. What can one do at such times? We kept our thoughts to ourselves; each thinking the other a bit daffy. He’d lived there more than 50 years by then, never seen a shovel on the roof.
That was two or three summers ago. The shovel remained, out of harms way, clearly where it should be; ready for the time.
The time came this week. Snowfalls, none heavy but accumulating over time; some thaw and some heat loss through the roof; ice built up to alarming thickness along the edges; water, in defiance of the cold, gathered and seeped. It was time.
I’d seen it coming and two days earlier rummaged around the basement to find the other tool needed, an ancient hatchet; it has heft to it and a long, flat blade. The blade is dulled; I never touch it with file or stone. It’s sharp enough to do damage to ice; not so sharp to slice shingle or tar. Or so I tell myself.
The head is loose in spite of several wedges and pins; pick it up, shake it; the head has a slight wobble. When I found the hatchet, I set it head down in a pan of water. The water would swell the wood tight to the head and the hatchet, as simple a tool as there is, would do its job.
I do not do well with heights. I do not willingly stand close to windows in buildings higher than two stories; I do not do well on steep slopes; I do not favor my time on roofs. So I go to the upper story of the house with a measure of trepidation. But there was snow to clear; ice to chop.
I leaned the ladder; tested its hold on the driveway. It seemed steady. I climbed a few steps; bounced a bit; no movement at all. So I climbed up the old wood ladder to the first story roof, stepped off the ladder into knee-deep snow and slowly moved up. It was slippery but doable. I was on all fours; step at a time, hatchet in hand, like an alpinist on a steep pitch.
Finally to the near-flat roof on the second story. I raised up to the roof, scanned the snow. My shovel was there, buried under a light covering of snow like a body in a shallow grave, the outline visible but indistinct.
I eased down toward the roof’s edge, shovel in front of me. I set the hatchet down and then pushed with the shovel. The snow was light and dry; I shoveled off one lane of it; shovel width wide. Then worked from there.
I shoveled off maybe one third of the roof and then crawled back up for the hatchet, eased my way down and began to chop the ice. It was thick, in places near a foot thick. I hacked at it; it came up grudgingly.
There are days when the ice cleaves clean and sharp; chunks fall off the main as a split of oak from a cut trunk. Other days it is not as easy; small shards fly every which way; the big pieces hold tight, resisting the fall of hatchet head. This day was one of those when the ice gave up unwillingly and while small pieces chipped off; large ones held tight.
I’d skied earlier in the day and it had not gone well. It was cold, near zero; maybe above, maybe below; doesn’t much matter. The snow was slow and to make things worse on a day when it was easy to figure which wax to use I’d misjudged it. The skis were dog-slow. I thought to myself “I’ve been doing this for 40 years, is it asking too much that on an easy day I’d get it right?” Apparently not. I berated myself as I skied, slowly and with much effort.
I had visions of skiing out nine miles then turning back; 18 total, a good run on a harsh day. But it was apparent that would not happen. An hour into it I was behind pace, the wind was picking up and I was tired. I skied for a bit more then turned back; beaten.
There are days when it just doesn’t come together on skis. This was one of those days, a slow, hard slog. In the cold I slowly lost heat and I hunched my shoulders against the chill and after an hour, an hour and a half, my shoulders were tight and achy.
It was not as I’d imagined it would be but some days are like that. I got back to the truck chilled and sore and not particularly satisfied by it all. In a month I’ll ski the Birkebeiner and I need to get some quality miles under my skis before I do. This day was not a quality day.
I thought of that on the roof where the ice held tight and the same wind that bothered my skiing now reached me, high above the ground on an open roof on a chill day. My arms were tired from skiing; chopping ice was an effort.
I thought that I should wrap the handle of the hatchet with hockey tape; it would be less slippery. I thought that I should come up in the summer and assess the roof for damage; a dull hatchet can still cut. Maybe I could run some of those heat coils along the problem area. Then I pulled back and remembered that I did not like heights and I probably would not make this climb again in summer.
At times I just sat back, rested my arms and took it all in. From that high, the neighborhood seems a different place. House roofs white under snow; yards drifted; streets rutted and cold. I watched an airplane overhead; kids unloaded from a school bus, flashes of color and laughter in the afternoon. And I thought to myself; this is like skiing was that morning; a lot of work and a lot of cold and, if you took the time, a wonderful world to see.
Then the chill cut deeper and I’d go back work as I’d done on skis; the metronome of arm lifting and falling; the sound of hatchet head on ice; the split of ice off the main, the fall of ice and, an instant later, the sound of ice hitting driveway.
The shovel broke near the end. The blade split; it was useless. I finished best I could and then, on a whim, tossed the shovel over the back of the roof toward the backyard. If turned like a propeller blade in the cold January air, late afternoon sun catching it as it fell.
I remembered my old neighbor, who died last summer; remembered the hot summer day when he’d seen the shovel on the roof. Knew, as I climbed down that days were longer now, even in the whip of a January wind, knew that summer would come in its time, that I’d need to buy a new shovel, carry it up, and leave it there, where it belonged.
An assortment of outdoor products is available at Mel’s Trading Post in downtown Rhinelander. Call (715) 362-5800.