Winter is cancelled

This is our fourth winter on Cape Cod, and I didn’t like any of the first three. It’s not just that my cold tolerance is decreasing as I age, the snow turns our driveway into a carnival ride, and my husband insists on winter activities centering around the possibility of falling through ice into water. It’s that winter on Cape Cod is isolating. Restaurants are closed. Tourists are gone. Everyone whose driveway is a carnival ride stays home, huddled around the woodstove.

This winter, though, this winter is different. It’s the first week in February, and the ground isn’t frozen. We’ve had exactly one snowstorm, and the foot of snow melted in 48 hours. Temperatures have been in the forties most days, and occasionally in the fifties. The only body of water that has iced over is the puddle on the low spot in our driveway.

Each day that is warmer than normal seems like a gift, a gift that takes us one day closer to our goal of an ice-free winter.

Even if I weren’t an oyster farmer, the prospect of an ice-free winter would make me happy. But the thirty thousand or so oysters we still have in cages out in Barnstable Harbor give an ice-free winter a whole new meaning.

Most oyster farmers take all their stock and equipment in over the winter because ice destroys everything its path. You can leave nice neat rows of cages out in December and come out to heap of twisted wire in March. We took in our seed (oysters we got as pinheads last spring) just around New Year’s, and the 100,000 one-inch oysters will remain safely stowed in a giant refrigerator until, probably, April. But we still had a good number of this year’s crop that didn’t quite make it to three inches, the size at which we can legally sell them. At this very moment, Kevin and I may own more 2 7/8-inch oysters than anyone on the planet.

We’ve been ready to take them in for a couple months now. We’ve planned to put them in big plastic boxes called fish totes, that hold about 800 oysters each, and store them in our basement, which stays cold but doesn’t freeze. It’s not an ideal way to store them, and we would expect a good portion of them to die, so we didn’t want to take them off the water until we had to.

And so we watched the ten-day weather forecast, waiting for temperatures to drop low enough to freeze the water in the harbor. As long as there was no ice, there was no need to bring in the oysters.

All December, there was no ice and no prospect of ice. And again in January. And now it’s the first week in February, and the ten-day forecast shows more of the same. It’s beginning to look like we’re going to have an ice-free winter, which, with luck, our almost-legal oysters will spend not dying in Barnstable Harbor.

So far, so good. We went to check them yesterday, and found them happy and healthy. Some of them even showed signs of growth, in the form of a translucent white ring around the edge of the shell. Growth! In February!

I’m sure a freakishly warm winter will have unfortunate repercussions. A little later in the year, we may have wall-to-wall insects, an unpredictable growing season, or mutant raccoons the size of mastiffs. At this point, though, I’m ready to pay almost any price. One more month, please. One more month.

7 people are having a conversation about “Winter is cancelled

  1. If you think a cape winter is quiet now, you should have seen it in the 50’s and 60’s. There was a much lower year round population and everything closed. I liked it though.
    I do remember a winter we rode bicycles.
    Best wishes for your oysters. I’m starting my onion seeds.

  2. What a switch from last year, eh???? I’ll take it!
    I agree with you we’ll probably end up paying for it later with mosquitos the size of B52s. I started a hoop house this year and planted spinach and mache in december and they are actually growing. I’m not sure if my success is due to the hoophouse or the weather.
    Good luck with those oysters. If you ever need help harvesing them I live in the area. I have dug for clams and quohogs with my Dad ( also known as Sir Clamalot) but never gone oystering.. Sounds like fun!!

  3. Here in Idaho the same thing is going on; we have had 1 snow and lots of rain for about a week last month. Couple nights had freezing rain which made paper delivering “interesting” (4 hours and nearly 100 miles each night). Kind of waiting for the other shoe to drop and hoping it wont, do wish it would snow big time over in Nevada tho, as our youngest works for NDOT and makes his big money over winter with 20 hour days plowing snow. He aint happy! We will no doubt pay for the warm winter with, as you all said, more insects, more parasites, short irrigating water supply next year etc etc. Meanwhile we are praising God for each nice day and clear roads. Did check on the bees couple of weeks ago on one of those 50 degree+ calm days and they seemed to be doing well. Tamar, if you ever get out our way, we would love to have you stop in!

  4. I have never heard of taking oysters out of the water for any extended period of time. I take my buoy’s off, and hunker them down as deep as I can. My worry is that ice will crush cages into the mud on a low moon tide. How many do you expect to lose? How long do you plan on keeping them out of the water?

  5. Sharyn, I knew the Cape in the 1960s, although only as a kid and only in the summer. If I extrapolate from that, I can begin to imagine how different it was in the winter. The street that used to be a dogtrack is now a major thoroughfare, and the pond we used to swim in is now bordered by houses. But I find it isolating enough now, thank you very much!

    Trish — If you live in the area and you like oysters, you should get a recreational shellfish license and partake of the various town programs. Here in Barnstable, there’s a big effort to grow oysters that get planted on local beaches for residents. It’s worth it! But thanks for your offer — we may just take you up on it some day.

    Myrna — One of the greatest things about doing Starving is getting to “know” people from, literally, around the world. Kevin and I have always talked about taking an RV across the country one of these days, and I’d love to map out stops to meet the people who have commented here. Idaho would definitely be on our agenda.

    Mike — Most of us in Barnstable Harbor take oysters out, for the very reason you cite. Ice would crush the equipment, and so we take it, and the osyters in it, out for the winter (our oysters are intertidal, so we don’t have the option of leaving them in the water — I assume yours are subtidal). Oysters go dormant when it’s cold, and the system works pretty well. The seed oysters (about an inch) we put in the cooler last winter had almost no mortality. Larger oysters, we’ve been told, don’t do so well. The proportion we’d lose would depend on the conditions we stored them in, as well as lots of other issues we probably don’t have a very good understanding of (hey, it’s our second year). In a normal winter, we’d take them out in December and put them back in March or April. This year is SO not normal. Where do you oyster?

  6. If you are invaded by mastiff-sized raccoons, then capture them and train them to do tricks. Can you imagine a raccoon circus? How cool would that be? And, for bonus points, any poor performers can be eaten!

    Heck, I would travel from California to see huge raccoons juggling and jumping through hoops!

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