January 18th. Hoarfrost River. -41 this morning, so it is warming up. The barometer has dropped slightly, as the very peak of a massive high pressure area slides past us. If you are reading this from anywhere just east of here (not likely), batten down the hatches and stoke the fires.
It was 44 below here yesterday morning. For the two nights before that we hit 45 below. During the day it crept up to minus 40, and minus 39 yesterday. Numbers, numbers – and these are all in Celsius, and no I am not going to sit here and convert them all to American. -40 is -40 on both scales. Suffice it to say that we are flirting with the -50 Fahrenheit mark, and that as of yesterday morning, near as I could glean from the weather stations available all across the north, via Mr. Internet, we were likely the cold spot in North America. At Alert, the farthest north weather station on the tip of Ellesmere Island, it was a balmy -29.
Nothing unusual here, but ironic in the face of all the warming trends and all the buzz. After all, it is mid-January in the interior sub-arctic, so there is nothing new about -45. But it has been several years since we have seen that figure staring back at us from the big round thermometer on the back of the shed, so it has our attention.
Deep cold is our version of extreme weather. We don’t get hurricanes or tornadoes. We get some thunderstorms and some impressive windstorms, but they are relatively brief. It is human nature to relish tales of extreme weather, so here there is a fascination with the deep cold. My neighbor over in Reliance told me that when it gets deeply cold, he always finds himself mentally converting the temperatures to Fahrenheit, because, let’s face it, there aren’t that many people who have walked out their door to visit the outhouse at -65. (Whether that says anything about the relative intelligence of those who have, shall remain beyond the purview of this little vignette.)
Cold has layers in our vernacular, and in its effects on our life here. At -30 it becomes “cold.” Measures must be taken to be sure the kitchen sink drain pipe doesn’t ice over where it exits the house. The dogs need to have fresh spruce boughs at the very least, and straw if we have any, in each of their houses. Wood cutting switches over from a chainsaw operation to a bow-saw business. This is much more efficient than power saws, at least in our neck of the woods. We cut long lengths, full small trees really, and haul them in on the bobsled for bucking to length at home with the warm chainsaw. Out in what some insist on calling the real world, sprint racing on the dogteam circuit is halted, and cars are plugged in, if they are not already.
At -35 (“pretty cold”) the old timers out in the dogyard need to be offered a place by the fire in the house downstairs, for their overnight sleeps, and some of the others may get a night in the barn. Fat levels in the dogs’ feed – and in our own – get ramped up. One skidoo is parked in the shop for easy starting should it be needed to chase down a runaway dogteam.
-35 also marks the cutoff for flying, according to our company’s Operations Manual. (I think it is written in there somewhere – I wrote the damned thing so I ought to know…) Customers are advised that -35 is the cutoff, although if it is a straight point A to point B charter, and not a survey, we can still do it. The upper air is almost always slightly warmer than the air down on the surface, at least in the first 6,000 feet where I like to cruise. But for low level survey work you are stuck in the cold layer, and -35 is the limit for that.
At -40 it is “Cold.” The propane must be switched over to the 100-pound cylinder which lives year round inside the downstairs room of our cabin. A fire must be built every morning in the workshop to keep the place at about -15 without making a huge dent in the diesel bill. (A diesel burner drips and simmers there all winter long, keeping the shop and “office” slightly cooler than the average household refrigerator, for about 6 barrels a year.)
At -42 we enter the realm of “Deep Cold.” Now the outdoor propane cylinders almost certainly gel, and at -46 or so the diesel drip down at the shop will probably gel and fail also, though it seems to depend upon the batch from barrel to barrel. The dogs are put on Care and Maintenance, with the addition of a light soup lunch to their morning broth and evening food. Dog running is stopped and we try to hold the girls’ enthusiasm in check because the training regimen is getting altered. They are keen to keep to the schedule. I tell them there is only one group of mushers who never alter their schedules, whether racing or training – the dumb ones.
-50 starts the “Cold as Fascinating” level. Normal routines are all disrupted. The dogyard is a cloud of steam at feeding time, and any dogteam which is moving for some reason (inbound from a trip, for instance) is a long tube of steam, with dim moving shapes visible inside of it. Every move outdoors is like suiting up for a space walk. Brief night-time pissing can still be accomplished naked, but not barefoot if you value the soles of your feet. Don’t forget to look up at the sky full of stars for a second or two as you stand there. As my Dad used to say, “makes you feel really big and important, doesn’t it?”
I remember the first time I walked around out in the back woods at -52 (O.K. that is about -58 Fahrenheit.) All I could hear was a strange sighing sound, rhythmic and pervasive. I thought it was the snow settling around me, and I was puzzled. Then I realized it was my breath, crystallizing instantly with each exhalation. I walked on into the thick clear air. Not a sound except my footfalls and that freezing breath. Everything hunkered down, burrowed in, fluffed up, and focused on only one thing – getting through the cold snap alive.
Not as amazing as watching a tornado pick up a car, but it’s our version of truly exciting weather.