In bold letters the wrapper on the heavy-duty extension cord proclaimed “Flexible to Minus 50!” The ghost of P.T. Barnum (there’s a sucker born every minute) was smiling as I paused, considered, and tossed that 50-foot cord into my hardware-store shopping cart. Winter flying has begun here, with all its attendant joys of early-morning pitch-dark pre-heats, and — at airports – the need for overnight plug-ins. P.T. would have busted out in a belly laugh a week later when I picked up that same new and utterly stiff cord, and waved a ten-foot length of it around like a physics professor’s lecture pointer. I had to laugh out loud myself, at my gullible stupidity, as I gingerly set it back on the ice beside the plane – at a mere minus 37.
The first blast of deep cold always comes like a rude wake-up call, and the call is especially blaring if it arrives after a long, dreamy onset of mild early-winter weather. McLeod Bay somehow managed to freeze on the fairly normal date of December 6, but except for a couple of brief dips down to thirty below, November and December passed in halcyon weeks of above-normal temperatures. On the weather map weak low-pressure systems were gliding slowly past us like enormous holiday cruise ships. Not much snow, not much wind, long walks, twice-a-week hot saunas, pleasant dog mushing despite thin snow on the trails, and easy heating of our motley collection of drafty log buildings. It was the outback early-winter version of the life of Riley.
In a place like this, which on dozens of days a year ranks among the coldest places in the northern hemisphere, a round of mild winter weather is a gift to be savored. After all, truly deep cold is nobody’s idea of pleasant weather, is it? Yes, Arctic cold snaps can be beautiful, even exhilarating, but George Gershwin did not write a tune called “Wintertime, and the Livin’ is Easy,” did he? Living and working in minus 35, minus 40, minus 45, and all points between and beyond is tough sledding for our species of mostly hairless, jungle-bred humanoids.
The other day one of those luxury-cruise-ship low-pressure systems hauled down its mild-weather flag of convenience, hoisted its true high-pressure colors, dropped anchor just north of here, and lobbed a warning shot of frigid polar air across our bows. Yesterday’s high was 33 below, reached for a few minutes just before the sun slid down. Today the barometer is in a rapid climb yet again, and it is minus 38 out there this morning. Flying the little two-seat Husky to Yellowknife and back yesterday, it was crystal clear, and at 6500 feet above sea level, about a mile above ground, it was a pleasant minus 24: good oil temperature, good cylinder head temperatures, reasonable cabin heat. Gloves off, smooth air, all well.
We knew this Capital C Cold was coming, of course. We will adapt, as everyone does, and after this first blast we will just get on with things. I often think of a remark that one of my Iditarod comrades and heroes, Joe Runyan, made years ago, referring to his dogteam at the start line. He said he had “campaigned them heavily” already that season. He had pushed them hard, raced often, and they were tough. Joe was an avid student of military history, and he often let such analogies slip into his discussions of race strategy. That day he was referring to a purposeful but subtle process, something most north-country people can relate to once they have weathered winter’s first blast of deep cold. The first minus-thirty marks the start of an annual long march, and everyone’s feet are a little tender.
Within a few days we will bear up and get on with things, cold or no cold. Airplanes will be heated, runways will be plowed, firewood will be carried, and hundreds of miles of ice roads on frozen lakes, winding out to remote communities and mines, will be re-opened. Ease and comfort are going to carry a higher price for some months now. Allowances must be made, and a hundred tiny tricks will be put into play. It is our North, and our Cold, after all, and any living creature immersed in it will either adapt, hibernate, flee, or perish. Within a month or so, when I go out to heat up the plane or run dogs or haul water, at a mere minus 30, that will be kid stuff. By then the first few rounds of 40’s, or even a notable minus 50, will be behind us. Long-abused fingertips will be peeling yet again from frostnip.. An afternoon February high of minus 25 will feel like tee-shirt weather.
I was thinking the other day that our common, and perfectly rational, aversion to cold makes for a big PR problem in the effort to inspire action on greenhouse gases. If the dire consequences of our personal and industrial carbon output could only be re-named “Global Deep-Freeze,” instead of the innocuous, even cozy-sounding “warming,” we might collectively shiver — and resolve to act. The jargon is important. Climate Change is a little misleading, as is Global Warming — misleading because if the Gulf Stream’s massive heat pump was disabled by an influx of cold Greenland ice-cap meltwater, northern Europe could wind up with winters more like Reliance and Siberia. Faced with steady news about an impending Mother of all Cold Snaps, I think at least a few of the head-in-the-sand nay-sayers might come around and take a hard look at what is happening. “Cold” – just the word itself — has the power to scare people, but “Warming” needs a lot of explanation before it frightens us.
As a society we have become obsessed with warmth and personal comfort, to an extent that would shock our grandparents and great-grandparents. We worship 22 and 72 (to put the temperatures in nice round numbers and in both flavors), as if the attainment of that temperature, year-round, outdoors and indoors, was nothing short of Salvation, Nirvana and Enlightenment all rolled into a single bland, predictable, package. Turn on any media weather forecast, radio or TV, and wait for the announcer to start cooing and ahh-ing about whatever location is enjoying such idyllic temperatures, before wrapping up with a mantra of nanny-state pablum warnings covering Wind Chill, Frostbite, UV exposure, or the Heat Index, whenever the weather veers even slightly from the likes of Santa Barbara or Victoria.
Don’t get me wrong. I am a bewildered bundle of contradictions, and I am human, and I have no fur. I adore mild Arctic winter weather, in the range of -15 to -20. My huskies, my ski-planes, and my woodpile like it too. It is just so downright pleasant. Like every northern winter creature since time began, I am a slave to my constant quest for warmth. This morning I sit here and write this, facing the woodstove’s orange glow, in long johns and sweater, wool cap on my head. Outside, the second-to-last morning of the year eases into another full day of deep cold. I need to remember that this is just a first round of Normal, for this place, at this season – nothing more, nothing less.
The new extension cord is back in town now, but I seem to have mis-placed the receipt I will need in order to return it for a refund, so I may be stuck with it. I am sure it will find a use around here, either indoors, or in summer. It did provide us with a good laugh on a bitterly cold morning, and a laugh on such mornings is always a welcome thing.
Happy New Year to all. Two thousand nineteen! Whodathunkit?
Postscript, to my U.S. readers: All temperatures here are in Celsius. And no, I am not going to convert them for you , but I will point out a few reference points: 0⁰ C = 32⁰ F. -40⁰ is -40⁰, and 22⁰ C. is 72⁰ F. 30 below, C. is about 20 below, F.