40 Below

January 19

I wake in the morning to a warm room.  A relief.  Two of the past three days have reached -40 below or colder.  I had previously awoken to a cold room and chilly floor, even with a bed of cols remaining in the woodstove.  The change has me thinking the cold spell had ended.

Not owning a thermometer, I walk the few hundred yards to the other side of the village, checking one displayed on the exterior of another cabin.  The temperature reads 45 degrees below zero.  So much for the end of the cold snap.  With clear skies overhead,  there’s a good chance that tomorrow will end up providing for more of the same, unless a new front were to move in.

I don’t mind the extreme cold, but it can be limiting in some aspects.  Without a winterized car (like mine), one can’t travel anywhere as the engine won’t start.  Even if it did, there would likely be mechanical problems leaving one worse off.  If I want to make a call on the outdoor coinless payphone, I have to thaw it out before I can get a dial tone.  Skiing doesn’t have its usual luster either.  At such cold temperatures, there’s almost no water content in the snow.  It’s akin to trying to glide on sand paper.  Surprisingly, trips to the outhouse aren’t as bad as perceived.  There is not much warmth lost during the short distance to and from the cabin and one isn’t prone to linger long once inside.

Some things are easier in this extreme cold, like splitting wood.  Large rounds split easily with even a less than mighty swing.  I find this pleasing, as the wood enables me to avoid exposing myself to the elements long term by providing heat for my cabin.  Even in a tight, well insulated cabin, a good quantity of wood is used up each day at these temperatures.  After working hard in the summer and fall to acquire the wood, the fruit of my labor is now enjoyed.  Most people in the area will follow techniques utilized by old timers and natives alike to conserve wood and heat.  The most common practice being piling snow up onto the exterior walls of the cabin, the higher the better.  With snow draping my roof and running between halfway to 3.4 of the way up my walls, cold air is prevented from seeping in through the bottom.  Ideally, one would cover the entire cabin in snow, creating an igloo that would see temperatures ranging between 20 *F -60 *F, even with just one’s body as the sole source of heat.

I can’t help but think of the native people of the past, mainly the Nunamuits and Inupiats on cold days like today.  Unlike the current common winter practice in the western world, where people limit their time outside and move from warm building to warm building, the natives spent extended time outdoors.  When they retired for the day, they would have only a couple layers of caribou skins or layers of moss keeping them protected from the cold.  Yet, they didn’t suffer. Many accounts talk of their tents being so warm and the people so well adapted that they sat half clothed. One can gather that the cold didn’t cause extended unhappiness among these people.

Extreme cold usually brings a lack of activity.  Not just among humans but other animals as well.  Not a mammal or fresh tracks are seen.  There is a silence across the land.  The morning twilight fails to deliver the song of birds.  Grosbeaks, having made their presence well known over the previous weeks, are likely nestled under branches, out of sight.  I come across a lone raven in a trail.  As I approach, he seems almost reluctant to get up and fly away.

There is one persistent sound, that of the wind blowing down the valley from the north.  It is constant, at a speed in the low single digits but also with gusts up to 10 mph, which plunges the chill factor down near 65 degrees below zero.  I’m all bundled up, yet the wind manages to sear the skin beneath my neck warmer and sting the unprotected slit around my eyes. At one point, I blink and as I open my eyes again, the right stays shut.  My eyelashes had frozen together.  Turning my face away from the wind, the barrage of needles ceases.  Out for pleasure, there is only so much that I’m willing to expose myself to.  I head inside, curling up next to the woodstove where I spend the evening in another world reading about the Comanches in Texas.  Grateful for the warmth that surrounds me.

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