It wasn’t until I moved to the Yukon that I began to understand all the subtle complexities of surviving true cold.
When I say “true cold,” I mean the kind of cold in which there’s a thin veil separating you from an icy death. It’s not hyperbole. In temperatures as low as -40, the human body can survive for only minutes if not insulated with proper clothing. I never wore fur-lined gloves until I had to go out at -35F/-37C and haul several sleds’ worth of firewood inside the house. (And that woodpile which seemed so close to the house this summer now seems an impossible distance away.)
I recently bought a house that’s still under construction. With overnight lows of -30F/-34C, the lack of roof insulation has been problematic, to say the least. I slept on the couch last night and fed the woodstove every few hours. I felt a cold breeze across my face all night long from the drafts that force their way through the cracks which are many. Though I’ve caulked and sealed what I can, the doors have no trim and there is only sub-flooring installed. The windows are only double-paned and not fully sealed. One window is cracked. My to-do list is long.
The front door’s inside handle is crusted in frost. A long time ago I trained myself to use a sleeve or glove to protect my hands from freezing metal. But my subconscious hasn’t learned yet to apply this rule to the inside doorknob. My punishment is a searing pain which feels not unlike submerging your fingers in boiling water.
It was December of 2003 when I moved to a Yukon village with a population of about 200 people. I won’t lie—winters above the 60th parallel were quite an adjustment from what I’d experienced far to the south in Colorado.
I didn’t even know where to begin when it came to dealing with Arctic temperatures. A few weeks after I arrived it dropped to -13F/-25C. My closest neighbor called from down the road to check on me. I was fine but just before she hung up she said, “Don’t breathe through your mouth or your lungs will freeze.” She mentioned this as casually as if she had said she was baking cookies. But it was frightening news to me—in addition to trying to find firewood beneath the snow and other dilemmas I had to worry about freezing my lungs. What would that feel like? Would I even know it was happening? I thanked her for the tip and hoped I too sounded casual. Being the newbie had risen to a whole new level.
That was a decade ago but the memories are lucid. How does one ever forget their first winter in the far north?
Yesterday I was reminded of these things as I am every winter.
My only neighbors are away for a few days and I promised to check on their animals. I waited until it had warmed to -10F/-23C then added more layers of clothing, a balaclava, my Arctic boots (good down to -40 the manufacturer assures me) and lined, waterproof mittens.
I followed the trail I’d broken through the snow that winds through a small forest (or “the bush” as we call it in the north) until I reached their house. My trail is intersected in places by squirrel superhighways. The squirrels’ trails are packed down and wide and end suddenly at the base of a tree or disappear over snowbanks to who-knows-where.
When I visited the neighbors the other night for dinner I returned home by the light of a full moon. I gently pushed my way between ice-covered branches that glistened liked gems in the moonlight. It was breathtakingly still, the quiet broken only by my boots which crunched the snow.
After taking care of my neighbors’ animals I returned home just before the last of the sunlight disappeared. It was around 4pm. I stopped at the woodpile and filled the black, plastic sled with split birch, hard earned and now as valuable to me as gold coins.
I’ve “budgeted” one cord of wood per month. I’ll need seven cords to get me through the rest of November until the end of May. But I’ve already burned nearly four cords in the last two and a half months and it wasn’t even cold yet, not like this cold that’s settled into my psyche and threatens to stay forever. It’s difficult to remember what a hot, summer afternoon feels like.
And now it’s time for me to scrape the half inch or so of ice from my truck’s windows. I’ve had it plugged in for a few hours now. If the engine block heater, battery blanket, and oil pan heater have done their job, the truck might even start and I’ll be able to use the defroster. But even so, I’ll get a good workout with the ice scraper.
I just have to remember to not breathe through my mouth.