Cold? Spend a winter in Alaska, then we’ll talk cold

Over this past frigid weekend, my wife, Kathy, and I took our usual morning walk with HomeTown, our black lab. As he trotted along, sniffing for coyotes in the crunching snow, memories of my winter in Fairbanks, Alaska came rushing back.

One of the first things I did when I moved up north in 1962 was spend a big part of my first paycheck on a pair of good, warm boots. I’m glad I did, because even if I didn’t know it at the time (I didn’t), winter in Fairbanks is tough – temperatures can go as low as -65 – requiring all kinds of special adaptations to survive.

Cars, for example won’t start after having been left out all night in the cold.  The oil gets too viscous for the starter to turn the engine over. So when you park at the end of the day, you stick a “headbolt heater” in the engine to keep the oil warm. Headbolt heaters were attached to each slot in the parking lot of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, the newspaper where I worked.

And the tires would freeze flat overnight, so when you started off in the morning, you’d hear a “thunk, thunk, thunk” until the tire warmed up enough to return to round.

When most people went outside in the deep cold, they’d wrap a scarf over their mouth and nose to warm the air when breathing in. At -40, I once watched a woman run for the bus without putting on her scarf.  She keeled over after 20 yards or so: The frigid air froze the alveoli in her lungs, and she had to be taken to the hospital to get thawed out.

Because part of my job was to get acquainted with the cops, I’d go on night patrol with them. Fairly regularly, we’d fish drunks who had passed out from the snowdrifts and try to get them to the hospital before it was too late.

There were compensations, though. You didn’t need a refrigerator to keep your food fresh. Every week or so I’d go to the local Safeway, buy hamburger on sale, whip up a big batch of chili. I’d hang it in a bucket outside my window and when suppertime came, I’d hack off a chunk with a hatchet.

I once spent a couple of days living in the only law office in the small coastal town of Kotzebue. It had a kind of entryway connecting the cold outside with the warmth (ha!) inside. Somebody had thrown a big chunk of caribou on top of the chest of drawers, where it kept perfectly, ready for a quick supper.

One of the things you learn about in the Arctic is the wind. Damn quickly, if you go out at all. You can be perfectly comfortable in -65 when the wind’s calm, but get a 10 mile per hour breeze and -5 gets very uncomfortable real quick. The rule when you’re out in the bush and need shelter is the absolute first thing you do is find a place to get out of the wind.

The other rule is when you take shelter in somebody’s hut out in the bush, you always, always when leaving lay a fire in the old pot-bellied stove so the next guy who needs it can get a fire going right quick. The standard way of starting the fire in those days was to toss a cup of gas into the stove, then stand across the room and flip matches at it. It was cold enough that the “whoomp” of gas exploding was relatively small. And you had your fire.

I knew a guy who was saved by this system. He had been on a dog team travelling at spring breakup time and got his feet wet. A cold snap came in and by the time he got to the hut, his feet weren’t hurting any more. He took his boots off and saw a couple toes were black – frozen and with gangrene.  No choice. He lit the fire, took out the axe, chopped off the offending toes, bandaged the foot, put his boots back on and slogged back to town. He survived, but he always walked with a limp.

The most dangerous thing about the winter was not the cold, but the whiteouts that come sometimes with a snowstorm. You can’t see more than a couple of feet or know up from down in the middle of a whiteout. I once flew with a bush pilot along the Bering Sea on the west coast. We hit a whiteout, and he leaned over and said in conversational tone, “Hold your hands together in your lap. If you move them, I’ll hit you in the head with this wrench.”

“OK,” I said.  “I understand. How come?”

“The last time I hit a whiteout flying with a cheechako (newcomer to Alaska), he panicked and grabbed the controls. Damn near crashed.”

As all of us in Michigan experienced the Arctic vortex over the past few days, the cold weather is tough. But intense cold contributed in an important way to my life. Here’s how.

While living in Fairbanks, I applied for a Marshall Scholarship, a wonderfully generous program started by the British government in memory of the great World War II Secretary of War, George C. Marshall. The scholarship pays board and room at any university in England and so it’s very, very competitive.

I wound up in the final round of interviews, which took place in San Francisco. So I had to fly from Fairbanks (at that time -60) to Seattle (I’d guess in the 30’s) to San Francisco, where it was 65 or so. I walked into the interview room in a first class sweat.

“Mr. Power,” the guy said, “are you OK? You’re sweating pretty heavily.”

“Yeah,” I responded. “I started out this morning in Fairbanks where it was -65, and here it’s 65 or so. That’s a temperature change of 130 degrees in less than a day. And more than that, I’m nervous as all hell!”

I’ve absolutely convinced that response won me a Marshall Scholarship and got me to Oxford University, one of the most important things in my life.

Sure, cold is tough; whiteouts are dangerous. But I think it’s important to remember that a big part of life is turning lemons into lemonade.

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Le Roy Barnett
Tue, 01/10/2017 - 9:47am

Headbolt (or oil pan) heaters are also required in parts of the Lower 48. Back in the 1960s this Michigander had to do winter research in North Dakota. When I checked into the motel the guy behind the desk asked me if I want to plug my car in. I had no idea what he was talking about. The next morning my car wouldn't start because of the severe cold.

Ken Hobson
Tue, 01/10/2017 - 12:23pm

George Marshall was never the Secretary of War. During WW II he was the Chief of Staff of the U. S. Army. In 1950 he was appointed to be the Secretary of Defense. He also served as secretary of State.

Phil Power
Tue, 01/10/2017 - 3:26pm

Thank you for your correction.

cousin jack
Tue, 01/10/2017 - 9:51pm

Enjoyed your conversational commentary kind sir. My time was at Rankin Inlet NWT about 60 years ago.Bright sunny day when we heard the mail plane coming so we jogged out to the airstrip. Maybe 30 below, not bad. But a wind came up and my ears went PING PING and almost instantly swelled up, and stayed that way for a couple of weeks - so they called me Dumbo. Almost normal now but I have to coddle them in Michigan at 0 degrees F. Was working at a mine site with Eskimo partners and have really fond memories of living and working and fishing with them. I had blond curly hair then and my Eskimo name would be spelled something like this "Coyot noya" And they would ask me "Kee na wee?" - What is your name? So I say "Coyot noya". and they laughed fit to split their sides. Dictionary later told me why. "Pee colored hair". I thought that they lived as Christians are taught to live. Love one another.

Dennis M
Thu, 01/12/2017 - 3:46pm

I recognize all the things in your story. My time in Alaska was three years in the late 1950s with my father who was stationed at Elmendorf AFB. I like cold winters and many nights I would go out to lie on my back in a snowbank to watch the northern lights. On the air force base all the non-com housing had a post in front with two electrical outlets, one for the dipstick or deadbolt heater to warm the engine and one for the heating pad under the battery.Army/Air Force defendants could attend summer camp at a lake near Wasilla in early June. I remember hearing that the lake was still partially frozen and that the ice was broken up with explosives in May so it would be ready for recreation a few weeks later.

Mon, 01/16/2017 - 3:49pm

Since you all are in the Cold..stories. mine in jan 24 1945 east-prussia..the russia are coming over 500 000 people fled there homes in under 30 degree over open land,to nowhere..lot of lifes where lost due to cold.bodies could not be buried .because the ground was frozen and no time to stop..over 460 000 died children.women and most old people..At the harbor ships where waiting to pick them up and taken them to safe harbor around the baltic see..but people panicked and a lot of ships overload and drown right in the harbor..some that may it out to the sea where bomd from above or to torpedoed from below!

Judy Guskin
Sun, 01/22/2017 - 2:42pm

I enjoyed your article, Phil. I remember you went to Alaska. I've never been there, but I certainly won't go in winter. Yesterday on TV Michael Moore referred to Michigan as a "red state". Do you think it will stay that way? Trump just tweeted that he won, and it was alright to protest. No acknowledgement of the issues people in those crowds cared about: women's health, jobs, equality, inclusion, legal fairness, environmental protection, etc. I don't use twitter, but if I did I would tweet "so sad, concern for having a larger crowd trumps recognizing the issues people care about." The March on Washington and around the U.S. and the World involved people caring about all kinds of issues. If the government is to belong to all the people, I think our new President must include the concerns of all of the people. The quicker he does so the faster he will get cooperation.