Record-breaking winter brings memories of Alaska

My wife, Kathy, and I had planned to drive to Chicago last weekend. But we prudently canceled after the horrific pileup on I-94 near Michigan City, Ind. that killed three and wrecked more than 40 vehicles. News reports said drivers were blinded by a sudden whiteout from “lake effect” snow.

Whiteouts are something I remember all too well from back in the mid-1960’s, when I was living in Alaska. I had hitched a ride with a bush pilot from Kotzebue, a tiny community on the eastern shore of the Bering Sea, heading northeast toward Barrow, when we ran into a whiteout. The light faded into ghostly white. No sun, anywhere. I could not tell up from down, side from side.

The pilot looked over at me, and took out a socket wrench. “Put your hands in your lap and fold them together. If I see you move, even a twitch, I will hit you in the head with this wrench.”

The pilot looked over at me, and took out a socket wrench. “Put your hands in your lap and fold them together. If I see you move, even a twitch, I will hit you in the head with this wrench.”

How come? “The last guy I had up in a whiteout panicked and grabbed the controls. The only thing to do in a whiteout is don’t look out, focus only at the controls and climb gently.

“Eventually, you’ll get out.”

He was right – we did. And eventually, we too will get out of this Arctic weather, which has set all-time January records for snow. As of this writing we’d already had more than 31.5 inches of snowfall, topping the previous record of 29.6 inches, set in January, 1978 – and as I write, it’s snowing again.

But in the meantime, the snow and the cold this year remind me of the weather when I was much younger.

In the 1950’s my parents used to drive to Traverse City to spend Christmas with my grandfather. In those days before expressways, it took around nine hours in the old green Buick, with my father driving much too fast – according to my mother. The perpendicular snow banks on either side of the road were six or seven feet high, cut by the enormous rotary plows of the day. Where the wind had cleared the road you could see the bare black telephone poles marching off in the white, featureless distance.

We would drive carefully when we got to Traverse City, because the snow banks on the side of the streets were so high you couldn’t see the cars coming from the side. People would put bright red banners on the tops of their radio aerials to mark their location.

My grandfather, a methodical man, would carefully sweep the steps and sidewalk going up to his big old house on Sixth Street whenever it snowed. Mornings, he would walk to his office downtown, always stopping at the same streetlight in the snowy cold and dark. He’s look up at the light, sneeze three times, and continue his march. My mother’s parents lived for a time in Houghton, just at the base of the Keweenaw Peninsula in the Upper Peninsula.

I remember a winter picture of their house: The snow in front was so high that the only way you could exit was to step out of the bedroom window on the second floor!

When I was growing up, my father had a 1939 Ford, not a great car in the snow. He’d laboriously put heavy, clumsy chains on the rear wheels, and when he came home, I could hear the “clunk, clunk” as he came up the driveway.

He liked the cold, though, and one winter he built an iceboat, a big sloop-rigged craft on three sharp runners that could go faster than the wind when the ice on the neighborhood lake was smooth. Sounds fun – until the day he tipped over and went sprawling hundreds of feet across the ice before we could get him on his feet.

When I graduated from college in 1962, I got a job as sports editor of the paper in Fairbanks, Alaska. The coldest it got when I was there was 65 below zero and the whole city was in covered with near-whiteout from the ice fog, but that was rare.

You’d put “head bolt heaters” in the oil pan of your car to keep the oil from freezing, and when you’d start out driving, the tires would have frozen flat spots until they warmed up.

Like everybody else, after a while I got used to the cold. When it got up to 20 below, we’d all go out in our shirtsleeves to do our errands. Christmas time, I went out into the bush to cut a tree when it was around -40. I took a whack at a likely-looking spruce, and all the branches fell off! Every so often, it got warmer in Fairbanks than it was “outside” in what we called the “lower 48.”

I’d write that story for page one of the paper, and we’d all feel good … until it got cold again. The rule was you always took your Mackinaw and boots when you went out in your car. One day, the editor hit a patch of ice on the road and skidded smack into a high drift, so deep that we had to smash out the rear window to climb out. I suppose it was around -35 when we started walking home, and after a while my ears and nose started to hurt.

Then they stopped hurting. Which was not a good sign. When we finally got picked up, the guy said I’d frozen my face. It hurt like hell when I unthawed, and to this day when I’m out in the cold my ears are the first part that starts hurting.

That makes our current “polar vortex” troubles seem mild. But for me this weather triggers all kinds of memories – and I’ll bet I am not alone. I encourage readers of this column to post on Bridge Magazine your own recollections of winter weather. Reading them may help us all feel just a little warmer.

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Dave K
Tue, 01/28/2014 - 9:59am
I grew up in Holland, Michigan. Large snow storms were not unusual. Unless the cold was dangerous, we were encouraged to get outside every day. One of my favorite activities was digging tunnels with my friends through the snow drifts in the ditch across the road and into the adjacent field. We would end up with a network of tunnels and rooms, typically pretending we were "Hogan's Heroes." (Can you imagine parents letting their kids do that now?) Another fond memory is digging out "igloos" in the back yard. My dad would pile snow into a mound as high as he could, then help us dig out a nice warm room inside. Although our dog had a double-floored, double-walled, insulated dog-house, when an igloo was available, he would opt to sleep in there. I still love a good old-fashioned Michigan snow storm!
David H. Dinger,M.D.
Tue, 01/28/2014 - 1:04pm
I recall growing up in Waterbury, Ct. To me as a young boy, the winters were harsh. I remember that winter was long and the snow was deep. I had to walk a mile to grade school and part of the route was through a wooded ravine along a raging creek. I was a newspaper boy then and my dog, Blaze, followed me or really he led me as he knew the route as well as I. Snow would get packed between his toes and he would stop frequently to try to remove it with his teeth. My grandma made booties with drawstring ties for him so that he accompany me in comfort. Later, I recall the cold and deep snow of January 1978 here in Southeast Michigan. On a couple occasions, I made the rounds in my Toyota LandCruiser FJ40 to pick up a few of my office staff so that I could keep my pediatric office open for those patients that needed my services.
Doug Hill
Wed, 01/29/2014 - 10:45am
Great recollections, Phil. Like you I spent time at the News-Miner in Fairbanks as a sports writer. The first lesson I was given by an old sourdough news side reporter after the initial snowflake fell on September 23 was to make sure I had the necessary gear in my car to hike back from wherever I might be. It's the same lesson I passed along to my now 17-year-old daughter who's driving to work three days a week. She of course rolled her eyes and gave me a "whatever" but I noticed a pair of boots get tucked in the back seat:-) Thanks for the trip down memory lane (I was about 30 years after you), but he weather hadn't changed much. Coldest we got was about 48 below Thanksgiving weekend. The visiting Hawaii Pacific University basketball team ran quicker from its bus to the arena than it ever did on the court that weekend! The temperature upon takeoff from Honolulu was 81 degrees and upon arrival in Fairbanks it was 38 below. How about a 119 degree change in temperature!?!
Sandra McClennen
Wed, 01/29/2014 - 8:00pm
I grew up in Grand Rapids, going to school in the 1940s and 50s. I remember snowbanks way over my head. I remember ice skating on Reeds Lake. And I remember that girls had to wear dresses, not slacks, and after the 2nd grade you got laughed out of town if you wore snowpants, so I hated recess in the winter. (Yes, we went out every day, no matter the temperature.) I learned that if I misbehaved, I got kept in at recess. I had quite a record when I left elementary school which changed when I went to 7th grade with no more recess.
John Q. Public
Wed, 02/05/2014 - 9:34pm
"Unthawed" as a verb? Yikes.
Sherry Pollard ...
Sun, 03/05/2017 - 10:14pm

Ah the winters in Fairbanks, Alaska! This was mid 50's and we walked every where. No car. Too cold. My eye lashes froze together. I was so bundled up, I couldn't even bend over. Big, heavy woolen scarf across my face. My favorite possession...white rabbit mittens that I could breathe into to keep my face warm (and my hands). Also mukluks my Grandmother had made me out of beaver skins she and my Grandpa trapped and she stretched. And the ice fog. And the snow like granulated salt. Quite a memory!