Brrr!

Just for kicks I thought I’d reshoot the blog masthead photo as a winter scene.

Whether you’re in Bismarck, Berlin, Beijing, or Birmingham for that matter, this has been a brutal winter. But the frigid temperatures (by Siouxland standards) are precisely what has made the last couple of weeks so enjoyable for me in spite of the mountains of snow.

Of course it makes all the difference when you own the gear designed for this stuff. Having spent three years in interior Alaska, I have the correct gear … and still maintain an “interior” sensibility about cold.

The best time in winter in Alaska was when the temperature stayed in the -30˚ to -5˚ range. (This wasn’t just my opinion, this was the accepted truth in interior Alaska. Forget dog sledding, skijoring, or Cross Country skiing above 0˚ – both human and dog are miserable when it’s that warm.) That temperature range was pretty typical in Delta for much of the winter. (As those who know me have no doubt heard me say, they didn’t close the schools in Delta until it reached -50˚. At that point they figured it was too cold for the kids to stand outside and wait for the bus.)

If you’re not experienced with those sorts of temperatures, that sounds more than a bit insane. But the fact is, one can dress quite comfortably for those temps. When it starts getting down to the -35˚ to -40˚ range and lower, then the cold starts seeping through all the way to the bone unless you’re wearing the most expensive and high-tech gear. And I was told by the military guys in our church (Delta was the home of the Army’s “Cold Regions Testing” unit), that even with the best gear, testing equipment in those temperatures (which is the whole point of “Cold Regions Testing”) was just plain miserable.

On the other end of the spectrum, when the temperature gets to 0˚ and above, moisture starts working its way out of the ground. The roads get frosty, and as a result, slick and treacherous. Above 0˚ the air can begin to hold moisture (ie, humidity), and a 5˚ day with a slight breeze was usually much colder than a -20˚ day, because at -20˚ the air was bone-dry.

Here’s the weird part. I lost quite a bit of weight this summer and I’ve been hating the cold of late fall and early winter. Without my layer of fat I’ve been shivering and complaining. My dad doesn’t much like cold either and he keeps his apartment very warm. Last winter I would break out in a sweat and be totally uncomfortable. This winter I found his apartment oh so refreshing. Tropical is good for the new me. Given that change, I would have thought that this cold spell would be the death of me. But the pleasure of the -30˚ to -5˚ range held true even for the new skinny me. (By the way, it never got close to -30˚ here, only down to -20˚ or so.) It seems to be the sweet spot to which a human body can easily adjust when wearing the correct clothing.

(Which reminds me of Peggy Harry in college. She was from Alaska. One winter I was giving her a hard time about wearing her parka and mukluks on campus. I said since she was from Alaska she should be able to handle the Montana winter. Her response was that Alaskans weren’t any better at handling the cold, they were just smart enough to dress for it – and I would add, they had the clothing for it as well.)

So it is that I’ve been out taking pictures, shoveling snow whenever I get a chance, and being outside even if I didn’t need to be. This last week has been great, and as far as I’m concerned this could continue for another month or two.

Unfortunately, the temperature’s going to get up around freezing next week and stay there for the foreseeable future. That means there will be moisture in the air and it will feel cold, even when its +20˚. Worse, it means the roads will turn slushy and treacherous. Life will become generally annoying until all the snow melts (which won’t be for a long time, given the amount on the ground).

The worst time of year in Alaska is “break-up;” it’s that six to eight weeks between real winter and a very short spring. Break-up, as the name implies, is when most of the snow melts, the ground turns to mush, and the temperature is always such that if you dress warm and do some work you overheat, but if you take off a layer you get chilled to the bone. Break-up is also when the crazy people live up to (and beyond) their reputations, married couples cheat on each other, and all you hear are the proverbial “discouraging words” down at the café. (In other words, Cabin Fever is far worse when it’s starting to melt than when it’s -50˚ outside.)

A typical Siouxland winter is like three months of break-up without the benefits of a proper winter. Well this year we got our week of proper winter, but if the weather man is right, “break-up” starts on Monday, and it will be a long, long season before spring finally rolls around.

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2 thoughts on “Brrr!

  1. Your article explains my Mississippi experience today. This has been the coldest Jan. in 30 years. Pipes have been breaking and causing havok with the water supply. Last week the morning temps were in the teens; this morning it was 10 degrees warmer and felt 20 degrees colder.

    • I wonder how much of it is psychological. If it warms up ten degrees outside, it should feel warmer. When it doesn’t we think it’s colder than it is.

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