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-37….a cold homecoming

January 2, 2015

*ie. I thought you might like to read the following posting I came across in the Alaska Dispatch (on line edition). It is a reprint by Patrick Green of Fairbanks. I experienced the same temperatures as described in his article but the way Mr Green has used words to describe his experience is akin to savoring the icing on a cake…..enjoy

FAIRBANKS — The flight home was a long haul. Three and a half hours in an airline seat. But coming home is always worth the effort, even when home is Fairbanks, Alaska, and the January temperature is minus 37.

The short walk from the terminal to the taxi was a brutal reminder of what we take for granted here. Cold, mean, dangerous, unrelenting cold. On the way home, cars and trucks idled in supermarket parking lots, people afraid to turn engines off for fear they would not start again. On the road, the vehicles blew thick plumes of exhaust as they made their way through the frigid town. Everyone and everything freezing in the dark.

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The taxi let me out at the head of the driveway to my cabin. It had remained unplowed during my absence. I trudged through hip-deep snow. I waved my arms to maintain my balance as I made my way drunkenly through the darkness. The cabin had been left to freeze on its own. No pets, no houseplants, water jugs empty, even the electricity turned off at the pole. And freeze it did. Every nail, board, window, books on the shelves, tea kettle on the cook stove, even the wood stove itself, totally bereft of heat. Had I left the door open the cabin and its contents could not have been more frozen.

I stumbled forward through the snow until I found the power pole and threw the switch. I turned and could see the porch light shining through the willows. What a relief. I huffed my way up the cabin steps and opened the unlocked door. A puff of stale air brushed over my face. I went straight to the stack of old newspaper and began to crunch it up into balls and toss them into the wood stove. The sound was deafening. Cold air is dense and sound travels more efficiently through it. Even the crackle of newspaper is noticeably louder. Planes passing overhead sound like they are just above the treetops. Snow crunching underfoot. Ravens squawking. They were like cold-induced auditory hallucinations.

In the wood stove I laid dry spruce on top of the newspaper. Spruce is best for a quick, hot fire — split small for a kindling effect, 8 or 10 sticks. I pushed them down into the firebox to compress the paper. I grabbed a stick match from the old-style match dispenser. The type that hung on every kitchen wall in the 1950s. It holds a whole box and the matches slide down and feed the opening at the bottom. Forty below and it functioned perfectly.

I struck the match on the cast-iron stove top and lit a corner of newspaper. The flame wafted up a bit and I closed the door. The wait for heat was on.

But it was more than a wait. I did not busy myself with other matters and leave the fire to grow on its own. I stayed with it and monitored it with intense scrutiny. I consciously urged it to build and grow and send that warmth into the surrounding air, because without that warmth my presence there would be only temporary.

The first sound of a crackle came. The rush of draft air grew a bit. I opened the lower door to the ash pan to permit a draw of as much air as the flame could use. It struck me that the cold had chilled me a bit. I clapped my gloved hands together. I pounded my feet on the floor. I pulled my knit cap down over my ears and gave them a rub. My breath was a thick cloud of frozen vapor.
The cold had been creeping into my fingers and toes. They were the most vulnerable. The mass-to-surface-area ratio was not favorable. Too much surface area, not enough mass. Cheeks and nose too — especially if the wind was blowing. I cracked the door and peered into the firebox. The newspaper was gone and flames rose off the wood that had blackened.

Was it ready for more wood or might that smother it?

I closed the door but began to pick out a few more pieces of kindling. I pulled off a glove and held my bare hand just above the cast-iron stove top. No heat yet. But the stove pipe did have warmth to it. I opened the door again and threw in more wood. More crackles, a loud pop; the rush of air grew. The fire was on its way. But I felt like I could leave nothing to chance. I stayed with it and monitored it, nurtured it, meditated upon it. Willing the flame to grow and throw that heat that would make the cabin habitable, livable, comfortable. There was nothing else of interest for me. My whole world at the moment was the wood, the flame, burn, grow, build. It was the Zen of heat.

Cold was something I had not grown up with, but a few winters in Interior Alaska and I felt I was getting to know it. That first winter I could put my hand up to a poorly sealed door and feel the draft of cold air surging in. It seemed like some sort of osmotic pressure of the great limitless cold of an Arctic night bearing down on me and my little cabin. My tiny space of wonderful warmth constantly under threat. It seemed so overwhelming. Amazingly, with constant vigilance, I always seemed to win the battle.

Other small things brought the meaning of cold home to me too. Bring in a container of ice cream from outside and try to get a spoon into it. Impossible. Might as well take it out to the chopping block and take off a slab with an ax. Drive off in the morning and you bump down the road on flat spots on your tires until friction rounds them out again. The inevitable trip to the outhouse where you actually drop your drawers and take a seat at 40 below. This was experiencing the reality of harsh, unmitigated cold.

The density of cold air also enables it to remain unimaginably still. Smoke from a stove pipe can rise into the air above a cabin for 30 or 40 feet without breaking up. It can hit a thermal layer and then travel outward, horizontal to the ground. It can move undisturbed like a twisted ribbon hanging in the air for 100 feet or more until it begins to separate and disperse. Romanticized paintings of cabins in the woods show this but people seldom see it in real time. You must venture out in 40 below for that.

So yes, I thought I was getting to know the relentless, merciless cold of the subarctic. But one day my carefully articulated understanding was turned upside down by one more technically informed than me. He claimed, “There is no such thing as cold — just the absence of heat.” That stopped me for a puzzled moment. No such thing as cold. I could not wrap my head around that. But the years passed and it settled in — gradually. There is no such thing as cold — only the absence of heat.

The wood stove had started to draw more air. I dropped in a few larger pieces of spruce. The stove top was becoming warm to the touch. I took off my gloves and spread them out, palm down, on the stove top. After a moment I picked them up and pushed my hands back into them. Sweet warmth to my fingers.
The temperature in the cabin slowly began to rise. Slowly because the heat from the stove was being absorbed by the cabin and everything in it. I could hear the beams crack and the nails squeak as the heat worked its way into them and they warmed and expanded. As the heat moved through the walls and into the objects in the cabin, the heat was able to accumulate in the air and warm it. I turned on the ceiling fan to spread the warm air around. I put more wood in the stove. I monitored the slow climb of the mercury up the column of the thermometer. Twenty below. Zero came and went. 32 degrees. Finally, after two hours: 50 degrees.
The stove was throwing such heat I took off my hat and coat as I stood next to it. My attention finally wandered from the stove and I began to inspect the cabin. Frost on the window had begun to thaw and find its way down to the sill. Frozen beer cans were puffed up like little Michelin men. The clock on the wall had lost 10 minutes. Had Einstein been here carrying some relativity? I don’t think so. But no problem. All was well. I was home and the absence of heat was on the wane.
The small lesson is not so long obscured for others. My young friend Timmy recently told me about his school science project. He had built an insulated box and monitored the temperature both inside and out. He tested his hypotheses against his data and did well in the project. As we spoke it struck me — did he know crux of the experiment? I asked him, “Is the insulation keeping the cold out or is it keeping the warmth in?” Timmy, with the intuition of a true scientist, stated, “That insulation is keeping the warmth in.” Timmy did not speak the words but he knew the lesson. There is no such thing as cold — only the absence of heat.

Patrick Green lives with his wife in the Goldstream Valley near Fairbanks,

where he takes note of matters both large and small.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. Jon permalink
    January 2, 2015 6:55 pm

    Pete,
    Reminds me of when I was a kid & we’d come home from somewhere & while our house was nowhere as cold as -37 it was chilly until my Dad got the furnace fired up. Same thing overnight when some nights temps. in my northern Mn. town of Marble got down to below 0 & beyond.
    In ’64 my Dad bought this new kind of furnace that was an oil-fired/ wood & coal combination. When the wood burned out the oil would take over to keep the house warm. Had 2 thermostats on the wall in the living room. In later years natural gas came to town & after Dad passed on, Mom got a new natural gas furnace.
    Happy New Year everyone!
    Pete, I owe you a phone call.
    Jon

    Like

  2. Terry permalink
    January 3, 2015 1:54 pm

    I read this before and liked it. Good read.

    Like

  3. January 3, 2015 4:26 pm

    This is so well written Pete. I cannot imagine 40 below. I often wonder if it’s lonely there, but you make it sound wonderful.

    Like

  4. January 3, 2015 6:40 pm

    Life is good when simple. Great piece!

    Like

  5. January 22, 2015 5:54 pm

    MORE PLEASE….

    Like

  6. January 24, 2015 9:55 am

    That is a bit TOO evocative for a lifetime desert rat to read happily. We feel sorry for ourselves where we live a a winter night that reaches 20 F. Sissies I suppose, by your scale!

    It seems a curious match for the announcements of Arctic warming that I keep finding in news articles. Fairbanks is surely Arctic (Been there in February, to judge figure skating tests) enough and -37 sure isn’t warm …

    Like

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