Arctic Adventures: Volume 3—The Cold

Arctic Adventures: Volume 3—The Cold

Because we survived 16 consecutive days of below zero temps, I thought my next installment should be about the cold. 

Fun—not surprising—fact: Americans hate winter. Only about 10% of Americans call it their favorite season (according to a 2013 CBS News poll). 

Justin & I love winter. It’s a little strange, because neither one of us like to be cold, nor do either one of us downhill ski. But we love XC skiing/snowshoeing and winter scenery entrances us. More importantly, cabins are cozier (is that a word?) in the snow. 

Our Alaskan adventure has delivered a real Alaskan winter, so far. 

We arrived back in Alaska Dec. 26. Temperatures never climbed above 1 degree for 16 straight days. (On Jan. 12, Healy rose to 11 degrees! We had a reprieve for a few days, then the temps dropped back down below zero again). Something to note: while -35 was the max low we personally have experienced so far this winter in Alaska, there were locations in Alaska that dipped as low as -65 during the past three weeks. (The coldest temp ever recorded was -80 in Prospect Creek Camp, AK on Jan. 23, 1971).

According to the media, Interior Alaska (where we live—away from the ocean and in areas of gaining elevation) hasn’t seen a deep freeze like they’ve been having since 2012. 

I know this for sure: I’ve spent more time living below zero here in Alaska than I have in my entire life (this is probably not true for my alpinist husband). 

So what’s it like to live in the arctic? 

I think my first observation is … it’s not as bad as I thought it would be. I know you are all shooting your screens dirty looks of doubt. But I guess I just … expected worse? 

I mean, it is akin to living in a meat locker. Cough-inducing. Don’t dare try to take a deep breath. Nostril-piercing. Snot gums up your nostrils, turning handkerchiefs into 80-grit sandpaper. I find that not only do my lungs stop working at below zero, but my extremities lose all dexterity. Toes and fingers tingle through a normal cycle of warming and cooling. The cold clamps down and renders many body parts useless. No matter how many layers I put on, there is always some part of me that feels cold. Exposed body parts could get frostbite within 8-10 minutes (I constantly ask Justin to remind me of the symptoms of frostbite, just to be sure I am not there yet). Any exposed facial hair, including eyebrows & eyelashes, gain a layer of frost from your breath as you walk. It melts easily, and isn’t painful, but looks funny. Plus, you burn through a lot of energy keeping your body warm.

But still. I go back to my original statement. It’s not that bad.

My non-scientific explanation for why I say that? It’s a DRY cold. I knew it, more dirty looks from you. Just like Phoenix claims it has a dry heat (we’ve lived there too, and stand by that claim), Alaska’s cold is not damp like the East Coast. When Alaska dips below zero, the dry cold is even too cold and lacking enough moisture for new snow. My comparison is growing up in NJ, although I thought our four years of living in New Hampshire was a big winter adventure (clearly I was mistaken). Point is, I never would have guessed I would feel a shift in cold sensation, until I did. As soon as I am out of Alaska’s elements, the chill doesn’t stay with me like East Coast dampness does. And to be fair, we only go out when we WANT to. We are not working outside, we are playing outside, by choice, and only on occasion (#lovemesomecabinfever). 

So back to my it’s not that bad. I also make this claim because the cold can be BREATHTAKINGLY BEAUTIFUL. A fairytale. Most days, we feel like we wake up to our own frozen Narnia. The trees are cloaked in hoarfrost and those white granular ice particles suspended in the atmosphere create a muted serenity. 

Now granted, there are very few days of cobalt blue sky. More often than not, we live under an opaque whey sky. Life exists in black, white and grey. But it is still gorgeous in its own way, a beauty I haven’t been able to quite capture with my camera. 

And on the days that the lazy sun sweeps the horizon from east to west, the visual effect of radiant light against the ice crystals is pure bliss. The changing sky is what creates winter’s color palette. (I have a WHOLE separate post planned about the “darkness,” so stay tuned for that). 

Steam, or atmospheric swirls of opposing air temps, is all around us. Our cabin doesn’t have what they call an arctic entry (basically a mud room). So you open our door and the visible cold rushes in. The door gets stuck because there’s a layer of ice around it and Justin scrapes it off occasionally. You’ll typically see people’s windows frosted over from the inside when the outside temps are below zero. We have a lot of condensation from our breath! But, frost creates more winter artwork. 

Everything outside feels so fragile, like it can shatter thanks to the cold (including my nose?). Plastic gets brittle. Tires freeze into funny shapes. The flow of propane is compromised. Car parts need warming to allow the motor oil and pistons to move (remember from this post? We plug in our car to run the engine block, oil pan and battery heater). Even the arctic air gets bottled up. 

I’ve been playing around with making frozen bubbles!! It’s clearly still a work in progress.

Have you heard of ice fog? Thanks to below zero temps, the inversion layer is low (warm air resting on top of cold air), meaning all the car emissions or other polluted air—or just any source of water vapor—hovers at eye level, trapped. Steam rises off of rivers, at least the ones that aren’t fully frozen yet. Car exhaust hangs over the roads like cotton candy. Ice fog looks pretty, but when you are driving behind a big truck, it is no bueno. Definitely more of a problem in bigger cities, like Fairbanks, but Healy has its fair share of smoke stacks from the coal mine and oil heaters all around town. 

I don’t have any great pictures of ice fog. But that’s smoke from the coal mine in the distance.

Another thing to note, wind is everything. As I’ve been warned, Alaskans will take 40 below any day over 40mph winds. I can’t say we’ve experienced terrible wind in Healy this winter, but we’ve seen its power. Here in Healy, it is a snow eater! One day of wind changed the entire landscape, to the point that we saw the brown ground underneath!

In the cold, layers are your friend and being appropriately clothed makes all the difference. Wardrobe requirements: the thicker and bulkier, the better. Y’all have seen The Christmas Story, right? We are no experts. We are still figuring out what works when and my biggest takeaway so far: you can never have enough.

Here are some examples:

Inside cabin attire: Justin wears his down pants most days. Yes, he has puffy pants (BRIGHT TEAL, mind you), and I don’t. I typically layer up with base layers (AKA old-fashioned long johns, except ours are fancy merino wool thanks to Backpacker gear testing). Then layer like a good onion on top of those. So if we are going out (you know, to the post office), I might put on jeans and at least two more tops, plus my puffy jacket, scarf, hat. If we are staying in, usually yoga pants, a long sleeved shirt and a fleece (that’s 3 shirts—pretty much always—for those keeping count). Justin wears a base layer & a flannel. 

Justin even does yoga in his poofy pants!

Bathroom outings (don’t worry, I have a whole blog post dedicated to life without water, i.e., a flushing toilet): Dress like polar explorers up. I definitely always put on my puffy jacket, hat & gloves. But I pay less attention to pants because, um, they are coming down anyway. I will go out in the middle of the night (thanks to my pea-size bladder) with just my flannel pajama pants on, and fully bundled up top. 

Outside activities: We’ve only gone for a few walks & hikes, and are still figuring out the right system. Base layer bottoms, soft shell pants (that’s the technical term, but basically thick, water-resistant pants). Base layer top, a fleece (sometimes 2), poofy jacket. I’ve been wearing 3 pairs of gloves and my fingers are STILL cold. We usually wear 2 pair of wool socks (our toes always seem cold). We bring extra layers, like our snow pants & hard shell jacket just in case. 

One last story, as if I couldn’t make your jaw drop more. 

We arrived to our cabin Dec. 28 just before 3pm. Our indoor/outdoor thermometer was showing the outdoor temp as -21 and the indoor temp as 32. The indoor mercury was actually NEGATIVE 32. Let me say that again. NEGATIVE 32 INSIDE THE CABIN. (There’s no negative sign for the indoor reading.) 

We immediately turned our power & oil tank on to get the heat going. For heat, our cabin relies on a Toyo Oil Heater (more details about that later, because I know people were asking).

Some observations we made up arrival to our frozen cabin: frost on all glass windows, inside & out. Frost on all glass, actually, like the measuring cup & bottle of whiskey (whisky was not frozen). We opened all the cabinets & drawers to make sure things all evenly defrosted. The electrical cords were all frozen!!! That was something we did not expect. I had a hard time plugging our oil heater because of that. It froze in the position it was, so laying curved on the floor. Note to self: next time, keep cord in plug-in position next time we let our cabin freeze. 

We went to the post office, gas station & grocery store to kill time. We did our food shopping in Fairbanks, but needed to fill another propane tank. Unfortunately, it was too cold (-17) to do that! 

We returned an hour later to the oil heater going strong, although the inside temp was still below zero. Thankfully, Justin was able to get our emergency propane heater going. With the oil & propane heater pumping through the cabin, the temp warmed to 15 degrees in the next hour. There was still a layer of frost on things. Even the floor had icy spots!! Most likely from our in & out tracking snow in. We finished unloading our car, but took breaks to defrost ourselves in the warm car. 

By 6pm, the indoor temp had risen to 40 degrees. It seemed bearable enough to sit & have dinner. 

By 8pm, we were sitting cozy at 70. We turned off the propane heater and let our main oil heater do its job. 

What we learned: our oil heater rocks. 

When we first bought the cabin, I was a little bummed we didn’t have a wood stove. I love the “Caveman TV” coziness of wood stoves. But it seems Alaskans generally rely on wood stoves as backups (power outages). We used to go through 1/2 cord of wood in New Mexico to heat our 200-square foot cabin, but the coldest it got outside was in the 20s. And the wood was generally already dried and easy to collect. In Alaska, you need A LOT of wood to keep your place cozy. And even though there are endless forests around Alaska, the wood is wetter, and you ideally need the wood dried out for a year to really burn efficiently. We would probably go through at least 1 cord, maybe 2 cords, per winter. That’s a lot of wood chopping!!!! Or expensive to buy from someone else. We paid about $500 to top off our 300-gallon oil tank, which should last the year. The electricity to run it probably costs $10-15/month. The cost- and effort-saving benefits of having an oil heater are clear to us now. 

Wow! That was a freakin long blog post. Guess I had a lot to say about the cold! 

5 responses to “Arctic Adventures: Volume 3—The Cold”

  1. Misti says:

    That was definitely informative! I just read Jill Homer’s post the other day about their prep hike for the Iditarod and I know she is well prepared for all of that but dang, she has some guts!

    And y’all have guts!

    It’s been in the 70s here lately—can’t say I’m complaining!

  2. Curtis says:

    It sounds heavenly. I’d love to try a winter up there but I don’t know if I could handle multiple ones. The bathroom would be the hardest for me…I guess no reading of novels at -20

  3. Shayna says:

    SMH in amazement. At least you had J’s luck on your cabin return. With disasterous us, we probably would have frozen to death once the heating attempts had failed from some bad luck.

  4. Second Nature says:

    We are catching up at a AirBB for a few days. Loved this cold post. Have you had your nostrils freeze shut yet? I can’t believe it was so cold inside your cabin. Never heard of that. Makes my last two nights of sleeping on a deflated thermarest seem like luxury.

  5. Clara says:

    I totally agree about the “dry” cold climate. SO much better than East Coast cold.
    The black and grey color scale of the landscape sounds romantic.

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