After what seems an eternity of 45 to 50 below, I realize the word “cold” does little to express the all-encompassing, creeping, strangling, compounding darkness of that experience. The Russian word for cold -- ha-loadnia -- seems better suited to express the sentiment I feel, especially if you stress the first syllable and shiver when saying the rest. What word can possibly capture the anxious terror you feel of getting stranded while driving along a lonely road? What word can capture the icy fist that stings and numbs every inch of exposed flesh of your body, first your nose and ears, then your toes and fingers; and slowly strangles your flesh and spirit like an icy anaconda? What word captures the sensation of the headache you receive when you attempt to breathe outside air through your nose? The cold beckons you; it wants to possess you and strangle you from the inside out. It is an icy relative who refuses to leave and weighs on you like a bad dream. It teaches us that nature can be a cold, thoughtless, unrelenting beast – that anyone who clings to a Disneylike, prelapsarian mindset is likely to be taken out with an icy sickle.
How do I explain the frustration of trying to start my truck at 50 below, or the sound of water flung from a cup cracking in the snow? How do I explain how my snowpants sound like waxpaper shortly after I step outside, or how the cold zings my metal glasses and begins to numb my eyes? How do I convey the haunting awe I feel that when I drive 10 miles from the well with five-gallon jugs full of water in the back of my truck, they are half-frozen by the time I get home? Or, how a 12-inch diameter piece of firewood splits like a potato chip? The only possible way to survive for more than five minutes outside is to dress up in long underwear, furs, bunny boots – then waddle along with the grace of an underwater tin man.
Day after day, the cold grates me, my mindset that of a traveler crossing a swift river – one misstep will send me tumbling into an icy abyss where a cold dungeon awaits. The cold does not have a heart. It is brutal, amoral, and relentless. It forces me to conclude that we humans, stripped of our technological cocoon, are very frail creatures, little more than walking petunias despite all our civilized pretensions.
Fifty below forces me to contemplate the ironies and fundamentals of life. I came to Alaska because I enjoy the outdoors, but I find myself spending about 23 ¾ hours of each day indoors. We pay money to run fridges, to keep our food cold inside when outside the resource is free. It’s kind of like paying for a tanning booth in Hawaii.
It’s amazing how the cold can strip away everything which seems important until your mind focuses on three essentials: heat, water, pipes. You need these first two to survive, and the last to live with a degree of comfort. When the power went out the other night, it could have led to disaster, but fortunately I have a wood stove and a winter’s supply of wood. When a drain pipe froze, I quickly rushed outside, unscrewed the couplings holding them together and brought the pipes into the cabin, standing them straight up with the ends in a bucket next to the woodstove where they would slowly unleash their frozen chunks, which I told my kids were homemade otter pops. They were not amused.
Yet, and it’s a tentative yet, there is something almost mystical in the cold. Everything is bleak, stark, pristine, that even the early morning sunlight rays would seem to shatter if you touched them with a stick. I consider how Alaskan frogs are designed to endure such a winter; how the spruce trees manage to keep their limbs from snapping; and how the ravens still manage to squawk insolently as they fly by in the mornings. For once, I feel as though we are all in this together – men, women, flora and fauna. If a group of frogs and ravens suddenly wound up on my porch, I would rush to let them in. We are all brothers of the cold. Everyone come in, sit by the fire; it’s crazy out there! Fifty below creates a strange fraternity, delivering empathy – a shared understanding -- for others facing the same perils.
During quieter moments, I feel kinship with the Russians of all people. Tolstoy in War and Peace said Russia could thank “General Winter” for helping his countrymen to defeat Napoleon, but also Charles XII of Sweden (and later Hitler). And perhaps winter is one reason the Copper Basin has not turned into one congested city. I can thank winter for keeping out the hordes, for protecting us in the same way winter protected the Russians. This sentiment can grow into arrogance – a degree of climactic chauvinism as the writer Richard Paul Evans said, “It’s a peculiar character flaw to those of us from cold climates that we feel superior to those who have the sense to live elsewhere.”
I do find solace in the fact that sometime the dungeon will fall; nothing lasts forever. I will howl with delight when it warms to 20 below, and think we have been annexed into the banana belt when it breaks zero. That’s what 50 below does to me. But for now, this cold spell teaches me to stay focused on what is simple, to avoid any rash moves. More than anything, General Winter orders me to consider that life is precarious and precious, that none of us should ever take anything for granted.
I will obey that order.