It was -36 F (-38 C) this morning, and is -20F (-29 C) now. The whole week has been like this. Brrrrr!
What are the practical and emotional aspects of life in such weather, both inside and out? My main reaction is that it makes me feel vulnerable.
We heat our two room cabin with a woodstove. At such temperatures, we are burning about 50 pieces of aged, dried birch logs per day. Last MONTH, which was warmer, we depleted our wood corral by more than 1/2 cord ( 4 x 4 x 4 ft.) This WEEK - probably the same amount! In milder months, we let the fire go out during sunny afternoons to empty cold ash from the woodbox to a metal storage container we stow in the snow. This week, we dare not let the fire die, so we shovel hot embers into the metal bucket and carefully carry it outside, hoping that the walls won't rust and perforate from the heat... for a few more weeks.
Even with a vigorous fire, the cabin is cool. The kitchen area measured 46 degrees while I made breakfast yesterday. Cooking oils had congealed. The juice and tea that I store by the front door (away from the fire) floated ice flakes. The snow we track into the door mats takes an hour to melt. And this chilly interior occurs despite my husband's dogged night time efforts to pile on additional logs every few hours while I snuggle under a down comforter.
Even though the windows are double paned, we close the lined draperies as a third line of defense. Every window interior is rimmed with ice until the sun hits half of them, mid - afternoon. The metal of screws and hardware INSIDE the doors is coated in hoarfrost.
Sunshine makes an enormous difference, psychologically and physically. Our view is lovely and bright with reflection off the snow covered lake and yard. It looks deceptively warm. I don't mind puttering around the house for several deep cold days, working in sunny nooks on one project or another. But my husband, more energetic than I, gets cabin fever. He longs to go outside and do something... until he does, and then returns faster than he intended, for some hot tea and warm cake I have ready and waiting.
We have the clothes we need: long underwear, glove liners, long insulated mittens that extend way past our wrists, silk balalclavas wrapped around our necks and shoved down into necklines, double caps, quilted, lined Carharrts full body jumpsuits, double layers of socks, and, best of all, tri-layered, rubber “bunny boots” in which my feet never get cold.
It takes me almost as long to dress as to perform brief exterior chores. We pile on these clothes to check on the chickens (who aren't happy), to use the outhouse, to collect food from the foodshed, and to haul load after load of logs from the nearby wood corral to the back porch.
During these outings, my glasses fog up, my eyes tear (and freeze), and my nose runs. If I have to face into any breeze, my face hurts. After short errands, I stumble, blinded, back into the cabin, grabbing another handful of logs from the back porch, rip off my gloves and mittens, grab some tissues with chilly fingers, and start peeling off all the layers while stomping snow onto the mat. I quickly zip the quilted, lined fabric door cover onto full length velcro attachments along the lintel.
A rather gross aspect of this climate is that excrement in the outhouse hole forms a "sh*t stalagmite over the course of a cold winter. Every once in a while, my husband shoves an ice spade down the hole to cut it down to size. When he pees (quickly) into snow, urine steams in the air and crackles when it hits the surface.
Deep cold is really hard on equipment, especially in a low snow year like this. Thick snow insulates plants, pipes, hoses and buildings to a balmy +31F, but so far, we have only about 2 feet of the white stuff. I am worried about the apple and cherry saplings I planted last year. I bet I failed to mulch them enough for this inclement weather. We'll see how many perennials fail to rebound, come May. Of more immediate concern is liquid H20. Our water pump has frozen, both the electric and back up manual components, so we are melting snow for wash water and being parsimonious with our 55 gallon cistern of potable water in the kitchen. No showers, of course. No drainage. Bryan dismantled the drain pipe under the sink and set a bucket there instead. I have limited laundry washing (in a bucket) to underwear and rags, which I line dry upstairs. There is no point in hanging them outside; the molecules of water would freeze the folded fabric to itself until spring!
My husband is very attentive to the cold's impact on machinery and equipment. For example, the electric light in some of our outbuildings are blinking now - what is that about? Batteries are particularly sensitive. They are far less efficient as the temperature drops below 0 F. They drain exceptionally fast, reducing their life expectancy. So our little cabin is cluttered with the 10 pound rectangular batteries of two snowmachines (snow mobiles) and plane as well as the bulky Honda generator we rely on to supplement power produced by solar panels and a wind turbine.
Between the short days, low wind, and deep cold, the battery bank in the power shed maintains a charge many fewer hours than in the summer. Fortunately, we are warm from the fire (and layered clothes) and can use headlamps and propane lights for illumination, but our chickens would die without the heat lamps and water heater in their coop. So, when the power invariably conks out between 4 and 7 am, my husband lugs the 50 pound generator outside and into a plastic sled, hauls it uphill to the power shed, where he is grateful each and every time it reliably starts. If it didn't, we do have a back up, but if we faced a sustained power outage, I have threatened to bring the chickens into the cabin. He has threatened to make stew. I hope neither comes to pass.
Our plane is another issue. Flying in Alaska in winter ratchets up the risk factor, and Bryan has set a threshhold temperature for go/no decisions. We pre-heat the engine of the plane of course, not for flyer comfort but for the functionality of various metal components of the 1954 Piper fusilage that constrict and expand at different rates and temperatures. That works well, but flying home last week, the battery for his GPS died at -11 F (-23 C). Fortunately, he was flying a very familiar route and could just point toward “our mountain” and vector in, but he has chosen to remain grounded until the temperature rises.
We have high hopes that the temperature won't drop much further. Below -40 F (this is where F and C are the same number), rubber extension cords and hoses become so brittle that they crack. We use cold weather machine oils, but they become viscous and ineffective, too. We certainly know that every rubber and plastic product we buy degrades within about three years, even after recent mild winters (mostly above 0 F). Rubber bands, waders, plastic jugs, gaskets, bins - none of them lasts long up here.
Every climate has its challenges and some reach the point of danger. I've decided that I am comfortable to 0 degrees F (-18 C), and can be functional at -10 F (-23 C). People living in Fairbanks and further north surely regard me as a wimp, but at sustained temperatures below -10 F (-23 C), hibernation sounds pretty fabulous to me.