Hannah Goes Fishing

A Fishing (and more) Blog

Life at -40

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This last week has brought a particular chilly cold snap to the interior, effectively reminding all Fairbanksians and other interior Alaskans that our home can be sometimes be both breathtaking and unforgiving.  Temperatures have ranged from a balmy -20F to a frosty -50F, creating the need for hasty shuffles between warm buildings and frozen cars, dog houses, and the outhouse.  Living at these temperatures can create some unique challenges in one’s day-to-day life, and this post is dedicated to sharing a little bit of that life with you.

Because of our northern latitude, daylight creeps over the horizon in earnest around 10am and sets around 4pm.  Luckily, we enjoy a long twilight and have enough light to enjoy the icy outdoors starting around 9pm, and ending around 5pm.  My dry cabin stays pretty comfy at with the Toyo stove tuned to 64 degrees (we keep it low to conserve our very expensive heating fuel), though any crack around the doors or windows quickly becomes frosted with a layer of frost and ice.  To help keep the heat in, we’ve stapled a layer of plastic vapor barrier over all the windows and non-essential doors.  The plastic is semi-transparent, so we still receive a little bit of light.  But, the general idea is to keep the cold air from wafting around the cabin, so we end up prioritizing heat over natural light.  Due to these kinds of measures and the natural lack of daylight, many Alaskans struggle with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) which is brought on by a lack of vitamin D (which your body creates from exposure to sunlight).  Symptoms and severity depend on the person (women tend to be affected more severely than men), but tend to include general malaise, depression, lack of energy, and sometimes thoughts of suicide.  Thus, it’s important to either supplement with vitamin D in pill form, or ensure that your diet and daily routine expose you to lots of sunlight or dietary D.

Mornings in our cabin start with usually a very chilly trip to the outhouse.  Though it’s close to our front door, exposing one’s nether regions to the -40F degree air is usually not a pleasant experience.  One comfort we do enjoy is having a sheet of thick blue foam for a toilet seat instead of cold plastic.  The foam doesn’t get cold, and thus makes the experience a little bit warmer.  Once we’ve hustled back inside and washed up, we begin preparations for the day.  This prep must include starting our car at least 10 minutes (usually more) before planning to go anywhere.  At these temperatures, oil becomes a thick syrup and all vehicles must be plugged in with specially installed oil, battery, and engine block heaters to make them startable at all (this set of heaters is collectively called “winterizing” a car).

Once we’re finally ready to leave, we start layering up to head outside.  At these temperatures, exposed skin can become frostbite in a matter of minutes, and all metal surfaces will effectively burn exposed skin in a manner similar to touching a hot burner.  Thus, thick wool mittens, a hat, long sleeve shirt, down vest, down jacket, moose hide/canvas mukluks, and an insulated snow skirt are all absolutes (at least, that’s my setup.  Some people use other methods.).  I even avoid wearing metal earrings (which is to say, most earrings) when it’s this cold since the exposed metal brushes against my face and can leave little frost-nip burns.  The metal hooks actually touching my ears can also be exceptionally uncomfortable.  I sometimes also wear a scarf if I know I’ll have to walk long distances after parking my car (anything more than four or five minutes), though the scarf channels my warm breath up to my cold eyelashes, creating a frost that can adhere my eyelashes together and make blinking difficult (not to mention create an ice layer on my glasses). Nose hairs, mucus, and all other exposed fluids also tend to harden or freeze immediately, creating a veritable faucet out of your nose once you return indoors.

Looking out my door on a chilly morning

Driving can also be quite an adventure.  Car tires tend to freeze into squares at these temperatures, so the first few minutes of my drive to school are always a little bumpy.  Driving in Fairbanks and especially nearby North Pole can also be an adventure in visual acuity, as we have ice fog created by pollution particulates binding moisture together and creating a dense smog layer that sits over low-lying areas.  Most of the pollution comes from cars and the small percentage of the wood-burning population that burns wet wood and create a huge amount of smoke and other pollutants.  It’s an ongoing issue here in Fairbanks as to how to solve this problem (it can be so bad on cold winter days that those with any kind of respiratory issues are advised not to go outdoors), but Alaskans often prefer to fight for the individual right to burn whatever one wants rather than the collective right to breathe clean air. Thus, cold temperatures means thick ice fog.  Yuck.

But, freezing temperatures can also really make one mindful of your resource consumption!  For example, though our cabin is fairly warm, we still put on sweaters instead of cranking up the heat and using more fuel.  We also have found free or used rugs to cover the floor (our cabin is raised, thus cold air can circulate and make the floor cold) and recycled drapes to cover the windows (more insulation from cold glass).  Since we have to haul our own water and pumping water is miserable at -40F, we’re also more conscientious about our water usage to make our current supply last longer (or at least until a warm spell).  This also has the added benefit of saving on gas, as starting up the car and driving anywhere when it’s so cold is unpleasant at best and really eats up your fuel (cars don’t like to idle).  In fact, when going outside can be a real pain, it really makes you think twice about almost everything you do.

Do I need to take the trash out yet, or can I recycle or reuse some of these disposables? How many things can I accomplish when I go to town today, and what’s the most fuel efficient way of doing it all?  How can I conserve water when I do dishes?  While the cold may be biting, it’s a great motivator to live more conservatively.

On a quick final note, one big plus of the super cold weather is the ice carvings that begin to pop up around town.  The ice here in Fairbanks is considered some of the very best naturally available since it gets so cold, and Fairbanks hosts the World Ice Carving Championships each winter.  Ice carvers come from around the world to create amazing sculptures out of giant blocks of lake ice, all at forty below.  UAF  sponsors its own host of icy polar bears (our school mascot) around campus, participating in various campus activities.  I love passing them on my daily campus walks.  I’ll be sure to post pictures soon!

Coming soon: an update on the no ‘poo situation, and the next batch of new changes I’ll be making to go clean, green, and zero-waste.  Thanks for reading!

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