“January 15. -39” I am quoting my diary. Sound familiar? You may think we endured a cold snap in December and January. “I snowshoed to Rabbit City & back (9 miles round trip). 1 marten, deep overflow on one lake.”
“January 16. -40°, -53 in McGrath.” Julie and I left our trapline cabin for a chilly 15-mile dog team run home, retreating before forecasted cold weather settled in.
“January 19. -53°.” After a couple more days in the minus 40s, I recorded this, adding a smiley face. Following weeks of hard work on the trapline, a little cold snap would give us a good excuse to hole up at home in a cozy cabin for awhile. That 50 below weather hung on for seven days.
Then it got cold.
“January 26. -60°. Hauled 3 loads of wood (Lilja). Gov. Cowper declared AK in state of emergency.”
Right, I am not talking about the typical chill of this winter. I am referring to The Big One, 1989, against which all other cold snaps of the past three decades pale by comparison. Our folks were still living here at the time, but as our father’s snow-go was a definite no-go, we used our little Icelandic horse Lilja for hauling wood, managing her carefully to prevent sweat from accumulating in her long, dense winter coat.
“January 30. -60. Hauled 4 loads (180 gallons) water, (again, by horse) ice 21/2’. -39 at 8 pm!”
Hacking through ice with a chipper to open a water hole at those temperatures is like chopping into cement, each blow reverberating harshly through hands and wrists as the hard ice reluctantly yields. Only after water is hit and gushes up to fill the hole does the ice warm enough to chip away more easily.
That day Fairbanks noted a record high pressure for North America, grounding all airplanes — even jets — because IFR instruments did not register at those limits.
Almost every afternoon when the returning sun reached its zenith Julie and I ventured out for a short walk, taking along a few loose sled dogs that were antsy from days of enforced rest in straw-filled houses. Sometimes I paused to stand quietly exhaling, listening to the faint crinkly hiss as moisture in my breath froze, “popping” into expanding ice, a phenomenon audible at temperatures colder than 40 below zero or 50 below zero.
At 50 below, our fur mukluks, hats and mitts, heavy overpants, down parkas and wolf ruffs kept us snug and warm as we trudged along, snow creaking as it grated underfoot. Once down in the -60s, though, I felt its presence pressing through the thickest clothes.
By mid-January a tiny bit of solar warmth forces its way to Alaska’s Interior, but this time only by January’s end did we see a daily temperature rise of five or perhaps 10 degrees. Instead of warmer air hovering over the hills, intensely bitter temperatures stacked from bottom to top, indicating that cold was here for awhile.
In our remote setting ice fog is usually limited to an occasional localized cloud of wood smoke drifting around isolated homes. In 1989, a thin haze hovered in the atmosphere, fogging our view of the 60-mile distant Alaska Range that on clear days normally stands out with clarity.
With no planes arriving here since Jan. 10, and no other way to import supplies, our horse feed began running low. One nippy 58 below zero day we hitched up the dog team and made a 12-mile round trip across the lake to visit gathering neighbors, sled runners grating reluctantly over bitterly-cold snow. At every stop, the dogs cleaned the sharp, abrasive crystals from their feet. Breath frosted their fur and our ruffs, cold nipping sharply on our exposed cheeks and noses.
Visiting neighbors all compared notes, news and gossip, and insuring that no one ran out of any essentials. When we returned home, 100 pounds of goat feed was added to the sled, donated by a now goat-free neighbor to stretch our horse feed.
Our cold bottomed out on Jan. 27 at 68 below zero, not bad compared to other areas: 150 miles to the southwest, McGrath recorded a bitter 76 below. Coldfoot had an unofficial 82 below a few days later.
The dogs, with their dense coats and warm houses, suffered primarily from boredom. Our horses too, took full advantage of the Icelandic’s heavy coat, small ears tucked into mounds of hairy forelock and mane, and a chunky, cold-resistant build. Never cold enough to shiver, they also maintained their weight, spending days grazing aggressively on wild swamp grass. Strolling home for supplemental feed and water, the two critters left in their wake a quarter-mile-long tunnel of fog from their breath.
To counter the drying effects of the frigid, moisture-free air, each critter was offered baited water once a day, the dogs slurping up their warm fish broth and the horses sucking in molasses-flavored water by the gallon. After each horse drank we could easily wipe away chunks of ice formed from exhaled moisture freezing in furry nostrils. (If too annoyed by ice the horses could clear their own noses with a quick rub on a foreleg.)
After 20 days of 30 below or colder, 12 days of which were 50 below or colder, and four of those that plunged into the 60 below category, a light breeze brought the temperature up to 49 beolow. Feb. 1, I recorded “A very warm -41°.” Unable to stand the enforced rest any longer, Julie and I headed back out on the trapline. After a couple more days in the negative 30s, the temperature finally bounced back up to a positively sweltering 10.
With climate change upon us we may not see such extremes again. Then again, with climate change comes more extreme weather, cold as well as warm. My fur hat, mitts and mukluks still come in handy.
Trappers and lifelong Bush residents Miki and Julie Collins live in Lake Minchumina.