Archive for January, 2014

Ruff Encounters


Over the first week of January, while weather broadcasters urged the masses to huddle indoors next to the furnace, I decided it was time to break out. I layered myself with lots of wool. This included  a favorite boiled wool sweater that I had snagged at the “free shack” at the Mt. Lorne dump in the Yukon. Finally I donned my Swedish cotton pullover anorak (a jacketlike pullover parka), strapped on my WW II surplus Alaskan snowshoes and took off with a friend for a couple hour hike.

The woodshed thermometer read a few degrees below zero. . . not so very bad. The windchill made it nippy when we plodded across a frozen lake where there was no tree cover.  Over the first hour of trudging, the left half of my nose twice turned white as a bride’s gown. I only know this because my friend noticed and warned me of the color change. I unwrapped the long tartan scarf cinched around my waist to keep out the wind and coiled it around my neck and lower face. In a matter of a couple of minutes circulation was back and the nose had returned to a healthy ruddy complexion.

The left hemisphere of my nose doesn’t do well in bitter weather. I froze it back in the winter of 1974 during a winter camping outing when temps dipped to a nippy -38°. (See last blog post.) While no serious tissue damage occurred, several days after the freezing skin turned to parchment and then peeled off. Since freezing it, the nose is subject to turning snow white when it gets too cold. It’s my habit to inform my fellow winter travelers and have them keep on eye on any color change of my schnoz.

I love my anorak. I bought it a few years ago from Don Kevilus at Four Dog Stove.  Not only because it makes me feel like an arctic explorer but it is a garment that is easy to adjust my inner fires. The long scarf belt keeps the wind from blowing up my back and can be used to cover my face. With the copious hood pulled over my stocking capped head I feel snug and cozy and my head is in its personal tent. The loose fit of the anorak allows colder air to enter the bottom. The cinching belt is generally not needed when I am exerting. Once inside the parka or anorak, the air chimneys up over my warmed torso and funnels through the neck washing over my face before flowing out the hood opening.

Even with bitter cold temperatures our bodies constantly disseminate water vapor. This is easy to witness when we momentarily pull off gloves or hat during a winter outing after exerting ourselves.  The vapor becomes visible as a drift of steam. Work too hard when overdressed and you will sweat. Then you run the danger of getting your layers of clothing wet. Wet clothes in cold weather can kill you.

My favorite feature of my anorak is the lush ruff of coyote fur that encircles the hood opening. I rarely pull the hood up but if the wind is biting, particularly if I am standing still like when I’m ice fishing for lake trout up in the border country. The thick fur ring  is a wonderful feature and is a keen feature to control humidity and temperature.

This ring of dense fur is not from a roadrunner-chasing, scrawny, Arizona coyote. This plush ruff is from a north-dwelling, British Columbia, thick-pelaged coyote.

The best fur ruffs are made from long, durable, and uneven length hairs. Coyote, wolf and dog fur all make excellent ruffs. The best of ruffs are made from wolverine or a blend of wolverine and wolf. Whereas, softer furs like fox or lynx might look more fashionable, they are not an effective clothing item for cold weather hoods. Their soft hairs absorb moisture from your breath and turns it sodden.

On the other hand, a wolverine ruff, considered the best in cold environments, will hold hoarfrost but it is easily shaken free with a brush of your hand. No fur sheds frost better than wolverine.

In 1986, I found myself in the small Inuit community of Homan Island, located on Victoria Island in the Canadian Archipelago.  On the edge of the Arctic Ocean, with floating ice chunks clogging up their harbor, it was surrealistic as I heard distant rifle shots from Inuk seal hunters and nearby barking sled dogs staked out at the stony beach. I relished the moment thinking it could have been the same sounds heard a hundred years earlier.


It was August and I just finished a canoe trip with some friends down the Kuujjua River. I strolled into an Eskimo Cooperative to look over some of the native art that was for sale. While the soapstone carvings and the unique  silk screen prints were captivating, my eyes were riveted on the three or four full wolverine ruffs hanging over a stretched cord.

I had coveted a wolverine ruffed parka for a long time. Here was a chance to buy a strip of prime fur with a lovely span of buff colored hairs flanked by the more typical chocolate brown colors. Reverently, I approached the ruffs and leaned in to read the tiny handwritten price tags. One hundred seventy five dollars! I had no credit card then and the $30 or so cash I had would not come close to a sale. I’ve never forgotten those ruffs.

Today I am in a better fiscal position to buy one but a recent check on the internet informed me that the price has more than doubled since 1986 and I would be lucky to find a ruff, that’s just a ruff, under $375.

In the spring of 2009. Nancy and I had spent the winter in the Yukon and I was riding my road bike on the Alaska Highway with Yukon friend Gerry. It was May , warm and the days were getting long.  The ditches wore the spray of dirty snow and the adjacent woods were still white on the forest floor.

As we rode west in single file, I noticed a hunk of fur sticking out of the snow down in the ditch. My inner naturalist is always at the forefront and that means I have to check out dead things. This one was likely a road-killed something. But what?

“Hold it Gerry,” I called out as I braked, turned around and biked back to the small plume of fur.

I got off my bike and post-holed down the ditch in my cycling shoes to the tell-tale tuft of fur.  Gingerly, I gripped it and pulled it carefully out of the snow. Up out of the snow emerged a wrecked winter parka trimmed with a wolverine ruff!

I kid you not. Admittedly the parka was in really poor shape and covered in dust and gravel from winter snowplows blading debris over the parka but the ruff looked okay. We wondered how the garment ended up here as a piece of roadside flotsam. Had it blown out of the back of a pick up truck? Gerry loaned me his pocketknife and I cut the ruff off the muddy and worn parka. After shaking the sand and gravel out of it and swishing it through the wet snow, I tucked it into Gerry daypack.

Later, I repeatedly rinsed the gritty ruff off in the river that races by our Outpost. After drying, I shook it to a reasonable fluffiness.  It looked pretty good. The ruff still has not been sewn on a parka but it graces a thick caribou antler that hangs on our wall.

I could create what is called a sunburst ruff by simply sewing the wolverine ruff just inside my coyote ruff. Now that would be the ultimate.









Talk of your Cold



“Talk of your cold through parka’s fold it stabbed like a driven nail!”

Few lines of poetry are as memorable as that line Robert Service penned in The Cremation of Sam McGee. I recall trying to memorize that poem and I loved growling that line with a steaming hiss delivered in enunciating “sssssssstabbed like a driven nail.”

A Yukon friend recently called to wish us a good new year. While chatting, I told him that our state governor had called for the closing of schools for two days due to extreme cold.

“Really? How cold is it down there?”

I told him that temps were in the mid -20°s. “You know just another mild Yukon day.”

When Nancy and I overwintered in 2008-09 at our Yukon Territory Outpost in northern Canada, air temperatures lingered around -30°F for two solid weeks in mid December. School buses kept picking up and dropping off bundled kids every day. . . in the dark. During that spell of weather the sun wasn’t rising until nearly 10AM and then setting around 3:15PM.

I know this might be too graphic, but I have vivid memories of  finishing my morning constitution in the outhouse and standing and staring in amazement at the pronounced geyser of steam that flowed out of the one-holer. Daily I stood shivering in witness to that sub-arctic volcano.  It always filled me with gratitude for a body that was not only regular, but it managed to keep its internal thermostat at nearly 100°F while the outside world cracked and popped in the bitter cold.

Maybe that’s the problem.  As our society has become more urbanized we also isolate ourselves in altered environments and there is a cultural softening. It seems miraculous that we can create a heated environment by finger-punching a thermostat touch pad  or turning the thermostat dial. These are the conditions necessary to stare into the hypnotic dance of colorful pixels dancing across our television screens. While outdoors, quiet smoke shadows swirl over the snowy landscape and chickadees cluster in balls of fluffed feathers bent on making it through the bitter night.

Two dear friends of ours live perched on a high forested bank of the Yukon River eight hours north of our Yukon Outpost and that doesn’t include the twenty-five mile boat ride downriver.  They live contentedly in their remote, off-gid cabin. Last winter, for nearly a full week, their outdoor thermometer bottomed out at -50°.

During the cold spell, they would work on their art while sitting next to the roaring wood burning stove alternately turning their chairs 180°, like a rotisserie, so as to warm up the side that faced the cabin wall. With a robust wood pile, small flock of familiar Canada jays that visited their door step daily and an evening show of pulsating northern lights illuminating the night sky, they never felt threatened by the elements.

And so it bothers me that recently the media and for that matter, Governor Dayton, the CEO of  Minnesota, have painted the recent cold snap in apocalyptic terms. I know I’m getting older and consequently there is a feeling of smugness of accumulating scores of winters under my belt, but truly this recent cold stretch used to be fairly common over the winter. I can hardly stand the whimpering of newscasters when the temperature goes below zero. But then again, most of them are younger and have only experienced a spate of more modern, milder winters. Their definition of winter is based on what they have observed and experienced. So the menace of a polar vortex sliding in over the region, it is like spotting a yeti.  The weather people on the news are too young and their new normal for basing a cold winter day is far tamer than mine is. Over the past decade our winters have been for the most part wimpier when it comes to cold.

Bear with me as I squeak through cold snow steps of winter’s past.

“Talk of your cold through parka’s fold it stabbed like a driven nail!”

During my public school years, I don’t remember any days where the school superintendent or state governor called off school. Back in the 1980s, Governor Arne Carlson closed schools three times due to cold temperatures and stout winds. But prior to that no school closings due to cold.

Admittedly we had school closings due to snow days. There was simply too much snow for buses or any vehicles to deal with. During bitter cold days our school dress code was relaxed when temps went below zero and the girls could wear slacks under their dress. Bear in mind, girls were not allowed to wear pants, jeans or slacks.

“Talk of your cold through parka’s fold it stabbed like a driven nail!”

It was Christmas Eve in the late 1960s and the mercury dropped to about -30°. Did that stop us from driving out to my grandparents farm for the annual feast of lutefisk? Did it prevent folks from nearly filling the 11 PM Candlelight Service at Trinity Lutheran Church? Did it stop Santa from making his rounds? No! No! and No!

“Talk of your cold through parka’s fold it stabbed like a driven nail!”

January, 1977. I was housesitting a hobby farm south of the village of Sunrise. While the homeowners were in Florida, some of my duties included feeding and watering a few livestock. On two consecutive mornings, the temps hit -44° and I had to use a heavy pry bar to break open their water hole. I remember wondering what the homeowner would think if I herded his two horses and eight or so beef cattle into the house each night. Another memory was that after doing the early morning chores, I would unplug the electrical cord that connected to the block heater on my truck, and drive away each morning with the clunking sounds of squared frozen tires.

One of my most memorable winter camping nights was on Dec. 30, 1974. With packs on our backs my good friend, Glen, and I had snowshoed into the bush somewhere in Itasca State Park. Without a tent, we laid our sleeping pads and high loft down bags on a stomped bed of snow beneath a stand of tall red pines. I distinctly recall finishing our campfire cooked canned stew, standing close to the fire, surrounded by a cold black night.

“Well now what do we do?” I wondered aloud.

It was 6:30 PM. It proved to be a very long night in the sleeping bag where assuming a fully dressed fetal position was necessary. At first light, more than twelve fitful hours after crawling into the bag, we emerged to -38°F. Glen got a dose of frostbite on his fingers simply from slipping off his mitts to stuff his sleeping bag into a stuff sack. Super refrigerated nylon can burn the fingers.

Ironically, the cold winter camping incident did not stop us from future excursions.  After a long successful teaching career, including being selected as Minnesota Teacher of the Year in 2005, Glen has birthed a business, Snow Journeys in guiding folks on winter camping excursions into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.

“Talk of your cold through parka’s fold it stabbed like a driven nail!”

The only real complaining about the cold weather should be from the emerald ash borers. This invasive insect, wintering beneath the bark of ash trees, is taking a big hit. For the more than 900 million ash trees growing in Minnesota the slowing of the beetle’s invasion is a good thing. Will the cold kill them off entirely? Not likely, but the frigid weather does buy time as forestry folks are trying to find a better way to control the destructive insect. As an ambassador for swamps full of black ash trees, I sing out a mighty “Hurrah!” for our ally, Polar Votex.

So who or what is this critter called polar vortex?

Recently, On all Things Considered, Washington Post weather editor Jason Samenow described the polar vortex this way: “We’re talking about a huge sprawling area of circulating cold air originating from the North Pole. It’s a low-pressure center, and typically during the winter months it resides up there. At times, some tentacles of it will slip southward and bring cold air outbreaks into the U.S., but this year, we’re seeing a huge chunk of it, most of it descending into the U.S.”

Before hanging up from my holiday phone chat with my Yukon friend I asked what the temperature was there. He laughed and gave me a reading that was 30° warmer than here at Basecamp in Minnesota. And if you factored in the windchill it was a full 50° warmer!

In Huck Finn’s words, “I reckon it’s time to light out for the territories.”


Full disclosure is needed. I wrote this less than a week ago but forgot to post it. Today the bizarre weather continues. The air temps are well above freezing, in the low 40s, and we have swung from polar to nearly tepid.  In less than a week we have seen a swing of 60 degrees! I’m wondering if we shouldn’t close schools for just plain wackiness.

So Huck, I reckon it ain’t time to light out for the territories after all.