“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.





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