The Celsius and Fahrenheit scales come together at -40. I had read it in chemistry textbooks, but never thought to walk in it.
It is quite a night. At bedtime, it is -25 F. Lying in bed, we hear some sharp pops above the fire’s quiet crackles —the log walls settling and ice on the roof cracking as the night air grows colder.
At 2 am, we hear an odd chirping sound high above the bed. The smoke detector in the highest peak of the roof has chosen this moment to run out of battery. Sleep is impossible. The ladder is out in the frigid garage, so my partner, a former high-liner and roofer, balances buck-naked on his toes on the thin wooden headboard and strains up to reset the alarm. This has no effect, although it is a fine spectacle. Next, we set a small chair on the bed, I hold it, and he tries again and detaches the alarm. Silence falls again.
In the morning, at -40 F, there is a surprising mist above the frozen lakes and in the woods, like fine fog hanging high and even above the deep snow. A friend at the gym says that this is the moisture rising from the snow, especially on the lakes where there has been deep slush. In the woods near cabins, neat grey ribbons of wood smoke hang oddly parallel with the ground.
Frost coats the backs of the deer in the yard. Ravens swoop in from high trees, looking for food. The snowshoe hares have turned all white to stay safe from owls and bald eagles, and a silky auburn pine marten climbs a tree and pulls a huge chunk of suet off the bird feeder.
Town is quiet but not shut down. The locals here in Minnesota’s Iron Range come from miners’ families, tough stock from Cornwall, Scotland, Italy, Slovenia and Finland. The land here is rocky, there are thousands of ice-covered lakes and millions of acres of rough woods. In town huge boulders shape where houses are built, and in the woods, coyotes and foxes make their dens under boulders the size of boxcars.
This is not a place for farmers. There’s almost no topsoil, the lakes often stay ice-covered until May 1, and 85 degrees in July is a heat wave that people complain about. It’s a place where loggers and miners built tiny, sweet houses and supported their families with fish and venison. Everyone knows how to do bitter cold. If a car won’t start at -30, you get rid of it because starting in the cold is a necessity of life. It seems there are no homeless, but up here, instead of sleeping in a box on the pavement, people crash on friends’ sofas.
Yesterday, even at -40, schools were open, and on the street corners, the young crossing guards wore blue jeans and parkas. As we left the grocery store, a beautiful old woman walked in, tiny and bent as she leaned on two tall walking sticks. She wore a long white down coat and a hand-knit scarf of pastel stripes wrapped around her head. She was smiling happily. That is northern grit.
[The above post was written about 9 years ago, and the one below is from this week.]
How Do We Do It?
How do we ever get used to the cold here in the north woods? We just practice. -30 F happens every winter. Most of us learned how to drive in snow as teenagers, so most people up here are superb snow drivers. They know, for example, that snow at 0 F is much less slippery than the snow when it’s about 32 F and that ice at 33 F is much worse than everything else. Many people have different snow boots for deep snow, bitter cold and light snow, and we have arrays of coats, hats and gloves for below zero, bitter wind, and warm, wet snow. We play in the snow, skiing, sledding and hiking. People run and hike when it’s -15 F. Some people even camp outside in the bitter cold because it is so beautiful. Others enjoy sitting on frozen lakes and fishing. In the dark winters we read a lot, play music and see friends. Outside, the deer, wolves, pine martens and snowshoe hares appear and vanish. Woodpeckers, ravens and chickadees push in and out of our feeders. Even though a few of the strongest flowing rivers are still open, everything is stillness and silence. It’s quiet and beautiful. So our cold is not like your cold– But I’ll send out north woods cold strength and savvy to everyone! May everyone stay warm and safe.
by Jean Gendreau