Glorious 40 Below

Sunday we woke up to -40.

Minus forty is the same in Fahrenheit and Celsius. To me that means everybody understands: no matter which system you use, – 40 is -40.

But to really know how that feels, you have to live it.

At 40 below things do change. From the usual cold it is now extreme cold.

You can tell I am not an old-timer, with stories of when it was really cold, and for extended periods.

For me it is kind of the change where things break down, and dealing with the cold needs extra precautions. And I don’t drive anywhere on those days unless it is an emergency.

That Saturday night, when the temperature dropped into our first -40 cold spell this year, the house started to make noises. The cold crept in through window sills. Ice formed on the bottom of the windows.

I moved certain objects away from the wall so they would not draw in the frost

When we got up, there were only a few coals left in the fire box. As I opened the outside door, the cold billowed in.

Where on warmer days I can run to the outhouse and/or get wood, barely clad, that morning I had to dress for the weather.

When I first came to the North, I lived in Atlin BC. I remember a day the temperature dipped below the -40 mark and some neighbours took me out ice fishing.

We had a fun day, with thermoses of spiked hot tea and lots of laughter. I don’t think we caught any fish, but I do remember that I could not take off my mittens. It felt if my hands would instantly freeze.

After being in the north for 20 years now, my hands are quite fine for extended periods of time outside mittens. That is, as long as I don’t fiddle too long with the camera or pick things up barehanded.

That Sunday morning this year, when I went outside everything was truly frozen solid. All objects were rock hard. Wood felt harder than it normally is. But with one blow of the axe it split with ease.

The rest of the day, we threw the logs in whole, the biggest ones we had in the pile. My footsteps crunched the snow on the path. And the thermometer that hangs by the outhouse (so I get a true reading, not one that is slightly warmer because of being close to a heated house) indeed read -40.

Here in Mendenhall it turned out to be a beautiful sunny day. Unlike Whitehorse, we didn’t get ice fog. I live too far from a major river.

In his award-winning three-day novel, Snowmen, Mark Sedore beautifully describes how he loves to travel to Whitehorse in the winter to experience the ice fog.

That night we had an orange sunset, and on Monday woke up to -43 C.

As I had not been out much the day before, I phoned a neighbour to ask if I could come over for tea. I dressed in all the layers as we are supposed to do, with only my eyes and nose exposed.

I did not feel like putting in my contact lenses, which I knew I would regret. I thought for the sake of this story it would be good to experience the hardship of glasses at 40 below.

Indeed, I wasn’t even out of the driveway before I had to wipe them off.

I tried to keep my keep my neck warmer all the way down, which worked pretty well until, yes, that got too cold.

But it was gorgeous out, and at some points I could even feel a slight breeze.

I heard a woodpecker rattling away from a distance. Noise travels far in the cold. I could hear every lonely car two or three kilometres away on the Alaska Highway.

The two ravens that visit my neck of the woods were out, too.

As the road wound down, I got to see the valley below. A beautiful strip of ice fog lay low above the Mendenhall River, and there were wisps of cloud on the mountaintops.

After half an hour I gave up on my glasses and took them off altogether. Even being quite nearsighted, I could actually see more clearly than peering through iced-up glasses.

I was now almost there. Alice stopped me from coming in, because a frosted up lady – me – was quite the sight, and she had to take a picture.

Inside, I was treated not only to tea, but also to a hot lunch. Wonderful.

Afterward, Alice walked back with me for a little bit. As we were talking more, it was somehow more difficult to keep my face unfrozen. My nose seemed to freeze up and I warmed it with my bare hand, realizing again that metal-framed glasses just don’t work very well at 40 below.

Near the end of my trek, I made a little detour and climbed a hill. It was so clear, still and beautiful! And frozen vapours coming from all the chimneys in the neighbourhood enhanced the view.

Tuesday was a tad warmer again, and I walked up the hill on the west to the little lake – no road, just paths through the forest.

A lynx had used my path, and there were lots of fresh snowshoe hare tracks. I was surprised by how active they appeared. Squirrels don’t show in temperatures like this.

There was more fog that day, but when I looked straight up there was only blue sky.

Tiny ice crystals, barely visible, danced ahead of me. Normally, with no wind, they would float down, but now the movement of my body made them dance away from me.

My husband provided a beautiful ending for this story. Later that day, when he went out to the rock cut to see if there were any bison in the valley, he spotted three beautiful moose, one with a full rack.

I love the Yukon, weather and all.

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