Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Waning Autumn

The last few mornings have been seriously frosty, with windshield scraping to remove ice and truck warm-up time to get the heater blasting before taking off. Now that we have passed the autumn equinox, daylight has noticeably dwindled from just a few weeks ago; the sun rises—much farther to the south now—about 8:30 in the morning, and sets before 8 in the evening. The air has a sharp briskness that was lacking earlier in the month, and the smells of autumn are dying away. From here it will be a short, fast trip into the cold, dark tunnel of winter.

We have had a lovely September in southwest Alaska, a gift to be much appreciated. Long, warm sunny days have extended the season for boating and fishing, given a pleasant experience to those out moose hunting, and made the autumn chores to get ready for freeze-up more enjoyable. Last year, September was a month of almost endless rain; I believe it was 23 out of 30 days with measurable precipitation. And temperatures in the high 30s (F), which is about as miserable a combination as you can get; I’d rather have 5 below and snowing than 36 above and raining.

The clear skies allow our daytime temperatures to climb into the low 50s now, but more and more of the nights will dip well below freezing. The hardening of the land, and the river, is a gradual and inexorable process that will take place over the next month. By Halloween we will be down to about six hours of daylight, and the river will be frozen hard enough to walk on. From that point until mid-March, we’ll be in the Deep Freeze.

I always seem to approach this time of year with significant feelings of trepidation. How bad will it be this winter? How cold? How dark? How will I stand it? Well, I know how dark; that doesn’t really change from year to year. And we tend to have more bright and sunny winter days (for about 4 hours) than summer ones. The severity and duration of cold, however, varies a lot from one winter to the next. Every autumn I feel that tiny tingle of dread that the coming winter will set new records for cold.

At 61 degrees north latitude, and at very close to sea level, our average daily winter temperature is zero. Anchorage is about the same latitude and elevation, but their average daily winter temperature is +30. The difference is caused by terrain; Anchorage is in a bowl, surrounded by very tall mountains. Bethel is on the wide-open tundra. There is nothing for thousands of miles to break the wind roaring in off the Bering Sea or pouring down from the polar region. Interestingly, though, the thermometer rarely reads zero. We are usually either 20 above or 20 below. And can go from one to the other in a matter of hours. Henry’s wife, Betty, calls it Bethel’s express elevator weather. Fronts can move in very quickly, changing our weather from one extreme to the other; sometimes they move out just as quickly, and sometimes they hang around for weeks.

I remember the winter of 1999-2000 as being exceptionally cold, at times dipping as low as minus 40. That is seriously cold. Houses freeze up. Cars freeze up. Nothing mechanical works well at all. People just don’t go outside. And when the wind is blowing, as it often is in the winter, the chill factor easily reaches minus 70 or worse. Severely life-threatening.

The following several winters after that were much warmer. Winter before last, we never even got down to minus 20. The temperature stayed in what, for us, is a delightful range: 10 below to 10 above. Perfect dog mushing weather.

Last winter had some pretty serious cold. Much of January and most of February hovered at minus 20 with a week or so at minus 40. A week or two of weather like that isn’t bad; it lets us boast about how tough we are. Five or six weeks of it gets pretty old.

Much of one’s ability to stand severe cold depends on two things (in addition to the quality of one’s gear): attitude and hardening. With cold, as with all things in life, attitude is everything. You have to get your mind right about it; and you might as well, if you’re going to live here, because there is certainly nothing you can do to change the climate.

The hardening is a process of gradually getting used to the cold; it is both long-term and short-term. Long-term hardening occurs over years and continues for a lifetime. Winter after winter, one’s ability to endure the cold gradually increases. My Yupik friend Goosma (see A Shot to the Heart, the moose-hunting story) tells the story from his childhood in the 1940s of his dad making him and his brothers run three times around the house (outside) barefoot, every morning, year round. “Make me strong,” he says with a smile.

Short-term hardening is the process we go through every fall. After the nice warm summer we are all soft, and somewhat dreading the coming onslaught. Henry works outside without gloves on as long as he can as part of his hardening process. It does seem to help. The more I can go without gloves on, the warmer my hands stay with them on. Short-term hardening requires daily exposure, and that means more than driving to and from work in a cold truck. An hour or more a day of being outside regardless of weather is what it takes to be ready for serious winter. Chores in the dog yard easily require that much time.

A hiatus in that daily exposure through the fall is a huge set back when winter comes. In October of 2001, I took a two-week vacation in Costa Rica. When I left Bethel, the temperature was in the high 20s. For two lovely weeks, I enjoyed the tropics, despite a late-season hurricane. It was 90 degrees or more the entire time. In the twenty hours of travel it took to get home, I went from 90 above to 20 below. I couldn’t believe it when I stepped off the plane in Bethel, wearing tropical weight clothing. I thought I would literally freeze to death before I could get home.

That break in my hardening process took over a month to catch up from. By New Year’s I had toughened up, but through November and December I was constantly cold when I was out mushing. I decided then that my warm-destination winter vacations would have to come in February or early March.

So here we are, a month from freeze-up, feeling the first hints of winter’s icy breath in our faces. Staring into the mouth of that dark tunnel, wondering how long and how cold it will be this year. The meteorologists’ predictions are for a relatively mild winter, and I’d love to believe them. They are right about half the time, so I could just toss a coin.



Anonymous ozziedoc the 4th yr med student said...

What an amazing environment you live in!

Friday, September 29, 2006 5:38:00 AM  
Blogger healthpsych said...

Funny, because I'm going through the opposite here. How hot is it going to get this summer? I hate the heat. However, that said, I can't even begin to fathom the cold you face.

Saturday, September 30, 2006 1:49:00 AM  
Blogger TheTundraPA said...

It truly is, ozziedoc. Sometimes strange, often challenging, generally rewarding. This place is definitely not for everybody, but I love it here. Thanks for visiting, and for commenting (I love comments, and not many readers do).

healthpsych--I've always wanted to visit down under; it is so hard to imagine summer in December and January. And I want to see water swirl counterclockwise down a drain. Amazing.

Saturday, September 30, 2006 2:30:00 PM  
Blogger healthpsych said...

I'm a Northern hemisphere person really and I've never got used to Christmas in the baking heat. It's just not the same. I still call June/July winter and get confused!
I'm contemplating coming back up top of the world.
Definitely worth a trip downunder though.

Saturday, September 30, 2006 3:58:00 PM  
Blogger Empress Bee (of the High Sea) said...

oh how lovely this sounds, but i must say, not for me, i'd like only a visit. i must be warm, i love south florida in the winter! welcome to the ba meeting! bee

Saturday, October 07, 2006 10:50:00 AM  

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