Catching motion out my window, what should I see but a yearling cow moose at our front steps, apparently praying on bended knee to be let in to warm herself up . Can’t blame her. Measured against those old proverbial standards using certain anatomical features of well diggers and witches as metaphorical gauges, this cold snap leaves those qualifiers far behind. Any right-minded brass monkey harboring aspirations of fathering little brass monkeys is cozying tighter than bark on a birch next to his double-stoked wood stove. I hear that up around Allakaket, which sits square on the Circle, it’s been in the 70s below. That’s cold enough to put out a lighted match. Boiling coffee pitched briskly into the air will crackle into frozen brown fog.
In 1974 I weathered the fiercest blizzard to ever hit the Iditarod. Ultra-cold ambients hit bottom when air is still as a tomb. Should a wind stir things up, although it might produce a low chill factor, the ambient temperature climbs. But there on that second Iditarod—right at the summit of the great Alaska Range—occurred a freak “perfect storm.” In a still, minus 50 temperature, without warning a violent wind burst upon us, lancing straight into our faces. For three nights and two days it continued unabated, howling at over fifty miles an hour while the temperature, amazingly, stayed way down where it had been. That infamous Ptarmigan Pass blizzard was off the wind chill table which quits figuring it at 128 below, Fahrenheit. All that stood between this body of mine—made up mostly of water—staying fluid and muscle and blood freezing brittle as river ice was what I wore and carried on the sled.
Opinions vary regarding whether a low ambient temperature, say 60 below, is tougher to withstand than a chill factor of 60 below. Me? I’d rather cope with a 27 mph wind coupled with an ambient of minus 10 producing a 60-below chill factor. For one, I can always find a way to get out of the wind, even if it’s just turning my back to perform a task in the lee of my body. Shielded, I’m working at ten below. And then compare the ambient vs. chill factor effect on materials I work with. Say I park my truck for a few days at a trailhead. If I return at minus 60 ambient, engine oil is almost like Crisco, the grease is nearing a solid state, tires are frozen flat on the bottom, belts and gaskets are hard and less flexible, and even the metals and plastics have become more brittle and subject to breakage. The unknowledgeable and unprepared would be in deep yogurt. I know how to get things going through long experience and I’ve brought the setup to warm the truck, but it’s still quite a process. However, what if I return at a 10 below ambient? Winds can blow at hurricane force and materials will stay at 10 below. That balmy, everything’s still relatively flexible and my rig will probably fire right up.
This yearling praying at our door has had only one previous winter of life experience to build her world-view and expectations, and last winter wasn’t all that bad. These neighborhood moose are pretty smart. Who knows how much TV they’ve watched peeping through windows while munching the shrubbery or what they’ve absorbed from random papers strewn around. Even that informed, they’re probably still as easily influenced as the more gullible sectors of human society. Now, in case she’s bought into Al Gore, she must be feeling mighty deceived, having expected this winter to be warmer than last.