40 Below (Alone)
A week in Alaska, alone, at 40 below zero.
I awoke to the morning of January 3rd in this new decade to a very distinct quiet: I was alone. The Chief and our Third Amigo had ventured off to Anchorage for a supply run and so alone I lay, hearing only the breaths that were my own. It’s a strange feeling, that sensation, that moment of realizing the space someone warms and fills by their simply just being. That tinge of loneliness was enough to motivate me to get out of bed. As I rose, a new level of morning cold nipped at me. The temperature must have dropped.
Dropped it had to a brisk 25 below zero. Our Winter thus far had been a mild one at best, filled with more icy than snowy roads and a Christmas warm enough to don merely a dress with leggings and a jacket. We’d had quick cold snaps where the temps had dropped to 13 below but that was it. Winter light. Yet snap it did that morning into truly cold territory and with it came flooding back all that “cold” means.
First of all, don’t get me wrong, I am not suddenly immune to normal cold. The temps we’d had before were not warm by human standards, they were simply warm by Winter’s standards. Secondly, our cold out here is a dry cold with the rare windy day (though yes, there certainly is wind) which makes the cold a bit more bearable (and personally, I love the cold, which makes it a lot more bearable, for me).
Living in California for most of my life, the temperature never varied in a way that affected me all that much. Sure, we’d prep for storms and power outages but all in all, it was a mild fluctuation of predictable seasonal shifts. Certainly, some days I’d find myself ill-prepared on an unseasonably cold Spring day and have to rummage around in my car (read: my second closet) for another layer but all in all, there was always a newspaper to cover my head in a random rainstorm or flip flops to greet a sunny day. With relative ease and a modicum of preparation, I was typically able to meet the challenges of the elements.
Enter: Alaska. A whole new set of elements where flip flops and newspapers were unlikely problem solvers. For me, it’s been a beast to learn. Yet learn I have and learning I still am. However, just as I’ve learned, I’ve also forgotten as the tricks for one season don’t always blend into the next. It had been nearly a year since I’d seen temperatures of -25. I’d forgotten how it felt, what it meant. As I sat in front of our fireplace that morning, warming myself and our 40-degree house, the little things about life at 25 below started coming back to me. Like the quiet. It wasn’t just the absence of my husband that made the morning quiet, it was the cold. 25 below seems to be the threshold at which things start to get very calm, very quiet. A seriousness settles in.
It was Go Time.
For the first time ever since we’ve lived here, I was alone, in Winter, in Go Time temperatures. The cold temp quirks started coming back to me as I reached for my toothpaste, only to find it near frozen, the icy water with which I rinsed stunning my teeth, flushing the drain with boiling water so it wouldn’t freeze. Leto’s water bowl threatened to ice over as the floor sent up glacial tentacles that grasped me through my slippered feet. I made my first step outside onto The Ramp of Doom which let out a piercing pop as the frozen wood responded to my pressure, the crack all that much louder in the blanket of silence around me. Surprised, I drew in a quick breath, and my throat caught slightly as the freezing air hit it. The snow further announced my outside arrival, squeaking loudly with each step. All familiar signs of 25 below. In just one night’s sleep, everything had changed, the game was on.
The game? Stay warm, stay safe, keep your ship running smoothly.
I was the sole player and it wasn’t just The Chief who was absent. I was also officially more alone in the woods than I had ever been, in any season. All of our neighbors were gone and the closest help was miles away. Still, it was “only” 25 below. I’d done 25 below with The Chief, I could do 25 below solo. So, I spent the day running through mental checklists and chores to prepare for what I assumed would be a few days at 25, maybe 30 below. I chopped as much wood as my arms would allow (since we had zero chopped at the moment), pumped fuel, checked our systems and looked gratefully at the remaining three full buckets of water The Chief and I had filled before his departure.
As I checked chores off the list, I thought forward. The next day was a friend’s birthday and if I could get the house warm and my snowmachine going I figured I’d head out for an hour or two to toast her trip around the sun.
Mother Nature had other plans.
To keep my one mode of transportation in good working order, I’d been starting my snowmachine every day since The Chief had left.
Yet as the temps dropped, my battery, already on its last leg, couldn’t produce power enough to start the machine with the electric start (read: what dreams are made of). Plan B was the pull start but with such a large engine it was no easy feat. I pulled slowly to start, like stretching before a run (and to avoid ripping my arm out of its socket), then eventually full fast pulls. I pulled until I was nearly sweating (at 25 below!) but the engine wouldn’t budge. Knowing that a warm battery had a better chance than a cold one, I set out to pull it inside and charge it.
If only it were that easy.
Try as I might, I couldn’t pry it, bang it or will it free. It was frozen into place. My fingers cursed the cold as I cursed myself for having sent The Chief to Town with the only pair of heavy-duty gloves I had (in fairness, they were originally his and mine were nowhere to be found). Frozen from sweating and then standing at 25 below for an hour, I needed a break. I brought my aching hands inside to warm up and realized my next problem: warmth.
It was already midday and all-day-long I had kept the insatiable woodstove full to the brim but as I entered from outside, the temperature inside didn’t wrap warmth around me as it should have. I checked the temperature. The house was still at a stubborn 59 degrees. I looked at the wood I’d brought inside and realized my problem: wet wood. I did my best to remedy the situation by removing the frozen bark from all the warmed pieces but the water went deeper. In normal temperatures, I’d barely noticed the lack of heat this wood produced but as the temperature neared 30 below a feeling of doom settled in. Still, the house was cold but it wasn’t like it was freezing, right? I could manage. The dogs (we were dogsitting our beloved Kvichak), having made full use (read: a full mess) of the discarded bark told me it was time for a walk to take our minds off the cold (seems contradictory, right?) so off we went. We came back an hour later and before I knew it, the day had passed. I bundled up for bed, knowing the inside temp would further drop as I slept. In I crept to a hardened mattress (another thing I forgot happens in these temps: frozen mattresses!) in head to toe wool long johns, a sweatshirt, a hat and wool socks (exactly the opposite of how I normally sleep). I’d stoked the fire as much as safety allowed, hoping to buy myself a couple hours of sleep.
Come the ringing of my 4 A.M. fire tending alarm, not an ember remained in the woodstove and the house was down to 35 degrees. I was shocked. This wasn’t right. Our stove isn’t the largest but I felt like we’d been able to maintain a warm house and at least a 4-hour fire in the past without losing this much heat. I built another fire and sat brushing Leto (who had decided that right then, along with his best pal Kvichak, was a good time to start his bi-annual shedding) as I waited for enough coals to build up that I could again stuff the stove and get a little more sleep.
Sleep I finally did around 5 A.M., waking at 9 A.M., yet awake to a warm house I did not. Despite building a raging fire at the crack of dawn, I still woke to the bitter cold of our near-frozen home and again, not one ember in the fireplace. Something was different, a shift had occurred. I looked to every Alaskan’s Oracle: the thermometer.
It was 37 degrees below zero outside and 37 degrees in our house.
I needed to get on my feet and moving fast or this house would freeze, soon.
I think we call all agree that the difference between 25 below and 37 below is 12 degrees but the physical difference with each added degree below zero is exponential. Past 30 below, your breath doesn’t simply catch, it nearly chokes you with each inhale. Your woodstove isn’t just a resource, it is a lifeline and…things and systems start to breakdown, fast. Even the smallest hiccup can put the wheels of mayhem in motion. My first Winter, I grabbed a tote that had been left out in the Fall and it shattered in my hands and it’s contents spilled out, ruining half of them. The temperature had been a “mere” 28 below. We were way past that territory now.
Reality started to set in: this was no joke. I had found a rhythm in drying my woodpile but I had yet to find warmth. Try as I might, the temperature inside had not topped 60 degrees and had hovered for most of the day in the high 40s to low 50s. I texted the birthday girl to report that I most definitely would not be able to visit. Snowmachine aside, my 60-degree plight made leaving a no go. Even those who actually had a warmed house couldn’t make the birthday for fear of their house freezing while they were gone. Our house was already halfway to freezing. My girlfriend told me not to promise to reach out if I started losing the battle and things started going upside down on me.
I knew I was in a bit of a bind but having someone else say it shocked me further into action. This was serious.
I cherry-picked my way through my inside woodpile and the driest logs I could. The fire kicked up for the first time in two days. Things were looking up! Yet there was no time to celebrate. It was chore time.
I bundled up in my warmest clothes, protecting every inch of skin minus the very top of my cheeks and my eyes and went outside to get water. I lugged the generator over to our well. I was all set and ready to go. Yet, try as I might, I couldn’t get the water hose to thread onto the well. The threads had frozen. I pulled out my lighter to melt the ice but it barely budged as the flame kept failing in the cold. I wrapped my hand around the threads but nearly ripped off the skin as it instantly froze. Next, I trudged into our makeshift workshop to find our propane lighter. Genius! 10 minutes later I finally gave in. It was too cold to flow enough to ignite. Finally, after 30 minutes of problem-solving and failing, I was starting to get cold and the running generator was about to run out of gas. I decided to go for it without the hose. Who needs a hose anyways?
I need a hose.
Without a hose, the water shot straight from the pipe about four feet in the air. I held the bucket above my shoulders trying to catch as much as I could (and prevent Leto from catching the stream he loves to chase), using one bucket to fill the other three. Within seconds I was encased in a frozen cocoon of ice from head to toe. After two rounds of running up and down the Ramp of Doom with 80 pounds of water at a time, the dogs constantly in my way, tripping me as I rallied myself upward, water was done.
Next, I needed to charge the house batteries. Easy. I’d just had the generator running. It was warm and ready to go…but, it was out of gas so I filled it up, started it up, plugged the house in and…our outside lights didn’t come on.
Still, before I could check if it was charging inside, I needed more wood. Especially in cold temps I always try to apply the waitressing technique my friend taught me early on: Don’t move empty-handed. Make every trip in and out count. I chopped a quick armload of wood to bring inside but on the last swing of the ax, I felt something pop in my shoulder. Pain radiated up and down my arm. I felt panic well up inside me. If I couldn’t chop wood, I really was screwed. Still, there was no time to wallow. I loaded up my other arm with wood and headed inside.
Inside, the fire near dead after an hour of chores, I stoked it with new wood as I felt my cheeks start to melt from the comparative warmth of the house. The splatter from the well water had hardened where my eyelashes and my upper cheeks were exposed and immediately my skin started to burn. Still, there was no time to worry about that either as I looked to the batteries and saw that the house was not in fact charging. Just then, the generator started to angrily rev up and down.
After two days of failing to heat our house, struggling with water, countless near falls up and down the Ramp of Doom from dogs underfoot, an aching shoulder, a burning face and now a generator not producing power, I was starting to lose it. I checked everything I had learned about malfunctioning generators and found no culprit. It felt like my little world was starting to, to quote my girlfriend “go upside down on me”. Was I losing the battle? I called The Chief for a pep talk and just hearing his voice made my eyes well up with tears.
“You’re doing great. It’s hard, babe. Really hard.”
The tears threatened to spill over when at just the right moment he followed up with:
“Take a deep breath. You’ve got this.”
Deep breathe I did and I was back. I did have this. I could do this and with a little persuasion, I finally picked the easy route. There wasn’t time to troubleshoot the generator right now. I grabbed our backup and brought it inside to warm. Then, I headed to the woodshed and cherry-picked the best, most checked pieces of wood I could find (a check in a round of wood suggests it’s drier than one without it) and painfully chopped my way through it. Finally, hours after I had bundled up to start chores, they were finally winding down. The new wood fed the fire with gusto and an audible difference in the flames let me know this fire would warm us, which was good because, in the time I’d been outside, the inside temps had sunk again to the ’30s and the outside was near -40.
An hour later, the replacement generator hopefully warm enough, I suited up again for the outdoors, now in the early dark of dusk. In all the frustration earlier, I had forgotten I would need more fuel so off I went to fill another 5-gallon jug. In the cold, the fuel hose had frozen into a kinked position through which no fuel would flow. Again I de-gloved and warmed it as best I could with my bare hands. Finally, the fuel started to flow. I filled the generator and finally after about 20 pulls it started.
I went inside and saw it was producing power (the generator was the problem, not our inverter or batteries, as I had feared) and all was well.
Then, the lights went out.
The generator had died.
I quite nearly lost it (again) but (again) outside I trudged. Luckily, the generator had simply stopped because it was cold. I finally got it started again and this time it took. Cautiously, I went inside. Consistently it hummed.
A few hours later it was nearly 7 pm and the house was finally above 60! I was simultaneously exhausted and elated. At that moment, a next-door girlfriend newly returned from Town (I finally had neighbors again!) texted.
“Champagne? It was for the birthday but I think we should celebrate from afar.”
By the time she came over the house was still a bit chilly but my cheeks were on fire. The frozen water from the well had burnt the top layer of skin, like a sunburn only from cold: frostnip. Thankfully, good conversation and bubbles distract from welted cheeks. The healing powers of girlfriends, eh? I felt rejuvenated and accomplished. I had made it! As she left, I realized what I hadn’t made was dinner (or lunch). I settled on the dinner of champions (or maybe just this momentary bachelorette): pasta with butter (sorry, arteries).
Chalking the day up to a success, I finally fell into bed again after midnight. The house was near 70 degrees and with a stuffed woodstove and belly, I fell asleep.
The 4 A.M. wakeup call felt extra early the next morning. Groggy, I remembered that in our conversation the day before The Chief had asked if the bricks in the top of the stove had ash on them (meaning that perhaps that buildup, in addition to wet wood was adding to our heating issue). Since the fire had been going steadily since he’d asked I hadn’t been able to check. Yet, despite a full stove 4 hours earlier, there was no trace of heat. Now was my chance. I cleaned out the wood stove that was dense with ash and checked the bricks. Soot fell from atop them as I tugged them out, simultaneously realizing I had no idea how to get them back in. A few tense minutes later, everything thankfully was back in place and again. I started yet another fire and headed out into the -39 morning to dump the ashes.
By 4:30 I was doing dishes waiting for the fire to catch. The reservoir of water we use to fuel our faucet had frozen so I did my dishes in a basin, careful not to let any water trickle into our homemade plumbing and ice up. At those temperatures, water freezes almost instantly so even small amounts can take us out of commission fast and the last thing I wanted was to add slop buckets back into our life. Finally, the fire established its coals. I stuffed it full and opted for a few more hours of sleep.
I awoke to yet another morning of a near-frozen house, a woodstove without coals and completely dead batteries but it was ok. I may not have had it totally dialed but this situation wasn’t going upside down on me. Finally, caught up enough on chores and the house warm enough to be able to step away for an hour, the dogs told me how we would fill our time: a walk, at 39 below.
Despite being constantly in my way, they had been very good sports through it all but the stir craziness was starting to hit. Even though they are both Northern breeds, even they can’t stay outside long in those temps if not running and so had opted to be inside, in the way. Thus, we all needed some outside time. I covered my frost nipped cheeks as they amazingly pranced unphased by the cold, minus a lifted paw here and there.
The Chief phoned to tell me that they were delayed and wouldn’t be home that night but would return the following day. Two days before I might have panicked at his extended absence but I didn’t. I had done it. I had made it through 40 below, alone.
The next morning, the cold snap lifted. The thermometer read a mere -12 outside and I finally got the house to near 80 degrees. I love when it’s cold and the house is warm at the difference reaches nearly 100 degrees between the inside and outside. At the coldest of 40 below and the house in the ’70s, the day before the difference had been over 110 degrees, something that still just makes me laugh in awe.
In true Alaskan fashion, things didn’t quite go as The Chief had planned for departure but he was determined to make it home. By 3 A.M., I finally heard our truck roaring up the driveway. After hugs and hellos and unloading the truck of perishables and making and tending a new fire, we were finally both back to bed, cozied up at 5 A.M. An hour or so later I felt The Chief rise from our bed and heard the familiar sound of him stoking the fire. An hour after that, groggily preparing for work, I went downstairs to find that despite the again dropping temperature, the woodstove was alive with glowing coals.
My brain did a joyful backflip while my ego simultaneously sighed. A strange juxtaposition. I was overjoyed for The Chief to be home yet at the same time, it meant I was no longer the lone soldier protecting our castle. After 15 years of living alone in the woods, The Chief’s internal alarm clock awakes him immediately when temperatures drop. Having lived 4 years in the woods with The Chief, I think my internal clock would let me sleep through icicles forming in the house. The Chief has (almost) always beaten me to stoking the fire in the night. The sighing part of me was the part that wanted to continue to better hone my instincts. Yet other parts of me, like my shoulder, celebrated the help.
I’ll always be 11 years shy of The Chief’s Alaskan experience but come the opportunity to have my own, I did and I survived. Looking back on the week alone, I realized how far I had come in 4 years. I’d probably never even have noticed the wood was wet my first year. I certainly wouldn’t have known how to troubleshoot the well or the generator or even how to dress for the elements. Sure, there were hiccups, there were things I could have done better (and will do better next time) but the most important is that looking back, I can see how much I’ve learned. I’ve learned how to care for myself in the middle of nowhere Alaska, in the middle of Winter, alone.
The Chief’s help doesn’t negate my learning. Divvying up labor doesn’t mean both people aren’t capable of either task or that one is more or less important. Resting my shoulder so it can heal doesn’t mean I’m giving in, it means The Chief is stepping in to help and just as The Chief helps me, I help him. His presence doesn’t mean the learning stops and just in case I forget what I’ve learned, I’m sure Alaska has many more trials and tribulations up her sleeve to remind me.