6 January 2007: Fairbanks
Cold (something we expect to see a lot of on our traverse)
In “To Build a Fire,” Jack London describes the plight of the only character in the story:
The cold of space smote the unprotected tip of the planet, and he, being on that unprotected tip, received the full force of the blow.
Although they do not portray cold as such a malevolent force, Amundsen, Franklin, Stuck, and others write a great deal about their experiences with it. Those of us who live in Alaska are used to hearing comments about the cold from whomever we meet, from Massachusetts to Mexico. Yet for indigenous writers, cold is barely worthy of mention.
Cold is largely in the eye—or skin—of the beholder. A thermometer can give an objective measure of temperature, which can be supplemented by readings of wind speed or humidity to estimate better how the air actually feels. But the first day of freezing weather in fall invariably feels cold, whereas a day with the same temperature in spring feels pleasant. My friend Geoff Carroll, who went to the North Pole by dog team, said the advantage of starting in temperatures below -60°C was that -40° felt warm by comparison. He was unable to retain this view in succeeding winters, when -40° felt—surprise, surprise—cold again.
I generally like cold weather, the crispness of the air, the shimmering sparkle of ice crystals, the warmth of a cup of hot chocolate. I dislike being cold, the discomfort in fingers and toes, the clumsiness of chilled joints, the sensation of shriveling as the body withdraws fluid from the extremities and my wedding ring falls easily from my finger. Clothing, food, and activity make the difference between being in the cold and just being cold.
One effect of the cold is to reduce the margin for error. The same can be said for extremes of hot weather, too. At both ends of the spectrum, people are trying to inhabit conditions for which we are not adapted. In a moderate-to-warm climate, the body functions more of less as designed, balancing the production of heat with its loss through radiation and perspiration. Hot weather challenges one’s ability to shed heat, requiring large amounts of water to replace what is lost as sweat. The cold requires generating and retaining heat to a greater degree than most of us are used to.
Heat stroke and hypothermia are the dangers that lie on both sides of our comfort zone. The me, the advantage of cold is that it is easier to stay warm when it’s cold—more clothing, more to eat, more exercise—than it is to stay cool when it’s hot. But in both cases, slipping out of the zone of normal bodily function risks accelerating distress as our bodies struggle, and fail, to cope.
Ironically, one of the worst things to do in the cold is to get too hot. If you sweat, you become wet, and water drains heat more quickly than air, so that sweating can lead to feeling clammy, to shivering, to hypothermia, unless you can stay warm until you dry out. Thus one needs to pay attention to one’s bodily reactions and help the body regulate its temperature.
In other words, one must pay attention and learn how one’s body reacts in various conditions, recognizing the potential for trouble in time to do something about it. As more than one wilderness guidebook says, the only reliable way to avoid the consequences of severe hypothermia in the wilderness is to avoid falling into that condition at all. Recovery away from external help and perhaps medical facilities is all but impossible.
With all these perils, it seems a little surprising that Arctic peoples seem so blithely unconcerned about the cold. That they don’t dwell on the topic, however, is more likely a sign of familiarity than contempt. There is little need to talk at length about something well known and beyond control. Far better, instead, to focus on those things that one can do something about, such as obtaining food, preparing clothing and shelter, and sustaining the social relations so crucial to group survival.
For those of us not born to the cold, it is likewise hardly surprising that at times we think of little else. Of course, we can become familiar with cold, too. We can learn to pay closer attention to our bodies than to the thermometer. But reaching the state of unhurried acceptance takes longer.
In spent a summer in the inland village of Anaktuvuk Pass, a spectacular place at the crest of the Brooks Range in northern Alaska, with a well deserved reputation for friendliness. In late August, snow flurries had begun to appear despite the sunshine and the fiery red and orange of the tundra. Anaktuvuk had been established around 1950, the last of America’s nomads to settle down. When I was there in 1991, people older than 40 had been born and raised on the move, in skin tents or other shelters, following caribou and other food items through the mountains.
So I was a little surprised to hear one older woman say, as she walked into the community’s laundry facility, “Alapaa!” This ubiquitous Iñupiaq word means, more or less, “It’s cold!” She had grown up and given birth out on the land, through winters of cold, wind, dark. And her she was commenting on a little late summer chill?
Another man in the village had asked rhetorically why people today seemed to feel the cold so much, then answered his own question by saying that central heating in the houses had separated people from their surrounding climate.
After a few exchanges with the old woman, however, I eventually realized that “Alapaa” was both a generic comment on weather that applied during most of the year, and also a simple greeting requiring the same level of response as “How are you?” usually does. “Alapaa” was simply the condition of the world.
In Hudson Stuck’s account of traveling the Arctic Coast of Alaska by dog team, he describes giving a sermon in Barrow in which he talked about the people of the South Pacific living in a place where it was possible to lie under a tree and have breakfast drop into one’s mouth:
when the sermon was done a brisk old dame came up and with very expressive dumbshow indicated her intention of immediately proceeding to that land. She made long detours and spirals with her forefinger, ending in remote distance, and then stopped, pointed to herself, threw her head far back and opened her mouth wide—and joined in the general merriment her pantomime provoked. Again and again she pointed to herself and nodded her emphatic grey head. No more jigging through the ice for tomcod at 30° below zero for her breakfast; no more trudging weary miles through the snow to set rabbit and ptarmigan snares.
When I first read this, I thought the woman was most interested in the warmth. Upon re-reading it, however, I realize that her fascination is with the ease of getting food.
Amundsen, in contrast, remarks at the end of his journey through the Northwest Passage:
However ardent a Polar explorer one may be, it would be futile to deny that a genial temperature is very agreeable after having been deprived of it for some time. … Even the sight of a jelly-fish was hailed with joy, this being another sign that we had reached milder regions.
If even one of the greatest of polar explorers can admit such a thing, perhaps the rest of us visitors to the Arctic need not feel ashamed of having our fascination with the Arctic tinged with occasional relief that we can reach warmer climes from time to time.