Posts Tagged ‘40 below’

The View from Mattie’s Pillow

March 18, 2009

Temperatures have dropped again with bitter wind–unusual combination for the Interior, but as I write this, I realize that it’s happened several times this winter. Today is St. Patrick’s Day, but not much happening here at Mattie’s Pillow. All humans here have been laid low with a flu–mild in my case–and green beer is the last thing on our menu.

The snow is still thick on the ground here and settling and hardening in the wind. Out on the Iditarod Trail, the mushers are being buffeted with winds off the Bering Strait as they cross frozen Norton Sound. Some have scratched; some have needed helicopter rescue, dogs and all. The Iditarod, since it takes place later in the year than the Yukon Quest, and as spring gradually comes earlier in the North, usually has the opposite problem. For sled dogs, bred to race full out at the coldest temperatures and with the coats to help them do this, weather below zero is best. Too much warmer than that, and they overheat and need to stop to eat snow occasionally to stay cool. But this year, with the wind and deep cold the mushers are struggling to take care of their dogs and stay healthy.

Still, the race will soon be over, if it’s not already, and the stragglers can take their time getting in, cheered along the way by the people who live in villages along the trail: Shaktoolik, Ophir, Nikolai, Nome.

Now, St. Patrick’s Day is over almost everywhere. Charlie Rose is talking about the economic situation. Tomorrow, plant tomatoes for the greenhouse, watch horses shed, believe that summer will come.

View from Mattie’s Pillow

February 4, 2009

Although it dipped back to 40 below in the valley along the river plains last night, it hovered around 25 below here–not quite blanketing temperatures for Mattie and Sam–and I promised myself I wouldn’t write about the cold. We’re tired of it here; tired of writing about it, tired of chopping wood, of worrying about ordering more fuel oil, of fiddling with cars that won’t start or run well.

Two days ago, Mike (who wanted me to mention him in this blog) went to start the truck and found that the engine block heater cord had melted at the plug. He first noticed some black soot on the ground under the truck, then followed the cord back to the melted plug and multiple outlet cord. I’m not sure I have all the technical terms right; it’s a thick yellow cord which has fan-shaped three-outlet end where cords to the engine block heater, the battery heater, and the oil pan heater plug in. The middle of this fan-shaped end, where the engine block heater cord plugs in, had melted, as had the plug. Lucky for us, they hadn’t melted through, or we would have discovered the truck in flames, as happened to a friend of ours a few years ago. She had parked her new-for-her car in the driveway one night, plugged in, and woke to find the charred and melted remains there in the morning.

Which brings me to why I live in Alaska. Thinking about groundhogs, lately, I remember that other places have less demanding seasons. Traveling to the East Coast to visit or for conferences, I always end up amazed at how tropical it seems–so many birds, deciduous trees, flowers, deer. When I remember the places I lived growing up–Eastern Shore Maryland, a barrier island in New Jersey, Southern Lancaster County Pennsylvania–I remember open spaces–fields, woods, stretches of winter beach–where I spent my time alone with my imagination. But each visit back there reminds me that those open spaces are gone or diminishing.

Two years ago, I went to New Jersey to visit my brother and rented a car to drive around the southern part of the state. He gave me directions to drive to a rural community to prove to me that there are still farms in Southern New Jersey. Caught in a line of cars on the highway, I ended up heading the wrong direction and took the next exit, hoping to get right back on and head the other way. I ended up in a little town with white frame houses and tree-lined streets, a town that hadn’t changed much in fifty years. I pulled into a gas station to ask directions. It was an old “service station” not a glass and metal chain self-serve. Inside, the office was dark from years of grease and cigarette smoke. A cluster of men sat there talking. They wore old ball caps and overalls, and had thick New Jersey accents-flat “a”s and broad round “o”s-sounds that had their roots in 17th century English of the early settlers, sounds I remember from childhood.

I asked for directions. They told me to just go down to the light and turn left; I’d get right back on the expressway. They didn’t tell me that the light was in the next town.

My brother was right. I found the farms and country roads, still narrow from the horse and buggy days, but clogged with cars going too fast. It was March, gloomy with rain mixed with snow. I couldn’t look anyplace without seeing people or buildings. Driving made me shake with anxiety, if only because nothing seemed automatic or familiar; I never knew where I was or if I would end up where I was intending to go.

Here, I look out my window and, on a clear day, see 150 miles to the Alaska Range: Mount Hess, Mount Hayes, Mount Deborah. Walking down the road from my house, I’m more likely to meet dog walkers than cars. Riding out on the horses in summer, I can see the Tanana River, braided and looping along its flood plain, gleaming among the dark spruce forests. In the week in late May/early June when we have our sudden spring, the birch and willow leaves uncurl into a glow of yellow-green, the pasque flowers appear on hillsides like fuzzy purple crocuses, the bluebells and wild roses bloom and the air is full of sweetness.

On her blog, Beyond Ester, Glow writes of the owl that landed in the spruce outside her window. We see foxes along the road and white snowshoe hares.  The brilliant light reflecting off the mid-day snow reminds us of the long light of summer.  Why would a small thing like cold make us want to leave this place?

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