In Alaska, cold competition is warm comfort

Inside, I have a fire going, a pot of beans on the stove, and my dogs at my feet. I'm about to type up notes from last night's school board meeting. Outside, it is clear and white, with ice clogging the beach. The snow is so deep that the full-keeled sloop on the trailer in the yard looks as if it were floating. Across the frozen tide flats, the north wind is blowing banners of snow off the mountaintops.

Yesterday morning the wind chill was minus 47 degrees F. I know, because I have a wind-speed indicator on the roof and a monitor on my desk. This has got be the coldest place in town.

I ran errands as an excuse to check. At the lumber yard I bought more sunflower seeds for the chickadees and asked Tim if there were a lot of frozen pipes.

"It's not too bad," Tim said. "Our house is good, but there was slush coming out of Linda's faucet." Linda is Tim's neighbor. "I was under her house last night," he said, "and got it buttoned up."

It was so cold last night, even the northern lights were moving quickly, flashing instead of the usual wave. "Eight below" Tim said, answering my question before I asked.

At our house it was only 6 below. Still, his neighborhood doesn't get the wind.

Then he said, "You know, I can't figure out how it happens, with the mountain behind us like that, but we are getting hammered. The wind chill must be 40 below."

That still puts us 7 degrees colder.

At the library, a friend said it was 24 below at his cabin out the road, toward the Canadian border. After the cold of the street. my cheeks felt hot and my nose suddenly dripped. He handed me a tissue. "Really?" I said between blows. "Are you staying warm?"

He was wearing insulated coveralls, felt-lined boots, wooly hat, and heavy parka. There were so many layers under it that it looked too small. "It's a dry cold," he said, "and there's no wind so it feels cooler in town."

I thought so.

I said my dogs had to be pushed out the door twice a day. Then I got to the real point of the visit: "The wind chill was 47 below this morning," I told him. "I have a weather station, so I know."

He scratched his graying beard. "That is cold," he said. "But it's 50 below up in Whitehorse, without the wind chill."

Some folks worry that the long, cold Alaskan winters can lead to odd behavior, or "cabin fever." That's not a problem for me. There's plenty to do. Like stir the beans, put another log on the fire, and type the notes from this week's school board meeting. But I'll get to all that just as soon as I catch the next big gust on my weather station monitor - you know, the one that makes it feel like 51 below zero.

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