Editing at -60 Degrees

How cold is it?

Last night, the temperature in Santa Fe, NM, dropped to -13, and I went outside to walk in the snow. No one else was out and about. What a difference, I thought, to 6 weeks ago.

One of my clients is a tribal organization in the village of Fort Yukon, deep in the heart of Alaska. The organization brings me to its offices a few times a year for on-site assistance. Six weeks ago, when I was there last, the temperature there was much, much colder. On several mornings, the temperature was below -60. That’s cold.

I was there for about a week to assist with grant development and implementation, document review, and other forms of communication assistance. Having survived that extreme condition, I couldn’t complain about the temperature last night.

Fort Yukon is 10 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Dawn was around 10:30 in the morning, dusk around 2:30 in the afternoon. I was there during the equinox, so one day the sun never rose above the horizon. (You would have to travel much farther north to experience the full days of darkness.) This means that I walked to the office, and back to where I was staying, in darkness.

Yes, I walked to and from the office in -60 temperatures. The client usually loans me a truck to get around the village, but the truck wasn’t working, and the mechanic from Fairbanks wouldn’t fly to the village until the weather was warmer. (You can’t drive to the village because there are no roads leading in or out, so you must fly.) Perhaps he was afraid to get stuck in the village. Airplanes can’t fly when the temperature is too cold. The fuel turns to jelly. One air service suspends flights at -40, the other at -50.

To keep warm—and safe—during my 5-minute trek to the office, I wore 70% wool socks, long-johns, pants, ski pants over the pants, tee-shirt, long-sleeved heavy shirt, pull-over sweater, down jacket, balaclava, wool hat over the balaclava, ski gloves, and insulated snow boots. In all, 12 items of clothing. Only my nose, cheeks, and eyes were uncovered. I left a pair of regular shoes at the office so, like Mr. Rogers, I could change into comfortable shoes when I arrived. Most people wore snow suits all day, inside and outside, probably because changing in and out of cold-weather clothing was a chore.

My glasses gave me a bit of trouble. Warm moist air rose from the balaclava if I exhaled from my mouth. That caused my glasses to steam up, blinding me. At -60, the glass was so cold that the steam became ice, which would thaw a few minutes after I entered the office. I quickly learned to inhale through my mouth and exhale through my nose to prevent my glasses from steaming up.

Inhaling the warmer air inside the balaclava was necessary. At those temperatures, breathing deeply could cause ice crystals to form inside my lungs, effectively asphyxiating me, leading to great discomfort if not death. I also learned to move slowly to prevent the need to breathe deeply.

I had been told that if I poured hot coffee to the ground, it would turn to ice almost instantly. That seemed like a waste of coffee, so I never tried it. However, I did experience something like it when I was there the year before: ice fog. At that time, the temperature was warmer, maybe -20, and moist air had come in from the west. When moist air hits cold temperatures, it turns to fog, right? However, the temperature was cold enough to turn that moisture into ice crystals so fine that they stayed suspended in the air. Visibility was limited to about 50 feet. Airplanes couldn’t find the runway, and I was stranded there until it cleared.

This time, the skies were clear. Truly, it was beautiful. Blue skies (for about 4 hours), trees and ground covered in snow, sunlight glistening off the ice on the Yukon River, and fresh air. A few people would drive by in their trucks. The trucks could run because people plugged them in to their house or office electrical outlets. All the vehicles in Fort Yukon have power cords dangling from their front bumpers. When connected to a power source, an internal heater kept the engine block warm enough to start.

At -60, very few people were outside. Understand that this is a small village. You could walk from one end to the other in about 15 minutes, if you wished. In the summer, most people drove 4 wheelers—even grandmothers. In the winter, most people drove snow mobiles. However, because the village is small, many people simply walk from place to place, for example down the street to the one small store or to the post office. At these temperatures, the roads were nearly deserted. Most mornings, I was the only one walking outside.

I heard one story after another about how someone had died from exposure. One person had died when snow mobiling on the river and his snow mobile broke down about an hour from the village. He died while trying to walk home; no one is sure why. Another person died when traveling by snow mobile from the nearest village, a 4-hour trip by snow mobile. He was off track only slightly and in the dark wasn’t sure where he was, so he tried to wait until daylight. People found his body only a mile from the village.

I was worried about getting out of the village. I wanted to be home in time for Christmas, but the planes weren’t flying. On the day before my departure, the temperature warmed up to about -40, and bush planes began arriving from Fairbanks. The village seemed to be transformed. People were walking and driving on the roads. Dogs were playing outside. Teens were racing their snow mobiles. And everyone commented how much warmer it was.

I was able to depart when expected. The plane arrived around 6:30 p.m. in the dark. Once the pilot loaded packages and luggage, and the 5 passengers climbed on board and buckled up, we were off for an hour flight to Fairbanks. The next day, I was aboard Alaska Airlines and on my way home. This was an experience that most editors, and owners of editing companies, will never experience—and it was wonderful.

So, no. I can’t complain about -13 temperatures. By comparison, it is quite comfortable.


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