Monday, January 25, 2010

Thief Baggins!!

Woke up this morning to the distinct sound of "patter patter scritch scritch crumple" on the deck. Definitely not the wind, and since the dog was about losing her mind I jumped out of bed to see what visitor was attempting to violate the "freezer". At first I didn't see anything, and nothing looked particularly disturbed... then I noticed one of the grocery tote bags was scrunched up funny. Nothing much in that bag, just some frozen extra bread loaves and some butter that didn't fit in the cooler...

Then I heard a rustle out in the trees, and summarily got cussed out by a squirrel!! Little thieving bastahd actually made off with the heal of one of the loaves!

Looks like we're going to have to make sure everything is closed up tight in rummage-proof containers (in addition to being frozen and sealed) again because it seems like the smaller critters are waking up already.  :D

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Winter Roadtrip

As usual, we lost track of what day it was and couldn't get the truck started on Friday (it was -43F) in time to make it into the Manley Trading Post before they closed up for the long weekend. We were out of dog food and some other supplies, so decided if/when we could get the truck started, I would just drive into Fairbanks for a major stocking run. Well, we spent all day Saturday charging the battery (in fits and starts since the generator doesn't like running when it's below -30F) and lit the charcoal chimney under the oil pan to warm up the engine compartment. It still wasn't turning over by Saturday afternoon, but we kept trying. Round about 2 a.m., the truck finally turned over, so I had to make an executive decision: leave in the dark while it was very windy, or wait until daybreak and hope it didn't get colder or start to snow. Needless to say, I wasn't banking on the truck starting again or the weather holding off... so I left at 2:30 a.m (8 hours prior to sun-up).

The actual road conditions weren't bad on the first leg of the trip; but the wind was blowing snow everywhere and there were a few places on the flats where I really couldn't see the road at all with the icey fog and snow blowing around. I just slowed down to a crawl and drove by the sound of my tires crunching in the plow berm, and prayed that I was actually still on the road. I definitely was not going to stop and risk not being able to get going again. Of course, driving in the dark with the wind howling and snow blowing all around really started to give me the wiggins! Seriously, you get this weird visual effect with snow and fog blowing around the headlights and it's really spooky. I swear it felt like there were "things" moving around out there just outside my vision, at the corner of my eye... wraiths and ghosts in the snow. I was definitely regretting reading so many Stephen King novels, especially on the sections when the fog and snow were drifting so deep that it literally looked like I was under water... you know how it looks when you're caught in a wave breaking and it's all foamy and tossing you about?! You start feeling like you're on another planet or something.

Well, toward the end of the first leg, I was praying really hard for that radio tower outside Livengood signaling my turn off onto the paved highway. I was so wigged out by the swirly "otherness" that when the radio tower signal lights finally flashed up out of nowhere, I nearly peed myself because I thought it was an oncoming car or something (hehe - or maybe a Close Encounter?!). Talk about jumpy!! But hey, I had just passed a truck abandoned on the side of the road with the front-end completely crumpled in... guess they must have hit the snow plow coming in the opposite direction. I can't imagine what else they could have hit on the road to fold up the engine compartment so neatly and perfectly -- not the kind of damage you get from a tree, another car or a moose. So me having a heart attack to suddenly see lights in front of me wasn't totally over-active imagination!

Unfortunately, the paved road conditions were actually worse than the gravel road conditions, even if the snow drifts and wind were less. There were a few areas that were really slick and I thought I was going to lose it on the curves despite my slower speeds. But, hey, I managed to keep her on the road and didn't even graze the guardrail. Yay me!! But it really sucked when the semi's would pass me in the opposite direction because they kicked up so much drift that I could barely see the road and the wind effects tried to throw me around like a fishing bobber... not what you want when there is tons of black ice on the curves and passes!! But I did manage to safely make it into Fairbanks around 6:30 am. Way to early for me to just show up at Kari's since I couldn't call ahead to let her know I was coming. So I checked into the Westmark (great hotel - highly recommend it!) and took a quick nap before heading out for a day of combat shopping.

So what's "combat shopping" you ask. Well, you see, I loathe shopping and truly detest crowded stores and driving around in traffic. It's one of the big reasons I got the hell out of the urban/suburban scene! So, we tend to put off trips into town until we're desperate and have tons of errands to run and supplies to pick up. I don't mess around, I don't window shop, I descend on stores like Unholy Vengeance and bust my way through the list as fast and furious as possible! Total combat-style, take no prisoners and show no mercy! This was made even more vehement by the fact that it was Sunday and some of the places I needed to go have short hours, and Monday was MLK Day, so I didn't know if they were going to be open. This was made worse by the fact that I have an open bed on the truck and things would either freeze or get stolen. Theft is a really bad problem in the winter since a lot of folks are out of work for the season and spending atrocious amounts of cash just trying to stay warm (our heating season is longer and harsher than the rest of the country and we typically have the most expensive fuel and electric rates, too -- so unfair!). I was racing through stores, stocking up the truck, hauling it all back to the hotel and up to my room, and then racing back out to the next place. It was truly exhausting! Especially since it was about -11F, windy, and some of the gear I was hauling around was 50 lbs or more... not fun trying to load that into a lifted pickup with my gumby gloves on!!

I did manage to get most of what we needed, and get the laundry done because Westmark has a coin laundry for guests while the stores were closed. We had about 8 loads backed up since there's not enough space in the tent to hang things to dry if we could manage to wash it all by hand; and the two washers and dryers in the Washeteria in Manley take forever. Even if you do manage to get there on a day when no one else is using them and they're working properly and have hot water (it's a near miracle to get all three at once!). Of course, this also meant I didn't get much sleep while I was there! But, I did get to take a lovely long hot shower and wash some of the funk off. Which is good, since I haven't had a proper bath/shower since Thanksgiving! I really feel sorry for the poor maid who had to clean that shower out after me!!

Of course, as luck would have it, I had just finished up my errands and started loading the truck up for the return trip when it started snowing. I really put the hustle on at that point because I did not want to get caught on the road if it started snowing heavily, or get stuck in Fairbanks for however long it might take for the plows to actually clear my entire route home. Good thing for me that Alaska weather is so freaky and there were only a few places along the road where it was snowing heavily enough to make me concerned, and several areas that just had some light flurries... no major accumulation anywhere. Whew!! But the wind was still ferocious, flinging the truck around. At least the new dusting of powder did improve road traction a bit on the slippy spots.

Caught a few pics of a really cool ice rainbow for you guys. The snow clouds starting breaking up right as the sun was beginning to set, and the windblown ice crystals in the atmosphere formed this really awesome circular rainbow around the sun. My sucky camera doesn't do it justice, but you can at least get a little taste. You can also see a bit of the snow drifts blowing across the flats and the road... it's really weird to see, looks much more like flowing water than wind or snow.

And here's a photo that illustrates another aspect of winter driving treachery up here... when everything is white your depth perception gets really hosed. In this pic, you're actually looking at a flat, three hills, windblown snow, a fog bank, some snow clouds and two mountains a couple hundred miles away... but you really can't tell where one starts, another begins and how far any of them are from you or each other.  Also, take a look at the road in the foreground... there are tons of these random sharp turns on the remote part of Elliott Highway and they can sneak up on you pretty fast since there aren't that many road signs. At least this one is the flats, where you have a better chance to see it coming or at least have somewhere "safe" to drive into if you miss it. Most of the others are in the hills, at the top or bottom of steep blind curves where there's nothing on the other side but a drop-off down a cliff through the trees if you happen to miss the turn or start skidding. You definitely have to keep on your toes!

I also tried to take some pics of the huge snow drifts that were carved from the wind... but it was too windy and none of them really came out since the lens was getting pelted with snow and I couldn't hold the camera still even leaning up against the truck. We're talking serious wind folks -- I was actually getting pushed along and would have been blown over if I wasn't hanging onto the truck for dear life; even the truck was getting pushed a bit sideways when stopped on the ice... and she's one heavy truck!!

But, all-in-all, the trip was successful and we're stocked up for another few months. I pulled up to the tent just as the sun was as it was kissing the horizon and we had just enough light left to unpack everything. G-man was happy to see me home safely, and the fur-kids  were their normal boisterous and chatty selves. Especially Charlie, who gets "not-the-momma" syndrome when left alone with Dad for long periods. Hopefully we won't have to make another trip into Fairbanks until the Spring. Of course, the gravel sections of the Elliott may even more treacherous to drive on during Breakup when everything turns into a muddy, swampy bog! We shall see :D

Friday, January 15, 2010

Cold Front

As if the last few days of temps no higher than -30F weren't enough, we've got a cold front moving in... hahahah, priceless!! We've been 30 degrees below average, and 20 degrees below record the past 3 days... JOY!

It's currently -48F and falling... fast. The Weather Liars say it's going to get colder and stay in the -40 to -50 range (or lower) for the next 3-4 days, and we're supposed to get more snow. Which is totally weird, because it's actually too cold to snow... something freaky is going on with the weather gods! And to top it all off, we're supposed to get MORE wind... sheesh! I shudder to think what the wind chill factor is going to be if the ambient temp is -50!! YIKES!!

Finally had to break out the serious snow gear and parka to do the firewood thing today... no way were a few layers of thermals going to cut it! Generator runs for about 10 minutes before getting too cold to fire anymore. The batteries are freezing up and only hold charge for about 30 minutes, which is just long enough for the generator to have warmed up by the fire. I'm getting really tired of hearing the inverter alrm beep beep beeping. Think we may have to shut down for a while and only run the generator and get online for a couple of minutes here and there over the next couple of days. Thank goodness we have plenty of lamp oil and candles!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Extreme Cold and Your Body

According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), "extreme cold" is any temperature significantly lower than your body is used to... in essence, they feel this is relative. On one hand I agree with them, since someone living in a subtropical zone is certainly not physically adapted to temperatures near or below freezing. On the other hand, extreme cold, I mean really extreme cold, has some hard delineations (in my mind at least) and those center around the duration, maximum exposure times, and the difficulty to maintain adequate heat.

A healthy person stuck in just barely freezing temperatures around 30F, no matter how unused to it they are, can easily survive those temperatures with a normal 2000 calorie diet and some warm clothing. However, a healthy person stuck at temperatures much below 0F couldn't survive on a 2000 calorie diet no matter how many clothes they had... because 2000 calories is simply not enough fuel to keep the metabolic furnace burning hot enough to keep the core body temperature above 95F (hypothermia). If your body can't produce enough heat from the inside, all the insulating clothes, blankets and gear in the world are not going to keep you warm enough and certainly aren't going to make more heat. You need fire or chemical heat source at that point.

Also, while it may be more difficult for someone in milder cold to continue working at those temperatures, the warmth produced from their exertion and the layer or two of warm clothes is more than adequate to keep them warm with just a little more food to keep the furnace stoked. In that temperature range, under those conditions, they could pretty much continue working at the same exertion level and duration. However, when you're working in sub-zero temperatures, you start running into the situation where your body forces you to decide whether to expend your energy on work or keeping warm... you simply do not have enough metabolic energy to do both for any extended period of time.

Even consuming more calories does not automatically tip the scales in your favor in the extreme cold. Chewing, swallowing and digestion itself requires energy, so eating more is subject to the law of diminishing returns. Eventually, you don't really gain any more usuable energy for your efforts just by consuming more and your body will start shutting down non-vital systems in order to conserve more... including, unfortunately, digestion.

Additionally, in milder cold, you have a much longer exposure time to the elements before your body starts to suffer permanent damage. Flushing (dilation of the blood vessels in the skin) and shivering (contraction of the muscles) is usually enough to circulate and generate enough heat to keep your surface tissues and extremities from freezing even if they are exposed, so long as you have some sort of warm clothing layer. You would have to be subjected to at least a couple hours of direct exposure, and several hours of indirect exposure (i.e. continued loss of body heat in covered areas like your extremities) before any significant or permanent damage was done. Manual dexterity and mental processes are not significantly impaired for several hours.

However, at sub-zero temperatures, any exposed flesh can freeze in minutes (even seconds) despite flushing and shivering. The body heat is simply getting wicked away too fast, and the body shuts down blood flow to those areas almost immediately in attempts to keep the core temperature above hypothermia -- this is what is known as "Frost Nip". Once deprived of blood flow and oxygen, your cells literally start to freeze and form ice crystals -- this what is known as "Frost Bite". At -30F, exposed skin can go from healthy, to frost nip, to frost bite in less than 5 minutes. At those temperatures, unless you can keep your core temperature high enough through a combination of food and clothing, you risk frost bite in even your covered extremities in less than one hour. Sustained exposure to these temperatures and lower, even covered and maintaining your core temperature, increases the likelihood of developing frost bite in your extremities 10% for every 30 minutes you remain exposed. Manual dexterity is affected almost immediately, and mental functions become impaired after only an hour.

While it may suck royally to be stuck at 18F in your normally balmy southern province, it's just not the same as being stuck at -40F. And routinely experiencing sub-freezing and sub-zero temps for a couple of few-day stretches in a more northerly province, is still not the same as being stuck continually below freezing for 3-4 months, and below zero for weeks if not months. For comparison, most "cold" regions in the Lower 48 experience sub-zero temperatures about as frequently as we at higher latitudes experience -50 or below. -10F vs -50F... that's a 40 degree difference, which more than the temp difference between most people's refrigerator and freezer compartments. Think about it.

I'm not knocking folks feeling the cold at temps I would consider warm. Not at all. In fact, I'm asking them to recognize how difficult their life is at those temps before assuming that I can do what they can do when I'm facing temps at least 4 times lower than they are. Just because they can go out and still manage to walk the dog for an hour, or chop firewood all afternoon, or even get their cars & chainsaws running at, say, 18F... does not mean that we can do the same things at -18F. That's a 36 degree difference, and it counts. At the temps we have to deal with, some fuels won't even ignite!! So, you'll have to excuse that we sleep 12+ hours while our bodies conserve energy, and can only work (or play) outside for an hour or less before we have to come inside to sit by the fire, eat some truly fattening snacks, and take a nap.

Even given the extreme cold limitations, I wouldn't trade my Alaska wilderness for anything! I chose it, and I'm not complaining. Just fighting a little judgmentalism that's been cropping up lately :D

Friday, January 8, 2010

Flame retardent firewood and other happenings

You ever just get that one piece of wood that will NOT catch no matter what you do? It's not green, it split fairly easily, it's not wet or cold... it just will not catch fire for love or money?! Well we got a whole log like that and it's driving us crazy... just sits there in the firebox and glows, producing no flame and no heat. And it's all mixed in with the flammable stuff so we can't just put it back outside and have done with it. **sigh**

We had a minor warm front this week, and it was hovering just above zero; but now the temps are going back down and the wind has picked up. It's not really that cold, only -27, but the wind chill and low humidity are brutal. It's the type of weather where your eyelashes and nostrils freeze together the minute you get outside. You can feel all the moisture in your lungs freezing up and getting sucked dry... it actually burns to breathe. It's the combination that's making it so harsh.

We're still progressing on our plans for the "Shanty" as well as the "Big House" and hoping to get a reasonable break in the weather so we can get into Fairbanks to do some equipment shopping. Still haven't gotten too much site exploration done as the snow is up past our knees which makes hiking in the bush just a tad treacherous -- especially for super-clumsy girl here! The delay isn't too horrible now that we've switched plans, since we're not as pressed to scout out building timbers before Breakup. Once the weather turns, we'll have plenty of time to go trudging through the trees and mud looking for a building site before it's actually warm or dry enough to start working again.

For now, we're just focusing on keeping warm and keeping enough firewood stocked to keep the stove going... everything else can wait. We made the lifestyle change to be lessed stressed and hurried, not more :D

Sunday, January 3, 2010

13 Reasons Why Cats are Cooler than Dogs

  • They don't eat poop.
  • They're quiet and reserved.
  • They're small and light.
  • They're content to amuse themselves.
  • They don't eat poop.
  • They don't need to be let in and out every twenty minutes.
  • They won't gorge themselves with an auto-feeder, and they eat less.
  • They don't jump up on you and knock you over in the snow when you're carrying an armload of firewood... or a running chainsaw.
  • They don't eat poop.
  • They may not obey, but they rarely do anything stupid or dangerous or destructive enough to make obedience important.
  • They rarely suffer from separation anxiety. They could care less whether you're there most of the time.
  • They don't jump around, get over-excited, or piddle themselves when people visit. Most people will never even know you have a cat.
  • They don't eat poop!