Livin’ La Vida Fria: Life in the Polar Vortex

WINTER: most of us have at least one that stands out in memory. The year the snowdrift came over the windowsill. The year the car slipped down the hill and took out the neighbor’s mailbox. The year we made the snow igloo big enough for three whole kids.

OtziFor “Ötzi,” Europe’s oldest known natural mummy, the winter of memory—3,200 B.C. or thereabouts—turned out to be his last. A trip into the Ötztal Alps between Austria and Italy ended with an early spring snowstorm. He fell victim to that winter, his body hidden by glacial ice until he emerged, amazingly preserved, in September of 1991. We know what he wore, what he carried with him, what he ate at his last meal. For his family, never knowing his fate, it was a painful, private memory.

Other winters have become part of our collective memory. During the “Little Ice Age” in Europe, lasting from the mid-14th century to the 19th century, there were many memorable winters. On Christmas Day of 1564, Queen Elizabeth the First took to the ice on the Thames River and practiced archery. The first recorded “Frost Fair” in London was held in 1608. People traveled for miles on the frozen Thames, by sled and by sleigh. Frost FairAs the Frost Fair became an annual event, fires were lit and booths set up offering drinks, gambling, dancing, and souvenirs. The Thames became a thoroughfare and a village. Every sort of entertainment could be found, from puppet shows to bear-baiting to carriage races. The last Frost Fair was held in 1814, when an elephant was led across the river below Blackfriars Bridge. Someone during those waning years distributed handbills with the following inscription (now memorialized on five slabs of granite in the pedestrian tunnel under Southwark Bridge):

Behold the Liquid Thames frozen o’re,
That lately Ships of mighty Burthen bore.
The Watermen for want of Rowing Boats
Make use of Booths to get their Pence & Groats.
Here you may see beef roasted on the spit
And for your money you may taste a bit.
There you may print your name; tho cannot write
Cause num’d with cold: tis done with great delight,
And lay it by that ages yet to come
May see what things upon the ice were done.

I’ve seen some memorable winters in my time. In February of 1980, a team of amateur hockey players, against all odds, took the gold in Lake Placid, New York—the “miracle on ice.” The great Blizzard of Buffalo took place at the end of January, 1977. Winds gusting up to 75 mph brought snow drifts that covered cars and stranded people in their homes. Buffalo BlizzardOne of my relatives, who lived near Tonawanda, outside Buffalo, lost her heat and had to burn furniture in the fireplace. Now that stuck in my memory.

The most memorable winter for me was the one my husband and I spent on a remote Air Force station in Clear, Alaska. As fate would have it, we set the record that year for the coldest temperature ever officially recorded in the United States. The day was January 23rd, a Saturday. My husband was taking his shift in the radar facility, watching for missiles from Russia. I was working in the office of the NCO/Officer’s Club. The day began at a balmy 30 degrees. Then the temperature started dropping, fast—so fast that the temperature was broadcast hourly, site-wide, over the PA system. Around noon we slid past zero and kept going: 10 below, 30 below, 50 below, 70 below. Having never experienced an Alaska winter, I felt like the temperature might keep plummeting forever. It was scary.

We eventually bottomed out at minus 80 degrees, a new record—one that still stands. But that was only the beginning. That day was the first in a low-temperature period that lasted until March. For six weeks, the temperature never got above 50 below zero. As Garrison Keillor once said, that year “Mother Nature made a couple of serious attempts to kill us.” Driving anywhere to get supplies was out of the question. We calculated the exact half-way point between home and the base, just in case the car died—although walking for help was a pipedream. Jnorthern lightsust breathing the outside air could permanently damage your lungs. One amazing experience that winter was seeing the spectacular Northern Lights.

We lived off-base in a trailer, if you can imagine that. Our poor oil furnace worked continuously, managing to keep us in the range of 50 degrees or so. All our windows frosted over. Our water pipes froze solid, and we had to bathe and wash clothes on base. Even our propane froze (is that possible?), so we ate our meals on base as well. Come March, the cold finally abated, and we moved from the trailer to a double log cabin in the tiny village of Anderson. It felt like heaven.

The memory of that winter puts our cold weather this year—the so-called “Polar Photographer UnknownVortex”—in perspective. Besides, February is just around the corner. Groundhog Day. Then March will come, bringing rain and the first hints of spring. Oh, how we will celebrate spring this year. In the meantime, we can dream.

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