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The cold that fires the senses

Put down the skis and snowboards; the real cold of winter is less about play than survival.

November 01, 2005|JOHN BALZAR

IT'S NOT SO HARD TO find cold, if cold is what you seek. But when winter is a destination -- as for those of us here in the palm latitudes of the Pacific Coast -- the ordinary cold of weather pages or ski resorts is not what ignites your imagination.

For that kind of cold, we must go north: a journey, say, into the Alaska-Yukon wilderness to encounter winter solely for the sake of its raw, unconditional drama. This does not mean the banana belt of Anchorage or Homer, but far into the Arctic Circle interior where, global warming and all, you can still find a few 40-below days of dog mushing, if your luck is good.

In the pure quiet of the bush, between Fairbanks and Dawson in January, the whiners pulled out long ago. Only survivors remain, and not many of those -- for when centigrade meets Fahrenheit, as happens at 40 below, survival becomes a very absorbing concept.

Simple mistakes like a dead battery, numb fingers, a slip on the ice are no longer inconveniences. A miscalculation and your fingers get too cold, and you cannot manipulate the match to light the fire that is necessary to ... well, Jack London told us all about the drowsy, anesthetic sensation of freezing to death in the spruce forests of the Far North.

Still, danger and delight grow on the same stalk, as the English proverb has it. The edginess of cold is essential to its allure. Cold concentrates the mind. Cold is demanding -- its chief demand being that you stay warm.

On a tropical beach, an icy fruit drink is refreshing; when driving a dog team down the frozen Yukon River, a steaming mug of tea is life-restoring.

More to the point, extreme cold is beautiful, and beautiful in ways that cannot be experienced until the mercury shrivels to the very bottom of the thermometer.

To imagine cold this extravagant, consider that the difference between the lowest temperature ever recorded in Los Angeles and 40 below is equal to the gap between a sizzling 118-degree afternoon in Palm Springs and a foggy 50-degree morning at the beach.

At 40 below, the air holds almost no moisture. The ice jams of the river, the bare rock of the bank, the spindly spruce forest frosted in snow are rendered with such crystalline clarity as to be startling in the slanting amber twilight of the subarctic day.

Underfoot, the surrounding snow is dry, the texture of sand and nearly as noiseless. Not that you could hear anyway. Deep in the muffled folds of your parka, the only sound is your breath and the beating of your exuberant heart. The vapor of your exertions leaves a rime of ice on your beard, the more vigorous your efforts the more lavish the ice cake. This is weather you wear proudly on your face.

Long into the night, for winter days are mostly night near the Arctic Circle, you call a halt and camp. You drive dogs instead of skiing because you cannot carry enough on your back to travel far or stay long. Now the dogs rest, and you work. These are elemental labors that cannot be deferred, for which there are no shortcuts.

During the long sweep of human existence, until just the eye-blink of what we call the modern age, these were the rhythms of life: nourishment, liquid, fire. The cold returns you to the essential wilderness of your progenitors.

In an imaginative moment, Thoreau once considered the freedom of early man, writing: "When he was refreshed with food and sleep, he contemplated his journey again. He dwelt, as it were, in a tent in this world, and was either threading the valleys, or crossing the plains, or climbing the mountain-tops. But lo! men have become the tools of their tools.... We no longer camp as for a night, but have settled down on earth and forgotten heaven."

You toss the remainder of that now-cold tea from your mug, and it flash-freezes into ice fog in front of your face. Curious. It is so very cold out there, but so cozy inside your radiant cocoon. Forty below is that way: no middle ground to muddy the thoughts between the epic and the personal.

Shuffle out of the spruce forest, past the dogs burrowed into the snow, and stand on the bank of the frozen, buckled Yukon. Overhead, the aurora borealis fills a thousand miles of sky -- great dancing belts of smoky neon green, tinged in pink. Maybe, at a rare moment, a swirling nebula of red materializes like a celestial pinwheel to be seen here but nowhere else. Beyond, furious stars glint in the colors of jewels.

In Athabascan myth, the aurora lights the pathway to, what else, heaven. Perhaps it's so.


John Balzar can be reached at

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