Bush Thermometer

One of the many exciting things about living in Alaska is the extreme cold temperatures. Okay, so maybe I've been up here a little too long when I calling an extreme temperature "exciting." Most everyone knows about the playground joke of daring someone to like a metal pole when the temperature is "really cold," right? Well, up here, when the temperatures are REALLY cold, you don't want to touch a metal object with your dry hand let alone a wet tongue.

Exposed skin freezes within minutes. Once, while trying to unhook a trailer from my truck, I made the mistake of taking off the heavy leather work glove I was wearing. When I touched the nut of the quick-link, the pad of my thumb froze almost instantly. Actually I should probably say it "burned." Although I did get the trailer safety chain disconnected, I sure paid for it over the next few days as the skin on my thumb turned from a chalky white to black and eventually began to peel off.

Now, how can you tell how cold it is? Well, one way is to look at the thermometer. but, what if you don't have a thermometer, or the temperature is so cold the thermometer you bought at K-Mart only goes down to -10 degrees and it's bottomed out? Several years ago, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner published an article listing the freezing points of various liquids one would find around their cabin. Here's what they had to say:

Freezing/Gel Point
Classic Coke, O'Doul's & Metal Working Oil
Motor Oil (15W)
Motor Oil (30W)
Hydraulic Oil, Gear Lube & Gear Oil
Motor Oil (10W30)
2-Cycle Oil
Motor Oil (5W30)
Mobil 1 Engine Oil (15W50)
Mobile 1 Engine Oil (15W30)

One night, upon returning to my cabin after being gone for three weeks, I found it a tad cold inside. No, that's an exaggeration. It was DAMN cold inside. I knew the temperature outside was approximately -64 (that's sixty four degrees BELOW zero) according to the radio. The alcohol in the thermometer inside had dropped to the bottom of the tube, then somehow split into three small peices so it obviously was not accurate.

The first order of business was to get a fire going in the woodstove. I alway kept a pile of kindling ready to go next to the stove and a full woodbox to boot. After getting a fire started, I packed as much wood into the stove as possible. by leaving the door ajar, I got a really good draft going. Eventually, the fire was roaring and the iron stove was glowing a deep red. The thermometer on top of it pegged out at somewhere over 500 degrees.

Next came a call down to Anchorage to let them know I was back safely. I picked up the cordless phone and could not get a dialtone. It was frozen. I dug out an old plug-in phone, picked up the handset and immediately snapped the cord in two. It was frozen. I had a spare cord in my tool chest and before plugging it in, I stuck it inside my coat for a while to let it warm up. After a bit, I plugged it in and made the call (but in order to protect my ear, I had the flaps on my mushing hat pulled down -- it made it a little harder to hear, but I didn't freeze my ear!). That done, I turned on the radio. It didn't work. It too was frozen. So, I made a major scientific discover that at really low temperatures, modern electronic things don't work.

Next, I had to get my dogs fed and watered. Because I was not sure what condition I would find my cabin in (warm, cold or frozen) when I got back, I hauled several six-gallon containers of water back from Anchorage so I knew I would have some liquid water for the dogs. I put a large pot on the floor and dumped some water into it. Some slopped off the rim and upon hitting the floor did not puddle, it froze instantly into a piece of ice half and inch thick! Once the pot was filled I set it on the stove to heat for feeding the dogs. I always mix warm water with their dry food in the winter. It serves two purposes. First, it gets more water into their system to prevent dehydration. Because of the cold, you cannot leave water out for your dogs as it will freeze. Second, it provides a nice warm meal for them.

After caring for the dogs and getting the cabin in shape I decided it was time to settle down and have a drink. And I don't mean a drink of water! I knew I had some beer in the refrigerator. It was frozen, along with everything else in there! So, I pulled out a bottle of bourbon thinking, "It's alcohol, it doesn't freeze." Guess what. It does. My entire liquor supply was frozen solid! Bourbon, brandy, rum and vodka. At that point I realized that the only two states of matter I had in the cabin were (1) solid, and (2) dry.

It took nearly two days to drive the cold out of the cabin and warm it up to a point where it was comfortable to be inside without a sweatshirt.

Alcoholic Beverages
Freeze Point

A few weeks later, I did my own little scientific test for the freezing point of bourbon. Before going to bed, I stuck a partial bottle outside on the porch. The next morning when I checked it, the liquid was frozen solid. The temperature read -47.

One final interesting point about the cold up here is demonstrated when you take a cup (or as in one case, a bucket) of warm water and toss it into the air when the temperature is -20 or colder. It makes a "whooshing" sound and immediately turns into steam never touching the ground!

Stay warm!

May 25, 2002