How Cold Was It? A Winter’s Tale

It got cold enough here in Albuquerque last night to freeze the pipes, but just warm enough to thaw out some long frozen memories of winters I spent in Alaska.  I arrived in Fairbanks for the first time in January of 1972.  The high temperature for the first two I weeks spent there was -40.
My first night there I made my way to a log cabin my Yukon River friend Eric had 5 miles out of town on Chena Pump Rd.  Eric was in Hawaii and left me directions. In his absence, the log walls of the cabin had frozen and it took about half a cord of wood in the Yukon stove to warm up the air enough so that the words didn’t freeze as soon as they left my mouth.  Yes, I was talking to myself and wondering if I’d ever be able to tolerate such temperatures.

But I’ve always been an adaptable fellow, and it wasn’t long before I began to enjoy the almost crystalline crispness of the air, and not much longer before I found myself wishing for ever colder temperatures, as proof of my hardiness and my credentials as a genuine Alaskan.  I wasn’t alone in this conceit.  There were a bunch of us young fellows living out there in that little community of log cabins.  None of us had cars, and so relied on our thumbs to get to the University or into town.  But there wasn’t much traffic either and often we had to walk the whole way.  And thus was born what came to be known as the 5 Mile 50 Below club.  Membership was granted when you did the walk and the mercury dipped past the appropriate number.

Once we all were members though, we needed ever increasing proof of our hardiness.
Now in those long sub-arctic nights I’d been doing allot of reading, and one of the subjects that caught my fancy and imagination were the feats of the mystic yogic masters of Tibet.  I’d been reading about how with great control of mind and body, they could slow their heartbeats almost to a stop, and could sit naked in the frigid cold for hours, meditating on the sacred fires, and thus sustain themselves.

Without letting my compatriots know, I went into training, venturing out into the darkness for ever increasing increments of meditation sans clothing.  5 minutes…. 10… then half an hour.  I could do this.  It was mid February when I felt ready to reveal and profit my new found prowess.

“Boys,” I said, “ I’ like to make you a little bet.  Now I know that it’s only supposed to get down to minus 34 tonight and that’s only middling chilly, but I bet you I can spend the night outside in my birthday suit- say midnight till 7AM and keep myself warm with nothing but  my thoughts- and I’ll wager that if I do, everyone of you gives me a pound of that Yukon River smoked salmon jerky that Eric left you with, and that if I don’t make it, you can all come over- and I’ll cook up that Moose stew meat Bushy Charlie gave me, and you’ll have the best tasting Moose Gumbo with Matzoh balls you’ve ever had.

They took the bait and I knew I had them.  I’d soon have eight pounds of the Food of the Gods in my pantry.  I’ll sing the praises of Yukon smoked salmon another time.  The point is, I had a plan.  We played cards to midnight, and at the agreed upon hour, I asked the unwitting one to avert their eyes, I shed my clothes and ventured out.  “ See you in the morning, and I do believe I’ll have some of that salmon along with my mush- make sure to bring some choice pieces.”

I admit, it was a long night sitting there on that log splitting stump.  And yes, I almost quit the venture several times.  But in the end my plan worked.  I’d left a beeswax, firefly light candle burning on the kitchen table, and whenever the cold started to overcome me, I’d just meditate a little harder and glance through the window and the light of that candle entered my mind and transformed and transmogrified itself until it felt like the glow of the sun itself. The Northern lights added another dimension of mental insulation and by seven am the only problem I had was keeping dry from all the sweat I was shedding.

But I was about to have a rude surprise.  I’ve always been a man of my word, I’d be ashamed to even stretch the truth a trifle, and so when my friend refused to pay their debt to me, I was shocked and sorely disappointed.  They told me that it was ME who had cheated.  They did admit that I’d spent the night, bare naked midnight to seven.  But  when I told them how I’d managed it, using the light of the candle and the aurora to focus my mind they insisted that I had used an external source of heat and thus lost the bet.  Not only would I not get my salmon, but they would be back that night for some Moose and Matzoh Ball stew.

I didn’t argue, I didn’t raise my voice, I did not mount a defense. I simply said “ See you at six and try and dress like gentleman for a change, it’s going to be a sit down dinner.”

I got to work.  I seasoned the meat, went to the root cellar for some vegetables and made the Matzoh balls from scratch.  Put them all in that big three legged cast iron pot that Eric cooked his beans in, and set it to cooking.

I don’t know where in the world Nazzy Will found that ill fitting tuxedo but the boys were as dandified up as they could get and in high good humor.  I invited them into the ‘dining room’ and there they sat at their appointed places.  I’d put out the best tin plates I could find, and they waited… and waited… and waited.  I kept putting them off.  “Just a little longer friends, the meat just isn’t tender enough yet.”  An hour later, “hold on boys, the flavors haven’t matured, just give it a little more time.”  About 10 PM I went to check on the stew one more time, came back and reported that the Matzoh balls hadn’t yet floated to the top and it be another hour or so but well worth the wait. But their patience had run dry and they stamped into the kitchen to make their own culinary assessment.

And this is what they saw.  The three legged cast iron pot, hanging from the ceiling by a hook and 10 feet under it, the beeswax- firefly candle, “heating up the stew.”

Not only do I not condone stretching the truth, but I am too modest to repeat the coarse language used by my friend me of the impossibility and idiocy of thinking that I could cook the stew over a candle.

But I was ready.  “ Boys” I said, if I could spend the night heated by the glow of this candle and the aurora, then you can feed yourself this stew when it’s cooked by this same candle.  Now somebody go and bring back some smoked salmon… I’ll get out the crackers… let’s eat.” Later that night, I wiped the salmon grease from my chin, snuffed out the mosquito bill wick on the beeswax-firefly candle, and fell into a deep and satisfied sleep dreaming of  that hundred pound King Salmon I was going to catch when the ice went out on the river next spring.


  1. love the story and i remember Eric’s place at the Tanana River on Chena Pump Rd as the kind of place where such things could happen.

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