Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve

From the ATA Archives: A Cold Weather Story

It was January or February, around the mid 1990's. I was on my trapline just north of the Arctic Circle, not far from Bettles, Alaska. I could see a cold snap was coming; the temperature was -50 degrees with no clouds anywhere in the southwest.

I quit running any trapline trails at those temperatures because my snowgo can't take it, especially the suspension springs and motor mounts. So, I was going to be close to my base cabin for a while, waiting for a break in the severe cold. I had warm enough clothes to travel in -50 and -60, but I don't like to and it's not smart. I figured to haul firewood, and then maybe gas from my cache (seven miles one way), but that would be all in this cold.

So, I walked to my wood lot and cut firewood for part of the daylight hours. Then I took a hike on snowshoes in the afternoon for my own enjoyment. The days were bright, sunshiny and beautiful. It was great to be alive and well. I enjoyed every minute of it, for a while.

On one of those hikes, I heard a couple of wolves howling off in the distance, not very close though. I howled back at them but no response. Next day, I cut wood again and the temperature steadily dropped – it was not quite -70 yet, but it was close. No clouds on the horizon.

I heard the wolves howl again, much closer and more of them. This time, they sounded like they were in the vicinity of a wolf set I made on the river, a quarter mile upstream from the wood lot. I just had to go check; nothing there, no tracks, nothing. Darn it, they sounded so close, too! Next day, same thing, and the next day. I realized then they must have killed something so were hanging out. By now, the temperature was past -70 and still dropping a little each day.

I decided the wolves weren't on the river at all, but out on a fairly open area with only a very thin scattering of small black spruce. I knew it was open enough that if any wolves were within a mile or less, I might see them. I stood on the edge of the open area in the river brush and howled in the wolves' direction. They howled back almost every time. I was enjoying all that – I could hear the wolves barking, growling and occasionally a yelp or two of pain (the pups were trying to steal a share of the kill most likely). I could tell it was a small pack (it turned out to be five or six wolves judging from tracks and trails later on).

I never did see any wolves, but as the days went by, I could see their tracks, coming to check me out, within 300 yards of the brush line where I was calling from. They must have come around at night time; at least I wasn't in their immediate vicinity when they came in close.

The temperature was still dropping, and as it neared -80, I started watching an old dial thermometer I had. It only went to -40, and then a blank space, then it started around again for the second time at +120. At -80, the dial said +112. The temperature was still dropping, and that was the third week at that point. I was still cutting firewood one day and hauling it to the cabin with the snowgo the next. I kept my snowgo in the cabin until I needed it to haul wood or gas. On the days I drove the machine, I never shut it off until it was back inside the cabin. I never shut my chain saw off except to gas up or change the air filter. The air filter would freeze up and make the engine run poorly. I could change the air filter and recover for a while.

The temperature was still dropping, and I was a little concerned now. When was it going to stop? How long was it going to last? I was sick and tired of cutting firewood at 80 degrees below zero; enough is enough! As if I could do anything about it. All my fur was skinned and stretched. I had to look a little harder to find a project I wanted to tackle in the cabin.

Finally, the temperature stopped dropping. The round dial thermometer said +105 degrees, seven degrees colder than +110, so I called it -80 below zero. The temperature only rose a couple of degrees during the day and then just sat there. I just sat there, and the wolves, they just sat there and howled whenever I howled (must have been the pups).

I was writing in my journal one evening at the peak of the cold spell and noticed the inside temp was +80 about five and a half feet off the floor, near the door. I knew the outside temperature was -87. So, when I walked out that door, it was 167 degrees colder. Wow! That sounded really cold. In the corner of my cabin (20' x 24') it would not get above -20 on the floor. Naturally, I sat close to the wood stove, which was a double barrel affair.

After the cold snap broke (got up to -40 or so) I snow-machined out to where the wolves had killed two caribou. It was two miles from my cabin. When they were howling, it sounded like only 500 yards or less because of the extreme cold. That cold spell lasted about three weeks, and it was even colder down the Yukon River, or so I heard. I'll pass on that!

Alaska Trapper, January 2002

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