Interior residents hunker down during cold snap

In Northway, this time of year makes Athabascan elders hungry for rabbits

Posted: Monday, January 30, 2006

FAIRBANKS - Earl Cadzow says there is a palpable difference between 50 degrees below zero and 60 below.

The Fort Yukon woodcutter should know. He's been cutting firewood during frigid temperatures since he was a child.

He said the natural world can behave very differently as the thermometer descends. For instance, a large exhale into the air makes a crackling sound at 60 below but not at 50 below, he said.

"It just sounds like smashing corn flakes," he said.

As the cold blanket from the high Arctic settles onto the Interior, villagers fall into a familiar winter mode. In Fort Yukon that means keeping the wood pile stocked, while in Northway, this time of year makes Athabascan elders hungry for rabbits, residents said. And travel is at a standstill in Beaver.

This cold snap, which will keep the temperature colder than 50 below zero in some places, should stay for at least another week, said Bob Fisher, a National Weather Service meteorologist. But for rural Alaskans, living with extreme cold weather is an ancient way of life.

It's one that Cadzow plans to pass down to his children, just like he learned when he was a boy in Fort Yukon, a community about 145 air miles north of Fairbanks.

He cuts wood to supplement the family income and he has a stand of trees about 15 minutes away from his home by snowmachine that he has been harvesting for a while. He dresses in a martin fur hat and canvas boots he sewed himself.

This time of year he sets up a canvas tent so he can warm up and cook lunch. He sweats when he chops the tenacious spruce, so he also uses the tent to change into dry clothes.

The tent camp is portable and being able to set it up correctly means survival for his two daughters and son, he said.

"They have to learn all that," he said.

Soon, he'll have his 13-year-old son take it down and set it up in a different location.

"He's hoping it gets warmer," Cadzow said.

The secret to staying warm at 50 below is to keep moving, Cadzow said. And keep the snowmachine running, because it won't start if it is turned off.

About 600 people live in Fort Yukon and 80 percent of the homes depend on wood for heat, including Cadzow's. Some people supplement with oil heat. Spruce burns the hottest and Cadzow likes to harvest the thick trees because they're dry in the middle and split nicely.

"With wood it gets twice as warm," he said. "It really gets warm."

It was too cold late last week for regular school in Beaver, a village about 50 miles west of Fort Yukon. When the temperature drops below minus 50, the 14 students at the Cruikshank School have the option of staying home and class time is cut to a half day, said Ann Fisher, the school's teacher/principal.

The temperature has been holding between 50 and 60 below in Beaver. It's too cold to expect students to walk to school and snowmachines stored outside will not start.

"One student showed up," she said.

The village of about 70 people long ago learned to prepare for cold days, Fisher said. The only problem will be if someone runs out of heating oil or water.

"We haven't had a plane for two or three days," she said, but "we're pretty well supplied right now."

Northway, usually one of the coldest spots in the state, is enjoying weather in the 40s-below range, balmy compared to the Yukon Flats.

"We're glad to share that (cold) reputation with someplace else," said Malinda Holmes, a weather watcher for the Federal Aviation Administration in Northway.

Holmes learned to cope with the cold while growing up in Northway.

"Dress in lots of layers," she said. "Make sure your boots are dry, socks are dry."

She carries chemical hand warmers and pops them into her children's boots when they start to complain of cold.

"One important thing is to have lots of gas in your car," she said.

When the weather gets really cold, the pumps at Northway's lone gas station will quit working, she said.

She has noticed that her grandmother, Ada Gallen, a well-known Athabascan bead artist, has been asking for rabbits. Though the weather is freezing, the days are getting longer and elders in the village of about 100 people start thinking of rabbits, she explained.

"They want to get outside," she said. "Time to start snaring rabbits."



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