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Alaska News

Funny thing about Fairbanks at 40 below

  • Author: David Hulen
  • Updated: January 9, 2019
  • Published January 29, 1989

This story was originally published Jan. 29, 1989

FAIRBANKS — Strange things happen when it gets 40 degrees below zero. It’s been 40 degrees below zero in Fairbanks for two weeks now.

Machines stop working. Metal cracks. Propane gas freezes into unburnable liquid. Motor oil freezes into thick goop. Tires freeze into blocks.

The air turns solid. Exhaust fumes from the engines that are still running crystalize into tiny particles, creating a foul, gray ice fog that has smothered the city for days on end.

Put a load of groceries in the trunk and they'll be frozen solid in 15 minutes.

Skin freezes a lot faster than that.

People start getting testy.

“What ABOUT the cold?” snapped a burly man with a black goatee sitting at the lunch counter of the Co-op drug store the other morning. He, for one, was tired of talking about it.

George Moffit, a 40-year-old contractor who was born here, warmed up to a stranger in a couple of minutes, and allowed that, yes, it is in fact damn cold outside. But what burns Moffit, he said, are these people who move to Fairbanks, then whine about how miserable it is, and worse than that, don’t even know how to dress for it or drive in it.

“You read in the paper about that girl who went out in sneakers?” he asked his friend on the next stool, Wayne Wyka. “I guess she’s losing some toes. . . . Damn stupid kids.”

"You know those teenagers," Wyka offered. "All they care about is how they look, I guess."

If you could have seen through the half-inch crust of ice on the front windows and then through the ice fog that engulfed the street outside — which you couldn’t — you would have been able to see the bank thermometer down the street, which was flashing -42. After hitting 49 degrees below zero overnight, Fairbanks was warming up.

People in other cold places in Alaska don’t live like they do here. Villages turn quiet. In North Slope oil camps, workers dress like astronauts when they go outside and spend the rest of the time living in self-contained, brightly lit compounds.

But in Fairbanks, with its shopping centers and subdivisions and flower shops and banks and fast food and yuppie restaurants, people try to go on like it’s no big deal. Most of the winter, it works.

The past couple of weeks, though, have been a little rocky. The current stretch of frigid weather (it's been warmer than minus 40 only once in the past 11 days, and then not by much) is being called the longest cold snap in a decade, possibly in several decades. Weather forecasters said it could hit minus 60 by this morning, with no relief until at least the middle of the week.

Fairbanks has started to be affected by the cold. Meetings have been canceled, businesses have shut down and there's talk about closing schools Monday. The weather dominates every conversation and practically everything else.

"I've heard people who've experienced 10 or 20 below weather say that they think they know what it's like at 40 below," said Glenn Shaw, a physics professor at the University of Alaska here. "The typical thing to say is, "Once you get 20 below, it doesn't make any difference, it's all the same.'

"People who say that have obviously never been here."

***

Inside the garage of Ron’s Service and Towing, Hugh Bishop, who’s in his early 20s and works there, was giving a physics lesson. He stepped outside and grabbed a bottle of 40weight motor oil off the rack. He came back inside, opened the cap and held the bottle upside down over a trash can.

Nothing happened.

“That’s what I mean,” Bishop said. “Even your well-maintained cars can only work so long in this.” Another employee was doing nothing but dispatching tow trucks, and in 20 minutes, the three phone lines did not stop ringing. In one of the bays sat a truck with a cracked frame. Bishop and another bundled-up man were pumping gas; no one was stopping at the selfserve pumps.

After a minute or two, the oil began slowly dribbling out of Bishop’s bottle like extra-gooey rubber cement.

"Even if you leave your car running all night, it's only a matter of time before your heater burns up or you break a belt or something else screws up."

The current wait for a tow truck in Fairbanks or a pipe thawer or a furnace repairman is four or five days. A taxi cab takes a couple of hours or longer to arrive. Across the street from Ron’s garage, at Aurora Motors, there’s a four-week waiting list for service.

“We can’t keep enough headlight and turn-signal switches in stock,” said John Fitch, a new car salesman who’s watched his end of the business slow to a crawl. “The plastic just snaps right off. Same thing with the new fan belts. They’re not made for Fairbanks.”

A man waiting for his car with a brown miniature poodle wrapped in a thick down coat listened raptly.

"You're dead in bed if you don't have your lights around here," Fitch said.

He walked over to a red station wagon in a corner of the showroom and pointed at the passenger door. "Looky here. The molding just fell off the door. Fell right off. I was putting my little girl in there on Super Bowl Sunday and I shut the door and blop, the dang thing just fell right off."

The 20-below temperatures in Anchorage this week are uncomfortable and even dangerous. But the 40 and 50 below zero temperatures here, combined with the milky fog, place Fairbanks in another sphere. It’s what they’ll find when they get to Neptune.

"It's worse than cold," said Linda Watts, a clerk at the 7Eleven across the road from the university. "It makes you a little zooey, but people here don't stop."

***

No one says 45 below or minus 45. They just say 45.

They run from their cars to buildings. Even though many parking lots here have outlets for engine heaters, a lot of people just leave their cars and trucks running for hours at a time rather than risk a freeze-up.

There have been car fires from vehicles left running too long that burst into flames. There have been car thefts involving vehicles left idling.

Almost no one walks. Those who do dress in bunny boots, face masks and thick layers of wool and down and nylon or they risk frostbite. A bare nose starts to sting in about 30 seconds.

"The thing I notice is that we start selling bunny boots to ladies when it gets like this," said Mark Herzberg of Big Ray's Top o' the World Clothing and Sporting Goods. "It's got to the point where they don't care what they look like. They come in here and say, "I want to be warm.' "

"I'm sitting in here the other night," said Watts, from the 7Eleven, "and this kid from the college runs down here with no hat, no scarf, no gloves, no nothing. They do it all the time. His nose and his face are completely white. It's 50 below. I said, "Young man, do you know what you just did to your face?' He goes, "No, but it kind of hurts.' I said, "You just frostbit the heck out of your face, that's what you did.' "

***

Down at the main post office, people left their cars running in the lot and raced inside. Like everywhere else in town, if they talked, they talked about the weather. Nobody was really complaining, just stating facts: Transmission went out. Pipes froze. Heard it was 70 below in Tanana. Everything’s fine so far, knock on wood.

"After a while, you learn to dress right and you don't give it a thought," said Margaret Gray, who raised three kids here. She was bulky with layers of clothing. "I don't get cold any more. I just get tired from wearing all this stuff. My husband has more long underwear than he has shirts."

Hoarfrost grows wild on trees, fences and downtown fire escapes. Boots squeak on the snow louder than in Anchorage. All sounds seem to carry farther in the cold, foggy air; jetliners taking off south of town rattle windows all over the city.

Getting in a car that isn't running is like sitting inside an ice cube.

When you exhale, the moisture from your breath hangs in a thick, little, white cloud. The same thing happens with car exhaust, making driving treacherous, especially around intersections or parking lots where groups of idling cars form especially dense fog banks.

Visibility downtown Saturday morning was about a half-block.

Fairbanks has seen colder days, of course. Just ask anyone who's lived here a while.

“Oh, honey,” said 79-year-old Peggie Hanson, cocking her head and grabbing a younger man by the forearm. “I’ve seen 70 below. And believe me, that’s cold.”

She moved up from Spokane, Wash., in 1949, along with four other women. All their husbands were working for a transport company here then, she said, "and we decided if we were ever going to see them or any of their wages we'd better head up and join 'em. We had no idea what we were in for."

For starters, she claimed somewhat bashfully, her husband met her at the airport with "a whore on each arm." They stuck it out, though. He's gone now, but she's worked in Big Ray's 10 years, and worked in a liquor store for a couple decades before that.

"I love it here because there's something different going on all the time," she said. "I never seen a place where people hang together and help each other out. Earthquakes, floods, cold, you name it."

As for the current winter, Hanson thinks it's not as cold as some years, but is possibly the longest stretch of deep cold in her years here.

" '61 was bad, but this is bad, too," she said.

***

Carrie Lowery, a whitehaired Newfoundland native and a mainstay behind the counter of the Coop coffee shop, moved up in ’68 and thinks this may be the longest cold since she’s been here, too. But it’s always real cold, she said.

"I remember when we moved here, we were out on Fort Wainwright. I used to send my kids out the door for school and I thought, "My God, what am I doing?' I'd give 'em both flashlights, bundle 'em up real good and wave byebye."

Why do people live here? She considered the question a few seconds, with sort of a faraway look.

"I don't know," she said. "I don't really know. A spell grows on you, I guess. Some people run out of money and can't leave, of course. But some of us like it here."

The official record for cold in Fairbanks is minus 66, set in 1936, said Rick Parker, a weather service meteorologist. The alltime record for days colder than minus 40 is nine. That record looked like a goner until it warmed up to 30 degrees below zero one day last weekend, he said.

Watts, the convenience store clerk, moved here from Oregon with her husband 20 years ago.

“My first winter in Fairbanks, I cried,” she said. “I’d get in my car and the tires would freeze solid and go thump-thump-thump and I’d take it to the garage and they’d just laugh at me. The power was always going off back then. You learn to adapt, though.”

Her job, standing next to a drafty door that opens and shuts all night, is cold. But not as cold as Brian Finneseth's. Friday morning, he was delivering cold kegs of beer through the ice fog downtown.

"They'll freeze up by noon," he said, loading six kegs from a delivery van onto a cart and wheeling them into the Savoy Bar, one of a string of taverns on Second Avenue. "Keep moving and you're OK. So far, so good. I keep extra gear in the truck in case."

Inside the Savoy, at 9:30 a.m., the jukebox was blasting a rockabilly rave-up called “I Like Beer,” and a dozen patrons were drinking quietly at the bar.

At night, the only foot traffic downtown was between the bars. Out in the neighborhoods, it's too cold to ski or do anything else outside except ride in a car, and even that's cold. The movie theaters have been packed, like always here.

For the past week, Fairbanks has had a huge influx of visitors: hundreds of soldiers from the Lower 48 sent here for the Brim Frost coldweather exercises. Some are due to head out of town for war games; others work on the Army and Air Force bases here for 12hour shifts then kill their offtime hanging around their hotels.

"I talk to my wife and she says, "Honey, what’s it like up there?' " said A1C Steve Jardine, an Air Force maintenance crew member who’s based outside Seattle. "I say, "Stick your head in the freezer. That’s exactly what it’s like here.' "

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