For the first time in days, I watched solid water melt into liquid in the open air. I’d only witnessed the reverse process since we’d started mushing three days before. Fire roared in front of me, fueled by pieces of split jackpine and black spruce. The night was finally warm enough to liberate us from the canvas wall tent, and we cooked and ate beneath the dark sky. Flakes fell steadily and melted where they landed on my legs, enough to dampen the windproof nylon above my knees. I marveled at the warm night. Our thermometer read 3°F.
Some aspects of temperature are absolute. Molecular motion stops at -460°F. Human organs require a core body temperature of 98.6°F for optimal function. Pure water freezes at 32°F and boils at 212°F, assuming standard pressure. Our perception of temperature, however, is wildly relative. Our snowy night on Thomas Lake was the first time air temperatures had broken zero during our expedition. We’d experienced a thirty degree swing from that very morning, when the thermometer registered -27°F. Those are a very important 30 degrees.
Such cold temperatures are hard to grasp without directly experiencing them. Few places in the US get as cold as Northern Minnesota, which has seen lows only two degrees warmer than the lowest temperature recorded in the Lower 48. Even here, most people shuttle to and from heated buildings in heated vehicles, wearing only enough clothes to protect them from short bursts of cold. What does it mean to live outside for consecutive days between zero and -35°F?
Everything is more difficult in the thirty-five degrees below zero. The unavoidable moments where one must expose skin to take care of bodily needs must be executed purposefully: first one big mitten comes off, then outer pants come down, then insulating pants, quick pee, insulating pants back up, outer pants back up, big mitten back on, hand never leaving its liner glove. Waking up requires a deliberate sequence involving donning liner gloves, eating a calorie-rich snack, drinking water, pulling on bottom layers, and putting on a headlamp all before uncinching the sleeping bags’ hoods. Even once dressed and out of bed, packing up camp is interrupted by frequent stops to jog, grapevine, or high-knee to pump heat to hands and feet. Standing still only gets you cold.
Subzero temperatures encourage peculiar phenomena. Steam freezes on the cooking tripod chains only a foot above where it had just escaped pots of boiling water. The lakes boom as ice forms; apparently the cold is enough to freeze the water beneath the four inches of snow and eighteen inches of ice insulating it from the air. Every protruding hair frosts within seconds, and the dogs grow white crystal coats. Eyelashes, eyebrows, and nose hairs all freeze, sometimes uncomfortably. Damp articles of clothing freeze solid or frost when removed from direct contact with body heat, which complicates putting on outer mitts if they’ve been put down for too long. It is too cold for snow to fall.
After three and half days of constant battle with the dry, frigid air, we now had a break. Hands remained outside of mittens for a few minutes longer, which sped loosening the dogsled covers and re-tying slip knots in food bags. We didn’t run to the ice hole and back in order to warm ourselves in the middle of setting up tarps, a relatively inactive task. I no longer coughed when I breathed deeply, and I even felt a hint of moisture in the air. Most pleasantly, the hood of my inner sleeping bag didn’t frost, and I didn’t feel the shower of ice crystals on my eyelids whenever I shifted in my sleep.
The following day, the temperature climbed into the afternoon. We never broke into double digits, but it felt balmy. Small systems of blowing snow followed stints of golden sunlight, which now had the power to warm as well as illuminate. We saw more of each others faces. We smiled and laughed. We exchanged fully-formed thoughts and conversed in multi-word sentences, our communication no longer hampered by multiple layers of fleece and wool between mouth and ear. We went to sleep almost giddy, forgoing a second hot water bottle to warm our sleeping bags.
On our last morning, I woke in the dark to Calvin’s warning that it was twenty below. “Put on your down parkas first thing. It’s really cold.” The hood of my inner bag was lined with frost, and my nose hairs were frozen together. Summer was over; winter had returned.