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Clark: Heartwarming tales of life on the frigid frontier

Tue., Dec. 14, 2010

A blizzard of arctic anecdotes blew in last week after my column on Frostbanks, I mean, Fairbanks, Alaska.

Many observations were so vivid and fun that I decided to air a few of my favorites today.

Who knew so many of my readers have ties to Fairbanks?

Lately, the city has been enduring temperatures lower than a Morlock’s root cellar.

We’re talking nights in the minus 49 range, which make our Spokane winter woes seem, well, wimpy.

Monday’s weather forecast, however, had Fairbanks warming (if you can call it that) to 21 below.

Even a committed low achiever like me doesn’t consider this progress.

To e-mailer Terry Carney, however, this upward thermometer move could signal a civic celebratory wardrobe change.

“… Once it warms up to 20 below it feels like spring,” wrote Carney, who lived 18 years in Fairbanks.

“And off come the layers of clothing (with) the brave celebrating (by) wearing shorts and summer attire.”

Sorry, Terry. But “bonkers” would be my word choice rather than “brave.”

Based on many of the responses, I believe I owe Dermot Cole an apology.

Cole is the longtime columnist for the newspaper in Fairbanks, the Daily News-Miner. I had the temerity to think Cole might be yanking my chain last week when he told me how tires actually become misshapen after being parked all night during a bitter cold spell.

“Not only do you get flat spots on your tires at minus 49 degrees,” confirmed Phil Mulligan, but “you have no suspension, either, because the lube in your shocks freezes up, too.”

Mulligan said he encountered winter at its nastiest while stationed near Fairbanks in the Air Force from August of 1974 to August of 1977.

Mulligan (and others) clued me in on a nightmarish phenomenon known as Ice Fog.

“It looks like real fog until your headlights cause it to sparkle a bit,” he wrote. “That is because it consists of ice crystals.”

Mulligan said he made a mistake once by driving the 25 miles from Eielson Air Force Base to Fairbanks during this dreaded condition.

“… I could not see more than 30 feet ahead and had to constantly scrape ice off the inside of the windshield with my heater going full blast.”

Man, that’s when I start thinking about going AWOL in a southerly direction.

Scott Robinson said he lived in Fairbanks nine years before relocating to Coeur d’Alene about 20 years ago.

The worst cold spell he experienced?

It “lasted six weeks (that’s right, 40 days and 40 nights of biblical proportion) of 40-to-60 below zero in January and February 1989,” he related in an e-mail.

“Water froze in pipes, fuel oil congealed in lines, and propane liquefied in tanks. Sugar-free soda pop froze and burst their aluminum cans, but sugared soda pop remained liquid.”

Speaking of soda, Robinson added that once when he opened his thermos bottle, the outside temperature was so glacial that it actually vaporized the Coca-Cola he had stored in it.

“Have your weatherman (or woman) explain that episode.”

Adding to the cold chatter, my old friend Jack McNeel wrote to tell me about a chilling visit to Fairbanks in 2007.

“My wife learned to drive a dog team and spent a night in a tent at minus 35 degrees,” he wrote. “I sat on a plastic bucket on a frozen lake with temperatures hovering about 20 below, almost praying that I wouldn’t catch a fish and have to handle it.”

Let me tell you something.

I knew McNeel back in the 1970s when he worked and wrote columns for the Idaho Fish and Game. The nicest guy ever.

The point is that McNeel is a true outdoorsman. And when he says he doesn’t want to handle a fish you better believe that it’s tooth-cracking c-c-cold.

“But believe it or not,” McNeel added, “we thoroughly enjoyed the trip – once the shock wore off a bit.”

Hey, I get it that Alaska is drop-dead beautiful. I realize that the lifestyle for wildlife enthusiasts is second to none.

But I’m much too much of a warm-weather weenie to ever want to live there.

Some people, I think, have a “pioneer chromosome” that draws them to living the more adventurous life.

Mary Franklin, say. Franklin is the former Spokane City Council administrator and a real sweetheart of a human being.

Last May she moved to Fairbanks, where she is now the communications specialist for the Alaska Space Grant Program.

This is her second time around in Alaska. Franklin told me she lived there back in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

“You definitely have to be a strong individual to live in these extreme temperatures and surroundings.”

No kidding. In Alaska, it’s not just the cold that’ll get you.

“You never know when you are out fishing if a grizzly will join you, which happened to me last summer,” she wrote.

“Or a moose with two calves and a brown bear chasing them across my camp. No gun, I just jumped into the car and left my fishing gear until I felt safe enough to return,” she added.

Mary said she “decided not to continue fishing.”

Anthropologists call that “survival of the smartest.”

• Ring-a-ding Doug! You’re all invited to a special holiday visit from that Jolly Fat Man.

No, not Santa – Me!

I will be performing the role of a Salvation Army bell ringer today from 5-7 p.m. at the South Hill Safeway store, 2509 E. 29th.

Accompanying me will be an exact replica of my sadly defunct Dougbench bus bench advertisement. Plus if the weather’s nice, my cherry red 1967 Oldsmobile Vista Guzzler (aka Santa’s Other Sled) will be in the store parking lot for your bemusement.

So come, say hello and toss some loot in my bucket for a worthy cause.

Doug Clark is a columnist for The Spokesman-Review. He can be reached at (509) 459-5432 or by e-mail at

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