A recent storm blew into Vermont with bitter cold and wind chills. On two successive nights I watched my outside thermometer drop to -13° Fahrenheit by bedtime. Subzero temperatures are a fact of winter life here, with the coldest spell being a week in the -20s in the mid-1990s. I had two woodstoves going then to keep me toasty.
But that isn’t the coldest weather I’ve experienced, not by a long shot.
The last week of December 1974, I traveled the Alaska Highway from Dawson Creek, British Columbia, to Anchorage, Alaska, with my husband and our two small children. We were moving ourselves from Rochester, New York, to Anchorage. My father-in-law joined us to drive the used rental truck we’d purchased, which now carried all our belongings. We communicated between the truck and station wagon with CB radios, our “handles” being Snowbird 1 and 2.
I imagine readers thinking, driving to Alaska in the middle of the winter? Are you crazy?
No, not crazy, just eager to get back there. My husband had completed his medical training and was joining a practice in Anchorage. Prior to his training, we lived on Kodiak Island for several years while he served as a flight surgeon for the U.S. Coast Guard Station.
I discovered the joys of nature while on Kodiak. As a kid I liked walking in the woods with my father and had always thought mountains were beautiful. But the landscapes I encountered in Alaska opened adventurous new vistas for me at a time when I was thinking about what was important to me in life. Living on Kodiak solidified my desire to live in close proximity to mountains. So rather than wait until warmer weather, we embarked on our winter adventure immediately.
Angling northwest across the Canadian plains, I reveled in the signs of more northerly latitudes—additional spruce trees, the lower angle of the sun, northern lights after nightfall. The temperature was 0° F when we arrived late afternoon in Dawson Creek, according to my journal.
The next morning it was -25° and snowing lightly. Driving north we encountered heavy truck traffic due to construction of the Alaska Pipeline. Each time we passed an oncoming truck, a small blizzard of whirling snow followed, obscuring the snow-packed road. Thinking about what lay ahead—1,600 miles of driving, the first 1,200 a gravel road—I wondered briefly about the wisdom of our decision. A bit later, as the snow tapered off, my sense of adventure took over.
Long after sunset we called a halt for the night when our station wagon’s interior lights began blinking on and off continuously—our first experience with extreme cold disrupting a vehicle’s electrical system.
We awoke to clear weather and plummeting temperatures. The wagon’s side and back windows frosted over as we drove, creating a cave-like coziness for the kids. We’d put the back seats down and spread out sleeping bags as a play and snoozing area. This was all much easier before car seats. That night when we stopped it was -40°. The truck had a block heater, so we plugged it in and left the car idling for the night.
The next morning the car was fine, still with half a tank of gas, but the truck was stone cold. A trucker had come in late, plugged his big rig into the same outlet, and blew the circuit. We had to wait for someone to come from the nearest town with a blowtorch to thaw the truck.
Our little caravan pulled out at noon, the temperature -51° and predicted to drop further. Despite the cold and wind chill, I marveled at the pristine beauty of the heavily frosted trees and the ice fog hovering over the rivers. We saw no wildlife during those frigid days—they were smarter than we, I guess!
After sunset that evening our electrical problems grew even more bizarre. The interior lights blinked on and off and then the headlights went out, leaving us with just the running lights which soon began blinking also. Following closely behind the truck, we maneuvered the curves and hills slowly for eight miles until we came to Johnson’s Crossing Lodge.
We’d agreed to stop at the first accommodations, no matter what we found, and were pleased to find a nice homey place. This was the end of the journey for my plants, which I’d carried in a covered box from the car to our room each night. The lodge owners had shelves of plants in the south-facing dining room and graciously accepted my offer of the slightly bedraggled plants. The temperature that night dipped to -61° F.
We’d pushed our luck far enough, so from there we limited our driving to daylight hours. The next day brought us to Haines Junction and a balmy -35°. The good weather held, warming gradually for the remaining 608 miles to Anchorage.
Surprisingly, I enjoyed the Anchorage winters. Despite temperatures often in the single digits above or below zero, it was a dry cold and more comfortable than Northeast winters. I reveled in the alpenglow of the more northerly latitude and the beauty of the snow-covered Chugach Mountains, where wilderness lay just beyond the city boundary.