John Harrigan: Forget the wind chill, 'cold' is just plain cold

JOHN HARRIGAN January 05. 2013 8:46PM

It was snowing as I wrote this on Friday noon, a south wind indicating that it would snow into the night. I can discern which way the wind is blowing without going out of the kitchen, by dint of the smoke from the outdoor furnace.

It was too cold to snow the previous day, that being Thursday the 3rd, when at 5 a.m. the outdoor thermometer registered a flat minus 20, as in 20 below. This is one of the reasons why it doesn't snow much in the high Arctic, which is close to a desert in terms of moisture. It's too cold.

The winter's first blast of cold Canadian air had media weather commentators talking ("Bundle up," as if anyone wouldn't) and warning about wind chill. This is a formula based on (a) the temperature, and (b) the projected wind speeds, which, when combined, yield figures that would make the average person run for Mesopotamia (wait - Saddam drained the marshes in that supposed biblical birthplace of civilization, to little international or religious interest. Better opt for Florida).

When I was a kid, walking to school or working with Beetle Lawton shoveling front walks and driveways to earn money for Christmas and birthday gifts, there was no such thing as "wind chill" in the vernacular. In fact, we scarcely paid attention to the raw temperature at all. If the snow crunched under our feet, we went back for an extra layer. "Wind chill" was the province of mountaineers and the denizens at the Mount Washington Observatory.

To me, anything colder than zero is pretty much the same. The lowering of degrees, however, will have its certain little effects, involving the walk to school, precautions with truck and tractor, and going to camp.

No matter how cold it was, if it had snowed the day or night before, Ron (aka Beetle) Lawton and I would go out and clear out front walks and driveways, trundling our major kick-butt wooden scoop and assorted shovels in front of us. Then he would go to his house and I to mine for breakfast before striking off for school, a quarter-mile distant.

A quarter-mile is not much in balmy times, but it's a long walk when it's 40 below, which is the coldest morning I remember trudging to school. I held one mitten-protected hand over my nose and got as far as the bridge over the Mohawk River before I had to find succor, which was Bert Bryant's store. Bert ran a sporting goods store where the First Colebrook Bank now stands, and always had (a) a super-hot wood stove, and (b) beagles.

Bert, an old-timer from an old-time family of stump-pullers, had a way of what New Lexicon devotees call cutting to the chase. "Look at the neck on that boy," I never forgot him saying the first time I went into the store. Even at the age of 10 or so, I had a Christopher Reeves neck. Charlie Jordan has that same kind of neck, although neither he nor I can leap over tall buildings or stop a speeding locomotive. Must be something in the water.

Bert Bryant said something else that always endeared him to me, a saying I use whenever I get the chance to the consternation of kids (or their parents) thoroughly caught up in the stay-inside world of computers and attendant devices. "I never knew a kid who was fishing in a swamp who got into trouble."

On that 40-below morning, I ducked into Bert's store, my nose pretty well frozen. To Bert, the weather was not worth mentioning. "How was the fishing in the swamp?" he asked, in a nonchalant way.

The truck and tractor precautions are a lot easier than caring for a nose. When I hear a forecast of 20 below or something, or the snow just crunches when I make my late-night trek to feed the outdoor furnace, I plug in the vehicles' block heaters. Just about anywhere you go in Canada and Alaska everyone has block heaters, and there are places to plug them in at the grocery store and bank. I don't know how the charges for this are taken care of, but we should look into it, being as we are halfway between the equator and the North Pole. But the earth's warming trend might negate this for a while.

As for camp, I well remember one year when we had Rabbit Camp at Clarksville Pond and had to abandon ship. Rabbit Camp (our longtime gathering to hunt rabbits) was always held around Washington's Birthday, a time of year when you took your chances on freezing cold enough to make you flee to Mesopotamia or sunny, balmy times when you could stick beers into melting snowbanks.

At this Rabbit Camp in the early '80s, a blast of super-cooled Canadian air roared in. We could cut the butter on the stove-end of the table, while on the other side we'd need a jack-hammer. Even equipped as we were for Arctic conditions, we could not keep warm.

And so on the next morning, having expended all that energy to get into camp, we exchanged silent looks, like the Marx Brothers, which said "We're outta here," and we were.

John Harrigan's column appears weekly in the New Hampshire Sunday News. His address is Box 39, Colebrook 03576. Email him at

John Harrigan

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