A Cold Canadian Christmas
When I visit the warmer areas of the world people sometimes ask what it’s like when it’s “really cold,” so I tell this story. At the end, they just look at me. I’m sure they don’t believe half of it. But this is how life in the North goes. For northern Canadians there is nothing special about these events; they just make a fun story of real life.
I know everybody thinks of old-fashioned Christmas with horses and sleighs and that sort of stuff. When I was a kid my father built a box on an old set of logging sleighs. He used to fill the box with hay, hitch up our two retired logging horses, and take us for a ride around the neighborhood on Christmas day. Sleigh bells jingling and everything. It was great.
But my transportation for the Christmas of 1967 was Dad’s 1958 Mercury pickup. It was one of the first “full box” pickups, instead of the old “step sides,” and I thought it was pretty classy. Think of the picture above with a front bumper and a two-tone paint job: white above, teal below. I was home from university, and Dad was out of the bush because it was too cold to work, so I was pretty well free to drive it around. Loggers can’t work below about -30 because metal gets so brittle that equipment breaks. It’s rather hard on people, too.
Yes, the Christmas of 1967 was rather cold. I came home from visiting friends on Boxing Day, and the weather report said it was going to be -60F that night (That’s -51 for you Celsius types). I plugged in the block heater of the pickup and waited for that reassuring gurgle that told me it was working.
I wiggled the connection and saw a spark. I looked closer. Where the electrical cord from the block heater came out the front grille of the pickup, right at the plug, the cable was broken.
Now, if you leave your vehicle without a block heater in that kind of temperature, no matter how much antifreeze you have in the cooling system, you’re likely to wake up to a cracked engine block and a burst battery. Which would rather spoil my social life for the rest of the holidays. So there I was, in about -45 temperature, in the dim glow of the back porch light, taking an electrical plug off and putting it back on again. It was that or leave the truck idling all night, which uses up about a quarter tank of gas.
You can’t do that sort of thing with gloves on, so it was a bit cold on the fingers. I would take the pliers and screwdriver in and put them on the top of the wood stove until they were hot. Then I would go outside and start working, and keep at it until the numbness crept from my little finger to my ring finger, and into my middle finger. This took under 10 minutes, and then I would haul the tools back in, warm up my hands as well, and then out we go again.
It took me three sessions of this before I was able to plug the block heater in again, and this time got that desired gurgle. I went inside to bed, happy.
But the story wasn’t over yet.
We woke in the morning to a thermometer hovering at -61F (-52C), the coldest weather I have ever experienced. However, us northern boys don’t let a little cold weather interfere with our social schedule, so about 11 am, when the day had warmed up to about -55, I went out to start the truck.
Put my foot on the clutch, turned on the key, and darned if it didn’t start. Happy Days! I put it in gear…
I tried to put it in gear. The oil in the transmission was solid.
So I left the truck running in neutral and went back inside to get the blowtorch. I climbed under the pickup and directed the torch at the bottom of the transmission. Worrying about oil leaks and setting Dad’s truck on fire. After about ten minutes of that, I got back in the truck and tried it. The lever slipped into gear easily. Happy Days. I hoped.
I let out the clutch. The truck gave a sort of lurch and the motor died.
The rear differential has oil inside, too.
So out with the blowtorch again and under the back of the truck this time. The nice thing about snow is that it has insulating qualities, and as long as you stay dry, the part of you against the snow is warmer than the part surrounded by air. Some consolation.
After about five minutes of this, I got in the truck and tried to go ahead. It worked. Whoopee Ding! My social life was saved. I put the tools away, went back inside and cleaned up a bit, then off I went to town, the “square tires” thumping away for the first half mile.
That’s right, folks. When the rubber of your tires sits all night at that temperature, it hardens at the slight flat spot where the tire touches the ground, and it thumps for a while until the tires warm up and get round again. We call them “square tires,” but in reality they’re only a bit flat on one side.
That was one of the coldest weeks Burns Lake has ever recorded, except for the week of January 25, 1947, (the day my brother was born) when it was even colder. That week held the coldest temperature ever recorded in Canada; Snag, Yukon, was -63C. At -84F that makes my little -61 experience rather everyday. But it’s mine, and I can tell my grandchildren.
And anybody else who asks me, “What’s it like when it gets really cold?”