We lived in Alaska for two winters – 1960-1. The first winter, Penny was living in an apartment in Fairbanks and I was on the BMEWS radar site, about 60 miles south of Fairbanks. That winter, one night reached about 40 below.
We decided to move to a trailer (rented from Ernie Amundsen) in Liaho – a trailer park built by BMEWS employees close to the site.
We borrowed a VW bus from Penny’s friend, and I spent the day loading it with all our belongings. It kept getting colder all day – as we drove out of town that evening, the temperature on the bank display was 60 below. When we go to the trailer, the outside thermometer showed 72 below. But it may have been colder – the liquid in the thermometer was frozen!
For ten days, the thermometer did not budge.
The Citroen had been equipped with a space heater to keep us warm – the car’s own heater was inadequate – a block heater – and of course cable for a battery charter. Nontheless, starting it in the morning was a chore. I had to spray ether into the carburetor most mornings. When it finally started, driving the first few miles was like driving on railroad ties – the tires had a flat spot where they had been on the ground all night. At first they were all in sync, so the car bounced along. Then, after a few turns, the flat areas were all out of step and I don’t know how to describe it. Finally, after a few miles, the tires became round and all was well.
Not for everyone, however. One man’s jeep had frozen. After he heated the engine and got it running again, he tried to back out of his parking space. It wouldn’t budge. He thought it was stiff wheel bearings, and that they would yield if the ran up the ending and then popped the clutch. It worked, sort of. The tires were so strongly frozen to the ground that the rubber unrolled off three tires!
Another could not steer – he backed out of his parking spot – and all he could do was go back in – he couldn’t turn.
Our Citroen had a hydraulically operated transmission – you turned the shift lever to a new position, and the hydraulic system released the clutch, shifted the gears, and re=engaged the clutch. Very clever. The shift lever moved a cylinder that was fitted in a block of metal with holes that steered the fluid in different paths depending on the position of the lever. Unfortunately, when cold the metal of the block shrunk faster than the metal of the cylinder, so the whole thing was very stiff. I got in one morning, and went to shift, and the shift lever snapped off. Until I could find someone to weld it back on, I had to shift by sticking a screwdriver into a hole in the shift cylinder.
There were hundreds of rabbits that came out onto the road because it was warmer in the sun. They were unavoidable, and it was dangerous to try to go around them on the slippery snow covered road, so driving to work cost several rabbits their lives on some days.
When it was that cold, the air was very still, and what little moisture was still in the air froze into tiny ice particles that just hung there – it was very beautiful.
Finally, the temperature went up to about 30 below. We took off our parkas and romped in the sun !
When Sharon and I visited Alaska decades later, they still remembered that winter as one of the worst.
More on Liaho: Liaho sounds like a nice native word – actually it was the acronym for Let It All Hang Out – which frequently hollered at site parties.
It was an 80 trailer park. Instead of providing fuel tanks for each trailer, there were buried pipes containing water and kerosene in a loop. A pump keep the fluids moving so they would not freeze. Each trailer tapped into the pipes for water and heating fuel. The pipes came up out of the ground and into the trailer. There was maybe two feet exposed to the outside air, which most people wrapped electric heating tape to keep it from freezing. But during the cold snap, about one trailer per night would freeze up. That was the signal for a party – we all converged on that trailer with blowtorches and thawed it out, then stayed to party for hours.
We also had propane tanks for the stove. Propane turns liquid at about 40 below, and has no pressure. So we wrapped a heat tape around the valve at the top to keep just enough heat to have some pressure.