Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Clear and Cold on the Iron Range

Cold is relative in the North Country. When the thermometer plunged a couple weeks ago, the record low temperatures were a major news story along the eastern seaboard of North America. The phenomenon was described as a "polar vortex." In Minnesota this kind of weather is called a "normal January." A friend once told me this is the price of five months of paradise. And black flies.

Temperature in farenheit (same as -31C) on Tuesday morning, January 21st.

Iron Rangers aren't especially tougher, just a different kind of acclimated. When I lived here more than one person told me they couldn't wait for the unbearable 80 degree days to relent...and for ice fishing. But there is justifiable pride in their own brand of hardiness, casual indifference to the Minneapolis climate--the "banana belt"--and respect for anywhere currently colder than home. In time, my new blood began to thicken too, and before long the winter jacket would open up like maple sap in March. The kids didn't know any different. Shortly after we moved to Ohio, a teacher chastised my son for not wearing his coat on a below-freezing winter day. "Why?" he replied. "It's not cold."

But the North Country is not an unyielding, dreary grey in winter. Snowy days are punctuated regularly with crystal clear skies. A sunny, -30 degree day where the ice crystals dance like falling glitter in the still, freeze-dried air is surprisingly comfortable if you're dressed appropriately. I wouldn't trade it for wet and just-above-freezing in New York or Cleveland. But add a stiff, predawn wind, and you won't stay outside for long. I recall driving up to the Hibbing Taconite mine many dark winter mornings and seeing the telltale cloud of steam blowing sideways from the pellet plant, illuminated in the facility lights like the breath of a cold industrial dragon. I'd get out of my car for the 200 yard gauntlet between my normal spot in the lot and the mine's office. The first dozen steps I'd think, "This isn't so bad." A dozen more I'd relent, "It's a little brisk," and walk more determinedly. After a few more strides, I'd begin to run.

And that's the secret to thriving in the North Country winter and not just surviving--movement. Whether by skate, ski or Ski-doo, you have to embrace the environment and live in it.

The weather can be harder on machines than people. The brittling cold stresses some steel to the breaking point. If you don't have a block heater or a reliable battery, it's not always a bad idea to keep the car running through a shopping trip or an entire work shift. Some cars aren't resurrected until spring. But if the back door opens wide in Minnesota during a winter nap, a person tends to wake up immediately.

This morning it is -24ºF (-31ºC), and I am reliving my past in northeastern Minnesota on business. But, I am no longer used to it. I take a couple deep breaths and feel the shock of fresh cold air burn my nostrils. Time to run.