Monday, December 3, 2007

Kids these days

Yesterday and this morning have been brutal, weather wise. The winds are coming in straight off the Gulf of Alaska, howling up the Knik Arm below my house and slamming into the mountains behind us. We're caught between the sea and the mountain passes, which has the effect of compressing the winter winds to truly ferocious speeds. Weather like this is normal here this time of year, Auto Body Shops gleefully call it the Sprung Door Hinge Season.

This morning the temperature is hovering around 13F, according to the weather station feed from the Palmer Airport. Combine the temperature with the 40-60MPH winds (gusts to 80MPH!) and you're looking at wind chill factors anywhere from Angry Velociraptor to Starving T-Rex. It's so damned cold and nasty out, that that the dog won't do more than poke her nose out of the flap in her kennel door - when a husky/Shepard mix sled dog won't go out in it, you know it's friggin' nasty. (yeah, yeah, I know the rest of the country is getting pelted with 'the first big winter storm' of the season. Blah, blah, so what? We had much worse than that a full month ago, didn't even make the local news, let alone the national. Welcome to the party, Midwesterners, you bunch of babies).

Now show of hands: if you had to go out in those conditions, how many of you would, you know, actually wear a jacket, hat, and gloves? You would? Me too. And a sweatshirt. And long johns. And googles. And probably a shotgun (for the velociraptors, duh). You're probably cold just thinking about it, right?

That's because you're not eleven and on your way to school this morning, where it is apparently much more important to look cool (really), than, you know, actually be smart enough not to get frost bitten. (This is also apparently the norm, since half the kids going into school this morning weren't wearing winter gear either. In fact I saw one kid in shorts!) We constantly have to fight with our son to wear proper cold weather gear, you'd think an Alaskan kid would know better, I mean wouldn't you? I'm not the praying type, but if I was I'd pray that he develops some common sense before the velociraptors get him.

Alaska is a beautiful land, it really is. But it can turn deadly on you without warning. Every year a least a dozen people on average are swallowed by the wilderness. Truthfully, we Alaskans are, if not outright amused, then at least not surprised when outsiders manage to do something stupid and get themselves killed because they were either woefully unprepared or woefully lacking in common sense. Case in point: in November of 1996, my wife and I were making the two day trip from the Alaska Ferry Terminal in Haines to Anchorage. This is a distance of around 750 miles, across the Yukon and through some very rough country, especially in winter. The first day took us nearly fourteen hours to cover the 400 mile distance from Haines to the halfway point at the interior town of Tok. The road was a roller coaster of frost heaves and sags, snow drifts and ice, gloriously beautiful - and very, very dangerous. In the Yukon we drove for seven hours without seeing another living soul, it is a vast desolate land in the winter and you best be prepared for it - especially if, like us, you're making the crossing with a new baby in the truck. In Tok, as I recall temperatures that night were around -48F, and at those temperatures even the 80-weight oil in the jeep's differentials will freeze solid if you haven't taken proper precautions. The jeep is equipped with a cold weather package, including electric block heaters and battery blanket, and my anti-freeze is normally mixed for -75F, but that night I filled the Jeep's gas tank and left it running all night. Heat from the running engine kept the transmission warm and radiated enough heat under the vehicle to keep the differential oil from turning to amber and the brake and gas lines from freezing. The next morning we had reindeer sausage and pancakes at Fast Eddy's, had the waitress fill our thermoses with hot coffee, filled the gas tank again, and cheerfully headed out for Glennallen, two hundred miles away - the temperature was -52F. Twenty miles out we passed a young man walking on the side of the road, headed back towards town. No hat, no gloves, light jacket, jeans fashionably torn at the knees with bare skin showing through. Hmmm. A little way further we passed a car on the side of the road. We recognized the kid as a fellow passenger on the Columbia, the Alaskan ferry we had ridden for the last four days up the inland passage from Bellingham, Washington. I was in a hurry to get to Glennallen and then down the very dangerous mountainous Glenn Highway to Anchorage while there was still enough light to see by, and I was tempted to leave the kid to his fate (I wouldn't have, but there was that moment...). My wife turned to me and said "he'll die if we don't go back for him, you know." She was right of course, it was unlikely that anybody else would come along in time, so I found a wide spot in the road and carefully turned the jeep around (we were heavily loaded and had a hitch-haul mounted on the back, turning around in the dark on that road wasn't a casual decision). Total elapsed time from when we first spotted him to the time we picked him up was probably no more than four or fives minutes. He'd been walking no more than ten. And his ears, forehead, cheeks and fingers were already badly frost bitten, feet stone numb, and he was right on the edge of hypothermia. I doubt he would have been able to keep moving for more than another fifteen minutes. We got him in the jeep, wrapped him a polar-fleece emergency blanket and gave him a cup of coffee - and I headed back into Tok (didn't see another car the whole way, stupid would have been out there a long time if we hadn't turned around when we did). Along the way we got the story out of him, he was from Washington State, coming up to see his dad in Anchorage for the holidays. He hadn't winterized his car (even for the milder Washington climate, no snow tires, no arctic anti-freeze, no block heaters), hadn't brought hat or gloves, a heavy jacket, long johns, or even a decent set of boots. He didn't have an emergency kit, no blankets or sleeping bag, no matches, nothing. He'd gotten up that morning and left Tok an hour before us. He hadn't left his car running during the night and didn't have a block heater to plug in. I was surprised that his car had even started that morning. He hadn't waited for the vehicle to warm up and twenty miles from town he noticed that he still didn't have any heat, even though the temperature gauge on his dash was pegged above the redline. Odd, he thought, but what the hell, it'll thaw out - that's when the engine seized up and he coasted to a stop (I feel like I should add "and then the wolves began to howl" but I won't). Long story short we got him back into Tok and to the emergency station. I stuck around long enough to make sure he was going to be OK, then we headed back out for Anchorage.

We were already pretty savvy survivalists, even then, but that incident impressed on me just how brutal the Alaskan wilderness can be, and just how quickly the technology we depend on for our survival can fail. You can die up here, very quickly, without proper preparation and common sense. We never go into the bush without emergency equipment - even for a Sunday afternoon hike in Hatcher's Pass. Our vehicles always have emergency kits, even if we're just headed into Anchorage from our house in Palmer. I've tried to impress on my son the importance of being prepared but he's eleven and looking cool is more important to him than dressing properly. He's a kid and I guess that's normal, but, damn, I hope he develops some common sense before it's too late.


  1. Hell, kids here in Ohio were shorts at the bus stops and I think they're insane. It's like a complete lack of common sense.

    Well, I guess there's also a difference between people who know what "feeling their core temperature dropping" and what that means and everybody else.

  2. As a kid, when other kids are MERCILESS about things like appearance, I dressed not for the weather.

    As a reasonably secure adult, I dress for the occasion and weather. Which means I wear my Baffin expedition weight boots outside, and a fine collection of heels from Nordstrom* inside for work, because we have a freaking dress code.

    As an adult, and after reading your tale of providing aid to a fellow traveler, I will give a "no comment".

    ::mumble:: ::grumble:: ::kids these days::

    *Try buying a pretty girl show when you have a 9.5 W foot. It's not easy, but Nordie's almost always carries my size.

  3. Well, yeah, I try to remember how important appearance was back when I was a kid but it was so long ago now. Sigh. I know it matters, to the kids, and I try to understand I really do, but it sure would be nice if, just for a couple of years, common sense and sensible clothing was 'cool.' But then I guess that would kind of violate the whole spirit of being a kid.

  4. I worked on Iron Will in Norther Minnesota during the winter of '93. One of the things the Producer assigned to me was to provide warming huts, etc. That meant in addition to having tents, I'd need to provide all the torpedo heaters, etc. and, of course all that propane and kerosene needed to go into my budget.

    Day 1 of shooting: -40F. I've got all my tents up and nice and toasty inside. Star trailers start developing ice in the toilets, engines that won't turn over (after being off for 1/2 hour. Generator stops running due to slush in the fuel lines.

    Teamster captain goes into town and buys all sorts of heavy plastic to make "skirts" under all vehicles and rents a bazzillion additional heaters. Buys more propane and kerosene (assigned to my budget).

    At the end of the day, I report to the Producer that my fuel budget isn't going to be adequate. He asks how far off I think I am. I ask, "Can I have till the end of the week to give you a number?" He says, "Sure, but give me a wild-assed guess." I tell him I haven't a clue, but I expect to have run through the entire heating budget by noon on day 3 (of the 51 scheduled days).

    Also on the topic of "stupid tourists." On the same movie, I scouted Newfoundland for locations to finish the movie. (MN ran out of snow and cold, go figure). One day I'm in a helicopter scouting sites on the west coast and all of a sudden we are over the "pond fjords" (Absolutely spectacular; See them someday if you get the chance.) Well anyway, approaching them from the east, you're over miles of flat snowy landscape with caribou herds running around, and then at the fjord, the land just drops. 2000 ft. cliffs leading down to the pond, and then a waterfall to sea level. The pilot told me that every year 5 or 6 snowmobilers will drive of the edge of the cliffs. He told me that few died from the fall because there's so much deep soft snow there. They freeze to death or suffocate if rescue doesn't come quick enough.

    Sorry for such a long response. Your post inspired me.

  5. *thinks Nathan should start a blog*

    I'm basically built to be tropical. Even while I was growing up in Indiana, I always made sure I had hats, scarves, gloves, etc. in abundance. But then again, I never did care what anyone thought of the way I look. Comfy > style any day.

  6. MWT, I never cared much what other people thought of me either - hence I was very much in the 'not cool' category. I was always pretty happy with myself, even if other kids didn't think much of me. Which is probably why I identified with the protagonists in Heinlein's juveniles so much.

    The funny thing is that years later, after I became a Warrant Officer, those traits suited me very well indeed and I found myself in the strange position of being a role model for kids who only a few short years before would have been bullying me. It still boggles my mind a bit. And that is certainly why I'm quite satisfied with who I am these days.

    I only hope that I can make my kid understand that it is more important to be yourself, than be who everybody else wants you to be.

  7. MWT,

    If I had a blog, it would look something like this

    Today Scalzi said......

    Over at StoneKettle Station today...

    And over at Whatever today...

    Today, Pixelfish dropped this bomb...

    On Whateverettes, today, John Scalzi points to...

    Boring. I'll stick with commenting for now.

    Jim, I was totally in the "not cool" camp. It drove me nuts, and I've spent years trying to forget some of the stuuuupid things I did then to "upgrade".

  8. Nathan, long responses are highly encouraged. No worries, especially when they're entertaining.

    I've seen the Pond Fjords area of Newfoundland. I used to pass through Goose Bay when I was flying in an out of Iceland on military transports. Like you said, spectacular country.

    I too have had to deal with frozen tractor/trailer rigs in -40 temperatures. I was the XO of a Navy SpecOps Cold Weather unit for a number of years. I earned my commercial cold weather driver's license at Coles Truck Driving Institute in Bangor Maine. The trick is to make damned sure the air line condenser tanks are drained every couple of hours and to use military grade anti-freeze DFM instead of commercial diesel fuel. Never shut the truck off, even during refueling. Give me a call the next time you're filming in the winter - I'd be glad to offer advice, you know, for a shout out in the credits :)

    We lose snowmachiners here every year, usually buried in avalanches
    doing what crazy people call 'high topping,' i.e. trying to get as high on the side of a mountain as you possibly can before falling backward downhill. Idiots.

  9. Jim,

    You want to offer advice for a shout out or credit? Dude, you've got a highly marketable skill with the paperwork to back it up. Most movies (including winter movies in harsh climates) bring a Transportation Coordinator from L.A. who's knowledge of the subject is about what you'd think (hence my experience).

    Seriously, if you actually have any interest, (and an interest in being away for up to four months at a time), I'd be happy to figure out who you should market yourself to. There's some serious money available. Seriously.


  10. Jim,

    I'm currently dealing with a 16 year old who (apparently) has slightly more sense than your son. He will wear weather-appropriate clothing.

    We have other issues, instead. Mostly relating to working hard in school, etc. But I do see signs of improvement, so I may be on the downhill stretch. We'll see.

  11. Hmmm, Nathan, you interest me strangely. Let me think about it. If I can't make a go of the writing gig (my wife and I have set a date, one year from the end of this month), I'm going to need to start seriously thinking about a real job. Problem is that I can't do what ordinary people do - i.e. tie, white shirt, office cubicle, spread sheets, and etc. I tend to thrive on weird hours and hectic schedules - and for my own self image, I need to be doing something different from everybody else. Just the way I am. So like I said, your suggestion interests me. I never thought about it before - but I will. (and, of course, by that time I'd be failed writer - so I'd have a lousy screen play or two to shop around. Hmmmm this could work).

    Janiece, yeah, I'm hoping that the kid will gain sense as he gets older - Alaska is a good place for that. He's incredibly bright, well above the top 10 percentile academically -but getting him to do the work is like getting deck seaman presentable for inspection. I have to keep reminding myself that he's only eleven. You know how it is, I'm sure.

  12. Hmmm, Nathan, you interest me strangely.

    There are so many ways that sentence could trouble me. :-)

  13. It's even more disturbing when I didn't make it clear I was quoting Jim. Must. Preview.


  14. Well, see, I thought it was more interesting that way :)

    Call me, we'll do lunch...

  15. OK so you can claim that the world of snow and ice are yours most of the year but hell man the winds are blowin ill here in the southern tier of NY. I am looking at 9 inches of snow since I got home from work at 6 PM and it's still falling. So though I do not have all the survival gear that you are talking about I do have a coat, a hat and gloves and I am wearin em tomorrow. I have go to work where it is snowing through the door frames and ruining my new hardwood floor. Fuck what was I thinkin????

  16. You know how it is, I'm sure.

    Boy, do I. In my (admittedly) limited experience, native ability has very little to do with the level of accomplishment with boys, while girls are (apparently) more self-starters. Perhaps that's just my clan, but it appears to be a good "rule of thumb" when you examine my very large extended family.

  17. http://beastly-beastliness.blogspot.com/


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