When it’s this cold, I get a taste of what life on a space station must be like. To go outside, I pile into a giant Carhartt parka coat, pull on thick fleece pants. I tie my mukluks and then tie the kids’ mukluks and zip the kids’ coats. And I always put my own mittens on last. It’s the opposite of what they tell you about the airplane oxygen mask. I need my fingers free as long as possible in case I need to unbundle one of the girls, who at the very last minute needs to go to the bathroom.
When it’s this cold, it’s dark too. As December spins past the winter solstice, we get only three-and-a-half hours of daylight here, providing it isn’t cloudy. The sunrise is preceded by a dim purple twilight that’s twinned in the evening at sunset.
At minus forty, the dark propagates. Ice fog rolls in and is compounded by car exhaust and wood smoke here in Fairbanks. Ice fog is winter’s dimmer switch. With all color—car paint, bright outdoor parkas, neon signs, stoplights, reflective tape on kids’ parkas—grayed a tone or two down, I resent the monochrome. White snow on the white paper birch rooted in the white yard, illuminated by a white moon, haloed in white clouds through the gray fog. It sounds pretty, but it feels stifling.
Like the science books tell us, cold sinks. Fairbanks sits in a bowl of hills surrounded by domes. People who live in town along the river or among the blueberry bogs of Goldstream Valley suffer more than those of us who live in the hills. Sometimes the hills are twenty degrees warmer. The weather forecast always mentions, “Colder in the valleys tonight.” Everyone has a thermometer out in the yard or on the deck.
When it’s cold like this I wallow. I lie awake in bed at night and wonder why we live here. I bemoan our decision to stay home this winter break instead of joining friends in Hawai’i. I sneak down to the kitchen in the middle of the night and look at the thermometer through the window while the woodstove sings its ticking song. My legs get hot so near the stove, but leaning into the window, I feel chilled. Shining a headlamp out the window, I can see the illuminated eye of the thermometer telling me it’s minus thirty-five here in the hills. I wonder how cold it must be down in town.
When the cold like this lasts for more than three days, the kids get crazy. The girls like us to crank the wood stove so they can run around in their underpants, screaming and playing swimming pool. They invent games like “injury family” where they use their hobbyhorses as crutches and bandage each other up and limp around the house. They also start to fight, to insist that they will never be each other’s sisters again. For the rest of their lives.
So after days of it, we head to the hot springs. That’s how crazy it’s made us. It’s minus forty degrees and we are happy to put on bathing suits and swim outside.
Chena Hot Springs has an indoor pool the size one might find at a decent hotel, two indoor hot tubs and one outdoor tub on the path to the big rock pool. The big rock pool is what makes it an attraction, but it’s only open to people over age 18, making any hot springs trip a back and forth between watching the kids and soaking in some grown up quiet. It’s also the only outdoor pool in Interior Alaska.
Before I had kids, I wondered what good that indoor pool was. Why come to the hot springs to sit inside in a big bathtub listening to screaming kids? Now I know better. The point of that pool is the screaming kids. They screech and jump while we parents alternate taking quiet trips outside.
So while the girls play mermaid in the bathwater-warm indoor pool, I slip outside, run out along the path gingerly. If I stand too long, my feet freeze in place. If I go too fast, I fear I’ll fall and stick my whole wet self to the ground. Either way I’m cold. Everyone running from the pool folds their arms as if warming the elbows was enough to keep a whole person warm.
At minus thirty, the pool echoes with disembodied voices. The fog hides everything but sound. Otherworldly. Crouching to keep my shoulders covered by water, I glide along surrounded by gray boulders. I head toward the far end of the pool, the hot side. People pop out of the fog. I hear murmurs in Japanese and German. Everyone whispers.
The steam here is different. Unlike the ice fog in town, it’s alive, exhaust from under the earth. I float, tip of my cold nose out of the water until I’m too hot. I had forgotten that I could even be too hot. I’ll have to pad back on the path and head inside. When I stand, my hair freezes, turns white like everything else.
Happy to be so warm, the girls swim for hours. My husband, TJ, and I trade between swimming with the kids and heading out to the rock pool until all of us are exhausted. In the darkening afternoon, we drive home, passing sandwiches to the back seat on the way. Cold creeps back toward us, but for this little while post-soak, we’re still warm. Hot even.
At night, as I walk out after hugs and kisses, careful to prop the door open — the woodstove’s on, after all, and their room would freeze without the door open — I think of the closing lines from Tom Sexton’s poem, “For Frances Gramse, Age 3, on the Winter Solstice: “sleep well, the cold /and the dark will fade and the lake /will open its eye. Grebes will arrive. /Always align your heart with the light.”
In the dim of the nightlight, I watch the girls shift and settle, make nests of covers. I feel less cramped, less trapped. I have faith again in spring. The lake will open its eye. The hot springs are always steaming, even when it’s this cold. We’ll be inside all day tomorrow, but I’ll remember what it’s like to be warm. Despite the dark, I am a little more aligned to the light.