Snow Job

By Jeffrey Page

The weekend blizzard that brought Orange County to a halt reminded me that January is the sixth anniversary of a lesser storm, but one that nevertheless closed the airport, stranded travelers, trapped cars and made life splendidly miserable for a few days in New Jersey.

I was at The Record of Hackensack then and got the assignment that editors love and reporters hate: The weather story. In the weather story, you’re given about 15 inches of space to tell readers what they already know. If the weather was truly lethal, a second reporter would write about that. But the overall story – Sir, how cold, wet and miserable are you? – was to be treated lightly, though never as lightly as local TV stations that love to toss in the ancient clichés like “Jack Frost,” Mother Nature,” and “the white stuff.”

You get strange looks from people when you ask them about the weather. They stare at you as if to say: How would I describe the weather? I hate it. Would I rather be in Key West? Yes, I would rather be in Key West. How do I manage to keep warm? I do not do so. Am I freezing? Yes I am freezing.

But inspiration struck in 2004. I put in a call to the Downtown Hotel and spoke with the manager, Rea Brandon who was taken aback when I told her where I was calling from and what I wanted. “Wait a minute,” she said. “You’re calling us because you had 10 inches of snow and it’s a little chilly?”

Uh, yes.

The Downtown Hotel is in Dawson in the Yukon Territory of Canada. It’s just 200 miles south of the Arctic Circle. It was 58 below zero in Dawson when I spoke with Brandon. A few days before I called, the city had gotten three feet of new snow in 48 hours. These were not records, Brandon said.

I asked how she deals with such cold and it turned out that her advice was what you’d hear in New Jersey. But up north, the matter of survival is not just an academic question. For example, dressing in layers here in the northeast makes for comfortable time in the cold. In Dawson it can mean the difference between getting where you have to go and freezing to death.

She said it was essential to stay dry. You had to wear a hat. Gloves were essential. A scarf. She said that when it gets really cold, like 58 below, it’s good to go to work in your car and leave the snowmobile for another time. She did note, however, that some eccentrics take pleasure in the cold and snow. Like her neighbor who traveled 14 miles to work every morning on a snowmobile and thus creating an unspeakable wind-chill factor.
Why did he do that, I wondered.

“No one asks,” Brandon said.

Still, when winter is its most severe, you must get out of the house. To never set foot outside is to risk serious depression. Brandon said you have to see people, go to a movie, even take a short walk. Just get out. Oh, and you can drink. Dawsonites drink a lot, she said.

The saloon in the Downtown Hotel offers the Sour Toe Cocktail, a concoction involving a glass of bourbon with a human toe in it. The story is that a trapper with a frozen toe cut it off to save his foot and later preserved the toe in a whiskey jar in Dawson. Some Dawsonites bequeath their toes to their favorite taverns to this day. Such activities keep people social, another important way to get through winter.

Advice posted in most Dawson taverns: “Drink it fast or drink it slow, but your lips must touch the toe.”

I also spoke with Dave Buckerfield in Hay River in the Northwest Territories. He said he was thankful the temperature that morning was 31 below zero because this indicated a warming trend. It had been down to minus 42. The normal temperature for late January was 25 below.

Buckerfield said he deals with the cold by removing his gold earring every October because the metal would conduct the winter cold right through his ear. He puts it back in the spring. He, too, said keeping dry and covered are essential to preventing frostbite though he has had it several times. But people in Hay River do strange things. For example, in March, when spring is about to return and the temperature shoots up to a balmy 10 below zero, some people hang up their Mackinaws and go out in a couple of shirts.

Ten below in March makes people feel a little warm, Buckerfield said.

Jeffrey can be reached at


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