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Gristmill: Snow Starved

Wed, 12/27/2023 - 16:16
A late-’90s photo of your friendly neighborhood columnist’s former outhouse outside Fairbanks. “Styrofoam works wonders for seat warmth,” he inscribed on the back.
Baylis Greene

One of the gifts my 15-year-old daughter opened on Christmas Eve — incoming from her non-nuclear unit — was a head-to-toe body suit. Tan, cable-knit in style but of indeterminate fabric, it zips all the way up over her head, rendering her somewhat hilariously a space alien, a mummy, a superhero.

Call it new loungewear. She envisioned donning it to curl up hearthside in some snowbound log cabin.

Too bad it was 50 degrees on Christmas Day.

Forget the romanticized white Christmas — don’t hold your breath waiting for it to snow on Long Island ever again. The TV news stations in the city have already been having fun with the record-setting “snow starved” status there — 683 days since so much as an inch fell in Central Park?

Staring down a balmy holiday break, my daughter asked about log cabin life in Alaska. She was curious to hear of my uniform of silk long underwear. My most defined sensory memory, however, had me exhausted by the prospect of another subfreezing trip to the outhouse, so one Sunday morning I propped up a little folding camping toilet inside the cabin’s close confines, attaching a plastic Fred Meyer shopping bag underneath to catch any falling matter.

Big mistake.

How does someone wind up there? When you’re young, you may think life is for living. And when you’re newly laid off, with no real job prospects in a Midwestern city where you have no real connections, it’s easy to think an adventure is in order.

My college girlfriend and I broke up a little over a year after arriving in Fairbanks, and I lived there for at least another three and a half years in a different cabin, still without plumbing — wood frame, two stories, considerably farther out there in the thick of the spruce and the birch.

A short walk to the Tanana River, in fact, where I’d go cross-country skiing when it froze, which was most of the time. The date of the river’s breakup was the source of much wagering every year, and during my last spring there I happened to be standing next to it when it gave way. The colliding chunks headed downstream sounded just like ice cubes in a glass.

That spring followed what they said was the second worst cold snap the place had seen — January 1999, 20 straight days when the temperature didn’t reach even 20 below. I was a laborer on a construction site.

You’d think that would be winter enough for one lifetime. Yet somehow, it isn’t.

And that’s my cabin story.

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