In the fall of 1978, Ray Ordorica packed everything he thought he would need into his Toyota LandCruiser and drove north to Alaska. He came to a land he had never seen, to find something he wasn’t even sure existed: a wilderness cabin he could use for a year or more to live, think, relax, read, and write. Ordorica found his cabin, fixed it up, and, although it was just an uninsulated 12-by-16-foot one-room log structure, he spent three winters in it in relative comfort.
Ordorica’s life in that cabin fulfilled a dream he’d had for more than ten years. During his long winters in Alaska, it occurred to him that there must be many others who have put off an extended wilderness visit to out of uncertainty or fear. They have as many questions about Alaska as he had before he arrived: How do you cope with forty below? How do you get water? Is it totally dark in mid-winter? Alaskan Retreater’s Notebook is an epic memoir about one man’s journey into the Alaskan wilderness, filled with wisdom and insight into how to get away from the noisy modern world and experience an adventure in simplicity.
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Cold and Clothes
Undoubtedly the biggest deterrent to coming north forever is the cold. No matter where you now live (outside of Alaska), go into your local supermarket, stop Mabel Housewife in the soup aisle, and ask her what she thinks of Alaska. Chances are she'll tell you, "It's cold up there!" It makes no difference that the farthest north she has been is Peoria, she knows just how miserable it is in Alaska.
"Doesn't everyone know it's cold in Alaska? They all live in igloos up there!" Ignorance about Alaska abounds throughout the lower forty-eight states.
One winter before I came to Alaska, when I still lived in Denver, I used to sit and watch the Anchorage temperatures posted on the evening news. For weeks on end it was consistently warmer in Anchorage than in Denver. Denver winters were a piece of cake compared to the Ohio and Michigan winters I had shivered through during my school days, so I knew before I got to Alaska that at least the Anchorage weather held no unknown terrors for me.
Anyone can cope with a lot of the weather one finds along the coast in the southern part of Alaska. The weather is relatively mild in this area south of the Chugach range from Anchorage down the southeast coastline towards Juneau. Those areas, as well as Kodiak and the surrounding islands, the Kenai and Alaska Peninsulas, and the Aleutian chain are warmed by the Japanese current and its associated warm air masses, which tend to moderate the weather in all those areas. Interior Alaska weather is another story altogether, as I was to find out.
I didn't settle in Anchorage. I settled in a little cabin high on a hill overlooking Lake Louise in south central interior Alaska. Fortunately, for most of my first winter the weather was mild. It was zero to ten below stuff, relatively easy to take. In fact I got letters from friends in Denver asking why I had shipped all the cold down there.
Then, late in the winter, I got a taste of what real cold is. ...
If I had known the agonies of extreme cold I would have to endure that first winter in interior Alaska, I would most certainly have been scared off. I would never have come to Alaska. I didn't know it could get that cold anywhere.
I didn't know that the cold was a creeping, live thing that defied everything I learned in all my high-school and college physics courses, which taught me that cold was just the simple absence of heat. Sorry, that's not the whole story. The cold is something tangible, something dreadfully dangerous. It can bite deep. It can torture or kill you.
The cold comes in the long nights of midwinter in interior Alaska. The cold comes, shyly at first, silently. It approaches softly and all grows still. Nothing is moving outside. You become gradually aware that it's very cold outside and growing colder. The temperature drops and drops. And keeps on dropping.
The cold comes, at first a deep chill that you can feel in your bones. With gathering strength it grows bolder and the temperature drops still more, more than you ever dreamed possible. The killing cold softly brushes the windows, taps at the door, rolls and creaks gently over the roof and 'round the chimney, beckoning silently. It settles in.
When the cold comes and climbs up your cabin wall and it finds the cracks between the logs and slips in silently to laugh at you and mock your feeble fire, when the cabin walls — logs dead for thirty years — creak and pop in agony as they cringe from the fifty-below cold, and when the wind comes as handmaiden to the cold and the wind howls across the lake and strikes hard on your cabin walls and shrieks at your windows and rushes off with your cloistered heat, then you will come to know that the cold is alive.
In your remote cabin there is no escape. No changing the channel. No second chance. Huddle close to your fire and hope you have enough food and fuel to last through the cold spell. The cold is alive and hungry. The cold is here!
The winters in south-central interior Alaska are generally colder than they are north of the Brooks range, on the North Slope. I have seen 70 degrees Fahrenheit below zero. (All temperatures mentioned in this book are in degrees Fahrenheit.) This happened one frigid night in February of '79, following two straight weeks of temperatures that never got warmer than 25 below zero.
My cabin stood on a hill some sixty feet above the surface of Lake Louise. Down on the lake surface it was significantly colder than up at the cabin. Down there on the lake it never got warmer than 35 below for three weeks. Day after day we had 40 to 50 below, and the climax of it all was the night the thermometer ran to the bottom of the scale at 68 below zero and kept on going. Here's what happened.
Jack Hansen, who then owned Evergreen Lodge, and I both had a similar system of temperature estimation that we checked every day against our thermometers. We would watch how high the frost line would get on a certain window in our respective dwellings. Every time it got to a certain point marked on our window frame, we knew it was 35 below, or 40 below, depending on how high the frost line got. The higher the frost line, the colder it was.
I had the temperature marked and written on the window frame and as the frost line got up to my calibration I could make a good guess of the temperature without having to go outside to read my thermometer. The thermometer was mounted on a tree about ten feet from the cabin. Every time I checked I found a very close correlation. Jack was doing the same thing at his place across the lake and he could also tell, within a few degrees, what the outside temperature was without reading the thermometer.
One crystal-clear night we were both alarmed to see our frost line indicators go so high that we had no idea how to interpret 'em. They hadn't ever been that high before. Jack checked his thermometer and it was pegged at minus 68 degrees F., so we conservatively estimated it had to be at least 70 below. I wasn't brave enough to go outside and check my thermometer!
While the frost line would raise three inches from minus 20 to minus 30, and an additional two inches from minus 30 to minus 40, this time the frost line was a full six inches above the minus 40 mark, so I knew it was COLD!
The good news is that it didn't stay at minus 70 for long. By noon of the next day it was back up to a reasonable 40 below. (Incidentally minus 40 Fahrenheit is the same identical temperature as minus 40 Centigrade, the only temperature where the two coincide.)
That three-week cold spell was unusual in that it lasted so long and occurred so late in the winter. Temperatures had been around zero or slightly lower for the preceding two months, with an occasional excursion down to 20 below, once in a while up to 20 above. The following winter we had the really cold weather in late December and early January. The rest of the winter consisted of long months of temperatures hovering around zero. From time to time it would drop to minus 30 in January but only for a few days.
We had rain in January my second Alaskan winter, which was quite unusual. I'm told that we can expect a few days of severely cold weather every winter in interior Alaska. A week to ten days of 50- to 60-below temperatures every winter is the usual course of events. However, as I am writing this we're in the middle of a cold spell that's lasted more than two weeks and the temps have been near 60 below zero most of the time.
Last winter in late January I was trying to unstick my snowmobile from a snowdrift that was melting in the sun on an exceptionally warm day. It was nearly 60 degrees in the sun. It occurred to me that it was 120 degrees warmer than it had been a year before on the same date. You just never know.
My first Alaskan winter was marked by long weeks of incredibly still weather. There wasn't the slightest breath of wind most of the time, although when it did blow it made up for lost time. The weather was mostly mild until near the end of winter, and then the bottom dropped out of the thermometers as described above.
During my second Alaskan winter we had an almost predictable pattern of very cold spells followed by warmer days, snow, then high winds. Terrific winds came and blew all the new snow around into fantastic drifts. Then the pattern would repeat with another cold spell. Temperatures would drop and the new snowdrifts would get a thick crust on top. That pattern went on and on all winter.
I ran a trapline my second winter in Alaska, and had the loan of a snowmobile. The crusted snowdrifts made for lots of hard work on the trapline. When the snowmachine (that's what we northerners call a snowmobile) broke through the crust it got stuck. I had a hard time keeping the machine on the trail as I drove around my trapline. If I slid off the trail into the crusted snow next to it, I'd break through the crust and get stuck in the deep snow. Then I'd have to lift the 350-pound machine up out of the snow and back onto the trail before I could get going again. One gets lots of exercise running a trapline!
When I first arrived in Alaska I didn't have the slightest idea what was in store for me concerning the weather. The first order of business was to find a place to live, to be sure I could get out of the coming cold weather.
Just when I was about to give up hope I got lucky. My first Alaskan friend, the late Lennie Fitzpatrick, told me to look on "Army Point," where the army had built and later abandoned a group of cabins on a hill overlooking Lake Louise, not far from Lennie's home. Army Point was a recreational facility for army personnel in years long past. The army had built dozens of cabins, used them for a few years, and then abandoned them. Local residents had found better uses for the cabins than letting them rot on Army Point. They dragged some of them across the ice and tore down others for firewood. When I arrived on the scene there were only three cabins remaining in the area.
I picked what I thought was the best of the three cabins and moved in. It was not the most sound of the remaining cabins, nor the most level. However, it had the best roof and it also had some room under the floorboards that I could block off as dead-air space to help insulate the floor. It also had the best view of the lake. It turned out to be a good choice.
Once I had found my cabin I went right to work to winterize it. It was then late fall, early October in fact. The cabin had a rudimentary door, nothing in the windows but air, big cracks in the walls between the logs, no furnishings whatsoever, and a slightly leaky roof.
I had a lot of work to do and winter was fast coming on. I had no idea of how much time I had before it got really cold, and frankly I was afraid of the cold. The coldest weather I had experienced at that time was 20 below, one frigid Colorado night. I had no practical experience with the cold and didn't know what to expect. I was dreading the first night I'd see 20 below in that cabin.
I made a good door, put Visqueen on all the walls and in the windows to keep the wind out, and worked hard to stockpile wood. I had a barrel stove that Lennie Fitzpatrick had made for me and I didn't know how well it worked. Fear of the unknown is one of the greatest fears of all, and I knew nothing of extreme cold, so I waited for the first really cold weather and worked with a vengeance.
One morning I awoke refreshed and looked out my little window at the beautiful view of Lake Louise. I was astonished at the perfect, clear view I had across the lake toward the Alaska range to the north. I had never seen those mountains before. I could see the distant mountains as though they were only a few miles off, just across the lake. They are actually about fifty miles away. I quickly set up my spotting scope outside and I was studying the surrounding wilderness when Lennie Fitzpatrick's boy, Lance, came by.
Lance asked me, "How did you sleep last night?"
"Perfectly well," I told him.
He told me it had been 34 degrees below zero the preceding night! It was in fact, right at that minute, 20 below zero. At first I didn't believe him. There I was with just a thin jacket on, enjoying the view! The thermometer proved him right, it was pretty cold out. So much for fear of the cold!
It was a tremendous relief to me to realize that I could cope with some of the most severe weather Alaska had to offer. Cold is relative, of course. I had been expecting to freeze solid the first time I went out in minus 30 weather, and that just doesn't happen. You get accustomed to the cold, and then when you get a warm spell it feels much warmer to your body than you would expect from reading the thermometer.
It happened that I first experienced really cold weather (30 below) after I had spent a month working long, hard hours outdoors every day. I had also been eating twice as much as I'd normally eat. I had become acclimatized to the cold without realizing it. I might add I was, at the time thirty-six years old. I looked like I was twenty. After a few years in the cold I came to look my age ... at least.
You must be well prepared physically and mentally to be able to function in the Alaskan winters. Good health and well-being are the best defenses against extreme cold. You must also be physically clean and well-fed, and, of course, well dressed.
I found my cabin late in the fall. I needed to burn lots of wood right from the start because it got pretty chilly at night. I had not had time to gather any sort of long-term wood supply, so I was doomed to spend about two hours outside each and every day throughout the winter, gathering wood. By midwinter I was acclimatized enough that I was able to function outdoors while dressed quite lightly, even in very cold weather.
For example, one night I went to dine with Jack and Jan Hansen at their lodge (Evergreen), which was about a half mile walk across the lake ice from my cabin. When I put on my light "car coat" to go home, Jack and Jan couldn't believe that that was all I was wearing. They couldn't believe I would be warm enough with just that light jacket. I walked home in perfect comfort even though it was 38 below zero on the lake that night.
My coat was a common Dacron-insulated one that came down halfway to my knees. Under it I wore a wool shirt, and I had cotton long johns under my pants. I had a hat and light scarf, gloves, and that was it. I was perfectly comfortable for that short walk home, although I would not have liked to spend the night outdoors wearing only that amount of clothing. However, that was all I wore when I was out gathering firewood even when it was 50 below zero on the lake. I often had to take off my coat when it was 20 below and work in my shirtsleeves to avoid getting too hot.
My cabin was on top of a hill about sixty feet higher than the lake. It was on a peninsula of land that fell away to a bowl of spruce on the west, and dropped steeply downhill to the lake on the east. Lake Louise stretched to the north. The east slope was where I found all the standing dead wood (mostly birch) for my fire. To get wood I went down a path I had worn in the steep hillside, all the way down to the lake. Then I walked about 100 yards along the surface of the lake on a path I had trampled into the snow. Then I would climb halfway back up the hillside to a stand of dead timber, and I would knock down a few dead trees with the Swede saw, cut the trees into lengths I could pack on my shoulder, then pack them back downhill to the lake, retrace the 100 yards along my path there, and again up the steep hillside to the cabin.
Then I had to buck these logs into two-foot sections to fit in the stove. About two or three hours of this a day would keep me in firewood. I might add that all that exercise also paid long dividends of top-notch health.
At night when I finished the daily woodcutting, the bottom of my trousers would be stiff with ice. I'd hang 'em near the fire to thaw and dry for the next day's chores. I never used a chain saw to cut my firewood in all my time on Lake Louise. I never had a chain saw, and had no snowmobile that first year. It was all manual labor and shank's mare.
The daily woodcutting excursions were not without their benefits. I have already mentioned the long-term advantages to my health. Once in a while I met with some of my wild neighbors.
One day I found a little boreal owl (Aegolius funereus) roosting in a tree where I had been doing some woodcutting. I was surprised at the intensity of his yellow eyes, bright points of color in a drab winterscape. He could hardly keep them open and he seemed unable to see me clearly, even though it was broad daylight. He didn't seem afraid, and apparently had no intentions of leaving. I got my camera and took some photos of the little bird, who was only about eight inches long. I got my pictures and then I went to find my wood elsewhere, leaving him to his snooze.
A few nights later I went out to look at the northern lights. I stood on my front porch watching the lights dance on the stars. Suddenly out of the black of night something flashed past my head without a sound and landed on the tree next to me. I thought it was a bat, then I looked closer and saw it was the little owl, come to repay my visit. He set up residence near the cabin and did a good job of keeping the voles and shrews out of it. He took to roosting in the tree near my door. One day I went out to look at the thermometer and found myself face to face with the little owl, no more than two feet separating our beaks.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Alaskan Retreater's Notebook"
Copyright © 2016 Ray Ordorica.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Cold and Clothes,
Army Point Journal,
The Call of Wild Country,
Photography in Anchorage,
Cookie and the Beeks,
Home at Last,