Searching At Christmas

By Robert Moffat

The holiday song, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” tries to say it all, but it doesn’t begin to describe what real cold can be like—arctic, bone-chilling, finger-numbing cold. 

Yes, there is cold, and then there is “the mercury is out of sight” cold. It was novel and romantic for us when we first lived in remote Alaska. We would get up in the morning, scrape the frost from the window and discover the temperature had dropped to below -40*F.  The romance ends when you have to live in that environment—especially when it continues days and weeks on end. You have to learn how to copy mentally and physically in those temperatures.

Photo by: Elaine Mitchell

There are times in the Arctic, when the temperature drops below -55*F or so, that it becomes a matter of survival.  If you happen to have the luxury of running water and plumbing, this kind of cold seeps into pipes well insulted or underground and freezes them.  So, forget about them until spring. If you have an outhouse, sitting on an ice cake at -70*F is a never to be forgotten experience.

Photo by: Lee Coursey

Kerosene freezes in the -60’s.  Chainsaws to cut that wood for the fast disappearing woodpile have to be kept in the house, if there is a hope for them to start. It is not unusual to hear chainsaws working away at 3:00 am as someone realizes they were way too optimistic in thinking that wood they cut yesterday would last the whole night. 

Photo by: Elaine Mitchell

Let me share a story about one such night, one Christmas time in the mid 1960’s, in Tanana, Alaska.

The temperature had to be well below -50*F that evening.  We had enjoyed a turkey dinner, despite the fact that the propane had frozen that day, and our propane stove had quit when the turkey was half done.  We had the propane tank nestled outside next to our log house. It was covered by an insulated box, and it still froze up. Propane freeze at about -40*F, if unprotected.  The solution to our problem (we wanted to eat cooked—not raw—turkey) was to thaw the propane tank and regulator enough to get the propane flowing again. The method to do that ws to pour hot water over the propane tank.  That meant getting dressed warmly enough to go outside, taking the cover off the propane tank, pouring the water, and then recovering the tank. Hot water actually vaporizes and explodes at that temperature, so we’d get fireworks along with the experience.  The propane would flow for a while before it re-froze, and then we’d have to do it all over again. We did this until the turkey was done. Instructions you will not find in Betty Crocker.

About 9:00 pm that evening, well after we’d finished our dinner, a pickup stopped in front of our log home.  Our old pickup, kept in an unheated log garage, would never stand a chance of starting and running at this temperature, so it was unusual to see any vehicles running, as there were only a few miles of road anyway.  Jim Boa, the State Trooper, whose “beat” covered a huge part of central and western Alaska, came to the door. His truck was kept in a heated garage, in case of any emergency that would need his help.

Photo by: Markus Trienke

In this case, help was needed.  Jim asked if I could assist him in a rescue of some people who were out in that cold night on a snowmobile ride and had not returned.  They were at least three hours late, and they were inexperienced with that kind of cold weather. Some GI’s from the Fairbanks area had come to spend the holidays with some nurses.  We had a government hospital in Tanana that served the villages in that area, and the single female nurses always had male attention. The men had managed to get the nurses’ snow machines running earlier in the afternoon, and they had all headed back in the hills behind Tanana.  Three GI’s, three nurses and three machines, and they had told no one they were going or where they were going.

Finally, someone realized they had not seen them around, started asking questions, and called the trooper. All of a sudden, those extreme temperatures went from being challenging to becoming deadly. 

Jim and I discussed the options.  One thing in our favor for finding them was the moonlit night.  Most of the time -60*F temperatures only happen when there is no cloud cover.  So, no clouds and a full moon meant that it was very bright—really a beautiful sight.  Snow glistened and hoar frost made lacy decorations on everything. I asked Jim if he thought we could get his singled engine airplane started.  He said he had a heater on the engine, but at that temperature it would still be questionable. It was also a little dangerous to fly when it was so deathly cold.  But we had no option but to try. If we did not reach these guys and gals soon it could be fatal. We also agreed we may need to use our snow machines, so we put electric heaters on both of our snow machines, in preparation.  It would take at least an hour to get them warm enough to start. I prayed that we could get to them soon and without any mishaps on our part. 

The engine in the Alaska state-owned small airplane would not start after we uncovered the engine and tried to use the battery to turn the engine over, so we went to the garage and got the Herman Nelson heater.  The Herman Nelson is, in essence, a huge, portable blowtorch. It blows hot air, which is directed to the engine with a large flexible duct. After fifteen minutes of that kind of heat, we tried again. I turned the propeller by hand; it immediately caught and the engine was running.

I need to pause here and tell you that all of this activity was accomplished with both of us decked out in bundles of outerwear clothing: snow-pants, Eddie Bauer down parkas, gloves covered with heavy mittens, and huge insulated boots. Decked out like that, one moves about deliberately and somewhat clumsily.  Mitts off, then mitts back on, parka cover up, then parka hood off. It is a slow ballet of anything but grace. However, you can’t leave flesh exposed to that cold for very many minutes at a time. It requires some agility, too, to climb into the small cabin of a single-engine plane with all that gear on, but finally, about an hour after Jim stopped at our house, we were in the plane and on our way to see if we could find the missing snow machine group.  

Photo by: Lake Clark National Park

Almost as soon as the plane lifted off the runway, a beautiful scene greeted us.  It was almost like daylight but even more impressive. The Northern Lights glimmered in much of the sky, and we could see much of the foothills.  After about a ten-minute flight toward the foothills behind Tanana, we saw a fire and headed for it. In that desolate place there were no cabins or even trails.  It had to be our nurses with their arctic-inexperienced escorts. I remember marveling to Jim, “How in the world did they manage to get there?” There was about three feet of snow, no regular snowmobile trails around, and small scrub spruce trees everywhere.  They had tried going cross-country through that and had eventually bogged the snow machines down in a steep gully. As we circled over them, I had to give the boys some credit. Even though there wasn’t much to burn, they had gotten a fire going and were burning spruce branches.  They don’t generate much heat, especially at that temperature. The gathering of the branches kept them moving and much warmer than the fire did.

We buzzed over them a couple of times, scouting out the terrain and a possible route for our snow machines to get to them.  It looked like we could get within a quarter of a mile of their location. In order to do that, though, we would need to travel about 5 miles by snow machine, much of it over terrain without any kind of trail.  So, we buzzed over them again, wiggled the wings of the plane, and headed back to the airport to get our Skidoo snow machines.

In about another half hour we had the snow machines running, and we were “heading for the hills.”  It was still a very beautiful, arctic scene as we headed toward the spot where we saw them. As we drove in that numbing cold, now exacerbated by the wind-chill from the breezed caused by our motion, I reflected on how much like life this situation presented.  We humans don’t understand how our foolish decisions can get us into trouble, and we need the help of someone to rescue us. As missionaries, Carol and I were here in this remote, dangerous place to help people in these kinds of situations. Not necessarily from danger of the cold environment but from spiritual kinds of danger.  All around us people were struggling with addictions, fear, and tragic relationships. We couldn’t rescue them ourselves, but we had the message that we knew a God who sent His Son to do just that. That’s the real Christmas story.  

Finally, after almost of an hour of searching and breaking trail in the deep snow, we stopped the machines at a spot we thought we saw from the air and yelled a “hello” into the clear frozen air.  We heard a distant “we’re here” and knew we had found them. Two of the nurses were in extremely dangerous condition. One was hallucinating from severe chilling. We got them back to our snow machines and were able to haul them out to a friends’ cabin where we started the whole process of warming them up.  A near tragedy was averted. No one suffered severe frostbite. The Christmas rescue had a happy ending.  

1 comment

My father-in-law was holding my 5 year old daughter, after all the present were open. He asked her what he and grandma gave her. She replied nothing. He got upset. She kissed him and said that’s okay, I have you.

We nearly cried. At 5 she understood that Christmas was about loving people from the heart.

Florence Struempler April 17, 2021

Leave a comment

All comments are moderated before being published