Adventures in the Cold

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Happy New Year! So, we have passed solstice and swapped out our old calendars, so Old Man Winter has seen fit to hit us with a vengeance! He has been a little hard on us lately, dishing out temperatures as low as -43 C. We had a snappy little cold snap that lasted several days (see below). For those who don’t know, that kind of cold — anything approaching -40 — is extremely hard on vehicles and machinery.

Temperatures in Fort Simpson over the last week
Temperatures in Fort Simpson over the last week

Our fun began when we noticed how rough the car was starting, despite being plugged in. Let me offer an explanation for my southern friends and followers: “Plugging in a vehicle” actually means plugging in a heater of some sort — usually an engine block heater — which gobbles up electricity in order to attempt to keep the vehicle “warm.” I know I’m overusing “quotes” and I don’t care! “Warm” is a relative thing. When it’s well below zero, the oil which is meant to lubricate the engine and allow it to turn freely and not grind itself into pieces gets really thick. When it’s -40C, it’s most jello than liquid. This makes the engine very slow to turn over and your battery has to work extra hard to get it to turn over enough times to start. it’s a blast, really, to count how many times the engine will roll over before starting — I think the record for my car is 12 times. But it started! So, back to the story.

It was about -25C or so, and although the car had been plugged in, it sounded really rough starting. This led us to think there might be something wrong with the block heater. The obvious weak points are the power cord, plug in, and extension cord, but these all checked out fine. Since my husband is such a snazzy, smart guy, he tested the resistance in the circuit — seemed fine, but this isn’t an indicator of power flowing, just that there is no clear break in it somewhere. A further test was needed, to check how much current was flowing. I helped by holding ends of wires from the multimeter (a device for testing circuits) to the extension cord end and the block heater plug… not the kind of thing you should EVER try to do if you don’t know what you’re doing! Suffice it to say, we discovered that the block heater must be dead.

Drat. Well, what can you do? Start finding out how to get a new one, or look into buying an oil pan heater instead. Oil pan heaters are easier to install than block heaters, and apparently work just as well, or even better, since they heat the oil directly and keep it from becoming jello. Mmmm! 10W-30 jello, my favourite! (Just kidding!)

Long story somewhat shortened, we couldn’t get one very easily. We would have had to buy it over the phone from Yellowknife and get it shipped in by plane, or get a friend in High Level to buy one and then find someone driving north who could bring it. We brainstormed what to do… and then I remembered that I have a buddy heater! It had belonged to Peace Air, before they went out of business, and it’s a great little heater. Pilots put these heaters inside the engine cowlings on planes to keep the engines warm, and they produce quite a bit of heat for their size — not as intense as a hair dryer, but not far off. The best part of all is that they are meant to operate outside, for hours, unsupervised. Perfect.

So, the trick was to figure out how to get the heat to the engine. We quickly figured it would work pretty slick to slide the heater under the car and put cardboard around the bottom of the car to keep the heat in. Well, when we got to it, we ended up making use of the plentiful firewood and piling snow around the car on the sides. We tried to position the heater directly under the oil pan, and considering that the it’s not quite as cold out (only -25C) and there isn’t much space below the car to heat, I think it’s going to work!

So, that’s just one of many adventures we had over the Christmas season! The others involve repairing a block heater plug in -25C (wearing gloves as much as possible!), a malfunctioning defrost heater (or any sort of internal heat), and a truck that wouldn’t start. It might be the starter solenoid, or the starter, or maybe it just couldn’t face the -40’s.


This blog post is dedicated to my friend Jim, and ALL the men and women who maintain our winter roads — grader operators, plow truck drivers, sanding truck drivers, and all the other operators! You rock. I know you work hard to keep our roads passable, and believe me, we “regular motorists” appreciate it! Take care out there.


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I’ve been back from China for about 6 days now, and although the jet lag is over, the desire to share all I experienced lingers strongly. It’s hard to get a handle on it, and put words to the many things I saw. I should have kept a diary — it’s quite a blur now, and I’m afraid I’m forgetting some impressions and insights already. Looking at the photos is bringing some things back, though!

Intricate crafstmanship on anything ancient; this is a fountain in the courtyard at the Lama Temple.

Land of Paradoxes
Beijing struck me as a city of paradoxes: modern alongside ancient, narrow back streets leading to wide, fast-flowing freeways, thousands of bicycles and a few double-decked buses, modern, fashionable people and wrinkly elders, wonderfully fresh food and plastic packaging, skyscrapers and little green parks, miles and miles of hedges along the highway meridians. The only thing with no paradox is people everywhere! There are people performing jobs that we would never think of in Canada, such as bathroom attendant and freeway-edge landscapers, and a lot more garbage-pickers than we have. It seems to me that the combination of the communist government and huge population means that they can get an awful lot done in a short period of time — like building a subway — by mobilizing all those people.

Communism and capitalism collide in China. Or perhaps I should say “co-exist.” While the government is communist, which involves controlling the people and industry, the country is also capitalist. It’s kind of strange. Or not… there are glossy shopping centres, malls, restaurants, you-name-it, just like you might see in any city in North America. The air quality is very poor; reports from before the Olympics were not exaggerated. The picture above shows the International Terminal building, just before our plane landed, and the sky was orange. Not to be judgmental; The biggest Canadian cities, with one-fifth the number of people living in them, have their share of smog too – only everyone in Beijing calls it “fog.” There’s no question it’s not fog – the relative humidity was nowhere near 100%. And there was a yellow dust on all the parked cars in the mornings!

I mentioned the subway… here’s a picture of the new subway, built for the

New Beijing subway

Olympics. It’s pretty snazzy, with glass all along the subway tunnel, to prevent people from jumping (or falling) in front of the train. Sounds good, doesn’t it? Well, they didn’t account for the crowds and pushing, because people have died when they were pushed so much and caught between those double-doors. Both sets close, train starts moving… it’s not pretty. I thought maybe they had sensors installed so the train couldn’t move if there was anyone trapped, but our Beijing friends said nope, they didn’t think of that. Or maybe just thought it would never happen. There was one occasion when we were the last people to try and squish on a train, so we decided to wait for the next one. It was equally crowded, but at least we were first to get on.

In addition to parking lots for cars, there were bicycle parking areas too! I didn’t see any underground parkades, nor did I see any above ground parkades. I guess they don’t need them yet; owning a vehicle is expensive, and the average person simply can’t afford one. Foreigners with good jobs probably could, but then they’d have to get a Beijing driver’s license… a daunting thought! Lots of people take cabs, public transit, walk or ride bicycles, or a variation on a bicycle! I saw quite a few converted into a cart with lots of cargo tied on, and I also saw strange three-wheeled trucks, with one in the front and two and an almost-normal box in the back. Narrower, maybe. There were a few different mini-vans, some narrower than ours, and not even one single pick-up truck. 🙂

View from the 23rd floor, towards a shopping centre