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.

The Big Thaw

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Spring is finally here. I know, it’s April, so you think I wrote this a month ago, but no, I didn’t. It’s been a cool spring — just what the Farmer’s Almanac said it would be, apparently — but it is really starting to get nice out now.*

As temperatures rise, one’s mind wanders to things of spring… the birds and the bees… snow transforming into mud puddles in that miraculous way it does each year… waxing poetical in blog posts…

Guess which one is the male? 🙂

Seriously, let’s talk about the birds and the bees. If you are teaching your children about them, are you really talking about how the males chase the females around, and how the males have all the pretty plumage (generally) to attract the females. The females choose their mate, according to the experts, by the colour of their feathers and display the males make. Some birds, mind you, mate for life, but I suppose the initial selection is done by plumage. And then what do you say when little Suzie asks “Mommy, what’s ‘mating?'” 😛

What about the bees? How would you explain to your child that the female bee has thousands of slave drone bees — all male — in her service? Their job is to collect food for the colony, and in particular, for her. She lays hundreds of eggs in time, all thanks to her slaves. I wonder if that’s why some little girls are “princesses…” They are practicing to be queens.

Hmm… I’m not sure how that all relates to men and women, culture and reproduction. You’ll have to excuse me; clearly, I’m feeling cheeky today! So, are men supposed to dance around and impress the women, in particular with their fancy clothes and groovy moves, as it is the world of birds? The female birds do the judging by appearances, contrary to our society where it is the males. I would love to see that reversed — it would be hilarious to see men primping in front of mirrors, painting their faces and wearing flashy clothes to get the attention of the women!

As for the bees, I don’t see how that would ever work. Thousands of men, working for one woman, without ever a hope of getting any, ahem, action with her… I just can’t see that working. Maybe, if they can keep a hope that they might be the chosen one…

Even though we joke about spring being the time for reproduction, it’s interesting to note that most children are conceived in the fall, when temperatures drop and men and women everywhere huddle together for warmth. Spring is the time we shed clothes and let our skin feel the sun, which I suppose leads to other sorts of activities of the huddling variety.

So there you go. Spring is in the air! Be careful, folks.

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By the way, I have seen some new birds around — another sure sign of spring! A woodpecker flew by the window (I didn’t get a really good look at him to say what kind), and I saw a small flock of cedar waxwings last time I went snowshoeing. 🙂 There are also lots of snow buntings.

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*After writing this, it has snowed, rained, sleeted, the wind started howling, and the snow is now coming down sideways. Oh, well. Maybe we’ll just skip spring and go straight to summer…

Writing in the Snow

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A little small-town story… A friend of mine came home from running errands today and saw that someone had stopped by while she was out. Rather than leaving her a note, or calling her and leaving a message, they bent down and wrote in the snow with their finger: “Hi Mary! Work tomorrow?” They might have written more, but that was all the room they had on her front step!

So what does the message mean? Like archaeologists with a partial stone tablet, we spent quite a while tonight analyzing it. We determined that to understand the message content, we needed to know who the writer was. If only he or she had signed the note, Mary would know if it was her boss asking her if she can work tomorrow, or if it’s a friend wondering if she will have time to get together for a coffee! The writer could have left initials; instead we are left with rudimentary boot-print analysis! A quick survey of the neighbour next door revealed it wasn’t her… perhaps she had seen someone stooping to scribble? No. Alas, the mystery will be solved, I’m sure, if Mary’s co-worker stops by to pick her up tomorrow morning or if someone else fesses up to the snow graffiti. It’s a good thing it wasn’t snowing any more, or blowing either — that message wouldn’t have lasted long yesterday!

Only in small-town Canada… when you’re out of paper, or can’t find a phone, you can always resort to the Canadian message board — a snowy deck! (Please write with fingers.)

Enjoy the snow, everyone! We’ll be in it for a while now…  🙂

Snow, Waves, and the Collective Consciousness

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I went cross-country skiing today, for the first time this winter! It’s just been so cold, and combined with my crazy schedule and whatnot, this is the first chance I’ve had to go. It was great! It was so mild out, only about -5, and the trail was nice and all the trees draped in snow looked beautiful. I am so amazed at how snow, which is made of frozen water, can look so much like a liquid! On the edges of roofs, it flows off and hangs like a frozen wave… on the trees, it clumps in such interesting shapes, it looks like the snow is splashing! It’s hard to describe! I am going to have to take my camera next time, and get some photos of the snow on the trees, the trees bent over under the weight of the snow, and the snow clinging to branches of poplar and evergreens alike.

There’s this paradox of nature that thing that are essentially particles–independent like snow flakes–can take on the appearance and even characteristics of waves, behaving like a liquid. It reminds me of physics, where I learned that elementary particles like electrons behave like waves much of the time, and so they are said to have wave-particle duality–indeed, a dual nature. So, as I skied along the trail, I got to thinking about other things that seem to be separate, but are also connected, or fluid. Like people.

I am my own person. I am responsible for my own actions, and no one else’s. I am responsible for my own thoughts, and what those thoughts create, either by way of my mood, attitude, opinions, as well as more concrete things in my life, like what job I have or where I live. In these ways, I am separate from those around me. Yet, with close friends and loved ones, I am in harmony, not separate. I have so much in common with them and although I don’t have any psychic abilities, we seem to read each others’ minds. On a much larger scale, I’ve read about the collective mind or consciousness–where a large group of people share attitudes and are somehow linked. For example, in the tropical paradise of Hawai’i, everyone is miserable! They have collectively decided to ignore their idyllic surroundings and instead focus on things which add to their unhappiness. The mood was quite palpable, and like I said, I’m not psychic, just observant (when I want to be).

When I first read about the collective consciousness, I found it hard to believe. I’m a scientist, after all, and this phenomenon can’t be measured, at least not measured and displayed on an oscilloscope. 🙂 But, yet, when you look at the US, and the aftermath of 9/11, it’s pretty plain to see that the entire country has adopted a fear-based thought pattern, mixed with revenge, and it’s also pretty clear to see the result. Anxiety, pain, paranoia, violence, disease, and more things to be afraid of! Now, I think the collective consciousness is amplified by the mass media, and that abstaining from any media, as I do from time to time, really helps cushion one from the effects. But, I have lived in a few places in Canada (and wasn’t much of a TV watcher then either), and I have noticed a different “feel in the air” in each place I go.

So what we, as particle-like people, think and do affects absolutely everyone around us. It’s practical; if some people litter, soon everyone’s doing it. It’s mystical; the consciousness of a population practicing Christianity is different from that of Eastern religions. It’s amazing; we aren’t very different from lemmings at all!

Take care everybody!