Posted January 1st, 2007
Within our lifetime three characteristics that symbolize Vermont may
radically change – skiing, maple sugaring and our famous autumn
foliage. Though not nearly as
important as those three, I’d add a fourth Vermont tradition: bragging
about the coldest temperature.
A couple of years ago, Middlebury’s nationally recognized environmentalist, Bill McKibben, spoke to a standing-room-only crowd in Thetford. His presentation included the warning that within our lifetime three characteristics that symbolize Vermont may radically change – skiing, maple sugaring and our famous autumn foliage. All are susceptible to global warming. Though not nearly as important as those three, I’d add a fourth Vermont tradition: bragging about the coldest temperature.
As a grade school kid growing up on the New Hampshire side of the
Connecticut River, I vividly remember informal contests with my classmates
regarding whose thermometer had the lowest reading. I lived on a hill, so 36
below was the coldest I remember, but my friends who lived in a hollow often
did better than that. I don’t recall school being called off because of the
cold, but we may have stayed in from recess because someone likely would
have been goaded into touching the swings or the jungle gym with bare hands.
A tour of duty with the Army in Alaska bought additional cold
weather experiences. In the 1960s, Nordic ski boots were not unlike running
shoes, emphasizing low weight rather than warmth. Our racing suits were
poplin, which often froze solid with rime frost and sweat. Since gloves
specific to cross-country skiing had yet to be invented, we wore thin
handball gloves or cotton gardening gloves.
In such an outfit, I was doing pretty well in a race in Fairbanks on
a 20-below day. The course crested a tough hill and I tucked into a long,
gradual descent. Moments later in the finish area, I couldn’t feel my
fingers or toes. I eventually lost a layer of skin and several nails, but
fortunately suffered no permanent damage.
In 1970, Sven Johannson, the team’s Swedish coach, was excited about
taking a group of us to his homeland for the Biathlon World Championships in
Ostersund. Prior to the big event, we spent a few days in Lulea, not far
from the Arctic Circle. Sven had arranged an informal competition at a local
ski club, but some of my teammates resisted because of the severe cold.
International skiing and biathlon rules require that if the temperature
drops below minus 22 Celsius, (minus 4 Fahrenheit), the competition jury
must decide if it is safe to race. Occasionally, a morning start time may be
pushed back an hour or two, but rarely are Nordic skiing events canceled.
That day, years ago in Sweden, Sven feigned nearsightedness as he
studied the thermometer. Only a couple of us noticed his thumb on the ball
“You betcha, she’s a cold one,” he admitted, “but look, she’s
almost up to minus 22 already! We start in an hour!”
We stretched wool socks over our ski boots, wore leather mitts over
our handball gloves, and stuffed another sock down the front of our
knickers. Fortunately, we all survived that memorable time trial, although
several of us left a strip of skin on the trigger of our rifles, and those
who neglected the sock in their knickers rocked back and forth, tears
streaming down their cheeks, for the duration of the ride back to the hotel.
As if we hadn’t had enough cold that winter, after we returned to
Alaska in March we had orders to participate in the Top of the World Ski
Championships to be held in April in Inuvik, about 150 miles north of the
Arctic Circle in Canada’s Northwest Territories. While the rest of the
country was thinking about golf and baseball, we were racing in subzero
temperatures on snow as slow as sand, with a wind off the Arctic Ocean that
could frostbite cheeks and ear lobes in seconds.
I’m not suggesting that the agonizing ache of thawing fingers and
toes represents “the good old days,” but I will miss the informal contests
at school, the post office and the local coffee shop.
“It was 24 below out to the barn this morn’n. What’d you have at
your place, Bud?”
“Hell, when I got up, it was 10 below in my bedroom!”