Fairbanks, Alaska

Stephen Trussel

Winters in Fairbanks, Alaska are among the coldest in the world, with temperatures sometimes dropping as low as -60 F. Although it doesn't snow as much as in some other parts of Alaska, the snow never gets a chance to melt, and so as the months pass, it gets deeper and deeper. That means that activities we take for granted in most places, like using a car, require special consideration.

People with electricity usually keep their cars "plugged in" all night. They have special electric heaters and pumps attached to their engines, to keep the water warm and circulating. But we live in a log cabin outside of town, so like many people in the Alaskan countryside, we have no electricity. That means we have to use different techniques.

For one thing, when we're not using the car, we take the battery into the house to keep it warm. We have a special strap to lift it up and out, and carry it in. Since our car has an air-cooled engine, there's no radiator, so we don't have to worry about the water freezing. Our problem is the frozen oil. About half an hour before we're planning to use the car, we take a small camping stove outside, and set it up directly under the oil pan of the engine. After it's been warming about 30 minutes, we bring out the battery, hook it up, and give it a try. If we're lucky, and the temperature is warm enough - say above -30, the car will cough and sputter and come to life.

Assuming we could get it started and warmed up, we're about ready to go on our way. Of course we have chains for the snow, and a heavy-duty gas heater. And we have special plastic sheets attached to the windshield to prevent it from fogging up badly. If it hasn't snowed during the night, we can usually make it from the cabin out to the road with no additional problems. Then we still have to drive awhile before the tires warm up and become round again: the part where they've been sitting on the ground all night stays frozen flat. The first mile or so feels like driving on square tires!

But if the temperature is below -30, we don't even try to use the car. Usually, if we can, we just decide to spend the day in the cabin. But if we really must get to town, we use a method more suitable to Alaska winters. We bundle up really well, strap on our cross-country skis, and head over to the river, the frozen highway of the north...