Maine closed out January 2004 as one of the coldest months in its history. According to Mike Anderson's Sokokis Weather Station in North Sebago, the temperature never got above freezing for 25 days in January. The nights were bitterly cold, well below zero cold, for most of the month. The average temperature was 15 degrees, making this the sixth coldest January in Maine on record.
We're not talking "put another sweater on" cold, or "button up your jacket" cold. It was a bitter, biting cold that chilled you through to the bone. And that was if there was no wind blowing! Wind chills in the double minus digits were the rule all month, and white patches of frostbite developed on exposed skin in minutes if you weren't careful.
Sebago friends Kim and her husband went snowmobiling in Houlton during the worst of it. Back in the warmth of her kitchen she said that despite their insulated boots and helmets, electric gloves and handlebar warmers, it wasn't enough to combat the -42o F wind chill during their rides. The speed of their machines racing through the bitterly cold nights made it even worse! "There was a little patch of bare skin on my cheek, and I started to get frostbite after only riding a short while. Of course if you add 55 mph speeds on the sled to the -42 wind chill it was really cold!"
It got so cold on a few days that several Maine ski areas closed their lifts because of the extreme wind chill! The cold has noticeably reduced the number of skiers on the slopes. It has been a boon to ice skaters, however.
Robert Service, in his "Ballad of Blasphemous Bill" talked about the Yukon in the dead of winter:
...And the careless feel of a bit of steel burns like a red-hot spit...
Sure, I can understand winter is supposed to be cold in the Yukon, but in Maine? I was out cross-country skiing on the little miserable skim of snow we have in the woods, and the trees at night were a chorus of groans and loud cracks as their sap froze and the wood split from the cold. The evening cold crept into my layers of clothing as if they weren't there. Cross country skiing usually generates enough body heat that a down vest, jeans, woolen toque, and light unlined leather gloves are enough for an outing. I've had to add poly long johns, a parka, scarf and ski gloves to keep warm while skiing in January. At the open spots when the wind blew hard and cold across the fields it still wasn't isn't enough!
Area fire departments had one structure fire after another to contend with during the worst of it, as homeowners tried to keep warm and their woodstoves and furnaces failed under the strain. The newspapers have been full of stories of fires with pictures of frozen fire fighters from one end of the state to the other. It was -23o F on the thermometer during one bad structure fire in Standish . Sebago was toned out on the second alarm to help at 2 a.m. in the morning. Fighting it was an icy nightmare. Hoses, pumps, and firefighters froze up and everything was sheathed in ice like something out of "Dr. Zhivago". Sebago fire fighters and Engine 4 were part of the attack force and three of us ran a water shuttle with our two tankers. We hauled water from a nearby fill site to the dump tanks at the fire scene that fed the pumps and hoses fighting the fire. We had to use torches to thaw out the valves to dump water, and again to thaw out the valve to fill the tanker up at the fill site. The thick, insulated turnout gear kept me warm, but my gear was coated with ice and my feet and hands were like blocks of ice. Those that discarded their wet and icy leather gloves to try and work the valves with their bare hands only did it once.
Christina G. Rosetti's must have been thinking of a Maine January when she wrote these words in her 1872 hymn "In The Bleak Midwinter" :
frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
water like a stone...
If the cold weren't enough, January 2004 is now in the record books for the driest January since 1871 when the weather bureau started keeping records. We have had only 2.8 inches of snow all month. Without an insulating blanket of snow, the frost has gone deep into the ground, freezing water lines and septic systems and coagulating the oil in fuel lines from outside oil tanks.
The oil delivery trucks have been working overtime, and the Governor declared a state of emergency to allow drivers to waive the on road hour limit rules. The gas company service people and local plumbers and contractors have been working full time to thaw out frozen pipes and homes where furnaces have quit or the frost line has gone below where water pipes are buried. My cousin-in-law works one of the auto emergency desks at AAA in Portland and he said that they handled a record number of distress calls during January from stranded motorists whose cars wouldn't start in the cold. Auto tow services have been working overtime.
As I survey the firewood stacked in our cellar and do a quick mental calculation on how long the wood will last, it looks like the wood is going to run out before the winter does. Thankfully we have an oil furnace as well as the wood furnace, so it is not a crisis. For others in the state however this cold January has been an extreme trial.
So why do we put up with it? Why doesn't the State of Maine empty in January and everyone head to Florida and Arizona with the rest of the snowbirds? Then we could all delight in watching the cold weather freezing Maine on the nightly news while we sit around in shorts and Hawaiian shirts!
There are a lot of snowbird "wannabe's" I suspect, who hunker down next to their woodstove and watch these cold days through their window while they also watch for the oil truck to make another delivery. But most Mainers go about their regular activities outdoors and cope as best they can.
For those who choose to go out and function in the coldest weather it is more a case of putting up with and getting the best of a tough situation. Many folks don't have a choice about fleeing to a warmer climate. Their jobs, family, and school ties them to Maine in January, and they just do enough to get through it all until warmer weather comes and the temperature climbs above freezing! If people have to work outside, like the loggers in the woods, the tow truck drivers and oil truck delivery folks, offshore fishermen or fire fighters, they learn the tricks of staying warm and getting their jobs done as best they can.
There are also those who look forward to the bitter cold as a chance to test their character. The crunch of snow underfoot in the extreme cold is exhilarating. The pinch as nostril hairs turn to ice breathing in the sharp frigid air has to be experienced to be understood. Your senses are never more alive, and these days and nights in January are to be treasured. The cold is a personal challenge, a sort of test that Mother Nature provides to see what we are made of. It isn't that often that we are really tested to the core of our souls by life these days. If we pass the January test of bitter cold we have proven something to ourselves about self-reliance and resourcefulness. Something we can brag about to each other.
As we head into February with temperatures now climbing above freezing we can all congratulate ourselves as survivors, regardless of our motivation! Take that, you snow birds!
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Last updated March 15, 2002
Copyright © 2002, Allen Crabtree
Copyright © 2002, Allen Crabtree