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  • Ken Ilgunas

Dealing with the cold

Last night it got down to 10˚ F, which is freakishly cold for North Carolina, even in winter. After a late night in the library, I ran to my van, stripped off my clothes and put on a set of expedition-rated thermals, a pair of sweatpants, a long tee shirt, two pairs of socks, a hat, gloves, and a coat. After thawing in my sleeping bag for fifteen minutes, I fell into a deep, coma-like slumber and didn’t wake up for another eight hours.

Dealing with the cold was something that crossed my mind before I decided to live in a van. I was accepted to another school in Connecticut and for one among several reasons I chose North Carolina because I thought their mild winters would make vandwelling possible.

I’ve always had a tolerance, even a predilection for the cold. When I was an adolescent my neighborhood nicknamed me “mountain man.” During our winter street hockey games, I’d wear nothing more than a tee-shirt and obscenely low biking shorts, which, unbeknownst to them, interchangeably served as a pair of boxers. Years later, I joined the prestigious ranks of the Polar Bear Club, when I jumped into an icy Lake Ontario in February.

January, which is North Carolina’s coldest month, has an average low of a balmy 28˚ F. Having lived in Coldfoot, Alaska–located 60 miles north of the Arctic Circle–I had experience enough to know that I could bear anything the mild North Carolinian winter could throw at me.

At Coldfoot, I was a tour guide in the summer and a cook/cleaner during the winter. There were also a few occasions when the Japanese tourists visited when I had the good fortune to be an "Aurora Guide."

Sometimes–even at temperatures as low as 40˚ below–I was out there for hours at a time, lying in the snow, staring into the starry heavens, waiting for a visual display that most people would–in any other circumstance–have to dish out good money on hard narcotics to experience.

And then it would slowly creep over the mountains, forming a pale green band that stretched from one end of the sky to the other. And then several parallel bands stretched across the sky, as if the firmament—suffering from a momentary inferiority complex—decided to give itself a celestial comb-over.

Some nights that was the most the sky would offer; other nights there was much more. Those pale green bands would erupt in an polychromatic explosion unleashing torrents of red, pink, purple and blue that swooped, twisted and curled like a writhing apparition. Sometimes it blew like sand over the ridge of a dune or thick round pulses squeezed along the bands like a python digesting a rabbit.

Having conducted these aurora tours, there was no question about whether I could handle a cold night in the van. When I woke up the other day, I noticed that the water in my nalgene was frozen solid and that my bananas went from tropical yellow to frost-bitten black. I, however, was fine.

According to a few sources, a gas bill in this area can get up to about $200/month. For me, unless you want to include my $40 sleeping bag, it costs nothing. Today, for most, it’s unfathomable to live without some sort of technological heat source. But what’s the norm today–like most things–is exceedingly bizarre in relation to the rest of human history.

Because of modern conveniences, weather is something we talk about more than we experience; and I am by no means an exception. I remember before I guided aurora trips, I saw the aurora for no more than a minute at a time, always electing to stay in my warm bed and cozy room, probably reading an uninspiring book while a mind-blowing natural spectacle unraveled outside. Oftentimes our predilection for comfort supersedes all else. In foregoing struggle, pain, or, in this case, the cold, we’ve probably missed more “auroras” than we want to know about.


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