Excerpt: 'COLD: Adventures in the World's Frozen Places' by Bill Streever

But even in summer, the weather resides well south of balmy. A chill gust runs through me as I stand shirtless on the water's edge, wearing nothing but swimming shorts in the wind and rain. "The only way to do this," I tell my companion, "is with a single plunge. No hesitation." I go in headfirst. The water temperature is thirty-five degrees. I come up gasping. I stand on a sandy bottom, immersed to my neck. The water stings, as if I am rolling naked through a field of nettles. I wait for the gasp reflex to subside. My skin tightens around my body. My brain -- part of it that I cannot control -- has sent word to the capillaries in my extremities. "Clamp down," my brain has commanded, "and conserve heat." I feel as if I am being shrink-wrapped, like a slab of salmon just before it is tossed into the Deep Freeze.

My companion, standing on the beach, tells me that I have been in the water for one minute. My toes are now numb.

Time passes slowly in water of this temperature. I think of the ground, permanently frozen in this region to a depth of eighteen hundred feet. I think about hypothermia, about death and near death from cold. I think of overwintering animals. I think of frozen machinery with oil as thick as tar and steel turned brittle by cold. I think of the magic of absolute zero, when molecular motion stops.

After two minutes, I can talk in a more or less normal tone. But there is little to discuss. There is, just now, almost no common ground between me and my companion, standing on the beach. I feel more akin to the German soldiers whose troop carrier foundered, dumping them into Norwegian coastal waters in 1940. Seventy-nine men did what they could to stay afloat in thirty-five-degree water. All were pulled alive from the water, but the ones who stripped off their clothes to swim perished on the rescue boat. Suffering more from hypothermia than those who had the sense to stay clothed, they succumbed to what has been called "afterdrop" and "rewarming shock." Out of the water, they reportedly felt well and were quite able to discuss their experience. But as the cold blood from their extremities found its way to their hearts, one after another they stopped talking, relaxed in their bunks, and died.

"Three minutes," my companion tells me.

I am a victim of physics. My body temperature is moving toward a state of equilibrium with this water, yielding to the second law of thermodynamics. I shiver.

Several hundred miles southwest of here, six days before Christmas in 1741, the Dutch navigator Vitus Bering, employed by Russia, lay down in the sand and died of scurvy and exposure, while his men, also immobilized by scurvy, cold, and fear, became food for arctic foxes. Some accounts hold that Bering spent his last moments listening to the screams and moans of his dying men. The Bering Sea, separating Russia and Alaska, was named for him, and the island where he died, nestled on the international date line, is known today as Bering Island.

Northeast of here, in 1883, Adolphus Greely led twenty-five Ve men to the Arctic, stopping at Ellesmere Island. For most of them, the trip was a slow death that combined starvation, frostbite, and hypothermia. Greely himself, with five others, survived. He eventually took charge of what would become the National Weather Service, where he failed to predict a blizzard in which several hundred people died from frostbite and hypothermia. Many of the dead were schoolchildren.

Join the Discussion
blog comments powered by Disqus
You Might Also Like...