Half a century after Greely's expedition, in the 1930s, the missionary ascetic Father Henry lived at Pelly Bay, in Canada's Northwest Territories, well above the Arctic Circle. By choice, he resided in an ice cellar. Indoor temperatures were well below zero. The natives would not live in an ice cellar, which was designed to keep game frozen through the short Arctic summer. It was the antithesis of a shelter, analogous to living in a shower stall to avoid the rain. Father Henry believed that it focused his mind on higher matters. Almost certainly, some of the natives believed that Father Henry was mad.
"Four minutes," my companion calls. The stinging in the skin of my thighs has turned to a burning pain. Frostbite is not a real possibility at this temperature, and true hypothermia is at least ten minutes in the future. What I feel is no more than the discomfort of cold.
Frogs are not found this far north, but at their northernmost limit, five hundred miles from here, they overwinter in a frozen state, amphibian Popsicles in the mud. Frogsicles. But caterpillars are found near here. I sometimes see them crawling across the tundra, feeding on low-growing plants. They freeze solid in winter, then thaw out in spring to resume foraging between clumps of snow. They are especially fond of the diminutive willows that grow in the Arctic.
Ground squirrels overwinter underground. They are related to gray and red squirrels and to chipmunks, but in appearance they are more similar to prairie dogs. In their winter tunnels, their body temperature drops to the freezing point, but they periodically break free from the torpor of hibernation, shivering for the better part of a day to warm themselves. And then they drift off again into the cold grasp of hibernation. Through winter, they cycle back and forth -- chill and shiver, chill and shiver, chill and shiver -- surviving.
Arctic soil behaves strangely around the hibernating ground squirrels. Underground, liquid water is sucked toward frozen water, forming lenses of almost pure ice. The soil expands and contracts with changing temperatures, forming geometric shapes, spitting out stones on the surface, cracking building foundations. Wooden piles cut off at ground level are heaved upward by ground ice, sadly mimicking a forest in this frozen treeless plain.
This water I stand in feels frigid, bitingly cold, but in the greater scheme of things it is not so cold. A block of dry ice -- frozen carbon dioxide -- has a surface temperature just warmer than minus 110 degrees. James Bedford has been stored in liquid nitrogen at minus 346 degrees since 1967, awaiting a cure for cancer. The surface of Pluto stands brisk at minus 369 degrees. Absolute zero is some five hundred degrees colder than the water that surrounds me.
"Five minutes," my companion tells me. I leave the water, shivering, my muscles tense. It will be two hours before I feel warm again.
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