Tuesday, 16 December 2008

The Weather Outside is Unfit for Cheechakos

It’s officially winter. This, of course, is all relative, depending on where you live. The current temperature is -21C, but with the wind chill it “feels like -31C.” Our overnight is supposed to be -30C. It’s warmer today than it was yesterday, mind you, when the daytime high was -27C - like somewhere else last week!

I bought a new ice scraper today, as my old one is really dull and worn, which just makes an unpleasant job that much worse. Fighting to scrape ice coated windows and getting nowhere is frustrating, tiring and takes longer than it needs to. I decided it would be a(nother) Christmas present to myself (thanks mum!), so picked a fancy one with an extendable arm, a squeegee/brush head and a really nice ergonomic handle. With the amount of scraping we do here – often twice a day – you need a decent scraper that will last at least two winters and that’s comfortable to use. It’s amazing how pleasing a new thing like that can be!

Last week, after my shift at the hotel, I noticed the cook spraying stuff on his windshield, so I asked what it was. “De-icer,” he said. You spray it on, leave it a bit, then turn your wipers on and voila! I’ve never seen it before, so while I was shopping today, I had a look for it. Handily, they have it right beside the scrapers, and there are several different kinds. The kind I picked needs a cold start, so I have to remember NOT to start the truck for warming prior to scraping. You leave it about 30 seconds (it claims to work to
-40C) and then just squeegee it off. I’m looking forward to trying it tomorrow morning, but I need to ensure I read the instructions properly first.

Living in the North incurs a whole new series of habits and costs. When I first moved up here I was, in Northern lingo, what they call a “Cheechako.”

A cheechako is a person who is a
tenderfoot, a newbie -- the term dates from the Klondike Gold Rush of the 1850s in Alaska and the Yukon. Daniel Pinkwater quotes a friend living in Alaska as saying the word is an Upik pronunciation of "Chicago," but I can find no confirmation of this, and in fact a web site I found explains the word as "combining the Chinook Indian word 'chee,' meaning new, fresh, or just now, with the Nootka Indian word 'chako,' which means to come, to approach, or to become."

But whatever the source, the new people coming up from points further
south, inexperienced in mining or surviving Alaskan winters, were called "cheechakos," and the word found its way into the works of Jack London and Robert Service, and it's still used in the area to describe newcomers. (It also seems to be used as a name for stores and tour companies.) After a certain amount or time or experience, one becomes a "sourdough."

You become Sourdough after a year. The term derives, again, from the Gold Rush era when the experienced Rushers learned to keep a starter of sourdough close to their body, ready to use in case they needed something to eat.

The Cheechako year is supposed to be the one where you gain all – or a lot – of the experience you need to live comfortably in the North. It’s taken me a bit longer than that (I don’t listen very well…), but I’m getting there.

I’ve learned many things:

1) Always have a full tank of oil at home. For this, you need cash (here, it’s a min. $400). It gets cold without oil. If you run out of oil, diesel will do the same job until the delivery can be made. How about that? People seemed surprised that I didn’t know this when I ran out (twice!) last year. Approx 8 month cost: $4000.00 (assuming $700 every six weeks, Oct – May)

2) Winterize your car! You will be grateful you spent the $150 to put in a battery blanket, block heater and oil pan heater. I bought the items at the auto parts store and then had them professionally installed. A garage is nice, too, but if you can’t afford a garage with attached house, make sure you at least have a plug in available for those extremely cold nights. One time: $300 (supplies and install)

3) Tires. Snow tires! Never mind those “all seasons” that some people swear by. Snow tires are designed for better performance in the snow and the change in temperatures (different rubber) that accompany it. They are, simply, safer. I had studs added to mine, but I think the next set I get will be Blizzaks. These are apparently some of the best winter tires on the market these days. Fairly pricey, but well worth it. Approx cost: $400 - $500 for 4 tires (mine are small).

4) Products like fuel line antifreeze, winter wipers, winter windshield fluid, and antifreeze (make sure it’s pet friendly!!) are the “little things” that can make a big difference to your comfort and safety in a car. Most are relatively inexpensive, and the fuel line antifreeze, for instance, comes in 6-packs, which can last the winter. Approx cost over 8 months: $100.

5) Emergency kit. This consists of many life-saving items like space-blankets (the shiny silver ones), candles, traction mats, gloves, flares, shovel, hand saw, axe/hatchet, etc. I took a winter driving course several weeks ago and actually went out and bought a few things necessary to start a kit. I never travel out of town in the winter – mainly because I’m particularly aware of the limitations of my vehicle – but it never hurts to be prepared! Approx cost: $250.

6) Winter tune-up. I neglected mine this year, but will definitely be taking wee truck in for service in the spring. It’s vital to make sure brakes, exhaust system, engine, etc. are working properly and to fix anything that needs to be replaced. Cost: varies, $250?

7) Clothing. This is pretty obvious, even to the uninitiated (me). Boots, gloves, coats, hats and scarves all help to keep heat in, but the real key to staying warm and comfortable is layering. Wool (not the older heavy stuff, the new, thin & light garments) and fleece are ideal. Think of yourself like an onion: a layer to wick the moisture from your body keeps you dry, a layer or two to keep the heat in keeps you warm, and an outside layer keeps the wind at bay. Of course there’s clothing for everything that you do: skiing, snowboarding, walking, hiking, sledding, general use, driving…My dream parka, for example, costs $600, but I would honestly never have to buy another one in my life. The one I got for $150 last year, though, is just fine. Buy the best you can afford, so that it lasts and is useable for many years. Cost for clothing: $1500 minimum for good quality, basic stuff that will keep you WARM!

8) Always have a full gas tank! This isn’t so important in a more southerly place, but in the North it’s not uncommon to let your vehicle run for prolonged periods of time. It’s so totally counter-intuitive that it was the hardest thing to wrap my head around. Don’t turn off the engine, but get out of the car, lock it and walk away. Of course, don’t forget your second set of keys or you’ll end up locking yourself out on a very, very cold day.

I locked myself out of my (running) truck on a morning that was -43C. It sucked, but fortunately I had my wallet and my BCAA card with me. I had stopped at the bank to get some cash, and the woman who tailed me in actually worked there, so she let me use the phone to call for assistance. Wee truck sure was warm and toasty when I eventually got back in, though, and in all honesty, I would rather she be running at -43C than not! I learned to keep one set of keys in each coat pocket.

Living in the North is not cheap. We pay more for food, gas, heating, everything. Eight months of winter and $200+ monthly electrical bills can play havoc on a budget, even a tight one. I’m keeping the heat as low as comfortable this year and using a fleece to stave off the worst of it – I’ve got all the thermostats set at 15C, and I’m finding it warm enough so far. I’ve got baseboard heating, one of the most expensive types, so I don’t want to make the same mistake as I did last year and crank it up to 24C or something sub-tropical like that. Mind you, when it was -44C for three weeks in January, it was nice to come home to a toasty apartment. Then I got my $350 electrical bill. Ouch!

But on the up side, the colder it is, the better and brighter and more beautiful the Northern Lights. In December 2006, during my first winter and just before Christmas, there was a jaw-dropping display. The sky was literally filled with lights, falling, dancing and running across the sky. I probably watched them for an hour. Phenomenal. Man cannot even dream of coming close to matching that beauty.

It’s not really a budget entry, and it’s kind of long, but just thought it might be interesting to cover some winter costs of us Yukoners.


An ostrich named Sam said...

I really like what you have to say abut living up North. Kudos to you for doing so!

Saver Queen said...

I loved reading this article - gives me an idea of what it's like! i love hearing about this stuff. thanks!

paradigmshifted said...

whew. i'm cold just reading that. :) i'm heading off to the cold in march, though it will be starting to warm up when i get there. then it's a balmy 15C for a few months, until it cranks up to super hot (yay continental climate) before coming back down to some negative temps. hooray.

no need to worry about a car, luckily, but i'm concerned about hot water in the house!

Moving on up! said...

Dang! That's cold. In Colorado, it was -19F and I thought that was painful!

Christine said...

Um, okay... it is toooooo freakin cold in your area!!!! I am whining about our sunny 50 degrees right now and acting like a baby. lol! thanks for the great tips if I should ever need them. ;)

Frugal Dreamer said...

Brr!!! I will never take my -13 for granted! ;)

At least you are completely prepared :) Great job!!

BnJJ said...

I'm in Edmonton so not nearly as far north but do all the same things you listed except keeping oil on hand as it can get down to -40 here as well.

joshua said...

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.



dinah34 said...

i love that you live in the Yukon! It makes me feel like i have a comrade who understands cold weather. i'm in winnipeg and it's been between -35 and -45 with the windchill all week.

Canadian Saver said...

We get cold spells here on the east coast, but nothing like the 8 months of winter you guys get. I guess you get used to it?

Would love to see the northern lights though!

Sharon Rose said...

Hi there-what a fabulous insight of where you live!! I really admire you for being so prepared and happy living in such extreme weathers, good for you!! The Northern Lights sound such a fantastic experience, I've only seen it on TV. Thanks for your well wishes too!

Money Minder said...

I feel like a wimp for bitching about a -20 windchill!

It sounds like the beauty makes up for the cold temperatures and high cost of living.