Steese Highway en route to Eagle Summit

I enjoyed Scott Shaffer’s “A Look Back” article last week as he recalled the Randolph County (Indiana) severe blizzard of Jan. 17, 1978.

He highlighted the unselfish determination of Union City’s fire chief and crew who partnered with local snowmobilers to haul grub to workers stranded at a Westinghouse plant. 

“We may complain about how bad the weather is from time to time, but when things truly get bad, it often brings out the best in us as we band together to get through the storms of life,” the article concluded.

My Polish grandfather operated a family farm in western New York. He regaled me with tales of storms so bad that he tied a long, spliced clothesline around his waist to trek from farmhouse to barn to do his duties. 

As a magazine writer always on the road in the 1970s and early ’80s, I made it through some harsh winter storms. One winter evening, a photographer and I returned from San Francisco to head east on the infamous 7,088-foot Donner Summit, the place where the doomed 1846-47 Donner Party died from cold and hunger. All at once, in a snowfall that made me put on tire chains, the windshield wipers on my mini-Nissan went kaput past midnight. 

Bob-the-picture-taker, a former college basketball player who stood 6 feet, 9 inches, rolled the passenger window down, repeatedly using a long arm to scrape falling snow. I leaned over the center gearshift to navigate perilous Interstate 80, steering via the passenger side of the windshield. But we survived.

Here in Fairbanks, Alaska, as you may have heard on the nightly news, we’re experiencing a brutal and lengthy cold freeze with temperatures nearly always at minus 25 on down to minus 45. 

Hank Nuwer with his dog Rover and Grandpa Josef; Alden, New Yprk, 1949

As this column comes out on Feb. 1, Fairbanks is expected to hit minus 49. My wife Gosia and I have bailed each other out of breakdowns by our Jeep and Chevy van, but we are gritty cusses and overcame each trial. 

As a proofreader, I help out a farmer who edits a monthly Alaska outdoor magazine. The February issue will get to readers three days late because he worked night and day to keep his barnyard animals alive.  

Also, you might recall reading how Gosia and I celebrated our Christmas holiday on a clear, snowless afternoon by driving out to Eagle Summit on the lightly traveled Steese Highway to enjoy the breathtaking views. Hence, we were saddened to learn that on Jan. 3, a local couple in their 50s went off the road on that summit and froze to death in their car. At least one driver said he passed that doomed couple but decided not to stop. I have no words for that sin of omission.

Last Saturday, in the darkness of 8:45 a.m., Gosia dropped me at the University of Alaska for filming a movie I’m in as an actor. At one campus entrance is a temperature sign. Three carloads of college students wearing practically zilch snapped selfies with minus 45 flashing next to them. 

Naturally, I grumbled something about the foolishness of youth. My wife cut me off. She reminded me that I’ve tried skydiving, rodeo bull riding and a racecar drive-a-long.

“If you were their age, you’d be out there right with ’em,” she said.

Don’t you just hate it when your significant other is right?

Stay warm, friends and neighbors. I’ll be anxiously waiting with you for Puxsutawney Phil’s prediction.

Gosia Nuwer using pellet stove