What Cold Feels Like

Winter is feeling like a slow, gory death by confinement. Imagine a can of worms. Now imagine the worms on steroids. Now imagine the worms on steroids doing cartwheels and backflips in a weightless environment. Finally, imagine that weightless environment full of ricocheting worms on steroids is the interior of a skull. That is my brain in January.

Under these circumstances, and given the five weeks of below-seasonable weather, it seems fitting to explain to my beleaguered southern and overseas friends What Cold Feels Like.

I go outside in the night, and there is no cloud cover to hold in the slightest scrap of heat. The stars are like ice chips, and the black sky itself seems to have solidified overhead. I am wearing an undershirt, a T-shirt, a hooded sweater, and a heavy winter jacket. I also have three layers on my legs. I’ve stolen My Love’s winter work boots, which have insulated liners and come up to my knees. His farm coat hangs down to meet them. I have on a toque (woolen hat, pronounced suspiciously like “puke”) that can be unrolled into a burglar-like ski mask if needed. My sweater hood is up, and so is the hood on the coat. The air bites my face.

I am dressed like this because out in the shack behind the house, the outdoor coal furnace has quit again.

In the daytime, at higher temperatures and with a bit of humidity to lay on some hoarfrost, this quaint and rustic little shack looks almost idyllic, in a white-trash sort of way. But inside it is the most vital piece of machinery on the yardsite at this time of year. It’s a coal furnace with a water system that runs underground to the house. The furnace heats the water. The pipes run to radiators, and also to the hydronic heating we installed in the floor when we redid the concrete in our basement.

Out in that idyllic little shed is an old fuse box that keeps cutting out. Twice this week, the power in the shed has gone down. Since it’s been hovering down towards -40, we run the risk of having the water freeze at the outdoor end of the system. Second-worst case scenario, the water jacket or the above-ground portion of the pipes could rupture. Total worst case, the pipes rupture just below ground, nicely out of sight. Hopefully we could prevent that, since the water circulates into the house where we do have forced-air heat for backup, but we’d rather not find out.

So, tonight, I check that the fan and the coal auger are still running, feeding the fire. I step back out and look up at the wheel of stars, which has stopped turning in the solid-black sky, explaining why this feels like a never-ending winter.

I wrinkle my nose. This is how I tell whether it’s truly cold or not. If, thirty seconds after stepping outside, my nose does not unwrinkle without muscle slowness, it’s truly cold. Tonight, it took a few minutes. It’s only -30C. Not there yet.

The air makes my face tingle again as I walk back to the house. It prickles my knees. The snow crunches and squeaks underfoot, and I smile as my breath crystallizes in front of me. Holed up in the house, a person forgets what cold feels like… refreshing.

Nonetheless, I’m still going back in.