Cold pushes life to the extremes

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By David Filipov
Globe Staff / January 25, 2011

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ATHOL — A balloon stuck with a sharp object does not pop; it deflates slowly. Hot water tossed in the air turns to steam; if any of it lands, it immediately turns to ice. Need a tack hammer? A banana will do the job.

Things change when it is minus 20 Fahrenheit. That was clear early yesterday in this Central Massachusetts town 35 miles northwest of Worcester.

With an overnight low of minus 22, Athol was at ground-less-than-zero of the boreal blast that blew in from Canada. Cars left in the cold overnight sputtered. Exposed extremities started to freeze in seconds flat. Battery-operated cameras and global positioning systems died.

At least one thing worked as advertised: a bottle of Krystal Kleer windshield wiper fluid, guaranteed to “protect to -20 F,’’ lived up to that promise, but turned to slush a couple of degrees below that.

Town Manager David Ames, 57, recalls entire months when the temperature never rose above freezing, but he could not recall the mercury falling so low. And yet, the roughly 11,500 hearty denizens of Athol did not let the cold shut down their town.

“We didn’t seem to have any hitches today,’’ Ames said. He added that the neighboring town of Orange, where the temperature was also 22 below zero, had to delay the opening of schools.

“We didn’t have that problem,’’ said Ames, though he did personally face other challenges. A horse owner, he had to start the morning cleaning the stalls, which had its share of complications. Let’s just say that at these temperatures anything liquid turns rock solid.

“I got the job done as quickly as I could,’’ he said.

Another job that had to be done was that of postal worker John Drozdowski, who has carried the mail for more than 20 years. Neither rain nor snow nor all of that. For the record, he prefers Arctic air to snow.

“Cold is bad, but nor’easters are worse,’’ he said with a smile as he filled up his truck at a Main Street gas station, pointing out that the forecast for the next two days calls for more snow. “At least right now there’s no wind. If you dress warm, you can handle it.’’

The area around Athol registered the coldest temperature in the state, said Rebecca Gould of the National Weather Service, which operates an observation station at Orange Municipal Airport, a little more than 3 miles from downtown Athol.

A reporter traveled along Route 2 from Western Massachusetts yesterday morning, in search of the coldest temperature at what is often the coldest time of day, just before dawn.

At 5 a.m. yesterday, it was minus 11 in North Adams. No orange grove could survive in Florida (Mass.), where it was minus 13. Greenfield was 6 below. But closer to Athol, the temperatures started to plummet.

The region is far enough from the coast to avoid the warming effect of the ocean, Gould said, and its elevation is low enough that denser, colder air sinks into the area.

This icy onslaught blew in from Northern Canada, where 23 below is considered balmy.

“Last weekend, we had minus 40 degrees here,’’ said Janie Hobart, mayor of Fort Smith, Northwest Territories. “After minus 40, minus 25 is wonderful. We play in this kind of weather.’’

Not that minus 40 overwhelms Fort Smith, either. Buses may not start, but school stays open, Hobart said. Fort Smithians never leave home in the winter, she said, without their toques and parkas and snow pants.

“Fashion goes out the window,’’ Hobart said. New Englanders, she added, have it rough: “Your snow is way heavier than ours.’’

For further perspective, consider the Siberian city of Yakutsk, where it averaged 40 below zero last week.

Inna Likhachyova, who works at Tour Service Centre in Yakutsk, 3,000 miles east of Moscow, tittered at the idea of 22 below.

“If you plan to come here, you will need a fur hat, fur boots, two pairs of pants,’’ she said. “It is not cold for us, but you might have a different idea of what cold is.’’

At least one Athol resident shared Siberian notions about cold. It was Joe “Potato’’ Puchalsky, 72, a retired railroad worker who remembers one Christmas “when it was 40 below.’’

“We’d be out repairing the tracks,’’ Puchalsky recalled over breakfast at Big Shorty’s Main ST Diner. “You’d start with your coat and end up with just a T shirt.’’

Added Bill Metcalf, who drives an oil truck for a living, “Winters ain’t what they used to be.’’

Outside, the sun had come up and the temperature had warmed. The balloon trick still worked, but only half of the glass of water turned to steam when thrown in the air. It was only 15 below.

“Still freezing,’’ muttered Lisa Beckwith, as she walked her son, David, 11, to a school bus stop on Main Street.

Hope was on the way. Over the day, the temperatures grew warmer.

Warm enough for us to get more snow.

David Filipov can be reached at