How Cold Was It Where You Were?

How cold was it at your house last weekend? The short, intense cold snap had everyone comparing notes and reminiscing about their personal histories of facing down bitter temperatures, a can-you-top-this competition of sorts, familiar to those of us raised where the winters were long and brutal.

The thermometer on our back deck, Saturday morning, February 4.

I grew up in north central Massachusetts, in hilly terrain near the New Hampshire border.  In my youthful world, cold snaps were not a reason to stay inside. We simply dressed for the weather.

I’ve written on this blog before about the bright red rubber boots into which we slid our shod feet, insulated with our older brother’s cast-off wool socks and waterproofed with recycled bread bags.

The rest of our winter outerwear was creative as well, out of necessity. Kids tend to grow out of snowsuits before they wear them out. Same with ski pants and parkas. In my family, we had a big swaperoo every fall, when older siblings and cousins passed along whatever insulated clothing didn’t fit them anymore, a boon for the younger siblings and cousins. Our outfits did not always match, but we were warm and dry, whether sledding, skiing or building snow forts.

I wasn’t the only one hiking down memory lane this weekend.

In this week’s Weekly Packet out of Blue Hill, Pat Shepard, a researcher at the Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries, wrote a column that recounted how in 1934, “Hilton Turner’s grandfather walked from Isle au Haut to Stonington 14 times.” Isle au Haut is nearly 6 miles across Penobscot Bay, folks. Darned impressive.

Shepard also reported that “when Tim Emerson was a youngster, he struck out from Oceanville [on the east side of Stonington] on his bicycle (!) for Swan’s Island,” which is a heck of a long pedal across Jericho Bay. “Returning home in a stiff northwest wind was the hard part,” Shepard noted.

I hope Tim had a good hat.

Hiking on frozen bays was a necessary part of life other places as well. Here’s a memorable photo from the archives of the Portland newspapers, showing folks hiking across Casco Bay in 1862.

Credit – Portland Press Herald

Climate change makes such feats remarkable now. Sustained bitter cold is no longer a fact of life in Northern New England, and its relative rarity makes it news. Every meteorological outlet in the country did stories about the conditions atop Mount Washington this past weekend.  Here’s a link to The Weather Channel’s coverage:

And the Boston Globe featured a story on Saturday by a guy who went skiing at Pat’s Peak in Henniker, New Hampshire when the wind was howling. Here’s a link to his tale:

I’ve not checked with my pal Sandy Emerson about whether he was out on the slopes in Franklin County last Friday.  Perhaps he’ll let us know in the comment section, and if he didn’t ski last weekend, perhaps he’ll recount for us his coldest schussing memories.

How about the rest of you?  Do you have a story from this past weekend or one from your childhood about being out in the cold?  I’d be especially keen to hear from Vaughn and Kait, up in the County.

Brenda Buchanan brings years of experience as a journalist and a lawyer to her crime fiction. She has published three books featuring Joe Gale, a newspaper reporter who covers the crime and courts beat. She is now hard at work on new projects. FMI, go to








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19 Responses to How Cold Was It Where You Were?

  1. Reine says:

    I was born in Salem, Massachusetts as generations on my mother’s side then moved to Billerica where we walked a over a mile to where the school bus picked us up. It was freezing cold out there but if the temperature got to be 0* or less we didn’t have to go to school.

    • Brenda Buchanan says:

      I don’t recall a time when school was cancelled due to col. Snow occasionally, but never cold. We wore ski pants under our skirts and walked about a mile to school (fortunately not uphill, either way). It worked!

      • Anonymous says:

        Right. We had to walk through the forest and across a swamp to get to the bus stop. Most of our teachers came in from Salem and often couldn’t get past the snow as there was only one snow remover.

  2. mkowalewski says:

    I’m in NH now – in Merrimack (maybe near where you grew up??) and we were around 15 to 20 below. BRRRR.

  3. No, Brenda, I was curled up next to the wood stove on Friday with a good book – Kathy’s revision of her 1980’s historical masterpiece “Winter Tapestry” (as yet unnamed in this version). It’s not bad. I actually spent most of the weekend proof reading (part of my wedding vows). I did ski Saddleback on Thursday, where the Retail Shop told me they were sold out of my book “Well, Hell” and that “everybody loves it!” They are now restocked I’m happy to say, so if anybody is looking for an autographed copy they offer a price significantly below Amazon’s (!).

    Saddleback wound up closing most operations over the weekend in -90 degree windchill. At those temps machinery breaks and personnel are in danger. I’m told the Pub did well. Going back up today to work out the kinks.

    • Brenda Buchanan says:

      Glad you were safe and happy reading and editing, Sandy. You are intrepid! So glad WELL HELL is selling well – it deserves to be.

  4. Andy Sagan says:

    I think I saw the term “generational” cold on the weather channel’s advisory. Certainly was my coldest weather experience. Outdoors mattered more to my dog, since she couldn’t avoid going out for quickies, and my poor car, but indoors… we awakened to 53 degrees inside the home that day! The radiant just couldn’t keep up, and that’s all we got!

    • Brenda Buchanan says:

      It was a difficult couple of days for dogs (and their owners). Much nicer out there today, thank goodness, both for pups and those whose heating systems were stressed by the extreme cold.

  5. kaitcarson says:

    We were down below where my weather station could measure – it tops (bottoms) out at -40. Boy howdy, it felt like it, too. Fortunately, our woodstoves kept the house cozy. I ventured out for bird feeders and to clean up some drifts. Even with a balaclava my forehead burned. Wore ski goggles to keep the eyes safe – yes, I was a sight to behold :). No wonder there are all those stories about aliens in the Allagash!

    I remember my dad who was born in 1917 talking about crossing the Hudson on foot as a boy most winters. His dad worked as a teamster for a lumber yard on the Hudson and the logs would freeze tight to the runs so my dad and his sibs would play on what they called the log road. Even as late as 2008 Eagle Lake near Fort Kent froze solid and locals drove the ice road instead of going around through Soldier Pond. That hasn’t happened in a while.

    • Brenda Buchanan says:

      Off the weather station gauge – wow! It was a short burst of extreme cold that gives us some perspective on how people coped when that kind of weather was more common over the long term. Playing on the log road, hiking or biking across the bay. People did what they could to amuse themselves and get where they needed to go.

  6. Maureen Milliken says:

    Thanks for the trip down memory lane! I DO have a story from this weekend. On Friday evening, my furnace crapped out. I called the local plumber, who knows where my house is because I always seem to have a furnace or well problem after hours on a Friday, and he and his wife (who is his receptionist and bookkeeper, and always comes with him to help out on the evening jobs), got here around 8:15. While I waited the 90 minutes between when I called and when they got here, I watched the temperature drop from 18 below to 22 below on my weather app. It was 42 in my living room. They told me I was second on their list that night and, after they solved my furnace issue, when I said, “Well, I hope you can go home now and get some supper,” she said, “We’re not going to get home at all tonight. We have jobs all over town.” I was glad I wasn’t a plumber, as lucrative as it might be. By then it was 25 below here.
    But it also reminded me of the mid-70s, when I had a paper route in Augusta, and would get up at 5, light the wood stove in the kitchen for the rest of the family, bundle up in several layers, from long johns to my parka, scarf, etc., and go out there frequently below zero weather. I’d reward myself with chocolate chip cookies and an Orange Crush from Arlene’s Bakery, which, aside from the fire station, was the last stop on my route. I’m sure my mom didn’t know that was my breakfast! I’d put the soda inside my coat so it wouldn’t freeze the four or five-block walk back to the house. The firemen sometimes would also give me hot chocolate if they were making breakfast when I got there.
    There is no conclusion to draw from either of the stories except I’m getting old and like to tell rambling stories about the weather. Thanks for the opportunity! 🙂
    Stay warm!!!

    • Brenda Buchanan says:

      Sorry about your furnace woes, Mo, but glad to hear you got good service. That was my father’s business. Like your furnace guy and his spouse, my Pa worked around the clock during cold weather. People were always glad to see his truck pull up, especially if they had babies or elders in the home.

      Your paper route story is a gem. Important to find friends along the way, especially those who would give you hot cocoa on a cold morning.

  7. John Clark says:

    -16 in Waterville, but the wind chill was so intense that flashers downtown were handing out written descriptions. Two Maine libraries, Rockport and Wells Public Libraries, suffered damage from broken pipes this weekend.

    • Julianne Spreng says:

      Oh my god, John, that paints such a vivid picture. Laughter is dripping off my chin. How I wish we were neighbors…

    • Brenda Buchanan says:

      The flashers – ha! Lots of frozen pipes and water meters all over. A bit of missing insulation and a strong wind is all it takes.

  8. Julianne Spreng says:

    In Ohio, back in the 50s and 60s we could use cardboard boxes for sleds because it stayed so cold the paper never got wet. Temp was estimated by the way the snow squeaked or the boards snapped. The louder or sharper the colder it was. We’d have icicles as thick as your leg hanging off the overhang. No insulation. Dad used an electrified lead cable to try to keep the worst buildup from damaging the roof. It was too dangerous to climb up and knock them down. An 80 foot drop awaited a misstep. We could whack them from the windows but that still left a thick ice root on the edge. Wool, down, felt, and plastic bread bags, when available, were our go-to’s. An oil fired space heater and a fireplace kept us warm. A lit bulb in the well pit kept the water flowing at least until it got to the house. Every winter morning the propane torch would wake up the plumbing at the one spot Dad couldn’t keep from freezing. I don’t remember ever staying inside because it was too cold. We skied, skated, sledded, popped inside for lunch or dry mitts and were off again. My dad’s brother would chop a hole in the ice on his pond every day with an ax. By the end of the season it would be over a foot deep. Honestly, what I miss most is the beautiful frost flowers on the single pane glass. They’d melt in the sun and form again each night.

    • Brenda Buchanan says:

      Julianne, my sister of the bread bags in the boots, I see you. Like you, I have no memory of my parents ever saying it was too cold for us to be outside. Likewise, no memory of them driving us to school on cold mornings. They raised us to be rugged, resilient children.

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