Water Closet for 8-16-13 Chena Moose

Forestry researcher Arthur McKee of Montana[1] shared the following story with friend Katharine Brown of the Middleton Stream Team.  In this vivid account of an encounter with an Alaskan moose, McKee tells of water in forms largely unfamiliar to us.  His and the moose’s blood, mostly water, ran warm a couple inches from air fifty degrees below zero.

CHENA MOOSE by Arthur McKee

     In late January of ‘89, I flew into Fairbanks just before a super-frigid cold front moved out of Siberia and across Alaska.  A dozen or so scientists from around the US had been invited to work with about as many National Park Service managers to design an environmental monitoring network for the Park Service system in Alaska.  The workshop was being held at Chena Hot Springs, about a 60-mile drive east of Fairbanks.

The temperature was around 40 below when we landed and getting colder.  Along with our Park Service colleagues, we were initially loaded onto a diesel-powered bus that simply refused to stay running in the cold.  After some negotiations with the local school district, and because classes were cancelled for the next few days, a gas-powered school bus was made available and we loaded in.

We slowly made our way to Chena Hot Springs.  The low speed was due, in part, to the inability of the defrosters to keep the windshield clear.  If we went over about 40 mph, the windshield frosted over completely.  At about 25 mph, the driver could bend over and peer out through a small clear spot, sort of like peering out through a slit in a tank.  We started taking turns standing next to the driver and scraping the frost off the inside of the windshield; but this piled up on the driver’s knees, so someone found an extra coat and draped it over the driver’s legs.  It took some time to work out a system to rotate the window scrapers, but we muddled through and eventually arrived at Chena Hot Springs where the thermometer showed 48 below – the warmest we’d see during our 3-day stay.

The meeting was intense, with the days starting before breakfast as small groups caucused around cups of coffee, and continuing well past dinner.  Most folks would then take a short soak in the indoor pools filled from the upwelling hot springs at the resort before retiring for the night.  No one was tempted to go out because all the updates from the staff told us the outside temperatures were between 50 and 55 below.

On the last night, I simply had to get outdoors.  Instead of heading for the hot springs that evening, I borrowed an Alaskan friend’s Sorel boots, layered up, and started out on a walk around a short loop of a x-country ski trail, an estimated mile or so, which I was assured was well marked.  It was a clear night with a moon just past full and the trail proved easy to follow.

The trail paralleled the meandering stream from the Chena Hot Springs.  It was openly flowing despite the brutal cold because of the springs’ large upwelling of water at around 120 degrees F.  In the dead calm of the night, the vapor coming off the water rose in an illuminated curtain some 30 or 40 feet, shimmering in the moonlight and weaving slightly in its own convection.  I’d never seen anything like it and was in awe of the ethereal beauty.

I walked along the trail and around a sharp bend and found myself facing a huge cow moose standing in the middle of the path, quietly looking at me from maybe 20 feet away.  I froze, ready to jump into the surrounding spruce thicket if she charged, but quickly felt that there was no hint that she would.  And she didn’t.

She stood there quietly with thick hoar frost covering her back.  Her long guard hairs had their own crystals that extended several inches.  I guessed that the vapor from the flowing stream had condensed on her guard hairs, creating this spectacular coat of white that glistened like fine crystal in the moonlight – a gown worthy of royalty, and she seemed regal indeed.

We stood there facing each other for a long time, her breath coming out of her nostrils in periodic puffs that drifted up and dissipated like steam from an idling locomotive.  She seemed totally comfortable in this Ice Age setting.  In a few minutes I’d be back in my room at the lodge snuggling down in 65 degrees or so, but she’ll be out here at 55 below.  Hey!  That’s a 120-plus degree difference!  But, she seemed well adapted to it.  She truly belonged right where she was.  Her insulation was simply incredible, or the delicate hoar-frost crystals would not be there on her back.  Talk about evolutionary perfection.

She finally turned slightly and walked off on a narrow track that I’d not noticed, leading some 25 feet to the stream, bent her head down and took a drink.  I walked past her and continued the loop back to the lodge, marveling at what I’d just experienced.

She was in my thoughts as I settled down for the night.  I kept replaying the encounter and shaking my head at her fitness to her world.  No one could argue seriously that moose are beautiful creatures, but she was both majestic and beautiful in that sub-zero moonlight, cloaked in her hoar-frost gown that sparkled with diamonds.


  1.  Arthur McKee is Director Emeritus H. J. Andrews Experimental Forest in the Oregon Cascades.


THE WATER CLOSET is provided by the Middleton Stream Team: www.middletonstreamteam.org or <MSTMiddletonMA@gmail.com>