Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The coldest day of my life

I haven't written much lately; been busy with things. I thought I'd tell a story, just to keep things interesting.

November 2003, Fish Hatchery Management class.

We were on a field trip to the Adirondack Hatchery, way up near Lake Placid. It's damn cold up there in the North Country in November. The usual thing for this field trip was camping out by the hatchery, but we were looking at single-digit temperatures, a first for the trip. There was a dorm-style facility, but they weren't permitted to let us stay there overnight because it was above a garage, and some regulation said that we could get carbon monoxide poisoning. Instead, they were willing to let us freeze to death.

We arrived at the hatchery after a five-hour drive from Cobleskill, NY. The trip started out ominously, as our rented vehicle hit a deer less than a mile away from the campus, but the vehicle was fine, and the deer leapt up and dashed off toward some woodland. Most of my classmates slept on the trip. Two of us, myself and N, had a tendency to get godawfully carsick, so I had loaded up on the Dramamine, sharing with him, and he gallantly offered me the front seat--which we both found reduced our motion sickness a great deal.

The Adirondack Hatchery spawns and grows land-locked Atlantic Salmon, big silvery beauties with a row of black X's down their sides. Salmon really like their water to be as cold as possible, so the hatchery itself was the same temperature as the air outside. In fact, the tall windows lining each side of the hatchery were fitted only with screens, which allowed air flow while keeping out insects and birds. The water in each of the circular tanks was kept solid only through kinetic energy--fast-flowing pipes dumping spring water right into the tanks, keeping that water moving. A good thing, too, as the air temperature was no more than 20ºF.

So we walk in, and get the basic idea of the spawning process going on, and we're heaved right into the thick of it. The process basically goes like this: Net salmon out of tank, put into anesthetic bath (MS-222), take salmon out of anesthetic bath after it's knocked out, squeeze the eggs out into a container (this takes practice; I'm not too shabby at it), put fish back into tank, in a separate section, so you don't grab the same fish twice. While this is going on, which takes about three people, someone else occasionally takes the eggs, mixes them with milt stripped from fish trapped out of the lake, and lets them fertilize before taking them off to the incubator room.

This whole process is very wet, obviously, and when it's already freezing cold out, your hands turn into claws of ice and agony. We were all well-clothed in long underwear, warm clothing, and rainsuits (rain suits keep the water OUTSIDE your clothing), but that didn't help our chilly faces or frozen hands much, and it wasn't long before we were all just chilled to the bone.

That night, we made dinner in the dorm area, had a party and warmed up, and then got permission from the hatchery manager to stay in the visitor's center! Now, that would have been really great, but he turned OFF the heat in the center so we wouldn't "roll up against a heater and burn" ourselves. The center was bitter cold, because they had a display pond of salmon, which was kept freshened by a constant flow of chilly water. I found out that night that my sleeping bag, rated for 0ºC, was indeed enough to keep me warm, even in 15ºF conditions.

The next day, we went out to the lake, where a boat brought in salmon that had been trapped on the lake. We stood on a dock and took turns stripping eggs and milt from the trapped salmon. All of the milt used to fertilize the eggs, even inside the hatchery building, were from trapped males. On the dock, we were unprotected from the chill wind, and there wasn't enough shivering, foot stomping, and running in place to keep us from becoming agonizingly cold.

At this point in my life, I had not developed fibromyalgia. I had, however, already developed arthritis in my hands, wrists, right shoulder, and ankles, especially the right one. By the time we were done with this field trip, I was in more pain than I probably had ever been. I do like to tell people that, after this experience, I will probably never be truly cold again in my life--but I have no desire to work at a salmonid hatchery, EVER, because they are such painfully cold places.


Anonymous said...

Hi Rio,

I'm originally from Upstate NY and know the cold of which you speak. My dad once took me to the weather station at the very top of Whiteface and we stood in the center of a cloud. (Also, just have to add: my sister went to SUNY Cobleskill, in the 80s!)

However, my hubby and I now live in Canada, and in January had to dig his car out of snow on a morning that was -40 (C) with windchill. -40 is where F & C meet - they're about the same. F'in COLD!

Nan said...

I empathize. I was shivering just reading your recollections. Shades of "The Cremation of Sam McGee."

JeanC said...

EEP! I HATE being cold and that would have had me insisting on being driven home. Now way would I put up with those conditions and I was pretty outdoorsy in my younger days.