Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Great White North

Here's the picture that started this:

Here's the accompanying note from DQ VB.NET Advisor Garret Rempel (who lives in Winnipeg, where the high this Sunday is forecast as -17F):
We've got a problem with our insulation in one room, there's a bit of a draft coming in and it's formed frost on interior walls.

Frost. On interior walls.

This is a whole new world--to me, at least--so I followed up:
"So, a question: if your car stops running--on the highway, away from immediate help--what do you do and in what sequence? It seems like it could be really, really dangerous."

Garret's answer was so through, and so complete (he's like that, which is why he's a great teacher) that I'm using it verbatim, although when I told him, he requested I add this first:
The following is my response to a question asked about what to do if your car stops on the highway in winter. It is an off-the-cuff response based on my experience and how I was taught to deal with that situation in winter. It is descriptive in nature, not proscriptive - please do not use it as a recommendation as what you should do. Before you travel in winter, do your research and take appropriate safety measures.

With the disclaimer, here's his answer:
Well, generally your car doesn't just stop running on the highway for no reason - it's rare enough that if it were to happen it is usually due to stopping your vehicle and it stalling out. However there are many reasons why you would come to a stop in the dead of winter on a lonely stretch of highway - usually because you either lost sight of the road or it simply became too slippery and you drove into the ditch.

Sidebar: A few years ago I was helping my sister move from Calgary home to Winnipeg in April and I went ahead with the Uhaul. About an hour (at normal speeds) west of Moose Jaw in a stretch of prairie that is for all intents and purposes empty for 300km. The road was sheer ice and the wind was blowing, I had already passed dozens of cars in the ditch and was doing 60kph (in an area zoned at 110kph) and simply feathering the gas to maintain my forward momentum. There was a line of about 4 cars in front of me as all of a sudden I see one wiggle, brake lights flashed (stupid move) and I watched as one car corkscrewed 360 degrees clockwise to the left - across the oncoming lane of traffic, an into the far ditch, while the one directly behind him did a 540 counter-clockwise spin to the right (the idiot who hit the brakes) and into the ditch. All I could do was let off the gas, coast, and pray that I didn't hit anyone. A single tap of the brakes would have sent my Uhaul out of control and probably would have flipped it. Fortunately the cars skidded out of the driving lane fast enough and the guy directly in front of me was smart enough to coast it through and we avoided a collision.

Anyway, the real question when you slide off the highway is - are you trapped in the vehicle, how is the vehicle oriented, and is it still running? If your nose is buried there is a good chance you're stuck but you can leave the car running for a time. If your tail is buried - turn the car off. The exhaust will kill you quicker than the cold.

There's a few things you can count on if you're driving on Canadian highways in the winter. 1) You are dressed for extreme conditions (not being dressed well enough to walk a few miles and driving on the highway is a no-no, even if you figure you will be warm in the car. Crashing is a very real possibility for even the safest of drivers). 2) You have an emergency kit.

Sidebar: A long time ago my family went skiing in Jasper on spring break (April - spring is still a month away) and it was beautiful, temperatures hovered in the 0 to -10 C range and it was great. Being spring we (stupidly) didn't have our winter jackets - only sweaters and windbreakers. When we left Edmonton to drive home (15 hours) the storm warning for western Manitoba didn't quite register in our minds - at least not strongly enough before we left. When we crossed the Saskatchewan/Manitoba border it was pitch black, in a raging blizzard, and the only way we stayed on the highway was tailgating a semi close enough that we could watch his brake lights. After an hour and a half we arrived in Neepawa, a small town about 1h45m from home and managed to turn in to a motel that wasn't filled with stranded travellers yet (it was filled less than an hour after we arrived). We spent the next 4 days stranded (highways were closed) in that motel, our van was buried under a snowdrift to its roof, temperatures were in the mid -30s with severe windchills dropping the apparent temperature into the mid -40s - in our sweaters and windbreakers. Had we gotten stuck in the middle of nowhere it likely would have been the end of us because of been poorly dressed.

So obviously you will have a parka, boots, toque, scarf, mitts, possibly snowpants. Enough that you can slog a few miles if there is a town or farmstead nearby that you know of. Your emergency kit has thick blankets, likely some chemical handwarmers, reflectors (or even flares), a shovel, an ice scraper, jumper cables, an extension cord, a large sign that says "dial 911" (usually on the reverse of a sunshade), and probably a few other things I'm forgetting.

If you are able to exit the vehicle:
- If it's a whiteout - stay inside your vehicle and try to stay warm (leave it running if the exhaust is clear, huddle under blankets if its not - or clear it with your shovel if you can). Leaving your vehicle near a highway for any reason in a whiteout - even if its to try and push your car out, is going to get you killed. Someone isn't going to see you, or follow your tracks into the ditch and hit you. You want to be in your car if and when that happens.
- If you have cell reception, call the RCMP and let them know where you are. They will dispatch a tow truck and/or rescue you if needed.
- Once visibility improves, if you can dig yourself out, then do so. If there is someplace within sight or that you know you can reach - it's time to start walking. Otherwise stay with your vehicle.
- If you are in your vehicle, put up your sign. Take it down if you leave. Use reflectors or flares to help flag down a passerby. Any trucker who sees you will radio your position to the RCMP, and most people will stop if you are trying to attract their attention.

Because you are on the prairies (well, in my experience) - do NOT attempt to walk to an unknown building seen in the distance. It can easily be 15 miles away and is probably a barn or a cowshed. Only walk someplace that you know is nearby enough that you can return to your car if no one is home.

Be prepared to wait for hours. Getting stuck is not fun and can be potentially deadly - everyone knows this, and will help if they can.

If you are unable to exit the vehicle:
- Put up your sign, get cozy, and wait. Leave the car running if you are reasonably sure the exhaust is clear - if you smell exhaust, turn it off. Turn it on and let it run for a few minutes every hour (depending on the outside temperature) to keep it from freezing solid. It's better to have it available if you need the heat than leaving it off for hours and then not being able to start it again.

It's all a matter of being prepared, and avoiding stupid mistakes. Check the weather before you leave, dress warmly, know your route, stick to major roads, keep an emergency kit, bring a cellphone, drive carefully.

Reading this, I felt like I was entering a secret world. We're bitching down here because it's going to be 33F tonight and it's windy. 

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