Welcome to Chiberia

January 10, 2014

Chicago, Illinois

By Jim Young

It was dubbed “Chiberia” here in Chicago: record low temperatures with a wind chill in the -40 Celsius range (-40 Fahrenheit).

I knew it was coming. I had been dodging the bullet for two winters in Chicago and eventually “real cold” had to arrive here sooner or later. I had survived 30+ years of Canadian winters and lived through a -50C (-58F) wind chill in Ottawa, but I have had two of the nicest winters in my life in the Windy City. In February 2012 it was 80F and I was walking around in flip flops, but certainly not this week.

It started at sunrise on Monday morning. While driving along Lake Michigan to downtown I could see a “fog-like” haze over the water – it was arctic sea smoke caused by bitter cold air moving over the warm lake water. I parked down by the beach. It was a beautiful sunny morning and a balmy -42F. The biggest problem I had was with my fingers. Working with cameras even while wearing the warmest gloves is a challenge. I would take them off for just a few seconds but it would get incredibly painful, like needles stabbing into your hands. It would take 10 to 15 minutes back in the gloves just to get the pain to subside. I remembered hearing on the radio the early warning signs of hypothermia such as shallow breathing, drowsiness, shaking and stumbling…check, check, and check. The batteries in my cameras died so I tried to shoot an Instagram, but even though my iPhone was inside several layers of clothing, it was frozen like a brick and wouldn’t even boot up.

Not surprisingly, there weren’t many people out on the streets. I found places that could potentially make a photo but would wait 20 to 30 minutes for the right moment to happen or just someone to come along, and with these frigid temperatures, playing the waiting game was very difficult.

Gallery: Deep freeze

The next morning, I started the day dealing with a water leak in my house from the brutally cold overnight. Even though Tuesday provided some relief, it was still quite cold. But I found it to be actually quite tolerable. Occasionally working without gloves and an open jacket, I went to another spot along the lake to finally find people out enjoying the snow and ice.

I ended the day covering a different aspect of the effects of the cold, with a story about a doctor who spends several nights a week driving around to hand out food and blankets to the homeless in the city.

Gallery: Chicago’s doctor to the homeless

Day 3 and the temperature finally turned for the better, making way for a layer or two less of clothing. Chicagoans are a very tough breed. Lots of people on the streets were without gloves or hats, texting while walking down the streets. I overheard a man on a cellphone saying, “It’s 9 degrees… it’s bikini weather in Chicago.” Though it had warmed up quite a bit over the last couple of days, there still weren’t very many people out at regular feature spots.

There was a story in town about it being too cold even for the polar bears at the zoo to be allowed out. Spring can’t come soon enough for us both.

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