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In Caribou’s biting cold, you must have ‘zero’ tolerance

(Boston Globe) Reporter Billy Baker travels to Caribou, Maine and discovers what life is like in the coldest city in New England.
(Boston Globe) Reporter Billy Baker travels to Caribou, Maine and discovers what life is like in the coldest city in New England.

CARIBOU, Maine — It’s dismissal time at the Hilltop School, and the kids are lined up at the main door, waiting for the buses to arrive, getting ready for the mini epic they go through every afternoon in the winter.

Taped to the door is a cartoon strip illustrating the steps they must follow before they go out that door: snowpants on, boots on, coat on, hat on, scarf on, mittens on. The students — pre-K to second grade — don’t even glance at the instructions. In Caribou, Maine, the coldest city in New England, the kids know the drill like it’s built into their DNA.

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There’s a crackle on the radio, and Joe Kuklak, an ed tech at the school, announces that Bus #6 has arrived.

Kuklak lines the kids up by the door then pushes it open to the cold. The magnificent cold. The Caribou cold. With the windchill, it’s approaching double digits below zero.

“Let’s run,” Kuklak says on this mid-January afternoon, and there’s no argument as a fast-moving line of 20 kids hustles around the corner toward the warm bus as if life depended on it. Which, essentially, it does.

When winter comes, there is no part of New England that escapes its wrath. Everyone earns the title of Hearty New Englander. But in Caribou, the northeastern-most city in the United States, they are playing on a different level, a dangerous level. There’s a reason locals refer to Boston, a seven-hour drive, as “the south.”

The cold comes from Quebec into this valley along the Aroostook River and doesn’t budge for four solid months, giving it a winter climate on par with North Dakota and Minnesota, according to the local office of the National Weather Service. In January, the average low is 1 degree — in Boston, it’s 22.

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When the kids board the bus back to the Hilltop School the following morning earlier this month, the thermometer will read -27. Boston and many surrounding communities recently canceled school when the temperature dipped just below zero.

“I can only remember us canceling school one time because of the cold, and that’s because the wind chill was -60 and the buses wouldn’t start,” said Laurie Cavagnaro, another ed tech at the Hilltop School. “We always say we’re tough or we’re stupid, and we can’t figure out what it is.”

Hilltop Elementary School students such as Jacob Violette know the process of bundling up like it’s built into their DNA.
Hilltop Elementary School students such as Jacob Violette know the process of bundling up like it’s built into their DNA.Dina Rudick/Globe Staff

There is, everywhere in Caribou, a pride in the ability to endure, and even enjoy, life in such a climate. Their favorite winter pastime is snowmobiling, an activity that involves going out into murderous cold and then generating your own wind chill. Everyone says it’s a lot of fun.

They also like ice fishing, which is just like regular fishing but with the potential to lose a toe. If for some reason you want to stay indoors, there’s a roller rink, though some locals say they prefer to save their indoor activities for when black fly season arrives in the summer.

 Caribou, Maine, is New England’s coldest city, with an average January low of 1.
Caribou, Maine, is New England’s coldest city, with an average January low of 1.Dina Rudick/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

At roughly the same latitude as Quebec City, this city of 8,000 sits near the top of Aroostook County, a vast, remote region of the state, roughly two-thirds the size of Massachusetts, “that sticks up like a thumb into Canada,” as John Steinbeck once described it. Known to Mainers simply as “The County,” Aroostook is best known for its potato crop (and for the fact that its high schools close for three weeks each fall so the students can help harvest it).

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But it is when the low winter sky arrives in December and the snowpack settles in to stay until April that many locals say the real Aroostook adventure begins. Winter, they argue, is not the bane of living in Caribou; it is the reason to live in Caribou. Simply making it through a day can feel like surviving a test. Most people carry emergency supplies in their cars because it is not uncommon to get stranded in a snowstorm, something Caribou is also quite good at. The area averages 110 inches of snowfall each year, which is more than any year recorded in Boston. (Our average is just under 44.)

The difference between a good day and a bad day can often come down to whether your car is running or not, so the tricks involved in keeping an engine happy all winter are something of a local passion. Many people plug their cars into block heaters at home to improve the chance that they will want to start again. Another strategy is to just keep it running all the time, as they do with the big machinery at the Caribou Department of Public Works. “If we can’t bring a vehicle indoors, we keep them idling or else the hydraulic system will break,” said Dave Ouelette, the director, as seven huge plows buzzed outside his office after a night of clearing the roads of snow.

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When the National Weather Service sends people out to remote areas to check on instruments, they require there to be two people in the vehicle, and they must carry a satellite phone.

At Sleeper’s, the local outdoor outfitters/grocery store, the bread and Coke might come in frozen off the delivery truck, but the customers can leave ready for the worst of the outdoors. The store touts itself as the “cold weather specialists” — a member of the staff politely pointed out what was wrong with the outfits of a Globe reporter and photographer — and sells such essentials as alpaca wool socks and Baffin boots, which claim to keep your feet warm well below -100 degrees.

“Some people say you get used to the cold, but I don’t think that’s possible,” said David Sleeper, one of the owners. “It’s a matter of being prepared.”

And Caribou is just that: prepared. For all its insulting cold, for its huge negative temperatures, for its massive snowfall totals, what’s most impressive about a Caribou winter is how routine it feels to the residents. It is, for lack of a better word, normal.

“The cold is what reminds you that you’re living in fresh air,” Barb Rossignol, a front desk clerk at the Caribou Inn and Convention Center, said cheerfully.

That morning, she had awoken in her home to find the fuel line to her furnace had frozen solid.

 Frost covered the windows of a car in Caribou on a January morning when the temperature was -27.
Frost covered the windows of a car in Caribou on a January morning when the temperature was -27.Dina Rudick/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Billy Baker can be reached at billybaker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @billy_baker.

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