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Courtesy Kongsfjord International Scuba School

How To Enjoy The Cold: Advice From An Arctic SCUBA Diver

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Courtesy Kongsfjord International Scuba School

For much of North America, this winter has felt never-ending and particularly cruel. The Paper Of Record has compared it to "hell," and while their frustration is understandable, a river of fire seems like it'd be pretty nice right about now. Even though it's late February, much of the Midwest and East Coast will have to endure a few more weeks of this frigid reality. So, rather than booking the next flight to Cancun (fares aren't great, I checked), I sought the advice of someone who is professionally good at handling the cold. I called Christoph Hupe, an arctic SCUBA diver at the world's northernmost dive center.

Norway's Kongsfjord International SCUBA School is located at N 70° 43' 13.908". For the coordinately unengaged, here is a map for reference:

See that tropical-looking green area far to the south? That's northern Sweden and Finland.

When I spoke with Christoph, Kongsfjord was having a "mild" day. (Online weather services for the town reported a temperature of 20 degrees Fahrenheit). Christoph tells me the coast is kept warmer by the Gulf Stream, although the price you pay for these milder temperatures is the routine presence of winds that can reach "up to 200 miles per hour." He was upbeat but anxious—he had been stuck inside doing paperwork all day and wanted to go enjoy the weather.

Christoph works year-round taking divers into the Arctic Ocean for both commercial and research purposes and for recreational tours. The underwater environment is full of the biodiversity and brilliant color you'd expect to see in the Caribbean, not in water between Alta and the North Pole. Of course, you can't exactly enjoy a Mai Tai on the beach after touring Kongsfjord's depths.

According to Christoph, "The water can chill down here to about -1.8 degrees Celsius." As I checked Google to find that this converts to about 28 degrees Fahrenheit, he chimes in, "I know, that doesn't sound so bad." (I assure him that yes, it does indeed sound very bad.) "Water transports heat 25 times faster than air," he says, "when you multiply [that water temperature] by 25, then you get to somewhere between -40 and -50 degrees in equivalent air temperature."

Christoph wears a neoprene drysuit while diving in the winter. "The neoprene always holds a little bit of water," he tells me, "so I have found that when it's really cold and I come out of the sea, I stand a minute or two in the air and the entire suit starts crackling. That's always a bit of fun!"

The equipment is key, and being unprepared can be deadly. "Something can happen quick—you can have free flows in your regulator. If you have plastic fins, they can turn brittle." He knows divers who filmed in Antarctica for the BBC's Blue Planet specials, and they told him about their mistake of bringing plastic fins. He laughs, recalling that, when he watched the program, he saw their fins "brittling away...Soon they'd have just the boot on, no fin!" (Christoph uses rubber fins that "really do the trick...they have never let me down, even in the coldest conditions and when it's getting rough and tough.")

While diving in the Arctic is cold, your body ignores that fact pretty soon. "My experience is that it's not so bad. You go into the water and you get really cold and you get all these needles and pins, and it hurts for a couple seconds, but then it's numb and then it's fine!" For commercial dives, Christoph can be in the water for up to three hours at a time. "If you were just sport diving, bobbing in the water and sightseeing, you would last 20 minutes, half an hour, and then you would start getting cold and thinking of coming up and getting back out of the water. Whereas when you are working under the water, it is very different. You are active. You are moving, lifting heavy things—this keeps the blood circulating and makes you last much longer underwater."

I ask if he enjoys the cold. Christoph, who has been chipper and laughing throughout the call, pauses to think, and his tone approaches something akin to somberness for the first time. "Well," he sighs, "sometimes I wonder why I do this. Because of course I'm getting cold, and you know what it's like when you get cold: you get all the needles and pins and blah blah blah blah blah, and you wonder why on earth you are doing this." After cycling through that process mentally, he turns upbeat again, almost becoming spiritually numb to the pain. "On the other side," he says, "I keep telling myself this is a marvelous environment. It's not many people who have the chance to experience what I am allowed to experience. On the principle, I enjoy every second of it."

I soon find myself complaining about this particularly brutal winter to Christoph, and then add that everyone in America is also complaining, lest I come off as a wimp. I also mention that I am from Chicago, hoping to score some points from my cold weather brother. Still, I ask him for advice. The key, he says, is in his mindset—and it's not a case of mind over matter. "It's not important that you don't concentrate on the fact that you are cold," he says. "Don't try to ignore the thought, I am cold or Jaaaa, this is really cold. Take it as, OK, it's cold outside, I've dressed myself, now I go for a walk, or go to work, or whatever it is."

Embracing the cold is quite different from enjoying it, but, as humans with nervous systems that like to keep us informed about whether or not we're in the midst of freezing to death, sometimes there's only one thing you can do.

"When you're coming out of the living room, and you have been sitting there, watching TV, and you go out and you have to walk your dog, and it's really really cold outside, you usually say, 'Argh, that's miserable. That's grim,'" he says. "OK. Fine. On the other side, what I do is say, 'OK! It's cold outside. That's natural out here. I should dress warmly, and I take my dog, and I enjoy myself!' Me and my dog, we have a snowball chase, we roll around in the snow, we'll jump head-first in some snow drifts or whatever. It's the mindset!"

Christoph's dog, showing the proper mindset. Via Kongsfjord International Scuba School's Facebook

When people he takes on dives express worry about the freezing temperatures, Christoph asks them if they go skiing or ice skating, or have any other winter hobbies. He then tells them, "OK, what do you do when you go skiing? You're not skiing dressed in your swimsuit. You are dressed accordingly and have the according mindset. And then it becomes enjoyable! You just need to look at your own personal approach and your dress code to overcome the cold. And once it's overcome, you can start to see the beauty."

Even though Midtown Manhattan may lack Kamchatka Crabs or wolffish or the beautiful aquatic biodiversity of Kongsfjord, Christoph's enthusiasm and appreciation for the freezing world around him are contagious. By the time we are finishing our call, I yearn to take a walk outside, cold be damned. Christoph, on the other hand, is frustrated. "I can't stand this paperwork, I want to get out!" he cries. The cold and his dog will have to wait.

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Food
Thanks to a Wet Winter, New Zealand Faces a Potential Potato Chip Shortage
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iStock

New Zealand has plenty of unique and tasty snacks, but kiwis also love potato chips. The universal comfort food is in danger Down Under, however, as an unusually wet winter has devastated the island country’s tuber crops, according to BBC News.

Twenty percent of New Zealand’s annual potato crop was wiped out from a series of major storms and floods that ravaged the nation’s North and South Islands, The Guardian reports. In some regions, up to 30 percent of potato crops were affected, with the varieties used to make chips bearing the brunt of the damage.

Potato prices spiked as farmers struggled, but the crisis—now dubbed “chipocalypse” by media outlets—didn't really make the mainstream news until supermarket chain Pak’nSave posted announcements in potato chip aisles that warned customers of a salty snack shortage until the New Year.

Pak’nSave has since rescinded this explanation, claiming instead that they made an ordering error. However, other supermarket chains say they’re working directly with potato chip suppliers to avoid any potential shortfalls, and are aware that supplies might be limited for the foreseeable future.

New Zealand’s potato farming crisis extends far beyond the snack bars at rugby matches and vending machines. Last year’s potato crops either rotted or remained un-harvested, and the ground is still too wet to plant new ones. This hurts New Zealand’s economy: The nation is the world’s ninth-largest exporter of potatoes.

Plus, potatoes “are a food staple, and this is becoming a food security issue as the effects of climate change take their toll on our potato crop,” says Chris Claridge, the chief executive of industry group Potatoes New Zealand, according to The Guardian.

In the meantime, New Zealanders are preparing to hunker down for a few long months of potential potato peril—and according to some social media users, kale chips are not a suitable alternative. “Chipocalypse” indeed.

[h/t BBC News]

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Bess Lovejoy
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Weird
The Legend (and Truth) of the Voodoo Priestess Who Haunts a Louisiana Swamp
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Bess Lovejoy

The Manchac wetlands, about a half hour northwest of New Orleans, are thick with swamp ooze. In the summer the water is pea-green, covered in tiny leaves and crawling with insects that hide in the shadows of the ancient, ghost-gray cypress trees. The boaters who enter the swamps face two main threats, aside from sunstroke and dehydration: the alligators, who mostly lurk just out of view, and the broken logs that float through the muck, remnants of the days when the swamp was home to the now-abandoned logging town of Ruddock.

But some say that anyone entering the swamp should beware a more supernatural threat—the curse of local voodoo queen Julia Brown. Brown, sometimes also called Julie White or Julia Black, is described in local legend as a voodoo priestess who lived at the edge of the swamp and worked with residents of the town of Frenier. She was known for her charms and her curses, as well as for singing eerie songs with her guitar on her porch. One of the most memorable (and disturbing) went: "One day I’m going to die and take the whole town with me."

Back when Brown was alive at the turn of the 20th century, the towns of Ruddock, Frenier, and Napton were prosperous settlements clustered on the edge of Lake Pontchartrain, sustained by logging the centuries-old cypress trees and farming cabbages in the thick black soil. The railroad was the towns' lifeline, bringing groceries from New Orleans and hauling away the logs and cabbages as far as Chicago. They had no roads, no doctors, and no electricity, but had managed to carve out cohesive and self-reliant communities.

That all changed on September 29, 1915, when a massive hurricane swept in from the Caribbean. In Frenier, where Julia lived, the storm surge rose 13 feet, and the winds howled at 125 miles an hour. Many of the townsfolk sought refuge in the railroad depot, which collapsed and killed 25 people. Altogether, close to 300 people in Louisiana died, with almost 60 in Frenier and Ruddock alone. When the storm cleared on October 1, Frenier, Ruddock, and Napton had been entirely destroyed—homes flattened, buildings demolished, and miles of railway tracks washed away. One of the few survivors later described how he’d clung to an upturned cypress tree and shut his ears against the screams of those drowning in the swamp.

The hurricane seemed to come out of nowhere. But if you listen to the guides who take tourists into the Manchac swamp, the storm was the result of the wrath of Julia Brown. Brown, they say, laid a curse on the town because she felt taken for granted—a curse that came true when the storm swept through on the day of her funeral and killed everyone around. On certain tours, the guides take people past a run-down swamp graveyard marked "1915"—it’s a prop, but a good place to tell people that Brown’s ghost still haunts the swamp, as do the souls of those who perished in the hurricane. The legend of Julia Brown has become the area's most popular ghost story, spreading to paranormal shows and even Reddit, where some claim to have seen Brown cackling at the edge of the water.

After I visited the swamp earlier this year and heard Julia Brown's story, I got curious about separating fact from fiction. It turns out Julia Brown was a real person: Census records suggest she was born Julia Bernard in Louisiana around 1845, then married a laborer named Celestin Brown in 1880. About 20 years later, the federal government gave her husband a 40-acre homestead plot to farm, property that likely passed on to Julia after her husband’s death around 1914.

Official census and property records don’t make any mention of Brown’s voodoo work, but that's not especially surprising. A modern New Orleans voodoo priestess, Bloody Mary, told Mental Floss she has found references to a voodoo priestess or queen by the name of Brown who worked in New Orleans around the 1860s before moving out to Frenier. Mary notes that because the towns had no doctors, Brown likely served as the local healer (or traiteur, a folk healer in Louisiana tradition) and midwife, using whatever knowledge and materials she could find to care for local residents.

Brown’s song is documented, too. An oral history account from long-time area resident Helen Schlosser Burg records that "Aunt Julia Brown … always sat on her front porch and played her guitar and sang songs that she would make up. The words to one of the songs she sang said that one day, she would die and everything would die with her."

There’s even one newspaper account from 1915 that describes Brown's funeral on the day of the storm. In the words of the New Orleans Times-Picayune from October 2, 1915 (warning: offensive language ahead):

Many pranks were played by wind and tide. Negroes had gathered for miles around to attend the funeral of ‘Aunt’ Julia Brown, an old negress who was well known in that section, and was a big property owner. The funeral was scheduled … and ‘Aunt’ Julia had been placed in her casket and the casket in turn had been placed in the customary wooden box and sealed. At 4 o’clock, however, the storm had become so violent that the negroes left the house in a stampede, abandoning the corpse. The corpse was found Thursday and so was the wooden box, but the casket never has been found.

Bloody Mary, however, doesn’t think Brown laid any kind of curse on the town. "Voodoo isn’t as much about curses as it is about healing," she says. The locals she has spoken to remember Julia as a beloved local healer, not a revengeful type. In fact, Mary suggests that Julia’s song may have been more warning to the townsfolk than a curse against them. Perhaps Brown even tried to perform an anti-storm ritual and was unable to stop the hurricane before it was too late. Whatever she did, Mary says, it wasn’t out of malevolence. And if she’s still in the swamp, you have less to fear from her than from the alligators.

This story originally ran in 2016.

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