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Take That Thing Out of Your Mouth Right Now!

Experts tackle the tough winter questions


Every mythological system worth its sacrificial offerings had a way to explain the changing seasons. These stories predicted and justified frostbite, death and meager harvests in familiar, personal ways--even if the narratives didn't necessarily make anyone's life span any longer. Yet just because most of us have replaced these tales with new myths from new priests--Bill Nye The Science Guy, in the author's case--doesn't mean we've got it all figured out. And so to do our part, BW presents four scientific takes on four common, reasonable winter questions. Read them for trivia or for survival; either way, just don't say we didn't warn you.

By tug ith thuck to a poe. Whad da huck do ah do now? (My tongue is stuck to a pole. What do I do now?)

Short answer: Pray to Odin.

Long answer: The human tongue is a resilient and fast-healing organ--although that's probably the last thing you'll want to hear, should you find yourself in the dire situation made famous by the movie A Christmas Story. Sean Rayne, deputy director of Ada County Paramedics, says his agency "occasionally" receives calls about people who stick their tongues to flag poles or other outdoor metal objects, causing the first few layers to freeze to the metal.

"Usually, it's because of a dare," he says. Rayne adds that every time he's gone on such a call, the person was freed before the paramedics arrive. However, emergency workers still have a preferred course of action for the tongue-on-pole scenario. He says to pour warm--not hot--water on the tongue, which should free it within seconds, possibly minus a layer or two of skin.

That's all well and good, but what if no one is around to call 911 or douse you with warm liquids? In such a case, the holiday edition of The Worst Case Scenario Handbook offers a different solution, suggested to the authors by Caltech physics professor Kenneth Libbrecht: use your body heat to warm the pole.

"Do not pull the tongue from the pole. Move closer to the pole," the authors advise. "Place your gloved hands on the area of the pole closest to the tongue. Hold them there for several minutes ... As the pole warms, the frozen area around the tongue should begin to thaw."

Are the chestnuts I see around Boise the same kind that people roast and write songs about? The squirrels seem to like them.Does that mean I can eat them?

Short answer: No.

Long answer: What are commonly called "chestnut" trees around Boise aren't chestnuts at all. The two aren't even related, says Boise State botanist Dr. Jim Smith.

"Most of the ones you see around here are what are called 'horse chestnuts,'" Smith says. "They're in a completely different genus, completely different family from the other type of chestnuts. The chestnuts that are eaten are related to oaks, and the ones that we see around here are in the same family as maples."

Don't confuse "maple" with "full of maple-y goodness," though, because horse chestnuts share more similarities chemically with rat poison than with Aunt Jemima. Known also as "buckeye nuts," horse chestnuts have been a staple for some Native American tribes, who would boil them until the toxin aesculin was leached out. However, the nuts have a much more extensive history as a poison than as a food source. Fisherman have historically used horse chestnuts to poison fish, by crushing the nuts and throwing them onto the surface of lakes. And while some animals--squirrels, for instance--are immune to aesculin's toxic effects, humans are not.

"I would say, don't eat them," Smith says. "As humans, we've spent tens of thousands of years domesticating plants and making them tasty and easy to eat, so why worry about the stuff that we haven't bothered with yet?"

But snow is safe to eat, right?

Short answer: Eat it at your own risk, but not because you're thirsty.

Long answer: Of course, there are situations wherein there is no alternative to eating snow. These include getting hit in the face with a well-timed snowball, and when someone is rubbing your face into the ground during a "white wash." The author experienced both during eighth grade (Damn you, Jeff Paris!).

Online survival guides stress that snow is no cleaner than the water from which it came, and that as it passes through the atmosphere--especially in urban areas--flakes can pick up a frightening amount of toxins and even heavy metals. But according to Jay Breitenbach with the National Weather Service in Boise, Idaho's snow can be a relatively harmless treat.

"A freshly fallen snow is pretty pure. It should be safe to eat, especially if it's not yellow," says Breitenbach. "But I don't think I'd eat it after it's been around for a while."

Conversely, according the operations manual of the Polar Continental Shelf Project, a Canadian ice-cap exploration agency, cold-weather hikers and skiers should never eat snow for purposes of hydration. On the contrary, since "you expend more energy melting it in your mouth than you gain," the manual says, eating snow can actually make adventurers more dehydrated.

Fine, fine ... I'll melt the snow before I drink it. Just toss it in a pan and watch it turn into water, right?

Short answer: Only if you like your water to taste like cigarette butts.

Long answer: To turn snow into water, outdoor experts advise pouring a small amount of water in the bottom of a pan and melting the snow in the water. Otherwise, says Allen O'Bannon, an Idaho resident, National Outdoor Leadership School instructor and co-author of the winter adventure guide Allen and Mike's Really Cool Backcountry Ski Book, it'll come out tasting, in a word, terrible.

"It just kind of tastes like anything that's badly burned," O'Bannon says. "Especially if it's dry snow." The idea of "burnt water" has caused significant debate in the BW offices, but according to O'Bannon, the debate for those who actually drink the water has changed: "We keep debating whether you're scorching dust particles in the water, or the pot itself."

The intricate physics aside, O'Bannon says, try it if you don't believe it. And when asked if he personally learned this lesson the hard way, O'Bannon replies simply, "Oh yeah."