So, as promised, the day to day. What is winter existence like in the far north? Or, at least, what’s it like these days.
Well, nothing like it was back in the late 1800s, early 1900s, when white men began to occupy in force, that’s for sure. And not at all like it was when indigenous people subsisted in extreme temperatures by means of ingenious survival techniques honed through thousands of years of collective knowledge and tradition. Like everywhere, much has changed over the course of the past generations. To pronounce the lives of natives and early explorers and pioneers as ‘hard’ wouldn’t even begin to describe the severity of the realities they faced daily. To say we’ve gotten softer as a society is to pretend we’re still somewhere on the Mohs scale at all.
Alaska now, at least in the urban areas, is about like anywhere else in the States. Hardship means waiting in line at Starbucks. Deprivation is going without strawberries in January because they’re a dollar more than you want to spend. Is it a little colder than most of the lower 48, at least for the time being? Yes. Does it matter? Not really. Most people here do what people in the winter do just about everywhere else, they stay indoors, they move from one heated location to the next. They avoid the cold as much as possible and whine about it regularly—as if they didn’t know it might be cold here. Kind of annoying, to say the least. Transportation and technology and increased population density and wealth distribution have made temperatures and distance relatively obsolete. Box stores are box stores; fast food places sell the same fare as anywhere else—shit food, cheap prices; produce from around the globe can be purchased in any season (though you better eat it quick, cause it does take a minute to get here). Even gas, extracted from the North Slope of Alaska as crude oil, shipped to refineries down south, and returned again, is sold at prices on par with anywhere else in the US. So, yeah, for better or worse, with a few minor differences mostly noted from the warm side of a window, the daily routine is pretty routine.
Well, for the most part. Thought I’d still go ahead and detail a few of the ways people have developed to deal with the climate, and attempt to provide a sense of what mid-winter in the Interior is like.
Northern Latitudes: A lot of folks I’ve met tell me they’ve always dreamed of coming to Alaska, though in the course of those conversations it becomes obvious most don’t have a clear idea of some of the basic realities of life here. A lot of people think it snows all the time, that it’s always cold, etc. People think of glaciers and icebergs and polar bears. They want to visit for a week and see Kodiaks fishing for salmon and the northern lights and maybe do some dog sledding, all in the same trip. But they also don’t want to be that cold, and probably don’t want to get rained on. Many people also think that Alaska is about the size of Hawaii, since they’re always off to the side in those little boxes on maps. So, I’ll start with a quick overview of geography and climate.
First off, Alaska is huge. Here’s a tidbit from everyone’s favorite online encyclopedia: ‘Alaska is the largest state in the United States by total area at [around 600,000 square miles], over twice the size of Texas, the next largest state. Alaska is larger than all but 18 sovereign countries. It is also larger than the combined area of the 22 smallest U.S. states…’ You get the point. It’s enormous and commonly divided into six different regions, each with widely differing characteristics, including geography, population, and weather patterns. All of this area is separated into private land, native land, and federal land, with the government still being the largest landholder at 60%—a significant portion of which is protected as parks and wilderness. The four biggest national parks are in Alaska, and seven of the 12 parks over one million acres are in Alaska. Alaska has 14 mountain ranges, and yes, lots of glaciers and some volcanoes and parts of it are prone to major earthquakes. The land itself is wild, rugged, beautiful, violent, unpredictable, and amazing. There’s also a lot of wildlife, though often visitors seem to have strange expectations of what that means. Outside of Denali NP and the coastal Kenai Peninsula, where sightings are almost certain, you might not see a whole lot of animals in a week—especially if you’re not paying attention.
But that’s not really what this is about, it’s more about winter and summer, and day and night, and light and dark, and cold and not that cold, and how all of these things manifest in the ‘Land of the Midnight Sun.’ The biggest surprise for many people, to the point of disbelief, is that for several months each year it is light out 24/7. Which means that in the darkest winter months, the sun is barely visible on the horizon for a couple hours each day, while in the summer it sits up in the sky for weeks at a time. The best way I’ve come across to describe the process is that every place on Earth receives the same amount of daylight and darkness over the course of one year. On the equator, days and nights are split evenly every day. Twelve and twelve, approximately. Due to the tilt of the Earth’s axis, however, northern and southern hemispheres receive more or less light and heat as the planet rotates around the sun, hence winter and summer. Almost everyone is familiar with this concept (though plenty of Americans I’ve known are surprised to learn that Christmas in Australia is in mid-summer, or, for that matter, that other countries even celebrate the same holidays we do…).
People also realize that in the summer the days are longer, and that the nights grow darker beginning in the fall. Extend that then, to the top of the globe, where for several months each year that axis is angled steeply towards (or away from) the sun. The further up you go in latitude, the more dramatic the effect. So just how high is Fairbanks? Well, for comparison, the southernmost point on the South American continent (also the southernmost tip of mainland in the southern hemisphere minus Antarctica) is around Ushuaia, Argentina, which is located at 54.8° south. (The equator represents 0° and both poles a respective 90°; each line of latitude corresponds to around 69 miles.) Going the other way, Anchorage sits at a much higher 61°, and Fairbanks at 64.8°, only 120 road miles from the Arctic Circle. In mid-June the sun makes a dizzy circle in the sky, never dropping far enough below the horizon for several months to resemble true nighttime. According to the Visitor’s Bureau, Fairbanks receives 70 straight days of sunlight from May 17th to July 27th.
When I arrived then, it was nearly opposite, though I missed the solstice by almost two weeks. Dark. Real dark for a good portion of the day. Most notable, I think, in the morning. Most of us are accustomed to early nights in the winter, so that hasn’t been so different, but waking up around 6 a.m. and looking out the windows into a night lasting until almost 10 a.m. takes some getting used to. Or perhaps simply getting through. The light, however, as I attempted to describe last time, throughout those slim daylight hours, certainly contributes another element to the equation, easing the experience somewhat. And once the days start to get a little longer, as is happening now, it’s immediately apparent. By mid-March we’ll be at twelve and twelve, and after that—more light than you know what to do with.
The Cold. I talked about the cold last time as well. What it’s like, what it’s not like. Having spent one entire February in Ushuaia, again mid-summer down that way, I can tell you the weather was much more harsh and unpredictable than it is here. I can’t imagine what misery winter that way might bring. But I won’t hold back on the facts. The week I arrived, temperatures dipped below -20° and for the most part they’ve stayed there and below. The first ten days or so it was often around -30°, and there were a couple of days where it did indeed hit -40°. Two things about -40°: on a trivia note, this is where the scales of Celsius and Fahrenheit meet; on a contemporary note, in the past, the number of days the Interior spent each year at around this temperature were used to define ‘what kind of winter’ it was. This area often went weeks on end around -40°, occasionally dropping down even colder. The times they area a changing, however, and fast.
From my experience, things aren’t too bad until around -30. Activity that doesn’t generate enough speed to create wind chill, such as cross country skiing, walking, shoveling snow, etc., can still be enjoyable at -25° given one is adequately dressed and moving around. Biking, downhill skiing, snowmobiling, etc. are completely out of the question for most people until -10° and up, as things get miserable and dangerous otherwise. Around -30°, however, the intensity is notable. Around -40°, obvious changes begin to occur. LCD screens stop working, gas pumps slow down, unheated cars won’t start, and touching metal with bare skin causes an instantaneous burning sensation.
How do people and machines deal with the cold then? Well, we’ll get to the people in a minute, but as far as keeping things running I have to say that human ingenuity is certainly impressive. I have no idea how the hot water keeps coming out of the tap, or how all the power lines don’t fall under the constant weight of several inches of ice. As for vehicles, pretty much all of them up here are equipped with block heaters which cover varying parts of the engine. The heaters plug in via a cord which comes through front grill, and folks carry their extension cords around with them. Most public spaces, hotels, workplaces, etc. have shared outlets available in parking lots. When things get really cold, it’s advised to keep your car plugged in somewhere if it’s going to sit for more than a couple of hours, otherwise the viscosity of oil and other fluids begins to be affected, which can cause major problems. To make things even easier on we creatures of comfort, these days most cars are equipped with an auto-start device. Simply press a button on your keychain from inside of a warm building, up to hundreds of feet away, and there starts the engine. Wait a while, exit building, enter car, drive away. One nice and completely unexpected perk to this severity of cold I might note is that it is rare to have to scrape ice off your windshield. I thought for sure that unpleasant chore would occupy a significant chunk of my morning routine, but so far I’ve brushed a bit of snow off and that’s it. No scraping required, and no frozen shut car doors. Yet. I bet when it gets warmer these things will happen, and apparently it can also rain ice on occasion coating everything, but when it’s this cold it’s way too dry to melt then refreeze. Nice.
Driving. Living here obviously entails driving in poor driving conditions. My first couple days here, I thought about how road and weather conditions in town were such that in most places I’ve lived, including many years in Colorado ski towns, most people would have stayed home for the day. The driver of the taxi I took from the airport to hotel said it best in that in you don’t need snow tires but ice tires. Because that’s what you drive on. Ice. It doesn’t generally snow very much in the Interior. But that snow doesn’t melt, especially on city streets. It turns to ice and stays that way. While the main highways are generally clear dry pavement, at least in one lane each way, as soon as you exit onto a town or city street you’re back on packed snow and ice. The good news is that there are some incredible tires available which incorporate some cool technologies to provide super grip. Blizzaks are the brand of choice, and they work well.
Another thing which helps is that people are collectively accustomed to driving on the ice, so generally don’t do too many stupid things. In the summer a lot of Alaskans drive like assholes—fast and furious tailgaters and everyone with broken windshields to show for it. In the winter, however, good spacing and good sense prevail. As far as type of vehicle, there are people driving around in just about everything, even Camaros. For my money, a good front-wheel-drive is all one needs, and often handles a lot better than some macho truck. I prefer the simplicity, gas mileage, and all-season compatibility. Thankfully, neither my ego nor my manhood are affected by the size or model of my car.
Check out the plug on this sweet ride.
Other Truths. Global climate change has severely impacted Alaska. According to the Alaskan Division of Geological and Geophysical Surveys, Alaska has warmed twice as fast as the rest of the US. Major environmental alterations have been set in motion. I am not even going to begin to detail them here, though it’s fascinating and somewhat frightening stuff if you care to research further. Melting permafrost, receding glaciers, reduced snow, increased flooding, intensifying storm systems, dying and invading species of flora and fauna alike, and on and on. We’ll ignore the deniers for this one, and admit that our actions and lifestyles represent the driving factors in all of it.
Therefore it’s tough to admit that even though Alaska is experiencing negative consequences of unbridled carbon emissions at a significantly increased rate—if everyone lived as we do up here the process might be exacerbated ten-fold. This represents one of the ethical dilemmas one must either acknowledge or ignore as a resident. From a practical perspective, it would be difficult to act as an environmentalist concerned with one’s personal contribution to climate change and live in Alaska at the same time. On the other hand, the state has a severe need for people who care about the land and the resources and protecting what remains.
Living a modern lifestyle in such a severe climate necessitates major energy consumption and carbon emission. As described, the crude oil leaves on ships, then has to be brought back on ships to be burned up, all consuming fuel in the process. Most all goods, including comestibles, must also be flown or shipped in. To date, I have purchased a single bag of carrots with a ‘Grown in Alaska’ label, everything else had to be transported in from somewhere far away via plane, boat, and truck. Those January strawberries I mentioned, they’re here, along with everything else you might find in the local super store wherever you live. The power needs in winter are enormous. Natural gas covers some of the heating, but a lot of energy comes via facilities which burn coal (which is abundant in Alaska). Heating is also provided the old-fashioned way in the form of wood burning stoves, which sounds harmless and quaint, but actually contributes significantly to carbon emissions and poor air quality, something one might not expect when envisioning a city surrounded by pristine wilderness. And then there’s all that driving around and pre-heating vehicles and leaving them sitting around idling for hours solely in order to avoid getting into a cold car.
These factors not only cause long term environmental effects, but also contribute to immediate problems in the form of winter air pollution. Part of this is simply that there’s all this stuff going up into the air—but that stuff is going up into the air the world round. The second part has to do with extreme temperatures and the inversion they cause, which traps all of that nastiness close to the ground for days at a time. When temperatures drop below -20° warmer air covers the cold sump created in the Tanana Valley where urban populations are located. And with no wind to speak of, nothing leaves. A thick cloud of particulates forms over Fairbanks and the surrounding areas. Experiencing this haze of smog is like looking at the removed lungs of a lifetime smoker. This is what we’re doing to ourselves. I live about 20 miles southeast of the city in a little town called North Pole, which, unbeknownst to me before moving here, at the worst of these specific times has the unfortunate reputation of having some of the most polluted air in the world—even worse than Beijing according to some data. Thankfully, this phenomenon comes and goes, but it serves as an unpleasant reminder of much larger issues.
Love/Hate this photo. Coal smoke from power plant makes a 90° turn. Inversion.
View of Fairbanks from Birch Hill ski trails. Note the smoke coming out of everything.
Stop the Insanity. The last thing I’ll touch on as far as daily living up here is how people deal with spending winters in extremes. Getting through the cold, dark, and lonely. Having been here only a month, I can only offer secondhand accounts, recent observations, and my own developing strategies. Like I said, most folks just stay indoors. As much as possible they minimize time and distance from one artificially warm location to the next artificially warm location. They heat their cars up before they get in them and leave them running if they have errands to take do. Inside the buildings and houses, it’s the same as about everywhere at any time of the year. Lots of screen time. Though forced time indoors, with the right mindset, can certainly be viewed as an opportunity. Time to get creative in the kitchen, time to read books, do some research, tool around on an instrument, etc. People also cope by using sun lamps, taking vitamin D, baking in tanning salons. Some people prefer the bar or the bottle. Some just wait for summer and all that daylight.
Out the Kitchen Window. Early January.
For better or worse, I’m not quite wired like that and have to get outside for at least a while each day. I don’t care how cold it is. Even shoveling snow or driving the plow truck at work (something I wouldn’t normally consider an outdoor activity) is way better than being inside all day. I’ve been doing a lot of cross country skiing, both as exploration for my new job and in my off time, and trying to get to know the area and all it has to offer. While researching local trails I came across a ‘Trails Challenge’ put on by Fairbanks Parks and Rec each winter and summer season. The idea is to travel the listed trails by one of whatever means is allowed on that particular trail (snow biking, running, walking, skiing, snowshoeing, dog mushing, snow machining (as they call it here)), find signs on each one, and snap a selfie and eventually achieve the ‘coveted Trail Blazer award.’ It’s been a great starting point and motivator. I have yet to find anyone interested in joining me on the trails, but I have come across a few other people on a couple of them, at least.
I’ve also been trying to be my own ‘Yes Man.’ Anything I see that looks moderately interesting and may have a social component I’ll make an attempt at. Yoga class this Monday? Okay. Exercise dance class at the gym? Uh, I guess.
The gym too, can be a positive for a lot of people this time of year. A good place to alleviate lethargy, get motivated, and perhaps work on goals one might not normally focus on in other seasons. I’m lucky enough to have a great facility available, and it’s entertaining to try out new machines, new exercises, and switch up the normal routine for a while. Gotta look good come swimsuit season.
The one communal outdoor activity I’ve managed to take part in was definitely inimitable most places, and way more fun than I’d imagined. The Running Club North of Fairbanks sponsors a ‘Fahrenheit be Darned’ run each Wednesday night throughout the winter. I found their website early on, but normally work evenings, so wasn’t able to attend the first couple weeks I was here. About a week ago, however, I had a Wednesday off, and found myself in Fairbanks that afternoon. I hemmed and hawed about sticking around, but ended up making it to the university just in time to join up with about 10 other intrepid athletes for that evening’s event. We ran a five mile course around campus. It was pitch black, and icy, and snowing a bit, and around -13°—which they noted later was much warmer than the two previous weeks. And it was a good time. I hope to do a couple more before winter is over, but getting out that night also gave me the confidence and inspiration I needed to get out on my own last week for some packed snow trail running at -20°. Freedom!
Anyways, winter schminter… It’s February now. -35° this morning, but predicted to leap into double positive digits over the next couple of days. We could even see 15°. That’s a 50° shift—get out the board shorts and tank tops! Ric, who I met on the river this summer, lived in Fairbanks from ‘76-87 and describes those years as a very formative time in his life. He writes, ‘Always liked February. ‘Big Gain Month’ is how we used to call it. Winter’s back is broken and the temperature daylight curve starts to steepen. You are on the downhill side of it. You’re gonna survive!’