Surviving in the cold Alaskan takes good equipment and common sense in knowing when and how to use it.
Winter was easy until recently. A few weeks ago the weather returned to a more normal pattern. Delta Junction and the Paxson area fell to over 30 below zero. Ten below is about as hot as it has been. People who wait and enjoy winter agree with that. Not many people claim to like 30 or 40 below, but most can cope with it and stay on the outside.
Outdoor gear has changed, that’s for sure. It is much more difficult to find decent material than it was 20 years ago. The army, which used to be the best and most reliable source of cold weather boots and the like, has little left over. Other purportedly âin extreme cold weatherâ vendors mostly haul yuppie junk. Jackets, boots and mittens will suffice from the car to the store. Their best gear will keep you warm outside in the yard for about 20 minutes.
There is an outdoor clothing rental location in Fairbanks that rents equipment to tourists (there may be several). Groups came for mushing rides with rental gear that wouldn’t keep them comfortable for an hour, even with chemical heaters in their boots and mittens. These people come from the south. How would they know what they need? They trust an Alaskan supplier who is supposed to be an expert. It is a sad state of affairs in Alaska.
Wednesday morning, I was waiting at a departure point far from the glacier for the clients to arrive. The temperature was 10 below with a light breeze. A beautiful winter day for someone well dressed. A couple showed up in a small car and asked for the way to the glacier. I pointed them, but added that there was no trail due to 8 inches of fresh snow overnight and a bit of drift. I had driven a machine to the base of the glacier and back, but it was not walkable. It would be easy with skis or snowshoes. The couple had neither.
Nevertheless, they left. The girl was wearing pajama pants and a nylon jacket without a hood. The guy had jeans and a light jacket. No neckband, no hood. The suggestion that maybe more material was needed was accepted: “Oh, it’s okay, if we’re cold we’ll turn around.” I forgot to mention that the couple were wearing tennis shoes. They turned around.
Alaska is changing. There are a number of people who go out for these short day trips. The vast majority of them are ill prepared. This winter, I met over a hundred people on various trails. Few of those have a minimum of the basic equipment needed for a successful hour-long hike. Children of 4 and 5 are dragged dressed like their parents. Children are basic. They are cold; they are crying. Mom and Dad yearn to bring the kids to the car. I helped more than one stumbling adventurer to their feet and guided them on the trail for the last part to their vehicle.
That scares me. It is unlikely that someone will suffer from severe frostbite within a radius of about a mile after leaving their vehicle. What is most often the case, the underdresses no longer go out and tell scandalous stories about the freezing cold of Alaska.
My message here is the following; before you go on an adventure, use some common sense and prepare yourself too much. Mountain regions are very ruthless. The glacier does not give a good goldarnit if you freeze, live or die. Your family could.
Good socks are readily available. Don’t buy into the hype of Merino or Smartwool. Both are wonderful, of course, but thickness is the key here. The lightweight Smartwool isn’t worth much. Heavyweight is awesome. Do not wear gloves! Get good mittens that are loose enough on your hands to put on extra liner. Chemical hand warmers are good inventions. Don’t rely on them for the long haul, but for two or three hour trips they’re great. If they claim to stay warm for eight hours, that’s hogwash. Reduce this time by two-thirds. Don’t wear transport boots unless they look at least twice the size of your feet. A pack of boots that are less than two sizes larger than the shoe you usually wear is worthless.
Boots with some type of foam lining are best. They leave enough air around your feet for a chemical heater to work. The foam liners will allow you to warm your toes by wiggling them. Boots lined with felt do not.
The bunny boots are decent. They are not what they used to be. The new ones were last manufactured in 1992. The “new” Mickey Mouse boots that we buy are 30 years old.
Snowmobile equipment is the best available for your legs. For the upper body, nylon jackets should be covered with a good parka. A parka without strawberries is like a pizza without cheese. Always bring snowshoes to Alaska. There might have been a trail you’re heading … last week. It may have snowed or blown since. Don’t trust other people to tell you what gear they used. No two people manage the cold in the same way.
Alaska is a winter wonderland for those who are well prepared. It’s miserable, cold and dark, for those who aren’t.