Talkeetna Winters…Handle With Respect!

I never doubted Alaskan winters in general and Talkeetna winters in particular would be extreme and could be potentially life threatening but once again I approached this concept accepting it from an intellectual perspective.  I’m quickly learning there’s a rather sizable gulf between intellectually knowing winter temps can and will drop into the minus double digits and actually experiencing these conditions to the point you now understand it on an emotional and even a spiritual level.  Let me be clear; I’m built for cold and have always loved it!  My idea of a good summer day would see partly to mostly cloudy skies, low humidity and a high temp in the low to middle 60’s (F).  Once temps rise into the middle seventies I begin to get uncomfortable and I’m just plain hot at 80 F; anything above this – particularly with dew points at or above 62 F – is just plain miserable for me.  I don’t know why I am this way; in 60 years of dealing with this I’ve just come to accept it.

The flip side of this situation is I can walk around outside in shorts and a tee-shirt when the air temp is at or slightly below freezing and feel invigorated.  In SE Michigan I regularly amazed the staff at the Sunrise of Northville facility when I’d show up to volunteer wearing just the aforementioned along with sandals and there would be snow on the ground (although the sidewalks were clear…) and the air temp would be in the teens.  Cold just doesn’t negatively impact me in the same fashion it does so many other folks.  The fact that I chose to retire to Alaska – and do so for the entire year not departing for the winters like so many folks – really supports my preference for cold.  And let’s face it; how many people do you know who at 60 years of age retire to the coldest of the fifty states and just loves it?  As I said I accepted this fact decades back but often my choice in clothing during my working years would mortify my co-workers; they largely felt I was a slob.  But the reality of it was simply I couldn’t dress wearing anything tight around my neck or just about any part of my body and not be extremely uncomfortable in temperatures that most offices deem ‘normal’.  Anytime I had to wear a suit and tie I was destined to be a sodden mess after just a few hours even if the interior office temps were in the low to middle seventies and I was just sitting in a meeting.  That’s just how it was…

However, because I had decades of experience living in this fashion and because I knew I was built for cold temps I arrived in Alaska intellectually knowing it would get cold but somehow not allowing this understanding to translate to a serious review of my outdoor apparel choices.  Thankfully Alaska has been good to me in that it’s allowed me to discover this ‘disconnect’ on my part without taking any fingers or toes!  With this said I’m already amazing local folks who have lived here all their lives with the relative scarcity of heavy winter clothing I’ve chosen to date.  As one old-timer told me; “Boy, you were made for Alaska!”.  Yep, I already knew that..!  But with the onset of some fairly cold weather across the last two weeks I’ve been forced to recognize even I cannot be cavalier when its -13 F or colder outside and I’m going to take the dogs for a walk.  Initially I tried wearing just a long sleeve tee-shirt, fleece vest, sweat pants, heavy socks, my superlative Kenetrek heavy hiking boots, a Gore-Tex rain shell and poly pro glove liners.  At least I had the wisdom to carry my balaclava and another set of heavier gloves because within five minutes of starting the walk I was wearing these upgrades!  To date the coldest air temp I’ve had the dogs out for a walk in was -16.8 F and even with heavier clothing I quickly learned that any exposed flesh will begin to become very cold if there’s any breeze at all.  Surprisingly if the air is calm I’m okay but when there’s even a wind of just three to five miles per hour within maybe fifteen minutes I can feel exposed flesh beginning to ‘burn’ which I know to be a warning its time to either get indoors or cover said exposed skin…immediately!!  I’ve come to understand that when the snow actually ‘squeals’ when I walk on it I need to be outfitted with heavy outdoor clothing.  I have spent perhaps ten minutes outdoors in the yard with the dogs when it was -21.5 F and that was a real eye opener!  Even though it was calm with blazing sunshine the exposed skin around my mouth and eyes was starting to feel that burning sensation and my eyes felt as though they were rapidly dehydrating within just a few minutes.  I was able to remedy these issues with more items from my winter apparel selection like insulated mittens (they really are warmer than similar gloves!), a thick scarf and a heavy watch cap but it was still a real wake up call for me.  With this said I must admit to eagerly awaiting air temps below -30 F as I’m curious as to what I will have to wear to be comfortable.  Without question I will have to cover all exposed skin and I will also have to wear at least three layers of clothing and probably four; no big deal as layering is a way of life in Alaska!

And I have not forgotten about my four-legged companions!!  I watch Qanuk (my German Shepherd Dog) like a hawk when the air temps are in the minus double digits and I’ve already learned his energy and exuberance will cause him to ignore signs of over-exposure to the cold.  Twice now he’s returned to the house only to then whine and complain about his paws.  Anana, being an Alaskan Malamute, is much better suited to these extremes but with this said she is an indoor dog and is not really able to weather extreme cold for long periods of time.  For Qanuk’s sake I’ve come to realize that when the air temp is -10 F to -16 F we need to hold our walks to 40 minutes maximum.  I extrapolate that if the air temps are -17 F to -25 F we’ll probably be forced to head inside after just 30 minutes.  In temps below -30 F we just will not take walks…period.

Experiencing such cold has truly opened my eyes to the potential for suddenly finding one’s self in a serious situation; while walking along East Barge Drive when it was -16.8 F I wondered what I would do if I slipped and broke an ankle or a leg..?  During my 60 to 80 minute  walks with the dogs along these local roads I rarely see more than maybe one vehicle so waiting for a car to drive by most likely is not an option.  At those air temps lying on the hard packed, icy road surface would be a death sentence within an hour if not less.  The smart move would be to drag one’s self to the snow just beyond the road’s edge as it’s almost a foot and a half in depth and hence would offer both cushioning and insulation.  The boreal forest could also possibly offer downed branches which could serve as a crutch but finding them in such snow could be problematic.  I’ve often wondered if I could get Anana and Qanuk to pull me back to the house..?  Anana is a Mal and hence a freighting dog but I am more than twice her weight.  If the two of them worked as a team I know they could do so but that’s a big ‘if’.  All told not a lot of good options; I do carry my cell with me while taking these walks but service can be spotty and relying strictly on it, in my opinion, would be a mistake.

The very fact that I am considering such scenarios and options highlights to me the potentially serious nature of just slipping while on these walks but it also pleases me that I recognize the possible dangers and am thinking about alternatives.  I do not dwell on such scenarios; I moved up here because I love Alaska and I was already familiar with how quickly things could ‘go south’ even in the summers.  To this I need only add that the annual number one killer of human beings in Alaska is hypothermia; that pretty much sums it up.  Without question I am learning – intellectually, emotionally and spiritually – that the incredible beauty of Alaska especially in winter should not blind one to the inherent dangers of this magnificent land.  A cavalier attitude is something to leave at the door of one’s house regardless of the season!  But a willingness to understand the situation as well as the risks and to work with Nature rather than against her can remove a lot of the risk.  And for someone like me managing these risks is well worth the effort and the reward of exploring my new home!

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