Getting outdoor loosens winter’s grip

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With so many homeless Alaskans grappling with the challenges of another cold winter, it seems almost callous to write about outdoor recreation. But most Alaskans I know are outdoorsy, and those who can don’t let the cold, dark, and short days of the season keep them indoors.

From skiing and snowshoeing and ice skating to ice fishing and dog mushing; Bird watching, fat tire biking, snow blowing and photography, there are so many things to do outdoors that for some winters just aren’t long enough – especially when you factor in work, sleep and chores like shoveling snow.

Of course, to do anything outdoors at this time of year, appropriate clothing and other equipment is required. Compared to the kind of stuff we got as kids in the 1950s, today’s gear is almost on par with an astronaut’s space suit.

For example, growing up in Pennsylvania, my mom kind of figured that thin cotton socks tucked into tight-fitting leather skates would be okay in 50-70 degree temperatures at the Seward school rink. Unfreezing my feet was one of the most painful experiences I can remember.

Cotton was king then, and as we know, it’s utterly worthless when wet. Shirts, coats, hats, mittens, and other items for kids like me were mostly cotton. But my father soon introduced my mother to wool, and my childhood outdoor pursuits improved dramatically.

I’m certainly not an expert on the latest and greatest winter gear. But after spending a lot of time outdoors for more than half a century, I know what works for me. Today we are fortunate to have a variety of garments made from synthetic fabrics such as polyester, nylon, polyethylene, polypropylene, neoprene, rayon and others that serve as great inner layers. They are strong and wick moisture away from the body, but are still breathable. As an intermediate layer, I use fleece jackets in various thicknesses and sometimes a light down jacket. For outer layers, I opt for coats and pants made from fabrics like Gore-Tex, which are breathable, water- and wind-resistant.

I use wool for hats, balaclavas, socks and am the proud owner of 100% Merino wool pants. Not 80%, but 100%! If I have a serious cold, I wear down-filled dungarees and a 700 down jacket and heavy Arctic mittens.

My winter boots are one size larger than necessary to accommodate a thick wool sock. The boots have a thick felt sole that will get me through temperatures of around minus 20 degrees as long as I attach these little sticky chemical toe warmers to my inner sock. As my hands get older, they don’t tolerate the cold as well, so I often use chemical hand warmers in my gloves or mittens.

Of course, clothing depends on the job. The immobility of ice fishing, for example, requires rabbit boots and something appropriate for an Antarctic expedition unless you have a shack equipped with a heater, beer cooler, and television.

During a strenuous activity like skiing, snowshoeing, skating, climbing, or biking, getting overheated is more of a problem than staying warm. Layering clothing is essential. Since my glasses fog up over my nose when I put on the balaclava, I take them off. Fortunately, I can see adequately without them. But I’m interested in something like tight-fitting prescription glasses.

On a visit to Utqiagvik (then Barrow) many years ago, I learned an important lesson about heating from the inside: one of the residents saw that I had problems with the cold, even though I wore much heavier clothing than he did. He gave me a piece of fried walrus meat, rich in fat, and I was toasty and warm for two days.

define cold

I’ve found that our perception of cold and how we deal with it varies widely and is quite subjective. Cold with damp bothers me more than many people. I’d rather have temperatures 2 degrees below zero – say, in the dry air of Talkeetna – than 10 degrees above in the humid air of Seward or Valdez.

Wind changes everything, of course. For me, 20 degrees even with a light wind is much less tolerable than minus 10 without.

I once told a friend from Lower 48 that I’d lived in Alaska my entire life. He asked me to remember the time when I was coldest. My answer: Chicago.

I recently looked up NASA readings from the Perseverance rover on Mars, now wintering in Jezero Crater in the planet’s northern hemisphere. On December 20, the maximum temperature was minus 14 degrees, significantly warmer than many Alaskan communities’ high temperature readings for that day. For example, the maximum temperature in Fairbanks was minus 38 degrees. But I wouldn’t have endured the nightly minimum temperatures of minus 124 degrees on Mars even with my best equipment.

fight cold

On these short days, my friends and I like to seek out the sun. We look for south-facing ridges that are safe from avalanches and hike or snowshoe there. Sitting in front of a dark tree or rock that collects heat, in direct sunlight and a possible temperature inversion (causing warm air to rise), one can enjoy an ambient temperature 20 degrees higher than at the valley floor.

Basking in the sun in December and January is definitely a mood booster and better than full-spectrum light treatments, which are touted to relieve cabin fever, in my opinion.

If it’s possible, one of the best ways to get through the long winter season is to get outside and immerse yourself in Alaska’s beauty — no matter the activity. At this time of year, whether our gaze is fixed on the setting sun, the rising moon or the star-studded sky, we are inexorably drawn to the light.

Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer based in Eagle River.

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