Picture Alaskan winters and images of dog-sledding, polar bears, and blizzards likely come to mind. That isn’t entirely inaccurate — but it doesn’t paint a complete picture, either. Winter in Alaska has its joys; it’s also as much a harsh reality as it is a state of mind. Spending winter up north will teach you a few things about cold, isolation, and survival == and it may also surprise you.
Here are 13 things only people who spend the winter in Alaska understand.
1. It isn’t bitterly cold everywhere.
Despite the perception that Alaskan winters rival the ones in Winterfell, temperatures only average around 25 degrees in most of the state’s coastal areas. While we’re no stranger to blizzards and below-zero cold snaps, many Alaskans enjoy milder winters than our friends in the Northeast and Midwest US.
2. But the -40-degree weather is no joke.
Winters in the state’s interior or above the Arctic Circle fall more in line with the usual stereotypes. October-March (or April, or May) can be tough… even dangerous. At 40 below, eyelashes can get frosty, contact with metal will damage exposed skin, and boiling water can freeze within seconds. Hypothermia and frostbite pose real threats, and windchill can make everything feel colder. So you won’t leave the house without layers, full facial coverage, and possibly a backup set of hand and toe warmers.
3. You have to work at staving off Seasonal Affective Disorder.
If you’re not careful, spending the winter in Alaska can trigger an existential crisis. It’s cold, dark, and lonely; work is usually slow; and if you don’t keep busy, cabin fever can sneak up on you. One study shows that up to 10% of Alaskans suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder. So it’s important to find your personal formula for keeping the winter blues at bay — whether it’s exercise, a “happy light,” or mid-winter travel to a tropical destination.
4. The sunsets are at their most spectacular.
Alaska’s most dramatic sunsets take place in the wintertime, and they offer a nice contrast to summer’s perpetual twilight. Those stunning alpenglow hues cast over snowy peaks are a decent consolation prize on days when the sun goes down by 3:30 pm.
5. And the northern lights are divine.
The northern lights are just as magical as they appear in any magazine, and they are best viewed on chill, crisp, and clear nights. In addition to checking the weather, we keep an eye on the aurora forecast and don’t mind trading a little sleep to watch their green and bold red hues twinkle across a starry winter sky.
6. Vehicles must be weatherized.
Properly outfitting your vehicle a necessary winter chore. Studded tires must be purchased, along with block heaters to keep your engine insulated. Emergency kits are checked and re-stocked. And since you’ll be starting your car up to 45 minutes before leaving home every day, you may even be tempted to invest in an autostart.
7. Daylight savings is our mortal enemy.
While the rest of the country groans about losing morning hours, daylight savings in Alaska is practically a day of mourning. As we begrudgingly set back our clocks, we feel robbed of that last hour of sunlight we could have enjoyed after work. Suffice to say — we consider the time change to be our personal nemesis.
8. Heating bills are practically criminal.
No matter how hard we try to be frugal by stacking firewood for our wood stove or religiously monitoring the temperature of the gas or electric heater, heating a home through 6 months of winter is never cheap. And skimping is not an option — without heat, pipes will freeze, utilities will stop functioning, and general mayhem will set in.
9. You can’t leave home without ice cleats.
With slick ice threatening pedestrians everywhere, ice cleats are a winter-must. This handy set of spikes fits snugly over your shoes so you can cross the most treacherous street, sidewalk, or parking lot without fear.
10. It’s a great time for a passion project.
How do Alaskans make it through the long winter? Besides frolicking around our winter wonderland, we get to work on personal projects. Winter is ideal for your wood-working or pottery habit, knitting and sewing up a storm, or get started on your novel. And 5 months in, keeping your hands and mind occupied will help you hold onto your sanity.
11. Winter is best spent outdoors.
Alaskans are all about our winter sports — whether sledding, ice skating, skiing, snow machining, or playing pond hockey, we love them all. These pursuits have us praying for snow and freezing temperatures come October, because winter is inevitable, and we might as well enjoy our favorite activities sooner rather than later.
12. The stillness will breed reflection.
Once summer is done and you finally have the time to unwind, something will come over you. When the cold sets in, and everything turns quiet and bleak, sooner or later your mind will start to reflect your surroundings. Winter can provide ample opportunity to regroup and to set new priorities — or it can send you to dark places. But we know that alongside the reflection, there’s always a little bit of renewal. Soon spring break-up will come, the world will start turning again, and we’ll be drawn back out of ourselves — maybe even a little wiser for the wear.
13. Everything slows down.
After the tourists and the snowbirds leave, and shops start to close down, and the snow starts to fall, our instincts to hibernate kick in. In the winter our pace of life slows way down, and we retreat into our homes to tend to our projects and our families. While the days darken and activity starts to lag, we conserve our energy, and focus not just on enduring the next few month, but savoring them the best we can.