Posted on January 20, 2017
Cold Alaska Winters
The last few winters were mild in Southcentral Alaska. But this winter is colder, back to our historical norms. It’s hovering around -10 F (-23 C) here, which is nothing compared to temperatures in Alaska’s Arctic and Interior regions. That got me thinking about anecdotes of winter’s cold in Alaska.
The first one that comes to mind is a classic short story, “To Build a Fire” by Jack London (first published in Century Magazine in 1908). I shared it with hundreds of high school sophomores over the years. Here’s a passage that always got my students’ attention:
As he turned to go on, he spat speculatively. There was a sharp, explosive crackle that startled him. He spat again. And again. in the air, before it could fall to the snow, the spittle crackled. He knew that at fifty below spittle crackled on the snow, but this spittle had crackled in the air.
(Spit and other liquids really do that in extreme temperatures.) You can read the whole story at Story of the Week by the Library of America at
Of course, there are real, nonfiction, anecdotes, too. We have to do things a little differently when it’s really cold. For example, keeping cars and other vehicles running in extreme cold can be tricky. Sometimes block heaters aren’t enough. People put space heaters under their oil pans, to thaw the oil to start the engine. The part of the tires that touches the ground freezes flat at about -40, so tires go thud, thud, thud, until they warm up and get round again. Smart Alaskans keep survival gear, or at least extra warm clothing, in their cars in case they break down and have to walk to safety.
Also, the severe cold seems to suck all the moisture out of the air. The dry air creates more static electricity, so people touch wood before they touch a person or metal—you don’t want to blow out your TV in cold weather. And a tip for those who use an outhouse in winter: styrofoam is warmer than a wood seat, and it is worth it to store the seat in the cabin and bring it out with you when you need to use it.
I know that other parts of the world have their cold, too. But it’s part of the Alaskan mystique. It makes us feel proud, a little tougher than the average person, to go through it here. So please forgive our bragging when we get a cold winter.
Now I’ll go put on another layer of clothes, and be thankful I have a warm house to live in. Wishing you a warm and comfy day wherever you are!