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!

3 Responses

  1. Cinthia Ritchie says:

    Brrr! I do love the moods and colors of the Alaska winter, I especially love running along the Coastal Trail right before sunset and how the sky slowly darkens and the snow picks up the only light. Everything becomes softer, and so quiet. It is one of my favorite things. But the cold? I just can’t handle the extreme cold. It feels mean to me, and brutal. Which is why we’re vacationing in Tucson, for while I’ve never been able to tolerate the cold, I can easily tolerate the heat. I adore the heat! It’s odd, then, isn’t it, that I love Alaska so, so much and yet I am always, always cold, even in the summer. It’s one of life’s small paradoxes, I suppose. Cheers and have a great week.

  2. You too, Cinthia. Soak up that heat! 🙂

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