In October and November, we start losing daylight at a rate of 7 minutes per day. As the days shorten, the temperature starts to drop as well. Many people up here consider October to be the most difficult month because it feels pretty dark until the snow starts sticking. Snow is highly reflective, so even when its dark outside, it can feel fairly bright out if the moon is up. Fortunately, we received a lot of snow in October and November, which helped with the darkness and laid the foundation for a great ski season.
The cold was definitely something that took getting used to. When the temperature first started dropping below freezing, it felt very cold, and the thought that the temperature could drop 70 degrees lower was hard to fathom. That said, once it started snowing everyone was hoping the temperature would stay below freezing. The reason being that when the snow melts it makes things incredibly icy to the extent that simply walking out to the car can be difficult. For this reason, UAF passes out micro-spikes for your boots to prevent people from getting injured when they walk into their buildings. This was only a problem for a couple days until it snowed some more.
The other benefit of the snow and cold weather is that it makes it much easier to travel out in the backcountry. People who cross-country ski, snowshoe, or fat bike absolutely love the cold weather because all the streams and marshy lands freeze and turn into excellent paths. We got our first taste of traveling in the backcountry when a colleague invited us out to his cabin for the weekend after Thanksgiving.
The cabin was located 8 miles off a main road, so the six of us snowmobiled, skied, and hiked in. Matthew graciously offered me a snowmobile, which was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. During the first 45 minutes, I got quite comfortable handling the snowmobile. There were a couple tricky drops and short, steep banks as we crossed the frozen stream on the way in that I handled well. Just about the time I was feeling confident in my skills, I noticed there was a small branch lying across the path. Matthew was already 100 m ahead of me, so I assumed that it was safe to navigate, since he’d just gone over it. Unfortunately, I was wrong. I went over the small branch and one of the skis got hooked beneath it. Instead of the branch breaking, the right ski of the snowmobile broke off – I felt horrible. The good news was that Matthew has made his career snow sampling typically on long snowmobile expeditions in the arctic and had the skills to fix anything. He assured me it’d be alright and fortunately had a spare for the broken bolt back at the cabin. I hopped on the back of his snowmobile for the last mile and we dropped off the group’s supplies. We also got the wood-stove burning to warm up the cabin before returning to the snowmobile. It turned out to be a quick fix and 20 minutes later I drove my snowmobile into camp feeling relieved.
The cabin and its surrounding felt like it belonged on a postcard. The trees were completely snow-covered and smoke was coming out of the chimney of the wood-burning stove that was doing a tremendous job of keeping the cabin warm. There were two beds in the cabin, so the rest of us were spending the night in an Arctic-oven tent. As the name implies, the tent has a wood-burning stove of its own for warmth. In fact, the oven worked so well the first night that the main problem was that we were too hot. Over the course of the night the temperature in the tent oscillated between 90°F to -10°F. A new log would burn for about an hour, so you’d fall asleep and then wake up a couple hours later to a cold tent. Sometimes the cold naturally woke me up, and other times it was a nice poke in the head from Leigh. No words needed, it was time for me to add another piece of wood to the fire and warm things up again. On the second night when the temperature dropped to -35°F, it was a pretty cool to think that we were sleeping outside. As one might expect, the bathroom was also a latrine outside – sleeping and going to the bathroom outside at -35°F – that’s going to be a tough record for us to break!
When we weren’t sleeping, most of our time was spent in the cabin eating, playing games, and hanging out. Both nights we had a wonderful Thanksgiving meal that was prepared in the cabin’s kitchen. When the sun was out, everyone took to the trails to go hiking and skiing. When the weather is cold, the sky is typically clear since any clouds will actually trap in heat and warm up the air. Hence, we had clear skies all weekend, which made for some wonderful sunsets and beautiful starry nights.
Two days later it was time to head back to the cars and face the moment of truth– were the cars going to start after the temperature had been so cold for the last few days? One of the first things we did in preparation for winter was put on our snow tires and get our car “winterized”. This included installing an engine block heater, battery pad heater, and oil pain heater, so we could plug our car into an outlet with an extension cord. Needless to say, there were no outlets to plug our car into where we were. When I turned the key to the car, it took a full five seconds before the engine turned over, but it did! In the event that the cars didn’t start, Matthew had brought an extra battery with him, so we were well-prepared to jumpstart the cars again. I’ve heard from others that you can also create a small fire and then put the coals underneath the engine to warm things up. Fortunately, we were all set, and shortly thereafter were on our way back home. While we certainly enjoyed the adventure of the weekend, I think we both were ready for a nice hot shower and a warm place to sleep in our house that night.
Leigh joins me in writing about our adventures living in Alaska.