Monday, December 10, 2012

Things They Don't Tell You About Winter in Alaska

You already knew about the months of limited daylight, the sub-zero windchill, and the 8-10 feet of snow.   Here's what they don't tell you about winter in the 49th state. 

Resurrection Bay, Seward

  • If a piece of metal gets cold enough, your hand will stick to it.   Kind of like the kid licking the flagpole, except you don't even need to use a particularly wet body part - your index finger and an iced-over gate latch will demonstrate this effect just fine.
  • In the winter, you will give electric shocks of static electricity to everything you touch.   Doorknobs, pets, children, iPods…   If it can carry a charge, you will give it one.   Constantly.
  • Most city streets get temporary winter-season dividers between the oncoming lanes, in the form of giant piles of snow that have been plowed into the middle of the road and left until spring.   Intersections between streets are usually left clear - but don't plan on being able to turn left into someone's driveway, because that side of the street is probably barricaded.  
  • Your car needs winter gear, too - except gear for the car is more expensive.   Getting a set of studded tires, an engine block heater, and an auto-start will set you back about $600 or so.   It makes that Patagonia 800-fill goose down parka with the detachable faux-fur hood look cheap in comparison
  • Christmas is sot of a big deal in Alaska, partially because in the middle of a cold, dark time of the year, it’s good to be able to look forward to a time where a family can gather together and enjoy a respite from the daily challenges of winter.   For most Alaskans, this means a vacation to Hawaii.   For the rest of us, Christmas dinner will do in a pinch.  
  • The dead animals get festive - because nothing says ‘Alaskan holidays’ quite like a string of Christmas lights decorating a caribou head.
  • The weather becomes even more a topic of conversation than it does in the summer, perhaps because there isn’t much else going on.   I’ve found that Alaskans are more creative in discussing the weather than people in the Lower 48.   For one, the weather here is a little more intense – we routinely measure snow in feet, not inches, and wind speed in Beaufort storm scales, not miles per hour.   Another popular climactic pastime is comparing the current weather to whatever the weather was doing at the same time last year, or the year before.   (If nothing else, you can always say that no matter how bad the weather is this week/month/season, it is better than the same week/month/season in 2008.)
  • A subset about talking about weather is talking about earthquakes – how long it lasted, what shook and for how long, under what sort of object you took shelter, and what you did immediately afterwards to make sure a tsunami wasn’t on its way to obliterate coastal towns in your area.
  • When traveling outside of the state, most non-Alaskans you meet will be fascinated by your local weather - even if it isn’t all that fascinating to you.   Prepare for these inevitable conversations by making sure that you know the current average temperature, hours of daylight, and inches/feet of snow on the ground for your area before leaving the state.   People you have never met before will, on learning you are from Alaska, want to know your local weather, and how many feet of snow is sitting in your yard.   They will want to know how you personally can stand living somewhere that dark and cold.    If you would rather not spend your entire vacation discussing seasonal affective disorder, consider just telling people you live ‘out west’.   This is a good strategy for dodging weather conversations entirely.   No one wants to hear about your weather if there is even a remote chance that you live in southern California.

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