Contributor: Michelle Denault
Having spent the last five winters living within the Foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountain range in California, I would be commonly referred to as 'green' by Alaskans. In fact, even having grown up in New England pales in comparison to camping out in 40 below weather. When I was looking to move to Alaska I remember coming across a posting in which a man mentioned that not only do you have to pay ridiculous fees to transport your belongings across Canada to Alaska by any method of travel but you also have to buy a whole new wardrobe if you plan on going out at all. Boy was he right! From 60 below pac boots to liner gloves, snow pants, gators, a down coat, a fleece coat to go under it to wool socks, $75 dollar mittens and layers upon layers, I sure did! You think you have winter clothes until you try playing outdoors in Alaska and realize most of what you had bought in preparation needs to go.
It’s interesting how a state so new compared to some in our nation can carry a unique underlying culture that sets itself apart. Differences someone green like me would notice about what is called the last great frontier on the planet? Well for starters, people wear fur here...not simply as a style choice as sometimes seen in the lower 48 but if you're going to be outdoors in the winter, almost as a necessity. Yes, having a fur ruff on your coat will keep your face warmer against the blistering wind than anything else will. Also, almost everyone hunts here. Well yes, those of you who know me may question my willingness to accept hunting. No I have never been a hunter and yes I am still against sport hunting however hunting is an undeniable way of life here. We're not even talking about the remote Native Alaskan villages who of course rely on hunting as their main source of protein, have no access to grocery stores and even if they did would most likely still continue to practice traditional ways of life that have been carried on since time immemorial. I'm talking about even people in the city who have access to markets. Things are expensive here! I thought California was expensive but even in Anchorage which boosts a population that seems to vary from 200,000-300,000 depending on the website you check, things sure do cost! Yes there are plenty of stores, it is a city. It's funny how family and friends have asked me on several occasions if there were 'regular' stores in Alaska but even with the stores Anchorage offers, things cost to ship here so consumers will pay to buy, that includes food and if you're going to play outside in below freezing temps in the winter it would benefit you to have a good source of protein. Most Alaskans that I've come across have extra storage freezers for their moose, caribou and salmon, just to name a few of the many food resources Alaska offers. During dip netting season you can catch at least 35 large salmon for your household, the number increasing of course depending on how many to your family. If you are lucky enough to have a good surplus of salmon, a moose and a caribou to feed your family during the winter months you are probably going to save thousands and best of all this is all natural meat. An animal in a farm somewhere did not have to get pumped up with steroids and antibiotics and walk around in a small pen filled with its own feces, eating corn (a diet unnatural to its breed that causes pollution when released), its very existence solely for human consumption. And while one may think things like salmon would be relatively inexpensive to purchase in markets in Alaska since there is such a readily available abundance in the state, think again. So yes, after witnessing first-hand the subsidence life-style of Alaskans and as long as it is done in the most humane and respectful manner possible, I am beginning to ponder the subtle beauty of a more traditional life-style lost to many in our modern world of consumerism.
Camping in 40 below weather was something new. Of course this is for the experienced only and luckily my boyfriend Michael, an Alaskan resident of nine years who grew up in the wintry blisters of Northern Maine (Alaska's said to be sister state...or maybe cousin!) and was trained in all types of survival and safety techniques during his eight years in the military, is there to guide me through my experiences in the vast reaches of the Alaskan wilderness. So while someone like me armed with only an appreciation for the outdoors can take on such a feet, you also need to be either well informed or with someone who is. During one snow mobile trip back (or snow machines as Michael likes to call them since their work sleds) two of my toes went numb....the rest were fine in fact my feet didn't even feel cold. I was actually proud of myself thinking it was the first two hour snow machine trip back in from the remote lake we ice fish at, that I didn’t feel cold. I’m guessing this was due to the couple swigs of Jack Daniels chased with Alaskan Amber beer that we had before leaving camp. After packing up two snow machines pulling tote sleds containing cooking and fishing supplies, three backpacks filled with gear, a gas powered ice auger and a multitude of other tools and supplies needed for a remote trip; we had earned this liquid luxury. The slight buzz made the long snow machine ride back seem a bit shorter and as night was approaching I was awestruck by the return path lined with black spruce, white spruce and aspen trees…lone survivors of the tumultuous winter, lit up by the sparkling snow that sat upon their branches. The darkness descended its slow embrace upon us in the deep quiet of winter, the only sound the slight hum from the snow machine. Lost in thoughts brought upon by the magnificence of nature, I suddenly noticed two of my toes were completely numb. Even though I had my poly-propylene liner socks on, a pair of heavy wool mountaineering socks and my waterproof pack boots with fleece liners and extra felt insoles, the harsh reminder that I hadn’t taken my liners out to dry the night before pressed upon me. A mistake that has most likely caused many their toes. When we got to the generator powered lodge that sat between the remote lake we had ice fished and camped at and a four hour truck ride back to civilization, I took everything off to notice the rest of my feet were beet red, while the two numb toes were bone white. Now had our ride back been too long, we could have stopped to make a fire to get some blood back in my toes or there's always sticking a body part under someone’s armpit to warm up, but neither were necessary and after about 15 minutes near the fire my feet were fine. It was an important lesson of how harsh Mother Nature can be. As was the time I broke down and cried at 3am because I was just so hungry and so cold, feeling as if the very blood inside my body was frozen but that's another story and boy it is a remarkable experience to have your ass-kicked by Mother Nature. An important reminder that no matter how prepared and experienced we may think we are, we really all are at her mercy. She can chew us up and spit us out anytime she wishes.
Now why would someone want to endure this, since I’m not too fond of being cold I've been asked this question a few times. Let me tell you that I have seen snow in many states but none of it sparkles like the snow in Alaska! There's also the eagles, the moose, the Dahl sheep and the beluga whales all of which I’ve even seen from the roadside. Also, apparently the colder it is the better your chance to see the Northern Lights and man are they worth it. Imagine the whole sky becoming alive with vivid neon colors that pulsate with a will of their own, ever changing and incredible. The Northern Lights are indeed one of the great wonders of our universe and having witnessed this phenomenon with my own two eyes, even the most remarkable of photos cannot begin to capture the essence and the mysterious wonder of seeing this for yourself. Also do you know the feeling of going to sleep at night while listening to wolves sniff at your belongings outside an ice house with a small tarp door secured only by a staple gun because moments later they surrounded your camp like ghosts watching your 7-month old malamute puppy do frantic circles around the area, undoubtedly having picked up on their wild and hungry scent. Or waking to view their huge prints that had encircled your quarters the night before. Maybe a little scary but if you knew you were safe at the time, also incredible.
Another thing, everyone carries guns in fact you don't even need a permit. The very first time I visited Alaska Michael told me that even the hippies’ carry guns here for bear protection. He was proved right when we went for a hike up a mountain and down came a patchouli smelling friendly hippie, low and behold there was a pistol tucked in his pants. If you come across an 8 foot, 800-1,000 lb. hungry grizzly or maybe mother grizzly protecting her cub would you want to chance it with a stick or bear spray? If you like to be outdoors during bear season then it seems guns are a way of life here. Survival is also a way of life. People seem to be helpful and willing in Alaska. In comparison to the lower 48 there seems to be more opportunities in which you may find yourself relying on the help of another person to survive and people seem to understand that. Our truck got stuck in a snow bank once and having gone out for a quick ride we didn't bring gloves, hats, etc. Spares are always a good thing, as are chains. But that's the experience of my first winter in Alaska. This summer we're going out for two months on the Yukon River on a motorized freight canoe to explore the last great frontier and her back country...this adventure will indeed bring a whole new set of lessons, not to mention about $1,000 in new gear such as hip waders, a life jacket, back-up canoe paddle, rain gear, etc.! And ah yes let's not forget the savage model 99 rifle Michael just got me for bear protection. Come on ladies and they say diamonds are forever what about a classic rifle? Does a diamond have the ability to save your life?