After surviving an epic road trip across the pot-hole-ridden roadways of the United States and Canada, we arrived at our home in the frontier land of Fairbanks, Alaska.
My husband and I were thrilled to select Alaska as our first Air Force assignment. He has an awesome once-in-a-lifetime job. We both love adventure and the outdoors and his family lives in Anchorage, which we were under the impression wasn’t too far away.We were wrong. Although the journey to Anchorage is a gorgeous and a comfortable 350 miles in the daylight-filled Alaskan summer, it’s far more arduous 6-plus hours in the winter.
We made the road trip for Thanksgiving. The temperatures were quite cozy, hovering around zero through Denali pass, and warming as we headed south.
A snowstorm hit us head on about halfway through, and we spent four hours on the desolate roadway, blazing through new powder at rocketing speeds of 25-35 MPH after my husband made the death defying (and brilliant!) move to pass all of the highway plows on a blind curve. Yeah…
A Carolina girl, born and raised, I can recall looking at national weather maps thinking “Who in their right mind lives in North Dakota with negative temperatures!?!”
Little could I predict my life as a military spouse braving the wilds of interior Alaskan winter, plugging my car into a utility pole at the grocery store so the engine and oil don’t freeze at 40 degrees below.
When you get orders for a place like Alaska, people suddenly become experts (especially people who have never been to/lived in Alaska).
“You’ll need a new wardrobe, you’ll freeze to death!”
“You’ll have to buy a truck.”
“It’s so dark that people are chronically depressed.”
I could spend time debunking these suggestions, and more, but the truth is that Alaskan winter is what you make of it. You shovel your own way through tried and true experience.
The most common comment before we moved was the amount of darkness during the winter. On December 21, winter solstice, the sun typically shines on Fairbanks between 11:30 a.m. and is down by 2:30 p.m. This is the darkest day of the year.
I never took note of the solstice when I lived in the lower 48, but it’s a well-celebrated holiday here in the arctic. Starting on December 22, days get longer, by just a few minutes each day, and climax with the summer solstice in June, which is virtually 24 hours of daylight.
What you may not know, and I certainly didn’t, is that there is unimaginable beauty in the darkness. Due to the extreme angle of sunlight we receive here, the sun is never overhead during the winter months; it hovers at less than a 45° degree angle most of the time, casting striking shadows on the winter wonderland.
Three feet of standing, never melting, snow reflects the sunlight and creates a magical rosey-golden hue on everything. The birch trees dazzle with white snow and appear to be chock full of diamonds. The ground becomes a pinky white mass (unlike the dirty road slush of roads down south).
Christmas lights twinkle from October through March, not because people are lazy, but because no one expects you to put up or tear down lights when it’s so cold the strands could snap.
As the sun “sets” for the day, the sky shifts to a rich blue. Melding with the pink, I often think it looks like a dreamy cotton candy sky.
Children play outside at recess down to negative-20 degrees. And that’s the funny thing. You would think the world stops at zero, that people wouldn’t go outside or be active. But that’s not true!
We walk our dog every night that it’s above negative-20 degrees for a solid fifteen minutes. The ski slopes are open above negative-20 degrees, and snow machining is an option as long as you have the right gear.
The key I’ve found to loving, not dreading, the Alaskan winter is staying busy. Work helps of course, but getting outside, even if just for a few minutes, while the sun is at its highest is key. Eating right and ensuring that your body gets all the Vitamin D helps offset the lack of light.
I only wish someone had told me to stock up on waterproof mascara; at the beginning of winter, I shoveled the driveway one chilly negative-25 degree afternoon after work. When I came back into the heat of the garage, my eyes instantly pooled into melting tears, and I looked like a depressed frozen raccoon.
As long as you’re prepared with the right gear (warm boots, base layer, cute hat, gloves, and a neckie so your nostrils don’t freeze) and an adventurous spirit, life in Fairbanks can not only be survived, but embraced.
Mary Catalanotto Parker lives in interior Alaska, outside Fairbanks at Eielson AFB, where her husband is stationed as Active Duty Air Force. Mary works as a college English instructor, helping military and reservist students work toward their CCAF and Bachelor's degrees, and provides public relations consultations. Mary enjoys outdoor exercise with the family Husky, and experiments in the kitchen, like making cheese and pasta from scratch.