Yesterday and this morning have been brutal, weather wise. The winds are coming in straight off the Gulf of Alaska, howling up the Knik Arm below my house and slamming into the mountains behind us. We're caught between the sea and the mountain passes, which has the effect of compressing the winter winds to truly ferocious speeds. Weather like this is normal here this time of year, Auto Body Shops gleefully call it the Sprung Door Hinge Season.
This morning the temperature is hovering around 13F, according to the weather station feed from the Palmer Airport. Combine the temperature with the 40-60MPH winds (gusts to 80MPH!) and you're looking at wind chill factors anywhere from Angry Velociraptor to Starving T-Rex. It's so damned cold and nasty out, that that the dog won't do more than poke her nose out of the flap in her kennel door - when a husky/Shepard mix sled dog won't go out in it, you know it's friggin' nasty. (yeah, yeah, I know the rest of the country is getting pelted with 'the first big winter storm' of the season. Blah, blah, so what? We had much worse than that a full month ago, didn't even make the local news, let alone the national. Welcome to the party, Midwesterners, you bunch of babies).
Now show of hands: if you had to go out in those conditions, how many of you would, you know, actually wear a jacket, hat, and gloves? You would? Me too. And a sweatshirt. And long johns. And googles. And probably a shotgun (for the velociraptors, duh). You're probably cold just thinking about it, right?
That's because you're not eleven and on your way to school this morning, where it is apparently much more important to look cool (really), than, you know, actually be smart enough not to get frost bitten. (This is also apparently the norm, since half the kids going into school this morning weren't wearing winter gear either. In fact I saw one kid in shorts!) We constantly have to fight with our son to wear proper cold weather gear, you'd think an Alaskan kid would know better, I mean wouldn't you? I'm not the praying type, but if I was I'd pray that he develops some common sense before the velociraptors get him.
Alaska is a beautiful land, it really is. But it can turn deadly on you without warning. Every year a least a dozen people on average are swallowed by the wilderness. Truthfully, we Alaskans are, if not outright amused, then at least not surprised when outsiders manage to do something stupid and get themselves killed because they were either woefully unprepared or woefully lacking in common sense. Case in point: in November of 1996, my wife and I were making the two day trip from the Alaska Ferry Terminal in Haines to Anchorage. This is a distance of around 750 miles, across the Yukon and through some very rough country, especially in winter. The first day took us nearly fourteen hours to cover the 400 mile distance from Haines to the halfway point at the interior town of Tok. The road was a roller coaster of frost heaves and sags, snow drifts and ice, gloriously beautiful - and very, very dangerous. In the Yukon we drove for seven hours without seeing another living soul, it is a vast desolate land in the winter and you best be prepared for it - especially if, like us, you're making the crossing with a new baby in the truck. In Tok, as I recall temperatures that night were around -48F, and at those temperatures even the 80-weight oil in the jeep's differentials will freeze solid if you haven't taken proper precautions. The jeep is equipped with a cold weather package, including electric block heaters and battery blanket, and my anti-freeze is normally mixed for -75F, but that night I filled the Jeep's gas tank and left it running all night. Heat from the running engine kept the transmission warm and radiated enough heat under the vehicle to keep the differential oil from turning to amber and the brake and gas lines from freezing. The next morning we had reindeer sausage and pancakes at Fast Eddy's, had the waitress fill our thermoses with hot coffee, filled the gas tank again, and cheerfully headed out for Glennallen, two hundred miles away - the temperature was -52F. Twenty miles out we passed a young man walking on the side of the road, headed back towards town. No hat, no gloves, light jacket, jeans fashionably torn at the knees with bare skin showing through. Hmmm. A little way further we passed a car on the side of the road. We recognized the kid as a fellow passenger on the Columbia, the Alaskan ferry we had ridden for the last four days up the inland passage from Bellingham, Washington. I was in a hurry to get to Glennallen and then down the very dangerous mountainous Glenn Highway to Anchorage while there was still enough light to see by, and I was tempted to leave the kid to his fate (I wouldn't have, but there was that moment...). My wife turned to me and said "he'll die if we don't go back for him, you know." She was right of course, it was unlikely that anybody else would come along in time, so I found a wide spot in the road and carefully turned the jeep around (we were heavily loaded and had a hitch-haul mounted on the back, turning around in the dark on that road wasn't a casual decision). Total elapsed time from when we first spotted him to the time we picked him up was probably no more than four or fives minutes. He'd been walking no more than ten. And his ears, forehead, cheeks and fingers were already badly frost bitten, feet stone numb, and he was right on the edge of hypothermia. I doubt he would have been able to keep moving for more than another fifteen minutes. We got him in the jeep, wrapped him a polar-fleece emergency blanket and gave him a cup of coffee - and I headed back into Tok (didn't see another car the whole way, stupid would have been out there a long time if we hadn't turned around when we did). Along the way we got the story out of him, he was from Washington State, coming up to see his dad in Anchorage for the holidays. He hadn't winterized his car (even for the milder Washington climate, no snow tires, no arctic anti-freeze, no block heaters), hadn't brought hat or gloves, a heavy jacket, long johns, or even a decent set of boots. He didn't have an emergency kit, no blankets or sleeping bag, no matches, nothing. He'd gotten up that morning and left Tok an hour before us. He hadn't left his car running during the night and didn't have a block heater to plug in. I was surprised that his car had even started that morning. He hadn't waited for the vehicle to warm up and twenty miles from town he noticed that he still didn't have any heat, even though the temperature gauge on his dash was pegged above the redline. Odd, he thought, but what the hell, it'll thaw out - that's when the engine seized up and he coasted to a stop (I feel like I should add "and then the wolves began to howl" but I won't). Long story short we got him back into Tok and to the emergency station. I stuck around long enough to make sure he was going to be OK, then we headed back out for Anchorage.
We were already pretty savvy survivalists, even then, but that incident impressed on me just how brutal the Alaskan wilderness can be, and just how quickly the technology we depend on for our survival can fail. You can die up here, very quickly, without proper preparation and common sense. We never go into the bush without emergency equipment - even for a Sunday afternoon hike in Hatcher's Pass. Our vehicles always have emergency kits, even if we're just headed into Anchorage from our house in Palmer. I've tried to impress on my son the importance of being prepared but he's eleven and looking cool is more important to him than dressing properly. He's a kid and I guess that's normal, but, damn, I hope he develops some common sense before it's too late.