Thursday 16 February 2012

Charissa Cotrill - A Real Alaskan.

I was really pleased to find a real Alaskan via the God Twitter, willing to write a post about living in Alaska. Charissa Cotrill came forward and offered to write a piece providing her own photos too. You will find Charissa on Twitter as @charnanigans. So I shall pass you over to Charissa now to tell you more about living in Alaska.

A couple of weeks ago, I was in Boston on business, right as the city was experiencing a bit of a cold snap. The temperatures had dropped into the upper 20s during the night, and as I climbed into the cab taking me back to Logan International, the driver complimented me on the heavy coat I was wearing. "Good thing you brought it with you! Got really cold last night." 

I laughed and contorted in the back seat as I shrugged the coat off. "I'm from Alaska. I only put it on because everyone in the hotel was staring at me." 

The driver chuckled. "Yeah, guess you're used to worse cold than this, aren't you?"

The truth is, the cold in Alaska is pretty manageable most of the time. The numbers look impressive enough, reaching as low as -20 in the Anchorage area where I lived (and sometimes lower), while hovering in the teens during the days. What I discovered, though, is that while the thermometer is giving up and going into hibernation until things warm up to a more civilised temperature, the experience of Alaskan cold is surprisingly bearable.

I grew up in the high deserts of Southern California. The effect of humidity on perceived temperature is second nature to me. On those summer days where the pavement baked under a cloudless sky, the heat was no more than an afterthought; but on days when there was even the barest suggestion of moisture in the air, the heat became oppressive and inescapable, like a hot, wet washcloth over my face. 

The same principle holds true for the cold weather in Alaska. When the temperatures dip that far, the humidity simply disappears from the air, leaving it bone-dry and oddly comfortable. I would find myself wandering outside in just a shirt and my jeans, kicking snow around with my tennis shoes, and suddenly notice my neighbour's porch thermometer read 6°F (roughly -14°C). I would walk inside, kick off my shoes, and suddenly be freezing in spite of the thermostat set for a relatively comfortable 68°F. The difference was in the humidity -- my house simply never got cold enough to dry out, so it would trap the cold air that came inside and make it wet and bitter.

There is a scent to the air that has reached that bone-dry, subzero state. It is the scent of lightning-strike ozone, with overtones of sun-baked wood and ice. Subzero air burns when you inhale it, freezing your nose and throat before condensing into droplets in your lungs. Breathing becomes a cycle of gasp-cough-curse, a rhythm of stabbing deep-lung pain and abrasive hacking that my chest remembers long after I've warmed up. Smart people wear balaclavas or scarves to help warm the air before it's breathed in, but some people are too stubborn and unwilling to put up with feeling semi-suffocated and will grimly carry on coughing and cursing while unburying their car from the latest snowfall. 

My favourite part of Alaska's deep freeze was after the sky went completely dark and all the stars were out. I lived in Eagle River, far enough out that the light pollution from the city was blocked by the mountains and trees. At night, the stars came out in their full glory, and the air was so clear and still that the stars shone with the scarcest twinkle, and details I had only seen in movies or photographs rolled across the heavens above me, far richer in colour and detail than I had ever imagined. In the northern skies, lime-green curtains of light would shimmer and dance over the mountains. The brightest displays would cast an eerie green glow on the slopes, giving the appearance of a slow, gentle green fire crawling the mountainsides.

Eventually, the cold starts to bite, just as the heat never became
entirely unnoticeable in the desert. I would start to shiver in tiny
bursts, rubbing my hands together and coughing into my palms,
unwilling to put away my camera and go inside for the night. The
shivers would build until they became a constant trembling, and my
feet and nose would start stinging from the cold, but the final straw
was always when I was finally too cold to hold my camera. I would
gather my things and reluctantly head indoors, usually taking at least
a minute just to manage opening the door with my numbed fingers. 

Being out in the cold with minimal protection, even in my front yard,
was a risk. I was careful to not cross the line into frostbite when
I'd venture out, but the news is ever full of stories of visitors (and
the occasional resident) losing bits of their bodies to the cold. One
recent and horrible example was an exchange student from Kenya who
lost both his feet after wandering, lost, for two days in a blizzard
last November. The medical staff treating him managed to save his
hands, but his frostbite was severe enough to keep him hospitalised
for several days. Parents like to scare their kids with stories about
homeless folk freezing to death and being buried under plowed snow
until the spring thaw, both as a warning about the cold and presumably
to keep their children from digging through the roof-high banks of
snow that form on the sides of busy roads in Anchorage over the

Tourism is highest in Alaska during the spring and summer months, but
I honestly recommend people visit off-season, after it starts to snow
and the temperatures drop. The scenery is breathtaking, the roads are
well-kept enough for driving even late into the winter, and best of
all, the prices for hotels and car rentals are much lower. Don't let
the cold scare you -- keep your wits about you when you're visiting,
and you'll leave Alaska not only with fingers and toes intact, but an
amazing set of memories and photographs to treasure.

Thank you Charissa for an inspiring post. I am even more desperate to visit Alaska now. 


  1. Such an interesting post with some gorgeous pictures! I much prefer good cold weather to hot weather though I think the Alaskan cold might be a little much for me.

  2. I'm cold when it's in the 50's here - I can't imagine the cold in Alaska being bearable! It sure looks gorgeous.

    1. I am not sure I could cope with it. I would be permanently cold.

  3. wow, such an interesting and beautiful part of the world to live in! One of my dreams is to go on an Alaskan cruise. There's boat that takes you around there.
    I had no idea that subzero air burns you as you breathe it. That's crazy cold!

    1. Oooh now that does sound like a nice thing to do. An Alaskan cruise.

  4. Great post :) I am glad you found someone from Alaska Viv

    Ok so we do not have Alaska temps, but cold enough. And I was so laughing on twitter when someone posted that it was -10c and everyone better be careful. That day it was -24c here and I had taken our bedsheets out on the balcony in a thsirt ;)

  5. such a great post... I cant imagine living with the temp at -14 degrees c! :|


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