Things I had to learn the hard way during my first winter in Alaska

This week on Dispatches from the Field, we welcome Emily Williams, an Avian Biologist who left her warm home in Florida to work at the chilly (might be an understatement) Denali National Park and Preserve. For more about Emily, check out the end of the post!

I usually scoff when I hear stereotypes or clichés that are used to generalize people that come from a certain state or region of the country. Beyond a personal aversion to phrases such as “GRITS: Girls Raised in the South,” I am always quick to point out when most people break the stereotypical mold.

As a person from Florida, I am no stranger to southern sayings. I’ve heard them my entire life – and can hold my own in a discussion about the differences between being southern, country, or redneck. While I may be from Florida, I often don’t claim my latitudinal roots because I am easily captivated by topography, cool temperatures, and an absence of urban sprawl. If anyone ever attempts to call me a southern belle or a Florida girl, I am quick with a terse response, usually containing an expletive or two.

But as much as it makes me cringe to say it, I have to admit that the phrase “Florida girl” – in reference to yours truly – couldn’t ring more true than it has over the past few months while I’ve been living in Alaska.

Let’s step back a minute so I can regain some of my last remaining bits of dignity, despite what I just very publicly admitted. Over the past nine years I’ve been doing field work, I have faced a number of the trials, tribulations, and “less than ideal” conditions that characterize a typical field job, and then some. I’ve found myself in the seed tick and mosquito-infested scrub of Maryland, where not an inch of skin was not red and itchy; I’ve (very stupidly) forded chest-high rushing rivers and cascaded down landslides in Manu National Park, Peru; I’ve careened my way driving stick through 5-o’clock traffic in the heart of Brisbane on the wrong (left) side of the road; I’ve slogged through 10-foot tall grass lugging 50 lbs of trapping equipment;  I’ve bartered with capuchins over who would win the revered sheet of toilet paper; and the list goes on.

capuchin looking over the side of the roof

Capuchins were always slinking around our field station in Peru. We frequently caught them stealing our food, in addition to the toilet paper.

In each of these situations, while much of the hazardous, chaotic excitement occurred unexpectedly, I usually felt prepared for whatever might come. Most of my friends and family would use those words to describe me:  “prepared,” “organized,” “plans everything ahead.” Given these particular traits, I usually can pass as someone who knows a thing or two, or at least as someone who doesn’t act like a noob in a new, foreign environment.

Now fast forward to May 2016, when I took a position at Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska. Being an organized, well prepared person, I had solicited the advice of countless locals, my landlords, my supervisors, coworkers, friends, people off the street, etc.

winter sleeping bag and booties

This is a -60◦F sleeping bag I bought as part of my car winter survival kit. You can see it’s huge in comparison to my hiking boot, and stands several inches from the floor. Most guides recommend stocking your car with a sleeping bag in case you get stuck somewhere and have to sleep overnight. The temperature rating should be between -40 and -60◦F to ensure you don’t freeze to death. I also bought down booties to wear for winter camping.

– anyone who knew more than I did about life in Alaska, or more specifically, how to survive the winter in Alaska. Knowing that the winter basically begins at the end of September, I figured had roughly four months to prepare (May – August). I had researched several websites and good sources of information about how to prepare a car winter survival kit – which must contain such essential items as a heat source, way to ignite said heat source, and any number of items that in effect guarantee you won’t freeze to death if you happen to plow into a snow bank/slide off the road and get stuck overnight.

Alaska, as a state and a culture, has won the hearts of many Americans and people throughout the world, as it has been popularized over the last several years by reality tv shows such as “Bush People,” “Alaska, the Last Frontier,” and “Deadliest Catch” . You also can’t understate the important role Sarah Palin played in bringing Alaska to fame. Several of these “reality” tv shows (and Sarah Palin) trivialize and form a caricature of life in Alaska. Yet, many of the shows’ aspects which highlight preparation for cold, snowy winters and long, sunlight-less days and nights are no joke.

Alaska, true to the cliché, is entirely a land of extremes. In interior Alaska where I live, winter lasts for eight to nine months of the year. Days and weeks of -40F are a regular occurrence, and wind chill can cause temperatures to feel like -55 or -65F. (The bikini and board short shots of students in front of the University of Alaska-Fairbanks sign proudly displaying -60F is really a thing.) The landscape looks like a  barren, snowy wasteland: deciduous trees and vegetation are stripped of their foliage, many species of wildlife are hibernating, and everything is blanketed in white. On the shortest day of the year in the Denali area, we receive just under four hours of sunlight. That’s also not to say we don’t experience months of low light before and after Winter Solstice. Even the light we do receive is at less than half mast; the angle of the sun is so low in many parts of interior Alaska that it doesn’t reach over mountain tops, causing valleys and anywhere at low elevation to be largely in shadow.

landscape of Denali National Park

The landscape of Denali National Park and Preserve in the winter can be a forbidding, albeit beautiful place, with subzero temperatures, chilling wind, and heaps of snow. NPS Photo/Jacob Frank

While all the research, advice, and hundreds of dollars spent on equipment could help prepare me to some extent, nothing could actually prepare me for truly experiencing winter in Alaska. Or, for that matter, conducting my first winter field season – in a subarctic ecosystem.

This year the avian ecology program at Denali is piloting a study on Gray Jays – a charismatic denizen of the boreal forest. Unlike most birds, which start breeding in April and May, Gray Jays start nest building by late February. Which means that us crazy folks who study these oversized chickadees (in my opinion) must be out there with them – come hell (frozen over) or high water (or snow).

To conduct field work in Alaska during February, March, and April, one must be prepared for all conditions – be it blowing wind and snow directly to the face, -25F temperatures (give or take another -5 to -15 degrees  with wind chill), freezing rain, or waist-high snow to post-hole in.

Emily in the deep snow

My knees are just above the surface of the snow in this photo. This was before we received an additional two feet of snow a couple of weeks later!

While I have researched and talked to many people about how to clothe myself during subzero temperatures, all the talking in the world doesn’t really help, to be honest. There’s really no way to describe what -30F feels like until you actually feel it. Each time the temperature gets lower I receive a new experience. How could you know what -40F feels like when you’ve only just felt -29F?!

The best way I have learned what to wear in such temperatures is to go outside, suffer persevere through it, and figure it out. One thing I learned while living here is that there are multiple “weights” to base layers. A summer spent working on wind farms in Wyoming, where it snowed until June and could be bitterly cold and windy, still didn’t instill this knowledge. I naively assumed that one wore long johns and that was it – little did I know that there are sometimes 2, 3, and 4 under layers to choose from!

I feel as if most everyone in the lower ’48 told me the best way to prepare for winter is to layer up. Layer, layer, layer. However, what I didn’t realize is that layering can also sink you. Dressing to stay warm for subzero temperatures while also doing strenuous activity is a constant balancing act; one must walk a tenuous tightrope between trying to be warm, but not too warm.

gray jays on top of the trap

Two Gray Jays having a discussion about whether to pursue the delicious bread inside the Potter trap. Photo by John Marzluff.

Field work at Denali during this time of year involves snowshoeing on mountainous terrain that is oftentimes more uphill than downhill – which can quickly cause you to sweat (despite the -20F surroundings!). Working with Gray Jays and trying to find their nests means that bursts of strenuous hiking are broken up by hours-long periods of standing still, making observations.

Emily bundled up with a Gray Jay in her hand

Winter trapping of Gray Jays involves much more clothing than I am generally used to wearing when capturing birds: most days only my eyes are exposed.

Wearing too many layers in such cases can swiftly cause you to become hypothermic, as all that sweat acts to cool your body down. Wearing down, which I previously had been told was the warmest jacket material, only compounds this problem. Sweat can cause down to get wet – so that all the magical insulating properties of down feathers are virtually rendered useless, and ultimately only serve to make you colder.

Another hard lesson I had to learn by living it was that cold temperatures make things freeze. Who knew?! Having never had to think about it before, I left my full Nalgene of water secured in my backpack in the field vehicle one night. The next morning, when I went to grab my bottle, I ended up grabbing just the top lid – the lid had broken cleanly off from the rest of the bottle! The water within had expanded during the freezing process and completely burst the bottle. Of course, as the structural integrity of the Nalgene had been compromised, my pack was now covered in thousands of tiny crystals of ice, which meant that I had to air out (in a heated room) all the contents of my bag. Along these same lines, after a frozen salad incident subsequently concluding in a very hangry biologist, I learned to keep field food (and water!) insulated in my pack.

This is just a small sample of the lessons I’ve had to learn the hard way during my first winter field season in Alaska.

While I have chiefly highlighted the harshness of living and working in Alaska for this blog post, I cannot emphasize enough how amazingly beautiful this place is. I count my lucky stars every day that I have been granted such an amazing opportunity to live and work in a place such as Denali. The good stories full of nights of aurora borealis gazing, cool, quiet mornings listening to birdsong, unexpected encounters with wolves, and quirky Alaska-isms far outweigh the bad.

looking up to the nest in the tree

A Gray Jay nest high up in a spruce tree. NPS Photo/Reina Galvan

While my usual, overprepared self had many growing pains and much knowledge to gain this year, I am sure there will be many more adventures to come for this Florida girl digging life in the Great White North of Alaska.

Opinions on this blog post are my own and do not reflect that of the National Park Service.

Emily WilliamsEmily Williams completed her MSc degree at Kansas State University and now works as an Avian Biologist at Denali National Park and Preserve. Emily’s research focuses on dispersal and migration ecology of birds. While her heart still remains with the Grasshopper Sparrows of the tallgrass prairie, she is excited to work among the boreal forests chasing Gray Jays and other arctic birds.

Twitter: @wayfaringwilly

For more info:

Emily Williams: http://www.aliceboyle.net/BoyleLab/BoyleLab_EJWilliams.html

Denali National Park and Preserve bird page: https://www.nps.gov/dena/learn/nature/birds.htm

UAF swimsuit photo: http://www.photos.uaf.edu/keyword/temperature%20sign

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One thought on “Things I had to learn the hard way during my first winter in Alaska

  1. Thanks for your wonderful writing and sharing of your first winter in Alaska. Having lived 14 years up North near Livengood our temperatures and conditions are comparable and I was happy to see you overcame the cold weather and were able to do your research. I wish I had known that there was need for information on how Jay’s deal with cold weather. For years I have had makeshift bird feeders at my cabin and at times had large numbers of them feeding and living there. Even like in one of your photographs eating bread right out of my hand.

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