Michael Armstrong is properly outfitted for an Arctic summer hiking trip in this photo taken in 1989 along the Wulik River in northeastern Alaska. (Photo by Charles Barnwell.)

Out of the Office: Living in Alaska is a lifetime in learning

From boots to parkas, there’s lots to figure out about surviving in the Last Frontier

Recently I have been corresponding with a woman who plans to move to Homer. Sarah won’t be coming into the country clueless. She has a boyfriend up here and has visited, so she has a good start on knowing what she’s getting into.

But her move got me thinking. What does a person new to Alaska need to know to live here? The more I thought about it, I realized there could be only one answer.

Everything — and one thing.

Years ago the Anchorage Daily News ran a contest asking readers to submit a response to the question, “What is the best tool to survive in Alaska?” Knowing that most Alaskans can be total gear heads, I knew I would have to come up with a different approach to the question. Most Alaskans were likely to say something like “the Mark V Leatherperson with the 89 different tools packed into a 4-ounce titanium package.”

My answer? “The will to survive and the knowledge to know how to do so.” I won the contest.

Alaska reminds us of that often. Even a trip to town can turn into an adventure or a tragedy. There have been stories of people who go missing on the drive from Anchorage to Homer and later get found when an alert Alaska State Trooper notices brush pushed down on the side of the road or fresh tire tracks in the snow going into the ditch.

In my first month in Alaska, my sister told me that when I traveled out of town I should carry a sleeping bag. Sure enough, on an expedition to find a Christmas tree, my friend Mark and I slid off the Portage Glacier Road in his Land Cruiser and spent a chilly night huddled in sleeping bags waiting for rescue.

It’s good to have survival gear that can get you out of trouble, but you also have to know how to use it. One time I rolled my kayak in Kachemak Bay. Upon recovering from that initial shock of plunging into very cold water, panic turned to rescue when I realized that my personal flotation device actually worked.

I didn’t have to worry about trying to swim or tread water with cramped muscles and while I caught my breath. I could focus on getting back to my boat and pulling myself out of the sea. Fortunately, I had friends along to help me get back into my kayak and safely to shore.

Alaskans sometimes obsess about clothing and gear. We’re constantly trying to find the perfect rain jacket that also doubles as a windbreaker and oh yeah doesn’t make you sweat and looks fashionable. There’s an entire industry built around this obsession.

Living as we do in a climate that can be fickle — hello, spring 2021! — we wind up with closets filled with a dozen varieties of coats.

In my closet I have a light fleece jacket for late spring and early fall, a heavier fleece jacket for early winter, a lined anorak for skiing in cold weather, an unlined anorak for warmer winter weather, a rain jacket for summer, a light puffy jacket for mild winters, and the big guns, my down parka rated to minus 20. That’s on top of the sweaters, vests, undershirts and shirts that we mix and match as the temperature and conditions fluctuate.

Florida had nothing on Alaska. Growing up in a Florida winter meant wearing a shirt, long pants and shoes with socks and summer meant a T-shirt, shorts and sandals. If a cold snap came in you might put on a jacket, except by the afternoon it had warmed up and you were back to that shirt.

On one winter visit to Florida it got into the 50s and I wore a sweatshirt with shorts. Someone asked me if I was cold, and I said, “No. I’m from Alaska.”

The Norwegians have a saying for dressing for the climate: “Det finnes ikke dårlig vær, bare dårlige klær,” which translates as, “There is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing.” The trick, of course, is picking the right clothing for the weather.

When Alaskans say the best way to dress for the weather is in layers, what they mean is you wear that clothing closet around with you. We don’t wear knapsacks to carry just water, trail mix and extra socks.

We stuff all that gear we might possibly need on a 5-mile hike. You know you’re living in Alaska when you start out in a T-shirt and by the end of the day have put on that long-sleeve shirt, fleece jacket and rain coat.

And that’s just clothing. Throw in footgear and you enter a new level of discussion. After 41 years of living in Alaska, I still haven’t figured out boots and shoes, especially winter shoes. I started out with Sorels, shoes with felt inserts, and progressed to all-felt Loben boots and then traditional canvas mukluks with leather bottoms and felt inserts.

That might have worked for the drier cold of Anchorage. In Homer, things get wet and cold. I mostly wear rubber boots with fleece liners in the winter and without liners in the summer. Maritime climates keep things simple.

Alaska has a lot more challenges beyond what to wear. What kind of vehicle? Car? Truck? SUV? Four-wheel drive? Studded tires? Sandbags in the back? What’s the best way to defrost windshields? How do you build a good fire in a wood stove? One or two comforters? Flannel sheets?

And how do you shovel walkways? That seems obvious, but it takes a different technique if you’re talking heavy wet snow. You can see where this is going.

We haven’t even started to talk about how to avoid bears and moose. That can lead to madness, especially if you start talking about firearms. Want to start a good argument? Ask two Alaskans what works best against a charging grizzly — rifle or shotgun. Mention bear spray and other nonlethal techniques and things can get exciting.

That’s the thing about this wild and wonderful land we call home. Alaska is not a course you pass, or even a series of courses like Beginning Alaska, Advanced Alaska and Special Topics in Alaska. Since the first people arrived here thousands of years ago (“Bird skins? Hah, caribou parkas are better!”), we’ve been trying to figure out this amazing land.

Just when you think you know everything you can about how to live in Alaska, something new comes along to challenge you. To be an Alaskan is to be a lifelong learner.

Welcome to Alaska, Sarah. Prepare for a long — and fun — lifetime of study.

Reach Michael Armstrong at marmstrong@homernews.com.

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