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Myth-busting 5 Alaska winter misconceptions

Anyone who’s driven through a Seattle downpour on a December night can testify there are worse places than Alaska come winter. Think cold, dark, wet, and you've summarized Seattle for much of December. Think white, snowy, winter wonderland and you've captured Alaska.

OK, so it's not quite that peachy in what famed American author Jack London labeled "the great white silence'' a century ago. But the 49th state in winter isn't quite the hellhole some in the Lower 48 make it out to be. Truth be told, there are a lot of things Americans think about Alaska in the winter that are just plain wrong, for better or for worse. Here are our top-five misconceptions about the Alaska winter:

1) It's cold

Not really. Granted the vast, largely unpopulated, Interior of the state is Seward's Icebox. But coastal Alaska, where most Alaskans live, has a relatively mild climate influenced by the warm waters of the Pacific Ocean. Alaska's capital city, Juneau, is more like Vancouver, British Columbia, than some frozen chunk of Middle America -- say Chicago. President Barack Obama is from Chicago; it's why he likes to visit Hawaii so much. Alaska, obviously, can't match Hawaii for warmth, but Anchorage -- the state's largest city -- beats the heck out of Minneapolis. The average winter temperature in Anchorage is 26 degrees -- more than twice as warm as the 10-degree average for the Minnesota cityalways trying to promote its high quality of life. Right. If you're a polar bear. Speaking of bears...

2) Dozing bears

All those nasty, tourist-mauling Alaska grizzly bears hibernate in winter. Wrong again. The climate is so mild in parts of Alaska, bears stay up all winter. Oh-oh. On southern Kodiak Island, in particular, it's not even safe to pee in the brush (there are no woods there) in January. Giant coastal brown bears have been known to roam the countryside all winter. They appear to spend most of their time roaming beaches on the coastal fringes looking for carrion or beach hoppers, small bugs that can sometimes be found in great abundance. Scientists like to think of the beach-hoppers as dietary equivalents of ants for Kodiak bears, who live in a place where there are no ants. But we like to think of the little pop-pop hoppers as grizzly popcorn, and what better reason to stay up eating all through the long night than popcorn? Which is what some Alaskans would be better off staying home and doing when the weather gets bad because...

3) Alaska Drivers

Alaskans know how to drive in the snow, right? Not really. More than a third of Alaska's motor vehicle accidents happen in November, December and January, according to some personal-injury attorneys nice enough to crunch the numbers. November, December and January come after the tourists who clog the roads all summer have left. Given that Alaska's population about doubles during the summer, there's no telling how much higher this makes the per-capita accident rate for the months when Alaskans largely have the roads to themselves. And it's a good thing they do, because they appear just as likely as other American drivers to spin out of control when the pavement gets slippery. Alaskans might like to think they drive better in the snow than other Americans, but they don't. Then again, an awful lot of Alaskans are other Americans newly arrived. The state has one of the most transitory populations in the nation. And a Floridian who moves to Anchorage in winter doesn't, sad to say, automatically become better at driving in snow. And Americans have to drive; it's in our blood...

4) Cabin Fever

Northern denizens supposedly hole up in the winter and go crazy from cabin fever. Long ago, the adage was partly true. No more. Now Alaskans get out and drive like other Americans. The modern-day snowmachine has transformed the north. Suit up, sit down, turn a key and go. Come winter, Alaskans get out and travel -- even in the Interior where temperatures dip to 50 or 60 degrees below zero. Yes, that cold. And yes, that is why not so many people live in the Interior. But those who do are tough, tough, tough. They spit in the eye of the cold -- even if the spit turns to ice as soon as it leaves their mouth. Whatever. Interior residents know how to beat the cold. Their snowmobiles have heated hand grips. They wear full face helmets that look something like those that kept astronauts warm on the moon, back when Americans went to the moon. Some Alaska snowmachiners now even wear heated suits that plug into a cigarette lighter plug on the machine to allow the ultimate in thermostatically regulated comfort. And most Alaskans know that travel becomes far easier in the roadless north when rivers, lakes, marshes and bogs freeze solid, creating ideal surfaces for new snowmachine trails. The reality of modern Alaska is that the state's trail system grows by orders of magnitude during winter because so many people out traveling place to place, or just enjoying the opportunity to visit places that are inaccessible on the ground in summer. Party down dudes, but not too much...

5) Alcohol warm-up

A good stiff shot of booze will warm you up fast, right? No, it won't. It might make you feel warmer, which is likely to get you in trouble because the most important thing the booze is doing is making you dumber. Alcohol causes blood vessels near the skin to expand which allows the body to more efficiently dump heat when it should be saving heat. This is bad. Even worse, according to noted hypothermia researcher Dr. Robert Pozos, is that when people drink they get stupid (surprise, surprise), and stupid is not good when someone is trying to survive a potentially dangerous environment. Blame the Swiss for any popular beliefs to the contrary -- the Swiss and their damn Saint Bernard with the omnipresent brandy flask around its neck helped fuel the idea rescue came in the form of booze. It was a myth, but it had legs. Plenty of people still think a brandy, or a hot toddy will warm them up. Well, the hot water in the toddy might help, but the alcohol won't. Still, we'll admit that if you're safely inside, hoisting a brandy snifter is not a bad way to end the day.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com