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Outdoors/Adventure

After time in Alaska, you forget how cold the rest of the country can be

  • Author: Alli Harvey
    | Alaska Outdoors
  • Updated: January 23
  • Published January 23

What I didn’t expect from Boston was how excruciatingly cold it would be.

You’d think I’d remember. I grew up back east. I’m from a suburb that, apart from maybe Levittown, would come up in the dictionary if you look up “suburb.” Framingham, Massachusetts, had the noble distinction for a long time of being the largest town in the country. This was just a fancy way of saying it’s really city-sized but with little public transportation.

When I visit, I have my routine down to get my outdoors fix. It’s not really normal back home to be outside the way that Alaskans are outside. So I’m often alone running on sidewalks, or if I’m feeling very brave, riding a bike.

Sure, I see people walking their dogs around the block. But I get overly excited when I see other runners. I think most other people are on their elliptical at the gym, or maybe on a yoga mat in front of a TV. (Yes, that’s judgmental of me. I am, after all, originally from the East Coast.)

When I’m running back home, I’m viscerally shocked by the climate no matter what time of year.

In the summer, I feel like a warm washcloth is being wrung out across the sky and I can’t stop sweating. When I get my heart rate up even a tiny bit, my face turns bright red.

The spring is about snow-melting bright freshness as snow trickles into water under a bright blue sky, and that squishy, earthy smell as the ground emerges.

I used to think I loved New England fall more than Alaska fall, and the colors on the trees are still beautiful — but New England’s crackling, sharp air contrasted with wet piles of leaves doesn’t hold a candle to Alaska’s sweeping red tundra contrasted with the glacial blue of an alpine lake.

But I digress. You know what all of the seasons in New England have in common?

My sister’s least favorite word: Moisture. Humidity. The air back there is wet almost all of the time. Sometimes it’s obviously wet, like when it rains dour-gray rain for days, and other times it’s more subtle. That seems like a fitting New England quality — where aggression fails, make it more passive. Don’t full-on rain, just ratchet up the dew point. Don’t tailgate, just turn on your brights.

There is nothing subtle about the brutal cold in Boston.

My sister and I spent a couple of nights in town as a quick sisters-only getaway before we both flew back to our respective homes. When we checked into our hotel, it was just after a snowstorm and the streets were turning to brown slush in the 35-degree evening. When we woke up the next morning, my phone said it was 3 degrees.

I looked outside. I don’t know what 3 degrees looks like in Boston anymore. In Alaska, it looks like quiet. The sun rises in that beautiful, heavy-lidded blue and deep magenta sky. Smoke columns rise thinly toward the sky when there’s no wind. Everything looks sharp.

But in Boston, cars whooshed along a highway with crumbly snow tracks, the green Fenway sign sat proud in front of an empty stadium amid a cluster of restaurant and bar signs, and poofs of steam from buildings and vehicles billowed every which way. The sky was that normal, featureless overcast I remember from growing up. Three degrees, I thought? If it even was that cold, how bad could it be?

My sister and I geared up to go outside and face the day. I was more worried about her than me, because she lives in Nashville, which is a tad warmer on most days than Alaska. So instead of saving my mask for myself — like they advise on the airplanes — I gave my sister my smart-wool neck warmer. She refused it, but I shoved it in my bag just in case and grabbed myself a scarf.

After she’d pulled on 10 layers, we descended to the lobby and stepped outside. We paused.

“Not bad!” she said. Sure, it was chilly. But nothing we couldn’t handle.

Then we got our first gust.

This is what I forgot about: that icy, piercing, relentless wind that rushes around Boston, fresh off the Atlantic into the cavernous wind-magnifier of the city. One of those breezes picked up steam and fury as it drew toward us and slapped us right in the face, but unlike a quick actual slap it just kept on gusting. I vaguely remembered growing up with perpetual brain freeze as this kind of wind froze any exposed parts of my face. But I’d conveniently forgotten.

My sister asked for the face mask, and we started walking stiffly down the street toward the first even remotely interesting, open shop we could find.

All this time I’ve lived in Alaska, people I know back home, including my family, have gone on and on about how they don’t understand how I go outside in Alaska in such cold. Now I understand: if I still lived back east, I wouldn’t set foot outside my door in that kind of weather.

I know it’s obnoxious to talk about a “dry” cold or warmth, but it’s a real thing. Up here, I rarely ever felt cold as cold as I just felt in Boston.

Granted, I don’t live somewhere coastal like Juneau. Anchorage has its moments, along the Cook Inlet. And I’ve never visited the Aleutians (maybe this is a sign?). Alaska is enormous, and I’m sure it has its Bostonian moments and then some. But Boston cold is not something to cast aside as something quaint and East Coast. I am here to tell you, it is real, and it is brutal.

That said, those conditions are something to avoid (and now I understand why), unlike in Alaska where we get out pretty much no matter what. The best thing anyone in Boston said about the weather was it was an excuse to stay in and not go anywhere. The chill seemed to have set in with many of the people I encountered. I know it’s not fair to judge a full city by just a few people, but most of the people I talked to seemed unhappy, rude, or, well, cold.

Although I miss my family and friends back east, I was happy to brace myself against a brief, tear-inducing wind as I lugged my suitcases, full of Trader Joe’s and ready to go back to Alaska, toward the airport check-in counter. I love the colder-but-somehow-not-as-cold place I’ve chosen as home. It’s mostly about who I am in Alaska — someone able to be part of the outdoors even at its supposed worst, along with a big community of people who enjoy the same.

I’m sorry I ever doubted you, Boston. You out-colded me in what I can stand.

Alli Harvey lives in Palmer and plays in Southcentral Alaska.

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