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Outdoors/Adventure

When the temperature plummets in Interior Alaska, you can still work and play outside — with the right gear

Snowmobilers ride across hard-packed snow near Portage in the sunshine on Monday, March 30, 2020. (Bill Roth / ADN)

It is February and winter has finally tightened its hold over Alaska’s Interior. It has taken a while.

January is usually Alaska’s coldest month. The majority of cold-weather records have been set in that month. However, before breathing a sigh of relief, look back to Feb. 25, 1954 and you’ll see that Allakaket, on the edge of the Brooks Range, hit minus-70.

Normally by mid-February, you can get the snowmobile out of the garage, load it on the trailer and head for the Denali Highway or Summit Lake without checking the weather until you’re on the road.

I always take at least a cursory glance at the thermometer in the morning before I head out to feed the animals or hook up dogs. On many winter days, the weather sets our schedule.

This season, there were quite a few days in January when I did not look at the thermometer until after I came back in for breakfast. In the past week, with our first minus-40s coupled with considerable wind, we have made multiple temperature checks throughout the day.

Cold and wind don’t just dictate what you might do during the day, but also the gear that is necessary.

For example, you could have made it thus far in the winter with only a decent pair of the black “bunny” boots. There has been no need to break out the good white boots, or in my case, a pair of Northern Outfitter boots. My hands, no longer as impervious to cold as they once were, have managed to stay relatively warm with only a pair of the military-style mitts.

I have never advocated the use of chemical warmers. If you are out longer than expected, the chemicals are gone and you’re left in a uncomfortable, or worse, situation. However, chemical hand and feet warmers can have their place if you understand exactly when and how to use them.

Carry warmers in your pocket and lean toward the ones designed for your feet, with the sticky back. These warmers — it doesn’t matter the brand — will stay put where you stick them instead of wandering around in your boot or in your mitten.

Keep them in an inside pocket. Experience tells me they don’t warm as well if opened directly from a cold outside pocket. Get the warmers out, shake them well and be certain they are working well before you take your boot off. They do not stay warm for long in bunny boots. Chemical warmers need air to work.

Mukluks are excellent footwear, but their disadvantage lies with water. Snowshoers and walkers don’t have the overflow issues that snowmachiners face, so fur mukluks stuffed with grass or moss, along with caribou liners, work handsomely. Snowmobilers need waterproof or, at least, water resistant, footwear.

Real cold weather requires fur mittens. You can spend hundreds of dollars on synthetics. It is better to spend your dollars on something that truly works. Fur can be enhanced with synthetic insulation, but synthetics are not truly effective without a furry exterior.

Do not depend on the hand warmers on your snowmachine. When your machine is buried in overflow or quits, you will be left scratching your head with frozen fingers.

The little cookers that attach to the muffler of snowmobiles are a great little add-on. They are held in place with a couple of hose clamps. On long trips you can put previously frozen food in the cooker and have a warm meal on the trail. How does chicken cordon bleu 50 miles from nowhere on a minus-30 day sound?

Should you be ice fishing, get your kids to run the machine around in circles for a bit until your meal is hot.

A decent thermos is a great addition to the day pack. Carry a good steel thermos with a small mouth, never mind the brand. Steer clear of thermoses with little pour spouts. They are handy for summer and fall but disasters in the temperatures of this past week.

Wide-mouth thermoses, while seemingly handy for soups or chili, do not stay warm as long as those with smaller necks. When it is cold, limit coffee intake. Coffee is a diuretic, and it isn’t productive to unzip or unsnap four layers in a big hurry. Ask my wife.

Joe Redington advocated for hot Tang. It is good, but will taint the inside of a steel thermos.

February isn’t over, so don’t get weather complacent yet. But the sun is up hours longer than it was six weeks ago and is at a much steeper angle in the sky, which means a decent increase in daytime temperatures. Those minus-40 nights become 20- or 30-degree days by early afternoon.

Don’t be shy about breaking out the decent gear and getting on the trail. We could possibly use a bit more snow in most locales, but all in all, conditions are better than fair. And hey, March is just on the doorstep.

John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives near Paxson with his family. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and a two-time winner of the Yukon Quest.

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