"Wait, They Don't Salt the Roads Here?" Unique Things I Miss About Winter Living in Alaska

On the way back from Seward, stopping to take in the view
along the Turnagin Arm in February.
Ever have a winter where it seems like the snow's never going to come? Me too. Rather than continuing to pine for the fluffy white stuff, it seemed a good opportunity to reflect time in a place that redefined winter as I knew it.

I spent two summers working in Denali National Park after college and a full winter living in Anchorage exploring nearby. Alaska is an incredible place to live, and there are a few unique things that remain fresh in my mind about the winter season four years later.

You can't tear yourself away from windows, particularly around sunset. From the moment I flew in to Anchorage, I couldn't stop staring out the window. Of the places I spent the most time in Alaska - Seward, Anchorage, Girdwood, Denali National Park and surrounding towns - each provided one stunning view after another. Anchorage isn't the most attractive city, but glimpses of the Chugach Mountains from all around town made for wonderful morale boosts regardless of where I was. If I wasn't headed to Alyeska to ski or somewhere in the Chugach to hike, I consider driving to Girdwood from Anchorage just for views of the Turnagin Arm. I never tired of how Alaska took my breath away every time I stopped to look around.

On the chairlift at Alyeska Resort
on a beautiful bluebird day.
How humbling the landscape is. Alaska in winter is beautiful, but it's also dangerous if you're unprepared. Driving through Cantwell en route to Denali National Park in February, I'd look out the window and imagine scaling all of the peaks I saw. But I'd also imagine how long I'd have to wait for another car to pass if I got in an accident, or how far I'd have to walk before I got cell reception to call for help. I'd think about how cold I'd get, even in a down suit, walking around in -40ºF temperatures for more than a few hours. It makes feats like what Lonnie Dupre attempted seem absolutely impossible. Alaska is a wonderful place to explore in the winter, you just need to make sure you make smart decisions and are ready for anything.

No salt on the roads in winter. Anchorage road crews put down gravel and sand rather than salt on the roads in the winter months. This means your car is perpetually dirty, but at least the salt isn't eating away at the body of your vehicle like it does here on the east coast. It means you won't be able to stop at lights, or at all, without studded or serious winter tires. It also means everyone in Anchorage has a cracked windshield. When my windshield met an unfriendly piece of gravel kicked up by a passing truck, I panicked. But friends assured me it wasn't a big deal unless it spread from one side of the car to the other, and even then I could likely wait a few weeks before replacing it. 

The presence of espresso huts. I've loved coffee for as long as I can remember, but didn't realize there might be an entire population thousands of miles from my hometown that loved it as much, or more. Across Anchorage an some of the neighboring towns, enterprising folks plopped sheds and shacks in the most unlikely places to sell drive-thru coffee to anyone in need of a fix. I couldn't believe it; there were more espresso huts than fast food restaurants within my reach. I found them again up in the Pacific Northwest; another testament to how amazing that area of the country is.

An abandoned car along the Nenana River
outside of Cantwell. It sat there for months.
Watching snow plows is like watching a carefully orchestrated ballet. In Upstate New York, I'd wake as a child to the consistent rumble of snow plows coming down the street and jump out of bed. It meant we had a big snow, potentially no school and a whole bunch of the white stuff to play in. The plows would push the snow on to the side of the road. In Anchorage when it snowed, the noise was a bit different. Giant road graders and other assorted construction vehicles would push all of the snow into massive walls in the middle of the road. I remember a few walls that towered over my head. Then, a parade of dump trucks would follow to pick up and cart the snow away. This practice certainly isn't uniquely Alaska - they did the same thing in Philadelphia during the crazy blizzards of 2010 - but it was the first time I'd seen such a carefully orchestrated and effective system. 

What's a block heater? I bought my little Toyota Corolla from a friend after my first summer working in Denali National Park. I needed a car for the winter and he needed to get rid of everything he owned before moving to Texas. It was perfect. I saw people driving around with plugs hanging out of the grills of their cars, and finally learned that those plugs belonged to engine block heaters. The block heater's purpose is essentially to keep the engine oil warm and prevent condensation when the car is off. If you don't have a block heater in consistently sub-zero wather, leaving the car cold for too long and trying to turn it on can be disastrous for the engine. The apartment building I lived in had an attached heated garage and it (arguably) didn't get cold enough for long enough in Anchorage to need a block heater anyway. But not having a one presented issues on a week-long trip up to Healy outside of Denali in January. The one night I had my car up in Denali in January, my boyfriend and I would alternate getting up every three hours in the middle of the night to warm the engine up. 

On a snowy drive up to Denali from Anchorage in January.
The excessive dark. This is usually the first thing folks ask about when they find out I lived in Alaska. I'd wake up for work in December and January early in the morning, and I'd make it through two or three hours in the office before the sun came up. It would set mid to late afternoon after moving horizontally across the horizon. Four years later, I honestly don't remember having too much trouble with the dark. It didn't bother me as much as the excessive light in the summer. 

I could go on for days about what made living in Alaska unique. If you live there now, have lived there, or live in another particularly unique winter spot, leave a comment!


Haley Dahle said…
Alaska is one place I haven't been to yet, that I really would like to see. It looks like an amazing place :)
Cdnrockiesgirl said…
Reminds me a lot of here! Everyone has a block heater and in the spring, windshield chip repair tents spring up everywhere because of all the gravel thats used. And I've often had the same thoughts when driving on isolated mountain roads with no cell reception (something to the effect of 'dear car PLEASE do not strand me here').
Dan said…
Here in central Canada a block heater is a must. There's rarely a year that we don't get at least a solid couple weeks of -30 temps and -20 for weeks is routine. On trips into the mountains we'd bring a coffee can with some BBQ briquettes and lighter fluid. You'd light it up and place it under the engine until it warmed it up enough to start.
Sounds like Fairbanks! I only had to deal with a few weeks of cold up in Denali, but it sounds like you've got it year round. Hardcore! I never had to resort to briquettes. Did you ever camp overnight in that cold?
Sounds about right :) I know a lot of these things aren't uniquely Alaska, but rather things that people who live in isolated northern places have to deal with all the time. Have you ever had serious issues with getting stuck anywhere? Or big windshield chips?
It's beautiful! You definitely need to go, and for at least two weeks. Preferably at least 18 months, like I did!
Emphasize the downsides, if you would. It's getting too crowded here.