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October in Alaska is a wild ride

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By Candy Clark

October is a month of contradictions for Alaskans. We begin the month with the beautiful autumnal colors of fall and end the month shoveling snow. Whether raking leaves or shoveling snow; life, for Alaskans in Interior Alaska changes drastically during October.

Our days get shorter; many of us leave for work in darkness and return home in darkness. Exterior home improvement projects must be completed before the wood or glass freeze solid for six months. Any outside painting  needs to be finished for the same reason.

Anything requiring digging into the earth is gone for five to six months unless you have access to heavy duty equipment. Placer gold miners, from the Gold Rush to present day, close things down and settle in for a long winter’s rest. The same holds true for housing construction and road construction. Forget about trying to put up a simple mailbox; it’s too late. Of course, I found this out the hard way - the frozen earth practically broke my shovel.

With temperatures at the beginning of October running in the 40s to 70s range during daylight hours and plummeting to 0 or -20 degree range during the night time by the end of October; changes in attire are certainly necessary. It’s hard to know what to wear; one morning may require a light jacket and the next morning you may need your warmest Arctic parka. So, we dress in layers; lots and lots of layers!  School age children are taught to “layer up” before going outside.

Automobiles require special attention in our frozen desert. Naturally, we change to snow tires by the middle of October, but additional winterization measures are needed to ensure your car’s continued performance at -60 degrees. Believe me, one never wants automobile problems at -60F!

State law requires each individual to carry a cold weather emergency kit in the vehicle during the winter months. This kit includes sleeping bags for arctic temperatures, first aid kit, water, radio, food, and extra coat, snow pants, hat, and gloves. One time is all it takes to realize how valuable this cold weather emergency kit is to survival in Alaska. Yes, I learned it the hard way too! Long story short: the left rear tire dropped off the side of a mountain at -40F in a remote area.  I never want to repeat that experience!

Activities change as everyone rushes to get in that last weekend of camping or that last trip to Denali National Park without the tourists. Hunting and fishing habits change. From hunting fur bearing animals to setting winter trap lines; from fly fishing to ice fishing; from four wheeling to snow machines; from walking to skiing; the focus changes.

Gone are high cranberry pickers, now it’s time to watch for the moose in the yard. Gone is the black road covering known as asphalt; now it’s time to hone one’s skills for driving on black ice and deep snow.

While many things change in Alaska with the temperature drop, Halloween remains an important holiday for the children. Here, the children wear their costumes over their snow suits. It’s not unusual for the teenagers or adults who dress in costume to be found on the ski slopes celebrating the last day of October.

Then, there’s my favorite activity: watching the Aurora Borealis, better known as the Northern Lights. With the cooler temperatures, “the Lights” make frequent appearances. The best viewing time is between midnight and 3 a.m.; the colder the temperature, the better chance of seeing “the Lights”.

Why should I do something sensible, like sleep or watch television when I can “ layer up” and journey out into the cold black night to watch the magic of “the Lights” as they dance across the sky?