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Clark: Basking in the subzero temperatures of Fairbanks

Thu., Dec. 9, 2010

Wednesday morning found me in the throes of a grand funk and I don’t mean the old rock band.

The cause of my depression was right outside the window: the snow and cold and slush and ice and …

“And the first day of winter is still two weeks away,” I moaned. “I’ll never make it.”

Then I took a moment to meditate on the Golden Rule that guides all columnists:

There is no greater antidote for self-pity than reveling in the misfortunes of others.

Actually, my favorite singer/songwriter – the late, great Steve Goodman – said it best when he sang …

“It ain’t hard to get along with somebody else’s troubles.

“And they don’t make you lose any sleep at night.

“As long as fate is out there burstin’ somebody else’s bubble.

“Everything is gonna be all right!”

So I made a pot of coffee, flipped on my gas fireplace and opened my morning paper. I found the cure to my winter blahs under our page 2 “weather” heading.

Only one U.S. city was listed with negative temperature numbers.

Fairbanks, Alaska.

Expected high, minus 20; expected low, minus 37.

Are you freaking kidding me?

A computer search gave me the phone number for the Daily News-Miner, the newspaper serving the Fairbanks area. A flashing temperature icon on a website told me it was a hair after 10 a.m., Fairbanks time.

And the temperature?

Minus 26 degrees.

Holy Palin, that’s cold.

I was experiencing sympathetic shivers when Sam Bishop came on the line.

Bishop, 47, is the assistant managing editor for the News-Miner. More importantly, he is a Fairbanks native and knows all the tricks when it comes to winter in Alaska.

“It’s not even that bad today,” he said, adding that he hadn’t bothered to put on long johns.

This cavalier attitude won’t last. AccuWeather, he said, had been predicting 49-below in a day or two.

As I learned, however, Alaskans consider AccuWeather to be a tad hyperbolic. More stock is put in the National Weather Service, which has been forecasting a more conservative 45-below.

Oh, yeah. That definitely makes me think of palm trees swaying in a balmy breeze.

When it gets in the 30-below-and-under range, even longtime hardy Alaskans like Bishop start paying attention.

Bishop told me that wearing “bunny boots” outside is a must.

Uh, what’s a bunny boot?

He described them as oversized white boots that are insulated with a pocket of air. Bunny boots were apparently designed by the military. They’ll come in handy if we ever get out of Afghanistan and declare war on Antarctica.

A pair of heavy mittens Bishop called “choppers” is another essential. Mittens keep your fingers snuggled together like bozos in a clown car.

“Gloves are useless in these temperatures,” said Bishop. Separate a finger from the others very long and “you’ll lose it.”

Good God. No wonder the state pays its residents an annual dividend to live there.

“Actually, I love it,” said Bishop. “I get a jolt out of the cold weather.”

I know what he means. When my heat and lights went off during Ice Storm ’96, I felt a similar exhilaration knowing that when the food ran out I might have to eat my pet cockapoo.

Bishop said there are about 100,000 people living in the Greater Fairbanks area. And all of them must be attuned to what it takes to get through a bitter winter.

For example: Don’t even think about owning a car unless you have plug-in heaters for your engine block and an oil pan and electric blanket for the battery.

After Bishop I chatted with Dermot Cole, the News-Miner’s columnist. Cole, 57, has lived in Fairbanks since 1974 and is also crazy about it.

But if you’re going to be happy there, he said, you have to actually like cold weather or “convince yourself that you like cold weather.”

Before we hung up, Cole told me a chilling detail about life in the Alaskan deep freeze.

When the temperature drops into the minus 40 range, he said the bottoms of tires will compress and flatten after being parked overnight. It takes a couple hundred yards of driving before the tires morph back to being round.

I don’t know if he was yanking my chain. But I do know that Fairbanks is so far north that the sun makes fewer appearances than Elvis this time of year. Alaskans live in an extended twilight that sounds even worse than those insipid vampire movies.

I can’t say enough good things about Bishop and Cole. They seem like terrific guys. Plus they have done me an invaluable service.

Thanks to these two, I’ve never had such warm feelings about winter in Spokane.

Doug Clark is a columnist for The Spokesman-Review. He can be reached at (509) 459-5432 or by e-mail at

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