Are Fairbanks winters among nation's crummiest?

Wednesday, March 6, 2013 - 19:00

I’m not sure how he did his research, but John Metcalfe, a staff writer at The Atlantic Cities, (a website devoted to global cities and trends) has identified eight U.S. cities that he believes have the crummiest winters. They are Chicago, the nastiest; San Francisco, lamest; New York, filthiest; Syracuse, snowiest; Washington D.C., gridlockiest; Seattle, wussiest; Los Angeles, car destoryingist; and Fairbanks, most depressing.

Having lived in Fairbanks for about five years (1969-1975) I can attest to the fact that its glorious summers, with temperatures soaring into the 90s, do not compensate for its long and brutal winters. But I wouldn’t describe winter there as “depressing,” even though extreme cold and dark can make one feel as if he’s on another planet.

Most of my time in Fairbanks was spent at the University of Alaska, which sits atop a hill overlooking the city. Generally, we were well above the ice fog, which lay over the community like a white down quilt. Smoke from chimneys and stacks rose straight up through that blanket and reached skyward like vapor trails from errant missiles.

There was a persistent climatological phenomenon known as a temperature inversion, in which warm air rises and lies dormant, trapped over a layer of colder air. This made our academic haven several degrees warmer than town.

Unisex apparel: Walking from the dormitory high on the hill to classrooms lower on the campus grounds was quite a feat when temperatures hung at -50 degrees, which was not uncommon back in the 1960s and 1970s. Both males and females shuffling down the hill looked identical in the winter gloom: amorphous blobs stuffed inside oversized coats and pants, with heads completely covered. Puffs of steam jetted out from those dark hulks, icy breaths indicating life forms existed somewhere within.

Driving a car in Fairbanks was quite an adventure, if you could get it started. Head bolt heaters were a “first come, first serve” amenity on the campus and generally, they didn’t work because of burned out fuses. At 40 below zero and colder, the car seats felt as hard as cement. All of the vehicle’s fluids, i.e., oil, brake fluid, power steering fluid, transmission fluid, became molasses that had been stored inside a freezer. Plastic dashboard switches had to be turned slowly, lest they snap off. Since the heater couldn’t generate enough BTUs to defrost the windshield at these temperatures, you rolled the windows down to make the inside as cold as the outside to prevent them from fogging up.

With ice fog reducing visibility down to about 20 feet, moving through intersections was more or less a gambling event. Sometimes it was difficult to tell if the light had turned green so you just went, bluffing the other cars, hoping that those two headlights coming straight at you weren’t an 18-wheeler.

Doing anything to a car in Fairbanks at -50 degrees and colder, changing a tire for instance, was more than an adventure — it was an expedition. It was the first time I can recall that when changing a tire, I left the vehicle running as I jacked it up. That was so I could have the heater running and periodically climb in to warm up. Or should I say, gingerly crawl in so the truck wouldn’t slip off the jack. Every move had to be carefully calculated. I think it took me about an hour to get the tire changed, and I somehow managed to do it without freezing my hands.

The University’s Student Union Building wasn’t completed until after I graduated, so most of our recreation was off-campus. A couple of the more familiar haunts were the Howling Dog Bar and Malamute Saloon, both located several miles away at the old mining community of Esther. I don’t remember who was the designated driver back in those days, or if we even had one — but one member of our crowd was a mechanic and was able to fix just about anything, including cars that weren’t built to run at -50 degrees.

Cross-country skiing was a good form of recreation during Fairbanks winters if the temperature climbed up to a toasty zero degrees. With face masks, Arctic mittens, down coats and oversize wind pants, skiiers took on that hulky, unisex look I described earlier. Fairbanks winters were not conducive to fashion statements.

Studies consumed a lot of our time during those long, dark, cold winters, and they were definitely cold. But I don’t really think Metcalfe’s term “depressing” is accurate. Living there, like it is anywhere, was what we made it.

This winter, like it does every year, Fairbanks will host the World Ice Sculpture Championships, when young and old come out to see the ice artists perform their wizardry. “The colder the better,” you’ll hear them say.

I wasn’t always fond of the rough winters Fairbanks could dish out, but I discovered something that endeared me to the place: The people. They’re a hardy, proud, independent bunch and are not reluctant to let you know it. Once you get to know some of these folks, you’d never feel compelled to put Fairbanks on the crummiest winter city list. It’s truly an ‘uplifting’ city, a city with a heart. And thus it’s name: The Golden Heart City.


Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River. To contact Frank: [email protected].

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