Alaska – Who Said, A Cold Wall?

MOST people imagine Uncle Sam’s attic as completely surrounded by a wall of cold, making it not only hard to reach but almost impossible to live within. But those who live here know of no cold wall.

The Southern and Maritime Provinces of Alaska are in direct contact with the main line of one of Earth’s great central heating systems; and our Interior Province is well and completely sheltered on three sides. Even that farthest quarter of Alaska which lies on the exposed Arctic Slope is not uninhabited by “white folks,” and splinters of the very North Pole’s self, so to speak, have been brought home to us by Amundsen, Wilkins and Ben Eielson. No; the attic is well built, is very self-contained, and, like the houses of our town of Fairbanks, is quite evidently intended by its Architect for comfortable and all-year-round occupancy. And yet Alaska’s climate—the one thing all Alaskans are most united in loving and praising—is just the very thing about which outsiders are most skeptical.

What are the factors which make for a cold climate? Most people think of only one: high latitude or nearness to the Poles, and that we surely have, in some parts of Alaska. But there are many other equally determining causes of cold. When you’ve taken them all into consideration, you’ll see why most of Alaska, most of the time, has, as Jim Fairborn puts it, “just the kind of climate California wants to have—cool enough in summer and comfortable enough in winter!”

The first moment you put on your thinking cap you will hit upon the second cold-determining factor —altitude. ” How high up ” on mountain or plateau is quite as important as “how high up” on the curve of the globe. When, as people have since Ptolemy, we read of snow-clad peaks, ice caps and genuine glaciers -existing in the alpine highlands of those Mountains of the Moon that lie right down under the earth’s equator, in the very heart of “hottest Africa,” then surely we realize that altitude alone may be enough to neutralize the ordinary effects of latitude. And Fairbanks, though only a little below the Circle, is only a little above sea-level. Wind currents and icy drafts that mountain ranges draw down into valleys, or shut off, are other items in toting up the sum of any possible cold. Whosoever live in mountain country know this, and Fairbanks is windless in deep winter.

But one of the very most essential factors in determining whether or not a country is really cold, is that complicated matter of ocean currents and their modifying influence on the climate of any land-mass lying in their track. Nearness to or distance from the sea, then, and the temperature and direction of the prevailing currents flowing through that sea, are concluding and intensely powerful matters that must be looked into, before we can say whether any specific part of Alaska is or is not ” very cold.”

Alaska lies, as we know, contiguous to continental America on its east side, but thrusting out into the North Pacific in a tremendous jut, which carries both its southwest Aleutian arm and its northwest tip at Bering Strait, westward until they all but interlock with Asia. The whole southeastern, southern, and southwestern coasts (the major portion of Alaska’s twenty-six thousand miles of highly indented shore line) lie open to whatever forces are at work in the North Pacific.

Down at the broad equator line of the Pacific Ocean the revolution of the earth upon her axis from west to east, endlessly spinning, deflects westward a draft of heated air which, in its turn, produces equatorial currents. Upon striking the Asiatic coast, just east of the Philippines, this sun-warmed water splits in two parts, one branch deflecting sharply north off the coast of Japan. Swinging over to the right and sweeping along past the Aleutian Islands toward the American continent, the ” Japan Current” warms and moistens the entire south coast of Alaska and, following with its drift circulation the swirling winds of North Pacific, flows down along the Panhandle.. This great Kuro Shiwo or ” Black Stream ” is analogous in the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf Stream of the Atlantic and is the hot water-heating system of Uncle Sam’s attic.

At the time of Alaska’s purchase, lack of accurate information about its climate led to bitter and most unjust criticism of the far-minded statesmen who effected the transfer of title deed from Russia to the United States. People referred to it as Seward’s Ice Box, Icebergia, Walrussia. Perhaps this association of Alaska with the word ” Russia ” is what first set the cold notion in people’s minds; for most of us do falsely think of all Russia as cold, whereas it is far too big a place to be lumped under any one category—as also is Alaska! And even at present, to most of those United States citizens, who own our Territory but have never yet set eyes upon it, Alaska seems another Greenland or Labrador or Siberia. Precious few connect its climate in their minds with the climate of Norway or the British Isles, which is the true comparison.

After years of all-season living in that part of Alaska which is actually the winter-coldest, and which has a greater yearly variation in temperature than has the very Arctic Slope itself, I must truth-fully say that I have never suffered any hardship directly attributable to cold, nor have I ever known a day when mere cold made me uncomfortable or necessarily kept me within doors. I have felt very much colder at plus 30 degrees, in wet snow which penetrated clothing, than at clear dry minus 50 in a fur parka. I have had accidents and adventures, yes; but many of the adventures were due solely to my own ignorance, and accidents will happen in the best-regulated and mildest localities. In the short ” deep cold ” spells of interior Alaskan mid-winter one either stays in the house or goes out only for routine marketing, business or school. One doesn’t travel long distances unless it is absolutely necessary, when it is colder than forty below (the point at which ” deep cold ” sets in and a very definite change is noted in the atmosphere) ; and above this point the trails are not dangerous or at all unpleasant, if one keeps moving. In fact, from fifteen to twenty-five below we think the most ideal mushing weather, and I myself have driven with dogs, for sheer pleasure, on days when the thermometer read minus twenty-five and thirty. Old prospectors on trail often used to carry a little bottle of mercury, and when this froze, as it does at minus forty, they simply did not travel but ” holed in.”

In considering any AIaskan problem, the fact that it is indeed ” The Great Country ” must always be kept in mind. You have already travelled through Alaska’s southeast strip of territory, and have seen that there, at least, the air is always warmed and moist (from one hundred to two hundred inches of annual rainfall being characteristic of that section), due to the in-sweep of the blessed Kuro Shiwo, which makes the complete circuit of our southern coast line. As these waters are open and navigable the year round, the only difficulties to winter transportation from Alaska’s many fine ports are being removed gradually with each added year, by the setting up of new lighthouses and buoys and channel markings to make plain the twisted inland waterway that winds its sheltered trail to Seattle. All along this coast, equator-warmed ocean winds and cur-rents, as well as the sea-level location of all the southeastern Alaskan towns, more than counteract the fact that these ports are farther-north colonial settlements.

England lies in the latitude of Labrador; but England is not sterile, because it has the Gulf Stream. Indeed, its southern counties have very much the same climate as the coast of South Carolina! In the same way, Alaska’s old Russian capital of Sitka, lying at 57° N., has very nearly the same year-round average of temperature as Halifax at 44° 39′; and records kept at Sitka for twelve years prove that ” there has never been a week in winter when the temperature was as cold as at New York City, Washington, D. C., or Berlin, Germany; nor has there been a week in summer when the temperature was as high as at any of the three places mentioned.” Sitka in mid-January often has exactly the same temperature as San Francisco, in “sunny California.” It lies in about the same north latitude as does Edinburgh, and their climates are very similar since both are at sea level and both are influenced by similar ocean-warming streams. Sitka has a far milder climate than either of the Scandinavian countries, yet no one ever thinks of Edinburgh or Halifax or Scandinavia as uninhabitable.

Fact is, three fourths of Alaska is not an Arctic province at all, but lies well within the North Temperate Zone; and the climate of Uncle Sam’s attic as a whole shows just about as much variation as may be found within the walls of the forty-eight states below stairs. Official thermometers in Montana have dropped as low as anything we ever see even in mid-Alaska, and parts of Alabama experience lower temperatures than do sections of Alaska’s southern coast.

This matter of Alaska’s great size is almost unrealizable to those who have not in person taken its long trails. To say that Alaska stretches from Hyder at 130° W. longitude to Attu Island beyond 173° E., or that it contains a total area of nearly 600,000 square miles (about ten times the land area of New England), means less from the climate point of view than to say that its north and south reach is, by z00 miles, greater than the distance from New Orleans to Duluth! And as it would be a very thoughtless person who expected to find identical climates in New Orleans and Duluth, so too we must be very foolish to expect the same climate upon Amatignac (the southernmost Aleutian island) and at northernmost Point Barrow. Yet Point Barrow, because it is a sandspit lying upon the sea and subject to sea changes, is not the very coldest place in all Alaska, by any means. With our north-south borders as far apart as the Mexican border is from Canada, why on earth should people expect one uniform temperature for Alaska? We have plenty of elbow room here, you see, for many peculiar diversities and differences, for each one of Alaska’s four great divisions has a climate in which the four elements of altitude, latitude, windy-ness and sea influence are differently blended.

Archdeacon Stuck, who built our Fairbanks church and spent many useful years at Fort Yukon, used to lecture a great deal to Mission Circles in the States, and was often questioned by ladies who came up ,afterwards to ask, ” How do you endure the bitter cold in Alaska? ” He always replied, in his crisp English manner: ” Madam, a person of good sense does not endure the cold. He protects himself from it.” And that is one great advantage we humans have, in dealing with mere cold rather than with heat. We can protect ourselves from cold; and, too, in time the “arctician becomes arcticized.” That is, a protective blood-change is said to take place, which helps to keep us warm.

The Arctic Sea is full of life, and, as Stefansson has so well demonstrated, abounds with living creatures which have made the necessary adjustments to its conditions. Domestic animals brought to our Alaskan North begin at once to become arcticians and to arcticized. Plymouth Rock hens, during their second winter in Fairbanks, often grow warm feathers, like gray ragged trousers, all down to their toes; and Monte, our beloved Airedale that we brought from Seattle, became a veritable fur-bearing animal with each added year of northern exposure. I believe his soft wool grew to be fully four inches long, though he was of the crisp-haired and wiry type originally. All short-haired dogs develop here a heavy coating of furry material underneath their scant normal hair, for nature seems to be old-fashioned and believes in her creatures wearing heavy woolens in winter! Her wild things do not “endure” Arctic cold; they protect themselves from it. And so do we.

In all but two ways, conditions in Alaska to-day are similar to conditions in New England when it too was being colonized. Gaea the old Earth Mother is the same, stirring her great currents in the ocean bowls. The same sky overhangs us here; beast, bird, and fish are just the same, and human nature hasn’t changed one bit. But in some ways we’re better fitted now to colonize a so-called difficult land than were the folk of yesterday, because we have to-day our modern handy tools of both applied and social science. Each new discovery of a natural law has meant just one more lever in the, hand of man, to lift his world of comfortable living a possible hitch further into the North. Civilization’s self is drawing surely north, and has been ever since it first arose in those warm river valleys of nearly prehistoric days. Northward the course of empire takes its and has, for some time past.

It may be a shade less romantic to live just under the Arctic Circle in a steam-heated house, electric-lighted, telephone-equipped, listening to music of an orchestra playing in San Francisco, or jumping in a plane and flying off on errands of our banking, merchandise or mines; but these new toys and tools have not only speeded up man’s ancient business of carving out new provinces from the raw materials of geography, but they have helped to make of us colonists a happier-spirited lot in the doing of this chore. On reaching here, the Cold Wall proves to be no wall at all; for with increased control over heat sources and light sources we can now live with comfort in places once considered ‘way beyond the pale of civilization. Indeed, if one but gives a glance back over history, one can’t help noticing that this very ability to devise ways and means of resisting cold has become the real measure and de-fining quality of Human Race’s adaptability, and hence of Civilization’s possibility. The stimulus of cold and the challenge of cold have developed mental powers in man and made a homo sapiens out of him, willy-nilly. The race has learned to live outside of Eden and yet to make an Eden even there, beyond the cold walls.

Think of all that cold has done for us! It stimulated men to dare the fine adventure of fabricating and controlling fire. Cold devised clothing for us, constructed shelters, and made us lay up food against a foreseen day and need. Cold the inexorable, pushing close at his heels and nagging forever at the ease-loving brute that lurks in nature, caused him to remember, forced him to foresee, eventually made a true man of the Eden outcast, and forced the con-tented cave-dweller first to create some wits inside his slant-browed pate—and next to use them! It seems to me we owe a very generous debt to cold.

But what is ” cold ” ? I’ve come to think that there is no such thing as ” cold ” at all, but only ” colder than ” ; for I doubt very much if any two who happen to read here will absolutely agree on a definition of what ” really cold ” really is! Where does true cold begin? Some people feel ” cold ” in a room that’s 60°. Some people think it is cold when the thermometer drops to freezing; others are willing to admit that it is cold when down to minus 40; but others still, who have been brought up in the North and to whom it is a natural habitat both by race and personal adaptation, say: ” Shucks! What is cold, anyway? It’s nothing—and never hurts people who use a little common sense about it.” Or, as I overheard, one of our old-timers say, inelegantly but with much truth : ” Cold don’t ride to no tune of facts or figgers. It’s feelins make cold. A man’s own gizzard is his best thermometer. You feel all scrunched, or you ain’t. That’s all as is to this ` cold’ proposition.”

My own guess is that the matter of Alaska’s purely relative cold is answered best of all, perhaps, in Yankee fashion by, ” What do you mean by cold?” An Italian and a Japanese helped to found Fairbanks, and both were old-timers and loved the North —yet Italians and Japanese are supposedly fond of soft climates. I know of many negroes in the North, good happy citizens here; and Stefansson tells a delightful story of his friend Jim Fiji the Samoan, who lived for many years in the very farthest north of Alaska and liked it so very much he never would go home. The great major portion of our colonists, who are one hundred per cent. ” Nordic,” live in the North by preference because we dearly love the climate here and, above all other factors of Alaskan life, honestly prefer and actually exult in the invigorating pep of it. Ours is not a penal colony. No one is indentured to live and labor here! We have come and we remain solely because we find in our Alaska ” the makings ” for interesting, wholesome, and useful living.

The 0ft-recurring questions of ” how cold” and ” how do you stand the cold ” are not so much, perhaps, a matter of solving great geographic equations of north parallels and degrees, of latitudes and altitudes, thermal ocean currents or prevailing winds. They are purely a matter of one’s personal chemistry. You either like a certain amount of cold mixed in your annual diet, or you don’t. It’s a question of the adjustment of your personal carburetor, a question of whether your own human engine works at best efficiency and highest rating with an intake of warm or cool atmosphere. Only those turn north happily for all-year living, to whom the mere word “cold” has no terrors and who have experienced in their own persons the healthful stimulant of certain amounts of cold.

Stefansson again and again reminds us. that if we are to think of the Arctic region truly, we must think of it as part of a sphere, and not as the flat and inaccessible top of a cylinder cut off from the rest of life by a sharp unclimbable rim. There is no edge off which one drops into the Never-Never, sailing north. There is no Cold Wall beginning at the Arctic Circle, or near it; and neither is there a Cold Wall extending about Alaska’s southern rim. That rim is washed by the same waters that warm Hawaii, directly south of the Aleutians, where Cook and Vancouver wintered and provisioned when they were first exploring Alaska’s coast: To these clear-sighted navigators Hawaii and Alaska were all a part of one job. They sailed the great circles and saw the globe as a whole, not as a cylinder with an unuseful and unapproachable top.

The barrier of Alaska’s ” cold ” is a purely imaginary line, crossable by all who do not shiver at the mere sound of shivery words.