Winter Driving in Interior Alaska



Talk of your cold! Through the parka's fold it stabbed like a driven nail, just a line out of one of the great poems of Canada's Robert Service, who also lived in Whitehorse for a while and worked for a bank there. The Cremation of Sam McGee.


Winter driving or just being outdoors, in the far north, takes extra preparation of person and vehicles. I would guess I have several hundred thousand miles of winter driving from the years we lived in Interior Alaska in Nenana. Most years I would put close to 20,000 miles on my employer furnished vehicles. The vehicles were prepped for the cold, I traveled with a "survival" bag in the vehicles at all times, be it a car or my airplanes. Always had a small tent, down sleeping bag, extra clothes, extra parka, insulated snow suits, etc. plus food and a couple of quarts of good brandy. If I was going to freeze to death somewhere, I wanted it to be a pleasant, and non-painful experience. :) From the years of living in the villages prior to moving to Nenana, on the Parks Highway, I got in lots of survival experience, taught to me by my friends that were born and raised in the bush.


When I would buy new vehicles to use at the office, before they left the dealership, all the lubricants were replaced with synthetic ones. Engine oil, tranny fluid, differential lube front and rear as most were 4 wheel drives, all wheel bearing were washed and lubed with synthetic, block heaters installed, usually multiple ones. I hade three engine preheaters on my personal vehicle, one in the coolant line, a set of block freeze plug type heaters, a heated plate under the battery and a heated blanket surrounding the battery (s) It pulled close to 40 amps when all plugged in at the same time. Had a pair of switches in my bedroom so I could turn them on and off without going outside. Then I bought a military surplus sleeping bag to use to cover the engine when the heaters were working or if we went to a movie in Fairbanks, etc. The heavy duty sleeping bag would keep the engine warm enough to start for several hours without being plugged in to electricity. Also kept several parking spots leased at the Fairbanks airport, that had electric plug ins at each site, so my vehicle would start when I returned from a flight somewhere which averaged 3 to 5 flights a week, for just over 17 years.


Windshield washer fluid would freeze and not work, so I would put a little dishwashing detergent into a liter of vodka and use that in the washer reservoir. Worked great.


Anyway, there are two main types of dangerous weather a person can find in the north country, the storms with blowing snow and temperatures below freezing  and then the super cold of the Interior of Alaska and Interior Canada. They don't occur at the same time. It is usually not super cold when it is snowing, blowing and having a blizzard. When it gets super cold, it will be clear, calm and perhaps some ice fog in the air or wood smoke if close to homes. Either of these weather types  can/will kill you, it you are not prepared, both physically and mentally. The super cold air is fairly shallow, usually no more than 1,000 feet in depth. It can be -40F on the ground when you take off in an airplane and be +20F as you reach 1,000 ft of altitude. Retractable gear on airplanes has to be kept hanging out till you get into the warmer air and the brake hoses have a chance to warm up, then you can fold the gear up to cruise. Do the same up high, then land as it is so nice to have working brakes when you touch down on a runway. LOL

There were times, especially on the drive from Nenana south to the Anchorage area that we would run into white outs. Just can't see, as one of our daughters once described it as being inside of a marshmallow. Dangerous as you can run off the road, get hit by another vehicle that can't see either, hit wildlife as they like to travel on the highways, easier than walking in the deep snow. Just south of Cantwell on the Parks Highway was a place where we would often have weather related driving problems, blizzards and ones we called ground blizzards. Ground blizzards are just as they sound, blowing snow but it is only a few feet off the ground. I have had to stop the car and get out to walk around and try to figure where the highway is located and the direction it is running in ground blizzards. You can look down at your feet and below the waist is nothing but white, blowing snow, can't see your feet but you can see 20 miles above the snow. Strange but dangerous to drive in as is white out conditions. White outs are especially dangerous to flying, landing and taking off as you can't see anything to give you a reference as to your height. A good friend of ours was killed just west of Nenana when he attempted to take off of a frozen lake in white out conditions.  He apparently couldn't tell if he was level, climbing, etc. and flew the plane into the ground.


The storms, the blizzards, the whiteouts, black ice and not being able to see at times can make it very dangerous to travel. Cold weather in the north appears to be on a cycle, just like the hurricanes in this part of the world where we now live. Here the hurricanes  cycle on about a 35 year swing from what I have read. Not sure what the super cold of the North's cycle time is but the early  to mid 70's was brutal. The coldest temperature I ever saw was in 1974 in the village of Allakaket, not to far from Bettles Alaska. No official weather station there but my pocket thermometer was showing -83F resting on a log, sticking up through the ice on the frozen Koyukuk river bank. I was walking over to the village of Alatna on the other side to visit with a friend and enjoy some intelligent conversation with him. (Allakaket is Indian and Alatna is Eskimo and they tended to live apart) I have heard both sides of why? but it boils down to prejudices that go back thousands of years. I was stuck in the village for 13 days as no planes were flying. Remember, flying is very safe, crashing is what is dangerous. LOL To crash is the super cold is very dangerous so I had a personal take off limit of -40F.  Eighty proof brandy will freeze and break the bottle at -70F. (makes the inside of the plane smell like a gin mill when the heater started to warm it up in there..


Situations that occur in the summer time such as flats, broken fan belts, etc, are irritating to most of us, but in the winter time, in the Interior, these same situations can become life threatening  very quickly, if a person is not prepared to take care of themselves and those with them. Much safer to travel with someone else that is also somewhat snookum, when it comes to winter weather. It made me nervous at times, when I had my wife and kids with me, driving in winter time Alaska.