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Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2006 09:05 pm

Sharing warmth

How I learned to survive a harsh winter

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The knock on my hotel-room door came early in the morning, just a few minutes after my alarm went off. I opened it to find a male co-worker offering me a pair of his underwear.

There was nothing kinky about his gesture. In fact, I’m not sure which one of us was more embarrassed — me, the new kid in town who obviously had no idea how to cope with winter, or him, the shy, bearded, bespectacled guy who found me so pathetic that he felt compelled to share his skivvies.

I had just moved to Alaska two months earlier to work for the Anchorage Daily News. My editor sent me and photographer Erik Hill (the long-john lender) to cover a weeklong Yupik-language conference in a desolate little west-coast town called Bethel. This mid-January conference happened to coincide with a cold snap so severe that 20 below zero was the high temperature each day. I don’t recall the daily lows, because minus-20 degrees Fahrenheit and minus-27 feel about the same: At either temp, your nose hairs freeze.

Having spent most of my life in Texas, I was cheerfully naïve about Alaska winters. I was wearing high-top leather sneakers, blue jeans, and turtleneck shirts until the morning Erik loaned me a pair of his polypropylene underpants. He explained that the waffle-style stuff I’d packed wouldn’t cut it in Alaska. I needed something like silk or polypro.

“Didn’t you ever hear the term ‘worthless cotton’?” Erik asked, obviously a bit miffed that no one had bothered to brief me (ahem!) before the trip. He proceeded to give me a short lecture on how to keep myself safe in cold weather.

The best way to guard against frostbite was to wear “wicking” fabric such as polypro next to the skin, then layer on wool or polyester fleece. For hands, that meant wearing “glove liners” plus mittens (a formula that, I later discovered, had the added benefit of keeping me out of trouble with other motorists). But of course the most important place on the body to wear wicking material is the feet — so, along with the underwear, Erik gave me a pair of thin navy-blue “sock liners” that looked like something my elderly father might wear. No matter; the ugly liners would be covered with socks and boots.

The other key to keeping feet warm is to wear comfortable shoes with thick soles. I had made a pretty good choice: My sneakers, like many athletic shoes, had an ample sole to keep my feet from freezing if all I had to do was walk a short distance over snow or ice.

But being outside longer, or walking through fresh snow, required “pack boots,” so standard to Alaska that everybody who crosses the border should be issued a pair. Pack boots look like duck shoes on steroids, big and chunky, with thick wool-felt liners you can remove to dry.

“You at least brought a hat, right?” Erik asked. I showed him my parka’s hood, so thin that it could be rolled up and stored inside the collar. Erik was underwhelmed, if not disgusted. He had a beautiful fur ushanka. See, the head is like a chimney: It allows body heat to escape. A hat helps your body preserve its warmth.

Bethel, as it turned out, was the balmy leg of our trip. After the conference ended, Erik and I were dispatched to a remote Yupik village to do a story about a young public-health aide who had been caught in a sudden blizzard halfway between Toksook Bay and Tununak. This amazing young man had survived 17 hours in a windchill that dipped to 50 below, huddled under his snowmobile tarp.

Our flight out of Toksook Bay was canceled because of the weather; it’s apparently dangerous to fly in temperatures colder than 30 below zero. The night we finally flew home, the thermometer met flight-safety regulations, but the wind-chill factor was 90 degrees below zero. I stayed warm thanks to a physical therapist I’d met who loaned me a pair of wind pants.

My Bethel adventure happened a lifetime ago — before I had kids, a mortgage, or a minivan — but Erik’s advice has stayed with me all this time, and I kept hearing his voice in my head this past week. It’s funny, but I checked this on the Internet, and it’s true: This week, the weather in Springfield and the weather in Toksook Bay, Alaska, is almost exactly the same.

I’m wearing layers. I’ve got a milder version of pack boots. I’ve got a wonderful hat. I’m saving my “worthless cotton” for warmer weather.

Of course, the best lesson Erik taught me all those years ago really had nothing to do with footwear or fibers. It was that when conditions turn severe, you should do whatever you can to help your neighbor — even if that means sharing your skivvies. The recipient of your generosity will be eternally grateful.

Contact Dusty Rhodes at drhodes@illinoistimes.com.

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