A diagnosis from Dr. Cheechako

There's only one type of person that would wear cowboy boots in the snow.


They call me Cheechako.

I called it style. In Northwest Colorado, where I was previously employed as a journalist and photographer, cowboy boots were a part of life — a necessity when wading through seas of sagebrush dotted with rabbit holes and cow pies. Yes, snow was also a part of that life. But as anyone from the area will tell you, much of the winter is spent sloshing about in the post-snow phase. Certainly not below 20 degrees.

So as I sat in my bank's parking lot shortly after my first Alaska snow, I collected my ego, assessed what parts of my posterior would likely bruise and examined said footwear. Hard rubber. No traction. There's an obvious reason no season-hardened Alaskan wears these darned things.

In May, after a year and a half riding a desk in Craig, Colo., I decided I'd pursue the Last Frontier. During college I spent two summers as a deckhand out of Seward and had come to know the Peninsula summer well. What could possibly be difficult about living here year-round?

I think one of my co-workers recognized I was in for an awakening when I asked when winter started. December? January?

"Try October," he said with a chuckle. Eesh. Well, reality came crashing down in that parking lot as I dusted the snow off my jacket and promptly ditched the cowboy garb for my old pair of XtraTufs that served me well fishing through the summer.

You see I work with six individuals who are either Alaskans or several winters removed from Cheechako status and they, not surprisingly, find quite a bit of humor in my snow and ice bumblings. Perhaps the most laughed about incident to date came on a Saturday when I thought it wise to park my car away from the trees so it could soak up some late afternoon sun. Eyebrows were instantly raised and chuckles drawn when I explained I wanted the ice built up on the floorboards to melt.

Needless to say, I forgot — in the sun or not — below freezing is below freezing.

Weeks later, during a cold snap when my car was running on fumes, I pulled into the gas station to find an inch or so of ice clogging my fuel door from opening. Having seemingly no other option, I called a co-worker for advice. He just laughed. I spent the next 15 minutes diligently chipping away at the ice with my keys in hopes of freeing the door. I popped it and again, nothing. Frozen. Shut. Frustrated, I put my heel to it and to my chagrin it popped open. An Alaskan co-worker said that would have been most Alaskans' first reaction.

Another lesson learned: don't loose your cool when the windows freeze shut in the house. A lighter is not an option. Rather, just open the front door, take a deep breath and count to 10.

Also, a block heater is a good idea, but don't expect it to do anything for the inside temperature of your sedan. This wasn't properly communicated to me. A good office laugh was had.

However, that block-heating investment was one of the better decisions I've made. I've since learned to bury my pride and take the advice of sourdoughs whenever possible. I will likely be installing my first set of studded tires soon. Showshoeing is more fun than it first appears. And, generally, there is a reason for why life seems to move just a bit slower than in the summer.

Despite all the laughs, I did have to digest some advice for dealing with the lack of daylight. Get out and soak up some rays at lunch, or as much as possible on the weekends. Take up a hobby — rediscovering painting for myself. And don't despair — the solstice is how many days away?

I asked the same co-worker — who for the record was "quite the cheechako" when he came up from Wisconsin, said my boss — why he took such delight in my rookie mistakes. Because it reminded him of his time in the same position, he explained.

Oftentimes, Alaskans lose touch with what really makes life special so close to Arctic Circle, or so I'm told. Cheechakos are part of the experience. So here's hoping someday I'll have my own to amuse me.

Brian Smith is a reporter and city editor at the Clarion.


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