It's August, and it's dark in the quiet bar. It's after nine, and it's light on the street. The air outside is still warm, and the air inside the place is stale. The conversation turns to winter, which seems like years away. The patrons grumble about the subzero temperatures, the ice on the roads, the seemingly endless darkness, and the price of vegetables.
Enamored by inexperience, I shrug off their complaints and in a vain attempt to join the conversation mention that this winter will be my first in Alaska.
Nobody cares. They've all been there before, once, at least.
Nobody cares, except for a grizzled cab driver who'd kept his mouth shut throughout the conversation. Now he looks up from his drink and stares at me.
"This will be my first winter here," I say again, smiling.
"It'll be your last," he groans.
Now that the days are growing shorter--by month's end we'll be down to eight and a half hours of light--the guy's words have been ringing in my ears. Anticipating frigid winds and endless snowstorms that might well sentence me to self-imposed confinement and self-inflicted cabin fever, I've been counting the days until my descent into madness begins under the deep blue shroud of winter's perpetual midnight.
Of course, it doesn't have to be that way. Winter can be a great time for losing your mind and making fruitless attempts to drown your despair with cheap booze. (Our misanthropic friend at the bar was apparently getting a head start.) But winter has another side to it, one that involves investing some time and money and doing some research. The payoff can be outstanding.
Winter has a lot to offer, once you know what you're doing. Skiing, snowboarding, ice skating, and snowshoeing are the traditional and not-so-traditional staples of the longest season. Other activities include ice climbing, skijoring, mushing and snowmachining.
Every activity has myriad opportunities, along with an equal number of requirements, mostly involving equipment but also knowledge. You can't head out into the woods with a pair of snowshoes and a hat. You need to know what to expect, what to wear and what to do while you're outside.
Leaving your house
Get out! But don't do it naked. Staying warm in the winter is a matter of proper attire. Never wear cotton: it doesn't insulate at all when it's wet.
Layering is the key to staying warm. You should wear a bottom layer of "performance underwear," gear-speak for high-tech, polyester long johns. Over that a mid-weight layer of the same material should fit snugly without restricting your movement. You can then add sweaters or fleece jackets. Wool works well, too. Over all of this you should wear a waterproof and windproof jacket and pants. On your hands you should wear at least a thin pair of gloves, covered by good mittens and a waterproof overmitt. Mittens are better than gloves, since they allow your fingers to share heat. Always keep your head covered: most of your body heat escapes through your head.
Downhill skiing at big resorts is as popular as ever, and to write about it length would be like describing a bicycle trip down Main Street. It's easy to learn, and plenty of people enjoy the sport at all levels. If you've never tried it, give it a shot. Your first day might not be a piece of cake. (I got hauled down a mountain in Vermont on a sled after an ill-fated attempt to graduate to the intermediate level ended with a ski splitting my chin.) As with any new activity, you should go with someone who knows what they're doing.
Cross-country skiing can be as enjoyable as downhill, and it's free. Cross-country skis come in three basic styles. A touring, or classic, ski is a thin ski. A racing ski is longer and narrower. Skate skis are stiffer and shorter. All require wax, although you can get cross-country tour skis which use a fishscale pattern on the bottom in place of wax, although you should treat these skis with wax as well.
Tsalteshi Trails, located behind Skyview High School in Soldotna, offers about 15 kilometers of groomed trails and is open to the public. The Kenai Golf Course also allows cross-country skiing on its grounds. The Kenai National Wild Refuge caters to classic skiers; there are no groomed trails there.
Telemark skiing is sort of a combination of downhill and cross-country skiing. The skis resemble cross-country skis, but they're thicker and have metal edges. Like many skis, they are side-cut to allow for easier turning while skiing down hills and mountains. They are for backcountry use. Manitoba, past the "Y" en route to Anchorage, is located by Summit Lake Lodge and is a mecca for telemark skiers.
Wilderness Way Outfitters and Beemun's, both in Soldotna, carry skis and ski equipment.
You also should check out the Kenai Central High School ski swap, where you'll find a lot more than skis. Look around for gear of all sorts for all seasons. If you have gear to trade or sell, drop it off between 4 and 7 p.m. on Nov. 27 or between 8 and 10 a.m. Nov. 28. The event is open from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Nov. 28, with payout from 3 to 4 p.m. that day. The Kenai Central High School Cross Country Ski Team, which gets a 20 percent commission on all sales, has hosted the swap meet for three years. Word on the streets, trails and slopes is that it's been bigger and better every year.
Once the black sheep of winter sports, snowboarders now come in all shapes, sizes, ages and attitudes. Snowboarding is easier to learn than downhill skiing, if you believe people who have been doing it for years. Personally, I find it akward. The emphasis in snowboarding is on tricks and bold displays of ability, courage and outright stupidity. Don't try a 180 on your first day. Work on turning and stopping. Shun the half-pipe. You're not in a Mountain Dew commercial yet.
There are a lot of different snowboards out there, but now that snowboarding has been around for years finding used equipment shouldn't be too hard, if you don't mind using a board plastered with Bad Religion stickers.
Snowshoeing can take you to some of your favorite summer destinations in the winter. It's a different world in the winter, and you might not even recognize your favorite trails. This is because you're not on those trails at all: There's a good chance you'll wander off the snow-covered paths without knowing it.
Many trails have alternate winter routes. Check a trail guide book, like "55 Ways to the Wilderness in South Central Alaska," before departing. Be prepared to spend a lot more time getting around on snowshoes. It's a tiring way to travel; make sure you reserve enough energy to get back. Prices vary, but you can get a basic pair of snowshoes for around $100.
Some people learn to ski at an early age. For the rest of us, learning to skate can be tough. It's a matter of persistence. Do yourself a favor and get hockey skates. They offer a lot of support in the ankles, where you'll need it. Get used to falling down, and don't let it deter you. Resist the temptation to trip the 6-year-olds gliding gracefully past you. You can skate for $3 and rent skates for another $3 at the Soldotna Sports Center. You can skate for free at Kenai's outdoor rink, by the Challenger Center, at certain times of the day.
Ice climbing is really, really dangerous. Do not try it without an experienced climber. You could sustain very serious injuries or die. (The same is true of some other winter sports, but the possibilities for accidents with climbing are greater.) In addition to knowing how to use the equipment, you need to know how to evaluate and navigate routes on the ice. Basic gear includes ropes, plastic boots, ice axes and hammers, crampons and ice screws. There are good places to climb in the region: various places around Turnagain Arm offer challenging routes for ice climbing in the winter and for rock climbing the rest of the year.
Skijoring and mushing
Skijoring involves letting a dog tow you around on a pair of skis. Mushing involves letting a team of dogs pull you around on a sled. There are a number of races for both sports throughout the winter. Several organizations organize events on the peninsula. The Tustumena 200 organization organizes, obviously, the Tustumena 200 race, the last qualifying race for the Iditarod. You can attend its November meeting for volunteers if you want to help out with the race or learn more about the sport. They'll be serving free chili. Call the Tustumena Lodge at 262-4216 for more information. The Peninsula Sled Dog Racing Association also organizes skijoring and mushing events. Call 262-7293 for more information.
Snowmachining is a popular activity in the winter, and it's a good way to get around off the roads. It's expensive, though. The price of used snowmachines is about what you would have paid for a rusting station wagon in college. Look through any local newspaper (ahem) and you can sometimes find people willing to trade snowmachines for other things. Rusting station wagons, for instance. New snowmachines cost more than your dividend check and your spouse's combined. About a thousand bucks more. And don't forget the obvious: snowmachines run on expensive gasoline, unlike the much quieter and physically and mentally challenging activities described above.
Make some new friends
Going outside is safer and (usually) more fun when you go with others. (Solo trips are great, too, but only if you have enough experience to go safely.) The Kenai Peninsula Outdoor Club organizes a number of events, some outside and some inside, each month. They meet at 7 p.m. the first Wednesday of each month at the Homer Electric Association building in Kenai. Call 283-8426 to learn more.
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