The Coldest Winter I Ever Spent Was the Summer in Alaska

We had a running joke on our journey this summer through Alaska and Canada:

“Canada is so beautiful that everyone in the world would want to live here.  To ensure that didn’t happen, God gave Canada really lousy weather.”

Snowstorm rages on the mountain behind our campground in Banff National Park, Canada

In the photo above, a late-May snowstorm raged on the mountain behind our campground in Banff National Park.  The storm eventually worked its way over top of us, though fortunately the flakes didn’t stick to the ground.  It was quite cold, but at least the squall produced some incredible views.

We travelled through western Canada in May and June.  During that time, it snowed on us twice, dropped to freezing many nights, rained just about every day, and sleeted as late as mid-June.  The sun peaked out briefly most days to tease us, otherwise it was usually cloudy.  Perhaps one in five days we saw enough sun to label the day “sunny.”  In general the days warmed into the 50s and 60s, and at night the thermometer dropped into the 30s and 40s, much chillier than we are used to in early summer.

One day while it was snowing in Banff, I was talking with a fellow camper about (naturally) the weather.  He told me that he has lived all his life north of Edmonton, Alberta.  He said when he was young, he couldn’t wait for the first snow of the year, which was usually in late September.  He would work on his snow machines all summer, getting them ready for the winter season.  He loved to downhill ski, cross-country ski, snowshoe, ice fish, and of course, drive his snowmobiles.  But as he aged into his 40s, his taste for winter adventure waned to the point where he now dreads the first snowfall, knowing the white blanket won’t leave until May.  He said the temperature plunges to 20 below every night in winter and quipped:

“At 20 below, it doesn’t matter whether the temperature is in Celsius or Fahrenheit… it’s damn cold either way.”

A park ranger told me this was typical spring weather in the Canadian Rockies, as the “real summer” is from mid-July to mid-August.  Another ranger in Glacier National Park was even more blunt about it.  When I asked her what good hikes were open in the park, she snapped:

“Everything’s closed, come back in August.”

I spent my college years on the Gulf Coast of Florida where, if the temperature even approached freezing, it was the lead story on the local news.  But I grew up in Wisconsin, so I have experience with cold winters and chilly summers.  In any given year in Milwaukee, there was about an even chance that I needed to wear a jacket during the Fourth of July fireworks. 

Alaskans are also quite accustomed to cold weather.  What’s interesting is that every person we spoke with about it said something like this:

“I don’t like it when it drops to 30 below in winter.  But what’s even worse is the darkness.”

Winter days in Alaska may provide only a few hours of sunlight.  Some villages north of the Arctic Circle don’t see the sun for months.  A ranger in Chena River told me that it gets more challenging each year to make it through the long, dark winters.  He holes up in his house for months and practices guitar because it’s too cold to do anything outside.  Though ironically he seemed most frustrated that he wasn’t a much better guitar player by now.  He was also a bush pilot and said that the changing weather can be deadly when you are flying in Alaska.  He added:

“If you don’t like the weather in Alaska, just wait 15 minutes… it’ll get worse.”

Our weather in Alaska during June and July was decidedly mixed.  Within hours of crossing the border from Canada into Alaska, the clouds parted, and the sun beamed for seven straight days.  It was glorious. 

Then we went to Denali National Park, where we got socked in with persistent rain and cold.  We also endured the most miserable hike of our trip.  It poured on us for two hours straight in 40-degree weather, so that even our waterproof clothes were soaked through, and we were chilled to the bone.  That’s when Theresa said:

“Denali is a great place to visit… if you love cold, rain and clouds.”

What’s funny is that many of the Alaska residents we met were staunch defenders of the cold climate.  It’s almost as if they wore lousy weather as a badge of honor.  They’d tell us how much they loved the snow and cold and couldn’t wait for winter.  We met a man in Chugach State Park who spent most of his summers out to sea on fishing boats.

“This crazy heat is why I leave Anchorage every summer,” he said.  We couldn’t help but laugh, as it was only 70 degrees.

Eventually we realized the reason why everyone we met defended the weather:  Because the people who loved it there were the only ones left, as everyone else had gone south!  Many older people had told us that their kids fled to the lower 48 at least every winter and often permanently because they simply couldn’t hack the miserable weather. 

We finally met an “honest” Alaskan while hiking in the Mat-Su Valley.  She readily admitted that Alaska weather was lousy, and that the sun emerged only every few days.

“But we Alaskans have a different definition of sunny.  If you can see a patch of blue sky anywhere–even for just a few minutes–we considered that a sunny day.”

The next few weeks in Alaska were a mix of rain and sun, and the bad weather started to become a joke.  We had to laugh about it, otherwise we might cry.  Like a true Alaskan, we also had to drastically adjust our scale of what constituted decent weather.  If it wasn’t pouring on us, it was a “nice day.” 

It was particularly gloomy during one stretch in Kenai Fjords National Park when it rained for 72 hours straight.  We know this for sure because the rain makes a loud popping noise on our RV roof, and that sound rang in our ears for three days.  But we made the best of it and went hiking every day.  When I asked a ranger in nearby Seward for the weather forecast, he said:

“I don’t even look at it anymore.  It’s the same every day: cloudy with a chance of rain.  It’s like they just copy and paste the forecast for the entire year.”

But to humor me, the ranger read the forecast posted on the bulletin board.  Sure enough, it said, “Cloudy with a 60% chance of rain,” for every single day in the 10-day forecast! 

And it was cold, weather befitting early spring, not the middle of summer.  That’s when I posted in Facebook a twist on the famous Mark Twain quote (which by the way he never actually said):

“The coldest winter I ever spent was the summer in Alaska.”

Just as we were starting to get genuinely frustrated and a little depressed about the weather in Alaska, Mother Nature decided to give us a treat.  Our last two weeks in Alaska were sunny and warm.

“Alaska is like a supermodel wearing a hoodie.  Every so often, she removes her hood to reveal her true beauty.”

The mountains and glaciers in Alaska are really stunning when you can actually see them.  We viewed dozens of amazing glaciers in Prince William Sound and greeted Mt. McKinley up close with a flightseeing tour of Denali National Park.  These were two of the best days of our lives.  And I can honestly say that our experience would’ve been much different if we were socked in with rain and clouds.

We cannot control the weather, but we can control our moods, so we tried to make the best of the bad weather in Canada and Alaska.  But weather does indeed make a huge difference on how much we can see, and therefore we can appreciate these natural lands much more when it’s sunny and clear. 

To close this article, let me provide a perfect example.  There was only one trail on our trip that we hiked twice: Crow Pass in Chugach National Forest, Alaska.  It’s an 8-mile hike and 2,500-foot climb up to a pass where the beautiful Raven Glacier rests on the edge of a mountain. 

Theresa can see just the bottom of the Raven Glacier through the clouds

The first time we hiked this trail, the day was cloudy and cold in the low 50s (see photo above).  We could see only the base of Raven Glacier and only occasionally when the clouds would briefly part.  Our lunch was cut short because the icy wind pierced through our coats, and the cloudy mist soaked every exposed stretch of our skin.

The entire Raven Glacier and the Chugach Mountains are visible in the bright sunlight

Then just two days later, it was sunny and warm in the mid-70s, so we decided to hike this trail again.  We’re so glad we did, because the clear sky revealed a spectacular blue glacier (above) that poured out of the Chugach mountains into an expansive valley (below).

Theresa enjoying the warm sun and views of the Crow Pass Valley and Chugach Mountains

We were kissed by the sun, embraced by the warmth, and awed by the view.  This turned out to be one of our favorite hikes ever.

“Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice, shame on me.  Fool me a thousand times, you’re a weatherman.”

“Conversation about the weather is the last refuge of the unimaginative.”  ~Oscar Wilde

“Weather forecast for tonight: dark.”  ~George Carlin

“Bad weather always looks worse through a window.”  ~Tom Lehrer

“We all grumble about the weather, but nothing is ever done about it.”  ~Mark Twain

“Nature is neither for you nor against you… she just is.”

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