The day I found out we were PCSing to Alaska, my wife and I began reading every article we could about preparing for our big move.
We were nervous, yet excited for a new adventure and really didn’t know what to expect. I wanted to leave fellow soldiers with the following tips for surviving the Arctic in the hope that it helps others transition to Alaska, as well.
1. Don’t be afraid of the cold, but respect the cold
Alaska is unforgiving and does not care about you. You can be the biggest, baddest and most hardcore person in the world, yet when you come to Alaska, the state’s harsh climate does not care. There are well below freezing temperatures, high winds, earthquakes, floods and even tsunamis that can be ruthless. However, this is nothing to be afraid of because you can equip yourself to battle the elements.
From the military perspective, you are issued plenty of warm weather gear that will keep you warm no matter the temperature. You will spend eight to nine months out of the year outside in below freezing temperatures, so it is important that you understand how the climate here works and how to protect yourself.
It took me one winter to truly understand what the difference was between what 30 degrees Fahrenheit felt like and what 0 degrees Fahrenheit felt like; and what -20 degrees felt like and what -45 degrees felt like. I arrived to central Alaska in February. It was 70 degrees in Georgia, where I had just moved from, and now I was dealing with -36 degrees in Fairbanks.
Words can’t explain how traumatized I was when I found out I was going on a snowshoe ruck my first week as a platoon leader. But it didn’t take long for me to realize that our issued gear was more than enough to keep you warm and that leaders have adequate work/rest cycles to ensure the safety of soldiers.
2. Take care of your personal items
Winters are long, extremely long. You don’t need added stress by not taking care of yourself outside of work.
In 2020, all soldiers PCS’ing to Alaska are entitled to Remote and Austere Conditions Assignment Incentive Pay, which is free money that allows you to take care of the essentials. For a single soldier PCS’ing to Fort Wainwright, you are issued $2,000. For a soldier with dependents, you are issued $4,000.
This is more than enough money to get your vehicle winterized, purchase winter tires and personal items like coats, jackets, beanies, etc. It is important that when you are issued your RAC-AIP, you use it for what it is intended.
There have been too many instances of soldiers getting $4,000 and blowing it, only to then suffer vehicle issues in the winter when their cars won’t start, or get stuck in the snow because their summer tires can’t make it down the road.
3. Try new things outside of work
As a Southerner, I HATE the cold. I absolutely hate it. I prefer going outside in shorts year-round as opposed to layering up just to go out to eat. However, this is not an excuse for not trying new things outside of work.
Because of Alaska, I was able to experience the outdoors in ways I’ve never imagined and there are tons of family friendly activities to get out and explore. You can go ice fishing, rent snow machines, go snow tubing, cross-country ski, visit the Chena Hot Springs at -40 degrees, go hiking and of course, there’s plenty of hunting.
When talking to folks who truly love Alaska and never want to leave, you’ll find that they’ve all fallen in love with the outdoors. This is a very special place and there are not many units that will grant a four-day pass just so soldiers can go hunt caribou or go canoeing next to glaciers.
4. Find a Hobby
No. 4 goes hand in hand with No. 3: find a hobby. December is the darkest time of the year and you will not experience a lot of sunlight. During this period, you will find that soldiers have the hardest time being thousands of miles away from home, getting little to no sunlight and dealing with freezing temperatures.
Finding a hobby can make the winter go by much easier and you will enjoy your time up here a lot more.
Personally, I love college football. I have a group of friends who are huge football fans and tailgaters so we go all out on the weekends during football season.
But there are groups for everyone — from gamers, to cross-country skiers, off-road Jeep groups, motorcycles clubs, and even groups for spouses with kids to get involved.
The people who run the garrison do a great job putting together year-round events, many of which are free for soldiers. It’s a great way to stay involved and meet others with similar interests.
Yes, there are bears. Whenever I tell someone that I live in Alaska, I usually hear one of these questions: “How cold does it get?” and, “Have you seen any bears?”
Alaska is the wilderness. If you go 15 minutes outside the city of Fairbanks, you are almost guaranteed to lose cell service and you will see miles and miles of forest. It is common for you to see a moose running across the road, and maybe the occasional lynx — and depending on where you are, it is very common for you to see a bear.
For avid hunters and fishermen, seeing bears or moose is almost guaranteed and it is important to know that the animals are on the top of the food chain in the wild. And although moose and bear attacks are uncommon, it happens. So it is important for you to treat wildlife with respect and let them be.
Alaska is truly a beautiful country.
Yes, Alaska is a part of the United States. However, once you see the beauty of Alaska, it is unlike any other place in the U.S. Alaska has the mountains, waterfalls, rivers, miles and miles of forests, glaciers, and tundra that makes this place truly unique.
1st Lt. Alvin S. Cade, Jr. is the Public Affairs Officer for 70th Brigade Engineer Battalion, 1/11th Airborne Division, out of Fort Wainwright, Alaska.
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