Discussion 10 9 comments


Blizzards, floods, volcanoes, earthquakes… Alaskans have seen it all, and very often the weather is a central focus for writing about Alaska and the Yukon. As a final discussion, lets talk about the ways that severe weather or climate conditions play a role in the authors we are reading or in our daily lives here.

For me, the weather in Fairbanks is a constant reminder that although I think of myself as the architect of my own life, nature has a way of “overwriting” my designs, much like the snow and ice “overwrite” the yellow and white lines we have so carefully painted on our roads… the snow demands we take another route.


About Madara Mason

Madara Mason's hats include painter, graphic designer, Instructional Designer, faculty educator, English Instructor, food blogger, and Oxford Comma Aficionado. If she's not in front of an easel, she's in front of a screen, or in front of a classroom. Her motto is "If you're not having fun, you're probably doing it wrong."

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9 thoughts on “Discussion 10

  • Aaron

    More than just about any other element of Alaskan literature, the climate is a central figure which shapes both the stories we’ve been reading and our everyday lives as Alaskan residents. Its humbling to realize how much control the weather can sometimes have over us. A strong sense of community is important when having to deal with such harsh climatic extremes. I’ve found that my neighbors have been very accommodating the few times that a problem has occurred and help was needed. For example, back in December a friend stopped by to pick me up at my cabin but took the less-traveled side road right outside my place and got stuck. The icy street at a slight incline was difficult to navigate with his tires because they didn’t have enough traction. It was about 30 below. Unsuspecting an accident (who ever schedules a mishap into their day?), Brian didn’t have gloves with him. I went outside to help and before we knew it, in less than five minutes, several of my neighbors were already on the scene. They towed him out and we were on our way. What could have been a nightmare otherwise was remedied almost immediately thanks to the Good Samaritans.

    Jack London’s classic short story “To Build a Fire” perhaps exemplifies the seriousness of our weather while emphasizing how traveling alone in the back country makes you much more susceptible to fatal accidents. We all know how this story ends: the man freezes to death and his dog runs away to find the other more competent food providers at camp further up the Yukon River. “When it is seventy-five below zero, a man must not fail in his first attempt to build a fire–that is, if his feet are wet. If his feet are dry, and he fails, he can run along the trail for half a mile and restore his circulation. But the circulation of wet and freezing feet cannot be restored by running when it is seventy-five below. Perhaps the old-timer on Sulphur Creek was right. If he had only had a trail mate he would have been in no danger now. The trail mate could have built the fire. Well, it was up to him to build the fire over again, and this second time there must be no failure. Even if he succeeded, he would most likely lose some toes. His feet must be badly frozen by now, and there would be some time before the second fire was ready.” (LNL pg. 494)

    This may very well be an exaggerated situation created by London (seventy-five below zero is unbelievably cold and anyone with half a mind to survive wouldn’t travel in such conditions) but its still possible! Prospect Creek, Alaska was declared the coldest place in the United States at −80 °F on January 23, 1975. Fort Yukon, Alaska can be anywhere from -78 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Such variability in temperature makes this state unique. There are only a few other inhabited places, such as Siberia, which can claim experiencing similar weather. We are very fragile creatures and nature is indifferent to the comforts of man. When you happen to live such a place, don’t ever underestimate its power.

  • LaVon Shearer-Ihrig

    When I saw the topic of this discussion that is the same story that popped into my mind! I remember reading his story and completely understanding the importance of fire–especially if one gets wet! However, I remember also think -75 below!!! I recall the first time I stepped outside the car in Fairbanks, Alaska and experienced -30 weather. My father had warned me not to take a deep breath, but I did anyways (we had been in the stuffy surburban for 7 hours traveling north from Eagle River. The cold sucked every bit of moisture from my lungs and burned so bad, I coughed so hard till my eyes teared. Going to the outhouse in that temperature is a lasting memory so I can not even imagine 75 below…I simply can’t!

  • LaVon Shearer-Ihrig

    Weather. It seems most days our lives are determined by it. It is the topic of daily conversation—analyzing temps from different areas of town, one or two degrees can give you bragging rights for the day. How long has been cold, and wondering how much longer the cold will last. Whether it is a wet cold, a dry cold or something in between. We know how long it has been cold, when the snow has that peculiar sound like hallow hard styrofoam. We have wet snow, dry snow, fluffy snow, packing snow, ski snow. The sky will spit snow for days and does the same for rain. We revel in the glory of weeks straight of glorious pure cloud free sunny days. We know that we can start the day with sunshine and go inside and pack for the lake and run back outside only to see clouds drowning our only sun in the past two weeks. I find this particular discussion rather ironic as I sit in my back living room having been stuck in my house for the day, because instead of April showers the weekend brought 11 inches of wet snow, topped off by 7 inches of soft fluffy snow. Indeed weather plays a consistent role in our lives. We stopped trying to plan camping trips around sun, you learn to roll with the weather and be prepared for whatever it may throw at you. Just like the weather plays nearly a daily role in our lives, so it does in the stories of the authors in book, The Last New Land.

    Pam Houstons story “Dall” caught my attention, partialy because of the admitted violence in the story, but also the vivid description of the weather and oft miserable condition it left them in while the trecked for miles hunting dall sheep. Despite the focus of the story being more about the author discovering herself and her own strength, the weather plays an important part within the story and is quickly introduced within the first sentence, “I am not a violent person, I don’t shoot animals and I hate cold weather” (Last New Land 435). In many ways the weather seemed to play the adversary at times as the author recalls “The weather was always bad. If it wasn’t raining, it was sleeting or snowing. If the sun came out, the wind started to blow” (436). In fact, near her breaking point the weather is part of that moment, “I was tired of being cold and wet and hungry and thirsty and dirty and sweaty and clammy and tired of the sand that was in our eyes and our moth and our food and our tent and even the water we drank and of the wind which blew it around and was incessant” (443). At the end of the story, winter is closing in and ending the story,”The snow line was below four thousand feet and it was getting well below zero every night…and I had closed up the cabin in silence, like animals preparing for the winter” (450).

    The weather is another character along with the environment that together shapes her body, while her spirit is strengthened by the things she discovers about her self and her relationship with Boone. As with our lives in Alaska, weather is consistently a part of every story, if it isn’t the main character of the story, it provides a supporting element–often the main element. If it isn’t the land that is shaping the man within many of these stories than the weather is. Together land and weather help shape the stories and lives within this book just at it causes us to consistently be ready for whatever it will bring us.

  • Patricia

    The Last New Land by Mergler has provided us with many interesting stories where the Alaskan climate is an important part of them. Susan Zwinger’s story “The Man All Covered with Mouths” mentions one of her many journeys when she went to Atigun Pass quote “From it: such a thunderstorm display! Not just one, but many of them at great distance, rolling themselves over peaks from far west, Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, crashing like surf in the north, threatening from the east.” (The Last New Land, pg.723) This excerpt expresses how extreme and difficult can be the climate. In this particular case, it is referring to the thunderstorms in this part of Alaska. It is important to mention that the author uses the word “many” when mentioning thunderstorms making the reader reflect on the difficulties that people may encounter due to the thunderstorms that come from the west, smash into the north and finally threats the east. It is important to notice the exclamation mark used at the beginning of the excerpt, which shows how surprised Susan Zwinger is regarding this thunderstorm phenomenon. Another story is Let Us Die Trying by Velma Wallis, which is about two Athabaskan old women that unfortunately were abandoned by their people referred in the story as “The People”. This story expresses concern about survival. Will they be able to survive alone without the help of The People and find food knowing how cold the climate can be in Alaska? I believe this is the main question these women ask themselves. “Ch’idzigyaak shuddered to think of the melting frost dripping on them in the cold weather. How had they managed before? Ah, yes! The younger ones were always there, piling wood on the fire, peering into the shelter to make sure that the elders’ fire did not go out.” (The Last New Land, pg. 472) This excerpt expresses how afraid they were of the weather because it is so cold. This excerpt entails how difficult is to survive in a very cold weather without assistance of others. The weather is so cold that these women are afraid to die which makes me reflect on how brave are the Athabaskan women and how important is the weather as part of life. Survival in this story depends on the weather.

  • Imaginary Chaos

    I think that there are many short stories and poems that are in The Last New Land that involve severe weather or climate conditions or even just the seasons. For example Linda Schandelmeier’s poem “Winter” on page 643 is about the ravens trying to stay warm during winter, which as all Alaskans know, gets very cold. The temperatures that the ravens endure here in Alaska amaze me. Jack London’s short story “To Build a Fire” on page 486 is a very memorable story from this book about being in Alaska’s harsh weather.

    As far as in our daily lives, I think that almost every Alaskan has endured some form of harsh weather. Whether it has been blizzards (like the one from Thanksgiving week a few years ago here in Fairbanks), floods, hail storms, severe winds that happened not too long ago in Anchorage. On the Aleutian Chain every other day during winter could be a severe weather day. About 4-5 years ago there was a very bad storm in my hometown that ripped apart people’s sheds, roofs, and destroyed some vehicles and four wheelers. There was an older woman who had all of her late daughter’s belongings in it a shed and the wind blew it all into the ocean. The way the town worked together to help people restore their belongings and homes was amazing and refreshing. Whether people were close friends or not everyone wanted to help each other out in someway. Alaska’s harsh weather has a way of bringing people together when it’s most needed. I think that almost everywhere in the world that’s how it is.

    When there is a huge storm or severe weather of some sort it doesn’t surprise me that people would want to use that to create a story. The way people are sometimes forced to work together during those times make great stories. It’s also a way of keeping track of history in a creative way. There are all sorts of stories about times during severe weather, like during the Dust Bowl. Sometimes people write about the weather just as another way of showing what people have survived and endured where they live. I don’t think that the use of weather in stories will end any time soon.

  • Kari

    The great advice that someone could give through a story of Alaska’s dangerous weather conditions, which may put the fear of God in your pants. Would you believe what someone has told you or would you think you were invisible of facing death to surpass the adversities of what Alaska’s climate could bring? You may just think it was a great story plot and that it could never happen to you, but some Alaskan writers would look at you in extreme confusion, thinking, something is wrong in your perceptive view, when it comes to Alaska’s dangerous side and that is the weather, my friend. So, sit back and listen to the advice that they adhere because it could cost you your life.
    A newcomer to the land of Alaskans Yukon, was a Chechaquo man and it was his first winter. This man was given advice by an old-timer; that laid down the law that no man should travel alone at fifty degrees or below. Surely, this old-timer doesn’t know that fifty below is just a little nibble of cold and it could not hurt nobody. The man decided he was going to walk down a trail through the woods to visit the boys at camp by 6 o’clock in fifty degree below zero weather with his abused dog. Smacking and flailing his limbs to get circulation going was his tactic to get some warmth back to his finger tips and to stop to build a fire. After the man felt comfortable enough that he could keep on going, the man shot back up and kept on going. The man came upon a situation that got himself wet from the feet up to his knees. The man knew that he wouldn’t have any legs if he didn’t stop to build a fire. The man built a fire and not a couple of minutes later the snow from the tree melted, dropped, and snuffed the fire right out. The man knew he had to quickly build a new fire and if he could get his fingers to work properly to light another fire he would be fine. By then the man was becoming frantic and he wanted to kill his dog to put himself inside the warm carcass, but that didn’t end up happening. The dog didn’t trust him from the get go and the dog watched the man die, because the man’s limbs were frozen and was not working properly. The dog left and the dead body of the man was left there as a remembrance of ignorance; individuals should listen to the advice about Alaska’s climate because it could mean their life is at stake, when it comes to negative fifty degrees below (Jack London, 1902). To build a Fire, pg.487.
    In the story “The Flood” by Sidney Huntington, the Koyukuk river break up formed an unpredictable ice jam that caused the river water to rise. With this experience, there was no advice given and the family had to act on pure survival ticktacks on what they thought was going to benefit them. So, they grabbed food, clothes, money, and packed them into a boat; just in case they had to leave. The family really didn’t think the water would reach their cabin top, but it did and the flooding water took the cabin with its current. I am sure the family would have done something’s different if they would have known the outcome that the situation would bring, but that’s hindsight talking. If the family just sat back to watch the situation play out, it could of meant their own lives. Instead the family acted on survival instincts on what could happen, instead of, if they just sat around to watch in amazement.
    If you look at these two stories on the two different dangerous Alaska’ climate. The first story could give advice to not travel in negative degree weather alone or not at all, be aware of soft ice with water below it, and be aware of where you build your fire. The second story could give the advice that floods can rise rapidly, it could take your cabin and many things that you own, and it could even damage and break surrounding trees. These two story narrators display the dangerous attributes that Alaska’s climate could bring and both of these stories are life threatening. It would benefit a lot of people to know the dangers that come with climate because it could cost them their very lives.

  • Caroline Streeter

    Murphy and Richard, the two adventurers of Richard Leo’s excerpt, Perspectives, were instantly likeable. Despite the constant temperature of 25 to 35 below, they ventured into what could be called the last frontier of the Last Frontier. Without a road into it, the Gateway to the Arctic National Park has relatively few visitors. This did not stop the duo from forging ahead for the sole purpose of exploring the unknown. In the face of extreme conditions, these Alaskans continued with ‘life as usual’. Weather will always be an issue here in the north, but many Alaskans do their best to ignore it.
    This past winter, (with extreme reluctance) I left my dog’s warm side to drive to the UAF campus to work on homework at the library. It was about forty below. While inside for an hour and a half, I left my car running the whole time. I’ve never had to do something like that before. I usually ‘suck it up’, and turn it off, then face the music and run out to start it. I was paranoid about car trouble, however, and indeed, as I was leaving, helped to push another student’s frozen car into a parking space.
    After a recent trip to Dillingham, another student from the little town showed me where the phrase ‘Do you catch my drift?’ comes from. Her house was ‘perfectly’ situated between two other houses, so that when the wind was really ripping, which it often does in the winter, snow from either side would pile up all around. This caused many inconveniences for her family, at one time, obstructing their driveway so much, they could not find their house.
    Sometimes the elements can truly overwhelm. This last winter I thought that I’d had enough. A line from Art Davidson’s excerpt, The Native Villages, sums up how I feel when I catch myself thinking like that. “I keep thinking of moving, but where would I move to?”. The response that I always tell myself, in this annual argument, is something paraphrased from Norman Maclean’s ‘A River Runs Through It’… “Oh brother, I’ll never leave [Alaska].”

  • Nikki

    Spring weather, or any season for that matter is the worst in Bethel. We can go from 30 degrees to -60 degrees over night. Blue skies, to no visibility. Sunny, warm spring weather, to blizzards. Weather plays a huge factor in all our lives. Weather determines how long we must warm our car up. Or when to plug it in. How much wood we need to cut to keep our toes from freezing. The national oceanic and atmospheric administration can predict what to expect from day to day but Mother Nature will be the ultimate deciding factor.

    All these stories in the Last New Land weather play a role big, or small. It affects the moods of the writers. When they can work, and when they cannot. And can even lead to death. Weather can influence them to share their experiences of -70 degrees, or crossing a sketchy river. Regardless it makes all these stories more enjoyable because many of us from Alaskan know the feeling of -70 degrees, or frosted eyelashes. That’s what makes them interesting, those associated feelings and emotions that stem from the readings. Volcanoes, earthquakes, floods and blizzards all have affected the way writers share their experiences. Good Friday Earthquake in 1964 inspired many individuals to share their terrifying experiences. Volcanoes erupting. Blizzards. All these weather experiences inspired an individual or two to share the unpredictability’s of weather.

  • Chad Hinders

    “Springtime in Alaska is a weekend in May.” – Anonymous

    Alaska’s seasons and weather requires an adjustment of definitions and expectations to those from Outside. I remember during my first year in the state I went out fishing with a friend in late April. We put on hip boots and didn’t wade through streams, but rather, waded through snowdrifts and melting embankments to get to the river. After an hour of so of enjoying the bright but bitterly cold day I remarked, “This is nice, but I can’t wait to see what it’s like in Spring.” My buddy, who grew up in Seward, looked me dead in the eye and said, “Dude… This IS Spring.” As I spent more and more time in Alaska, I began to realize that I needed to redefine my ideas about the seasons and weather in my new surroundings.

    Before coming to Alaska, Springtime was my favorite time of the year. Winter slowly releasing the land, and then the sudden explosion of color and the smell of good things growing combined with moderate temperature made Spring the best time to be in the Midwest. When I told my students in Chevak that Spring was my favorite season. They gave me a look like I was crazy, but I shook it off. However, come Spring in Chevak I could see their point. My tender spring ideals were being replaced by a new, brutal time of the year called “break up”. Spring time in that part of the world means flooding, streets turned into impassible quagmires and the smell of May flowers were replaced by the aroma of the previous winter’s defrosting dog deposits.

    Alaska’s weather teaches lessons. I discovered what many of our authors also found out; that although you make plans and prepare for every conceivable scenario, the weather and the land laughs at your plans and can crush them in a hurry. That lesson was driven home during endless hours of sitting at the ERA benches in Bethel or the Alaska Airlines terminal in Nome waiting in vain for planes that would never come. That is where I learned valuable new Alaskan phrases like, “white-out,” “weathered out”, and all travel was DOC (Depending On Conditions).

    Alaska’s weather has helped shape its people well beyond their vocabulary. Weather conditions that would have people in other parts of the country in fits are seen as no big deal to most Alaskans. Avalanches, floods, earthquakes, and all other sorts of disasters both big and small are seen as part of the price we pay for those rare and precious perfect moments when the sun shines through and lights up Alaska in all its glory. Besides, where else can you hear a great weather forecasts like, “It’s going to be sunny and warm for the rest of the night.”