Sunday, September 27, 2015

Gearing up for winter in Alaska

Years ago when he was at the top of his game as an Iditarod musher Rick Swenson told me he liked to look over the outfits of everyone in the race, from the leaders to the last guy.  His reason as he stated it was he had lots of ideas for gear in the race, but every single musher has at least one good idea and if he could spot it he could add it to his kit bag. I started doing the same thing.

As time has passed people in the Big Outside and some who have just moved here have asked me about clothing and other items they should or would want or have to deal with winter in Alaska. I have been able to help but I have a limited view and have gathered what works for me and what might not work for others. A couple of weeks ago I came across a good list given by a top musher these days to the people he hires as dog handlers. This is a good look into gear used by someone who knows. Keep in mind most of us are not going to run the Iditarod, but most of us are going to spend some time outdoors in winter, so anybody can find some useful advice on this list.

Dallas Seavey has won three Iditarods and is still in his 20s with a bright future ahead. He also approaches the race with an innovative intelligence and a lot of thought. This is his list, with some additions and comments from my experience. Keep in mind ski and snowboard gear and other winter recreational clothing are a whole different category and not accounted for here. The clothing and other gear he recommends are for people who spend long periods outdoors working or running dogs in sometimes extreme weather. It is clothing you might put on in the morning and not take off until late in the evening, sometimes working hard, sometimes standing on the runners.

Tips and Suggestions for Winter Gear Systems
Base Layer:
• Poly-Pro blend or other synthetic long underwear- tops and bottoms. There are many weights available. I recommend going with all Medium weight or get a variety. You will want several pairs so you can wear a fresh set every day throughout the winter and late fall.
• Wool socks like Smartwools are essential. Get the heavy or extra heavy weight. You’ll wear them every day, and may find yourself changing into dry socks three times a day or more. Fortunately you can dry them on a heater with the boots and gloves and re-wear them without washing them every time. You may find yourself wearing two pair while mushing in cold temps, and should always have a spare set in your sled on training runs longer than 20 miles. (I have found some great socks at Duluth Trading Co.)
Insulation Layer:
• Fleece pants are a good choice for a versatile layering system, and can be worn instead of jeans or Carhartts while mushing. Plan on at least 3 or 4 pair for the season. Get a
couple of different weights and sizes so that you can double up for cold days. Since you will wear them over your long underwear and under an outer layer, you can wear several days before washing them.
• A fleece hoodie or jacket. Wind Block fleece is best.
• Puffer jacket filled with a synthetic down insulation like Primaloft. Generally they are made from a light weight rip-stop nylon that is good for layering because it doesn’t bunch up. Goose down is warm, but a synthetic fill is a much safer option since it will keep you warm if you get wet on the trail. Serious distance mushers often have two, carrying one size bigger in their sled so they can double up in extremely cold conditions.
• Puffer pants are made from the same materials as the jacket. These can be hard to find, but are really nice for wearing under your snow pants on cold days. We get ours from Sierra Trading Post and they are made by Lowe Alpine. Like the jacket, serious distance mushers often have two pairs, different sizes, so they can double up in extremely cold conditions.
• A parka or ski jacket that is big enough to fit comfortably over all of your base layers. You
Carhartt coveralls
want it to have a hood and come well below your waist to prevent drafts. Lots of large pockets are a nice feature. Some parkas have minimal insulation, and serve just as an outer shell, while some have major insulation and are heavy and warm. It's essential that your parka has a real fur ruff (we like wolf- wolverine combo) to protect your face from frostbite. Popular mushing parka brands are Wiggies, Northern Outfitters, Apocalypse Design, and Posh House, and Canada Goose.
• Snow pants with good insulation made from a durable material to prevent rips and tears. Bibs are warmer, but pants are more convenient. It’s personal choice. Most snowboarding and ski pants work well.
• One piece snow suits are optional. These are very warm for mushing in extreme temperatures for long distances. The best one is the Jeff King suit made by Cabella's. ( For what I do, insulated Carhartts coveralls work fine. For long exposures, though, they can soak through)
• Rain Gear including jacket and pants will keep you dry during fall training and warm, melty winter days. The pants are great for keeping pants clean during dog chores. I have a full set of the original Helly Hanson rain gear to wear on muddy trails and in rain.
• Chore boots to wear throughout the winter while doing all chores and work other than
Sorel boot
mushing. Lots of options, you just need to keep your feet warm and have decent traction. Waterproof boots will be necessary for fall training. It’s usually pretty wet, and we mush through a lot of puddles and rain storms. Everything from mud boots like Xtra Tuffs to Gor-Tex hiking boots can work. As it gets colder, you may want to change to some insulated packs with a rubber bottom. Any winter boots or packs, like Sorel’s, work well. Get some with removable liners so you can dry them easily. You can even pick up an extra set of felt boot liners at the hardware store (AIH in Wasilla has them) so you always have dry liners. Having a pair of chore boots allows you to keep your more expensive mushing boots from extra wear and tear. Most runs 20 miles or less can be done comfortably in insulated chore boots like packs. Some of the mushing boots listed below can double as chore boots. (
For what I do, Sorels with the removable felt liners work fine. For colder weather I have Vapor barrier "Bunny" boots.)
• Mushing Boots can be any number of combinations or brands of winter boots and liners. Every musher has their own system, and it can take some time and experimenting to get one that works for you. Listed below are some popular options:
NEOS- over boots that are worn over either insulated tennis shoes (snow sneakers), Lobbens, or one or two pairs of felt liners. You will want to buy the insulated ones. Light enough to use as chore boots.
Cabela’s Trans Alaska III Pac Boot- developed by Iditarod champ Jeff King, this is a great boot for serious mushing in cold temps. Too heavy to do much of anything but mush in.
Steiger Arctic Mukluks- have a moose hide bottom and canvas top. They are popular as everyday boots and chore boots, and are warm enough to wear mushing. Long laces can take a while to lace up. They have a felt liner and in-sole, making it easy to remove and dry. You can also buy an extra liner and in-sole. Some mushers get a size bigger than normal and wear two sets of felt liners in them.
Lobbens- a Norweigen style of wool felt winter boot that comes in tall and ankle height. They have a good sole on them, and fit like tennis shoes. They are not water proof, so tend to get wet after a while, but can be used as chore boots if you can dry them before mushing. Often worn as liners inside of NEOS or Wiggies overboots.
Wiggies Joe Reddington Mukluks- like a sleeping bag for your feet. These boots are super warm and light weight. You can wear them over felt liners, Lobbens, or snow sneakers, or even tennis shoes.
Snow Sneakers- a slang term for insulated tennis shoe like footwear. There are many brands and styles. One of our favorite is a soft Primaloft filled shoe made by North Face. These shoes can be used for doing chores in winter, and for mushing in on short runs. We usually wear an over boot over them for longer or colder runs.
Bunny Boots- developed by the military, this is a white rubber boot that airs up like a tire. It is pretty warm, can be mushed in and worn as a chore boot, but doesn’t breathe at all, causing soggy socks.
Northern Outfitters Arctic boots- Thick soled boots that have a huge removable foam liner. Very warm, and not overly heavy, but the big soles can be difficult to walk in. Foam liners take longer to dry than traditional felt liners.
• Chore gloves are light weight, insulated work gloves worn during the fall and winter when working, hooking up, and mushing. You can mush with just them on warm days, or wear a pair as liners in some Musher’s Mitts on cold, long runs. The best chore gloves are either soft leather covered work gloves insulated with 100 gram Thinsulite or black fleece backed gloves with leather palms. These gloves can be bought at the hardware store for about $6- $10. You will want at least 3 pairs so you will always have a dry pair.
• Mushing gloves are insulated ski gloves worn while mushing in moderately cold temps. We like Cabela’s Gor-Tex Pinnacle gloves. You want to make sure the gloves come up well above your wrist to prevent a cold draft there while holding onto your dog sled handlebar. You can use mittens as well. They are warmer, but less convenient to wear. (On my snowmachine I use big mittens with light glove inserts)
That hat.
• Fleece neck gators keep your neck and face protected from the wind chill while mushing. They are also nice when doing chores in extreme temps. Get at least 2 to 4 so you can wash them regularly. (I absolutely love my neck gators. And close to this subject he doesn't spend much time talking about head gear except for hoods. I like the pile-lined hats with a front bill and ear flaps that connect under the chin. With a headband around the outside they have served me well in some pretty severe conditions.)
• A headlight is essential for the short days in Alaska. We do much of our mushing and dog care after dark. The best headlight, and the only one that we’ve found is bright enough to mush with but no too heavy to use for feeding and dog care, is the Black Diamond Icon
Black Diamond light
LED light. They run off of AA’s and last for years.
(These retail for $90 and I don't doubt they are a good product. For those of us who don't want to spend that kind of money and don't need a top of the line light, there are other choices. I must have half a dozen broken headlamps around, testament to fancy but not durability. The best I have found is made by Energizer, the battery company. It's called the Energizer Hard Case Professional and retails for around $30 and seems to be pretty hardy, at least it has lasted me through three winters now.)
This is just a suggestion to get started. As a general rule, avoid cotton and other natural fibers. They will not keep you warm if you get wet.
And just because I can, for all those at all interested,  I have a birthday coming up and Christmas isn't all that far off. :=D

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The thing about ignornance is, you don't have to remain ignorant. — me again"

Never debate with someone who gets ink by the barrel" — George Hayes, former Alaska Attorney General who died recently

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“The rivers of Alaska are strewn with the bones of men who made but one mistake” - Fred McGarry, a Nushagak Trapper

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Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be. ~Mark Twain Actually you could do the same thing with the word "really" as in "really cold."

If you are looking for an experience that will temper your vanity, this is it. There's no one to impress when you're alone on the trap line. – Michael Carey quoting his father's journal

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Swiss General: “Well, I suppose every one of my soldiers would need to fire twice.”

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Everything is okay when it’s 50-below as long as everything is okay. – an Alaskan in Tom Walker’s “The Seventymile Kid”

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As Republicans go further back in the conception process to define when life actually begins, I am beginning to think the eventual definition will be life begins in the beer I was drinking when I met her.—me again

Hunting is a “critical element for the long-term conservation of wood bison.”—a state department of Fish and Game official explaining why the state would not go along with a federal plan to reintroduce wood bison in Alaska because the agreement did not specifically allow hunting

Each day do something that won’t compute – anon

I can’t belive I still have to protest this shit – a sign carriend by an elderly woman at an Occupy demonstration

Life should be a little nuts or else it’s just a bunch of Thursdays strung together—Kevin Costner as Beau Burroughs in “Rumor has it”

You’re just a wanker whipping up fear —Irish President Michael D. Higgins to a tea party radio announcer

Being president doesn’t change who you are; it reveals who you are—Michelle Obama

Things sports announcers say

"… there's a fearlessment about him …"

"He's got to have the lead if he's going to win this race."

"Kansas has always had the ability to score with the basketball."

"NFL to put computer chips in balls." Oh, that's gotta hurt.

"Now that you're in the finals you have to run the race that's going to get you on the podium."

"It's very important for both sides that they stay on their feet."

This is why you get to hate sportscasters. Kansas beats Texas for the first time since 1938. So the pundits open their segment with the question "let's talk about what went wrong." Wrong? Kansas WON a football game! That's what went RIGHT!

"I brought out the thermostat to show you how cold it is here." Points to a thermometer reading zero in Minneapolis.

"It's tough to win on the road when you turn the ball over." Oh, really? Like you can do all right if you turn the ball over playing at home?

Cliches so imbedded in sportscasters' minds they can't help themselves: "Minnesota fell from the ranks of the undefeated today." What ranks? They were the only undefeated team left.

A good one: A 5'10" player went up and caught a pass off a defensive back over six feet tall. The quote? "He's got some hops."

Best homonym of the day so far: "It's all tied. Alabama 34, Kentucky 3." Oh, Tide.

"Steve Hooker commentates on his Olympic pole vault gold medal." When "comments" just won't do.

"He's certainly capable of the top ten, maybe even higher than that."

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"Biyombo, one of seven kids from the Republic of Congo." In the NBA? In America? In his whole country?

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"They're gonna be in every game they play!"

"First you have to get two strikes on the hitter before you get the strikeout."

"The game ended in the final seconds." You have to wonder when the others ended or are they still going on?

How is a team down by one touchdown before the half "totally demoralized?"

"If they score runs they will win."

"I think the matchup is what it is"

After a play a Houston defender was on his knees, his head on the ground and his hand underneath him appeared to clutch a very sensitive part of the male anatomy. He rolled onto his back and quickly removed his hand. (Remember the old Cosby routine "you cannot touch certain parts of your body?") Finally they helped the guy to the sideline and then the replay was shown. In it the guy clearly took a hard knee between his thighs. As this was being shown, one of the announcers says, "It looks like he hurt his shoulder." The other agrees and then they both talk about how serious a shoulder injury can be. Were we watching the same game?

"Somebody is going to be the quarterback or we're going to see a new quarterback."

"If you're gonna play running back in the SEC you're gonna take hits."

"That was a playmaker making a play."

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