Tuesday, November 23, 2010

alabama snow and alaska snow

dooj's house in washington state
 My sister sent me a photo on her phone this weekend of the first snowfall at her home in Washington state, and I started thinking about snow.  About the difference between snow in Alabama and Alaska.  There is more than a 5000 mile gap between Alabama and Alaska when it comes to dealing with snow.  They are worlds apart.

In Alabama it doesn't snow every year.  We mark our "hard" winters according to how much snow and ice we have had to deal with.  It may go below freezing during the winter, but never stays there long.  So our cold days come in what we call "spells", or periods of time. 

A prediction of snow in Alabama triggers a rush to every grocery store in the area to buy all the bread and milk and batteries.  You can bet that 30 minutes after the weather man (excuse me... "meteorologist") says we are possibly going to see 2 inches of snow, there won't be a loaf of bread or gallon of milk left in the state of Alabama.  The first time I saw it happen I was dumbfounded...I mean, how many people can eat 6 loaves of bread and drink 4 gallons of milk in the two or three days that it snows?

People also panic at the thought of not having power for any length of time.  So they buy every battery for every flashlight and radio they have, plus extras in case those go dead.  The flashlights are for seeing in the dark, and the radio is for up to the minute news about when the snow will melt (we don't believe in looking out our windows to find out what the weather is doing).  In Alabama the only thing as important as the meteorologist, are the death announcements (but that's another blog).  My husband had that mind set.  We might starve if the power was off for two or three days.  So worried about it was he that we had a wood burning stove as our major source of heat for over fifteen years.  That knocked off two dangers right there...we would never freeze (Steve would stay up half the night stoking that fire) and we would be able to cook on the top of the stove.  I had one problem with that...I am no pioneer woman...and that was what the 6 loaves of bread and 4 gallons of milk were for, I thought...sandwiches.  Plus we discovered the first time we tried to make the stove do double duty that it takes 12 hours to heat up a can of soup.  Or you can stoke the fire up (Steve's job) until the stove is red hot and heat it up in 2 hours.  If you do that, you have hot soup, and you also have a room that has gone from a comfortable 70F to 130F.  And that means you have to eat your soup in the closet if you don't want to drip sweat in it while you eat it.  But that's ok, because you have your flashlight with the extra 20 batteries.

The next most important thing that southerners do in Alabama when it snows is making snow ice cream.  I can count on one hand the times it has snowed in Alabama during my forty years here, and can tell you that every time they predicted snow I had my pots and pans sitting on cars and every perch I could find to catch "clean" snow (my mother in law taught me the difference), although I have been known to scrape the hood of the car a few times when there wasn't enough snowfall to make a huge bowl of snow ice cream.  And I did learn right away the first time I made it that if you overeat this delicacy, it will give you the scours.

longhouse in bethel, alaska
 Switch to Alaska, a world away from the south, and my first sight of snow up there.  The first day I landed I saw more snow than I had seen in my entire life.  I stayed at the Longhouse for several days waiting for my apartment to be ready, and thank goodness for my girlfriend Nancy, who made sure I was outfitted with subzero gear.  The day I landed at the airport in Bethel, the temperature with the wind chill factor (you ALWAYS include wind chill in Alaska when you are talking temperature) was -46F.  That's right.  Lose a toe or finger cold. 

The view from my window was amazing too.  The snow was about 3 or 4 feet deep, window sill height, outside my window.  I was kind of in shock.  And wondering if people up here ever had any bread or milk for sale.  

The snow isn't wet in Bethel either, it's a fine powdery dry stuff, similar to frozen sand.  If you pick it up, it runs right through your fingers.  In Alabama the snow was wet, and if you were blessed with those 2 inches the "meteorologist" predicted, you had enough to scrape up a decent snowball to smack someone with, although you always ran the risk of having a few rocks mixed in from scraping the ground to get the snow.  In Bethel, the only time you could make a snowball was when the snow started to melt, and that always happened every time the temperature went to 34F.  Melt, then refreeze when the temperature dropped, then more snow on top of it.  Which meant the snow was actually layers of ice, snow, more ice, more snow and so on.  And it meant that the percentage of broken legs and bones always went up in direct proportion to which layer was on top, the snow layer or the ice layer.

nancy leading

I had to learn to walk in Bethel snow too.  Which meant I walked behind my friend Nancy.  I had three reasons for doing that.  She had been there before me and knew all the beaten paths, even when they were covered by snow.  She had longer legs, so I could gage the depth of the snow by how deep she went in it.  And if she went down on her face, I had time to stop and save my own ass.  This stood me in good stead until the day I got brave and decided to step out on my own, and ended up with me mired in snow trying to dig my short legs out.

me, shopping day
So I learned the difference in snow by living at two separate ends of the country.  And I learned several lessons.

1. In Alabama you have to wear a coat if it snows.  In Alaska if you don't wear a coat, your survival rate is counted in minutes.
2. In Alabama, you lose power when it snows.  In Alaska, you cover your face and hands or lose them to frostbite.
3. In Alabama, there is no bread or milk when it snows.  In Alaska there is always bread and milk, because bread is $5 a loaf and milk is $10 a gallon.
4. People in Alabama think they know what snow is.  In Alaska, they know what snow is.

Snow can be magical, and it can also be deadly.  And it can be many different things, depending on where you live.  I was fortunate to learn the lesson of snow, here in Alabama, and in the remote Alaskan tundra.  And it is a lesson I will never forget. 



  1. It sounds like you enjoyed your time up here, just the same. Welcome to Alaska, pilgrim! Come on back - hear?

  2. I LOVED my time in Alaska Rev. Paul and hope to return someday. Right now my time is occupied by 3 five year olds and a 7 month old...

  3. Maybe i will move there, im so lost, dont even know what to wear.. im from the caribbean, so just imagine, im like a bird, moving to live in the sea my friend.
    still looking up some information as to where i can live, how to buy, how its like, im so lost, could use a little help