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In Alaska, Winter Wonder At 20 Below (PHOTOS)

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You've probably heard recent news about the extreme weather in Alaska this past month. It's been snow, wind and more snow around here with weather dipping well into minus double digits. We've been shoveling non-stop just to keep the roofs from caving in and the snow from obscuring the doorways. We have to work to keep pathways to and fro carved into the six feet or more of snow covering the ground. It might seem a little out there to come to such a place for rest and relaxation, but I'll let you in on a little secret: For many people living in Alaska, it's our favorite time of year.

So, what do we do in severe cold weather for fun? We're not sticking our tongues onto metal, that's for sure, but after we layer on the fleece and polypropylene, snow pants, facemask, gloves with liners, goggles, wooly colorful hat and pull on our bunny boots, we're ready for a little outdoor adventure.

Bunny boots, by the way, are the de rigueur winter shoe in Alaska. It's the nickname for military-issue Extreme Cold Vapor Barrier Boots Type II. They keep toes toasty to minus 65 degrees. I've had my pair of bunny boots, bought from a military surplus store, for nearly twenty years now, and no Jimmy Choo or Manolo Blahnik could ever take their place. They're called bunny boots because they are white, like the winter rabbits tracking across the snow in Alaska.

And observing tracks in the snow is one of the quieter and more contemplative adventures of winter. The ground is a canvas that tells a story. I can see small animal tracks as they run forward, stop, turn and are joined (or chased) by others. The slide of river otters, the imprint of wings of eagles or owls and the frantic scurry of brave rodents traversing a large open area offer daily drama and intrigue. Every morning, I can go out my front door and find a whole new story in the snow.

Although many Alaskan birds migrate, many are still here. Winter bird watching is easier for me against bare trees and an all-white backdrop versus the intense green cover of summer. The little bird feeder in front of my house is a crowded hub of activity with chickadees and red-breasted pine grosbeaks dive-bombing each other and vying for the perfect spot on the feeder. This year, we have a normally elusive marten camped out in the front yard as if he didn't have a worry in the world. With his big round eyes and inquisitive look, he's a cutie, but I'm pretty sure there is a dark spot in his heart for those birds.

For the more active moments around the lodge, snow machine adventures, cross-country skiing, dog mushing, sledding and snowshoe baseball fill our short but intense days. We are up to six-plus hours of daylight this time of year in South-central Alaska.

If you don't want to venture out into the backcountry where I live, road-accessible winter wonder abounds. Alyeska Resort is experiencing fantastic snow (420 inches and counting) whereas many ski resorts around the country are struggling.

Everyone in our family likes to go to Alyeska, and that's our go-to place for birthdays or holiday celebrations. We are a family of expert skiers -- and, well, there's me, still relegated to the beginner's hill. Luckily, there's variety for all. Alyeska has frequent events like a spring carnival and the Slush Cup, where participants ski down a hill and try to make it across a 90-foot pond at the end of the run. Alyeska is in the cool town of Girdwood, which offers a variety of great restaurants, including one called Jack Sprat, where two of my favorite former chefs work.

Sixth Avenue Outfitters in downtown Anchorage rents arctic gear by the day, including bunny boots and snowsuit for those who don't want to permanently invest in arctic gear. You should buy your own face mask, gloves and hat, but renting locally saves room on the packing. Little chemical disposable hand warmers are helpful to pick up if you are so inclined. Good sunglasses are essential. Consider a qiviut scarf or hat. Qiviut is the Inuit word for muskox fur. It is eight times warmer than sheep's wool and it doesn't shrink in any temperature of water. Although a qiviut scarf is expensive, it will last a lifetime.

And, I haven't even told you yet about the outrageous colors of the early morning winter sky or the clarity of the night where we can see Orion's belt and the brilliance of Sirius. It might be the off-season here in Alaska for some, but for many, it's the best time of the year.

Sixth Avenue Outfitters: 520 West 6th Avenue, Anchorage, AK 99501 (907-276-0233). Alyeska Resort: www.alyeskaresort.com. Qiviut scarves: www.qiviut.com.

In Alaska, Winter at 20 Below
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