Climate change and place identity

Forest Wagner

I am a winter person. Growing up in Fairbanks, much of my calendar year was dictated by snow, cold, and any number of mundane and adventurous activities taking place under the backdrop of long polar nights. On the mundane side, I remember lots of car troubles: like it was so cold that the tires on the car froze into squares and barely rolled. More often the car just would not start —it was too cold. Another memory, random, of coffee spilled in haste, freezing in the air before hitting my boots. Or driving my brother to school through apocalyptic icefog. Wandering our neighborhood on Halloween at -20 F (this seemed normal at the time). More adventurously, and on the enthusiastic advice of my father, I remember sleeping outside once per month regardless of temperature. Soaking in subarctic hot springs while northern lights danced. Wearing multiple parkas, always — innocent that this practical version of style might not actually be fashionable.

I am a skier. I did not always love skiing but from an early age was conditioned to believe it was the only appropriate winter activity, more desirable even than saunas or trips to sunnier places. (I tried surfing this year and it turns out I am not a surfer, at least not an equatorial warm-water one.) My love of skiing, and the overzealous commitment of a youth spent Nordic racing in skintight zoot suits, left me from a young age with minor nerve damage in my extremities. Later, misinformed mountaineering forays in the Alaska Range exacerbated my cold injury and immersion foot (also called trench foot — what happens when your feet are wet and cold for a long time) from vapor barrier socks.Now, well in to my fourth decade, bear attack aside, my digits do not really stay warm. Not that this discourages me in any way from a deep and abiding love of winter, skiing, and cold. My professional inclinations as an outdoor educator, mountain guide, or “cowboy professional” (a term a mountain friend of mine coined to describe do-it-yourself Alaskans who believe the place a Last Frontier… he was including me) relate well, then, to my reckoning that cold places are special. Folks who inhabit northern locales create unique cultures built around community and winter activities that by default include movement over snow.

Climate change is disorienting. Drawn to Juneau fifteen years ago by a John Muir-inspired notion of mountain grandeur (and because it is not Fairbanks), the maritime climate here at first felt a little wet. But moving to the tropics, as my Interior neighbors still term Southeast, proved to be the most grounding adventure of my restless life. I quickly fell in love with the wild country: rich rainforests, beautiful fjords, raw mountains, and big snowfalls. And so remote… no road in, not many people, a living Native culture! My first year here, like so many of my Outdoor Studies students, I lived in the back of my pickup truck at Forest Service campgrounds. The dampness proved intolerable and I eventually moved inside (now home is a sailboat). Southeast Alaska has been my base as an adult, just far enough from the Interior to be different, but still so northern, and with so much winter. Remember the record snowfall of 2006?!

In April of 2016 I was attacked and critically injured by a brown bear while ski guiding north of Haines. I suspect I skied over her den. The shallow snowpack from that weak winter 20 months ago did not permit hibernation. That winter was much like this one. Record warm temperatures; bear dens in the alpine flooding mid-winter; thaws to 10,000 feet. The sow took it easy on me. I fancy she suspected we both love winter.

Winter without snow, without skiing, challenges my 37 years of place identity. It is hard on the bears, too.

My challenge to you: Rather than mourn, mope around, or point fingers, let us dig deep, stay positive. We humans are adaptive. The best and brightest of our generation created roadmaps 20 years ago for mitigating anthropogenic climate change. We need to continue to fight for Alaska: for its people and its wild places.

• Forest Wagner is an Assistant Professor of Outdoor Studies at the University of Alaska Southeast and lives in Auke Bay. He is a member of the University of Alaska Southeast Sustainability Committee. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent the views of the University of Alaska Southeast.

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