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Yeah, but it’s a dry cold: north country native compares winters in Alaska and the north country

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Capt. James S. Desjarlais grew up in Watertown and graduated in 2009 from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

Shortly thereafter, the Army sent him north: Fairbanks, Alaska, to be exact.

And yes, it’s cold here, but it’s even colder in Alaska. It can get down to 65 degrees below zero in the region where James was stationed. At those temperatures, not even inanimate objects survive.

James, who lived in a town called North Pole, said that he tapped one of the rearview mirrors on his vehicle at about 63 degrees below zero and the whole thing shattered.

But get this: if it’s warmer than 20 degrees below zero, soldiers are outside pounding the pavement for physical training. Though one must be careful when removing one’s hat.

One of James’s fellow soldiers was a bit too hasty in removing his headgear and his eyebrows, which had frozen to the material, came with it.

Hey, if the Army wanted you to have eyebrows, it would have issued them to you, right?

If it’s below 20 degrees, however, you can stay inside.

That seems reasonable, I suppose.

Running requires triple layers — a silk weight base layer, a waffled middle layer and a heavier outer layer — plus double socks. But the trick is to not layer on too much bulk, James said.

It’s a delicate balance. The more you sweat, the colder you feel, according to James.

The best footwear for these conditions? Extreme Cold Vapor Barrier, or “Bunny,” boots, according to James. These big bouncy-looking boots stuff thick wool insulation between two layers of white rubber and are apparently perfect for an afternoon firewood-cutting jaunt.

Even indoors, it’s a struggle to stay warm. It’s not unusual for people to spend more than $1,000 a month on heat, James said.

But for all the extreme temperatures, James said, in some respects, it was easier to deal with the cold in Alaska than it was to deal with it in Watertown.

The climate in the north country has a unique propensity to dump all manner of precipitation upon the cold ground: snow, sleet, rain, ice, we get it all here, and in a seemingly random pattern of weather that constantly leaves one wondering: what is next?

It is often too cold in Fairbanks, where the winters last from October to May, for snow to fall.

And, according to James, it’s the moisture in the air that makes the north country winters particularly hard to bear.

“Being wet and relatively cold is far worse, in my opinion, than being dry and very, very cold,” he said.

In the dark of winter in Alaska, there are the Northern Lights and the casual encounter with a moose to look forward to, as opposed to the icy gray haze of January and February in Northern New York.

But having grown up in Watertown and lived in the Hudson Valley and Alaska and now Colorado Springs, James said that he has a deep appreciation for the hardiness of people in the north country.

“I’m able to see how truly rough it is there,” he said.

And when it comes to the ability to drive in winter weather and remain stoic in the face of adverse conditions, residents of the north country are unrivaled anywhere in the U.S.

James said that north country denizens are the best he’s seen when it comes to winter driving and that they are also far less apt to complain when the temperature drops.

In Colorado Springs on Monday, dawn came cold and bright at around 4 degrees before warming up considerably.

But people were still complaining.

“In Watertown, people didn’t complain as much,” James said.

Daniel Flatley is a staff writer covering Jefferson County government and politics for the Watertown Daily Times. He writes a column once a week for the local section of the paper. He can be reached at dflatley@wdt.net.

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