It’s Always Sunny In Alaska (Sometimes): What’s It Like To Be Stationed There?

By Katie Lange
DoD News, Defense Media Activity

When you’re waiting to find out where your next duty station is, you’ve probably got a lot going through your mind. What you’re probably not thinking about is buying mood lights, blackout curtains or cleats for traction.

These are all things that service members stationed in Alaska, however, may likely need. Eielson Air Force Base and Fort Wainwright Army Base are two of the most remote cold-weather U.S. military installations in the world, aside from Thule Air Base in Greenland. There’s also Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson outside of Anchorage.

U.S. military bases in Alaska. DoD graphic

Air Force Staff Sgt. Ashley Taylor and Senior Airman Joshua Weaver have spent years at Eielson. Weaver loves it. Taylor – not so much.

Regardless of their opposing views, they both have a great understanding of what newbies need to know – from what to be prepared for ahead of time, what you’ll probably NEVER be prepared for, and what to do to make the most of your experience.

First Thing’s First: The Sun

During the summer, most of Alaska has a very small “nighttime,” if it has one at all – it might only get as dark as twilight, while some parts receive constant daylight because they’re so far north. In the winter, it’s just the opposite – some areas get 24 hours of darkness, and it’s hard to be prepared for that. Both airmen said to combat seasonal affective disorder during the dark months, they force themselves to stay busy, work out and keep their minds active during daytime hours.

Air Force combat arms instructors from the 354th Security Forces Squadron and students check targets during M4 rifle qualification training at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, while the sun drops because of the season’s short daylight hours. The temperature was 28 degrees below zero. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Shawn Nickel

“That first year was hard,” Weaver said. “I would go home and go to bed because it was dark. But last winter was a lot better for me. I forced myself to get out and do stuff.”

Some suggestions for the two extremes:
Invest in sun lamps. Often known as “happy lights,” these give off natural-spectrum daylight that can help improve mood and boost energy.
Stock up on Vitamin D. If you can’t get the nutrients from the sun naturally, get it in a supplement.
Get blackout curtains: “You have to have those in the summertime. You can’t sleep without them because it’s just constant sunlight coming in, and your body doesn’t want to go to sleep,” Weaver said.

Next, the Cold

Army soldiers push an ahkio sled while conducting cold weather training in single-digit temperatures at Forward Operating Base Sparta on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska. Air Force photo by Justin Connaher

So, it’s cold in Alaska. Duh. But according to Taylor, there is often more ice than snow, and – get this – in the winter, it can get warmer at night than during the day.

“They call it chinook winds, where it’s extremely warm overnight and the ice melts, and it gets cold again, and it’s just a frozen layer (in the morning hours),” she said. “We actually don’t get snow days. We get warm days. It’s goofy.”

Obviously, cold weather gear is important. But here are some other things that you’ll probably need:

Engine block heaters, oil heaters and battery blankets for your car. It can get so cold that your car will freeze and not start, so every night you have to plug the heaters in and cover your battery.
Chains for your tires. They’ll help with traction.
Ice/snow traction cleats: These are for your shoes. You’ll need them to put over your shoes before you head out into the ice.

You’ll Start to Think 75 Degrees Is Hot

This is summer in far northern Alaska. North Slope Risk Manager Frederick Brower grills hot dogs outside the Point Lay fire hall on a July day. He and his crew were there as part of Operation Arctic Shield 2017. Coast Guard photo by Chief Petty Officer John Masson

I interviewed these airmen on July 13. It was about 62 degrees – and both of them considered that T-shirt weather. Summer is fleeting in Alaska.

“Here, as soon as it gets warm enough to go outside in jeans and a T-shirt, you’re outside every day because you only get so many of those days a year,” Weaver said. “Since winters are so cold … 75 degrees here is getting to be borderline miserable for us!”

Get Used to Remote

The sun sets behind the mountains in Denali National Park, Alaska. Denali encompasses over 6 million acres of land, containing hundreds of miles of trails and is home to Mount McKinley, the highest peak in North America. Air Force photo by 1st Lt. Elias Zani

“Literally, everything is harder to come by here,” Weaver said. “You have to drive an hour south for a grocery store that actually has good fruit.”

A big tip: Buy as much as you can BEFORE you come. It’s much easier and cheaper to buy the things you’ll need in the “Lower 48,” especially blackout curtains. If you rely on online shippers like Amazon, don’t count on it there. Shipping can take at least a week, and many items won’t ship that far north.

But You Get to Go On Some Pretty Cool Missions!

Here’s one example. Last February, Weaver went with Army soldiers to the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve to a remote site where Lt. Leon Crane crashed his B-24 bomber aircraft in World War II. The pilot was the only member of his crew to survive in the bitter cold wilderness for 81 days before being rescued.

Left: Leon Crane during a recovery mission to the B-24 crash site the year after his ordeal. Courtesy of UAA Archives, Leon Crane Collection. Right: U.S. flags left at the crash site to honor the fallen. NPS photo by Christopher Houlette

According to the National Park Service, the preserve is so large and isolated that New Jersey would fit between the two towns that border it. “Truly isolated, the preserve is wilder and less populated now than it was 50 or 80 years ago,” the NPS website says.

“There’s only like, 10,000 people who have ever been in that preserve,” Weaver explained. “You have to fly a helicopter. There are no roads going in, and you can’t land a plane there.”

“When we got to the crash site, it just hit me – there were only nine people ever at that crash site, and I was one of those nine people. I was one of four people who have been there in the wintertime,” Weaver said.

Take Advantage of the Scenery

A black bear climbs up a tree at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska. Black bears are most active March through November from dusk to dawn. According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, an estimated 100,000 black bears inhabit Alaska. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Sheila deVera

Weaver’s advice: Whether you think Alaska is for you or not, get out and explore it. There’s hunting, fishing, hiking, four-wheeling, kayaking – basically anything you can do outside, you can do on a grand scale there. There’s even a military resort in Alaska!

“It’s awesome if you want to make it awesome. There’s something for everyone here,” he said.

Taylor said while she wasn’t built to love Alaska, her favorite parts, by far, are the Northern Lights and the small tourist towns she never would have seen if she hadn’t been stationed there.

“The beauty of Alaska is just unlike anything else in the world,” she said. “I’m thankful because Alaska put a lot of things into perspective for me.”

So if you get stationed up there, give it a chance and have some fun!

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