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Dark Days: An Alaska Vacation

bigstock-142160018And you thought your kids were the only ones scared of the dark.

Think again.

Venturing to the Last Frontier last week, I braced for Palinesque politics, rampaging moose, and  brutal weather shrouded in Alaska darkness. While I was confident the scenery would dazzle, would the omnipresent snow and chill prove too much? Bundling up in my warmest fleeces, I could prepare for the foreboding weather. But mentally, well, we would see.

While pasty snowbirds descend on tropical destinations this holiday season, I ventured north — first to Sitka, Anchorage, and then Fairbanks. Yes, I am a glutton for punishment. And, as my friends reminded me, bone-rattling cold and ice-coated roads.

Thumbing through a Lonely Planet guidebook is one thing; experiencing Alaska’s biting cold and dreary nights is entirely different. Stepping off the Anchorage flight, its darkness enveloped me. At 9:30 AM. Yes, this vacation would test my mental fortitude.

Growing up in Iowa, the interminable winters would induce an energy-drooping paralysis. Glancing outdoors at the wintry conditions, I would retreat into my cozy apartment. In these comfy confines, I would munch on corn chips, mindlessly surf the Internet, and — yes — succumb to depressive/anxious thoughts.

Would Alaska be different? And, if so, what lessons could I learn from the frozen tundra — assuming I could rouse myself from its dreary darkness.

In Alaska’s unforgiving winter, the sun is an endangered species. Hopscotching from Sitka to Anchorage to Fairbanks, its appearance was a mere rumor. Most days the sun would appear for an hour or two before beating a hasty retreat. Perhaps the sun, like me, just wanted to snuggle with a hot chocolate and good book. The only respite from the winter blues: a one-way ticket to the Lower 48. My return ticket, however, was a blustery week away.

As reality — like a winter storm — socked me in the face, I braced for Alaska’s cold bleakness. Warily eyeing the weather forecast, I wanted my vacation to consist of more than stale TV reruns and soggy pizza delivery. My strategy for survival and, yes, enjoyment in Alaska’s barren tundra: spend as much time as possible outside. Dubbing my strategy Northern Exposure, I emulated those hearty Alaskans draped in head to toe fleece. Waddling out of my hotel every morning — and, yes, bearing a striking resemblance to the Michelin Man, I greeted the dark winter with a shivering smile.

In contrast to my rental car, my mood did not capitulate to Alaska’s icy conditions. Here’s what helped me navigate Alaska’s impenetrable chill — tow truck sold separately:

  1. Adopting the hostel policy. In Sitka, the hostel shuttered its doors from 10 AM-6 PM. Unable to languish inside the hostel, I busied myself with Alaska’s medley of outdoor activities. As I hiked Alaska’s treacherous trials, I felt reinvigorated. The bitter cold? Here’s my prescription: layer up.
  2. Expose yourself to new. Trekking to Sitka, Anchorage, and Fairbanks for the first time, my mind was Mensa sharp. Why? The breathtaking surroundings, wildlife sightings, and snowy terrain absorbed my attention. Alaska’s newness riveted me. And once I became too comfortable, the next adventure beckoned. When a dull routine saps my energy, I descend into counterproductive habits: mindless Internet surfing and binge TV watching. My new routine? Try not having one.

From Anchorage to Albany and everywhere in between, old man winter has returned with a snarling vengeance. But just because old man winter has reared its winter fangs, it doesn’t mean that you have to act like an old man. So close the Internet browser, delete that Netflix account, and plan your own travel misadventure. Lonely Planet is a guidebook, not your life’s title.

Dark Days: An Alaska Vacation

Matthew Loeb

Matthew Loeb, a Seattle-based attorney, is a mental health advocate. You can contact him at

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APA Reference
Loeb, M. (2018). Dark Days: An Alaska Vacation. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 30, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 31 Dec 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.