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By Robert Holmes
The icy wind blasting across the frozen Yukon River was almost unbearable. It was February when temperatures can drop to -40°F and then there’s windchill on top of that. Today was a heatwave and the air temperature was a balmy -12°F. The wind still made any exposed flesh agonizingly painful. I was on my way north to Coldfoot, Alaska, about 250 miles north of Fairbanks, the halfway point between Fairbanks and Prudhoe Bay where the Alaska Pipeline starts. The population in 2020 was 34, a dramatic increase from 13 in 2000. Coldfoot is well inside the Arctic Circle and boy, was it cold.
When it came to footwear for the Arctic, Samuel Hubbard immediately came to mind.
Coldfoot is home to America’s most northerly truck stop used by the big, and I mean big, rigs that travel along the desolate Dalton Highway that starts 89 miles north of Fairbanks. Only 129 miles of the 414-mile-long highway are paved but in the depths of winter it made little difference. It was snow and ice the whole way. After Coldfoot, the next stop is Prudhoe Bay, 250 miles of nothing but wilderness and during winter, snow and ice for as far as the eye can see. Not a place to run out of gas!
Photo: Robert Holmes
I was up here to photograph the aurora borealis or Northern Lights. Coldfoot is in the so-called “aurora oval” where the activity, if it happens, can be seen in all directions. There is nowhere better to view this phenomenon than the Alaskan Arctic. So far, so good.
The first time I experienced the aurora was in the Canadian Yukon in 1977, sitting in a hot spring at midnight, with plenty of beer but no camera. It was magical. It was a hallucinogenic experience without hallucinogens. This time I made sure I was prepared.
Modern cameras handle below freezing temperatures pretty well. In the old days, film would get brittle and break and green pinpoints of light would populate the film as a result of static electricity. Digital cameras have overcome these problems but unfortunately the human body has not. Standing around in below zero temperatures in the middle of the night is no more fun today than it was in the 1970’s.
A couple of years ago, I had to travel to northern Japan in December and I came across a magazine ad for Samuel Hubbard shoes, specifically their Rainy Day Founder. Being British, I am a skeptic and never take anything at face value but this seemed to be the shoe I had dreamed of. It was waterproof – lined with a waterproof membrane, had a proprietary non-slip sole and it looked like a dress shoe. This was important. As an inveterate traveler I try to pack as lightly as possible and I only wanted to take one pair of shoes. This shoe checked all the boxes. I could negotiate wet and icy Japanese streets and wear the same shoes to a formal dinner. Did they live up to the advertising hype? Absolutely, and the icing on the cake was their amazing comfort, the most comfortable shoes I have ever worn. I was sold.
Photo: Robert Holmes
So when it came to footwear for the Arctic, Samuel Hubbard immediately came to mind. They make the Winter’s Day snow boots with the same non-slip sole and a shearling lining to keep your feet warm. Like my Rainy Day Founder shoes, they also look good, enabling me to travel with just this one pair of snow boots to cover all situations. They were not quite as elegant as the Rainy Day Founder but, hey, this is Alaska. Need I say, they are also supremely comfortable.
Photographers too often get hung up on their camera equipment but fail to realize that nothing will take your mind off pursuing great photographs than discomfort. Without the proper clothing for the conditions you find yourself working in, you will never produce your best work.
Aurora sightings are totally unpredictable and the first night was a bust. Clouds came in and totally obscured the sky but at least I stayed warm. The following night was better but not a lot. The clouds disappeared but the aurora activity was subdued. The next night at around 1am things started to happen. Third time a charm! As much as I would have preferred to be tucked up in a nice warm bed in the middle of a cold winter’s night, I would not have traded this experience and thanks to Samuel Hubbard it wasn’t really that uncomfortable.
Photo: Robert Holmes
Robert Holmes' career as one of the world’s most successful and prolific travel photographers has extended over 35 years. He was the first photographer to be honored twice by the Society of American Travel Writers with their Travel Photographer of the Year Award and he is the only photographer to be given the award 5 times, most recently for 2017.