Growing Up Alaska: Hot Springs and Frozen Hair

Growing up in the interior of Alaska, I marveled at the long nights and endless days. Being close to the Arctic Circle meant we may not see the sun for 2 1/2 weeks during the winter and it wouldn’t dip below the horizon for 3 days during the summer.

Summers could also bring temperatures of 90+ degrees (the warmest was over 100) and winters could bring weeks on end of minus 40 or colder (the coldest I experienced was -74 degrees). We learned to survive in these conditions by preparing and finding ways to keep ourselves occupied. Notice I didn’t say live since no one is really living when it is -74, just surviving.

I was lucky. Just up the road from my house was a hot springs with an Olympic size pool. When it got cold, the scalding 134 degree water from the springs flowed into the pool and you searched for just the right spot between the intake and the deep end which, during the coldest parts of the winter, could have ice forming on the surface.

Ice fog was a permanent fixture during the winter and provided great cover to play hide and seek games, or for some of the older kids, a bit of privacy to do what older kids did. The most adventurous of us, or possibly the most foolish, would climb from the water and throw ourselves into the snowbank lining the pool before screaming and jumping back into the water to the applause of tourists who frequented the pool.

But one of our favorite things to do was to dip our head underwater, then come to the surface and shape our hair quickly before it froze. Pulling the tips of our hair with wet warm fingers would help us get it to stand taller and pointer until you felt the cold reach your scalp and you would submerge again.

We often didn’t go swimming when the temperatures were well below zero, but most people didn’t have plumbing and relied on the hot springs to be a place to wash off, in the showers and not the pool. But after a few weeks of minus 40 and having teenagers cooped up and needing a bath, parents would thankfully relent and send us to the pool.

It was during one such outing at around minus 30 that the kids from the area gathered and played in the pool. We had all huddled in the shallow end where it was warmest and after a few minutes, a hair design contest began.

As you can imagine, we didn’t often get haircuts during the winter, so our longer hair instantly became rows of spikes or mohawks. This also resulted in laughs and pointing and eventually to a lot of splashing to ruin other people’s hairdos.

One teenage girl, who’s parents worked at the hotel, had hair nearly to her calves. Her parents didn’t allow her to cut her hair and often when we went swimming, it would fan out behind her and at times she needed help wrapping her hair up on her shoulders so she could get out of the pool. She also didn’t play the hairdo game because her parents told her it was vanity to do so.

But this time was different. The ice fog was thick and two of her friends convinced her that her parents couldn’t see through the extremely thick ice fog. They started by trying to make a large fan of her hair, but after multiple attempts, the discovered her hair was too heavy for that, so they changed tactics.

Next came spikes. That kind of worked, but as they grew taller, taller than the girls could reach, the spikes drooped and this tugged at her scalp causing her to let her hair fall back into the water.

This went on for some time until the two friends came up with a brilliant plan. They would take turns climbing out of the water and holding up her hair until if froze hard enough to stand. This also meant they would be tall enough to get the hair all the way up.

It still took them a couple of tries, but after about ten minutes, they’d created a massive mohawk sort of hairdo that stood nearly five feet tall. It bowed in the middle and waved when she moved, but if she crept along, it stayed upright.

This of course brought joy to everyone who laughed and cheered. By this time most people would’ve tried to splash her hair down, but we were so amazed that people helped her make sure the hairdo didn’t fall.

We didn’t play much longer and kids were preparing to make the dash to the changing rooms. The girls moved along slowly, trying to make their creation last as long as possible.

One of the older boys who’d climbed out too early turned back to the pool and cannon balled in. The girls turned to keep from getting splashed in the face and we all heard it — CRACK!

The sudden snap of her head caused the back section of her towering hair to snap off about halfway down. She dove underwater and no one knew for sure the damage until she came up and one of her friends was holding a large clump of about 2 feet of hair.

As you can imagine, this brought rounds of shrieks and screams and drew the attention of everyone around the pool who were all afraid someone had either slipped on the ice or had accidentally touched some piece of metal and instantly froze to it.

The girls did their best to hide the hair and after they came out of the changing room, they’d hoped that since the hair that had broken off was towards the back, they could hide it under layers of long hair.

This of course didn’t happen. When her mother went in to brush her hair, she discovered it. Needless to say, her parents were very upset with all of us for convincing their daughter to do something so foolish. We all got an earful and I am sure our parents did too.

The next week, it had warmed enough for us to go to school and the poor girl came in with her hat pulled low. Her parents had given her a bowl cut, but none of us made fun of her, not even in secret.

Author: matthewlasley

I am a school teacher and an author. I like to write picture books, middle grade, science fiction and short stories. I live in Alaska and I love history, so those two things often influence my creative writing.

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