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The 'Arctic Eyes' of sub-zero running

Frozen eyelashes highlight the face of a winter visitor to Denali National Park.
Frozen eyelashes highlight the face of a winter visitor to Denali National Park.
Photo: NPS

I first moved to Denali National Park in July 2009, when I filled an emergency opening for a dispatcher with the park's Ranger Division. What was supposed to be a two and a half month contract turned into a six month work stint and brought this Pennsylvania girl face to face with arctic winter.

As winter approached, my colleagues inundated me with helpful hints to survive the winter season.

As my list of necessities grew - engine block heater, battery blanket, oil pan heater, oil for Toyo Stove, sub-zero down parka, new tires, ice grippers, etc - my emotions swerved from confident to down-right scared.

I found myself looking at the list thinking, "Are these people serious or am I being 'Punked'?"

As the month of November came to a close I felt confident that I was ready to face winter full force. All the items on my list had been purchased and I was enjoying the novelty of plugging in my car and hauling water to and from my dry cabin. 

All was grand in my new found arctic world, right up until the day my eyelids froze.

I went out for a run at 10:30am when the first corner of sun began to inch up the horizon. I pulled on three layers of clothes, a warm hat, a neck scarf, gloves, and put ice grippers over my running shoes to keep me from falling down. 

As I headed out of the cabin I checked the thermometer. Negative 15 degrees. I never ran in temperatures that cold before, but I had no choice. The long dark days were getting to me and I needed to run. 

I'd been a runner for 20 years and I wasn't about to let negative temperature deter me.

Within minutes of starting, my eyes began to tear up. And as I involuntarily cried, my tears instantly froze to my eyelashes, making it nearly impossible to blink or to see. 

I wiped furiously at my eyes to no avail. Every time I cleared the ice from my eyes fresh tears would appear. Within seconds those salt water droplets would crystalize and freeze to my eyelashes until enough crystals formed to make it impossible to blink...blink...blink.

After three long miles of blinking, freezing, wiping, blinking, freezing, wiping I had had enough. 

I had never before focused so hard on blinking and seeing when running. My focus has always been on pace, stride and breathing. 

Those concerns became secondary to blinking - to keeping all the water in my eyes from freezing up. 

As I made my way back to my cabin, I found myself wondering what would happen if I stopped wiping my eyes. Would enough crystals form and bind together until my eyes would literally freeze shut? 

The curious scientist in me wanted to test my theory. I quickly formulated the plan to finish the last quarter mile of my run without wiping my eyes.

As I reached my cabin I could barely see.

I bounded up the two outside stairs and threw open the door of my cabin and raced to the bathroom mirror. I arrived in time to see the last remaining frozen tear melt away. 

Even though I solved the mystery of my arctic eyes I was disappointed to see them fade. 

Those tears were the only tangible evidence that I had run, that I had braved the cold, sub-zero arctic air, that I had, in fact, been here. 


  • Neala - Offbeat Places examiner 5 years ago

    Fascinating - I often wonder what it's like to live in a place that cold. But will only find out via armchair travel.

  • Jodie J 5 years ago

    Amazing experience and description

  • Michael M 5 years ago

    Never would have thought that something so mundane as tears freezing could be such an issue in these types of conditions. Thanks for relating this experience.

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