“You want pack boots not bunny boots,” said Brian O’Donoghue, calling from his office. Brian is the chair of the UAF Dept. of Journalism, a long-time Alaska resident and a dog musher, so I figure he knows a few things about dressing for the cold. First order of business: definitions for “pack boots” and “bunny boots.”

I’ve begun my quest for a pair of winter boots and I’m taking an informal poll from just about everyone I meet. There are almost as many opinions as there are choices of boots and kinds of snow in Alaska. What’s a newcomer to do?

Amy Simpson, the office manager, hands me a L.L. Bean catalog and also suggests I try Big Ray’s in downtown Fairbanks. She says the store—a local institution and landmark—has good prices and knowledgeable salespeople. She won’t commit to any brand or type of boot, although she does offer that boots made with beaver fur are the warmest, adding that anything with animal fur will be expensive.

My friend Ed—also new to Alaska—says his neighbor, Dave, suggest Mukluks, made of moose hide in Canada; he buys his online. I’m new to boot buying. I want to try on boots and compare fit and style. I’ve been walking to school wearing my leather Born shoes and cotton socks. With temperatures dropping and daylight dwindling, I want to buy my boots within the week.

Ed the Brave volunteers to accompany me on my boot shopping expedition. First stop: Beaver Sports. The folks in the Dept. of Journalism dissuaded me from Beaver Sports, calling it the store for “designer gear,” They said the gear expensive. Ed had good luck getting a pair of hiking boots at Beaver Sports and had a helpful, patient, informative salesman, so he suggests we start there. It’s also the closest store to the UAF campus.

The boot supply was limited–and patient, informative sales help was in even shorter supply. Ed’s salesman was not working and the guy in the back of the store literally didn’t move a finger to help us.

Next stop: Big Ray’s, downtown. The boots are in the basement. Boxes and boxes of boots, stacked high and wobbling. The boxes form the aisles and alleyways; some boots are on display: Baffin, Sorel, Columbia. Ankle high. Mid calf. Nearly knee high.  Boots with laces, with elastic, with buckles. Felt-liners and Thinsulate liners. Waterproof…or not.

John to the rescue. He sports a big belt buckle with his name “JOHN” in all caps. John has worked at Big Ray’s for more than 20 years and offers plenty of solid advice as I try on boots. He rates the boots by number of hours I could be outside in them rather than the temperature ratings the manufacturers use.


John poses for a photograph in the boot section at Big Ray's in downtown Fairbanks, AK, on Friday, October 22, 2010. John has worked at the store for more than 20 years and has a wealth of information to share about footwear to brave winter in Fairbanks .

I put on the Glacier by Sorel. I immediately think of Ozzy Osborne and the song “Ironman” thumps through my mind as I clomp, clomp, clomp up and down the aisle. Too heavy. Rated to –75F at $139.95. They feel solid; I bet they’ll be too heavy for my daily walks. Then again, eventually it will be too cold for my daily walks to campus.
John suggests a pair of boots by Baffin. They have sexy names: Musher, Icefield. Why wouldn’t I want a pair of boots called Musher? How romantic. I’m a marketer’s dream.

The Baffin boots have buckles and synthetic liners. Ed is a huge fan of the Thinsulate liners; I’m not. The Mushers sell for $149.95. I like the name; I don’t like the boot.

I realize I’ve got to pace myself. I’ve tried on a number of boots and taken on a lot of information. Ed needs to pick up his son and I need to a break.

At Big Ray's in downtown Fairbanks, AK, I try on two different Sorel boots: on the right foot, a Glacier ($139.95), rated to -100 F; on the left, an Alpha Pac ($129.95), rated to -60 F and waterproof with reflective tape.