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Fort Wainwright Symposium Showcases Arctic Gear Army is Considering Buying

Tim Ellis/KUAC

U.S. military experts got a chance last week to check out new Arctic-rated outdoor gear that was on display at Fort Wainwright. U.S. Army-Alaska hosted a symposium to show equipment that’s being tested as possible replacements for gear in the Army inventory. That may include such venerable standbyes as the bunny boot.

Col. Jim Anderson says there’s a good reason why the Army last year began inviting experts to Fort Wainwright to check out the latest cold-weather gear.

“Soldiers train, live and operate in this environment all day long, 24 hours a day, when they’re training in the field,” he said.

So it only makes sense that the Army last week held the second of what it hopes will be an annual Arctic-Equipment Symposium here. The event is like a small trade show that this year brought together about 75 experts to check out the gear on display and under testing in Alaska. That includes personnel with Army’s Northern and Mountain Warfare training centers and research and development specialists with Massachusetts-based Natick Soldier Systems Center.

Anderson is the U.S. Army-Alaska’s assistant chief of staff for Logistics, a job that includes testing and evaluating new equipment for use in cold weather.

“This winter, we have 12 to 14 items that we have procured, in conjunction with the several research and development technology portions within the Army, and we’re testing this month,” he said.

Anderson says if he and his staff think the gear has potential, he’ll recommend it for further testing that could lead to the Army buying it. Sometimes, the Army buys new gear because it’s better than what’s in the inventory. Sometimes it’s because the old equipment isn’t available anymore.

Like the old 10-man canvas tent. Anderson says newer designs and materials were being tested to replace the design that’s been in use since the Korean War – a design that’s badly in need of an upgrade.

“We have a 1950s tent that catches fire very easily," he said. “We need a tent that’s lighter, easier to set up, and doesn’t catch on fire.”

Also being tested this year is a new design for an ahkio, a type of toboggan, that Fairbanks entrepreneur David Doudna came up with to replace the old fiberglass ahkiols the Army’s been using for decades.

“I am using a product that is different than fiberglass,” he said. “It is UMHW, that’s the acronym. It’s ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene.”

Doudna, who’s been building custom-made sleds for more than 20 years in Fairbanks, and he says the material is strong and pliable down to 90 below, and it’s perfect for sleds because it has almost no friction on snow and ice.

Doudna’s ahkios also are versatile, as he demonstrated by removing a snowmachine tow hitch in less than 10 seconds, converting it to a human-powered conveyance.

“OK,” he said, kneeling beside the tow hitch, “you pull these pins. You pop this down. And the whole thing would just slide right out.”

But Anderson says some of the old designs are hard to beat. Like the old bunny boot – also known as a “V-B boot,” which stands for the vapor barrier design that soldiers and civilians, who buy the surplus boots, have both sworn by for decades.

“There are several options being looked at,” he said, adding that there are a few designs now undergoing testing here in Alaska and elsewhere.

“We’ll have to see if a vendor can make a boot as good as the original vapor-barrier boot. And it will probably be sometime this summer before we know the answer.”

If the boot does pass the test, it may be among the leading attractions in next year’s winter-equipment symposium.

Tim has worked in the news business for over three decades, mainly as a newspaper reporter and editor in southern Arizona. Tim first came to Alaska with his family in 1967, and grew up in Delta Junction before emigrating to the Lower 48 in 1977 to get a college education and see the world.