As the sun begins to set at 3:30 in the afternoon, I feel as if only a few hours ago I turned off the outside porch light and opened the living room blinds to welcome the eventual sunlight.
Completing my evening ritual of “closing up the house” seems to get earlier and earlier these days. With summers chock-full of activities outdoors and long hours of daylight, followed by fall hunting, harvesting, and then the holidays, it is no wonder winter sneaks up on us, and we find ourselves facing the dreaded three-month stretch from January to April before spring wakes us up again. So, how do you survive the darkness and cold? If you are anything like me, it takes a hefty supply of vitamin D tablets, a “Happy Light” to fight off any symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder, regular exercise to keep endorphins up, and a whole lot of planning or as I like to call it, “quiet time.”
Having taught in the public school system for 12 years, I became accustomed to using quiet time to help my students (and myself) process what we have learned, to rest, to rejuvenate, and to plan our next steps for the day. For me, that is what winter in Alaska is all about. It is a time when the tourists have gone home (except for the occasional northern lights viewing bus headed to Fairbanks), the snowbirds have flown south to their Arizona homes, and the rest of us have settled in for the winter. It is a time to mend fishing nets and rods, pick up your favorite craft again, clean your guns, read that stack of books, repair your Extra Tuff boots, try a new biscuit recipe, visit friends, provide for the elderly, set your trapline, sew, tan hides, ski, and whatever else keeps you going. Personally, the planning part is my favorite.
Winter is a time to quietly celebrate our summer adventures and fall harvests while preparing and planning for the next.
It is when fishermen hone their fish tales when hunters prep their gear for the next big one, when rural communities host song-fests and dance festivals to honor their cultural traditions, and when children learn the limits of their snow gear outdoors. It is when Alaskans have to dig deep so we can add to our tales about surviving the “cold one of 2019,” and so on. Case in point, the year we survived the winter of 1988-89 in Bethel, Alaska. It was 50+ degrees below zero pure temperature and 110 degrees below zero with wind-chill. All of the planes, including Alaska Airlines, were grounded due to the extreme cold. Altimeters do not function properly at 80 below because the barometric pressure is too high to register altitude properly. Needless to say, we spent most of our time indoors that week. There was also the year my dad, Time Crace, built a cabin on the Iliamna River during the winter of 1976-77. Temperatures often dipped to 40 below zero while he lived in a wall-tent and hand-hewed logs to build a cabin. He was dropped off in the fall with a pick-up time arranged, via hand-shake with the pilot, for early spring. A week after the agreed pick up time had come and gone, the pilot finally arrived, and dad flew to Anchorage and bought his first airplane so he would never be stranded again. Proper planning, I’d say.
Of course, planning looks different depending on where in the state you live, what your occupation and hobbies are, and the types of outdoor activities you enjoy. For our family, it is not uncommon to have a stack of tanned animal hides awaiting my next skin-sewing project lying next to a pile of books about the secret treasures around the world. In other words, while we partake in the traditional Alaskan activities, we also spend time planning trips outside of Alaska-preferably to somewhere warm during January or February. It helps us break up the winters a little and adds dimension to our quiet time, fortifying our stamina to finish out the winter months with gusto. I suppose it is a telling sign that we are headed towards becoming snowbirds ourselves one day; but, until then, a trip or two a year only helps us appreciate Alaska’s beauty all the more.
I rather enjoy planning trips so long as I eventually end up back in Alaska.
Whether quiet time to you means holing up in your cozy cabin at night after a long day of running a dog team, or jet-setting off to Hawaii for a week before tackling that quilting project sitting in the corner, Alaskan winters are about enjoying the past, making the absolute best of the present, and preparing for the next big adventure. With almost thirty Alaskan winters under my belt, I can say that they have each been unique-some milder than others, and some more exciting than others. I have found that the very things that drive people away are also the things that keep Alaskans here. So, the next time you start monitoring the moose roadkill number for signs of abandoned calves available for abduction, remember that moose are not on the emotional support animal list with Alaska Airlines (yet). My humble advice is to drink something hot and yummy, bundle up in some fur, get some exercise outdoors, enjoy the quiet, and start planning. Heck, weather permitting, I might see you out on the trail. I’m getting ready for a great hiking season next summer, and there’s nothing like an extra cold winter to prep those lungs. At least, that’s my plan.