Saturday, March 12, 2011

March Is Still Winter

The days get longer but the weather turns harsh. Most of our snow seems to fall in March and an April-Fools blizzard seen to be the norm, in the years we've been here. This is not all bad. We've gotten some good skiing in and there's more time to enjoy other winter activities such as jigging for lush fish or tom cods depending on where you are. There is however, likely to brief thaw that will teasingly remind us that no, winter is not over, and that we probably have another month before things really start melting. If you feel lucky there are opportunities to test yours skills, or optimism predicting the exact day and time that the river will break up. There a couple of these in Alaska, the most popular and lucrative being the Nenana Ice Classic, which has been going since about 1917 when a bunch of bored railroad workers set up a tripod on the frozen river, fastened a cable to the bridge under construction (which is why they were there in the middle of winter), and waited for the ice to move and tip over the tripod. In Bethel the same opportunity is available on the Kuskokwim river. It's a fund raiser and goes to a good cause so wasting money gambling on seasonal phenomena is philanthropic and can give you a warm fuzzy feeling too.

Watching the snow melt, from the comfort of ones own kitchen or even porch is satisfying. Once the thawing process begins in earnest, I put up my skis for the season and start rooting for open water and green grass. This is a slow process at its start but then accelerates to a pace that permits brown tufts and bare branches to become lush grasses and flowers that race to complete their intricate life cycles in the niggling time frame that Alaska's brief but spectacular summer allows. By mid may the sounds of waterfowl, returned from distant migrations, wintering in warmer climes, fill the the morning air with a cacophony hearkening to the tropics more than subarctic realms. These sounds echo in contrast to the silence of a late winter night on the tundra with no wind blowing. It is only there that I can truly say I have heard the sound of nearly nothing.

Dressing for the weather is essential in order to enjoy this environment. Overdressing is seldom an issue in the dead of winter. long johns, polypropylene, silk, GoreTex, fleece, down, and yes, otter fur are my intimate friends. In fact, I allow no one closer to my body than I do these materials. It is the ordeal of dressing that often deters me from getting out into the environment. Living in a place where the environment CAN be deadly is a bit intimidating, even to the prepared adult inhabitants. Not so much with children; some of the kids here spend every free waking hour "playing out", sliding down the "hill" (really just a moderately steep embankment) that leads down to the frozen lake across the boardwalk from my house. Foster, who is a sheepdog to the core, revels in opportunities to "herd" these, his substitutes for sheep at every opportunity. They enjoy him and he really loves them, but he wants them to do something. He really isn't sure what and neither do they.

Now, with days growing longer and daylight-savings time starting, here on Alaska's western edge, even before the equinox, sunset will come after 9 pm and these small revelers will feel even less inclined to go in when the siren goes off  to signal curfew. By mid April, as daylight gains five-and-a-half minutes each day, they will still be celebrating the progression of of the Equinox and bathing in the light of day at 11pm, oblivious to the urgings of a mere siren. Under the warm natural light of a spring sun, time and clocks lose a lot of their significance as summer approaches. But for now, we're just  waiting for the spring of the calendar to start acting more like spring in our minds.

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