Tag Archives: alaska

The Winter of Record

I think it’s safe to say that our second winter in Alaska has come to an end. By all accounts, spring technically started at the solstice, but in Alaska, winter ends when it wants to, not a second earlier. 

Spring, like fall, can be missed entirely, if you blink too long. 

Either that, or summer here is the longest spring in the world. 

I never paid this much attention to weather when I worked in newspapers. The men and women brazen enough to predict the weather didn’t write it down, they spoke it to the masses wrong or right. 

But I have a bit of a competitive streak when it comes to life experiences. 

I’m a little jealous that my dad has been to more than 100 countries, and I’m only at 51.

When I traveled to Unalaska in the Aleutian Islands, it was only to find out that my father had already been there.

But he hasn’t been to Barrow. He hasn’t stood at the northernmost point in the United States.

See, it’s neurotic.

When the winter started to build, when the snows piled up like mystic sand dunes, it seemed as if the Alaska I had always envisioned finally showed up.

I had witnessed a doozy of a storm in Nome in in 2011, but it was eclipsed by a blow of epic proportions just under a year later.

And the snow continued to pile up. It swallowed our broke-down third car. It ate the deck whole, and we gave up shoveling the walk sometime in mid January. 

Then it froze solid. And it stayed that way for a month. 

We were fortunate enough to escape to Hawaii for two weeks to thaw out. 

At some point, the winter turned to survival mode. Netflix and Call of Duty 4 kill a lot more than brain cells and cgi soldiers. They kill time. 

The walls of snow along our road rose to a lofty height of something taller than our SUV. 

And soon the talk began. It was quiet at first, just a few mentions of a possible snow record. 

But I was hooked. If we’re going to survive an Alaskan winter, it might as well be the worst winter on record. 

The talk turned to hard numbers. The inches grew, and suddenly the 50+ year old record was within reach. 

But the spring encroached, and snow-filled days turned to bright blue skies and sunshine. The temperatures warmed into the 30s, and the snowmaker systems out in the Gulf of Alaska dissipated. 

It was the equivalent of being within a few miles of a border crossing and not ‘getting the country.’ Sitting at a banquette and bypassing the souffle. 

And then an overcast Saturday fell like a claymore. Damp and heavy with no highlights in the steely sky, the snow smell like gunpowder on New Year’s Eve. 

The flakes came, small at first and then thick. I was convinced the record fell early, but the National Weather Service wouldn’t measure until 4 p.m. Anchorage waited in somewhat of an agony. 

Simply to declare the winter the worst or the snowiest in recorded history wasn’t enough. It needed an official call, a meteorologist or a Tweet from the guys and ladies down at the National Weather Service. 

Like Santa Claus, we all had to wait and anticipate together. 

But it fell, and it fell hard that day. We crushed the old record by a good 3 inches of new snow that melted almost as fast as it touched the ground. 

And I can officially say that I survived the worst, or snowiest, winter on record in Anchorage, Alaska. 

Comfortably Disappointing your Children and Other Lessons

Life has a penchent for providing serious disappointment. We are optimistic beings from birth, losing it gradually to the process of life. 

Today I came home to find my middle child balled up on the couch wearing his University of Montana Grizzly helmet and holding a picture frame full of photos of he and his best friend from Missoula. 

I didn’t need to ask him what was wrong, I already knew. 

We recently decided to put our first home, the Missoula house, up for sale. I think the kids secretly held out hope that we might go back to that paradise that is northwest Montana. 

Transition is tough. Just when you think you’ve settled into whatever you’re currently doing, old feelings come back to haunt you. We’ve seen this with the kids several times over our last year-and-a-half in Alaska. 

When I was laid off from the newspaper, we argued about whether or not to tell the kids about it. But having me around the house more often than not didn’t seem that easy to hide. 

We decided to manage the disappointment, hoping that it would provide some kind of strength conditioning for the kids. Remember, they don’t come with a manual. 

They came through the layoff and a move of thousands of a miles to a land like Narnia frozen in perpetual winter. They’ve been disappointed. They’ve been rewarded. They know what to expect in a world that is often full of both. 

So tonight I didn’t try to fix my little guy. I let him spend a few minutes mourning the knowledge that we wouldn’t be going back to Missoula or living in that house again. 

He’s become a resilient little guy over his 10 years. And I love that about him. 

He took the helmet off and put away his picture frame and came to the dinner table with a smile and told me all about his day. 

I don’t worry about him facing those tough times that will inevitably come his way in the future. He’s got a few calluses built up. 

Misadventure and Mysenthropy in the Alaskan Spring

Homer, Alaska – 11:30 p.m.

There is a quickness in their responses, a snappy smartness and a half smile. The irritability fairly drips off the walls, and our cabin fever is white hot now.

It’s springtime in Alaska.

They are simply a reflection of me. Grumpy when I awake and grumpy when I go to bed.

I’m tired and confused. Just two months ago my world was covered in eternal darkness. Awake in the dark, drive to work in it. Attend a two-hour meeting, and it’s still dark when you strain your eyes to see if it’s snowing again outside.

And the sun sets two or three hours before you go home for the night.

Pull up and shine your headlights on your driveway full of snow.

And then even more suddenly then not; it’s light when you wake up to get the kids up for school. The light streams in from the corners around the blinds. Two weeks now, and I’m still amazed by it every time I see it.

I’m home from work, and the sun is so high we go kicksledding down the coastal trail until we run into a moose too big and mysterious to let us pass.

We turned around.

Dinner comes and goes, and still the sun hangs there like Joshua’s Long Day.

The kids fall asleep with beams of setting sun protruding into their rooms. God knows I could never sleep like that. I’d lie awake for hours and hours until total darkness bored me to sleep.

I drive out to Point Woronzof to shoot the sunset for the hundredth time. But it takes longer and longer each time. I can only spend so much time distracted by the slow melting of 129 inches of snow.

Home and darkness, finally. Somewhere I have a photo of our May trip to Homer and daylight at 11:30 p.m. That’s only a month away.

Springtime in Alaska is mix of raw, pent-up emotions, shear boredom, wet cuffs, hydroplaning for fun, t-shirt skiing, re-frozen melt water and watching the proverbial water boil while you’re waiting for the proverbial snow to melt.

And the inexorable swing of daylight. This is not the land of balance I grew up in, the astonishingly consistent Oregon of my youth. Rain and gray were a blanket of comfort in a world only slightly susceptible to floods and Columbus day storms.

There is no day where you recognize twelve easy hours of sunlight and twelve easy hours of not.

Like the tidal bores that make Cook Inlet impassable by any but Mr. Cook himself, the dark rushes in like a two-mile wave and out again as if a tourist fleeing the winter chill.

After work we go driving just to eat up daylight hours. Soon there will be too much to digest, and you just sit and pretend its not there.

God forgive you for sidewalking during breakup. The power boys in their lifted trucks love nothing more than hitting eight inches of standing water like it needs to be punished, Moses parting the Red Sea without the help of the Almighty. 

I wear Xtra-Tuffs so often there is no more hair up to my knees from the constant rubbing of the neoprene Alaskan national footwear. 

There is a raw energy, like what the dogs harnessed and ready to race the Iditarod must feel. The need to get the kids outside and burning off the winter stores is like an itch that won’t go away. 

We stand in the kitchen and throw around possibilities like trying to find that last piece in a jigsaw puzzle. Skating, skiing, hiking, snow shoeing, snow machining, too many words that begin or end with snow. The decision is never unanimous.

It’s springtime in Alaska.

All of the Lights – World Ice Art Championships and the Aurora Borealis

My wife is difficult to impress. 

This in and of itself is not a bad thing.

For two Alaskan winters, I’ve tried to get her outside to experience the northern lights. 

She wouldn’t bite. 

I’m probably impressed by too much.

The first faint strand of the lights that I saw in Calgary, Alberta back in 1988 became a sort of high-water mark for me. I would talk about them for years. 

The skeptic in our relationship, it turns out, is not the journalist. 

Today, after a full day of soaking in the mineral waters of Chena Hot Springs and eating good food, we decided on a nightcap of a cold walk through the World Ice Art Championships exhibit in Fairbanks. 

As we stared at the backlit exhibits carved in exquisite detail by human hands, my wife looked overhead and saw a thin band of light sweep across the sky like a curtain’s fringe. 

When she caught up with me, she pointed the growing lights out to me. 

I couldn’t help by smile. 

Try as I might, I cannot impress her. Doesn’t stop me from trying, but it’s a fool’s errand.  And a fool’s errand is anything if not love. At least in my world. 

The aurora borealis did what I could not do. It found her in its own good time. That point when she was ready to be impressed rather than led their by an overly excited husband. 

This small point in our lives is emblematic of our longer relationship, and it would be wise for me to remember this moment. 

Which is why I’m writing it down in the first place. 

As the kids played on the carved dolphin slides and the mazes, I caught her looking up to see the lights herself, unbidden. 

Even in the 0 degree chill, after more than a dozen decent viewings of the lights, sharing these with her was one of those special moments. 

Mostly because I got to witness her discovery.