Late Winter in Alaska


Late Winter in Alaska


MARCH 19, 1990. In the darkness, at the hour of false dawn, silhouettes of distant mountain peaks separate from the night as the faint light snuffs out the stars and recaptures the sky. Blue washes the horizon, revealing a landscape of snow-drowned thickets, forest, muskeg, and meandering river surrounded by the crenellated summits.    
    From the cabin window I can look across the Nenana River and into the park. Soon the light will be strong enough for me to see through the spotting scope the herd of caribou wandering the ridge above Triple Lakes, their many trails spreading through the snow like fissures in ice.
    What strikes me most about late winter, now that the worst days of cold and darkness are behind us, is its color. On a clear morning like this one, night surrenders in pastel hues of claret, ruby, gold, even jade. The peaks and ridges to the west will awaken in a crimson wash of alpenglow, of sherbet colors you can almost taste. Each evening the process is reversed, but the colors are no less intense.
    Midday on the tundra, the sun blasts off the ice and snow with an intensity that can blind. Except for the trees and brush that rise above the snow, the land suffocates under a white blanket. Earlier in winter, there seemed little hope of ever seeing the sun again or feeling its warmth; now the strengthening, though still feeble, solar heat is almost shocking. Soon the snow will fade and disappear. For animals and humans alike, it is none too soon.

MARCH 21, 1990. The vernal equinox dawned clear and calm. This is the day the sun transits the equator, with night and day of equal length. Banished is the typical day of winter: in the extreme, nineteen hours of darkness and five hours of dawn.
    Just after nine P.M. and after full dark, I stepped out on the cabin porch and looked up. A brilliant aurora washed the sky, sweeping away my sleepy yawns. I rushed back inside. Soon, dressed in parka and snow pants, I snow shoed to a point on the ridge overlooking the valley of the confluence of the Yanert and Nenana rivers. Diaphanous green auroral bands spanned the horizon from Mount Healy to Mount Deborah. Broad vertical brush strokes rained light on Mount Fellows turning its summit into a phantom tiara.
    In the maturing night, the colors died one place, only to flash alive somewhere else, at times silhouetting the peaks. Three brilliant green bands tinged with yellow and pink appeared simultaneously. When they faded away, a faint crimson blush began to glow in the east and west. For perhaps over an hour the glow intensified, and I watched as if witnessing an approaching fireball. Sometime after midnight the crimson cloud billowed across the sky, obscuring faint stars. To the west, where Orion guarded Denali with brandished sword, two coyotes yip-yapped into the night, heralds of the first hours of spring.

MARCH 22, 2008. The boreal owl has been calling nightly from the timber near the cabin. Almost all night long except for a few long pauses. Last winter, when it was this cold, an ornithologist in Fairbanks said that these tiny owls didnt call much when it is colder then minus twenty. Well, it is minus thirty-four, and it seems undaunted.

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