The light returns to the frozen North in March. The winter in interior Alaska stretched long and dark. Even now, there are no signs of pussy willows clinging to stark branches. The riverbanks have not re-emerged from beneath their crusty snow layer. At Creamer’s Field, Canada geese and trumpeter swans, generally the first to arrive, have yet to be spotted. But the light has shifted, angling between the black spruce and birches. Even though there is still the crunch of snow underfoot, we lean into the promise of a gentle force slowly persuading winter to surrender.
The town has stirred out of its winter hibernation. Its inhabitants embrace the warmer weather and the possibilities that spring offers. At Summit Lake, snowmachiners glide through the snowy hills, celebrating the vastness around them. In Nenana, a betting game is underway that has people eagerly casting their votes as to when the ice will break and trip a tripod on the Tanana River. Dogs and mushers in the Iditarod sled dog race take on the challenge of jumbled river ice, mountain slopes and a thousand miles to Nome. In Fairbanks, ice carvers hone their skills and display ice sculptures. In an outdoor studio of subzero temperatures, they glisten until the thaw claims their ethereal nature.
It is a time of transience. Before long it will be time to put away the snowmachines. The ice will go out on the river, causing great boulders to crash against each other with terrific noise in their break-up. The sled dogs and their handlers will claim their victories. The dancers, temporarily frozen in their tango, will slowly melt into each other’s embrace.
Soon my daughter Helen will come home from college for spring break, even if it means trading daffodils in Ohio for the snow-covered landscape of Alaska. The days are breaking earlier and lasting longer, I promise her. We might go for a cross country ski on wooded trails like we did when she was growing up. She tells me about chemistry lab and discussions in her ethics class. I swallow a thickness in my throat. She is already halfway through her college studies. I want to slow down the hourglass, to be present for the season, even in its fleetingness.
In March the northern lights often present themselves. I look out for them, knowing that in summer months ahead the midnight sun will no longer allow me to see them. I linger outdoors for some time and watch them shimmer and undulate in the night sky. In hues of green and violet and red, they sometimes look as though they are deceptively close. I am captivated by the myths and tales that have been associated with them by different peoples throughout the centuries. I contemplate the physics of the aurora borealis and wonder how electrically charged particles from the sun entering the upper atmosphere can look so exquisite. Most of all, I feel privileged to have obtained another glimpse of them before they are gone again.
The winter, relinquishing, is whispering to us its final song.
Living in Alaska always comes with challenges. When I heard of a snow front moving its way into the interior, I didn’t think much of it. It was just before Christmas. We were too busy stringing up ornaments, wrapping gifts and planning what side dishes should accompany the roasted duck on Christmas Eve to contemplate the weather. Plus, we are typically prepared for snow events that can seize us at any moment. Our cars have winter tires, the generator is on standby, and the pantry is filled with foods with a longer shelf life. Like the carol on the radio, we would just “let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.”
Cheerily, my friends Tara and Dawn and I set off with the dogs for a walk in the woods. We were past the winter solstice, gaining daylight again. Soon we would have Spring. A soft new snow blanket covered the peaceful terrain, marred only by the dogs’ romping and our own deep imprints on the trail. A barn was festively decorated with twinkling lights. Its equestrian inhabitants came up to the fence to greet us. In a landscape so exquisite, how could our spirits not be lifted?
After our walk we loaded wet dogs into car trunks and exchanged good wishes. My friends were leaving Alaska for the holidays. Driving home, I hoped that their travels amid Covid flight cancellations would go smoothly. I shrugged off the forecast I heard on the car radio. What would a few snow flurries matter compared to what they might have to deal with on their journey?
The first of the snowstorms arrived formidably that night. Great flakes swirled in the air and the temperature plummeted. A foot of snow accumulated by morning. I started shoveling out. Many hours later, with aching arms, I surveyed my efforts. I managed to clear a path to the front door, part of the deck and a narrow aisle to the woodshed. I was ahead of the game. I felt tired, but of an accomplished type. I went inside for a well-deserved cup of tea. Now I could curl up in front of the crackling fire with a good book.
When I awoke the next morning, it looked as though I had not even shoveled. My path was filled in again. Our steep driveway was covered with even more snow. I called Kyle, our snowplow man, but he told me the fuel pump on his truck was broken. He would not be able to come until the end of the week. Never mind, I said. We would park one of our cars at the pullout on the top of our driveway. That way, in the event of more snow, we would not be stranded. With much skidding and hammering hearts, we managed to get Nick’s car to the needed spot. Relieved that we had not slid off the driveway, we trudged back down the mountain to the house in the deep snow.
A second front moved in. It snowed and snowed and snowed all day. We got yet another twelve inches. Snow was piled high against the windows, obscuring our view. The dogs, reluctant to pee in deep snow, doubled back in hasty U-turns. Nick’s grill on the deck resembled Artu Ditu with extended snow-covered arms. We listened to the news and were advised not to attempt the roads until the plow trucks had passed through. Nick cancelled his patients’ appointments for the rest of the week.
We tried to encourage each other. It wasn’t all that bad. How often was it that we had a real snow day and could spend a whole day watching Netflix?
Then the power went out. Nick, in the middle of dinner preparations, cursed his opinion of this, not quite under his breath.
“It’ll come back on,” I reassured the family, more jovial than I felt. I went in search of candles and flashlights. I should have remembered to fill the bathtub with water because, without the jet pump, we couldn’t run faucets.
A third snowstorm in two weeks brought even stoic Alaskans to their knees. We awoke to the sound of rain in December. The temperatures had risen. Everywhere else in the world this would have been a sign of reprieve. In Alaska, it translated into the horror of ice. An inch coated the landscape. Ice glittered on the spruces and creaked beneath our ice-cleated boots. Birch branches snapped and broke. We worried about the snow load on the roof made heavy with moisture.
Fairbanks had turned into a world of the condemned. We were advised to not to leave our homes. The impassable roads had turned into ice sheets that resembled hockey rinks with no traction. Emergency vehicles were pulling cars out of ditches. Graders were sent ahead of them because roads were so bad. Power outages, due to heavy snow, were reported throughout the entire town while crews worked through the night. We had no power, no internet, no water. Our cell phone batteries were dwindling.
We hunkered down. When the temperature cooled in the house, we pulled on snowshoes and hiked down to the woodshed for firewood. We shoveled snow into buckets and heated it on the propane stove. We ate what we our freezer held in store for us. All in all, we resembled the Ingalls family in “Little House on the Prairie.”
When did we sign up for this? We complained nonstop. We couldn’t watch a movie because the power was out. We couldn’t flush the toilets because we had no water. We couldn’t even go out on a walk because the ice was treacherous beneath our feet. Should we consider moving to Hawaii?
Eventually, when we exhausted our reasons for griping and moaning, we settled into a different routine. Without choices, our evenings quickly became easier. The weather would do as it chose. We would abide. Eventually, the snowfall would taper. The ice would melt. Helen and Yanni finished the puzzle of Linderhof Castle that had been stowed on a shelf for years. Nick settled into his reading of Renaissance history. And I wrote a blog, simply for the pleasure of writing it.
This year’s winter storms, trying as they were, might just have anchored us.
With my newly found confidence in the sport, the next kayaking adventure presented itself. This time it came in the form of the San Juanitas gourmet kayak expedition in the San Juan islands off the Washington coast. Savor Seattle partnered with the San Juan Outfitters to promise us “pampered paddling” on a guided three-day kayak and camping getaway. There would be wildlife viewing – orcas and seals and osprey -from a sea-level view. We would be afforded stunning views of the islands and the sun setting golden in the ocean. Instead of freeze-dried camping fare we would enjoy braised short ribs and grilled salmon and salted caramels, all paired with Washington wines. I could certainly paddle for food and wine! I signed up immediately.
Our group consisted of seventeen women, some newcomers, some seasoned paddlers, all eager to try sea kayaking for a long weekend. The Alaska component of our group met at the Fairbanks airport to travel south to Seattle. We met up with friends from Colorado, Oregon, Utah and Washington, then travelled onwards to Anacortes where we caught the ferry to Friday Harbor on the San Juan islands.
Our preparations had taken some time. Our outfitter guides had sent us a packing list of clothing and items that we were meant to cram into two tiny dry bags. Quick dry pants, shorts, T-shirts, hiking shoes, paddling gloves, flashlight, towel, long underwear, wool hat, sandals, ballcap, sunscreen. There was no way all of it would fit. I eyed the miniscule space of my 20-liter and 5-liter drybags, which would have to be accommodated into my kayak. Contemplating the favorable weather forecast, I started pulling clothing back out of my pack. We would simply all be stinky and disheveled together, I decided.
In Roche Harbor, our kayaking departure point, we sat on a grassy lawn near the harbor, munching on chicken skewers and black bean salad while our guides gave us instructions. We listened as they told us how to put on the kayaking “skirt” and strap ourselves into the wobbling vessels, how to extract ourselves from these should that be necessary and how to efficiently paddle without immediately exerting all our energy. When we paired up, we were told that the more “confident” paddlers should climb into the three-person kayaks. I’m not sure how Dawn and I managed to end up in one of these. It was not until the end of the paddling day that we realized that our kayak was twice as heavy as everyone else’s because we were carrying camp stoves and tents and dozens of wine bottles.
We paddled along the northern shore of San Juan Island, close enough to shore to make out beautiful coastal homes and gardens. Even though Erik, one of the guides, assured us that our destination was “just around the next bend” we paddled nonstop for hours in the Spieden Channel. Many coves later, we just laughed at him. Plus, where was the current assist that he had promised us? I started to worry about a bathroom break, given the fact that we were a group of middle-aged women, but our guides had evidently taken that into consideration. We stopped at a beach with an outhouse.
Next came “the crossing” of the San Juan Channel, to my eyes a wide swath of ocean. We needed to traverse this to get to Jones Island where we would spend the next two nights. Mustering our arm strength, we stoically got into our boats again, remembering that there would be a nice dinner at the end. The group hoped for orca sightings. Someone mentioned that kayakers, from an orca’s viewpoint below, look like seals and thus believe them a credible food source. I swallowed and paddled even harder, keeping my eyes resolutely on the distant outline of Jones Island, our destination.
Cara, Danielle and Erik, the guides, each had their own unique traits. Erik was great at bolstering us when our arms grew limp, paddling his kayak up next to us to point out rip currents and rocks to avoid. Danielle knew to impart information on just about any topic we asked her: geological formations on the San Juan islands, the type of seaweed kelp we were drifting through, different cone-like barnacles that clung to the rocky shoreline. Cara took time to explain the maneuverings of sea kayaks and maritime terminology to us, always with a smile on her face.
Jones Island had no resident population except for deer and raccoons. There were two campgrounds, one with and one without water. To add to our adventure, we set up camp on the latter. While our guides busied themselves with food preparation in their amazingly efficient workstation “kitchen,” the rest of us embarked on setting up tents and sorting out sleeping bags. Dinner, after our long day, consisted of salmon, mixed greens with mustard dressing and black rice salad. Needless to say, it tasted heavenly.
Over the next couple of days together, we got to know each other. There were three “Taras” in our group, a challenge when we called for one of them in particular. Karina was adept at setting up tents, a skill we immediately pounced on. Rebecca, Steph and Jen started a game of cards one afternoon while the rest of us non-card players quickly scattered. Tessa led us in a Zumba dance lesson. We enthusiastically swayed our hips to Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello’s “Senorita,” never knowing we had it in us. When our unbathed state became too much, we challenged each other to a dip in the cold bay, one that only a scarce few of us took upon us. Over another fabulous dinner, we talked about books we had recently read and tea that was best brewed in a “Teaze” and Jack from “Virgin River.”
The next morning, amid groans of “I’m too old for tent camping!” we squeezed ourselves from our sleeping chambers. A group hike was organized to loosen our stiff muscles. We followed a loop trail down the center of the island, then skirted its western perimeter. We crested hills and walked right on the bluff overlooking the water. We came across Madrone trees, with red peeling barks and a fruit tree orchard, remnants of early homestead settlers of the island. Everywhere there were deer that were quite habituated to the presence of humans. Near the other campground, we learned that it not only had the coveted water spigots but also the “Jones Island Public Library,” an outhouse with a shelf of books.
In the afternoon we took the kayaks around the entire island. We came across seal pups sunning themselves on rocks. Some poked their heads out of the water curiously to watch us paddle by. The sun made the bay glitter. Our spirits were lifted. To our delight (and thankfully from shore) we saw two orcas glide elegantly by, their dorsal fins breaking out of the water in one smooth movement before they disappeared beneath the surface again. That evening, we sat together to watch the sun set into the bay. It had been a perfect day.
On the day of our return voyage, our guides suggested waiting until the tidal currents would work in our favor. We didn’t think anything of it, not even when Erik suggested we do some stretching and relaxation exercises on the beach before our departure. Perhaps we should have heeded a warning when he asked whether anyone needed seasickness tablets before we climbed into our kayaks. The channel was choppy and the wind came at us sideways. Within minutes we were drenched. One of the guides explained that the waves could be measured as three or four feet high when the people in the kayak next to one’s own disappeared from view behind the next wave. Valiantly, we paddled on, measuring our distance by a small island mid channel that we seemed to never pass. We made it across eventually, even though our journey back to Roche Harbor took us twice as long as we expected.
Tired but fortified by our seafaring adventure, we parted ways, exchanging numbers, promising to stay in touch. Our thalassic weekend had given us all it had promised. And a few new friends.
Always up for an adventure, my friend Tara suggested a float down the Chena River. “If you can kayak in Alaska, you’ll be more than ready for any kayaking trip.”
I looked at her skeptically. Coming from a person who was keen to paddle between ice floes right up to glaciers in Alaska, I had my doubts. I had never even stepped foot into one of the shallow vessels. They looked like they could tip over any moment. Of course, she was suggesting an introductory paddle on the calm, inland waters of the Chena River, not the open sea at Prince William Sound. Plus, she was a trusted friend, one who would not urge me into harm’s way.
Still, I hesitated as she pulled the kayaks onto the muddy banks of the river. I eyed the preparations she was making, tossing me a life jacket, assembling paddles, securing her phone and car keys into a drybag.
“There’s a current,” I mumbled, looking out over the river at the slow drift of the water.
“What current?” she answered with a laugh. “Water does move, you know.”
Next to us, a group of more experienced paddlers were pulling their kayaks to the river’s edge. I hoped that they would deftly climb in and paddle away before they had to witness me loading myself inelegantly into my wobbling kayak. No such luck. Even their dog, wearing a lifejacket, seemed to grin at me as he jumped onto the front of one of the kayaks.
“First time,” I told them, humiliated, as they suppressed amused smiles.
Tara was not letting that stop us though. With a few words of instruction, she pushed me “off the deep end.” Thankfully, I knew that the Chena River was notoriously shallow. Even if I did capsize, I could trust my relatively decent swimming skills to get me back to shore. At first, all I did was swivel against my moorings and clumsily splashed water into my kayak. Immediately my behind was wet from sitting in a puddle. Is this why Tara suggested quick dry shorts?
Finally, we were off. Tara took the lead. I paddled frantically to keep close behind her. The river, swollen and murky, flowed lazily. It was early on a Sunday morning and there were few people on the river. Tara gave me some pointers along the way. Stay clear of “drifters,” random tree trunks that floated in the river and could surface to submerge a kayak. If a motorboat came my way, I should turn my kayak perpendicular to the wake so I could crest the wave without wildly rocking about. I broke out into a sweat and kept my eyes peeled for logs and boats.
After a while, I started to relax. Shifting, I had not realized how tense I was. I repositioned myself into what I hoped looked like a more languid pose and took in the scenery. I had lived in Fairbanks many years but had never seen the town from the perspective of the river that flowed through it. Boat houses, decorated with moose antlers, stood on the river’s edge. At times, the decks of neighborhood homes looked right over the river. More often the wilderness encroached onto its banks. We spotted a bald eagle perched high on a bare branch. A beaver had built his dam close to the shore. Fireweed blossomed on grassy embankments and willows wavered in the breeze. We floated by a huge sternwheeler with a paddlewheel, feeling miniscule alongside it.
I started to enjoy the current that propelled me forward. My only purpose this morning was to drift on the water and to see what the river presented to me beyond each bend. My first experience in a kayak might not have taken me to the edge of great glaciers, but it had given me a new glimpse of a landscape that I had started taking for granted.