“I’ve been up for hours and it is still dark outside!”
The complaint is justified, at this time of year, when the sun, in its best effort, follows a shallow, horizontal arc along the horizon, never really rising well above the Alaska Range. The day is marked by dusky metallic light, slanting in at an angle, a mere three and a half hours in duration. Overnight, the temperatures plummet to 320 below zero. The cold snap is predicted to last for several days yet. We cover our noses and mouths with thick scarves when we go outside, but the hairs in our nostrils still tickle as they freeze.
It is the winter that sets us apart from the rest of the world.
“How can you bear it?” my friends in the Lower 48 States ask. “Is it not terribly cold and dark?”
Indeed, it is a formidable winter. Ruthlessly frigid. Dangerous, even, if one is not clad in proper clothing. But there is so much to love about the winter as well, I tell them.
Practicalities sometimes become easier. It is so cold that the roads, under a packed sheet of snow and ice, have the texture of sandpaper, less slippery, much easier to drive on. In town, the parking meters have stopped working and we do not have rummage for quarters anymore. Chores around the house lessen because it is too cold to concern ourselves with outdoor tasks. The ones that we do still have, such as picking up after the dogs, is made simpler because the dog poop is frozen solid in the snowy yard. We never run out of room in our freezer because we can place our dinner leftovers onto the porch, a natural outdoor freezer.
On an aesthetic level, we cherish the crackling, still, white world. Someone has hung Christmas ornaments along intermittent tree branches along our favorite walking trail through the woods. We follow these, bundled into heavy parkas and boots, as the sun rises behind the spruces and birch trees. By the time we get back to town, dusk is already falling. Outdoor Christmas lights, turned on early in the year to offset the darkness, cast a comforting golden glow onto the snow outside. In the pitch-black nights, the northern lights are clearly visible, wavering like a green curtain, extending into the Tanana Valley below. The stars, defined sharply in the crisp air, look like they can be touched. It is as though we are, literally, on top of the world.
For one night, midwinter, the North Pole attains its maximum tilt away from the sun. The longest night of the year is upon us. Just when we think the cold has lasted too long, we celebrate the winter solstice and its promise of returning light. What good is the warmth of summer, wrote John Steinbeck, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness.
This is precisely what our winter, rugged and fierce and beautiful, reminds us every day.