Snow in April

April is fooling with us. A winter storm has blanketed the Tanana Valley again. We gape at twelve inches of snow that have accumulated overnight. Is winter never going to end? We are not even asking for daffodils and tulips, like the ones we jealously regard in Facebook posts by friends in the lower 48 States. We would be content just knowing that great boulders of ice are jumbling and crashing as the frozen rivers break apart. It would reassure us that Spring is, indeed, on its way. Alas, nothing so far. No pussy willows clinging to stark branches. No crusted riverbanks re-emerging. No patches of dirt beneath the snow.

Instead, snow is piling high against the window ledges. Before long we’ll be able to slide off our rooftops with sleds. On Cleary Summit, Skiland has extended its season until the end of May. In Nenana, where a betting game has people casting their vote as to when the ice will go out on the Tanana River, people are changing their guess to early June. The sound of snowmachines fills the air again. Perhaps we put our snowshoes away too early.

We’ll simply have to outsmart winter, Rebecca and Tara and I decide. If Spring is not coming, we can still walk along the trails in the woods with the dogs. We are Alaskans. We will not succumb to a little snow. Our friend Dawn and her pup bowed out for our walk today. Thus, our typical group of four musketeers has dwindled to the present three stooges. Equipped with dog leashes and a resolve to tackle the snow, we set off with four bounding dogs. 

We encounter no one on the snowy trails. We are spared the humiliation of meeting the black labrador retrievers, a group of five dogs that we have encountered often on previous walks. They were so well behaved they put our mixed bunch of dogs to shame. While the black labs sat unmoving beside the trail to let us pass, not even twitching a tail and quietly heeding the commands of their owners, our dogs catapulted past them in a snowy cloud of general chaos, completely disregarding our reprimanding shouts. We have earned our name of “bad dog squad” multifold.

We walk in single file in the deep snow. Rebecca breaks trail. I follow. Tara is the caboose. Every so often one of us yells “Incoming!” as the dog chase each other and shove by us. We brace ourselves for impact as Fitz, the alpha female, whips by with a branch in her mouth. Buddy, Jack and Elias, the boys, are trying their best to get it from her. Knees bent, we exhale. We are still standing. We keep an eye out for moose, often a close encounter in the woods. Jack and Elias, the younger ones, would charge right after them. We yell at Fitz when she finds moose poop along the trail that she sees fit to eat.

“Can you shorten your steps?” I pant after Rebecca, whose stride is longer than mine.  I try to follow her deep imprints in the snow. “This snow is too much for me.”

Behind me, Tara grumbles. “I should have just stayed in New Zealand on the trip I took last year.”

Why on earth do we choose to stay in Alaska? I am the “newcomer” with twenty years under my belt. Tara has been here for close to thirty. Rebecca has called Alaska home for her whole life. Typical of long-term Alaskans, we gripe about the weather. Did we imagine, even for a moment, that we wouldn’t see snow again?

Today our walk took us twice as long as usual. Deep snow drifts made our plodding progress more slowly. We are soaked through with sweat at the exertion. When we emerge from the woods, however, we feel more energized than when we started. This is why we stay in Alaska. Sometimes it is enough to go for a long walk with old friends, even if the snowy day falls into April. We can be content to watch a group of dogs romp and wrestle. We still marvel at a landscape turned exquisite with new snow. Even as we shake the snow from our coats and mittens and load wet dogs into car trunks, we know that the gentler season is ahead.

“In the depths of winter I finally learned that within me lay an invincible summer.” – Albert Camus

Dogsled racing in Alaska

On a crisp, sunny Saturday the Summit Quest 300 race started in Pleasant Valley. February typically marks the start of the dog mushing races in Alaska. Temperatures hovered well below zero, but the chill did not stop the dogs. Eager to be on their way, they jumped and janked at their harnesses. Dog handlers restrained them with effort, preventing them from bounding down the trail prematurely. The dogs’ barking and breath clouded the frigid air. They were surprisingly small in stature yet unsurpassed in stamina and knew neither trepidation nor doubt. The broad, untamed winter wilderness beckoned. The challenge was on.           

Their energy was magnetic. I felt my own breathlessness, a fast pulse in my throat as I watched them run through the start chute. The gathered spectators cheered them on. They left at regular intervals, in teams of eight or ten or twelve. Their musher, standing behind them on the sled as they hissed by, raised a parting hand in greeting and in pride. Beyond us, they were on their own in the wilderness, left to their own devices and skill. 

The race was adapted due to the pandemic that has reached even the hinterlands of Alaska. Typically, the Yukon Quest traces a route from Fairbanks to Whitehorse, a distance of a thousand miles, following the historical trail of the Goldrush route. This year, with Canada’s border closed due to the pandemic, efforts were made to skirt and safeguard northern villages. While somewhat shorter in distance and contained within Alaska, the Summit Quest 300 proved to be no less impressive.

Mushers and dogs were tested to the extreme. The ascent was in front of them. For some veteran mushers, after a lifetime of successful runs and stories from the trail, this season was to be their last. Would they look back wistfully after a final run? There were “rookies,” new to the race, ready to take on the inhospitable northern landscape and the blackness of subzero nights with a young dog team. Perhaps they wavered in their decision to take on challenge, as they prepared their sleds and dropped dog food at checkpoints, when they heard the weather report of temperatures that would plummet to 40 below in the night. Would they have conversed with the seasoned mushers before the race, absorbing suggestions and a thimble of encouragement? Watch for frozen tundra hillocks and the glare of river ice on Birch Creek. It can disorient the dogs. Be sure to give them the mandatory rest at mile 101. Try doing squats on the sled to keep warm. And don’t forget to look for the northern lights. They are awesome this time of year! The newcomers, shifting again, smiled in return. Mushers and dogs, old and new, were all in this race together.

For many miles they would run, challenged by jumbled ice on the creek and a windswept trail that could easily mislead in inclement weather. There were two summits to overcome. Rosebud was said to be long and steep. Eagle Summit was well known for its treacherous descent. They would run for hours, left to their own devices, before reaching a checkpoint at Two Rivers and Circle and Central. Stopping to rest, mushers would feed their dogs a mixture of beef or high protein kibble or salmon before bedding them down on straw. They would take off booties, apply ointment, run their hands over paws. They would check in with vets to assess heartrates and hydration. Only after the dogs were attended to would the musher eat his or her own food and try to take a quick nap.

Running again, at times it felt as though they were the only ones out there, miniscule in a huge, unrelenting landscape. They would think of the other dog teams on the trail, all on a similar quest, even as they ran their own race. And when they reached the finish line with an expanded feeling in their chest, they would know that even after many miles on their own, they were all connected in the great race of the north.

Blueberry Alaska

August in Alaska and the blueberries are fruiting, a sign that summer is drawing to an end faster than usual this year. It has been cooler, more rainy, and, because of the pandemic, a more withdrawn summer. The end of summer rituals, however, hold fast.

“Let’s go blueberry picking,” I suggested to Helen, my youngest child. “Before it’s too late.”

She sat at the kitchen counter, looking up, distracted, from her laptop. She had been contemplating the college course catalog, thinking about classes she might enroll in for the fall. In just a couple of weeks, she will depart, leave Alaska, the place she was born and raised in, the home that built her. She is eager to go to the lower 48 States, to embark on the adventure. Her excitement, however, is tinged with worry. “Will it even be a normal college experience?” she asked.

Amid the Covid pandemic, she signed a school contract, one in which she promised to social distance, to wear a mask, to abide by one-way hallways, plexiglass partitions, “grab and go” meals from the dining hall, to not gather with friends in her dorm room. Many lectures will be held online. Some hybrid courses might offer a face-to-face encounter with the professor. The planning is still tenuous.

“I’ll never make any friends.” She sighed, shutting her laptop, and went to bed early. She was not holding her breath.

My heart ached for her. She had hollered and whooped when she received her college acceptance letter, staring solemnly at a second letter describing a scholarship award. Her smile had lit up her face. All was well with the world then. It was a surge, after a high school senior year that ended abruptly, classes finishing online. She had to abide with a high school graduation that took the form of a car parade, with friends at a distance and a diploma sent in the mail. Contrary to her usual companionable nature, she could not even celebrate with her friends, hugging everyone in sight.

 

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In the morning, we drove to the heights of Murphy Dome, packing in dogs and water bottles and plastic containers. We picked up our friend Rebecca and her pup on the way out of town. Spirits lifted, the day promised sunshine and extended vistas from the slopes. Rebecca chatted with Helen in the car, about Oberlin College and the dorm room in Burton Hall that Helen had been assigned to, on the coveted fourth floor, with its dormer windows. Helen’s face brightened as she told Rebecca about wanting to take courses in biochemistry and philosophy, about playing soccer, about the bedsheets and desk lamp and posters she wanted to ship to college. I caught my friend’s gaze in the rearview mirror and smiled.

On the higher slopes of Murphy Dome we found wild, lowbush blueberries growing in abundance. We made our way along a trail, stooping down towards the carpeted blueberry patches near the woods, relishing their deep indigo color. The dogs, bounding ahead, returned to “help” by eating berries right off the twigs. When we reached a wide, alpine meadow we sat, reaching out for the berries that surrounded us, taking in the vista of the hills falling away below us. Our talking segued into companionable silence as we methodically picked, lost in our own thoughts. I didn’t think so much about picking the blueberries for their health benefits: lowered blood pressure or improved cognitive functions or essential nutrients. I gave little thought to the culinary pleasures of jam or pies or muffins they could result in. Instead, I celebrated the fruit and its harvest more for the sake of spending a closing afternoon with a daughter on the verge of leaving home and an old friend who has been as much of a mother to her as I have.

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Helen will shine at whatever she attempts to do once she leaves home, I told myself. She will flourish, regardless of obstacles, like the tart blueberries that grow, hardy and cold tolerant, on the Alaskan mountain.

She is ready to go, I realize, even if I’m not.