Spring in Alaska


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.

Photo credit: Cole Michaelis

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.

Photo credit: Elizabeth Cook

“Icemageddon” in Alaska

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.

Ice Sculptures in Alaska

The sculptures, made of ice, are larger than life.

A snowy Sunday afternoon has drawn me to the ice park in Fairbanks. A competition is taking place, the World Ice Art Championship, one in which large blocks of ice, harvested from frozen ponds, are being transformed into exquisite works of art.  The sculptures stand in clearings between black spruce, some carved from a single block of ice, others assembled from multiple blocks.  The multi-block works are finished, detailed, lovely in composition. At the single block sites, many are still rough-hewn, in progress, as their sculptors work to liberate from the ice block the forms they envision in their heads.

I find my friend Heather Brice working on her sculpture.  She looks tired but smiles, determined, as she brushes the softly falling snow from her piece. She, like the other carvers, has been working practically around the clock for the past few days in order to meet the judging deadline. The effort shows in her piece: an elegant seahorse, polished and delicate, swimming upright.  Its unique anatomical shape is evident at once in the curvature of its neck, the down-pointing snout, its long tail, the hard, bony plates of its exoskeleton. True to its ability to change color to match its habitat in the sea, it has turned translucent to fit into the icy landscape. I gape, unable to comprehend that such loveliness can result from a rough block of ice.



It is a remarkable process. In this outdoor art studio of a black spruce forest, carvers use chainsaws, forklifts, chisels and picks, as they work with their medium in its various states of water.  The temperatures have remained far below zero most of the winter, both aiding and hindering their progress.  The frozen ice, strong and dense, is less likely to fissure and crack when supports are sawed away.  On the other hand, challenged by such numbing conditions, wearing parkas and mittens and facemasks, these artists are most certainly among the most stoic in the world.

The subject matter of the sculptures are as varied as the artists that created them.  They come from all over the world – Japan, Latvia, Canada, Russia, Alaska – to try their hand at winning over the judges with their piece. A sculpture called “The Heart of the Universe” exudes power and presence through ice spikes that radiate outwards.  In “The Blessing of Baikal” a mythical father bestows a blessing upon his river-daughter before she flows away from him.   There is a tribute to Kobe Bryant, the basketball player, at his untimely death, as he towers high above his teammates, caught in the action of the game, dunking the ball into the net.  “Not Forgotten” pays homage to fallen veterans, in the figure of a motorcyclist who stops at the half- open gate of a cemetery.



Later this Spring, the sculptures will slowly disappear, acquiescing to a gentler season, but their thawing will not lessen the fortitude they showed in the winter. We will recall them in our memories, how they glittered in the sun, were shaped by wind and reflected in the changing light. It is earth art at its finest, drawing attention to the landscape precisely as it is returned to it.


Winter Solstice in Alaska

“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.