The sun is not yet above the horizon at 07:51 AKDT on the Vernal Equinox – which arrived in this area at 02:29 this morning – but it is light enough to see the surrounding space which remains cloaked in a 22.0 inch (55.9 cm) snow pack although the incessant winds across March have cleared virtually all the snow from the trees. Our maximum snow pack was 35.5 inches (90.2 cm) back in middle February but within a week or so of that time all precipitation ceased. This dry spell, coupled with almost Chinook style winds and the longer, sunny days definitely did a number on the slowly compacting snow pack. Yesterday we flirted with 35° F (1.7° C) under sunny skies but at least the winds of March seemed to have weakened to just gentle (8-12 mph or 13-19 kph) breezes. This morning the air is calm for the first time in over two weeks.
As I stare out my second floor office window I can just recognize some suggestions that spring is not far away even here at sixty two degrees north latitude. The exhaust from my Toyo stove, which drifts almost directly across my office window when the air is calm, is much less dense and is occurring less frequently than a few weeks earlier. While we are seeing a -2.2° F (-19° C) air temp I’m also expecting to see an afternoon high around 35° F (1.7° C) under sunny skies. The boughs of the spruce trees are beginning to ‘perk up’ a bit after bearing heavy amounts of snow from late December through middle February. And our direct daylight is now up to 12 hours 17 minutes and increasing daily by 6 minutes 1 second! These longer days are beginning to slowly melt the snow pack even if the air temps remain well below freezing. Indeed, when working towards my goal of 10,000 steps/day – I’m currently around 7,800 steps/day – I have started taking a collapsible walking staff with me as the icy hard packed snow coverage on the back roads is becoming slippery especially when just a thin layer of water appears atop it. This lack of traction is emphasized as I watch my male German Shepherd Dog (Qanuk) perform multiple slips and slides along with a few face plants as he revels in our daily walks. Anana, my female Alaskan Malamute, is more restrained and hence remains upright most of the time. There is something to be said for the wisdom of age!
I finally was able to experience a ‘real’ south central Alaskan winter after three previous ‘winters that weren’t’. I did feel the bite of -40° F (-40° C) air temps, wind chills another ten to fifteen degrees below those temps and an almost three foot snow pack that remained for at least two and a half weeks. I was treated to intense and vibrant auroral displays across much of the late fall when clear skies coincided with the Aurora Borealis. Having completed my fourth consecutive winter in Alaska I think I can finally claim to be a veteran of ‘The Great Land’ and its kaleidoscope of weather conditions. But maybe most surprising to me is I’m actually ready for the seasonal change. During the three previous Vernal Equinoxes I was lamenting the end of winter and not enthusiastic about the oncoming spring with its insects and tourists. But now I find myself awaiting the warmer weather even if it brings mosquitoes and the inevitable tourist traffic and congestion. Perhaps I’m finally becoming sanguine with the aforementioned as well as the knowledge that within five to six weeks there will be no dark night skies again until early September?
Before long I’ll be indulging in what has become a ritual involving preparing for spring and summer. I’ll be swapping tools and equipment between the mud room/front porch and the shed. The generator will be drained of fuel which will go into the Escape’s gas tank. The battery conditioner/recharger will be stowed in the shed and I will be getting the ‘Mosquito Magnet’ ready for operation. I’ll be smearing some ‘bat attractant’ on the entrance to the bat house which my buddy Sarge hung last October; hopefully I’ll attract some Little Brown bats and convince them to set up house and help control the mosquito hordes. In this same vein I’ll be relocating my tree swallow houses for the third time in the hopes I can attract some nesting pairs to add to my attempts at natural mosquito control. So many of these actions are now ‘old friends’ and form a kind of seasonal dance or celebration. For the first time since I relocated I’ll be doing them with joy and the knowledge that regardless of what the upcoming six months may hold for me winter will again return and I will have the opportunity to experience yet another spring, summer and fall in ‘The Great Land’.
The last of the ice on muskeg a bit east of my place on East Barge Drive is disappearing in the image from spring of 2015
Although it is actually St. Patrick’s Day as I write this piece my thoughts have already drifted forward this week to Friday, March 20th which is the Vernal Equinox or at least it will be at 14:44 AKDT here in Talkeetna. For me this is a much more significant date as I have no known Irish blood and I long ago gave up the need to drink green beer all day long especially as I usually had to go to work the next day. This Vernal Equinox will be the second one I’ll experience since I relocated to ‘The Great Land’ in August of 2013. This is meaningful to me because many of you have asked when will I no longer be a ‘Newbie Alaskan’; I arbitrarily decided that after I’ve experienced two complete years in my new home it will be time to update my moniker. As such I have just the upcoming spring and summer before that time occurs. Okay, one could make a case for me not having actually experienced a real Alaskan winter, let alone two, but that is not my fault; I was here and ready but Mother Nature had other ideas.
With the approach of this equinox I find myself once again trying to prepare for what it means; the beginning of some of my least favorite seasons. Indeed, I find the spring up here to be my least favorite season followed closely by summer. There are a myriad of reasons for my feelings but the single largest centers on daylight or, more accurately, the inevitability of almost 20 hours of direct sunlight by the Summer Solstice. Already we are seeing 11 hours and 56 minutes of direct light and that will reach 12 hours and 14 minutes in just three more days before maxing out at 19 hours and 55 minutes on the Solstice which falls on June 20th. To many people it will seem strange that I find so much light to be a negative; for them I can only present this scenario – there is no night sky, no stars and no aurora from mid-May through mid-August! Initially I do not mind the ever-increasing light but by late June it is wearing thin and by mid-July I’ve had enough. I know I’m a sky watcher and that’s especially true of the night sky but somehow it escaped me that I’d be doing without for almost a quarter of every year!
Some folks find it strange I can be so negatively affected by long periods of light yet have no issues with just five hours of direct sunlight in December. Indeed, most folks I’ve spoken with think that much darkness would drive them insane but I don’t even notice it until I begin to see the days lengthening in early January. Of course other factors come into play; the darkness happens during winter and I live for cold and snow. The lengthening days promise the coming of mosquitoes and tourists; both are aspects of Alaskan living I’m still coming to grips with and not all that successfully at least to this point. I have learned how to deal with the mosquitoes – it’s called ‘Deep Woods Off’ in copious quantities along with long-sleeved shirts and long pants – such that I am beginning to develop a somewhat sanguine outlook regarding these little bloodsuckers. Last year I learned that the best way to minimize the impact of the tourists is to completely avoid the village from May through early September just as the locals do. We basically surrender the village to the masses during that time period knowing that without those tourist dollars Talkeetna would not be half the place it has become. What I have yet to discover is a way to ignore all the noise they create. One of the joys of living here is the ‘immense silence’ that surrounds us in the off-season; sadly this disappears as the numbers of tourists increases. And along with the warmth comes the ever-present dust; this entire area sits on land that was riddled with glaciers which have since retreated. In so doing they grind up stone and earth and create a very fine dust called ‘glacial flour’ and it is everywhere. This is a dual edged sword as the abundance of this material allows water to quickly drain away which helps make break up less muddy and wet. But said ‘flour’ is blown around by even a light wind and if there’s a way to keep it out of one’s home I have yet to learn the secret.
So all told it shouldn’t be a surprise that I so favor the winter and find some aspects of the warmer months a bit less than ideal. But life in Alaska is really all about making compromises; far more so than anywhere else I’ve ever called ‘home’. Because I so love the semi-rural lifestyle, the majestic landscape, the incredible wildlife, the wonderful albeit quirky people and that amazing winter night sky I am okay with having to deal with mosquitoes, noisy tourists and dust come the spring and summer. There were a myriad of possible retirement locations I considered before settling on Talkeetna and almost all of them in the Lower 48 would have been much cheaper in terms of the COL but I had been well and truly bitten by the ‘Alaska Bug’ in the fall of 1996 so once I realized I could retire up here there were no other options for me. And as I continue to settle into this lifestyle and learn more and more about me new home I am always reminded that just like life, Alaska living is all about making choices and living with the consequences. As such I think I can deal with some mosquitoes, noisy tourists and dust..!
How would you like to see this kind of light at 04:07 in the ‘morning’..? This was the Summer Solstice +2 hours in 2014.