Monday, August 11, 2008

Darkness in Alaska

Darkness in AlaskaRight about now I'm beginning to think about daylight. I'm watching it slip away because as of June 22nd our allotment began decreasing, heading into that downward slide toward December 21st when we'll get the shortest day of the year. When the light first started ebbing we only lost a few seconds each day--hardly worth mentioning--but as our rotation around the sun gains distance we see the sun less and less until we're losing nearly six minutes each day.

I'm already starting to notice it, it used to be that I could stay up all night and still see the flower beds out front and I rarely turned on our lights--we didn't need to--but today the sun rose at 5:59 am and will set at 10:08 pm, a difference of 5 minutes and 30 seconds from yesterday. By this same time next week we'll be down by nearly 40 more minutes of precious light and still gaining speed.

Some places get to hear about tropical storm warnings on the evening news, some hear about traffic jams, we listen for light. When Andrew and I lived in North Dakota we got a kick out of how every newscast included the price of the popular wheat strains (I had no idea there were so many) but here the daylight is our big commodity and everyone wants to know exactly where our daily accounts stand.

By the time the solstice hits it feels as if it's dark all day long, especially if you have a run of cloudy days which are common that time of year. Most of December and January if I'm driving even at high noon I'll keep my headlights on--not that it's midnight-black but it's always rather dusky and dark. The kind of weather that would be described in a screenplay as "brooding" and "oppressive."

The distances here can make you feel isolated as it is, there are 700 miles of Alaska in nearly any direction and most of that land is uninhabited--at least by creatures that aren't interested in eating me--but if the feeling of being cut off from the rest of the world in a frozen wilderness doesn't get you the solitude the darkness brings makes it even worse. It's cold outside so people aren't out as much, they make quick dashes from their cars to the office and you won't see neighbors outside chatting at the mailboxes. In the winter we can go weeks without seeing our neighbors, whom we pretty much expect are either trying to keep warm or are off on a beach in Hawaii, and the plows pile the snow berms higher and higher along the curbs until streets look like paths through a maze and your view into the neighbor's yard starts to disappear inch by inch.

But I can live with this, for me the worst part of winter is the little bit of worry I get when the real cold sets in that if there were a natural disaster--earthquakes being the main concern--or an economic crisis where the shipping lines to Anchorage were suddenly interrupted we'd be on our own. If there were a disaster where we couldn't use the gas to heat our house (something we need six months out of the year easily) we could freeze to death.

This might sound paranoid but it's probably the mom in me. Andrew makes frequent trips all year long up to Barrow, the northernmost point in North America, and every time he goes up there in winter I have this little tiny worry that if something happens--however slight the chances--that he'd be stranded on the outermost limits of the world in one of the harshest climates on earth.

A couple years ago one of the many Alaskan villages--I think it was unlucky Kivalina--was struck by a winter storm and the whole town lost power. I remember watching the news and sharing the panic that went out about how to get help to the village which was only accessible by air and with the storm raging the planes couldn't land. They were without heat in temperatures 20 and 30 degrees below zero.

Eventually rescue planes made it in and everyone was safe but the idea of being stuck like that--especially with my children--scares me if I ever care to dwell on it. I don't. The best I can do is keep an emergency supply of food, fuel and emergency gear on hand and pray that disasters wait until spring.

Living here it can be easy to find the negative in the situation, in winter when you go to school or work it's easy to miss the few hours of daylight we might get but the key to survival is using what you've been given. There may only be three or four hours of dusky light but those are the hours I use to go outside and get my errands run or to shovel the driveway--anything to soak up some rather weak rays.

I also like to look at it as a time to hibernate from the favorite things that take up time in the summer--gardening, mowing, washing the cars--so I can find the hours I need to write or read or try that new apple pie recipe. There's not much of a temptation to run outside and slack off on my chores when the windows are frozen shut and the moon is still out. Besides, luckily we live at a time when we don't have to do everything by candlelight so I can light up every light bulb in the house if I want and drive the gloom away.

But the biggest payoff is the Northern Lights.

Starting in about October the aurora start to become visible again. They're strongest around March 5th and if you happen to be awake on a clear night (which is always a cold night) you might get a show.

Rippling across the sky as if someone's shaking out a quilt, they run along in greens, purples, reds and blues and if you get really lucky--if the solar winds are extra strong--you might even get to hear them crackle and pop.

They writhed like a brood of angry snakes,
hissing and sulphus pale.
They rolled around with soundless sounds
like softly bruised silk.

-Robert Service, "Ballad of the Northern Lights"
You see them best when you're away from the lights of the city but there have been times when I've stood in the driveway with the porch lights shining down and stared at the colors twisting above my head as if someone's trying to make up for all that darkness and isolation we've had to endure.

And you know what? It kind of does.

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66 comments:

JanMary said...

Beautifully written.

I dream of some day visiting and seeing the Northern Lights myself.

I too miss the daylight in winter, and hated when I worked full time and left home the dark and returned home in the dark.

I think I would be "freaked out" by being so isolated, however days/weeks/months can go by without me chatting to my neighbours in the winter too - even though we live in a built up area! I do socialise (honest - I am not a hermit), but just not so much with my physically close neighbours. However we would all be there for eachother in a crisis or emergency, and knowing I can call on them is a comfort!

Blog O' Beth said...

Seeing the Northern Lights is on my "top ten things to do before I die" - You make it sound as beautiful as I imagine. Some day the whole family will make the trek up to Alaska.

Living in Dallas we have the opposite problem. The constant sunshine in summer can make you go a bit crazy too. The never-ending heat just beating down on you all the time and never a cloud in sight can feel like torture. You can't leave your house because the heat is dangerous and the last thing you want is for the A/C to go out. August is the worst. 100+ degree temperatures - EVERY DAY - and we're all just praying for October to come.

Beth (A Mom's Life) said...

What a beautiful post!

I've often wondered how it would be to live where it is dark for a large portion of the day. I am not sure if I could handle it. I tend to get depressed if I don't have a lot of light.

It sounds like you know how to make the best out of it and use your dark days to get things accomplished!

chelle said...

What a glimpse into your world. I saw the northern lights once and it took my breath away.

Summer said...

I really don't know how you stand it. Winter is bleak enough for me and it's very mild where I'm at.

I've always wanted to see the Northern Lights.

Christie O. said...

I always wonder what life is really like in places like Alaska, where the sun goes away for so long. Thank you for this!!

Doll Clothes Gal said...

Fab post - the extremes in Alaska must be amazing. I used to live in Aberdeen Scotland and once saw the "Northern Lights" which lit the sky there - but that is nowhere near as North as you are.

Anonymous said...

Loved this post. Wonderfully descriptive! Would love to visit Alaska.

Laurie

TJ said...

darkness is one thing i'm afraid of if the army ever sends us to alaska. i'm a so cal girl, and the sun and i are incredibly good friends. i start to shut down when i don't see the sun. i honestly don't know how people in alaska do it.

Daisy said...

We get the Northern Lights so rarely here, and they're limited because we're so far "south." I think I'd like Alaska.

lifemoreabundant said...

Oh I remember the Northern Lights! People here have asked me to describe them, and I just can't. It's a mesmerizing show unlike anything in the world.

Cagey said...

I just love these posts.

My husband really wants to move to CA, where the weather is fairly consistent and lacks the bitter winters we have here in Kansas. Me? I would miss the bitter winters because they make me appreciate spring and fall. I NEED four seasons. Or, maybe just three. I really do not hot, humid summers.

Sidenote: My sister lived in Hawaii for over 2 years and really ended up hating the constant weather and the lack of seasons.

Kelly @ Love Well said...

Our daylight is disappearing too. I'm trying to ignore it.

My Dad, who has seasonal affect disorder, started to focus on the light in July. "Winter is coming. It's just around the corner," he'd sigh. Being a teenager who had nothing better to do than bask in the sun at the beach every day, I'd always roll my eyes and say, "Whatever Dad!" (It was the 80s, after all.)

But now, even though I don't have SAD, I know what he means. It's a harbinger.

The Source said...

Wow...that was an amazing post. It seems so foreign and different from our mild winters and boiling summers down here that you may as well ne writing about another planet. Every summer I sit on the beach at dusk and try to imagine what it must be like to have some sort of light all night. But 30 below zero and darkness all day long are beyond my comprehension. I have to convince the hubby to make a trip up there one day!

Robin said...

I think I must have a tendency towards SAD, because even the thought of an impending (mild) Israeli winter and with it the longer darkness sends me towards an emotional abyss. I can't bear the thought of an Alaskan winter. I'd risk it for a week or so though to see the Northern Lights - now that would be something to see.

And you know if you ever get tired of Hawaii (god I crack myself up) you're always welcome in Tel Aviv :). I can't imagine our winters would throw you hardy Alaskans for a loop, when on a nice sunny day you can still have lunch outdoors.

SuburbanCorrespondent said...

I always wonder how people "end up" in Alaska. Have you always lived there? What does your husband do? I get depressed around here in the 2 or 3 months we don't see much of our neighbors because of the weather. I couldn't imagine being up there.

On the other hand, I guess winter would be great for knitting and blogging.

Minda said...

This was simply beautiful.

tjhirst said...

Where in North Dakota?

My husband routinely goes to Bismark on business. And when you are driving across that kind of country it is hard to not to feel the isolation you describe. But even here in central Minnesota, isolation is real and can get depressing in January. One of the pluses of blogging is the connections I make beyond me.

Your thoughts prompt me to appreciate the summer sun, now, but also look forward to the quiet pondering time that the winter months provide. I can feel that in your reflective perspective.

Kirby3131 said...

I moved from Michigan to Florida - in Michigan there is so much more daylight in the summers - several hours more light...I miss that. In Michigan the winter nights were incredible when the moon was out and the sky was light due to the reflection of the moonlight on the snow. We don't get that in Florida!

I can barely walk in the cold, so no more winter for me, but the difference in light is different parts of the world are just fascinating.

Maya said...

I almost made it up the Alaska once (forest meditation retreat), but then I learned about the Mosquitoes..., now I'm thinking to maybe come visit in fall or even winter and see the beautiful Northern Lights.

jubilee said...

Very poignant. Makes me want to run right out in our overcast 67 degree weather and revel in it instead of hibernating like I've been doing.

Munchkins and Music said...

That picture is beautiful, but something I am not looking forward to! It is really hard to live in Alaska when it is dark like that. But as long as I keep myself busy, it is easier to handle.

karen said...

I have always wanted to see the Northern Lights. Here in the Northeast, we get frigid temp days of darkness (although not, I'm sure, as severe as yours) but we don't have the Aurora to compensate!

Lissete said...

I have a visit to Alaska to see the Northern Lights on my bucket list. Just a visit. I would never be able to live there. I need daylight or I get moody. Plus I can't stand the cold! :)

Cuddle Cottage said...

What a different world yours is to mine! I'm sick of summer and its 100 plus degree weather! And oh, this makes me want to visit Alaska! I've always wanted to see the Northern Lights, it sounds magical.

chickadee said...

great post and those are some of the exact things i wondered about when i was there. how did people actually cope living in such a frigid, isolated place? i don't think i would like it at all. i'm so cold natured. though the northern lights are something i would love to see.

Heather said...

You know, I don't think the Northern Lights would be enough for me. Even in MN, winter gets so long and the lack of sunlight starts to make me crazy.

If my family didn't live here I'm not sure I'd be here.

reprehriestless warillever said...

Beautifully written account of an obviously beautiful environment.

Maddy said...

A delightful read. I love how so many of your 'local' place names, appear originate from my old home place.

Yeah for the positive and away with the negative.

Afterall I'm sure all those uninhabited are really uninhibited.
Cheers

Bobbie in AK said...

I am counting down the days, stocking the pantry, and getting my vehicle ready to go. Old man winter will be here before we know it. Enjoy the last bit of "summer" we have left and the light too.

The Dunns said...

Wonderful, descriptive post of our extremes. My anticipation of winter here always seems to be worse that the actual winter is. Fairbanks is never more beautiful than in winter, with the Alaska Range rising above us in the south, the frost-kissed trees, and the ice fog blanketing the ground.

The Dunns said...

Wonderful, descriptive post of our extremes. My anticipation of winter here always seems to be worse that the actual winter is. Fairbanks is never more beautiful than in winter, with the Alaska Range rising above us in the south, the frost-kissed trees, and the ice fog blanketing the ground.

Andrea said...

THis was a BEAUTIFUL post-thanks for sharing it.

Janet said...

I would love 16 hours of daylight in summer, but I could never adapt to less than 4 in winter. I do understand about the power outage though. If we lose power we also have no water. We have a wood stove though, and of course it's rarely below zero here.

Your description of the Northern Lights is lovely.

I finally made Aunt Nancy's Asian Chicken salad for lunch today. TOO scrumptious. I'm going to try to adapt it using tofu for the vegetarian Mountain Man.

ames said...

Even in Pennsylvania we have so little daylight in the winter that I'm going to work in the dark and leaving work in the dark. I consider it time for nesting, for cozying up on the couch with knitting, hot cocoa and lots of cheesy, carb loaded foods, and just being with people and recuperating from the crazy year.

I've never seen the northern lights, though I've heard sometimes you can catch a glimpse of them when flying to Seattle. They sound magical!

MiaKatia said...

I have been jealous of all your beautiful Alaska posts all year long. But this is the one where I know I probably couldn't live there. I am sort of afraid of the really dark days, not of darkness itself but of the dark when it should be light days. Although I believe you when you say that the aurora makes up for the darkness and the isolation. Lovely post!

Killlashandra said...

I think it's neat that every area has some kind of climate or agricultural related theme that runs through the changes of the year that people focus on. Here it is rain. Given we've had the most humid summer I've experienced in my 6 years of living here, I hear a lot about it.

Your post is wonderful, and daylight would certainly be on min mind too. Although I would be looking forward to the Northern Lights too. I've never seen them except in pictures. I did visit Alaska in June on a final family vacation and enjoyed the sun all day and night long though. :)

laughingatchaos said...

As fascinating as Alaska is, I couldn't make it through a winter there. The SAD would do me in about January 5th.
That said, I'd love to visit at a time when I could see the Northern Lights. How mesmerizing they must be!

merideth said...

holy cow; now I'M in a panic! buy a generator, please. i can't stand the worry!

also love your beautiful descriptions of alaska.

Damselfly said...

The idea of freezing to death just stops me in my tracks! I can't imagine! The coldest it gets where I live is maybe 42 degrees. No beautiful northern lights here, though -- just light pollution!

chantal said...

I am completely fascinated by the whole daylight/no daylight thing. I am from canada,where the sun comes up at 9 am and starts going down at 430 pm in the winter..so much different than where i am now (NC).I miss the northern lights. Still, Alaska still fasinates me!!

Beck said...

It doesn't seem to me like an extreme sort of worry at ALL. It gets COLD here in the winter and last year there was a terrible storm and the highway was closed and then the power went out and they couldn't get here to get the power back on and we couldn't keep our house warm enough. It was TERRIFYING.
So we're installing a woodstove, which is going to send our insurance soaring through the roof. BUT WE WON'T FREEZE TO DEATH...

Amber said...

Kind of gives me a new perspective on life in Alaska. But as a wise blogger once told me:

"Why would you want to visit Alaska? People DIE in our mountains here."

:-)

~TAMY 3 Sides of Crazy~ said...

You sound so much like me Michelle. I have the same worries here in the U.P. where the winter temps, winds and storms off Lake Superior can change at the drop of a hat. I keep that emergency supply of food, flashlights, batteries, water and stuff too. Plus I have 3 steamer trunks downstairs loaded with quilts and blankets for those nights the power goes out and we find ourselves sleeping n front of the fireplace. And you're right the winter evening skies are the most awesome to be found in my opinion.

Evie said...

My favorite thing about winter is that it seems like everyone has more time to get together with good friends on a Friday night for a good game of Apples to Apples while eating pizza from the Mooses Tooth. It might be cold outside but the company of good friends always warms my heart.

all over the map said...

I've been lucky enough to see the Northern Lights as I use to come to Anchorage somewhat frequently for international long haul as a flight attendant. I've also had a glorious view from the cockpit. Amazing.
I've also stayed a t a "dumpy" hotel/motel called Northern Lights when our usual place was all booked up. The Millenium. :)
I guess the extremely long days of your short summer make up for the short days of winter?

Joy said...

I love how you ended the post---with hope and a new understanding and point of view. Very beautiful!!!

I would also worry about the things you worry about if I lived there. When I cross over bridges I wonder, "If this were to collapse, how could I get us all out of the car?" So... needless to say I don't cross many bridges.

detroit dog said...

I remember seeing the northern lights on the horizon close to 40 years ago, here in metro Detroit. We saw them several times that summer, all us kids standing there looking up at the sky and the colors. Oh, how I miss them. But the memory is good.

marmiteandtea said...

How wonderful to see the Northern Lights, I would love to experience them one day.
I love the long days of summer, I kind of miss them in DC. The UK stays lighter much longer, that lovely twilight type of light.

thepipers said...

It's funny you wrote about this today. I was just thinking about how quickly the daylight is disappearing here (and we're not in such an extreme spot in MN). But I quickly tried to push it out of my mind and think to myself, "Seize the day, Molly. Stop thinking ahead to darker days and enjoy the bright ones." But it's been in my thoughts the last couple days. Incidentally, I think my husband would love the darkness of Alaska.

SabineM said...

well you know how much I LOVE Alaska...but one of the things I AM DYING to see is the Northern Lights...
I have an open invitation to go stay at my friends in Denali....(mile 49--if I remember correctly)... I need to take them up on it! Are there times in the year when it is more current? I obviously cannot leave my family for three months to wait for Northern Lights!

Watch Beijing 2008 Olympics Online said...

this post is great. what a beautiful one

Leslie said...

Incredible post.

Mariah said...

Beautiful post. Thanks for a glimpse into something a lot of us have no idea about. I'm with blog o' beth. Seeing the Northern Lights is on my (mental) list of "Things To Do Before I Die." I imagine pictures don't even begin to do justice. Maybe one day...

that girl said...

Your writing is beautiful. It's really unbelievable how much we define our time by the how much light or darkness we have. I know how much energy I have because of the daylight - I could never image living in total darkness for such a long time. It must be such an enlightening experience.

CountessLaurie said...

Being commenter #56, what can I say that hasn't already been said. This post was amazing. I read it twice! I have seen the northern lights here in massachusestts once, but I am sure they are nothing compared to where you are. There is always something good to be found. Thank you so much for sharing!

Jennifer said...

It is so interesting that so many people have "seeing the Northern lights" on the top of their must do list.

One morning when I was a teenager my mom ran out of the house early in the morning where we lived in Seattle to try to catch us on our way down the road and she said she saw just a little of them and I was very envious.

Polina said...

Northern lights are beautiful, my friend has seen them and brought me a couple of photographs... it looks like something out of this world, something absolutely unreal... I would pay with having a short day for ability so see such a beauty...

J at www.jellyjules.com said...

I remember one winter, out at the homestead in Fairbanks, no phone, no running water...I was 5, my brother was 7, and our mom had a BAD reaction to her thyroid medication that made it impossible for her to get out of bed. My brother kept us warm by bringing coal in from outside. A 7 year old cannot carry much coal, so he made a LOT of trips back and forth. And if we had run out before my mom got better, yeah, we would have frozen to death.

I'll never live without a phone again.

feefifoto said...

This is a fascinating post, beautifully written. I'd assumed the amount of daylight lost every day after the summer solstice would be constant, not increasing. I saw a bit of the white nights a few years ago on an Alaskan cruise but I'd really like to experience the darkness too -- at least in theory. in practice I imagine it would get to me before long.

AlaneM said...

I don't know if I could do the darkness thing. I'd like to experience it & see the northern lights but my depression would not do well over the long term. I applaud you hearty Alaskans who endure it...but I'll bet it makes the summer sweeter!

Julie said...

I so envy you for getting to see the lights. I don't think pictures do them justice.

Julie
blahblahmamablacksheep.blogspot.com

PJ said...

Love your description of life in Alaska...I'm guessing you're not native to Alaska?? I would not like those dark winter days. Even here in Chicago, by December I go to work in the dark and come home in the dark. I don't like it. But the Northern Lights??? I've always wanted to see the full blown effect. We can see a tiny bit every few years, but it's nothing compared to being in Alaska for the Northern Lights!!! Yep. That would make my Bucket List!

Expat Mom said...

Ok, I`m officially glad I live so close to the equator that we barely have any variations in our daylight hours. But I`m originally from Canada and we lived far enough North that I got to see the Northern Lights and they really are incredible. I bet they`re even better where you are, though!

Lisa said...

I love reading your posts about Alaska. There are things I relate to after living in Erie and braving the long gray cold winters. And then there are things that just are so interesting to me-the dark and the light. We just returned from Alaska and I will soon get my thoughts together with some pictures to show what we saw and what we did. I was a little disappointed that it wasn't light out all the time, but we were still a little south and maybe (after reading this) a few months late to experience the full effects. I was also so sad that I never once saw a moose, but I guess that is expected since we really weren't inland.

And finally, we were in Hoonah, and we heard that last year they had a horrible winter with 27 FEET of snow. Not inches-FEET. Juneau had an avalanch that knocked out their electricity and that also knocked it out to Hoonah. Within weeks Juneau was all repaired, but Hoonah has had to switch to diesel and it is extremely expensive. Anyway, I thought about that after reading your post. I'm sure there could be all kinds of winter related problems. I can understand your worry.

Battery Chargers said...

It sounds like you know how to make the best out of it and use your dark days to get things accomplished.what a glimpse into some our world.