Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Winter Sights, Scents, and Sounds in Rural Alaska

(I welcome your comments and questions through the "comments" option below any entry. --Laura)

My strongest visual impression of a rural Alaskan winter is the narrow color palate.  It is a black and white world. Deciduous birch and willow, and black and white spruce trees stand still and strong in a landscape of white snow and mountains against a thin blue sky.  Even in snowy cities and suburbs, the color range is expanded exponentially by brick and painted houses, cars in parking lots, colorful billboards and shop signage, and the colored lights of stoplights, seasonal decorations, and flashing “open” beacons.   Out in the bush, we have none of those things.  The only color, really, is our laundry.


The impact of this view is a greater awareness of shapes - the triangle of a bleached out sky outlined by bent branches, shadows cast by an icicle or a corner of the cabin, or shallow or deep animal tracks puncturing the snow.  The landscape is so still, that movement startles, as when the wind blows snow.   We can track animals more easily than in the refulgent summer: snow shoe hares tracks dive under the snow, martins tracks skitter among and up trees, river otters slide along the banks of water courses not yet frozen.  One day we came across a mass of dark blood at the base of a tree.  As detectives, we looked for predatory footprints and found none, concluding that an owl or other raptor had swooped down and impaled a hare with its sharp claws and beak before the furry fellow could dive into its warren below the tree.  The long, straight lines of diagonal trapping poles and horizontal supports of hunting stations catch our eyes as foreign objects we do not see the rest of the year, when they remain hidden in the woods.
    
At night, the stars are breathtaking, a treat I don’t see in the Alaska summer or in the ambient light of a southern city.   I haven’t seen a colorful aurora borealis yet (Fairbanks offers better viewing), but my husband has awakened me to see white ones.  They looked like some unseen hand is shaking out a lacy tablecloth across the sky.


The scents of winter are limited to wood smoke and food, and perhaps damp clothing.  Since we burn birch logs to heat the cabin, the scent of the smoke is a delicious welcome home after a hike through the woods.  Because the woodstove is so efficient, we don’t really smell the wood inside the cabin.  There, the scent is of some ubiquitous pot of stew or soup or rice and beans bubbling on top of the hot wood stove, and perhaps of damp clothes drying on a line that hangs the full length of the upstairs room, to capture the rising heat from below. 

Speaking of fires, a lot of our Alaska friends excavate a sort of topless igloo around their outdoor fire pits for delightful bonfires.   Depending how deep the snow is that year, the snow forms an effective windbreak.  When the heat of the fire and the distance to the snow wall are right, the interior melts just enough to harden an ice layer cut for benches (you sit on a sheet of cardboard).  Eventually, though, the interior snow melts back, widening the circle enough for chairs or standing. We’ve enjoyed many a wonderful party in such a setting, everyone bundled up, holding hot dog sticks over the fire with mittened hands, cups of beer and wine “coastered” in the surrounding snow.  Downing first a cold drink and then some hot food parallels inside one’s warm front and cold back outside.  If it gets too cold out there, we lumber back to the cabin, peeling off layers in the Arctic Entry to enter a cabin that seems far too warm and crowded by comparison.

See Denali and Mt. Foraker behind me?
The sounds of our winters differ, too, because it is so quiet. Since we have no roads or cars, we don’t hear (or smell) any neighbors’ cars idling until they warm up or snow blowers clearing driveways, or snowplows clearing roads or cars slipping and sliding on ice.  I’m glad! 

As a southerner who moved to Alaska, I realized that the tropical South, even the country, is never truly silent.  There is always some insect or creature scratching, gnawing, flying, mating, moving.  Because of its narrower eco-system, Alaska’s silence can be eerie, even in the summer (between migrations of various birds).  I have played a game to see if I could hold my breath until some bird or animal would break the silence.  Often I lost the round.   In the winter, we hear even less.  Just ravens, those scavenging tricksters, and magpies, both looking ungainly in their enormously fluffy winter coats.  On hikes we have startled moose that we did not see in adjacent thickets of trees.  How silent and graceful they are, even though they look like they were built by committee!  The gist of the matter is that we are the loudest things in the ecosystem.  The sounds we make as we walk depend on the condition of the snow and the appropriate footwear – a crunch of boots on crisp snow or a whoosh - click crossing powder in snow shoes, or a slam, “damn” on an icy patch between the back porch and the outhouse.   

On weekends, we hear leisure snow machiners riding through the woods past our lake to climb the nearby mountains for a winter picnic with a view or leaving the frozen river some miles away to careen through the woods and hills.  Since we are about a three hour ride from the closest towns, across lakes and rivers and bogs that are not traversable in summer, many treksters do not know that anyone lives out where we do.   Every winter, groups are startled to see us hiking, or resting somewhere, peeling an orange.  They invariably stop their machines to ask us if we are ok, or if our machines broke down somewhere and they can help.  Nice.    

I’ve commented on the sights, sounds, and smells, but of course the dominant impression is the cold. 

That took some getting used to.  The coldest I have been is -30 F, and a sharp NW wind-chill can make “warmer” temperatures feel just as inhospitable. That’s too much for me.
I have gained terrific respect for early explorers like Shackleton and Amundson who braved the Poles with wool and oiled canvas to keep them warm and dry. Thank goodness for vendors like Cabellas and REI and Lands End, that conveniently sell light weight, easy wash UnderArmour long underwear and polyester fleeces, gloves, and hats. Appropriate clothing makes a tremendous difference. In contrast to ski boots, my feet have NEVER been cold in those Ronald McDonald looking bunny boots (2 or 3 layers of rubber with air bladders in between). 

Still, with the snow blowing horizontally into my face, it can be painful to slog forward, leaning into the wind.  My eyes tear up, nose runs, cheeks sting, and ears hurt.  Each step seems to cover less ground and the boots seem heavier.  Far better to make a batch of popcorn and read a mystery snuggled under a blanket on the couch, accompanied by the sound of logs fall into red embers, the pot of melting snow hissing, and the metal stove creaking as it expands.  If the sun warms one side of the roof, interior noises are occasionally joined by a “shhhhh-thud” as a roof load of snow slides off and adds to the berm surrounding our cabin.    I’ll wish my hardy family and friends a good outing and bake them something to warm and welcome them when they return. 

The full, thick logs of our cabin offer great insulation, even with no chinking.  But the temperature varies dramatically throughout the interior.  It is warmest, of course, near the wood stove, and at the top of the stairwell.  The coldest and draftiest spot is around the front door, about 10-15 degrees cooler than the rest of the room, so that area becomes my "refrigerator" for eggs and vegetables (no refrigerator in winter).  To maintain a cozy temperature, we have learned to resist the temptation to load up the stove with wood before going to bed because, since heat rises up the center stairwell, our second floor bedroom would get so hot we would need to open a window, which just draws up the heat faster!  What a waste of hard earned wood – cut, aged, and stacked throughout the year by my husband.      

We have not yet spent the coldest, darkest winter months at our cabin.  I fear it would be too cold and claustrophobic for me.  So we fly out of state when the frozen lake and frozen water lines curtail water to the cabin, and return in early February, when we can melt snow for water we need. Thus, we enjoy a warm, if modest log cabin from which to venture out into a beautiful, clean, quiet setting. Maslow’s hierarchy of water, heat, shelter, and food are all addressed.  City gripes and interests seem remote and rather frivolous.   Now it is time to pour a cup of mint tea and punch the rising dough.  I thought some warm bread with butter and honey would be nice upon my family’s return.  Don’t you?

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(I welcome your comments and questions through the "comments" option below any entry. --Laura)
        

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