Wednesday, December 3, 2008

winter grey, summer green

An overcast arctic winter day is a study in a hundred thousand shades of gray. Most everyone drives with headlights on, as it's not much lighter outside the buildings in daylight than it is inside. (Even the camera wants to take a midday picture with flash). Somewhere beyond the clouds the sun comes up in the south, reaches the apogee of its arc less than a handspan above the horizon, and sinks down a few hours after it first showed: each day, we're still losing 5-8 minutes of daylight more.

Between the layers of clouds, recent snow, sanded snow, old snow with a layer of windborn sand and glacial silt, and freshly disturbed snow, a thousand shades of grey show - and the windsock swinging gently in the breeze seems almost unreal, almost glows with its safety orange brilliance. Staring at it as I drive by, it is too colorful - seems almost like a photoshopped object, misplaced bright splash of color on the right of the road. On the left, the stars and stripes glows red and blue as it ripples in the wind above the POW-MIA flag similarly cut from another world where colors exists, too vivid to be real.

I remember summer like a fever dream now, when these mountains are green...

Flying a PA-12 with tundra tires and flaps, supercub landing gear and every spare ounce stripped, we made our way through mountains with no roads out. We'd followed the right fork of the glacier up the valley it had carved out of the mountain, and past its gleaming blue-white swaths found the small U-shaped bowl in the mountains mostly free of snow. It was the height of summer in the arctic, and the sun rarely set - but it was low enough that it was on the other side of the mountain, making the world seem a rare dim twilight below blue-white skies.
We came around a massive rock, past a chunk of glacier not yet melted, stranded, and found the faint lighter strip of earth ahead, beside a winding creek fed by hanging waterfalls tumbling hundreds of feet down sheer drops to the valley floor. It seemed like a mere scratch in the earth from our height, as though a bear had raked a paw there - but that slightly crooked bare patch of earth was where we needed to land. A slight nudge of the throttle lever pulled back the power as we glided down low, swooping over it to take a look at the bare earth. It was rutted with tracks where prior planes had landed when it was muddy, but it was light, the color of dry dirt now. All around, low scrub willow and dwarf fireweed grew, flourishing in the short, intense arctic growing season above the treeline and setting swaths of pink-purple against a hundred shades of green.
The creek was a light blue-gray of glacial silt, a jewel set in wide green swaths of reeds, and we scanned for smaller, still pools or ripples in the reeds that might show the direction of the wind. Finally, one showed the light breeze was headed down the valley by a wide band of clear, calm water toward the up-valley side, and a patch of wind-stirred water to the down-valley side. In the absence of movement by the larger air mass, the cool air on the snow-capped mountains was sinking and tumbling down, like the meltwater from those snowcaps, gathering and spilling down to rush out as a strong breeze above the new-born river at the base of the glacier.
Coming back around, we paced the plane as though the scratch in the earth were a normal, if smaller-scale, version of a runway (at least three hundred feet if it was an inch - lots of room, but crooked, narrow). Pre-landing checks, going very slow but engine set up to growl and claw out of there if it wasn't going well, we came down with a flaps out and nose high like an eagle scooping air to nearly hover before landing. Only here, we straightened out and bled off a little more speed to gently touch her mains down, then drop the tail solidly and controlled, and roll to the end of the strip. It was rougher than I'd expected, with the ruts, and we had to add power to make it to the widest spot near the end. Only then did we apply brakes and lift the tail up and around by the force of the wind coming off the propeller alone, so she was parked off to the side. Whenwe left, we'd taxi down the strip, shut down and drag her tail back in the weeds for maximum distance.
Shutting down, we climbed out, and listened, looking around. The waterfalls made a distant background rushing noise, and the breeze blew gently in our ears, tugging our jackets and hair. A few birds chirped somewhere, unseen in the low willow scrub, and on the creekbank were the tracks from a single pair of moose. Otherwise, it was completely silent. If not for the friend next to me, I would be the only human in miles. If not for the ruts under our feet, our plane could have been the only sign of humanity had ever set foot here.


  1. I guess you Alaskans pay for that summertime beauty with the long winters.

  2. "take only pictures, leave just a landing scratch?" :)

  3. I love gray days, so maybe- with the right person to show some with- it wouldn't be bad. Me and my .35 Whelens have an appointment in Alaska one day.

  4. Now is the time to explain a little more about myself, I think, for the people who don't know me. I'm a light-dependent creature, despite long association with geeks coding in dark rooms and a long history of lan parties and dancing all night, gothed out.

    If you google seasonal affective disorder, you'll get a lot of information, some true. It works like this: I'm almost manic-depressive, on a one-year cycle, and the depth of the depression or amount of manic energy is directly tied to my amount of exposure to sunlight. There are ways to mitigate it, and I do my best, but I remain very sensitive to feeling lost and lonely without the light.

    In the summer, grey days are wonderful, calm, mellow days, great for getting out and exploring. But in the winter, when sunlight is a rare and precious commodity, a week without sunshine is hard on me. Thus my memories are filled with sunshine - because there's a feeling of joy so strong it's almost impossible to contain when I'm flying into Birchwood, and the clouds part long enough to let a slanting patch of sunlight shine directly down, blinding bright and turning a grey world into gold-tinted and full of rainbow shard sparkling off ice and snow.

    When visiting Georgia, I found that the people there had so much heat and light they were completely unaware of their embarrassment of riches, and despised the wealth they had. I do not love the winters here, but I love the land, the culture, the freedom and opportunity to much to leave.