While others celebrate the end of summer, in the Arctic we experience the beginning of winter with below freezing temperatures and 24 hours of steady snowfall.
After a wet summer there were a few gorgeous fall days, a rich blueberry harvest, and a few memorable wildlife encounters. Without much warning winter did return and threw his white blanket on the landscape.
There is no question in my mind that this harsh and beautiful place deserves our appreciation and protection.
“You won’t save what you don’t love and you can’t love what you don’t know.”
Like yesteryear, the world is divided. Hurricanes batter the coast, wildfires torch the land. We have a pandemic, although this time we have vaccines that could prevent much hardship. We have believers and deniers…
Summer is on his way out in the Arctic. The mosquitoes are gone. We had a blockbuster blueberry crop, tundra colors a peaking. Cloudy skies, termination dust, hunting season…
“At some point, you will hit a plateau. If you keep doing same things you did to get to that point, make a change.”
In the spirit of pandemic isolation I moved from a comfy city apartment to an off-grid cabin in the woods. Was it cold? Glad you ask. The thermometer I trusted most showed negative 42.5 Celsius, there were others that showed even lower numbers, but give or take a few degrees below -40 degrees Celsius or Fahrenheit, that’s cold!
The first indication of this frigid situation were shiny crystals covering all surfaces of the interior. They were inside the cabinets, on the walls, just about everywhere.
Then there were the door nobs. Turning a door knob with bare hands caused some instant burning sensation. Same thing with the house key. One of the cabins has an outside key lock. You punch in a number and then remove the key to open the door. My skin turned instantly white where I had touched the metal box, the key pad and the key. I did that only once with my bare hands.
When I took of my boots, a cloud of hot air rose from my feet, as if they were on fire. It was just warm humidity hitting the biting cold air.
The last memorable impression was the mattress. Frozen solid. Sleep number 1000. It was hard as rock. I slept the first night in with three layers of winter gear until the cabin had warmed up. There are still some corners low on the ground where I could see ice crystals. I use those corners as my indoor fridge.
“Take long walks in stormy weather or through deep snows in the fields and woods, if you would keep your spirits up. Deal with brute nature. Be cold and hungry and weary.”
Henry David Thoreau
Now, a day later its nice and cozy, grace to a propane furnace. Hope that thing will keep me warm for the rest of winter. That furnace, insulated walls and an arctic entry way, are the only thing separating me from the bitter cold.
I hope there will be more dispatches from the cold with more agreeable temperatures, though.
This is the Chandalar Shelf, birth place of the North fork of the Chandalar, formerly known as the Chandalar River. Early traders had named the river after a native tribe that hunted in the area: “Gens de Large” which, when written in English mutated into Chandalar. “Gens de Large” referred to “people of the open country”, “people who dwell far from the water” or simply “strong people” in reference to their strenuous life on the barren land. They were distinguished by their trade with the Kangmaligmut and by the manufacture of strong babiche, a type of cord or lacing of rawhide or sinew.
Chandalar Shelf is also a place where thousands of caribou spent the winter. Wind blown, the valley allows caribou to find food below the thin layer of snow. Apparently they can handle the cold alright, as long as there is a sufficient food supply.
First light in the Arctic. It’s already noon when the sun brushes the mountain tops. The valleys remain in the shade where frost keeps accumulating on the occasional shrub. Not before long the sun will dip below horizon. Twilight for a few more hours. Then darkness, except for the sparkling stars. That’s the rhythm of winter.
“Besides, I’ve been feeling a little blue — just a pale, elusive azure. It isn’t serious enough for anything darker.”
I am amazed how folks have found ways during this pandemic to further their passions. I have enjoyed remote music sessions shared through the internet. In that spirit I reworked some earlier images, which I am sharing in the coming days.
“I wonder if the snow loves the trees and fields, that it kisses them so gently? And then it covers them up snug, you know, with a white quilt; and perhaps it says, “Go to sleep, darlings, till the summer comes again.”
Standing at the edge of the boreal forest. A group of spruce and poplars lined up covered thickly with frost and snow. Waiting for the sun to return.
This is the strangest life
I have ever known.
That’s how I feel these days. After a year of hiding behind a mask, being trapped inside it is time for life to return. Life as we know it, only better. There are silver linings on the horizon, light at the end of the tunnel. But it’s not quite there, yet.
Some of us haven’t heard that sentence in a while. State, county, or city mandates had prohibited indoor service at restaurants at times during the pandemic.
I consider not being able to dine in a minor inconvenience. Others view this is an unconstitutional deprivation of their human rights. Thus, the pandemic has deepened the rift in our society. How do you live with these absurdities of our times?
Here is some advice from Albert Camus, who received the Nobel Prize in Literature at the age of 44.
Accepting the absurdity of everything around us is one step, a necessary experience:
In the United States we have currently about 100,000 new daily cases of people infected with the Corona virus. That’s more than one new case every second. More than one new case every second!
1000 humans in the US die of Covid-19 every day.
Currently there is no approved vaccine nor therapy.
Those are the facts.
No wonder, that’s why we hear and read about Covid-19 every day, Mr. President.
“Unless someone like you
cares a whole awful lot,
nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”
What better way to escape this current madness than a walk in the woods? Away from TV screens. No way of checking the news. Reconnect with nature, as they say? Is that the appeal of a walk in the park?
I did not run into a bear. I did not get lost. I set no records.
Nothing happened that would make the news.
How can I write about nothing?
Let’s see. I had spent the night at a National Forest campground. After a frosty clear night I shouldered my backpack and set out for a 12 mile walk. My destination was the Upper Russian Lake in the Chugach National Forest. This time of the year I did not expect many visitors. It was the middle of the week. The tourist season that never took off this year was certainly over by now. Nevertheless, there were a few cars in the parking lot, maybe fishermen or day hikers?
The trail started out as a gravel path, wide enough for a maintenance vehicle, hence the tire tracks. There was a sign, where I could register. Nobody had signed in the last two days. Most people that had signed went 2 miles to the falls or the Lower Lake and returned the same day.
The trail stayed mostly on the the East side of the river. On occasion there were bridges, wooden signs, and benches. The slope was gentle. After 30 min of walking I started to warm up, although I kept the mittens and the hat. Walking was care-free.
Initially, the trail passed through dense stands of tall poplar trees that had mostly shed their leaves for the year. Occasionally there would be an opening with tall, dry grass allowing a view of the surrounding scenery.
That’s when I saw the moose. A male adult. At least 500 yards away and below me. I looked for the closest trees. Oh good. There were trees that I could reach if the moose decided to come uphill. Nevertheless he barley swung his head towards me and kept munging at the willows. That’s how I like it. I kept a low profile and continued my journey.
I wasn’t sure if the bears had already started to go into hibernation. Late October, temps below freezing, termination dust in the mountains. Those should all be indicators that it’s time to find shelter. Nevertheless, I carried bear spray. I did talk, sing, and whistle. How surprised was I when I walked into a young man coming down the trail, reporting that he had seen 4 or 5 brown bears on the river. More talking, singing, and whistling.
Later in the afternoon the sun started to liquefy the frost on the dried vegetation. Just so before the temperature would drop again below freezing. I had planned to arrive at the Upper Lake before sunset. No fun setting up a tent in the cold and the dark. Unless that becomes your daily routine. I am not there, yet. Haven’t camped out much this year. Anyway.
I think, I stop here writing about nothing for today.