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Aurora on my mind

April 15, 2012

The following meditation was written by a friend of mine who made the opposite of the usual Alaskan “snowbird” trek: flying up north in the winter only to fly south again in the summer! I was so intrigued by this unusual turn of events, I asked her to say something about her reasons for going north and what she thought of north once she got there.

If you would like to read more about Robin, Leslie and Ziggy’s adventures in the north, check out their blog!

Spring Melancholy
by Robin McDuff

I have spent very little time around snow. I’ve always lived in essentially snowless areas and I have rarely vacationed to snowy areas. This has been by choice, of course. I crave warmth and have not been attracted to those areas likely to snow nor to the things, like skiing, that one does in the snow.

One exception to that was a trip we—my partner Leslie and I—took to Alaska in March of 2000. We wanted to see the aurora borealis, and there is no escaping the need to go to an area of snow and cold for that. So we headed to Fairbanks, Alaska, and ended up rather enchanted with the place. The aurora was spectacular, but so too were the ice sculptures and the dog mushing. And the people we met were extremely warm and welcoming. It was so completely different than anything we had ever experienced and, beyond being too cold sometimes due to inadequate footwear, we loved the place and vowed to return.

Our plan was to stay long enough to experience the change from winter to summer. We were interested in watching the march of the sun, gobbling up six or seven minutes of darkness most days. That said, we didn’t want the full-on winter encounter of limited sunlight and the intense sub-zero cold for many months. But we wanted enough winter, enough cold, to feel that we understood the Alaskan experience better than the normal aurora-seeking tourist. We decided to come in late February, a time when sub-zero temperatures are still frequent but on the wane, and to leave in mid-June, when it is warm and the sun only leaves the sky for 3 ½ hours a day and there is never dark.

Now, I despise feeling cold (as does Leslie.) We own a second home in Hilo, Hawaii—record low: 53 degrees F—so we can escape the winter cold of Santa Cruz, where the very lows tend to be in the high 20s. So most of our friends thought we were nuts to come to Fairbanks in the winter. But we learned from our last trip here that feeling cold is very different than the temperature being cold. As the saying goes, there is no bad weather, just bad clothing. This time, I got the right shoes for the cold. And truly—though I have been out in -10F temps—I have yet to feel any bone-chilling cold here.

Photo:  properly clothed for the weather (all photos by Leslie Karst)

Beyond having good clothing, two Fairbanks facts make a huge difference: there is very little wind and it is very dry. The truth is that I often feel way colder walking on West Cliff Drive in Santa Cruz, when the chill wind is coming off the ocean, than I have ever felt here. (My take-away: improve my clothing in Santa Cruz!)

We arrived in Fairbanks on February 22nd to fairly warm—for Alaska in that month—temperatures. This February ended up being one of the warmest on record, averaging 5.9 degrees. March, unlike the norm, did not warm up as it normally does but was uncharacteristically colder than February, averaging 4.5 degrees. Moderating the temperature for us was the fact that, by a fortuitous accident of planning, we had traded for a house up in the hills north of Fairbanks, an area that is usually many degrees warmer in the winter than the city below. This difference is due to a vertical escape from the nasty inversion layer that hangs in the valley in which Fairbanks sits.

The dominant sight from our home was—and is still, in every direction—snow and trees, mostly birch. It is lovely, of course. It looks so bright and clean. But monotonous, too.

Photo: the view from our downstairs window

Leslie and I opined that stunning as the view is, it would become oppressive to have the same view for the seven months of the Alaskan winter. We love looking out the window, but we both felt it would be nice when spring came to reveal a different look.

Nonetheless while it was here, I was learning to love this snow.  It is light and airy and dry.  You can’t make a snowball out of it in the winter but shoveling it is a snap. If you step into a big drift or fall down, you simply brush it off and no water remains.

I soon found out there were real advantages to living in a snow-covered environment. Snow not only looks clean, it is clean. Our dog Ziggy could romp in the snow or dig to her heart’s content and come back in without us having to grab a towel and clean off mud, as is the norm in a Santa Cruz.

Photo: Ziggy in motion

Night-time is bright. Even moonless nights are never truly dark because of the white on the ground. Driving at night in the snow is much easier than driving on black pavement in the dark. In fact, now that much of the snow has thawed on the roadways, it has revealed rather bumpy roads underneath. I found that driving in the snow was actually quite pleasant.


Because for months the temperature doesn’t get high enough to melt the snow, there was very little ice except for here and there on major roadways. So the snow is easy to walk on, and has a lovely crunchy sound.



Photo: from the front yard with houselights illuminating the snow, me and Ziggy


I thought that the first signs of spring would make me very happy, but I was surprised to find out that I was, in fact, experiencing melancholy. While I do like that temperatures are now in the 40s and 50s, I am distraught that this means the snow will go away. No more Ziggy running through the snow course I created for her? No more snow crunching under my feet? No more stretches of pristine clean, interrupted only by the occasional animal track?

I now realize that the sun, which will stay up in the sky for longer and longer, will actually be seen less here at the house as the greening of the birch trees will soon block our rays, and our view through the forest. There will be no more shadows of the birch trees on the snow, which will instead be replaced by a sea of leaves enclosing us.

I want the sun as it is now, which can be seen most of the day from our home. The 40s and 50s are warm enough for me. Let time stand still, right now. I can easily deal with the monotony of the snow as long as I have the warmth of the sun. Who needs variety?

Photo: moose tracks through the snow

Ah well, it is but a dream. Time marches on. In just a few weeks, if the weather continues as it is, there will be no snow left. But I will need to return to Fairbanks before the snowmelt another year. It’s just wonderful.

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