Seth Kantner and I sat by the woodstove in his Kobuk River cabin on a chilly evening this past September. Our conversation meandered as always, cameras to chainsaws to caribou, but inevitably turned to the looming winter. The signs of its coming were spread across the land: ice-edged ponds, colors fading with each frost, seven minutes less sunlight every day.
“I just don’t like winter that much anymore,” Seth blurted, then shook his head as if surprised by his own utterance. This from a guy who was born just down the hill in a sod iglu one February day 56 years before and grew up in a world where subzero and snow were as natural as sunny 85 would be to a Californian. I’d never heard him complain about the sometimes-brutal conditions we faced out in the country. Embraced was more like it. He always seemed to wear fewer layers and shrugged off cold—even went shirtless outside while I wore jacket and gloves doing camp chores.
I breathed an inward sigh of relief, as if my friend’s words offered some sort of absolution. I’m not sure I was ever fond of arctic winter—an equally strange admission, considering where I ended up spending a big chunk of my life. I’m not talking about the season as most people know it, and neither was Seth. He meant the abyss of darkness that settles over northern Alaska from roughly mid-November into early February. Never mind that winter technically runs from the third week of December through most of March, and that a blast of 30 below might come early as Halloween or late as April. No doubt, deep cold is an all-enveloping force that shapes the land and all that live here. But above all, what defines the soul of arctic winter for those who have endured it is The Darkness—capitalized.
A variety of factors including latitude, topography, and distance from the seacoast influence Alaska’s varied climate zones, from temperate rain forest to arctic desert. As for light, the farther north you go in the Great Land, the longer a given day will be in summer, and shorter in winter. The Arctic Circle, curving across the upper third of Alaska, marks the boundary where the sun doesn’t rise at least one day, nor set on another—the winter and summer solstices, respectively.
Utqiagvik (formerly known as Barrow), at Alaska’s northernmost edge, 320 miles above the Arctic Circle, tallies 80 days when the sun never sets and 67 when it doesn’t rise. Nonetheless, even on the winter solstice, a couple hours of muted, often gorgeous light are cast as the sun brushes below the horizon, an almost-dawn dwindling into a night more than 20 hours long. If waiting two-plus months before you actually glimpse the sun seems harsh, consider that the Arctic stretches for another 1,300 miles to the North Pole, and things keep getting darker, for longer, that entire distance.
Three hundred miles south of Utqiagvik, a mere 42 miles above the Arctic Circle, my longtime home village of Ambler is comparatively bathed in winter light—which isn’t saying much. We’re still talking nights 17 to nearly 20 hours long during The Darkness. On the year’s shortest day, the sun doesn’t quite clear the horizon; but you can bask in its refracted glow, four and a half hours of pale illumination, before night descends. Unlike Utqiagvik, the sun only fails to clear the horizon on the upper Kobuk for a couple of days, and the light begins to creep back much sooner—but it’s still a bleak uphill slog toward the bright, long days of March, onward to the heady ever-light of summer.
Meanwhile, temperatures between 10-and-30 below are usual, often for days—or rather, nights—on end. If the air does warm, it usually means snow, clouds, and even less light. And sometimes, the bottom falls out. The coldest I ever felt was somewhere on the far side of 60 below; my thermometer only went that far. Ambler’s coldest-ever official low? Minus 74 in 1989, just seven degrees off the all-time North American record of 81.3 below. How do you keep warm in such temperatures? Simple: you don’t. No matter how many layers of fleece, down, and fur, or how close to the woodstove you hunker, the cold permeates your space and your being.
When ultra-deep cold and The Darkness coincide, sometimes for weeks, the effect can be soul-crushing. Imagine trudging through an infinite-seeming, bitter void in what amounts to a space suit, wrapped in a cloud of frozen breath, wonked-out biological clock telling you to sleep and eat more, to expend less energy, to do less, care less. After all, homo sapiens evolved as near-naked apes wandering bright, tropical savannahs. The Inupiat and Gwich’in may have adapted over thousands of years to deal with arctic extremes, but that’s a testament to their incredible cultural vigor and ingenuity, not to the notion that we naturally belong here.
Dealing with The Darkness can bring on Seasonal Affective Disorder. I’ve known newbies and long-timers alike who abruptly snapped and left; others who spent years, even decades here before shifting to points farther (usually much farther) south—places like Arizona or—ahem—north Florida, my winter hangout where I sit typing outside on a sunny afternoon, while Seth wakes to The Darkness, ticking down the days before he leaves for his now-annual six weeks visiting his parents in Hawaii. Wimps? Maybe. Crazy? Certainly not. That’s just the point.
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