Springtime in Alaska

By Larry Meath

(Topic:  Write about the season where you live or currently happen to be.)

Alaska is not exactly a Hollywood Mecca as a movie setting, but in 1960 Alaskans were proudly surprised when John Wayne, the Duke, starred in a film roughly based on a Johnny Horton song, North To Alaska.  Horton must have had a fascination with our state as he also wrote another song that depicts some of harsh realities of Alaskan weather, “When It’s Springtime in Alaska (It’s 40 Below).”

Like many others before and after him, Horton came to Alaska in search of gold.  And like most of the others, he left empty handed.  Horton was lucky enough to eventually find fame and fortune through his music, however.  And as his song goes, even though it can be as cold as 40 below during our “springtime,” most Alaskans cling to the hope that the snow and bitter cold will be gone well before May despite the reputation we have earned.

Winters are harsh where I live.  Temperatures range greatly, but a dearth of sunshine added to our northern location combine to create extended periods where the thermometer may go for weeks without ever getting above zero.  By the spring solstice, we are ready for serious sunshine and warming trends, even though the countryside will likely be covered in white until late April.

This year was a case in point.  When I arrived home in mid-April, the only areas not covered by a deep layer of snow were the main highways that are maintained by giant state trucks with huge snowplow blades.  Roofs in our neighborhood still had a good 2 feet of snow on them—as did our front lawn.  But, as luck would have it, the weather warmed, and melting began soon after my arrival. 

Spring melting is a messy process.  The beautiful crystalline white coverings of Dr. Zhivago’s romantic landscapes disappear, and the grime of civilization begins to surface.  Litter rears its ugly head and as the melting increases, mud reigns supreme.  Flooding becomes a potential issue and streets in the city become small lakes with hidden potholes silently waiting for unsuspecting cars.  As gravity channels the snowmelt into the valleys, the rivers begin to swell, and their thick coverings of ice show the first signs of rotting with overflow and channels of water. 

When breakup occurs, it is a dramatic event on many rivers.  In fact, an annual pastime is for Alaskans to bet on the time of breakup indicated by the tipping of a huge tripod embedded in the ice.  The winning ticket is usually worth close to ¼ million dollars.   But the ice breakup is only the first hurdle for potential danger.  Villages along the rivers worry that the ice will jam and cause the rivers to back up and flood their towns.  This has caused the relocation of more than one village in recent history. 

Once the ice jams free themselves and the rivers resume to reasonable levels, the excitement is palpable.  Boats are readied for the summer.  Trees begin the greening process.  The hillsides dramatically transform themselves with chlorophyl and photosynthesis. 

I heard my first robins in early May this year.  Soon the trees around us will be the drums for woodpeckers in search of meals.  We are gaining about 7 minutes of daylight each day and by the summer solstice, June 21, it will get no darker than twilight in Fairbanks.  Midnight sun activities will be in full force.

In the two plus weeks I’ve been here, the snow is all but gone except for patches.  The ditches are still carrying snowmelt to the valley and gradually the mud is drying up.  Before we know it, the garden will be planted, and the lawn will need mowing.  Our short arctic summer is just beginning to awaken. 

Oops—I spoke too soon.  I awoke this morning to a cleansing cover of 2 inches of fresh white snow.  I’m assuming it won’t last the day, but it does serve as a cautionary reminder about being too complacent.  Spring snowfalls keep us honest.