Alaska – The Attic Is a Summer Playhouse

ALASKA’S way, in our great valley of the Middle North, is to drop her children straight from winter into summer. We’re used to that, and though we sometimes miss the slower coming of green Aprils and soft Mays that usher in the less intensive summers of more temperate zones, because we are Alaskan sourdoughs we have learned both to expect and to enjoy her startling, paradoxical, swift, temperamental shifts.

In the Coast towns there’s sometimes very little and a but gradual change between the relatively warm moist winters and relatively cool moist summers, due to the automatic well-regulated control of that year-round heating system with which they are equipped. But in the Interior, where we are shut off from that warm-water system by the highest peaks that rise on the North American continent, the seasonal changes are very marked. These ranges are a southern wall which shut off Kuro Shiwo and catch all its warm moisture on their slopes in winter snow and summer rain, so that in Fairbanks we are apt to have a warm dry summer and a cold dry winter. At White Pass the snowfall may be z5 to 3o feet, and Ketchikan may have 235 rainy days in the year—or as one of our Scots described it: ” A blink of sun and a down-pour, a blink of sun and a downpour. Sundry weather!” But at Fairbanks the annual precipitation is only from ten to fifteen inches, making for almost continuous clear days, and an all-rainy day is almost unknown. In some years we actually do not get enough snow for good sledding, until quite late in the winter. Indeed, there are many times when we’d be grateful for much more snow, to make winter trapping and hauling more easy, as well as next spring’s mining. I have lived in many places in the States where the winter snow lies much deeper than it has ever been known to in our Middle North.

Very high mountains extend all along our south, and there are also mountains to the east and north, so that we are exposed to winds only on the west, where lies a shallow and relatively narrow sea—not large enough or active enough to set up its own climate whorls or cause any great disturbance’ from that quarter. That’s why I say we dwell like happy pre-Homeric hyperboreans “back of the North Wind ” for the Endicott Range shuts off any blasts from the north and makes central Alaska, though lying further up the globe than central Russia, a considerably warmer place in winter. Those who explore or whale, and therefore ” winter” on the unsheltered Arctic coast north of the Endicotts, observe such a difference beween our climate and theirs that they are apt to speak of us with the very same superiority we use in speaking of the mild Alaskan south coast! Stefansson writes very condescendingly indeed of those ” sheltered forest trails of the Yukon Valley, where the thermometer may drop very low but the wind seldom rises very high.” For we are truly sheltered, both from the blue winds of the sea and the white winds of the peaks.

Spring of the year begins officially—as reckoned by astronomers and as reckoned also by our swiftly-reducing electric-light bills—at exactly the same time it begins in all other places in the northern hemisphere: that is, March 21, the vernal equinox. For of course you realize that old Sol, our great central lighting system, does not play any favorites in this matter of illumination. We of the North are not cheated in our amount of natural light, as summed up throughout the year, for the sun does not play any tricks with the total amount of sunlight granted to various portions of his satellite Earth. There are no “favored climes” in the matter of sunlight or if there are, we in the North really are the favored ones, for we have a shade more total apparent sunlight. Because refraction shows the low-swinging summer sun above the horizon after it has actually gone down, we really have a longer time of looking at it than do more-centrally-located places. To our near-Arctic village, as to the Tropics, the same total amount of sunlight is meted out, year round—the old earth tilting on her axis and exposing now this pole, now that, like an eccentric roast revolving on its spit before a fire. Our sunlight comes in larger chunks, that’s all. The sun is longer absent on his apparent southern winter journey from us, but in compensation he stays with us more continuously during his three months’ summer visit. We do not sit in year-round darkness here, hatching a vain empire, but all the work-time summer long we have enduring sunlight. That’s a fine thing to remember when you are tempted to be sorry for the ” sunless North!”

These weeks just after the equinox are the time when people here have to be very careful about snow blindness, for the land is all a dazzling winter white as yet; and though we have a superabundant light, the sun has not yet warmed us up enough to create a melting heat. Even at work inside the house, these weeks, I’ve often worn snow glasses in the middle of the day; for if I didn’t and happened to glance out toward our big south-facing dining-room windows, I was literally blinded by the glare of brilliant sun on brilliant snow, and everything turned black. Old-timers call it ” Black Sun Time,” because they’ve all known its danger. As late as May eighteenth I’ve seen advertisements in our local newspaper for “Optical Goods of All Kinds—Snow Glasses.” Eskimos have shown me their wooden eye-protectors made to wear at this season—carved goggles which fit the eye and have a narrow slit in them: ” Very good, make walk in him. No good, make hunt in him,” so Tuk-tuk told me. Sometimes they make them out of whalebone, too, he said.

Snow blindness is a very real possible disaster of the North—not a tragedy due to cold, but to the sun, you see, by another of Alaska’s paradoxes. You feel as though your eyes were full of sand, and it’s as painful as an earache—one of those intimate pains you can’t escape from. Your eyes continually water, and though you are not “blind” in a strict literal sense, you cannot see at all without such agony and effort that you might as well be actually sightless.

This is one reason why we’re very glad that spring, in the North, is short and not a long-drawn-out season. Another reason is the River. It opens in late April or early May, and during and just after that time there is a period of intense drama for every town upon the Yukon drainage, while the glacier and snow-glutted streams sweep down from the mountains and cause great uncertainty and commotion, at best. When at their worst, they flood the towns with backed-up icy water and make ” the break-up ” a time to wish well past. This flooding does not happen very often—I think in Fairbanks it has happened only once in my eight years. But when the broken ice jams on a river curve and water backs up swiftly, then it must be released with generous charges of miner’s blasting powder. Every one breathes a sigh of relief when the River has at last broken its ice-bonds and starts on its open way again, to sea. Now we can begin our summer business without fear of interruption.

One day your roof and lawn are covered with, apparently, an undiminished blanket spread of snow. Then—as by magic—somehow—swiftly—the snow has gone. Some time that week you’re startled by great, shrieking, long-continued blasts of the fire whistles and a mad ringing of the church bells. School is instantly dismissed—it has to be! For no one not bedridden will miss this greatest spectacle of all the North. You and all the neighbors pile out of houses as fast as you can scamper and run to the river bank to watch fascinated—no matter how often before you may have seen it—that terrifying and tremendous spring opening of nature’s piled-up winter forces. Great cakes of blue-white glistening ice are rushed along or tossed like chips or piled up high in toppling masses that grind and splinter and roar in passage like the day-long reverberations of massive near-by gun fire. And neighbor shouts to neighbor, above the din and clamor—” Summer’s here!”

There is no April spring of a ” soft tripping maiden, o’er the lea,” such as the lyric poets love to sing. Our only touch of spring is shock and dynamite, the spring of giant forces turned to mammoth play. We have no spring as of the south, with ivory tint of dogwood or the cream-flesh-pink of wild azaleas, honeysuckle, laurel. Alaska does things differently, and stages in the spring her greatest dramas.

That lawn which yesterday was white, today is green—except where a stray winter-loose neighbor horse walked across it; and there, wherever the hoof marks broke through the sheltering warmth of snow, the grass is dead and must be sowed again. Memorial Day is garden-planting day with us. Celery and cauliflower, already started in our hothouses, are now set out; and pansy beds are made. We have been relishing local hothouse lettuce, radishes and tiny onions since Easter, and we gladly pay a dollar a pound for the first tomatoes or four-bits each for cucumbers. We plant our ninety-foot all-roundthe-house nasturtium beds, knowing that in an unbelievably short time they will be up and blooming, for by June first there is continuous daylight. And we townspeople take a great delight and pride in our flowers, and mass our summer cabins with them. I’ve seen sweet peas grow in profusion, twelve feet high, completely smothering tiny cabins that were so short a time before snow covered.

I think it is this deep-grained Alaskan love of contrast and of swift dramatic volte-face, which makes us glory so in green of gardens, the dramatic shift from our town’s winter white of ermine hoods and snowy capes of overhang, to summer dress of flower-strewn Joseph-coated color. There’s nothing I can say will make you realize how much we Fairbanks people love our flowers, or what a startled hymn of praise they always win us from any wandering summer tourist! I’ve watched these tourists stand agape and stare at Delia Dunham’s unmatched cup-sized pansies, and overheard them chuckle, ” So this is the Frozen North, eh? ”

About this time, too, our deep well which never even thinks of freezing in winter, must be watched and surely used each day or, in midsummer and with temperatures sometimes in the nineties, it may freeze solid! Why? Just another Alaskan paradox, though this time it is a quite familiar magic—the same phenomenon that freezes your ice-cream. That is, the melting frost inside the winter-frozen earth is being pulled up now by the warm and continuing sun, and, because it is a moving and not a static frost, it will congeal the water in your well-pipe if you don’t watch out. In winter your furnace dries and warms the well area, but in summer the cellar is cool and moist from this underlying frost.

Dr. Burke tells me that four miles within the Arctic Circle, at Fort Yukon, a mark of 100° has been recorded at the official and carefully read Weather Bureau station there. We Interior Alaskans insist that we have Scripture proof that our summer climate is truly ” heavenly,” for we not only have no night here then, but moth and rust do not corrupt! One of the first things I discovered on coming to the Interior was that moths (as well as snakes) were unknown here; and it is so dry a climate, year round, that housekeepers notice little opportunity for rust to form, in this semi-arid atmosphere with no more sky moisture than has Southern California.

Do not let the ” semiarid ” I just wrote mislead you. Though there is little rainfall, we do not miss the rain in summer since our crops have a natural and ideal sub-irrigation, most favorable to gardeners and farmers. This is quite an advantage over Southern California’s irrigation projects, for ours is given us by Nature, and costs us nothing. Wherever ground has been turned, the long warm sun draws up moisture from substrata of long-frozen gravels through the rich surface soils, all the twenty-four hour day. Storage moisture, in the form of snows let loose and slowly seeping in the spring, add to the sum of released ground frost and make for plant growth of almost tropical luxuriance. Al-though we do not have to worry much about our garden water, neither do we have to worry over possible rainy days or ” spells,” when planning summer outings, since the light rainfall makes dull weather a thing unknown.

Quite naturally, with such unusual actions of our sun round which the normal human day revolves, there is no ordinary routine business or social life here during the summer months. Miners work their claims all twenty-four hours of the day, and the growing plants are not observing union hours at all, but flowers hurry out and speed up their fruiting and seeding. Mining plants on the creeks do their three shifts as well, not to be outdone. And so, although the placers can be worked only about one hundred days, a full year’s energy is concentrated into these three hectic months when all the gold-bearing gravels mined in winter underground have to be cleaned up.” As long as the spring water lasts, what would in the States be vacation-time is hardest work-time here for many. And we in town feel that we too want to spend every waking moment in the open, as long as friendly sun is visiting us as guest. The twisting roads spread out through a pattern of silver birch and blue spruce—roads now, but only a few years ago the hunting trails of Indians and of trappers.

Many people prefer to sleep through the warm noon hours and work or play in that cooler part of day, which would otherwise be called ” night,” but cannot be called night here, if that word means a time marked off by darkness. Picnics and ball-games are often scheduled to begin at ten or eleven P. M. for that’s the time midsummer days are loveliest. Not only are there few mosquitoes abroad then, but the air is coolest and the sun colors softest upon the cloud-like, blue, mauve hills afar. In the intensely clear and dazzling air there are few summer days when the massive mountains (Hayes, a hundred miles by air; Denali, a hundred and fifty) do not cut sharply on the palpitant sky line, piled high and rosy where the sun slants on them, rising above the garish light and lush heat of a sea-level valley floor. There is interval of but an hour or so between the sun’s going and coming, and even when the sun has dipped below the north hills for a moment, it is hiding only just beneath the horizon and is already preparing to swing up again. It has not dropped away and down with that swift plumb drop of the Tropics. It is still shining there, just back of that mauve and purple hill, and in the short interval the upper sky is tremendously aglow with ultramarine light; so that the very darkest midnight in the valley is only a mid-dusk of lighted shade and shadowy light, shot with a mingling sun-set and sun-rise. At midsummer we can read the finest print all through the night, and we often begin a tennis set at eleven or twelve, when the level lights are loveliest and the courts back of our house are opaline in color.

For there is no glare on midsummer eves, only an unearthly and unreal amethystine atmosphere a-quiver upon differently sun-radiating surfaces; twilight and dawn melt into one another gently, without any intervening period of darkness. For long midnight hours the sun is either just above or just below the horizon, and I remember Stefansson saying: ” One would think that only extraordinary carelessness would make you lose track of time so far that you are in doubt which of the twelve-hour periods you are in, but it happens frequently. . . . When there is no darkness, one’s irregular habits become extraordinary. We may not feel any special inconvenience from staying awake twenty or thirty hours, and we are equally likely to sleep fifteen to eighteen hours.” I have myself, when alone in the house in summer, wakened from a sleep and had no notion whether the clock’s ” three ” meant afternoon or early morning. I’ve called up Central, not to ask the time, but to ascertain ante or post meridian! And old Dawsonites tell that in the early scarcity of clocks they used to know whether it was summer day or summer night only by the bartenders on shift! We ourselves so often read straight through the summer night, without realizing it, that we actually had to set an alarm clock to know when to go to bed! Many are so disturbed by the necessity of sleeping in bright daylight, they wear little eye-masks of silk or velvet to simulate darkness.

The white nights are a problem, too, for parents, since the children of the North quite naturally do not ” want to go to bed by day; ” and yet they, unlike the plants, cannot grow rapidly for three months and then sleep all winter. So we have a town curfew, ringing at ten in summer, to warn all children unattended by grown-ups to be off the streets and home. It’s really very necessary, for otherwise our children may drift in at two A. M., and say to frantic mothers: ” But, I didn’t know it was late. We’ve been berry picking, on the hills. I watched the sun but it never went down at all. Honest, Mother!” And that’s quite true. We are so close to the Arctic Circle that, from the near-by hilltops, the sun does not ever set upon midsummer night.

A friend has collected and listed seventy-six wild flowers which are native to the Fairbanks district, and almost before the snow is off, the Yukon crocus or Anemone patens is up; then the iris and briar rose are out, the Iceland poppies, bluebells, and uncrumpling ferns. Forget-me-nots and blue and yellow violets, buttercups, daisies, magenta masses of decorative fireweed, and hosts of berry blossoms come crowding on the hills. It’s then we hear the high crackling laughter of the gulls (what time the first boats come), and purple-blue lupin also returns, which seems to me the loveliest of all our northern flowering. Against all this, white birch and quaking asp form background in which warm summer airs play leafy tunes; and the gray poplar, silver green, and the dark green of larch and spruce lend color to that Northland summer symphony which Service felt and saw and caught:

” The summer—no sweeter was ever, The sunshiny woods all athrill, The grayling asleep in the river, The big-horn asleep on the hill.”