Extremes



Today, the day after the official winter solstice, we have five hours and fifty-eight minutes between sunrise and sunset. We’re on the gaining side of the pendulum now and by March it will be light until 9:00 pm.

Solstice doesn’t go unnoticed in Alaska.  Some people have big parties in celebration of the shift toward summer.  Others acknowledge the day in a more introspective fashion.  Either way, it feels very Pagan, living in a state where no matter how far removed you might be from nature you can’t ignore the extremes in the seasons.

I’ve had a hard time with winter the last few years.  For me, and others I’ve spoken to about the subject, there seems to be a cumulative effect going on.  Coping with winter didn’t seem to be so much of a problem for the first decade of my living here, but now I have to actively work on my sanity throughout the winter months.

This winter I’m taking 3000 IU of Vitamin D every day.  I haven’t read any scientific studies about its effectiveness in fending off the winter blues, but I figure it can’t hurt.

A few years ago I bought a light box.  The idea is that if you start using it daily in the fall when each day loses a few minutes of light, then you will feel the benefits of it in late winter when the days are getting longer.  And that brings up another interesting and strange dilemma.  Most people who have a hard time with winter feel it the most around the spring equinox, when the days are long again, and the hope of summer is just around the corner.

For me I’ve found that my ability to make it through the winter without feeling despair hinges on the previous summer.  In 2008 Alaska had a very cool summer.  In Homer the temperature only got to 70 degrees twice.  Most days the thermometer hovered around 55 degrees.  In July we went camping in McCarthy and had to cancel our hiking plans due to snow.  Winter rolled around and I never felt like I had had a summer.  It was tough.

I can endure pretty long winters, but if I don’t feel like I have a summer I get cranky, and desperate.  Last year we planned a trip to New Mexico in June, the hottest time of the year there, because I was determined to get some sun.   I didn’t want to rely on Alaska for a summer.  After 2008 I didn’t have much faith.

As it turned out we had an unseasonably warm and sunny summer last year.  So between that stroke of luck, or El Nino, and the New Mexico trip, I should be in good shape for this winter.  But certain things about myself, in relation to the long, Alaskan winters are still predictable.  By late February, even on a good year,  I’ll start dreaming about that feeling of the sun’s rays on my skin and I’ll wake up under my down comforter and feel like crying.  By that point in the winter I know I’ll have to rely on some inner strength to get me through those last few weeks of winter.  I’ve done it before and I’ll do it again.

It helps if I remind myself of the opposite extreme that Alaska brings out in me.  Every summer I experience moments of euphoria, usually while I’m out on our skiff on Kachemak Bay, or when I’m looking down on the meadow in front of our house and a black bear lumbers by.  At those moments, when Alaska’s bounty is all around me and the days linger into the early hours of the morning, I can’t imagine living anywhere else.

Naming a road

Bear with me please, because I know I mentioned in an earlier post that I was going to steer clear of politics for this blog.  But there is a local issue that I feel warrants the breaking of my self-imposed rule.  It has to do with a neighborhood squabble over the name of our street.

When we decided to venture out of town and live a more rural lifestyle, we started looking for a house nestled on a few acres.  At the time there weren’t many options.  We found either a house with no acreage, or acreage with a rustic shack.  One day though, we noticed a new ad in the newspaper that sounded appealing.  “For sale by owner:  Two bedroom house, good view, five acres.”  Immediately we made the call.

The man selling the house was about to turn ninety.  He wanted to move to Oregon to be closer to his family and in his words, “start a new life.”  He was eager to go, and we were eager to buy.  The house was less than perfect, although it was sound.  And the view, well to say it has a good view is the understatement of the century.  The five acres were carved out of the middle of a large homestead, so a lot of wild space surrounded the house.  We drove away that day knowing that we had to move fast.  We called the seller back that same night, and asked him if we could come take another look. That’s when he said, “I should probably tell you about the neighbors.”

Most people who live in or around Homer, Alaska can claim that they have interesting neighbors, but I’m going to go ahead and make the bold claim that ours may be more interesting than most.  An entire book could be written about them, and should be for that matter.  Now they are in their mid 80’s, but as a young couple they homesteaded in this area with a baby on the way and a toddler; before there was a road.  They are tough.  They still haul their drinking water from town, use an outhouse, and keep their home warm with a wood stove.

The old man has quite a reputation.  He’s known around town for growing potatoes and toting a gun.  We’ve heard stories about him shooting at low-flying airplanes, and real-estate agents.  Sharing a driveway with him has been a challenge at times, but overall it’s worked out well.  Soon after we moved in I discovered that he and I come from the same town in Colorado, and I credit that little bit of serendipity with making all the difference.

The woman is someone I consider a friend.  She works harder than most people I know and still drives into town before church every Saturday morning to play piano for “the seniors” at the long-term care center.  She grows, without a doubt, the best strawberries on the Kenai Peninsula. Her stories about homesteading this neighborhood are filled with bears, months of isolation, fires and a whole host of other amazing things.

Just last week I gave her a ride to town when her car was in the shop.  I noticed that her breathing was more labored than usual, and she had a hard time getting in and out of the car.  “I’ve really gone downhill these past couple of months,” she said after I helped her with her seatbelt.  She then proceeded to tell me about how her family moved to a village near Dillingham when she was six years old, and how her father and older brother died in a boating accident during their first year in Alaska.  One of the jobs she had to take on in order to help her family survive was feeding the dog team.  At first I didn’t think much of that, but then she mentioned that she had to trap animals for them in the winter and harvest and dry fish for them in the summer.  No wonder she’s slowing down now, at age 85.

And this brings me back to the name of our road.  When we first moved out here the name of our road was Olday Road.  The borough felt the need to change it at some point, so they asked for suggestions.  Since our neighbors homesteaded the area, someone suggested that the road be named after them.  So it became James Road for a few years.  Someone was unhappy with that name, perhaps it was someone who had suffered the wrath of the old man when he was feistier than he is now, and they made an issue out of it.  I wasn’t a part of the discussion, but had I been asked I would have said, “Absolutely. The Jameses deserve to have the road named after them.”  But sadly, the sign at the top of the street now says Maria Road.

I have plenty of stories I could tell about living next to the old homesteaders.  A few of them are bad, like the time our dogs got caught in the traps the old guy set to keep the coyotes out of his pile of moose hide.  Some of them are funny, like the time they added an entire trailer’s worth of old household items we were getting rid of to their already huge collection of stuff. But most of the stories just have to do with being neighborly; sharing gardening experience, giving rides to town, figuring out where to park our cars when there is too much snow.

I don’t know who Maria is, or was, and maybe her story warrants the naming of a road after her.  But this one should be named after the James.  They deserve a tribute to their lives as Alaskan homesteaders.  It wouldn’t be much but I think it would mean something to them, to see their name on the street sign each time they drive past.

More snow days

The library where I work moved into a new building three years ago, and since then it has become a bit of a town living room.  In the winter locals stop in between errands to warm up by the fireplace, or to check their email or browse through the new books.  Friends meet there to play chess or to knit.  It’s also a great place for small talk.  I’m one of the chattier librarians, which I guess might be bad since libraries are supposed to be quiet places, but one of the things I like about living in a small town is being on a friendly basis with most everyone I see.

Some days everybody is talking about the most recent antics of our ex-governor, or about the high school hockey team.  Last week there were lots of comments about the six puppies that were left near a dumpster in a kennel with the word “HELP” spray painted on the sides.  Something always has folks talking, and if no local politician has done anything gossip-worthy, or there haven’t been any house fires, then we always have Mother Nature to fall back on.  Last March Mt. Redoubt, the volcano across Cook Inlet, gave us all something to speculate about and yesterday the library was abuzz with talk of the impending storm that the weather service predicted would start at 4:00pm.

Blizzards aren’t terribly unusual here in Homer, so you wouldn’t think we’d get all excited about them, but we do.  For a little while, before every dramatic storm, the town feels like Christmas Eve.  The grocery stores get busy with people wanting to “stock up.”  Folks rush to the library so they won’t run out of reading material.  Trying to find a parking place at the video store becomes impossible.

We say that all of the bustling about is for the sake of preparedness, but in reality you won’t find a population more prepared for disaster than Alaskans.  We have full propane tanks, multiple cords of firewood, plenty of food and, I’d guess, more entertainment options at home than we’d ever consume while waiting out one measly storm.  I think the pre-blizzard giddiness that happens is just our excitement over the possibility of having a snow day or two.  We all just want an excuse to stay home for a while, and in case that happens we want to make sure we have half and half for our coffee and couple of good movies.

As individuals we’ve adapted to the extreme conditions here, and so have the road crews and city maintenance workers.  We should know better than to hope for a snow day.  But we can’t seem to help ourselves.  Whenever the national weather service issues a winter storm warning the fantasies start to play out in our minds.  We imagine a day of tending the fire, drinking hot cocoa, cooking a slow, savory stew.

Yesterday, just like the weather service predicted, the wind started to pick up around 4:00 pm.  The library was a flurry of activity until we closed at six.  It was cool to see people in town preparing not for the storm, but for the off chance, the hope, of this being that one big blizzard that happens every few years that allows us to stay home for a few days.  Even in Homer, Alaska we manage to fill up our time with work, school, sports, meetings and a hundred other things.  A harsh storm gives us all reason to pause and remember that slowing down wouldn’t be such a bad thing.  We know that we’re able to get where we need to go when the snow is three feet deep and blowing sideways; but just because we can doesn’t always mean that we should.  I think we need more snow days.