Our family caravanned north from Portland with our U-Haul and two cars in the last week of August 2012. We enjoyed several beautiful last summer days as we trekked up the Alaska Highway, and then as if on cue, steady rainfall started when we crossed the border to Alaska. It barely, rarely let up as we travelled across the state that day to finally arrive at our Anchorage rental home in the middle of a soggy night on Labor Day weekend. As we unloaded the truck and began unpacking boxes over the next few days, a cold rainstorm pounded the city, blowing over trees, knocking out power, canceling classes. Welcome to Alaska. I’d grown up in Oregon – one of two states without self-service gas stations. It didn’t take many 40 degree rainy Alaska days that fall for me to realize that I had never been properly grateful. It was a cold rainy fall here. I remember looking around the restaurant one September evening and grumping to David about how most everybody was wearing rubber boots. I was not impressed.
It snowed on September 29 that year. The early snowfall didn’t stick around, but it was a harbinger of winter to come. In the next weeks we watched ice form in the puddles and cover over Westchester Lagoon. By Halloween there was snow on the ground to stay. It turned into the sort of Alaska winter I had actually imagined – snowy and cold. Skiing, sledding, and skating. Gloves, hats, skhoops, and coats. I learned to drive in the snow and walk carefully across the ice. I bought groceries in batches that could be carried, rather than pushed, across snow-packed, ice-rutted parking lots. Many nights I fell asleep listening to snow plows clearing our streets.
The daylight hours took some getting used to. The sun came up at 10:14am and set at 3:41pm on the shortest day of the year, but I was surprised to discover that the long stretches of dark did not bother me as much as I had feared. Snow cover maximized the moonlight and street lights to cast a steady, reflective glow even in the darkest hours. We made it a priority to get outside that winter, even in the dark, and the ski trails were always well lit.
It was such a unique experience to come out on the other side of that long first winter, and lean so dramatically into spring with its rapidly lengthening daylight, warmer days, and super skiing. We slogged through our first break up season, put away the cold weather gear, and soon discovered that we were living in a tourist town.
Today the front page of our newspaper headlined a large photo above the fold: Tourist Season Floats Into Juneau on Cruise Ships. And so, once again sliding off the backside of winter, we have come to this–
Three things that are sure signs of winter behind us:
1. Buses (and RVs). The first of these are beginning to trickle through town and, like that September 29 snowfall, they announce what is to come. I remember my surprise that first spring when I found myself on trails I’d navigated all winter, now suddenly crowded with people wearing cameras around their necks. None of the work and all of the beauty.
2. Daffodils and green grass. Ryan went to get Ethan after school today and they reported seeing buds on trees and green grass on their walk home. Never mind it is the first week of May, these are notable signs of spring. The roads are dry and the trails essentially clear. There are still piles and patches of dirty snow scattered around town and, while there is still ice cover, every day brings more open water to the Lagoon. Blooming daffodils don’t definitively mean we are finished with snow, but their bright faces rightly proclaim that the season of winter is past.
3. Bear Awareness Classes. The bears are waking up! During one of my running meet-ups at the Lagoon last summer I overheard a lady tell her friend, “Someday I’m gonna live down here. Wouldn’t it be nice to go for a walk and not have to think about the bears?” Yep. And it is true – this is one of the reasons we live downtown. When David and I flew to Anchorage to find a place to live the first time around (August 2012), we looked at a house way up on the mountainside in the south part of town. The house was beautiful and it had an incredible two-story wall of windows opening to a stunning view of the Cook Inlet. It was magnificent. But even in my view-centric decision making process, it was simply no match for the little black bear cub who ran across the road while we explored the neighborhood that day. Bearanoia. I have that.
Today’s Sports & Outdoors section of our paper featured Erin Kirkland’s Kid’s and the Outdoors column on the front page. The topic: We should teach our children to be bear aware from an early age. I discovered Erin’s work shortly after we moved here the first time, and have followed her ever since. She is a fabulous resource for exploring Alaska with kids and it was her spotlight on Bear Aware classes back in 2013 that inspired us to attend a class at the Campbell Creek Science Center. That proved to be an excellent experience. Not only did it give solid shape to my fears by providing actual information, but in doing so, it created an actionable model for what to expect and how to be Bear Aware. We also got lessons on effective bear spray use, and had opportunity to actually practice. Education and experience have made me much more confident out on the trails than I once was, but reading Erin’s column today was a good review and it inspired me to to get us to another Bear Aware class for a family review soon. After all…..winter is behind us.