Day by day winter slowly envelops the land. The last of the leaves drop off the trees, snow slowly accumulates and temperatures drop while darkness takes over. Each day we lose 7 minutes of light, nearly an hour per week. It feels like just yesterday that I was walking outside in the light near 11 pm, the sun still up above the northerly horizon. Now, the sun only makes an appearance for 8 hours and it will only be 2 months more until it sets at 2:40 pm, after circling the sky for a mere 3 hours and 42 minutes on the shortest day of the year.
Living in northern Alaska during the winter, one must learn to embrace the darkness. In most places, night is a reason to go inside, head home and the signal of a day’s end. Not so in Alaska, where some places, like Utqiagvik, communities find themselves in more or less a continual night for nearly 3 months of the year. It’s a different type of darkness than found in most other places. With the snow on the ground, light is reflected, offering enough light for moving around without a headlamp. On nights with a full moon, a headlamp isn’t even necessary as the light reflects brightly off the snow, casting shadows on the mountains and forest.
In the middle of winter, there are many days in which I find myself spending more time outside at night than day. One learns to become comfortable navigating among the darkness and quiet of the boreal forest. A quiet overtakes the land and there is no reason to disturb it. Gone are the bears, tucked away in their dens for winter, and with them the necessity for any bear calls. Gone too are the songbirds, that sing throughout the endless summer nights, off to warmer climes. Frozen up is the water, locked in place until the sun rises high enough in the sky once more, returning warmth to the land.
Most nights, the sky is filled with twinkling stars and the lights of the aurora borealis. For 4 months, no stars were visible, and now I stand outside staring up at the night sky trying to remember the names of each constellation. The northern star shines brightly nearly directly overhead. Close by is the big dipper, appearing to rotate around the sky like a clock each night as the world spins. Opposite is Orion’s belt and above is Cassiopeia. It all comes together and makes sense once more.
For the next 5 months we’ll make do with our substitute light, headlamps and happy lamps. Headlamps dangle from necks and pockets like a form of jewelry, ready to provide a beacon of light on the trail, road or around the house. Inside, happy lamps shine brightly in rooms and offices across the state, trying to give off some semblance of sun.
Light has not been completely extinguished in this land and for those that remain to see it, any form becomes that much dearer. Whether it is the stars and aurora dancing above, the light of the full moon illuminating the land, or simply the cone of light emitting from a headlamp while you work your way down the trail, there is much to be appreciated and cherished during this dark season. It can be difficult at times living without much sun for extended periods, but even in the most despairing periods, one knows that March will arrive soon enough and with it, a return to an abundance of light and the end of the seemingly endless night.