Time to enjoy the changing seasons

May 4, 2009 

Steve Rinehart skis among the treetops near Skookum Glacier.

CRAIG MEDRED / ANCHORAGE DAILY NEWS Buy Photo

SKOOKUM GLACIER -- Life began anew last week. You could feel it in the sun that baked the graywacke and shale of the surrounding Chugach and Kenai mountains.

If you failed to notice, you live too far removed from the land. If you somehow overlooked the transformation because you were living in the joy of the moment, out there soaking up the heat that has seemed so long missing from the sun, you are excused.

Many ancients worshiped the sun. They knew more than they understood.

The sun is the energy that drives our planet. Forget oil or gas or coal or wind or hydropower or any of those other fuels we normally think of as energy. Without the sun, none of them exist.

Alaska is a living reminder of the power of the star that lights our world.

Over the course of the next 30 days, everything around us will transition from a frozen, white wasteland where even the hardiest of animals can barely scrape out an existence to a green and growing wonderland teeming with a resurgence of life.

Within 60 days, the environment will be so lush and thick with vegetation it will be almost hard to remember how short the time since winter fled.

It is a wonderful thing to be alive in Alaska now, to have survived another winter, to see everything blooming anew.

This is true no matter how much you love the ice and snow, for even the ice and snow are better in the comforting sunshine of the season of life.

Early on Saturday, a friend and I skate skied back to this glacier in the Placer River valley. Over the course of eight or 10 miles, the journey took us from tree-budding spring back into the seeming depths of winter, but it was a different winter than that which we have known for the past seven months.

This was a warm, friendly, sun-kissed winter that dictated sunscreen to keep skin from baking and sunglasses to save eyes from the snow-blinding glare off the snow.

I skied in a short-sleeve bike jersey zipped down because of the heat. We worried not about battling the cold, but about dealing with the warmth.

A few miles back into the valley, we crossed the tracks of a grizzly bear bee-lining a trail almost due west across the crusted snow of the Placer River valley. Mostly the animal was able to travel atop the surface, but here and there a paw broke through into water just below. A thin skim of ice on the water in a few depressions inside the distinct tracks suggested overnight travel.

Tracks older than a day would have gone soft in the sun. The weather had been warm the day before. The sharp edges around the tracks and the claw marks in front of them would not have lasted long once the sunshine crept over the Kenai Mountain ridge that shades the east side of the valley.

On Saturday, snow that had set up overnight was starting to come apart by 10 a.m. The bear could not have traveled atop this sort of snow for long after that hour without sinking in up to its wrists or maybe even its knees.

To cross the valley from out of the Portage drainage west toward Turnagain Pass without floundering, the animal would have been forced to wait until the sun-warmed snow of Friday set up in the cold of that night. The window of time for travel had to be small. Temperatures were not dropping significantly until after dark, and sunset this time of year does not come until after 10 p.m.

The tracks had to have been made late enough in the night for the snow to have crusted, but early enough that just a skim of ice could form before our 8 a.m. arrival.

A truly expert tracker might have been able to guess the timing of the bear's travel within an hour or two, but I couldn't. I knew only that it had passed not long before we skated onto the scene.

We scanned the valley for sight of anything moving, but the bear was long gone in the immensity of a landscape where all living creatures are but specks.

No matter how long you live in Alaska, the magnitude of the scale here is never easy to grasp. High on the slopes far across the valley, the avalanches that have ripped out in recent weeks hardly looked significant, though they were massive.

The fracture lines on some must have stretched across the mountain for a mile or more, and they probably broke 10 or 20 feet deep, carrying enough snow down the mountain to bury a whole Anchorage neighborhood. They were a reminder of the Alaska that was.

The open, flowing creeks we crossed on the last, failing snow bridges of the year were a reminder of the Alaska that will be, the Alaska that is so full of life versus the Alaska where survival is so difficult.

The bears altogether avoid that latter Alaska by hibernating. Most of the birds flee south. The moose endure a period of prolonged starvation in the hope the greenery will return before their fat reserves run out. The salmon bury their eggs deep in gravel and die. Their young, with that gravel overhead protecting them from all but the most extreme of freezes, hatch and spend the winter living off their yolk sacks.

And then life begins anew.

The bears are out now. The first of the avian and mammalian migrants -- the terns, the geese, the ducks and the tourists -- are back. The salmon will start showing in some streams in a couple weeks. The moose will be dropping their calves not long after, the bald eagles hatching their young, the voles producing pups, the snowshoe hares birthing leverets, the RVs swarming Alaska highways, the anglers flocking to the Russian River.

This is the best of seasons in the north. This is the shortest of seasons in the north.

Embrace, enjoy and relish.


Find Craig Medred online at adn.com/contact/cmedred or call 257-4588.

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