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Alaska Life

On eve of winter solstice, Alaskans commemorate lives lost and look to brighter days

  • Author: Emily Mesner
  • Updated: December 21, 2020
  • Published December 20, 2020

The Anchorage Museum participated in the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services' "Bring Back the Light" event by creating a large light display on their west lawn which featured more than 200 ice luminarias -- one for every Alaskan who has died from COVID-19 complications. Photographed on Sunday, Dec. 20, 2020. (Emily Mesner / ADN)

The sun set quickly in Anchorage behind a layer of clouds around 3:40 p.m. Sunday, blocking the fading sunlight on the eve of winter solstice. Still, hope, healing and the long-awaited return of natural light came to the forefront on the muted December day.

Battery-operated tea lights fluttered in handmade ice luminarias and brightened downtown Anchorage during the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services’ event called “Bring Back the Light.” People across Alaska were invited to shine a light wherever they were at 5 p.m. in observance of those lost during the pandemic and to celebrate the returning light.

“Winter’s always tough in Alaska and of course it’s been difficult with all the pandemic losses,” said Sue Libenson of DHSS. “There is a balance there. We want to be respectful of what people have been through and celebrate what’s coming.”

Statewide partners helped spread word of the event, which saw participants across the state.

“This is not going to go on forever, so things like this event are just a moment in Alaskan history,” Libenson said. “People figured out ways to keep on keeping on and looking forward to a brighter future with the return of the light and the arrival of the vaccine.”

Heidi Boucher took part in the event by lighting candles in the front yard of her Juneau home. She spoke about health care and frontline workers.

“You know, when this whole thing started, their unwavering support to their community is really inspiring to me,” she said. “They’ve really stepped up and done an amazing job during this time.”

Boucher said she’s felt a positive shift in energy since the first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine arrived in the state last week.

“You can see hope in the future whereas before, it just seemed like the days and the months went on and on and on,” she said.

The Anchorage Museum participated in the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services' ’Bring Back the Light ’ event by creating a large light display on their west lawn which featured more than 200 ice luminarias -- one for every Alaskan who has died from COVID-19 complications. (Emily Mesner / ADN)

The Anchorage Museum participated in the event by creating a large light display on their west lawn with ice luminarias — one for each of the 183 Alaskans and one nonresident who have died from COVID-19 complications, and then some. The display ended up featuring roughly 205 lights spread across the lawn.

“It was quite a bit of work but, you know, I think everybody needs a little something to look forward to,” said Ryan Kenny, the museum’s Deputy Director of Exhibitions and Program Operations, who started working on the display with his wife and intensive care unit nurse, Amanda, Wednesday.

“She’s personally cared for some of the COVID-19 patients in the ICU that the ice luminarias represent,” he said.

Ryan Kenny sets up roughly 205 handmade ice luminarias outside the museum. (Emily Mesner / ADN)
Ryan Kenny carries two ice luminarias onto the front lawn of the Anchorage Museum. (Emily Mesner / ADN)
Ryan Kenny explains how he made the ice luminarias to Lisa Frederic as she walks by the museum. (Emily Mesner / ADN)

Just after 5 p.m., Kenny Kuhar held Dawn Sablan as they looked onto the lawn. Sablan’s father, Alfred, passed away at the age of 71 after contracting the coronavirus, she said.

“He was No. 6 in Anchorage,” Kuhar added.

Sablan cried and held Kuhar’s hand as she walked toward their car afterwards. They remember Alfred as a hard worker and “always there to help out anyone.”

“I gotta keep living my dad’s legacy,” she said. “I won’t let his light burn out.”

Sablan and Kuhar said they are hopeful for the future and believe there are brighter days ahead.

Kenny Kuhar holds Dawn Sablan as they look at ice luminarias in a display outside the Anchorage Museum. (Emily Mesner / ADN)
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