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Dark days got you down? Try vitamin D, and a dose of outdoor activity

  • Author: Alli Harvey
    | Alaska Outdoors
  • Updated: December 20, 2017
  • Published December 20, 2017

A cyclist takes advantage of Tuesday’s limited daylight to ride over new snow on the Tour of Anchorage Trail near Service High.  (Marc Lester/ ADN)

I officially moved to Alaska in late 2008. It was back when plane rides were still magical. I relished every bit of the journey north — the bloody marys in Minneapolis, the friends whose stories I learned on the last leg to Anchorage and landing in the middle of a snowstorm. I felt as though I'd moved to a snowglobe.

At the time, the darkness didn't bother me. Actually, winter in Alaska was so foreign that the darkness was just part of the novelty. "The sun doesn't rise here until 10 a.m.!" I gushed on the phone to my disconcerted parents back east.

But over the course of the next few winters, I noticed something. Between the months of November and February, I had these mood swings. I'd suddenly feel really sad, for what felt like no reason at all. Of course being a stubborn woman of the Western world, those feelings got elbowed and shoved down like extra clothing in a too-small suitcase. Occasionally, I'd bust at the seams and start crying for no reason or because of something small.

Patterns are difficult to notice when I'm in my own head. It took about three full winters for me to realize that these mood swings correlated exactly to the darkest time of the year. They seemed to also coincide with lethargy, sugar and alcohol consumption, and a desire to somehow fuse my body to the couch.

One year I managed to pull out of my shame from experiencing these lows long enough to do something about it. The voice in my head said "buck up." Instead I went to the doctor.

Armed with a prescription dose of vitamin D, I set out to get serious about fortifying my life in the winter in Alaska.

Not surprisingly, I'd noticed that when I am active during the winter, my mood tends to lift. And it's not enough for me to be active indoors. I am happy that gyms work for so many people, but they're not my thing in general. Too sweaty; too much like a warehouse of hamster wheels.

Being outside is hard. Conditions are difficult to predict, particularly these days. Some days require spikes to even walk; others I spend 45 minutes loading up my bike only to ride for even less than that. But experiencing that unpredictability, adapting to it and enjoying it helps me through the winter. It's like a little daily jolt of "you can do this." Being outside gives me those fleeting, bright bursts of joy that serve as reference points for the rest of my life.

Logistically, the most difficult part of being outside during the winter is that "working" thing. I am fortunate to have a flexible enough schedule that I can usually block off an hour midday to run. There are also mornings where I peel myself out of bed at what, for me, is the ungodly hour of 5:30 a.m. just so that I can get a quick dose of outdoors in before the day consumes my attention.

Even these early mornings, running alone in the dark, seeing stars and sometimes the faint silhouettes of mountains, are enough to lift my overall mood. Colleagues have wondered out loud about how I'm able to get out of bed so early, saying that I must be disciplined. It's actually the opposite, in a way — the fear of how unhappy I can be when I'm not getting outdoor exercise dwarfs my laziness. So, I get out of bed and start running before I can really talk myself out of it.

The thing that I still access when I'm out there is that kernel of the feeling I had when I first moved here. No, I'm no longer awed by airplane rides, unless it's by the rudeness of the passenger next to me or whatever ridiculous new restriction TSA has in place. I no longer feel that I live in a snowglobe, and I would be OK if we had more sun during the winter. That novelty has worn off (much to my parents' relief for their daughter's sanity).

But I do frequently look around me and wonder at this place Alaskans are lucky to call home. The extremes of the light and darkness here produce a different world every single day. I've never seen Cook Inlet look exactly the same. Alaska, and living here, keeps me on my toes and aware of my surroundings in a way that I don't think I would be if I lived in the Lower 48.

Yes, even at this time of year I will take living here over most anyplace else — but only if I can get outside every day.

Alli Harvey lives in Palmer and plays in Southcentral Alaska.

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