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Winter light in Alaska might be scarce, but what’s there can be breathtaking

  • Author: Alli Harvey
    | Alaska Outdoors
  • Updated: January 16
  • Published January 16

Sunlight reflects off an ice-filled Turnagain Arm on Thursday, Dec. 20, 2018. (Bill Roth / ADN)

I was out cross-country skiing a couple of weeks ago, enjoying the relative warmth of Government Peak Recreation Area in Palmer. The beautiful trails there are set in a hillside adjacent to Hatcher Pass and often the temperatures are a little higher than down in the Butte where we live.

This afternoon was no exception. As we skied, I appreciated what seemed like actual, real warmth in the sunlight.

“What would you call this?” I asked my husband, who was skiing a little ahead of me. “What color do you think this light is?”

Yes, the lack of sun leaves me just a tick this side of sanity. Here I am, I thought, hollering at my husband to discuss the color of the daylight. But seriously — how could I best define the light? It was beautiful.

Lemon? No, too yellow, and somehow too cheerful. I needed a color that was a little more subdued and subtle, but still conveyed warmth.

I landed on butter light. It was about 3 p.m., and as the sun lowered, it cast a film on the snow drifts that was rich but still subtle in its hues. I skied on, satisfied at having identified the color of the beautiful, snowy landscape around me.

But by then I was also thinking about other unique stages of winter light in Alaska.

Daylight is something we’re well attuned to here — from when we’re almost fully deprived of it, to when we’re on overload in the summer. Light informs many of the patterns of our daily and seasonal lives.

When I pay attention to it, especially in the winter, I somehow feel more appreciative of what it means to be alive in such an extreme place.

I have these offhand names for winter light that I hadn’t really realized I’d defined.

There’s Arctic light, which I define as those slow, sub-zero sunrises when the sky lifts from purple blues to deep magenta. This transition from blue to pink is seamless in the sky. If I tried to draw it in crayon it would look like stripes. This light makes me feel like I live at the cold edge of the world, which excites and scares me. I love the contrast of Arctic light with frosty white trees covered in snow and hoarfrost.

Movie light is a cool blue light that is cast after sunset but just before the sky is fully dark, when I’m about 30 minutes away from needing a headlamp. It tends to happen when it’s so cold there’s not a cloud in the sky and the snow is crunching loudly under my feet. It seems to soften the world and showcase the brightness of snow at the same time.

The sun rises over the Chugach mountains in December 2017. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

I could also call it “hush” light, because it’s accompanied by the deep quiet of big snowy landscapes and mountains, and it makes me appreciate how long sunrise and sunsets last in Alaska versus places closer to the equator.

Etch-a-sketch light is that strange, flat overcast light that comes from a slate gray sky and blends perfectly with the snow in the mountains. It makes it so I can’t tell where Pioneer Peak ends and the sky begins. It casts the rest of the mountain into a two-dimensional etch-a-sketch drawing.

It’s an eerie light, and not the most inviting because typically I notice it when it’s raining or threatening to rain — meaning it’s either unseasonably warm in the winter, or it’s breakup. But it’s still fascinating to stare at the mountains and try to find that snowy shoulder where it meets the clouds, or to imagine that Pioneer Peak is just a big temporary drawing in the sky. Maybe if I picked up and shook the scene in front of me, it would disappear.

Then of course there’s that flood of light we get sometime in February and then more steadily into March. I don’t have a pithy name for it, but it’s the kind of bright daylight that reminds me how long I’ve gone without the pure jolt of euphoria delivered by something as elemental as the sun.

This light makes me feel like my eyes are open a little wider and my brain is more functional. I typically feel it for the first time on a bike, followed by cocktails on a friend’s deck where the sun is creating a magical 50-degree micro-climate and I suddenly don’t need my puffy jacket for the first time in months.

I know that light is out there and on its way soon, but right now it’s kind of hard to believe in.

Still, I am enjoying and appreciating these glimpses of what the sun can do in the winter. With the minutes of daylight starting to steamroll back in, I know it’ll soon be hard to believe this time of year, where I am so obsessed with these little fragments of interesting light, ever existed. There’s beauty in the scarcity.

Alli Harvey lives in Palmer and plays in Southcentral Alaska.

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