Growing up in Massachusetts, I loved winter. I loved the snow. I loved the dark and the cozy feeling of contrast between the outdoors and inside. When I was a teenager, I bought myself a ticket to Alaska in part so I could see northern lights. Ultimately, I moved to Alaska not despite but because of winter.
As a 16-year-old I questioned the sanity of people who would spend Christmas in tropical places. Nothing seemed as wrong as a palm tree strung with lights. I argued that winter was a superior season because if you were cold you could always add layers, unlike in summer where at some point if you peel all the clothing away there’s only skin.
Now, I wonder if I’ve lost my fight. I still love winter, but I am in love with summer.
I often think of how to describe our summers to my family and friends back east. Sometimes they visit and I can offer a glimpse, depending on the mood and weather of Alaska. But there are so many small, glorious, unplanned moments I wish I could share with everyone I know back home.
After all, Alaska exists in sharp contrasts. It takes us from extreme cold and dark to balmy warm and endless sun all in one year. It’s hard to convey to someone who doesn’t directly experience those ups and downs how amazing the good parts are
During the week leading up to solstice there were a few moments where I felt my heart race. I got that pure summer rush with all the right cues tipping off my brain that finally, we’re here.
One moment was pretty straightforward: it was a sunny Friday afternoon and I had the windows of our truck all the way down with music on. I was driving away from the dump, looking at Matanuska Peak and Lazy Mountain looming above the Valley, green and still snow-capped. As I descended a small hill, the opening bars of a song came on. Maybe, I thought, this is the opening scene in the latest movie-version of my life, dump and all. I cranked up the music.
Then I felt it while whizzing through lush green foliage while on my bike. There is this smell in certain forests or on some mountains, maybe where it frequently rains and the riot of underbrush gets very dense and technicolor. By mid-summer this smell, to me, is just some kind of deep green. That’s what I smell when I’m at Government Peak Recreation Center at the foot of Hatcher Pass. As I get going on my bike on the single-track trails it’s like I’m breathing it all in on fast forward.
On an evening ride, I saw the lush green flying by me alongside the trail, punctuated by blue skies and the big clouds that billow above Hatcher Pass. With the sunlight poking through the woods to cast light on the path and the swoopy design of the trails careening me across and down the mountain, I felt amazed that I could be there, doing this, at all.
Finally, I realized that the objectively disgusting feeling of sun, sunscreen and sweat on my skin from working hard outside is a state I could live in. Walking down from Eagle and Symphony Lakes after a quick overnight backpack trip with friends over the weekend, I felt the hot sun beating down on me and my body continuing to move me along. I had that dusty, sweaty, sunscreen feeling, all brought together by the bright warm sun on my skin. My backpack was a lot lighter than it had been the night before, but it still weighed on me. It didn’t bother me. I felt both ecstatic and profoundly contented. This, I announced to a friend while gesturing around us and at my un-showered state of being, is for me.
And Alaska summer, as it turns out, is for me. I don’t know if this profound love of summer exists at all without the contrast of hard winters. But who knows? Maybe I’ll flock somewhere where they drape lights over palm trees for Christmas one year and find out.
Alli Harvey lives in Palmer and plays in Southcentral Alaska.