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Into the pit of winter darkness on Alaska's North Slope, where the sun doesn't rise

  • Author: Alli Harvey
    | Alaska Outdoors
  • Updated: June 30, 2016
  • Published December 16, 2015

Several cookie-cutter conversations about Alaska repeatedly come up in the Lower 48. There's the reality TV conversation, which often starts with, "Are the Alaskan Bush People really real?" In 2008, there was the unavoidable Sarah Palin conversation, as in (drum roll) "Can you actually see Russia from your house?"

A timeless conversation concerns daylight. Countless Lower 48 dwellers have told me, "I just couldn't do the winters." Sometimes it occurs to me that people who have never experienced a full year in Alaska imagine that our world changes from summer to winter like the flick of a switch — full-bore daylight to pitch black; from summer straight to winter.

I probably imagined Alaska this way once too. In reality, though, the change in daylight from season to season is gradual, as is its impact on Alaskans. Light hits (or doesn't hit) each of us differently, depending on who we are and where we live.

Some Alaskans get the winter weirds. Some don't.

Diverse Alaskan reactions

I will raise my hand here and say I do have a hard time with the lack of daylight. Just as summer finishes, in August and September, the balance between darkness and light is comforting.

Then sometime after December I start feeling bad. It's when the twinkly lights of the holidays have faded, after the anticipation of solstice is over. The daylight is supposedly coming back, but at about my pace when I need to go to the dentist. I get upset about things easily. I find myself on the verge of tears while on hold with Dell support, and while that is usually a frustrating experience, I think it's an overreaction. I finally remember about Vitamin D supplements and take my lemon-flavored cod liver oil in the mornings, convincing myself that surely the vaguely fishy flavor must be good for me. Whether it's the oil, a placebo or daylight actually coming back, I start feeling better.

But Alaskans' reaction to the lack of daylight are as diverse as our state is enormous. And because the state is so large, there are vast differences in daylight in mid-winter. Barrow goes 51 to 67 days without a sunrise from November to January. But Ketchikan in Southeast bottoms out at 7 hours, 5 minutes of daylight.

I recently visited the Arctic, stopping at Deadhorse for a connecting flight. I left in the morning, and it was dark in Anchorage. I was curious, and strangely excited, about experiencing winter that far north for the first time. I wondered what the lack of daylight would look and feel like. I couldn't have predicted it.

On the plane, I leaned forward and gazed out the window. Around me, men (only a handful of women) slept or gazed straight ahead, many with noise-canceling headphones. It was very quiet on the plane full of people bracing themselves for another two weeks (or more) on the Slope. Then there was me, watching the sky and thinking about how strange and amazing it is to live in a part of the world this extreme. The sun stayed level below the horizon, burning orange at the edge of the dark ink-colored sky.

Pastel tones

At 10:30 a.m., the burnt orange rose a little higher in the sky, revealing streaks of pink and blue on the horizon. By noon, it looked like 8:30 a.m. in Anchorage. A range of Arctic blues held in the sky. A band of pink crossed the lower part of the sky, blue above and below. It was a pastel tone, if pastel isn't something that reminded you of Easter and springtime. Here the light pink and blue was part of minus-30 degree cold that clawed at the unsealed space between my mittens and coat.

Wind whistled by, carrying dry swirls of snow. It was beautiful, and by 3 p.m. it was dark. Pitch dark. The kind of dark people in the Lower 48 imagine Alaska is all the time.

It was beautiful. It was disarming.

How do people do it? Does it take a special personality to survive or thrive in these conditions, or is it just that people like you and I adjust?

Maybe it's both. Few Alaskans have to endure a North Slope winter. Among those who do, many were born and raised in an Arctic community and have adapted with rich cultural traditions and community. Or they're transient workers. I asked one man who lives in the Arctic what he likes to do in the winter and he answered, without skipping a beat, hunting. A woman in Deadhorse I spoke to remarked that the winters for her are easy — she just doesn't go outside. It's the summers, with constant daylight, that make it tough for her to sleep at night.

Tropical Anchorage

For me, pitch blackness at 3 p.m. was disorienting. By 4:30 p.m. each day, my body was telling me it was bedtime. My eyes confirmed it. I stared into the darkness until eventually it turned into spectacular aurora. I layered up, wearing nearly everything I'd brought with me, and stood outside for 15 minutes, gazing up at the sky.

By the end of the week when I got home to Anchorage, I felt like coming home was a tropical, Vitamin D-drenched vacation compared to the Slope. And that's just after a quick stint — not two weeks or a year up north.

Still, even for someone like me who lives in Southcentral or other Alaska residents in southern parts of the state, it's important to stay ahead of the cumulative impact of diminished daylight. A friend from Fairbanks told me she saw how the lack of daylight impacted her friends and family in different ways while growing up. Some people suffered and used a seasonal affective disorder (SAD) light and/or supplemented with Vitamin D. Some people tanned, because the benefits seemed to outweigh the cons. Others didn't seem to be fazed.

In general across Alaska, a tried-and-true coping strategy in mid-winter is simply to leave. That direct flight from Alaska to Hawaii is a Vitamin D lifeline. Others drink. Some adopt an all-of-the-above strategy.

What I generally tell people from the Lower 48 is yes, the lack of daylight is difficult. But the extremeness of it is part of the allure of Alaska. I feel things strongly. People band together. We go outside or we go inside, and we're vulnerable to the fluctuations of daylight. Overall, I don't think I'm cut of a very different cloth than most people; I don't believe I have a gene that makes me better suited to survive the dark winters — but, along with so many Alaskans, I do.

Ally Harvey lives, works and plays in Anchorage.

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