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Spring in Alaska: Finding the state's beauty during 'the ugly season'

SELDOVIA -- I spent Saturday in a mud puddle. Scuffing my feet at the slushy edges of the driveway, grinding the last pieces of ice and snow into the dirt. Kids chased each other in shrieking circles, weaving between a sea of muddy Xtratufs, below a layer of balanced plates, beer bottles, and chitchat. They pummeled the snow with ice axes and picks, and splashed in the gooey puddle forming around the campfire.

Wandering dogs investigated newly exposed garden beds -- slick black dirt and rotten seaweed between patches of grimy white.

Spring is mud season. An out-of-town visitor shared this quote from her guidebook: "Spring (especially April) is the ugly season, at least until the trees leaf out. Most winter activities are closed, and the summer fun hasn't cranked up, so do what Alaskans do and head to Hawaii instead." My driveway was fairly ugly. But spring is the season of sea stars, sunglasses, seedlings and skis -- where reaching wonder is as simple as a change in elevation.

On Friday, the splashing and running children were leaping off rocks into tidepools, lifting fronds of bladderwrack to find the Easter eggs hidden beneath them, and watching the probing foot of a tiny clam as it cut a C-shaped track into the sand. I pointed out hermit crabs and traces of petrified wood in the rocks. There was mud there, too, oozing down the thawing bluffs into sticky piles at the top of the beach, trapping tiny boots.

In spring, the lowest tides shift back into the daylight hours. The seaweed on the rocks reawakens, growing from tiny nubs into long and elegant fronds. It's warm enough, finally, to poke an anemone without soaking through your mittens. Snow is a distant memory.

Unless you gain elevation. On Sunday, the kids were nowhere in sight. We paused on a mountaintop -- old friends and new -- squishing last fall's lingonberries beneath our ski boots. I peeled oranges; snacked on pink and blue eggs. Then I swished down a wall of unbroken white, tracing curving arcs down the mountain with as much grace as an enthusiastic first-year skier can manage. Later, the skis stuttered over sticky snow, dove into the slush, and halted on patches of ferns and spruce needles. They formed awkward A-frames above our packs on a slope of damp brown grass.

I live on the crumpled tip of the Kenai Peninsula. Jurassic rock, smeared onto the edge of the continent by the movement of the plates, cut with the deep incisions of ice age glaciers. It's convoluted, and complicated. Nearly all of it is steep. From my house, it takes 90 minutes to walk to the alpine tundra. Half an hour to the ocean.

That steepness brings us summery beaches within reach at the same moment snowy mountains loom above. Their steepness is why I'm learning to ski.

Light is everywhere in April. It bounces up at me from the tidepools, the ocean, the slopes of high-altitude snow. It shines an orange sunset through our windows long past when the kids should be asleep. It spatters new freckles on my daughter's cheeks. It illuminates the dusty imprints of muddy dog feet all over the floor.

Spring is in-between -- bright and grimy, winter and summer -- all rolled up into one muddy ball.

Erin McKittrick is an writer, adventurer, and scientist based in Seldovia, Alaska. Author of A Long Trek Home: 4,000 Miles by Boot Raft and Ski, and Small Feet, Big Land: Adventure, Home and Family on the Edge of Alaska. You can find her at Ground Truth Trekking.org.

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