Sunday, October 01, 2006

First snow

October is my favorite month.

I live in a climate that doesn't see much fluctuation between summer and fall, which is all the more reason to embrace the subtle signs of seasons changing: clumps of yellow clinging to birch trees - the litter of dry leaves strewn along the streets. My favorite part of fall, though, is something Alaskans call "termination dust" — their phrase for the first snow. I like this phrase. There's a world of imagery in the word "dust," and "termination" implies an idea that is amplified by a lot of Alaksans who, like me, aren't from here: that snow equals winter equals darkness equals death.

Around here, winter is a season many people endure. It's time to recuperate from a mania of activity brought on by the endless light of summer. It's a time to drink Jack Daniels straight out of the bottle, one shot for every week until the next salmon run. I think it's funny how few "winter" people I meet in Alaska. Many even say they hate winter. They spend all those long nights wrapped in blankets in front of a TV, not even trying to fend off Seasonal Affective Disorder. Why the haters choose to live in Alaska is beyond me. That's what California is for.

Old-timer Alaskans don't suffer from this as much. Their heritage was built on snow and ice - all the way back to the gold-mining days when travel was quickest and easiest on the frozen rivers crawling across snow-locked tundra. I like to think that I have a little bit of sourdough Alaskan in me, even if it's not genetic. Sure, I come from a generation that hucks off snow-bound cliffs and trawls frozen wastelands for fun - but I also believe I have a deeper appreciation for it all, for the challenges and opportunities winter can bring.

Last winter, I learned to ride a bicycle on top of - and live beneath - a continuous cover of deep snow. This winter, I'll live in a part of Alaska that's wetter and warmer - but still cold and dark - and I'll have to meet a bunch of new challenges. This sore throat I'm fending off right now shows me that I still have a lot to learn.

But I was thrilled when I woke up this morning to a thin coat of "termination dust" across mountains 3,000 feet above my home. I love the cinematic effect the first mountain snow has, whitewashing dramatic strokes of silver over the Technicolor blaze of autumn-painted trees below. It almost feels like moving back in time, from the era of color to the era of black and white, back when stories were still told in silence and contrast.

That's what winter does for me - I often make the best discoveries in those stark shadows.

And despite its ominous implications, "termination dust" always gives me something to look forward to.