Date: May 12
May mileage: 440.2
I first set foot in Alaska on May 30, 2003. We rolled across the state line at a point much further north than the city where I live now, crossing the Yukon River on a ferry and entering the state on the “Top of the World” highway. The first Alaska town I visited was Chicken, followed by a few days in Fairbanks before we set out to drive our crumbling Ford Econoline van “all the way to Prudhoe Bay” on the Dalton Highway.
My first memories of Alaska are set in the drab background of early spring - barren birch trees, twisting black spruce and skeletal devil’s club stalks. Fairbanks was just starting to green up when we rolled through. But then we just kept moving further north, to places where the rivers were still clogged with ice and clumps of matted yellow grass carpeted the tundra. We crossed the snow-patched plain of the North Slope and took an oil company-owned tour bus the last nine miles to the edge of the Arctic Ocean. I remember walking onto the frozen surface of the sea as a 35-degree chill gripped the June air and thinking that weren’t driving “North to the Future.” We were running away from spring.
I didn’t know then that the life cycle moves very quickly in the Arctic, and that spring had already arrived. We had scarcely reached the northern edge of the Brooks Range on the return trip when green began to burst from the ground. Blades of grass poked up from the dry tussocks and white and pink flowers opened overnight. We set up camp near the Bettles River, and my three friends went to bed after a small thunderstorm rolled in. I took shelter in the van and read in the gray evening light until the rain moved through. From behind fading strips of storm clouds, the 1 a.m. sun emerged low on the horizon. The Bettles River, which seemed so quiet and peaceful just hours before, was roaring with murky storm runoff and floating chunks of ice. I put my book down and pulled open the van door. The sudden rush of aroma was so intense that I stepped outside just to make sure there wasn’t something wrong. There was an otherworldly sweetness to the air, almost chemical, like saccharin, infused with musty hints of mulch and cedar. It was a smell that had stagnated for months and months, frozen and flavorless in winter. With the accelerating thaw, all of the subtle odors that lingered through the seasons - the fermented berries of fall, the wilted flowers of summer, the wet grass and dirty ice and millions upon millions of newborn seedlings - broke free all at once in a blast of fragrance. It was almost like being sprayed in the face with strong perfume - revolting and exhilarating at the same time. It was the smell of the slow rotting of the dead and the rapid rush to new life. The smell of Alaska in the springtime.
The air smelled a little like that outside today.