Thursday, October 22, 2009

This amazing autumn

(My newspaper trail column for this week)

By Jill Homer
Juneau Empire

I feel like I have been getting away with something I shouldn’t be.

That first subtle tinge of guilt came as I crested the snow-swept summit of Mount Roberts one bluebird Friday, gazing out at a carpet of fog as it disintegrated over the shimmering Gastineau Channel.

“This is not what Oct. 2 should be like,” I thought.

And again, during a five-day stretch of unconscionably dry weather, when I climbed up to the Grandchild Ridge north of Mount Stroller White and sprawled in short sleeves on the soft tundra.

“This can’t be Oct. 14,” I thought.

My guilt about my glutinous consumption of late-season vitamin D reached a full boil on Tuesday as I marched through the soft snow near the summit of Mount McGinnis, looking at the startling contrast of light and shadow on the Mendenhall Glacier. “Oct. 20 and it’s still beautiful,” I thought. “This just can’t be real.”

In short, I have been getting out. A lot. In the sunlight. A lot. And something about that just isn’t right.

Call it seasonal reflective disorder. Autumn sunshine just isn’t normal. In Southeast Alaska’s climate, I’m not even sure it’s legal. And yet it’s so sublimely intoxicating that it’s revealed high gears I didn’t even know I had. I come home from work at midnight and set the alarm for 6 a.m., drag my battered legs along a leaf-strewn trail or rocky ridge for several lung-busting hours, and then I do it the next day, and the next. I feel like I can’t slow down unless the usual sheets of cold rain are falling from the sky — which they rarely are, and so I don’t.

And yet, I don’t get tired. At least not in the way I should. Quite the contrary — I open my eyes to yet another sun-drenched morning, and I’m instantly injected with a shot of highly potent energy that feels like it’s going to somehow become toxic if I don’t work it out of my system.
The resulting pursuits to purge that energy and soak up sunshine have taken me places I could hardly dream of during the infamously dreary summer of 2008: the Juneau Ridge, Cairn Peak and Sheep Mountain, just to name a few. Last year, I waited for months for a weather window to open wide enough that I could simply climb Mount McGinnis. It never came. This year, an entire season’s worth of mountaineering opportunities opened up in the six weeks that are normally reserved for short, soggy mud runs followed by guiltless consumption of carbs.

I can’t say I’ve earned it, although I did endure three Southeast Alaska autumns prior to this one. In 2006, I dabbled in the experimental sport of “bike-swim” by trying to pilot my mountain bike around the heavily flooded Dredge Lake trails. In 2007, I finally bought a boot drier after each and every one of my running shoes became caked in mildew. In 2008, I just accepted that I had seasonal affective disorder and ate a copious number of cookies.

Last year was the year Juneau broke all kinds of uplifting weather records. We had wind records, daily rainfall records and consecutive days of rain records. According to the National Weather Service, Juneau received 15 inches of rain in October 2008. Fifteen! I'm going to come right out and say that's as much precipitation as those whiners in Anchorage receive in a year.

It could be worse. In 1999, Juneau only saw two dry days in the entire months of September and October. In 2005, torrential rains led to mudslides. In fact, it seemed record-breaking wetness was becoming the norm, until this year.

As of Oct. 21, Juneau’s monthly precipitation total was a measly 3.23 inches. Three-point-two-three! Those are June numbers. The perfect numbers to bust out a full-on fall trekking frenzy.

I can’t be the only Juneau resident who feels this way. I’ve seen others out there, riding bikes along Glacier Highway, hauling paragliding gear up Thunder Mountain, paddling the calm waters near False Outer Point long after all the kayaking tourists returned to the balmy south. Every single one of them, like me, had a big smile stretched across their face, as though they, like me, had been let in on some great secret that no one else knew.

The secret: It’s always sunny in Juneau.

OK, I know it can’t be a secret if it’s not even true. But this autumn, it felt true — true enough to be the source of much fun, and much guilt.

But like all guilty pleasures, Juneau’s amazing autumn couldn’t last forever. Based on Friday’s forecast, I’m guessing that as you read this column, sideways rain is pelting your window while 25 mph winds blow the 40-degree air around like an unwelcome blast of air conditioning.

And yet, next week, hopes for dry days re-emerge.

In fact, the weather forecast for Tuesday is a simple “mostly cloudy.”

I don’t know about you, but I’ve soaked up too much sunshine this year to take the path of pessimism. Maybe it will be Oct. 27, dang near winter, but I’m going to hold on to hope. And come Tuesday morning, I’ll most likely be at the trailhead of some mountain, ice ax in hand, still hoping.