Saturday, November 21, 2009

Warm light on a winter's day

There's one main reason why winter is genuinely my favorite season of the year in Southeast Alaska. Spring has promise and new growth; summer has warmth and ease; fall has color and storms; but winter has stark, seemingly endless, staggering beauty.

Of course this beauty begins with snow, lots of it, as it whisks through white, bright sky, dressing the hemlock trees in billowing gowns and smothering the rot and decay on the ground. This elevation on Douglas Island, about 2,500 feet, is already coated in more than five feet of fluff, in mid-November. As the season progresses, snow becomes all-encompassing.

Another catalyst of beauty is the low winter sunlight, which in the north sometimes fails to reach above the mountains. Here in Southeast Alaska in mid-November, the sun lazily stretches out from the southeast at about 8 a.m., rolls over a shallow arch low on the horizon and slumps beneath the mountains to the southwest sometime after 3 p.m. Daylight is short and often smothered in clouds, but each clear winter day feels like a continuous sunrise/sunset, with the low-angle light casting a golden glow and long, dramatic shadows across the shimmering snow.

So I think I am coming down with a cold. We here in the Southeast have nothing on the brutal cold temperatures of much of the rest of Alaska, but even spending all day in temperatures in the 20s takes some getting used to, especially when you haven't yet mastered the conservation of body heat or the calorie intake needed to stoke the furnace. After my cold climb up McGinnis I was feeling pretty beaten down, thinking Friday needed to be a recovery day indoors, but then I woke up late to sunlight, casting its morning glow over the mountains at 11 a.m. I don't like to waste sunny days. I'm willing to give them what I've got, even if it's just about everything I have left, leaving me sore and coughing in the evening.

I carried my snowboard a short way up the Dan Moller trail, but then decided it was too annoying and unwieldy to be worth a short run or two down the snowmobile-tracked Douglas Ski Bowl. And, anyway, with the noon sunlight failing to reach above the ridge, I was more interested in traversing that ridge in the warm light than bombing down it in the shadows. So I ditched the board and continued on, lighter and happier in my snowshoes. (Despite my ambitions, I sense this is going to be an ongoing theme for me this winter. I'm willing to push my bike for miles just for a good ride, but for some reason I can't summon the same motivation for my snowboard.)

The ridge was bathed in golden light and flanked by low-lying clouds. Despite my growing cough and heavy-headed fatigue, I was in heaven. The snowshoeing got tough, with waist-deep powder transitioning invisibly to wind-hardened ice, and me without poles because I had planned on snowboarding (I don't like to carry too many things on my back that could impale me if/when I fall.) I grunted and dripped sweat as zig-zagged my way up a staircase of short cliffs, taking the hard way to avoid anything that looked avalanche-prone to my limited knowledge, although the snowpack seemed settled and stable.

The sun finally dipped below the low clouds just before 3 p.m, casting the last of its yellow light on the mainland mountains. I've become emotionally attached to these mountains, and felt a warm glow as I traced their contours and remembered the moments I spent on their peaks and in their shadows: From left, the high point on the Juneau Ridge, Mount Olds, a small sliver of Clark; then on the next ridge over, Gold Ridge, Gastineau Peak, Mount Roberts, and Sheep Mountain.

As the last light left the sky, the mountain called Split Thumb stood alone in illumination. This mountain stands as a symbol of "someday" for me, the hopeful promise of the future.

Self portrait on top of Mount Troy at sunset proper. I had planned to go back down the Dan Moller Trail, but it had taken me nearly three hours to get there and dark was not far away. I'd never before done the "traverse," but when I saw skin tracks I started following them down the other side of the mountain toward Eaglecrest Ski Area. I took long, loping strides through the deep powder to the side of the tracks, feeling as weightless and effortless as if I had been on my board, and arrived at the ski area in less than a half hour. I tromped down the slope and stuck out my thumb. A couple of tele-skiers drove me 12 miles back to where I started, scrunching their noses at the ice-crusted snowshoes hanging from my backpack. "You need to get some skis," they told me. Maybe, I replied, but it certainly would be a long learning process before I could take skis to the places I had visited that afternoon. I asked them if they saw the sunset, and they told me they spent all afternoon in the Wedding Bowl, making looping runs through the powder beneath the shadowed darkness of the Douglas Ridge. "So you didn't see the light and the clouds below Admiralty?" I asked them. They shook their heads. All of us sat back, satisfied with our own methods of adventure.