Friday, October 8, 2010

Winter Seasons

It is snowing lightly. The kids go in and out, in and out.  Avery mostly stomps around in her boots and explores every snow covered surface up close before knocking and wiping the snow off. Noah is all about ground snow removal, dragging rakes and shovels across the porch and resorting to his digger if need be. I've been in full fall baking mode. Yesterday I baked muffins and cookies, and roasted a couple winter squash.  I'm thinking squash soup with shallots and sage, maybe a squash/pumpkin pie are on the list for today.

Winter has been on my mind lately. Sometimes it seems like we have two seasons here, winter and not winter. I know that technically we are just entering fall now, and I suppose that I could feel like it is fall here too, for another week or so, but with the ground frozen and with a light dusting of snow, it is beginning to feel more like early winter. I consider it to be winter when there is consistent snow on the ground, the ground is frozen, and the temperatures are consistently below freezing; usually October until mid April: a long winter. While our temperatures fluctuate throughout the winter, from now on we won't see much above freezing. Unfortunately for our perennials, we tend to get cold temperatures before we have adequate snow fall to protect them. It is rare for it to warm up enough to rain, or to melt all of our snow. By November we should have a decent snow covering, and most likely, it is here to stay until April. I tend to think of winter having it's own seasons. Surely the Alaskan Native languages have multiple names for my awkward attempt to describe our winter seasons that I think of as early winter, mid winter and late winter. Before I go on I should say that this is my own interpretation of our winters, and I have no idea if other Fairbanksans feel similarly.

Early winter starts sometime in October and extends into December. The nights are surprisingly early and the dark mornings stretch later each day. We lose something like six to seven minutes of daylight each day, and it is startling after such a long light summer. We are reminded that there is a moon and stars in the sky, which we haven't seen in such clarity since last winter. The shade of the woods and hillsides range from light gold to rusty brown and plum and provide a lovely background and boarder to the new white snow. I am constantly in awe of how beautiful this time of year is. They say we don't have fall reds here, but the fireweed, rose bushes, high bush cranberries and currants all seem to keep some of their leaves, which are often splashes of crimson above the snow. The sky is no longer the clear bright blue of September, rather it is usually a dull winter gray during the day, receding into insignificance to showcase the rusty brush and spiny bare adorned with crystals and early snow. Early winter is a time of excitement and anticipation, a time to rest and enjoy our summer labors and a time of nervous hesitation at the certain knowledge of what is before us.

Late November and  December tend to relieve my initial dread of winter, they are the essence of winter wonderland, fresh white snow blankets the ground, the trees are picture perfect images of snowy laden woods, and the chickadees flock to the feeders. These are the darkest months but not the coldest. When the temperatures first start dropping it feels cold, but we gradually adjust and it isn't long at all before ten degrees feels warm, after weeks of sub-zero. The hardest part about early winter for me is the dryness. We are an arctic desert. I think we get most of our precipitation and humidity in the summer. The dryness of our winters is hard on the lips and hands, but at least the cold is not as bone chilling as it would be otherwise. We also have very little wind. It seems the wind we do get is in late winter and spring. Both humidity and wind factor greatly into how bearable the cold is, and that we have little of both certainly helps.

Up until the New Year I'm usually pretty content with winter. I enjoy the Holiday preparations and festivities, especially meal planning and baking. Probably no matter where I lived, I'd be a little down after the Holiday excitement. It doesn't help that January is still very dark and extremely cold, and winter seems never-ending. I tend to think of late December through February as mid winter. These are our coldest months often remaining in the twenty and thirty below zero range for weeks at a time, and occasionally dipping down to fifty and sixty below zero, without wind shield. The hardest part for me is that the lack of daylight starts taking it's toll. We only receive a  few hours of direct sun, in early afternoon. The sun barely skims above the horizon before setting. When the wind blows through, it blows all the snow off the trees making for a desolate barren scene. Town is often filled with dense ice-fog, and the roads are icy, even vehicles move sluggishly in the extreme cold temperatures. All is dim, dusky and very cold. I am reluctant to leave the house in January, and would much rather hunker down around the wood fire and drink hot chocolate all month.

February and March can still be extremely cold, but the sun is noticeably brighter, and the days longer. And while the thought of a few more months of snow is disheartening, our days tend to revolve around making the most of the direct sun we do get.  Because our property is on a west facing hill, we don't get any sun here in December or January. The sun starts hitting our property in February, and because by then I've missed it so, I usually mark the big event on the calendar. It is usually the second week in February. It hits the garden and chicken coop first, and takes another week to make it in our south facing french doors and into the living room. Naturally, we try to get outside and walk when the sun is shining on the driveway, and make it inside to sit on a blanket in the sun once it makes it to the house, then we move with it as it moves through the house.

I consider the end of February and March as late winter. The first couple weeks of April are often still snowy, but are certainly feeling like spring. From March on we are getting lots of wonderful direct sun, so much so that it glares of the snow and we start pulling out the sunglasses. In March there are lots of fun winter activities, dog races and annual ice carving festival. The temperatures are generally milder, making it easier to get out with the kids. Indoors we are starting seeds and preparing for goat births. I think of March as bright white and brilliant blue. We are finally able to get out a bunch and enjoy all the snow. Fairbanksans really come out in full force in March, ski-ing,sledding, walking. Everyone trying to make the most of the snow and pleasant winter weather before everything turns into a slushy mess. If there wasn't so much to do in March and April, I would go crazy with the desire to see green. Trying to keep on a seed sowing schedule and the excitement of goat births really helps with late winter/early spring dull-drums.  By the end of April the snow is finally gone and the ground is thawed. The first sign of green is usually the second week of May. We usually have just a couple weeks of brown and mud before we see green. By then even brown is welcome and I'm happy just to see the ground again.

Ah, Fairbanks winters...
I know this post should include pictures. I took pictures of the snow yesterday but then my husband took off on an unexpected job away from home, with the camera. So, alas, the first snowy pictures will be delayed a few more days. Take care and enjoy your fall, whether you are blessed with a summery fall or a wintry one.


Tonya Gunn said...

it is so interesting to learn of your life in Alaska. We live just miles from the Canadian border here in northern Vermont and our winters can seem very long as well - but not as long as yours... I admire all you grow in the summer and all your family does.
Warm wishes, Tonya

Emily said...

Thanks Tonya, I noticed we were doing similar things about the same time this summer; sending the kids out to pick chamomile flowers and raspberries. I'm not very crafty, but I have been inspired by all the crafts and homemade items you and your children make.