An Alaskan Summer

Paula Sanders McCarron

Inland Passage (section of) painting by Christine Roberts, 1996,
© 2001 by Christine Roberts, private collection

" The hike was great. It drizzled a bit but it didn't amount to much. We saw a black bear down near the river," my friend paused just long enough to catch her breath. "You should have seen the mosquitoes. They were awful. We couldn't get away from them. They were relentless. My arms and neck are covered with bite marks. I think I counted thirty of them. I've been scratching all weekend." Now there's a typical Alaskan talking about their summer adventure. An Alaskan will minimize the danger of a close encounter with voracious carnivores and instead detail the size and number of bite marks inflicted by the state's most notorious insect. The next time you have a dictionary in your hands, take a moment and look up the word insect. You'll most likely find the definition includes the word "small". Trust me, there are no small mosquitoes in Alaska. Like the state itself, Alaskan mosquitoes are oversized. Talking about Alaska is much like the proverbial story of the three blind men trying to describe an elephant. One man runs his hands along its' long, wrinkled trunk, the second wraps his arms around a thick, leathery leg while the third clings to hairy end of the elephant's tail.

Every person experiences Alaska in much the way those men experienced the elephant. Alaska is uniquely experienced to where you live and who you are. Here are some facts to help one better understand that statement. Alaska spans over 2,000 miles from east to west and approximately 1,000 miles from north to south. It has four major climate zones. About 260,000 people or approximately half the state's residents live in urban Anchorage. The smallest villages like Red Devil and Lime might have less than fifty residents. It is not unusual for people in these villages and larger ones to haul their water and rely on honeybuckets rather than sewage systems. In some places, there may be only a gravel airstrip and the "highway" might be a frozen river traveled by snowmachine. There are eleven distinct groups of Native Alaskan people, each having its' own culture, language and history. And then there are those of us who moved here from everywhere else.

I came to Anchorage in 1982 or as I now refer to it "The Year of No Summer". Having moved to Anchorage from New England, my only experience of summer was a long string of hot, humid days followed by hot, humid nights. I was unprepared for the mild temperatures of Southcentral Alaska, where you could keep studded tires on your vehicle until the first weeks of May and where you were advised not to plant anything until after Memorial Day had passed for fear of a late frost or snow.

During that first summer, there was not one day when I craved a tall tumbler of iced tea, let an ice cube trickle down my back or cringed to feel the hot plastic heat of a car adhere to the back of my leg. I wore a sweater every day and patiently waited for summer to begin.

True, I watched with fascination the ever growing amount of daylight. By June, the sun was setting well after eleven o'clock and rose again before I was out of bed at six in the morning. But I did not yet define summer by light. Summer to me was defined by the presence of heat or the relief of it.

Here in Anchorage, the temperatures hovered in the sixties and occasionally would reach into the seventies. If we were lucky to enough to get a day hitting the mid-seventies, then surely an old timer would complain, "If I'd wanted to live in a place this hot, I never have moved here in the first place!"

It rained frequently but after the rain there would often be rainbows. In fact, double rainbows quite a common occurrence. The sight of two glistening spectrums arching across the mountains makes it easy to believe a pot of gold might indeed be found in some deep green valley.

Though there were many days of rain, I never did hear thunder that first summer. As I would learn, thunderstorms are rare events due to the cool temperatures and low humidity. In fact, thunderstorms are so infrequent that when they happen schoolteachers will stop their lessons so the children can line up along the windows to watch the displays of lightening.

As August approached, the rain increased from a light, steady drizzle to a heavy,downpour. The state fair was in full swing in Palmer, a rural community about forty miles north of Anchorage. The local paper reported the names of ribbon-winning cooks whose blueberry pies, Spam casseroles, raspberry jams and rosehip jellies had been displayed and taste-tested. And of course, there were the sixty pound cabbages, the racing of pigs around a pen for the reward of a chocolate cream-filled cookie and the ever present carnival rides. Who is crazy enough to go do this stuff ? I thought as I scanned the pictures of fairgoers carrying cotton candy in one hand and umbrellas in the other.

It was nearly the end of August when the voluminous, mottled gray-white clouds rolled back from the peaks of the Chugach Range to reveal a layer of snow. One evening, a local news announcer said, "Well, that's it, folks. There's termination dust on the mountains and the fireweed stalk has come to full bloom. That's it. Summer's over." Summer's over? What on earth is he talking about, I wondered. Summer had never even begun!

That's when I resolved to never let summer slip past me unnoticed again. Like many people, I had been dazzled by the grand scale of this place or stunned or maybe even intimidated by its' massive glaciers, the endless views of mountains, valleys, rivers and millions of lakes. But now I was ready to turn my attention to the smaller and more subtle signs of the Alaskan summer.

I started with wildflowers. I find it ironic that forget-me-nots represent the largest state as they are perhaps the smallest of all the wildflowers. I've discovered chocolate lilies, monkshood, columbine, wild geranium, lupine, dogwood, shooting stars, iris, violets, chiming bells, Jacob's ladder, bog rosemary, larkspur, and bluebells along roadsides, in the woods and near lakes. I delighted in learning as many as I could both by sight and by name.

I'm not a dedicated bird watcher but I know to listen for the honking of the Canadian geese who come back to raise their young and the feisty, screeching magpies protecting their nests. I've learned to keep track of the comings and goings of the elegant trumpeter swans and how to spot an eagle along the inlet waters of Turnagain Arm. I've learned to keep note of the comings and goings of friends, too. For whatever combination of reasons, Alaska's population is a transient one. It's not at all uncommon for long-time Alaskans to pack up and head back to the Lower 48 and when they do, they often leave in August which allows them to enjoy one last, lovely Alaskan summer and to be down the highway before the snow flies.

Rain is still part of the ephemeral Alaska summer but my mind is no longer clouded by lingering yearning for how I think summer should be. I'd like to think that after nearly twenty years of living here that I've come to an acceptance of this place on its' own terms, have an appreciation of it and a willingness to celebrate its' uniqueness.

Last night as I sat with a friend in my back yard, we watched chickadees pluck sunflower seeds from the feeder. Near the feeder on another tree limb, I'd hung a wind chime. Every so often one of the chickadees would lightly land on the chime and then push off again into flight, making the chime ring. It was a delightful thing and the two of laughed several times. But the best was yet to come.

Within a short time, we heard the soft pounding of a drum coming from the woods on the other side of the road. Soon voices accompanied the drumming with chanting. I did not know the words but recognized the songs as those belonging to Alaska Native people. Are they dancing over there? I wondered. This is the most amazing place! And speaking of amazing, did I mention the size of our mosquitoes?

Copyright©2001 by Paula Sanders McCarron

The wonders of the web! When Ms. McCarron found us and listed our WxNW 'zine on her web page we decided to talk a look at her pages and found another friendly, fine Northwest writer publishing herself and encouraging others. We are happy to present to our readers another view of the far reaches of the Pacific Northwest .

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