Editor’s Notebook: Letter from the land of the midnight sun
KENAI, ALASKA, June 18 – There was a moose walking down the sidewalk the other morning.
It was strolling along with a very businesslike manner, unconcerned at the shouts coming from the neighborhood children playing in their yards. Five foot tall at the shoulder and of medium size for a moose, it galloped along like a Labrador or a beagle might in another small town neighborhood.
But it was a moose here, because things are bigger here.
I was born up in Alaska, about 30 years ago now, and haven’t been back since I was 3 years old. I know I’ve changed a lot since then – learned to tie my shoes, not drool so much, began to read and write, that sort of thing – but since I never went back, I wouldn’t know if Alaska has changed. This seemed an opportune time to venture North and visit the land of my birth.
My parents lived here for several years while my dad was stationed with the U.S. Air Force. They remember life here better than I, and what it’s like to live in a place that makes the Sierra Nevada seem positively urban.
In late June, the sun never quite sets here. Of course, I knew of that going in, but it still has been the most peculiar thing to get used to. We have not seen natural darkness for a week now, and the light seems to have a sharp edge to it as the days wear on. A supermarket at 9:30 p.m. on a Friday night in most places would be dead empty, but here it’s still full of families and kids, locals and tourists stocking up on beer, fishing line and pizza. You wake up at 4:30 a.m. to use the bathroom and from the light, it could be 4:30 p.m., and for a moment you wonder if you’ve horribly overslept.
My father said he never did quite get used to the midnight sun during his assignment in Fairbanks; he just adapted. Families in the apartment block on his base would have block party barbecues at 2 a.m. and think nothing of it. The winters, with the unblinking darkness, were harder still, he said.
Things simply get more extreme here. There is still as much snow on the four mountain ranges surrounding Anchorage now as there is on Donner Summit at the height of a record snow year. The temperature, in the Interior, can have the most extreme swings on Earth, from a hundred degrees above to a hundred degrees below zero. Towering Denali (“Only people from Ohio call it Mt. McKinley,” I was told) can be seen from Anchorage on a clear day – at more than 20,000 feet tall, the biggest mountain in North America.
In the lower 48, for example, fishing is a sportsman’s hobby. Fishing here is the next best thing to religion, and in some places may even supercede it.
On a balmy Sunday morning driving along the Sterling Highway back toward Anchorage, it seemed the church parking lots mostly stood forlorn and empty, while the roadside bridges and lakes were jam-packed with trucks and motor homes. In every stream to be seen, men and women enjoyed the communion of the rod and reel and prayed to the altar of the big catch.
Fishing is serious business. Whole towns exist for no other reason than to provide a place to dock your boat and buy new fishing line. Halibut is a fine meal in Alaska in June.
In Homer, Alaska, a place that bills itself as the “Halibut Capital of the World,” a grown man could even be seen dressed in an enormous halibut costume walking down the side of the road, exhorting customers to go give Pappy’s Fish House a try.
The halibut man waved as we went past, and even though you could glimpse his black tennis shoes you might for a moment think the fish man was for real, along with the jogging moose and soaring bald eagles as much a part of the sense of Alaska as big cacti are in Arizona or giant cowboy hats to Texas.
Sierra Sun Editor Nik Dirga grew up in Nevada County.
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