It is winter solstice today. This story came to mind of a much younger me living in Alaska…
In December, the sun dips low in the peach and lavender sky at 1 PM in Fairbanks, Alaska. Night begins to fall slowly at that latitude. When I lived there I learned to embrace the darkness lest I get claustrophobic in the small confines of our cabin. Dressed in layers of wool with a headlamp, I’d go chop firewood, shovel snow, or better yet, go out for a night ski. We lived on Yellow Snow Rd., aptly named for the many dog teams that lived on it so there were plenty of dog trails to ski on in the neighborhood.
Hoar frost was an event. At subfreezing temperatures, moisture present in the air would freeze in a crystalline structure and collect on the surfaces of branches eventually coating them in a sparking beard of white. At 10 below zero to 10 degrees above, a hoar frost provided the perfect conditions to ski.
I placed my ski boots on a trivet on the woodstove to warm them while I dressed and assembled the right gear. Over my knit hat went the strap of my headlamp. I tucked the battery pack in the pocket of my anorak then stepped in my climbing harness of nylon webbing with a quick-release snap that attached to a 3/8 “8-foot nylon rope and pulled it up over my wool pants. This was my panic button in case we met a moose or other obstacle and would need to unhook my dog fast. Last was harnessing up Tsaina (the T is silent), a golden retriever husky mix, who was not particularly adept at pulling or retrieving, but we made do together. Her harness of purple webbing was a chore to put on as she wiggled and barked with excitement for the adventure to come
My wood skis always had a good coat of green wax in deep winter for optimum glide in these temperatures (this was before the time of waxless fiberglass skis). Grabbing my skis and bamboo poles we exited the cabin and down the snowy stairs of the porch. I clipped on my skis and called Tsiana. She knew to present her backside to me so I could clip the lead rope to her harness. “Go!” I called and we were off down the trail into a winter wonderland.
The spur trail from the cabin headed downhill to the main mushers trail in Goldstream Valley. Tsaina pulled me with the enthusiasm of a seasoned sled dog, galloping, ears perked and tail slung low in anticipation. We sped down the trail, the towering willows heavy laden with hoar frost forming a tunnel over us. My headlamp reflected off this crystalline portal, dazzling in the night as we descended. Nearby dog teams barked in chorus only to add to Tsaina’s adrenaline. At this point, active skiing wasn’t necessary. I only poled to keep my balance my muscles alert with the thrill.
Eventually, we reached the valley trail and the landscape opened to glittering white. I was alone with my dog and the swish of my skis cutting through the crystals shimmering like diamonds atop the surface of the snow. Tsaina kept a steady pace out in front as I glided under a blanket of stars, our breath in clouds before us. We continued until winded and then we turned around and headed back home.
The return was not nearly as memorable, Tsaina, not caring to put in much effort now, kept the lead line just taught enough not to get a scolding. I was at the mercy of my own power as we puffed back up the trail. Finally, the lights of the cabin appeared through the sparkling hoar frost. Once home off came the skis and harnesses. I brushed the snow off the dog, myself, and stomped my boots clean. As we entered the cabin, I shed my fogged up glasses and layers of clothing, fatiqued but filled to the brim with the magic of a winter night and a rare glimpse of heaven.
Artwork by the author
To all my readers- may you all find a bit of sparkle inside the darkness. Blessed solstice to you.