Did you notice it was 37 below in Barrow recently? Boy, talk about getting hit with an overwhelming wave of nostalgia and homesickness. 37 below. Just the thought of it sets my heart pounding and my feet itching to lace up and go out and take a long walk on the tundra. Of course, I learned a long time ago that expressing these opinions just gives my relatives another piece of paper for the file marked “Why Elise needs to go to a home” but I can’t help it. I can’t not express my exuberance at the idea of challenging the power of 37 below zero weather.
I find it hard to understand Alaskans who complain about the cold, dark weather of winter here. First of all, they really should have turned south long before they hit our borders if this is a problem for them. After all, this is Alaska – land of snow, ice and cold. Granted it may not be that way for much longer, what with global warming melting the permafrost right out from under us, but that still describes us for at least the next few decades.
At the risk of sounding much older than I actually want to be, I’ve been here long enough to remember when Alaskan winters truly packed a punch. Not these puny little taps on the chin we get nowadays. I’m talking about the full blown, bring you to your knees winter where you were sure Mother Nature was a skilled S&M master. She’d bring out a sun so brilliant on the glistening snow that just looking outside would bring tears to your eyes. You’d head out thinking that anything that bright and beautiful would have to be bringing some warmth with it. You’d step out the door and the chill of 40 below would slap you down before you could inhale deeply enough to frostbite your lungs.
Now that’s an Alaskan winter.
In my early years in Barrow, before we had a borough that provided bus services, there were only three ways of getting around. One involved begging your parents to let you use their ski doo. Another involved begging your parents to let you use their car. Neither request was filled often enough to make it a reliable form of transportation. There were some cabs back then, but maintenance on them wasn’t all it could have been, making walking the safer option. And walk we did. Everywhere and anywhere we needed to go. Day or night, midnight sun or winter darkness, 40 above or 40 below.
I had some friends who lived across a lagoon from my home back then. They would occasionally get a huge order of king crab in and invite friends over for king crab and Navaho fry bread. There wasn’t a moment’s hesitation before my husband and I would have our coats on and be heading across that open lagoon in some mighty frigid temperatures. Truth be told, I would have walked a lot further for a piece of Alice’s fry bread.
We’d head back a few hours later, filled up on bread, crab, good company and good friends. We’d walk into the wind, heads bowed, hoods pulled down over our faces. The air was so cold that each inhale was almost painful. We’d get home and I’d be so exhilarated I couldn’t sleep for hours.
Years later I was still walking. In fact, it was a point of pride with me that I walked my dog all year round in Barrow. So long as there was enough light on the road to see if any foxes or wolves were around, we’d walk. If the weatherman said it was 30 below with a wind chill to 45 below, I’d just add an extra scarf.
I’m probably the only person in the world who gets homesick for Barrow in the winter. I know on some levels that statement should scare me but it doesn’t. It just makes me want to go lower the thermostat in my house a little more, sit in my easy chair with a scarf around my neck and remember the days of my youth when the cold was an element I loved and loathed, embraced and fought and eventually wrestled into a welcome part of my life.