Columns 2012

Breakup is not for wimps

Ah breakup in Alaska – streets with puddles deep enough to qualify as Olympic diving venues, cars sending up waves you could surf, potholes that could swallow Cincinnati, and sidewalks covered with water that covers a sheet of ice that sends you sliding a good 500 feet before landing on your petootie. Yep, breakup, that time of year when all real Alaskans already have a plane ticket to somewhere, anywhere, else.

Let me just say that for any faults life in Barrow might have, at least the far north knows how to do breakup. It happens only once a year. Granted, more than one mother has thought that the mud her children tracked in was actually alive and laughing at her as she tried to clean the clothes to which it clung. But even that mother knew that once breakup was over, it was over. Done for. Finished. Kaput.

Anchorage, on the other hand, can have breakup in December, January or February and again in spring. Each one is ugly. But this spring’s breakup is redefining the term.  Each day is a new challenge of water frozen to ice overnight turning to water during the day, turning to ice at night.

I write this as my boots dry out in my utility room and my pants and socks tumble in the dryer. Yes, I went for a walk. I tried walking around the deep snow ruts. I tried walking carefully through their shallow edges. I tried ducking behind trees and other large objects when cars passed and sent a stream as high as the fountains at the Bellagio my way.

The only thing keeping me going is that plane ticket out that sits nestled in my office.  Soon I’ll be off to the lower 48 to places that rarely dropped below 70 this winter. I’ll go to a place where the streets may not be paved with gold but neither are they lined with ice-based puddles just waiting to snag the unwary into a free form flight of feet, hands and madly rotating arms.

When I got calls this winter from family in the Northeast bemoaning their lack of real winter, I gloated. Alaska, I told them, still clung to its winter traditions. We had snow and cold and a promise of a white Christmas that would be kept. That gloating lasted until we started see high triple digit snow amounts.  As pretty as that made this town, it not only created narrow streets and blind intersections, it also created the specter of a break up from hell. And here it is.

Breakup means going to the store and circling the parking lot looking for a place to park that does not involve walking through the Dead Sea to get to the sidewalk. It means being grateful that it’s light most of the time so it doesn’t matter that your headlights cannot penetrate the mud slopped up on them. It means if you are a walker that you have to be almost preternaturally aware of the sound of a vehicle coming up behind you so you can take the defensive position before the spray hits you. And if you are a biker… well, god save you. In this town there really is no season when you are safe and this is just another in a year round battle to claim even a small part of our sloppy turf for your own.

Of course, before you know it, this season will end and our colorful summer will begin. Flowers will bloom. Trees will bud. Birds will nest. Unfortunately, given the Matterhorn high pile of snow on my front lawn, I’m guessing it might take a tad longer than usual for that to happen at my house. I’m contemplating sticking plastic flowers into the snow pile when my real flowers would normally get planted.

As I ponder all this, I will head out to the lower 48 and leave my wonderful house sitter to watch the front lawn turn from a ski slope to a watercourse. I’ll brag to everyone outside who will listen about the horrors of breakup in Alaska and how only the hardiest of us can survive it. And I’ll claim it’s just a coincidence that this is the time of year I always take a trip out.