Saturday, May 1, 2010

Winter's silence is broken...

Interior Alaska is a land of extremes. The sub-arctic climate has but two seasons according to popular descriptions: summer and the rest of the year. From October through mid-April, the reign of winter is absolute.



The arrival of summer in late April/early May is announced by the thundering sounds of breaking ice on the larger rivers. After months of silence, the event seems as sudden as it is spectacular. First, the smaller streams and rivers thaw sending currents of water out over the river ice or swelling the flow from underneath. As the flow increases, the river ice is lifted and begins to move. Motion causes the frozen masses to splinter and shatter, releasing ice floes which tumble down the valleys shoving away everything in their path. As the ice slabs rush downstream knocking each other to bits, they often lodge together forming temporary dams backing up acres of water. Pressure builds until the dam collapses and the new torrent hurtles ice and uprooted trees over the river's banks. Watching the mountains of ice alternately building and falling, one is filled with a sense of awe and gratitude for the return of life and light to this northern land. Soon enough, the air will heat up to nearly 100 in nearly round-the-clock sunlight, but now, for a few brief spring weeks, the battle will rage between winter's fading grip and summer's coming triumph with snow squalls, hail storms, warm, sun-soothing mornings, icy cold-windy afternoons, brief cold rain shower and hot dry dust devils. 


During this brief interlude between the silence of winter and business of summer, it is not only the creeks and rivers that stir to life; the land and sky are alive with the migration of all who come to partake of the intense sub-acrtic summer. No longer is the silence of the land dominant. The constant murmur of creeks to the roaring of swollen rivers is a backdrop to the sudden beat of hooves of passing caribou, unmistakable calls of Sandhill cranes passing overhead in their seemingly effortless journey north or the drumming of the ruffed grouse in  their spring mating ritual. The ponds and lakes are busy with cackling geese and quacking ducks and soon, the noisy chorus of wood frogs and winnowing sound of the male snipe. It will be late September before the silence begins to return so might as well join in symphony...