Homer Alaska - Opinion

Story last updated at 5:11 PM on Wednesday, December 21, 2011

It's light, not cold and dark, that makes Alaska so special

Growing up in Florida, I learned about winter the way a child of the Midwest learns about oceans — as a remote thing with no reality in my immediate world.

Our school books, written and illustrated by dang Yankees, depicted snowy landscapes, with children bundled up in heavy wool jackets and scarves. Heck, that's what we Floridians did when it got bitter cold, like 35 degrees. I understood that around December the temperatures dropped, the daylight got shorter and sometimes water that froze into snowflakes fell and fell and fell.

I thought I understood Alaska, too. I read Robert Service and Jack London. I saw Life magazine articles about the 1964 earthquake, and knew Alaska had cities and cars. I knew Alaska Natives didn't live in igloos.

What nobody told me about was the light.

In the Lower 48 one can find winters as bitter as Alaska. North Dakota, Minnesota and Maine can share bragging rights with us.

But here in the high latitudes, we share a quality only the circumpolar north knows.

Florida does not have light like this. In the subtropics, sun shines high in the sky, moving from east to west during the day in an arc almost directly overhead. The sun is relentless, constant and a brilliant force both healing and scary.

After moving to Alaska in December of 1979, it took me some months to understand the sun. The winter sun burned weak, and it would take long minutes on a cloudless day to feel even a rosy glow on my face. It hardly rose at all above the horizon. On a clear day at sunset, ice on the ocean burned pink and the mountains lit up with a brightness that stunned me the first time I saw it. On cloudier days, the sky turned pale, even gray, but with a somber, serene aspect. "White nights," the Russians call this time. If you want to understand northern light, listen to Russians, Norwegians, Finns and Swedes.

That first winter in Alaska, as the daylight hours lengthened after the winter solstice, the quick march of minutes amazed me. We like to impress each other with that, I think, which is why radio weather announcers count the daily gain of daylight. Where else in America do people even care that today the sun rises at 10:05 a.m. and sets at 4:04 p.m., a loss of no minutes?

While the daylight lengthens, the sun moves higher in the sky. It's like watching a rainbow gallop to the north, its flanks spreading ever wider to east and west. The first summer I lived in Alaska I spent seven weeks in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge at Lorenz's Overlook, an archaeological dig 10 miles from Demarcation Bay in the foothills of the Brooks Range. In the arctic summer, that arc turns into a ring. The sun doesn't set — it slides toward the northern horizon, dancing above it and then rising up.

I hadn't known sunlight could be so golden, so rich. At Lorenz's Overlook, we set aside an hour or two in the evening to photograph the day's work. The light bathed everything in a magical sheen. At high summer, when the wildflowers bloom and the tundra grasses turned green, the land was emerald.

At New College in Sarasota, Fla., where I went to college, often I would walk down to Sarasota Bay and watch the sun go down. Marvelous as a Florida sunset can be, it doesn't last, and within minutes, turns to deep dark.

In Alaska at sunset, the light seems to go on forever. Even when the sun sets, it takes its time, a pale pink light enduring long after that star has slid behind the horizon. The gloaming, the Scots call it. They understand the northern light, too.

We Alaskans like to think the cold and darkness make us special, make us different, but I think it's more. It is that light. No one can really understand it until they have come here, whether on this darkest winter day or the summer's brightest night. Our light sneaks in low, subtle and magical. Soon the light will change, the days will grow longer, but at Latitude 59 degrees and farther north, the light always will be awe-inspiring, mysterious and beautiful.

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.