Alaska in the Extreme
Reflections on the Beauty of Winter Along the Arctic Circle
Winter at and near Selawik National Wildlife Refuge is long, cold and, at its height, dark. It is extreme, but it has a distinct beauty all its own. As one who has lived in northwest Alaska and worked at the refuge for eight years, here are a few of my impressions of winter along the Arctic Circle. Some might surprise you.
Winter Light Is Beautiful
Although mid-winter days are short — just 1 hour 41 minutes of daylight on the winter solstice in late December — this makes the light all the more precious. We enjoy seeing both sunrise and sunset each day without alarm clocks. When the land is blanketed in snow, and the days are shortest, we get twilight conditions, in which the world is a pastel-hued painting. Shades of lavender, blue and apricot abound, with highlights of gold or magenta.
Winter Is Restful
With long daylight during our short summer, local people and wildlife try to pack as much in to summer as possible. By the time we’ve wrapped up the busy season of boating, fishing, hunting, berry picking and putting everything away for winter, many of us are ready for a more restful time. In winter we can catch up with friends, take care of indoor projects, and travel across the land in different ways.
Winter Means Freedom
Winter allows us access to parts of the refuge we’d otherwise never see. Anyone who has hiked across wet Alaskan tundra, replete with tussocks and swarms of insects, or has battled through a dense alder thicket knows that summer overland travel is extremely limited in these terrains. Living in a roadless region, we’re pretty much confined to travel along waterways by boat in summer. However, come winter when this is all blanketed in several feet of snow and waterways are safely frozen, we can snowmobile, ski, snowshoe, mush dogs and land ski planes on these otherwise inaccessible areas, enjoying travel, camping, hunting and exploration.
Winter Means Coping
Because it is cold — average low in February of minus 10 Fahrenheit — it takes a lot of effort or costs a lot of money to heat our houses with firewood or furnaces. We have to learn how to dress for the cold, and put on snowpants, boots, mittens, neckwarmer, hat and coat each time we venture out. This can get tiresome and time-consuming, but proper gear makes all the difference in staying comfortable. Some of us use sunlight lamps or vitamin D supplements to keep us going until the sun really comes back.
Animals Are Well-Adapted
Animals that stay the winter have thick fur or down feathers, hollow hairs that trap warmth, or antifreeze in their blood (for example, spiders and wood frogs). They also cache food and burrow into the snow for insulation.
Ptarmigan are the quintessential birds of winter. Their color-changing plumage is great camouflage, and provides great insulation. They even have abundant feathers on their feet. Their ability to fly into powdery banks of deep snow — and sleep, snug and hidden away — is a great winter maneuver.
Another winter survival mechanism animals have is avoidance, which is why the Arctic is home to so many epic migrations. Of the many species that live north of the Arctic Circle, only a few stay year-round. Of those, many go for “avoidance lite” by hibernating or going dormant, sleeping through winter (ground squirrels, wood frogs, brown and black bears).
Moonlight + Snow = Activity
People and animals can be active during moonlight because of light reflection off the snow. It’s almost possible to read a book by moonlight in winter here. So, although the darkness probably does limit animals in some ways during the depths of winter, they are more able to be active at hunting or foraging than you might think.
The Arctic Is a Desert
The accumulation of snow provides water for Selawik National Wildlife Refuge’s rivers and wetlands. If you see tundra plants and green grasses in summer, it’s not intuitive to know that the Arctic is a desert with limited precipitation each year — most of it snow. This water is retained as surface water because of the permafrost beneath the soil, which doesn’t allow water to soak in. That leaves a landscape with the numerous ponds, lakes and sloughs that make Selawik Refuge ideal habitat for breeding shorebirds and waterfowl that come here in the tens of thousands each year.
We Recognize People by Outerwear
We get to know people by their jackets and hats, because for months on end we might not see people without them on. We often have our faces covered by scarves, too. More than once a friend has gotten a new coat, and I’ve walked right past them without recognizing them.
Winter Is Followed by Breakup
The phenomenon of abundant snow melting, river ice breaking up and a rush of water and ice chunks flowing downstream is known as spring breakup. Breakup scours the land clean, sculpting gravel bars, sandbars and riverbanks so that each year visitors may feel like they’re the first people to walk on a particular spot. Breakup is also an important firewood delivery system, carrying dead and downed trees from upriver areas (which are boreal forest habitat) to the tundra environment downriver, and depositing driftwood along the way for the benefit of people. Breakup and other runoff events bring nutrients from leaf litter, etc. into the rivers to help support the aquatic ecosystem’s productivity.
Winter Is Really a Series of Sub-Seasons
Northwest Arctic resident naturalist Bob Uhl described our sub-seasons like this.
Late fall, October to mid-December: fresh water sources freeze up, while sea ice is still growing. As light dwindles away, outdoor activity gradually decreases.
Deep winter, mid-December to January: Cold, dark, and stormy, this is the most dormant time of year for outdoor activities. People enjoy supplies stored away during other seasons and indoor pursuits, including socializing.
Late winter, February and March: Sunlight returns and people get out again. Surface snow is usually firmer and more plentiful, and near-shore ocean ice is ground fast.
To that I’d add …
Early spring, April to mid-May: Days are long, traveling is good, and people spend a lot of time ice fishing and traveling until the ice deteriorates and the snow begins to melt. It’s a spring with snow, ice, hats and coats, not ducklings and daffodils.
Daylight Changes Quickly
As dark as it gets in deep winter, daylight actually swings back quickly. At the refuge, we gain more than seven minutes of light daily after the winter solstice. By the vernal equinox in March we’re back to 12 hours of daylight. During March and April sunglasses become a necessity as we’re basking in powerful sunshine bouncing off the ice and snow.