© 1986 by Kathleen Kemsley, first published in We Alaskans magazine, May 1986.
My usual habit of taking the S-curves on two wheels was confounded this afternoon when I fell in behind a camper bearing Oregon plates. I watched with thinly concealed glee as the slow-moving vehicle hit every frost heave head on. The driver was unfamiliar with the phenomenon of breakup, and his shocks and his carefully stored dishes were taking the brunt of the consequences.
I went for this drive in search of spring. Along the highway, stubble of willow bushes, trimmed close to the ground by lean moose, were crimson in anticipation of the chlorophylled days ahead. White spruce stood mired in swampy sinkholes, patient as ever, but atop the frozen ponds skated a sheet of liquid melt-off. The patches of snow were dirty and seemed to be shrinking in the sunlight.
Along the Kenai River a character interchange had occurred overnight. Gulls, summer understudies for the art of catching salmon, had replaced the bald eagle population. Here and there in the woods was parked a Bronco or Blazer containing a cabin-fevered fisherman unable to wait for the first run of reds. I understood with the empathy of a fellow Alaskan winter veteran that it did not matter whether all they caught was a Dolly Varden. At least they were outside without their parkas.
Down along the bridge across the river delta, a parking lot jam had developed. The scene was reminiscent of Polychrome Pass in Denali when a caribou crosses the road. But the crowds of people were at the delta to look at birds. These birds were the special ones that made the front page of newspapers when the glided in for a landing – the true harbingers of spring.
I felt a little sorry for the hundreds of honking, cackling snow geese as they waddled en masse through the delta mud. They were welcomed by ground still semi-frozen and marsh grasses the color of dried wheat. A stiff wind whipped through their feathers, pelting them with the remnants of a cold northern winter.
I imagined the geese trading stories, much like summer seasonal employees who just got back to Alaska, discussing their exotic winter sojourns: “I lived on top of a grass hut in Fiji!” Yet the magpies and I were glad to see the seasonal residents returning. Their presence told us that we had managed to survive another seven months of winter, and the end of it was imminent.
What a relief to drive through hubcap-deep mud on the back roads outside of town. What a joy to put my sunglasses on at six o’clock in the morning. What a thrill to be driving 20 miles an hour behind a camper looking for a dump station.
For awhile there, I was afraid that spring would not arrive. I thought perhaps it was cancelled.
Alaska is the last bastion on the continent against spring. I have learned not to call it by that name, full of promise, as they do in warmer lands. I say “breakup” or “thaw” or “when it’s light longer,” for I have seen it snow a foot on Mother’s Day. By the time the flowers get around to blooming, I will be too busy working and building on my cabin and fishing and hiking to give the flowers much thought.
But in this season of anticipation, all my concentration has been centered on the minute changes moving through the land. It is a classic paradox that we Alaskans, who have less in the way of spring than any of the folks down south, appreciate it more. Today, the mud on my truck looked beautiful.