In Search Of Spring

© 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 wasSpring_AK_0001 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 anSpring_AK_0002 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.

The Daylight Season

© 1986 by Kathleen Kemsley, published in We Alaskans magazine, June 1986.

They say there are only two times when the salmon fishing is good: when it’s raining and when it isn’t.  The other requirement is that it be light enough to see where rocks lie hidden just beneath the surface of the river.  During the endless light hours of summer, each day slides into the next with no further notice than a slight dimming of illumination, a pause to take a breath before the next day rushes in. fish_on

I joined the throngs of salmon-crazed anglers several evenings ago and went up to the Kenai River to try for a monster king.  It rained and it didn’t rain; I ate chicken salad and chocolate chip cookies with my fishing partners and sang songs to pass the time.  We motored up through the current and drifted back over a hole countless times, jerking our poles expectantly at every little tug of flowing water on the lines.

We had the river almost to ourselves that evening.  We shared the fishing hole with terns and herring gulls that were busy dive-bombing the water for hooligan and insects.  Clouds parted briefly to reveal a sky of blazing azure.  Without fanfare a rainbow sliced through the air and disappeared into the silty green water upriver.  Daylight hung like backlit curtains around the boat.  Over the sound of water slurping past the sides of the boat, the plink of raindrops on my hip boots was almost unnoticeable.

A bite on the hook brought us all to attention.  My shout of “fish on!” was redundant, as my pole wavered wildly above the current.  Ten minutes later I landed a 48-pound king salmon.  I could not take my eyes off of her as she slid around on the bottom of the boat.  I had never seen a fish so big.

Shortly before midnight we reluctantly pulled the boat out of the water and snapped some pictures before I started for home.  Six times along the 50 mile drive, I slammed on the brakes of my truck to allow the crossing of a moose with one or more calves in tow.  The newborn calves’ wobbly stick legs refused to observe the rules of right-of-way, so I waited patiently for them all to move safely off the highway.

That was how, at one o’clock in the morning, I came to be kneeling on the cabin porch filleting a salmon in the twilight of an Alaska summer night.  My thoughts wandered forward to the coming weeks, when sandwiched between work shifts I would be entertaining visitors from Outside, attending meetings in town, going on emergency ambulance runs with the local fire department, taking the dog for walks in the woods, and riding my mountain bike down dirt roads in search of rainbow trout streams.  There was salmon to smoke and berries to pick, oil to change and wood to haul.  Somehow, too, the dishes would have to be washed and the floor of the cabin swept.

What happened to the time I spent sleeping late last winter?  It seemed to have disappeared with the last ice on the lake.  Lately the days have melted together in a blur of daylight.  In a moment of clarity, I looked beyond my arms, immersed to the elbows in fish eggs, to the season looming ahead.  I had to accept, and in fact embrace, the exhausting days to come.  There would be plenty of time for rest later, I knew, once the season turned again and long winter arrived.  But for now, I would burn with the midnight sun.

A Time To Let The Open Water Flow

(c) 1986 by Kathleen Kemsley.  Originally published in We Alaskans Magazine, March 1986. 

Glaciers consume the parking lots and ooze across the highway.  The entire upper Kenai River Valley has been glazed with gray ice and overflow for two months.  I wish for the lake to freeze, but what ice the lake’s surface forms inevitably ends up piled like driftwood on its shores, the victim of Chinook winds and rain.  I wax my skis longingly, but meager snowfalls liquefy and then congeal into glaciers before my eyes.

AK_moon

I moved here from the Interior of Alaska while the aspens still glowed like fire on the steep slopes of the Kenai Mountains and the sun threw laser rays off turquoise riffles of the river.  Since mid-October the weak glimmer of winter sun has not reached this town.  Nestled in a pocket of river valley and dense spruce trees, Cooper Landing surrenders the sun to the Harding Icefield.  But this year, the traditional icy grip of Alaska winter has been dissipated by warm rain.

Day after day I stare at the gray skies and glaciers and question the redeeming value of this so-called Banana Belt paradise.  One day I look up to see the silhouette of soaring black wings against the leaden sky.  An eagle!  I follow it down to the river and discover a community of hundreds.  The rain and open water and warmish winds provide a perfect haven for them.  The absence of sunlight does not seem to deter them from reveling in the riparian domain.

AK_eagleI become an eagle watcher along the river.  Clusters of them crouch like old cronies on an ice-glazed rocky bank, tearing into dead salmon with gusto and enthusiasm.  A juvenile bird, already sporting a four-foot wingspan but clad in the mottled brown feathers of youth, slides past me on an invisible gust of humid air and banks out across the rapids without apparent effort.  Another afternoon a young eagle swishes past my shoulder with a bit of salmon carrion clenched in its talons.  An adult with sunburst-yellow beak gaping hungrily dives and pursues the youngster, but fails in its efforts to make the kid to surrender its morsel.

Between these rounds of activity, the eagles seem merely to be biding their time on the river.  They perch in groups of three or four for hours at a time, staggered on the limbs of the biggest, deadest trees along the opposite shore.  And they wait patiently.  They have been wintering here long enough to notice when the daylight begins to lengthen.  Into their collective memory is instilled the assurance of spring salmon runs, green buds bursting forth from mazes of willow branches, and fierce competition from black bears and anglers for dinner.

In this valley of perennial rain and warm air currents that slide down rocky mountain slopes, the eagles let the time pass.  And I have begun to let the time pass in their company.  In the hours I have spent spying on them across the open water, I have never heard them complain about the weather or the glaciers.  They accept what is.  Their conversations contain no snowfall record comparisons, no discussions of the merits of wearing golf shoes for parking lot travel.  Each winter is unique, with character determined independently of last season’s conditions.  The only certainties are that the time will pass and that the seasons will change.  So the eagles teach me.

Tossing into the swift river my fickle thermometer, I too commence to let the open water flow.  I possess neither the power nor the will to halt it.