Peering through the light of my headlamp was tough in the pitch black, but even more so with a sheet of falling snow hitting my face.
Lew, my fishing partner, was nowhere to be seen, but I could hear him cranking on the old red-and-white ice auger somewhere in the distance. “It won’t start?” I yelled. “No, it won’t,” he replied, even though it had started fine before we left the house. Every pull of the cord produced little, but he kept at it to no avail – it just wouldn’t fire, for some reason.
No worries though; we had plenty of time. Heck, it was only 4:30 by my watch, just another dark afternoon in the far north of Alaska.
LIFE IN THE Arctic during the months of December and January can be depressingly long, cold and boring at times. Without a movie theater, a mall or even so much as an Applebee’s, things can become quite monotonous, and the thrill of town life isn’t anywhere to be found.
For most people, it usually amounts to this: work all day, come home, eat dinner, and then watch SportsCenter on ESPN. Ordering from your favorite takeout restaurant is about as exciting as it gets, but only if one of the two is open. If the Northern Lights are out, mark that down as a huge bonus.
It’s no wonder cabin fever is widespread in these parts, with little to no daylight and days of ice fog so dense that you can’t see across the road, plus the fact that outside temperatures have plummeted their way through the basement. For some of us, the urge to dress up in our best cold-weather gear and head outdoors is a chore, but if you don’t, you will go crazy, and the worst case of cabin fever can set in and put you in a bad mood.
But if you’ve lived here as long as I have, you find ways to keep yourself occupied and not let the dark and cold get you down. Christmas is the greatest of the holidays and many celebrations take place, but most people have a hard time once the darkness sets in.
Throughout the late summer and fall leading up to the winter solstice in December, we lose about eight minutes a day of sunlight. This usually results in about an hour of visible daylight, which really doesn’t amount to daylight, just an eerie hour of dusk. The sun never breaks the horizon and, if you don’t notice it, it will pass you by. It can be tough for some.
THERE ARE MANY activities that can break this fever and depressing time. Getting outside, either on foot or a snow machine, is the key to staying sane. As for me and many others who call the far north home, these times are actually some of the most rewarding to be in the Arctic.
Most rural bush Alaskans go about it in different ways, and each seems to live by a certain ritual each year. For some, it is a time to hook up the SnoGo and venture off into the wilderness in search of firewood. Ever a staple for most, people having plenty of wood to fill the stove makes people happy and is a key to staying warm; plus it cuts down on the always-increasing high fuel bills.
Most of the time it is a family affair, and everyone eagerly waits to hear the roar of a chainsaw. The key is to start early, which means leaving in the dark and returning in the dark that same afternoon, with hopefully a sled full of dead spruce.
Many of us also try and find things that we are passionate about and can do indoors as well as out. Indoor shooting is one of them. Many years ago, I started an indoor archery league. Each week a group of us would meet at the school and shoot targets, either for fun or to conduct leagues with scoring systems and prizes at the end of each tournament.
This does many things for the psyche – it gives us something to do during the dark days. By bringing together like-minded individuals to shoot bows and talk about our passion, it also lets us hone our shooting skills, which will be important again come spring and fall when we are out hunting and gathering.
In addition, if you’re lucky enough and can time everything correctly, you can make it outside for that single hour of light and shoot your bow; maybe you can even fire off a few rounds from your favorite rifle, both high priorities in the far north. Others pursue the famous gigantic sheefish that lay just underneath the frozen ocean. This can break any fever, and if they’re biting, can provide endless fun and an endless bounty for the freezer.
There is something truly special about venturing out on the ice, drilling holes and catching or hooking fish in the cold darkness. If you have an ice hut or shack complete with heat, chairs and maybe a thermos of hot coffee, it can be as grand as any adventure taken in the daylight.
For some, photography is an avenue of hope during the dark days. Bundling up and braving the outdoors is an adventure in itself, but to grab your camera and capture some of what the Arctic has to offer can be breathtaking. Many search for and follow the aurora borealis, hoping to capture the elusive light through the camera lens. Some nights the show is unbelievable, while others not so much. Being able to get out and exercise, plus fill your lungs with that cold night air, can be invigorating.
CABIN FEVER IS a disease only if you let it be. Many people in the Lower 48 cannot fathom living in the dark, or the cold for that matter. It is definitely how you perceive it. There are many things to do, and most can be as adventurous as any other time in Alaska. The Last Frontier is just that, but for some it is the only place to be throughout the entire year.
We never did get that auger to start. Maybe it made too many runs to the ice during the peak months of April and May when it seemed like endless daylight. Or perhaps it was the beating it took in the back of the sled while driving a snow machine down a gravel road when the snow and ice had vanished from the warm days. Who knows?
All I know is that it was good to be on the ice watching the amazing stars – even if it was only 6 p.m. ASJ