Dec. 24th, 2008

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Kind of a shitty Christmas so far, so I'm going to write about the snow instead.

In Anchorage we had a fifth season, a sort of a mini-season, called breakup. It was in between winter and spring, and it was the time when the ice pack in the Bering Sea broke up... and when the snow started to melt in town. There was a constant dripping and sound of trickling water... the berms would start to melt from the inside (the outside having frozen rock hard from thawing and freezing cycles) and they would develop tunnels in them through which the meltwater would run; even though you couldn't see the water there, you could hear it everywhere you went.

It still got below freezing at night, so the snow would develop an ice crust over the top, sometimes as much as an inch thick. When it was at its thickest, a canny child with careful feet could slide across the top without breaking through to the half-melted snow below. It was a dangerous operation, as once your foot broke through, the ice around the hole could push the leg of your snowpants up and give you a hell of a gash.

It was this type of ice crust I expected to see this evening, but it seems that the forecast just keeps getting warmer as things move on and the freeze everyone at work was worried about today isn't materializing. Driving downtown was surreal today seeing the snow piled up in corners beside buildings. It provided an interesting point of contrast for my usual beloved downtown grey. It was not something you'd have seen in Anchorage... in Anchorage we had something called a snowdump. Plowed snow would be scooped up into dump trucks and hauled away to an enormous snowdump, like a landfill but much less stinky. Over the course of a winter the snowdump would get storeys high, and as a child I remember it being a year round feature of the landscape, ebbing in the summer but never completely melting. You'd peer through the car window and see if you could see cracks shining white through the cake of road sand. I remember one year someone told me that the snowdump had melted and I was astonished. They used to find dead bodies in the snowdump in the summer, people said.

The green of grass and the white of snow (which I anticipate we'll be seeing here soon enough) was not something we saw often in the spring... the grass had been so frozen and so compacted and so starved by the months of snow cover that by the time the snow melted, the lawns were soggy matted yellow affairs. New shoots greened the place up rather quickly, but the green lawns we will see poking through the snow here in the next day or two looked alien to me the first time I came to the northwest, and the intensity of the contrast still startles me whenever I have the opportunity to see it.

In fact, on trips here from Anchorage (well, to Seattle, really) SeaTac international and all the scrubby town surrounding it looked bizarre to me, as lush as a jungle to my senses, tuned as they were to a semi-arctic rhythm of life. The buildings seemed incomprehensibly tall (you have to finish all building projects in Anchorage before the permafrost returns, preventing the construction of really really tall buildings) and the people walking down the street seemed loud and offensively public to me.

Now that this is my home, I wonder if I go back to Alaska if it will seem as strange to me now as the Pacific Northwest did then, and yet somehow strangely familiar.

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