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Of Autumn in McCarthy, Alaska
By Heather Keven

The seasons of McCarthy, Alaska are dramatic and extreme in several ways. The amount of daylight ranges from twenty-four hours on the summer solstice to a mere peak at the sun as it sneaks over the horizon and immediately sets again on the winter solstice. Summer gives birth to thick jungle-like forests, springing forth with a rainbow of wildflowers, sweet wild berries, and the hum of mosquitoes; long full days of summer jobs, hiking, dinner parties, and sitting around campfires drinking beer and socializing; and rivers and creeks flowing full and fast with the melting of glacial ice and snow. In winter the bare trunks and branches stand starkly like rickety ladders reaching for the quiet sky; a blanket of sparkling snow covers the frozen waterways and earth; and the short days are spent tending to fundamental chores like splitting firewood, keeping the fire stoked, hauling water, refilling kerosene lamps; and visiting with the remaining locals over coffee and tea. Around and around the seasons cycle, and like a leaf shutter in a camera the darkness closes in only to open again to the brightness of summer. However, though summer and winter are the seasons of greatest length, and each offer a unique beauty and valuable perspective on life, the season of metamorphosis between summer and winter, autumn, is a particularly rare and exquisite specimen in McCarthy, Alaska.

From the snowless mountaintops summertime shouts, “Carpe diem!” The lush forests beg to be explored, and the mountains beckon hikers with promises of breathtaking vistas. Summer is the time to be carefree, live in the moment, and drink the sweet wine of romance. There are parties, live music, and bonfires night after night celebrating summer. The tourists come, gawk at the old buildings, and speculate as to whether or not they will see a grizzly bear. Backpacking expeditions are embarked upon. Bosom buddies are made. Hours are spent socializing, drinking cheap beer, and swatting at mosquitoes. It is a time for staying up all hours of the night, hearty partying, and drunken debauchery. It is a time for skinny dipping in the swimming holes and a time for playing pool at the bar. After the long, lonely winter, summer is ambrosial, but sometime in August one starts to feel hunger pangs for rest, structure, and alone time. Then at last Labor Day arrives with a pizza party, live band, dancing, and an end to the season.

Just when the Energizer bunny of summer has thoroughly satiated everyone, the spell of autumn descends on the valley almost overnight. After Labor Day, literally in a week’s time the tourists stop coming, and the businesses that cater to them shut down. The transient summer crowd travels on to new destinations, and the stillness of fall soothes the town like chamomile tea. This is the time that sorts out who will stay into winter from those with softer climates in mind. This is the time for reflection and introspection. Fall brings change, transition, and time to regroup after summer as well as to prepare for winter. It is the sigh of relief after summer, imbued with nostalgia.

There is no time quite as enchanting as fall in McCarthy, Alaska. Though the wildflowers and foliage of summer are beautiful in their vitality, the rich resplendent hues of autumn evoke a profound reverence for the aesthetic astuteness of nature. The mountainsides glow, ablaze with fireworks of crimson, gold, burnt oranges, and day-glow green. The groves upon groves of trees show off in waves, each taking its turn to bid farewell to summer in a grand exhibition of vivid color. Beholding this exquisite, vibrant beauty is like receiving autumnal pleasure injections into one’s retinas. Many poets also respond to the magic of this time of year; for instance, Mary Oliver eloquently describes fall as embodying

“rich, spiced residues, leaves, the uneaten fruits crumbling damply in the shadows, unmattering back from the particular island of this summer, this now, that now is nowhere except underfoot, moldering in that black subterranean castle of unobservable mysteries- roots and sealed seeds and the wanderings of water, this.”

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After the summer solstice Alaska enters a tunnel of increasing darkness as the daylight wanes at the noticeable rate of eight minutes a day going into the fall. The return of night is mollifying for the weary soul. The cloak of darkness encourages sound sleep after the restless fervor of summer. One also becomes reacquainted with the mysterious beauty of night time. Since there is no light pollution, an infinite number of stars are in pristine visibility, twinkling their celestial socks off. The Aurora Borealis also sweeps across the night sky in streamers of electric iridescence. After the endless daylight of summer the night time gives one rest and brings an appreciation for what daylight there still is.

The shorter days provide and necessitate a certain amount of structure so that the chores of life in the bush get done. Though it is tempting to be languid in the mornings and hide under the warm covers of one’s bed for hours, indulgently floating in and out of sleep, one learns to rise boldly as soon as the sky is illuminated because the daylight hours are now a precious commodity. This is the time when the last of the summer’s vegetables must be harvested and canned for enlivening the basic winter staples of lentils and rice. As the coldness encroaches, one must prepare one’s home to protect against the harsh elements of winter. In anticipation of temperatures dropping as low as sixty below zero, hordes of firewood must be collected and split for the imperatively constant generation of heat to fight the bitter coldness. This is the time to haul buckets of water from the spring for cooking, doing dishes, washing laundry, and bathing Alaska style, in a sauna. This is the time to burn brush piles to tidy up the yard and expeditiously finish any building projects. In autumn one learns to use the limited daylight hours wisely so that the each day’s tasks are fulfilled.

In the fall the penetrating, frosty mornings transition from merely chilly, to hostile. As the temperatures plummet, in a fashion similar to the way a bear prepares for hibernation, one must ready one’s own body for winter. One experiences intense cravings for animal fat. When was the last time you dipped cheese in bacon grease for breakfast? It is fascinating how our bodies intuitively know to prepare for the pervasive coldness ahead. It is also necessary to bundle up in layers of long underwear, heavy socks, warm wool sweaters, fuzzy mittens, hats with earflaps, thick scarves, and bulky boots, all concealed by windproof pants and coats. It is a time to be in touch with oneself by listening to and nurturing one’s needs not only physically, but also spiritually and emotionally.

Now that the relentless extroversion of summer has ceased and the combination of the biting weather and increasing darkness keeps one indoors much more often, it is a time to savor solitude. This is the time to paint, knit and sew. This is the time for allowing oneself to be pensive and melancholic in the filling of journals with poetry and reflective insight. This is the time to relax with books that have been sitting on shelves waiting patiently all summer long to saturate one’s imagination with vivid imagery. This is the time for soulful baking, centering meditation, music making, and thoughtful correspondence with faraway friends and family. This is the time to listen to Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell. Autumn is deliciously serene and ruminative as well as deeply nourishing.

As the snow creeps lower on the mountainsides, the proposition of winter whispers in the wind that blows the lifeless, ocherous leaves from the boughs of the birch, poplar, aspen, and willow trees, to the ground. The culmination of this venerable season is a time to witness and contemplate the process of death, as the once vivacious vegetation shrivels, browns, and returns to the earth, surrendering to its inherent cycle in eternity. This is a time to ponder one’s own mortality as well as to apprehend one’s relationship with life. Autumn illustrates that death can be an act of beauty and grace as a part of a natural rhythm. At last, almost as suddenly as it arrives after summer, fall dissolves into winter, leaving McCarthy in placid hibernation, prepared for the severity and duration of the coming season.

Heather Keven is a writer, now living in northern California.

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