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Sara Loewen: "Winter in June"

Kodiak during the 1912 ashfall.Kodiak during the 1912 ashfall.
Note: On June 3, the Daily News presented an excerpted version of this elegant essay from Sara Loewen's upcoming book "Gaining Daylight: Life on Two Islands," published by University of Alaska Press. Here is the essay in full:

I mourn for things I haven’t lost yet. The big love of toddlers, our ten-year-old Lab, storytelling uncles and aunts who send dishtowels embroidered with each day of the week. Even our ancient fridge. Black and bulky, it takes up half the wall. But at night, when the house goes quiet it murmurs like crickets, so that when I pass the darkened kitchen on my way to bed, I don’t live on a rainy island in Alaska. I hear crickets and I’m walking through dry grass on a hot summer night.

In winter, I grieve for lost light. This usually starts in January, when the cheer of holidays, first snows and Christmas lights has faded. We go to work and return home in the dark. Our windows may as well be walls. The car fills with single gloves and frozen socks, a brown banana peel, and I don’t notice them for weeks. Our few hours of sun are watered down and weak. Heatless. Scrolling through digital photos, I realize how few pictures I take between November and February, unhappy with the glare of indoor flash, uninspired. Lack, by definition, is the “absence or deficiency of something needed,” and it turns out I need sunlight to feel content. All winter, lacking daylight, it’s as if my vision is impaired, as if I’ve forgotten to wear my glasses for months.

I miss light that takes up physical space, chunks of it traveling through glass onto the floor, light that spills, and fills long rectangles and rests on furniture. Rays of light that transform air, the kind that Liam, when he was little, would try to catch by the handful. All winter, the light is missing. It is missed.

~

June in Kodiak is a month of endless light. Even after midnight, the sun softens more than sets. But one hundred years ago, late in the afternoon on June 6, 1912, daylight was snuffed out completely. There was no sound to warn Kodiak’s eight hundred residents of Novarupta’s eruption one hundred miles to the north, though the explosion was heard as far away as Juneau and Fairbanks. The only hint was a massive black cloud, fanning upwards and outwards as it traveled across Shelikof Strait. Lightning and thunder are rare here, so people were alarmed by the flashing, rumbling sky that afternoon. But they expected the cloud to pass over, and when the first soft powder began to fall, they scooped it up with teaspoons, thinking they might want to save some, unaware the town would soon be buried in ash.

By seven p.m., the ash fell was so thick that it blotted out the sun. People couldn’t see lanterns an arm’s length away. They fought to breathe the ash-choked air. Lightning struck the wireless telegraph tower on nearby Woody Island, burning down the town’s sole source of communication. Ship radios failed because of static electricity. Kodiak was cut off from the world.

“While we were at dinner the sky became black as ink,” wrote W.J. Erskine, who had bought the Alaska Commercial Company holdings in Kodiak, and ran a general store and fuel dock. “By nine o’clock the pumice and sand was three inches thick and the air was suffocating.”
John Orloff, an Afognak resident fishing on the mainland during the eruption wrote a letter to his wife,

“My Dear Wife Tania:
First of all I will let you know of our unlucky voyage. I do not know if we will be alive and well. Every minute we are awaiting death. Of course don’t be alarmed. A hill has erupted near here. So it is covering us with ashes. In some places 6 ft and 10 ft. deep. All this began on the 6th of June. Night and day we light lamps. One cannot see daylight. In one word it is horrible, and we are awaiting death every minute. And we have no wate[r]. Here it is dark and hell. Thunder noise. I do not know whether it is night or day…So kissing and blessing you both, goodbye. Forgive me. Maybe we shall see each other again. God is Merciful. Pray God For us.
Your Husband,
John Orloff
P.S. The earth is trembling every minute. It is terrible. We are praying.”

The Dora, a mail steamer traveling from Uyak Bay to Kodiak, was just a few miles from the harbor that evening when it had to turn back to the open sea because all navigational landmarks were hidden from view. The ship’s log reads, “We were in complete darkness, not even the water over the ship’s side could be seen.”

“As far as seeing or hearing the water, or anything pertaining to earth, we might as well have been miles above the surface of the water,” wrote J.E. Thwaites, Mail Clerk on the Dora. “Birds floundered, crying wildly, though space, and fell helpless on the deck.”

Cabins struck by lightning caught fire and burned to the ground, unseen by those just a few hundred feet away. Roofs collapsed, and houses filled with landslides of ash. Hildred D. Erskine, a teacher at the territorial school in Kodiak and W.J. Erskine’s sister-in-law, wrote, “No one who has not passed through such a horror-producing cataclysm can realize what it is to have the feeling that you were going to be buried alive, all the while being hemmed in by a blackness such as you had never previously known and from which there seemed to be no escape.”

On June 8th, after two days of darkness, people followed the summoning church bells and the whistle of the Revenue Cutter Manning, docked in front of town, holding wet rags over their mouths against the smell of sulfur. Some carried lanterns; some traced their way along fences or roped themselves together. Men on board the Manning kept colliding as they worked to shovel ash from the deck. The ash sliced their eyes.

“The people came aboard panic stricken,” wrote Nellie Erskine, W.J.’s wife, “The next day was another tough one for us. Captain Perry came and said if we don’t get this ship cleaned out we will all be sick. The filth on the berth deck is frightful.” Nellie sent for supplies like muslin and cornstarch from the warehouse. “The children had not been washed or their diapers changed for five days.”

Eventually, the entire town evacuated. Five hundred people were packed on the deck of the Manning, the rest boarded the tugboat, Printer and the coal barge, the St. James. They anchored off Woody Island, a few miles from town, cramped and weary, to wait out the largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century.

~

By February, I lose all perspective. I’m bewildered by the rage that wells up as I try to buckle stiff car seat straps over Luke’s snowsuit while he cries about the cold and a passing truck coats my back with slush, or when I find myself cursing frozen door handles and the snowplow that knocked off the side view mirror, or crying at random magazine articles about warmer climates. And then I recognize the symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder, which arrives so consistently since we’ve moved back to Alaska that it’s almost reassuring to name it. The feelings are as familiar as Billie Holiday singing, “Might as well get used to you hanging around. Good morning heartache, sit down.”

I take fish oil and vitamin D, sit in front of a light box, and resolve to get out and exercise, a challenge as walls of snow bury all sidewalks, trails are icy, and winter blues rob me of energy by pitch-black 5:00 p.m. I turn to books like Rick Bass’ Winter, and Edwin Way Teale’s Wandering Through Winter, hoping for insight to help me embrace the season. They seem so at ease in the cold, but I can’t steal their enthusiasm. In “A Winter Walk,” Henry David Thoreau wrote, “Our hearts are warm and cheery, like cottages under drifts…The imprisoning drifts increase the sense of comfort which the house affords, and in the coldest days we are content to sit over the hearth and see the sky through the chimney top.” Even cozied up with a glass of dark red wine by the woodstove, I am not among the “we,” comforted by “imprisoning drifts” of snow. I am only imprisoned. I want commiseration—John Updike describing winter’s cold as an absence that feels more like “a vigorous, hostilely active presence,” or Barry Lopez in Arctic Dreams, writing of the way “winter darkness shuts off the far view. The cold drives you deep into your clothing, muscles you back into your home. Even the mind retreats into itself.”

~

For two days, those living on Woody Island hid indoors, listening to thunder and the “thumping on the windows of some little birds that had been attracted by the lamplight, trying to find refuge from the storm,” George A. Learn wrote in the Orphanage News Letter. They had no way to communicate, and were in dire need of fresh water and medical attention when they were finally picked up by the fishing boat the Norman. Another hundred villagers were evacuated to Afognak Island from the Alaska Peninsula. George Kosbruk was a child living near Katmai during the eruption and remembered the rescue ship arriving. “We all boarded the boat. To where? China? We had no slight idea of where they were taking us. We felt pretty safe though. Looking back, our home was disappearing where we had enjoyed our life.”

Crossing Shelikof Strait, the water’s surface was hidden by a seemingly solid stretch of floating pumice. “Just previous to the darkness, pumice stone began to fall, some stones fall just as big as the biggest potato you could possibly imagine,” recalled Harry Kaiakokonok. “Boat was like coming across dry land. All those stuff was floating on bay, about six feet deep. Dead whales and sea lions and salmons were all mixed up in those stuff floating on top of the bay.”

On Kodiak, the ash from Novarupta filled shallow lakes, destroyed salmon runs for years to come, ruined water mains, and smothered the new summer growth under layers of gray. Kodiak looked lunar. In places, the ash formed drifts reaching to the rooftops. Some decided to move away from Kodiak, certain the land and town were ruined.

“Poor old Kodiak, it certainly is a wreck,” Nellie Erskine wrote in a letter home, “Whether the people can live there is not at all settled. Of course it will take time and patience. It certainly is awfully discouraging, but we are not worrying. The feeling of thankfulness is too strong yet. The ashes are about two feet on the level but in places it is higher than your head. People are dazed, dirty and despondent, but I guess we can make something out of it…Baby is all well and strong and I am only tired.”

~

The poet John Haines described being Alaskan this way: “Closeness is needed, long residence, intimacy of a sort that demands a certain daring and risk: a surrender, an abandonment, or just a sense of somehow being stuck with it.”

I was born in Kotzebue to parents who took their first teaching job in Deering in the middle of winter 1972, where they melted drinking water from blocks of river ice in a 55 gallon drum. Northern Alaska was where my family was made—Mom in labor on the back of a snow machine, carrying her babies inside her parka on ice fishing trips. I spent my toddler years in a snowsuit. I admire my parents’ enthusiasm and the way they make the best of each season. It’s probably why I used to believe that real Alaskans earned summer by toughing out the other eight to ten months without complaining. I disliked people who were negative about Kodiak or Alaska, especially anyone who came here from somewhere else.

But now I believe you can be loyal and love something—your spouse, your house, your children, and still admit there are challenges. You can love a place, with all the allegiance of a life or childhood spent here, and appreciate the natural beauty and the friends who bring dinner when your babies are born, without loving everything about that place. Without loving winter.

~

“Before the air finally cleared,” noted Robert Griggs, director of the National Geographic Society Katmai Expeditions, “Kodiak had experienced two days and three nights of practically unbroken darkness.” Griggs’ studies of the 1912 eruption in Alaska captivated the American imagination with photos of the ashen landscape and men cooking cornbread and bacon over fumaroles in The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, spurring the creation of Katmai National Monument.
Most people in Kodiak returned home within a week of the eruption, digging to their doorways through knee-deep ash. They found that most of their chickens and ducks had died, but the dairy cows were spared. Some homes were ruined, like one little house near the hillside, where all that was visible through the windows was the top of the piano and the pictures hanging on the wall. Nellie Erskine described the slow return to normal life in a letter home, “Of course the place is most desolate…when you think of Kodiak, the garden spot of Alaska, it is surely enough to make you weep.”

The U.S. Revenue Service kept a boat stationed in Kodiak, and ships arrived with supplies from Seattle. Little by little, rain cleaned the hillsides, though in places it turned the ash to quicksand. Rescuers worked for hours to help a man who’d been trapped, but he was blue by the time they got him out and he died soon after. Because there were no berries and salmon couldn’t make it up ash-filled spawning streams, the bears were hungry and preyed on cattle and sheep.

“To everyone who visited Kodiak during the first two seasons after the eruption, the damage done to vegetation seemed irreparable,” reported Robert Griggs. Yet when he returned in June 1915, he wrote, “I could not believe my eyes. It was not the same Kodiak that I had left two years before. The mountains were everywhere green with their original verdure…Where before had been barren ash was now rich grass as high as one’s head.”

~

There is a shift from winter to the possibility of spring that has nothing to do with temperature, and everything to do with the quality of light. Boats delivering loads of pollock or cod are coated in ice, but the ocean around them is finally more blue than gray. The mountains shimmer, and when snow falls on sunny days, it’s lazy and weightless, like movie-set snow.

“Come in here and take a look at this, Sara!” Dad calls when I stop by. He pulls his lettuce starts from under the grow light. Dad was raised on a farm in California. Around this time of year he gets a gardening gleam in his eye. He can taste them already, the first ripe tomato, the grilled zucchini. Soon he’ll be puttering around the front yard, inspecting the rhubarb and slug hunting with his grandsons. In the kitchen, Mom is transplanting spindly green sweet peas, their fragrance and flowers hidden within like a promise.

It feels as if Kodiak is being returned to us. We can see again—the faces of other drivers, a winter’s worth of litter, our driveways and lawns and flowerbeds. Old men start running again, with awkward gaits you marvel at in admiration, and teenagers preen on sidewalks, self-conscious and delighted to be seen.

Liam and Luke play outside for hours, rediscovering mud puddles and toys lost to the snow months ago, collecting sticks and spruce cones with squirrel-like efficiency. They fight bedtime because it isn’t dark yet.

Last Sunday morning was so warm through the windows that Luke stripped naked, leapt off furniture for a while and then settled down next to the dog napping on a sunny section of the rug. I am irrationally happy when I wake up to a bright morning. It’s as though the light brings a hopefulness I can’t force in winter months. And it doesn’t matter now, because I believe in summer again. The weather forecast is calling for mixed rain and snow, and we are months away from green, but I don’t think about that. The feeling of thankfulness is too strong yet.

© Copyright 2011, The Anchorage Daily News. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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