Arctic Adventures: Volume 4—Darkness

Arctic Adventures: Volume 4—Darkness

The needle on the thermometer plunged back below zero—after a brief reprieve of temps hovering near 0—but it’s time to move on from Alaska’s cold reality to our next installment in our diaries of arctic living: limited daylight hours. 

The “darkness” is something most Alaskans reference as part of the trials and tribulations of winter life. The advice is always to leave the house and/or go outside for before you lose the sun. No doubt the limited daylight is hard for a lot of people. We don’t personally suffer from seasonal affective disorder, although we know it’s real and compounded in Alaska. I just think there’s a general depressed spirit that goes with the low light, no matter where you are wintering.

Let me also preface by saying we made the switch to “Denali” time Dec. 26, following winter solstice, so on the gaining versus waning side of light (though we spent a month here Oct/Nov, the losing light felt normal). I believe we missed the hardest time period (Nov-Dec) and timed it right. Plus, we aren’t the ones that have to commute to work in the dark, both ways.

But, in our typical newbie over-enthusiasm, we make the claim: the darkness is not as bad as we thought it would be. 

At 2:15pm on Dec. 31, we were already at dusk. 

Before I get into my reasoning behind this, let’s evaluate what that the darkness looks like on paper for the latitudanily challenged (at latitude 64, we are farther from the Earth’s equator than any of you).

On winter solstice (Dec. 21), here’s the breakdown of daylight:

Healy, AK, experienced 4 hours and 16 minutes of daylight.

Fairbanks, AK, (2 hours north of us) experienced 3 hours and 41 minutes of daylight.

In comparison on Dec. 21,

New Jersey experienced 9 hours and 15 minutes of daylight.

Colorado experienced 9 hours and 21 minutes of daylight. 

There’s a place in Alaska (Utqiagvik – formerly know as Barrow) in which the sun set on November 18. It won’t rise again until next week, January 23. SIXTY-FIVE DAYS LATER!! 

Let this sink in. 

For us, in Healy, we’ve been gaining about 6 minutes of sunlight everyday since the solstice. 

Jan. 14: We went for a hike in Denali National Park (20 minutes down the road from us), where they were enjoying 5 hours and 41 minutes of daylight. Their sunrise was around 10:20, and sunset around 3:51pm. Here’s the picture we took at 1:37pm. 

In Alaska during the winter, the sun basically rises & sets in the South. I mean, it is still traveling from East to West, but we have to look south to find it. 

On Jan 18, from the center of Healy facing south, the sun returned! It was traveling between the mountains and hit the sweet spot around noon. 

The sun! The sun! Rejoice!

From our perspective on our street and in our neighborhood (which is uphill from town), the sun still needed to clear 5,400-foot Mt. Healy as of Jan. 21, then these last 5 days have been grey and cloudy, so we don’t have photo confirmation of full-blown sunshine just yet.

This is our view from our street on Jan. 21 at 2:10pm

Granted, winter sunbeams are not the warm embrace we associate with the flaming ball in the sky. It’s more like a spotlight, or a nightlight. Truth be told, indoor lights put out more heat than our winter sunbeams. 

In terms of whether the darkness has changed our behaviors, I’m gonna say no. Some of us—ahem, not naming names—have never been morning people and always sleep in when possible, sunrise or not. But Justin definitely uses the late sunrise as an excuse to push his “sleeping in” limits.

The sun is coming up earlier & earlier, so no more excuses, Justin!

In general, Justin & I plan our outings around the daylight, sage Alaskan advice. And last week with the “mild” temps (near 0), we even went out XC skiing & hiking everyday during the daylight. Our dinner remain unaffected, between 6-7pm, and we go to bed around 11pm-1am. 

There is also something very cozy about traveling in the darkness—morning and night. Warm light spills out from distant cabins peeking out behind the snow-encrusted trees against the icy black night. When you walk inside, lamps and candles bathe a room in an auburn glow. 

Really trying to up my night photography game … unsuccessfully.

So now here’s my pitch about the light we do have. It may come and go, but nearly every minute is breathtaking. And as of today (January 26), the sun is rising at 9:52am (first light at 8:52am) and setting at 4:25pm (last light at 5:25pm).

During our short hours of light, sometimes the forests appear black and white. Sometimes the sun makes the snow look like a land of diamonds. It’s all gorgeous, but perhaps the most striking feature is the changing colorful sky and how the light affects the mountains. When it’s not too cloudy or the lazy sun hanging behind the mountains burns off the curtain of clouds, the angle of the Earth paints a soft, pastel hue that drapes itself over the land. When the low-laying sun barely cuts through the forest or when sunlight melts bronze over the mountaintops, I just can’t look away. We’ve definitely been in other places where the sunrises/sunsets are drool-worthy (Arizona!!), but our short golden and twilight hours actually make it feel like a slow-burning, endless sunrise/sunset. 

I took this photo facing east at 1:25pm on January 2, 2020
I took this photo looking east at 1pm on January 1, 2020
I took this photo facing east at 12pm on January 6, 2020 

The full moon occurred on Jan. 10, still during the darkest winter time, and it created its own beauty. It was a guiding light, more than the sun. It reflected off the snow and combined with the sun, created another artist’s palette.

Full moon, alpenglow & cotton candy sky? Yes, please.
Taken facing northeast at 3:30pm on January 9, 2020

And the night—complete with Aurora Borealis, AKA the Northern Lights—deserve a blog post on their own.

5 responses to “Arctic Adventures: Volume 4—Darkness”

  1. Jamie says:

    You first photo looks like there is a little bit of the northern lights in it. Beautiful pictures!

  2. Jill says:

    I’ve wondered how I’d adapt to living all winter long in a place like Fairbanks. The darkness hasn’t bothered me at all spending ~10 days around the winter solstice. As you noted, I do think it’s crucial to have the freedom to make your own schedule and get outside at least once a day. However, the nighttime beauty can be enjoyable, and I’m quite enamored with the continuous sunrise/sunset and low light of the short daytime hours. It probably helps that I’m a night owl at heart.

  3. Misti says:

    Awesome! Thanks for sharing this aspect of AK! I had wondered what it was all like!

  4. Paul says:

    I may have commented on fb already, but love these thigh light photos! We often find that the long midday sun washes too much light into our landscapes. That said, you almost can’t take a bad picture in NZ.

  5. Clara says:

    Your description of the Alaskan Winter is magical. Have you considered writing a piece for Alaska Magazine?

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