It’s funny how I have got used to how outrageous it is here.
The snow is melting fast. It’s a couple of feet deep and real mushy when it’s warmed by the sun. It’s troublesome to walk on. We posthole, even in snowshoes. This weekend, I want to take a hike up in the hills. I think, when will the snow be the most firm? During the coldest part of the day. When is the coldest part of the day? At night. But there is no night.
A few minutes after midnight Saturday, the sun finally dips below the horizon. No, that would be Sunday by now, not Saturday. About 1 AM I set out. Bright sunset light fills the air. The entire north horizon glows, all salmon and orange, halfway up the sky. I hike out across the lake, which is still frozen solid. It’s covered a foot or more deep in icy, crunchy white snow.
I set out from the sauna landing. I head towards the cove on the furthest distant lobe of the shore. Crunch, crunch, crunch, one step in front of another. Finally, about half an hour later, I get there. The edge of the lake is subtle. The old snowdrifts slope gradually up to land. The shelving rock and willow thickets dream in the frozen twilight.
I explore around the hills in that ethereal light. I have a project. I have heard the furthest-north patch of balsam poplar is over here somewhere. I am looking for it. There are thousands of square miles of poplar in Alaska, but none here north of the Brooks Range, except these few. Tundra means no trees. It feels like high alpine meadows above timberline, except the mountains are far away.
The land rolls off to infinity in all directions. At a glance, it looks like prairie. Dark blocky shapes in the distance suggest ranch outbuildings or road cuts. But it is all to fool the eye. Human vision looks for things like that, but there is no trace of man’s affairs in that direction for literally hundreds of miles, to the Chuckchi Sea.
I explore on. The sky overhead is never any darker than blue. The sun under the north horizon is so close that high clouds glow. The temperature is in the 20s, but so dry it doesn’t feel cold. Hours after sunset, it has never gotten dark.
About 2 AM I find the poplars. They are a miniature forest, none taller than me. They spread across a steep south-facing knoll, above a hollow of snow that, come summertime, will be a small lake. It is evidently the warmest spot in the whole area, a little pocket of further south. Years ago, maybe centuries, a lucky seed rode a storm over the Brooks Range.
Mission accomplished, I am not yet ready to turn home. I decide to see if I can find a way up a nearby small peak, Jade Mountain. Jade is a popular day hike, though the route, in summer, is proscribed. Most of the way crosses tussock-tundra, which is spongy and humpy; hard going for us humans with our flat feet. Toolik folks have found the easy route. It strings together patches of rock and gravel. But that way goes along top of a cliff, and up and down three gullies. Plus it’s on the other side from where I am now.
I am on a gradual north slope. It’s an easy grade up from a broad col. Maybe next summer I’ll come back and look at with no snow. Probably, it will turn out to be the worst tussock-tundra ever. But here now, at the end of the winter, it’s just crunch, crunch, crunch, one step ahead of the other. Some of the easiest walking of the whole trip.
I make it to the top just as the sun is peeking over the horizon, 3:20 AM.
On the way down I think, this is opposite. Usually, the sunny side makes for the softest snow. But here I am, treading straight into the sunrise. But this early sun is far, far north. It won’t be high enough to warm things today till it has swung halfway around the sky.
I can see Toolik in the distance, a huddle of lab trailers in the white tundra. The tallest tent, the cold storage facility, glints in the dawn sun. It looks like a plastic cathedral above an impressionist village. I head home in as much a bee-line as possible.
In places, snow has buried thickets. The black, furry twigs of Richardson’s willow evidently absorb heat, even under the surface, and rot out the drifts. More than once, in places like that, I collapse through a few feet. Not dangerous, just surprising. Soon, I detour when I see willow twigs bristled the drifts.
Other areas, even on the flats, the daytime warmth has undermined the snow, under a harder crust. The surface whumps down when I step there, sometimes in slabs as broad as a house. In avalanche country, collapsing snow slabs would be a serious warning sign, but here on the flats there is nowhere an avalanche could run.
Hiking back across the lake, I learn to step the snowshoes down heel-first. That makes the slabs fracture forwards. Toe-first will crack the snow straight down in front, which catches the snowshoe prow on the next step out.
About 5 AM I come near shore. It is full morning daylight, in bright clear sun. Over the white tundra, small birds are singing cheerily. Some of them are robins, the same robins you might hear chirping over an Iowa farm field.
The snowy surface of the lake slopes up to the gravel pad Toolik is situated on. Uh-oh, a couple of people have pitched their tents right there. The crunch, crunch, crunch of my snowshoes cracks the morning silence. Oh, well, I think, just keep a steady pace, and get the torture over as soon as possible. Maybe they’ll forgive me, and then they will be able to get back to sleep. I climb up past the tents, making far too much noise.
I step through the banks of snow plowed up from the pad, and am suddenly back in the everyday world of Toolik, right by lab trailer 2. I slip off my snowshoes and stash them back I our project truck. I walk across the frozen gravel to the dining hall and erase my name from the trip sign-out board. Then I go to my weather port, climb into my sleeping bag, and sleep till about 9 AM.
I hiked all night, and it was never dark. Within a couple more weeks, the sun will not go down at all.