In Alaska, seasons seem to be things that are not so much enjoyed, but gotten through.
As I say this, I hear the chorus of Alaska’s hardy folk in my ear, telling me that, no, in fact, the harsh, near-perpetual dark of wintertime is thrilling, and that the slightly lighter, still harsh thaw of spring is its own kind of revelation.
Neither of these things is true.
Alaska’s winter — dramatic and bracing though it might be — is a literal trudge.
For me, winter was waiting for a time that snow boots weren’t required to take out the trash. It was squinting behind the wheel of my car on icy roads, trying to figure out where lanes began and ended because there were no visible lines, everything was covered in snow, and it was dark.
It was staying inside most of the day, every day, because hibernation is way easier than interaction during a four-hour day. Spring was a similar slog.
Spring, as I have always understood it, is a time when things come back to life, birds return, trees turn green and flowers bloom.
Spring is revelatory because it reveals.
In Alaska, spring isn’t so much a season, but a promise of a season.
Yes, things melted. Yes, birds came back. And yes, eventually, trees turned green and wildflowers bloomed along hillsides and in ditches.
By the time this happened, however, it was well into what should have been summer.
And summer, I found out, is not so much a season, but a moment.
My summer was exactly one day in July, when I drove into the mountains determined to find a body of water that would take me.
Earlier that week the water had stopped in my house. Having lived without plumbing for stretches of my life, I thought I would be able to handle a few days without a bath.
But, while I coped with the lack of water in the tropics — where I could walk to a beach and float in warm ocean waves — lacking access to a shower was getting to me. My body itched with phantom grime. I was dreaming about water — and would wake with vivid memories of immersing myself in a bath.
So, on a Saturday afternoon, just as temperatures hit an unbelievable 82 degrees, I headed to the hills with a hiking book, looking for a lake.
I didn’t have any swimming wear (who brings a swimsuit to Alaska?) and my clothes were stuffed in a laundry bag in the back of my car, so I decided to make cutoffs out of a pair of donated pants I would likely never wear to work.
I threw the only clean skirt I had, a peasant skirt with a wide circumference, over the top of my shorts and set off into the woods. I followed a trail past Kelly Lake, through tall reeds and up and down hills for several miles.
A bee followed me the whole trail. I don’t know if he was attracted to the colors of my skirt, or the coconut smell of my hair, but he seemed determined to go with me. Along the way, I encountered a solitary hiker heading the opposite direction. We sized each other up, and then did that little nod that one does when you don’t really want to interact, and hope subtle pleasantries are enough.
The trail was supposed to take me to, or at least toward, a series of lakes. I had hoped to find one that was empty of swimmers, where I could float alone in sunshine. The lakes I first passed were dim or muddy or full of people. Eventually, I made my way down a path to the edge of an immense, shimmering lake. The shore was shrouded, however, and the water had been sprinkled with fallen blooms.
The water was colder than I expected — colder than any I have maybe ever been in. I couldn’t go very far because the mud between my toes became ever deeper and threatened to suck me in. But I floated until my legs and arms were numb.
And then I got out, used my skirt as a towel, and headed back through muddy trails with a bee by my side.
I did other things this summer.
I walked to a glacier in Seward near midnight just before solstice, because I could. I took a highway north through green tundra and cascading mountains. I squinted into brilliant sunshine to get a look at the far away peaks of Denali, with parents and siblings taking selfies behind me. I sat on the Spit in Homer on a gray day — watching a territorial gull peck at a strip of salmon flesh while squawking at anyone who came near. I hiked a few more trails, saw waterfalls, and shuttled friends and families up and down the peninsula.
But wandering into the woods alone and dipping myself in frigid lake on a hot day in July — that was summer.
And now it’s definitively fall, and I have another year before I find that moment again.