As we rest, one of our number reminds us that just beyond the fence is a gas station/convenience store on Chena Hot Springs Road, where in 2019 a driver, irate at someone in a car trying to pass him, fired his pistol at the car. I think of the woman I’d encountered on the ski trails at a local college; her equipment included a holstered pistol. When I asked her why, she said, “Because of people like you.” I quickly skied on.
Such is the place where we live. But on this day, several weeks after the winter solstice, the light is coming back, the trail is pleasant. The temperature was minus-1 when we set out — I was taken by surprise, because it had been in the 20s most of the week, and I’m a little underdressed. As long as we move briskly and don’t take long breaks, I’ll be fine.
Yes, the warm past week had been weather, not climate. But when all is said and done, when the data is compiled, it will confirm an unavoidable fact. Our winter temperatures are creeping higher every year, and the plunges to minus-40 or below are scarcer and scarcer.
Every one of us skiers knows this. All Alaskans know it. We find ourselves torn, though, between our collective dependence on revenue from oil and the environmental damage it is causing. Here in the north, climate change is happening faster than elsewhere. As it does, more of the permafrost — discontinuous in the Fairbanks area, continuous the farther north you go — begins to thaw. And as it thaws, it releases the methane trapped inside, a greenhouse gas more damaging than carbon dioxide.
Today, it’s hard not to be smitten by the beauty of this place, the snow, the hoarfrost coating every limb on the willows that line the field, the stillness of land at rest. We are a mixed group, ages from mid-70s to around 45, good-enough skiers to make this trip on skinny skis with a minimum of falls. To live here happily, I believe, is to embrace this land — winter and summer. We all do. In summer, we canoe, cycle, run, hike and fish.
Ski season used to range from mid-October through mid-April, sometimes beyond. I can remember a joyous ski on Cinco de Mayo with beer and brats afterward. Lately, though, the season has grown shorter — often on both ends. The growing season for that hayfield we skied past might be a week longer on either end.
We Alaskans have trapped ourselves between our economics and our climate, and as a group, we can’t seem to find a way out. Just now, we have a little over six hours of daylight, with the sun always low on the horizon. Solar panels do the best they can. Farther west, where the wind can really blow, it does not blow constantly.
With so much room, we’ve chosen to sprawl ourselves over the landscape. Wilderburb: those neighborhoods we build deep in the woods, the houses so thoroughly nestled that neighbors seldom see each other. As a result, we need our cars to commute from home to work. This far north, it’s unlikely we can ever get along without using fossil fuels. Through our actions and our choices, we are slowly ruining the place we claim to love.
Today, these questions are not front-of-mind. I’m too busy concentrating on getting a good start so I can herringbone up that steep little pitch. The sharp air, the fellowship, the sheer pleasure of putting muscles to work allow me to forget about these worrisome questions that defy easy answers and don’t go away. Maybe that is our collective problem. It’s hard to complain about milder winters even when we know they’re evidence of an ugly future that we, our kids and grandkids all have to face.
Right at the end of our ski, I miss the turn by a big gray house I was to take to avoid a steep downhill. Suddenly, I’m going faster than my comfort level and snowplowing like crazy to stay in control. Toward the bottom, I pull off on a side trail and look back for my companions, who had been in front of me, to see if they still might be on the trail above me. I can’t spot anyone, but seeing some ski tracks on the main trail, I go on. Everybody pops out at the end of the trail soon enough. Great fun, great joy. And yet.