If you're lucky, you might get slightly more than three hours of light a day during the winter solstice in Alaska. What would that do to your psyche?
If there is any remaining doubt as to whether the Alaskan winter's bitter arctic chill and unforgiving dark days breed insanity, let the record show that the case is now rested. I'm in a 10-seat Navajo twin-engine prop plane, taking Talkeetna Aero Service's brand-new two-hour sightseeing flight around Denali National Park and Mount McKinley, and our pilot, a nice-enough guy named Corky, has already warned us that it is going to appear as if we are flying dangerously close to the jagged granite peaks of North America's highest mountain, the 20,320-foot Mount McKinley (aka Denali), but that we will actually be quite far away. Something about distances becoming distorted with objects this enormous. Whatever. As the plane rocks and rolls around the bumpy air caused by upward wind surges between the peaks, the mountain looks so harrowingly close you feel as if you could file your fingernails on it.
Corky tells us the side of the mountain is actually five miles away from the edge of the wing tip, but that distance draws a collective sigh of disbelief from the passengers. It may be true, but no one can believe it. Our point being that it looks a heck of a lot closer than that, so our stomachs are reacting accordingly. It is one of the coolest, most frightening, and most humbling experiences of my life.
Denali National Park sits 125 miles south of Fairbanks, Alaska, the gateway to the interior of this vast adventure wonderland. I've come during the winter solstice, in December, when there is so little daylight locals count the time in seconds. Sound like fun? Actually, there is a three-and-a-half-hour-or-so window of vague light, though the sun doesn't rise much above the horizon, and even more rarely above the mountains that surround the town. In other words, in December and January, Fairbanks is a very dark place indeed. That must be for the birds, right? Well, yes and no.
IT'S NEARLT NINE A.M. when I arrive in Fairbanks on the first of my five bone-rattlingly cold mornings, and there isn't a light in the sky. I ask my taxi driver, "When can we expect the sun to come up?" "What day is today?" he replies. "Monday? I'd say around Wednesday." Fantastic.
To say things are done differently around Fairbanks is to say TiVo has changed the way we watch television. For instance, nearly everyone here plugs in their cars when they park them (almost all public parking spaces are equipped with outlets). This is to keep the engine block warm so it can start in -40 degree temperatures. And they call snowmobiles "snow machines." They don't even have a word for what we call snow machines (i.e., machines that make snow), because, if you haven't figured it out by now, snow around these parts is rarely in short supply. I mean, in December, people here consider 10 degrees a heat wave.
Still, thousands flock to the Fairbanks area in winter, most coming to view the aurora borealis (or northern lights) - the eerie, greenish-reddish-purplish waves of light that move across the extreme northern nighttime sky throughout winter. Nearly everything that there is to do here (and there is plenty) is just for killing time between chances to view the lights. Seeing them, I soon learn, is easier said than done, but one meets a slew of interesting characters along the way.
MY FIRST DISTACTION is Fairbanks's newest attraction, the $42 million Museum of the North, on the campus of the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. A work in progress, this striking building, designed by architect Joan Soranno, is the most interesting piece of contemporary architecture in all of Alaska. Its entrance hall is designed to evoke a glacial crevasse, which illuminates a stunning pink glow at dawn. On a clear day, there are mesmerizing views of the Alaska Range - including Mount McKinley -from the heavily windowed lobby.
Inside is a fascinating display of native and contemporary art, including an impressive 36,000-year-old mummified Steppe Bison (a species that is extinct but which lives on here, thanks to taxidermy) and an Okvik Madonna, a 2,000-year-old icon carved from a walrus tusk and worth $1 million. But the cutting-edge side of the museum is what makes it worth the price of admission. Heading up that group is classical new age composer John Luther Adams, who is building a sound and light room that is controlled by the constant fluctuations of the weather, the sun, and the moon. In other words, the rhythmic pulses of Mother Nature control the sonic soundscape inside it. So, no two moments ever sound exactly the same, and earthquakes make for a very interesting symphony.