May 10, 2013
The Edge of Darkness
By Peter B. Mathiesen
Three years ago, outdoor writer, photographer, and consummate sportsman Peter Mathiesen left his hometown of St. Louis to start a new life in Alaska. Here’s why he made the move, what everyday life is like, and how it feels to have Denali right outside your window.
As I write this installment of Living in Alaska, it is May 9 and here above latitude 62, the sunlight will be a generous 17.5 hours. The sun will rise at 5:13 a.m. and set at 10:39 p.m. What you may not realize is that there is plenty of added bonus light because of the extraordinarily slow sunrise and sunsets. Referred to by the government as Civil Twilight, first light actually begins at 4:02 a.m. and ends at 11:51 p.m.
Back in the Midwest, you can sit and watch the sunset in a few minutes, like pulling a down a window shade. In Alaska, sunsets take more than an hour. All this residual light translates to a lack of darkness in most of the state during June and July. If you get up to Arctic Circle (eight hours north of my home) the sun will actually stay visible 24 hours a day. So yes, the sun will set, but in early July, it will never really get dark.
This can play havoc with the mind of a hunter or fisherman. If you’re big game hunting, you want to be out all night. If you’re an aggressive fisherman, you may never sleep. During my first trip in 1998, I fished for 48 hours straight; finally jet- and light-lagged I crashed for about 14 hours. With all the visual stimuli, you feel obligated to be outside.
Living here is no different; I sleep an average of six hours a night in the summer because there’s so much to do. More than once I have received a phone call from a neighbor reminding me that it’s 10:30 p.m. and could I please stop running the chain saw.
While the summer never gets dark, that’s not the case in the winter. Because of the long Civil Twilight, during our shortest day of the year in December, you can still add almost two hours of low light to nearly five hours of daylight. So if it’s clear, we are getting within an hour of comparable light in much of the Lower 48.
As the calendar turns to January, we gain an average of three minutes a day until March, when we gain six minutes a day. By late February, much of Alaska has more light than the Lower 48.
The toughest time is mid-December; I find the busier I am, the less I notice the shorter days. You can’t leave the house without a headlamp or a flashlight, and you see a staggering difference in your light bill. However, by January, just knowing you’re gaining light daily seems to make all the difference. By the first of March, warm or cold, you’re back to a routine approaching over-productivity.