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  • Patsy Clark Urschel

Chalk it Up to February



 

"February is for curmudgeons, whinge-bags, and misanthropes . . . it's so short. There is nothing good about it, which is why it's so great." Lionel Shriver

 

The rush of the holidays is behind us, the drama of almost nine feet of snow has evaporated, and the frigid cold has transitioned to the dousing wet of February. The month has a bit of a bad rap – post ebullience and pre-renewal, there’s an in-betweenness that feels a bit, well, blah. February blues feel like a deep indigo, the tail end of the darkest days, before the crocus, pansy, and violet herald new beginnings.



The natural world around me, though, is not fazed with that assessment. The surf scoters continue their synchronized diving in the harbor, the herons still traverse the narrows between nesting and feeding grounds, and the sea lions, sometimes in pairs, cleave the water as usual, their huge forms glistening and turning. The small long tail ducks are pecking the water, creating concentric ripples around their forms. The ravens are sentinels, working in tandem on some mysterious purpose, and two bald eagles perch on the twin masts of the fishing boat across from us, like watchful bookends. None of these creatures are looking bleak, as far as I can tell. Their business-like approach to getting their needs met feels a bit like true north: one foot, then another...



I find refuge in the harbor, walking the docks with a grounding regularity, an unleashed Bella by my side. We have a prime view of Wrangell Narrows, which opens to Frederick Sound to the north and Sumner Strait to the south and runs as fast as five knots twice a day. At the end of our dock, the quick-running water sometimes looks like rapids. Last night during my dock patrol with Bella, she was carefully studying the rushing water as if she knew something special was happening. Only the dock supports were slowing down the thrust and rush of water and at that very juncture where turbulence met calm, she stood and watched, trying to make order. Water moving that fast takes my breath away, too. Turbulence wasn’t restricted to the water, either. The canvas on the surrounding boats ruffle and snap in the wind, and the straps holding down our skiff on the top deck are straining against the 15-20 knot winds. I know there are gale warnings in the sound but we’re safe here, buffered from the worst.



 

"I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape—the loneliness of it, the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it, the whole story doesn't show." Andrew Wyeth

 


Snow and ice have also grounded me these last two months. All that’s left of the prodigious snow of December and January is a thin layer of crusted stuff, except for the tall, dirty banks along the harbor where the plows pushed the bulk of it. Of the roughly 104 inches of snow we’ve received so far, just shy of 18 inches fell on New Year’s Day alone. The skiing and snowshoeing days included moments of stillness and effort - a rediscovered pleasure of mine from decades ago. The boardwalks up and beyond town were magical snow globes that gradually became impassable as the the stuff piled up. Impassable, too, were the highways to foot traffic as sidewalks became the least of anyone’s worries. By the end of the snowfall, of more concern were the roofs of houses and schools. With warmer temperatures following the cold snap, collapses were a potential risk, and it was all hands on deck to mitigate it. We watched folks come together to shovel out themselves and their neighbors, a good dozen of them on the elementary school roof alone.




If the first day of January brought near record levels of snow, the ensuing week delivered unusually frigid weather. Temperatures that dipped below zero completely converted the harbor into a dramatic visual and aural dreamscape. On the coldest days, the wood that makes up the docks was creaking and popping under the weight of our boots, sometimes so loudly, it made me jump. The masts of each boat seemed particularly taut from the cold and the morning fog converted every surface, both organic and man-made, to an entirely different version of itself with a layer of gorgeous rime frost. When the skies were clear, the onset of evening would bring an astounding alpenglow, a gorgeous backdrop to the trees and mountain ranges that literally thrilled me. Sea smoke, created by air temperatures colder than the water, wafted across the narrows like the set of a scary movie just before something gruesome happens, and I loved that too. In fact, this kind of deep cold makes me cognizant of the dangers possible here if I were to make the wrong mistake at the wrong time. That, strangely, is enlivening.




The deep of winter can provide a good mirror to what’s happening under the hood, both mine and that of our neighbors. The rain and dark can feel relentless when there’s so little that’s either concretely or metaphorically sunny and warm. It's no surprise that weather and light (or lack thereof) can powerfully impact one’s internal barometer of okayness, amplifying whatever is there. Happily, I have a better sense of what to expect from this stretch and I'm armed with a partner who makes excellent company, soulful friendship, an energetic pup, hot chocolate, and BBC Mystery reruns to soothe me when I feel an unwelcome tightness inside. I also know that March will mark the start of a very busy eight months in the field and if last year is any indication, the ennui will lift as the activity and light do. If all else fails, I have the surf scoter, the heron, the raven, and the sea lion to set me straight.



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