The Love/ Hate Relationship of Alaskan Break-Up

By Karla Fetrow

In American slang, break up means the parting of ways between two people; a melancholy time fraught with trauma, introspection and regrets.  In Alaskani, the word takes on a totally different meaning.  There is no true rendering of relationships in the Alaskan vocabulary.  Conscious of the statistics weighing out one woman for every four men, the guys usually assert, “I didn’t break up with my girlfriend.  I lost my place in line.”

Break-up is a season.  Alaskan seasons don’t count spring, and sometimes, not even the word, “summer”.  The seasonal shifts fall into the terms, “construction, winter and break-up.”  It is the messiest time of the year.  Unpaved streets that cars had traveled all winter with ease, are suddenly filled with slushing snow and dangerous potholes.  Car washes make a fortune as vehicles run in and out of them, returning three days later with the same accumulation of mud and grime that had recently scrubbed away.  Nobody cleans their carpets or lays down new ones until after break-up.  The mud boots come out and the Nike footwear and Timberline boots are saved for dryer weather.

Break-up separates the sourdoughs from the chechackos.  Chechackos are another Alaskani word, with a definition similar to the Spanish slang word, “gringo”.  You aren’t an Alaskan until you learn to think like one.  There are a couple of official definitions for a sourdough.  If you’ve lived in Alaska for a minimum of twenty years, you are a sourdough.  If you’ve soured on Alaska, but don’t have the dough to get out, you are a sourdough.  According to one of the oldest standing tales, there are three requisites for becoming a sourdough if you want the quick fix title.  You must piss in the Yukon, sleep with an Eskimo and wrestle a Polar Bear.  After hearing the requisites, a young chechacko chose the more instant option.  When returning to the cabin of his host, his clothes tattered, his face and arms mauled, he said, “I pissed in the Yukon and slept with a Polar Bear.  Now, where’s that Eskimo I have to wrestle?”

Alaskan break up is always heralded first by a false spring.  This can occur any time from early February to late March.  For a week or two; sometimes three; it appears like break-up has finally arrived.  The chechacko celebrates, thinking the winter is over.  The locals know better.  No matter how early or late the first signs of snow meltage arrive, there is always one more cold spell before the real thing.  This year was no exception.  The winter was mild enough this year that the follow up of an early spring seemed natural.  While February bathed in warm weather, the unseasoned transplants declared happily break-up had arrived.  “Not so,” said the locals.  “We still have March to go through.”  Sure enough, not long into the second week of March, a massive storm front moved in, dumping an extra three feet of snow to the winter’s accumulation, than plummeting into a -5 degrees F. cold spell for the next six days.

The chechacko thinks cabin fever delivers its worst blows in January.  The Alaskani disagree.  Years of experience and environmental adjustment has already told their wary minds that January is the longest, coldest and darkest month of the Alaskan winter.  Bear-like, they hunker down, hibernate for long astonishing hours, and wait for the sun’s return.  The torment comes during break-up, which usually begins in March.

Cabin fever is the first symptom of a series of fevers that affect the Alaskan people.  Trailing directly behind cabin fever is fish fever.  When the first official day of true break-up shone benevolently down on a longscape eager to thaw,  and the bar-b-que grills, the cross country vehicles and camping gear were brought out and polished, the locals sniffed the air and smiled with satisfaction.  “I smell fish.”

Alaska is a tease and exhibits this characteristic most flagrantly during break-up.  After the initial sudden thaw when the snow begins to shrink and water runs freely through the streets, break up is a series of advances and retreats.  Some days are astonishingly warm, with temperatures that soar as high as sixty, but still blinding with the stark black and white graphics of a snow covered landscape.  Other days, the melt doesn’t begin until late afternoon and halts its progress in the dark hours of the night.  Sometimes, on a whimsy, a snow flurry arrives to cover the progress of earth’s brown exposure.  You can’t really do that much without sludging through slush and dangerous conditions.  At any time, there could be an avalanche if you’re thinking about your snow machine or ski’s.  The ice on the lakes has become too thin and untrustworthy for skating.  There is little you can do about yard work until the ground thaws.  You wait, inhaling glorious days of warm weather in a mud bath mixed with ice and snow.

Fishing fever begins as soon as the rivers are free from ice.  Patches of snow still cling to the ground.  The trees are still bare, but trudging through puddles and sludge doesn’t make much difference when you’re wearing hip boots.  The important thing is that you are out there, fishing.  It precedes all other gainful employment, such as yard cleaning, gardening or getting around to building that deck you’ve been putting off for the last three years.  Until you can say you’ve fished and have a few fat salmon in your smoker to prove it, there is no quenching the fever.

There aren’t many people who would recommend visiting Alaska during break-up and the accompanying feverish state of its inhabitants, but there is a remarkable occurance that accompanies the last sighing breath of break-up weather.   As fast as the snow melts, and patches of bare ground are exposed, plants begin to grow.   The tender young grasses and tightly rolled ferns cling close to the warming trunks of trees.  Thick green buds appear within days of full ground exposure.   In the secret,  slumbering hours of nights that are now no more than a few hours long, nature paints a new landscape.  She presents with the same staggering surprise of waking to the first snowfall, only instead of a wintry blanket, the earth is quite suddenly, and breathlessly green.  There are no year limits to the wonder of this miracle; whether you grew up with it as a child, whether you’re ninety years old; your heart stops for a moment.  You breathe a sigh that floats with the butterflies drifting unconsciously by your window.  The world that just yesterday was stark with naked trees and barren ground, is vibrant with rustling plants, flitting insects and opening flowers. This is the day all Alaskans wait for, the reason they grit their teeth when Jack Frost claws at their windows and creep under their doors.  They slumber through the frigid months when sunlight is only a dim memory, dreaming of that one special morning when they’ll awaken and the earth in triumphant fanfare, has spread out her bounty.  Break up is over and it’s summer.

About karlsie

Some great perversity of nature decided to give me a tune completely out of keeping with the general symphony; possibly from the moment of conception. I learned to read and speak almost simultaneously. The blurred and muffled world I heard through my first five years of random nerve loss deafness suddenly came alive with the clarity of how those words sounded on paper. I had been liberated for communications. I decided there was nothing more wonderful than writing. It was easier to write than carefully modulate my speech for correct pronunciation, and it was easier to read than patiently follow the movements of people’s lips to learn what they were saying. It was during that dawning time period, while I slowly made the connection that there weren’t that many other people who heard the way I did, halfway between sound and music, half in deafness, that I began to understand that the tune I was following wasn’t quite the same as that of my classmates. I was just a little different. General education taught me not only was I just a little isolated from my classmates, my home was just a little isolated from the outside world. I was born in Alaska, making me part of one of the smallest, quietest minorities on earth. I decided I could live with this. What I couldn’t live with was discovering a few years later, in the opening up of the pipeline, which coincided with my first year of junior college, that there were entire communities of people; more than I could possibly imagine; living impossibly one on top of another in vast cities. It wasn’t even the magnitude of this vision that inspired me so much as the visitors who came from these populous regions and seemed to possess a knowledge so great and secretive I could never learn it in any book. I became at once, very conscious of how rural I was and how little I knew beyond the scope of my environment. I decided it was time to travel. The rest is history; or at least, the content of my stories. I traveled... often to college campuses, dropping in and out of school until one fine day by chance I’d fashioned a bachelor of arts degree in psychology. I’ve worked a couple of newspapers, had a few poems and stories tossed around in various small presses, never receiving a great deal of money, which I’m assured is the norm for a writer. I spent ten years in Mexico, watching the peso crash. There is some obscure reason why I did this, tightening up my belt and facing hunger, but I believe at the time I said it was for love. Here I am, back home, in my beloved Alaska. I’ve learned somewhat of a worldly viewpoint; at least I like to flatter myself that way. I’ve also learned my rural roots aren’t so bad after all. I work in a small, country store. Every day I greet the same group of local customers, but make no mistake. My store isn’t a scene out of Andy Griffith. The people who enter the establishment, which also includes showers, laundry and movie rentals, are miners, oil workers, truck drivers, construction engineers, dog sled racers and carpenters. Sometimes, on the liquor side, the conversations became adult only in vocabulary. It’s a good thing, on the opposite side of the store is a candy aisle filled with the most astonishing collection, it will keep a kid occupied with just wishing for hours. If you tell your kids they can have just one, you have an instant baby sitter; better than television; as they agonize over their choice while you catch up on the gossip with your neighbor. We also receive a lot of tourists, a lot of foreign visitors. They are usually amazed at this first sign of Alaskan rural life style beyond the insulating hub of the Anchorage bowl. Many of them like to hang around and chat. They gawk at our thieves wanted posters. They laugh at our jokes and camaraderie with our customers. I’ve learned another lesson while working there. You don’t have to go out and find the world. If you wait long enough, it comes to you.

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13 Comments on “The Love/ Hate Relationship of Alaskan Break-Up”

  1. And I thought the cold and sloshy days in Colorado were long! ha. Good story and great pictures too.

  2. What a beautiful rendition of such an awful thing.
    I live in Wisconsin and know too well what the tease is all about. But I’d rather do it with more equality between the day and the night.
    I’ll stay right here thanks.

    You’re killing me here- What’s on the grill?

  3. Heather, it usually takes close to three months to melt all our snow. That’s why we go stir crazy. Most of the time, the snow is gone by the first week of May, but not always. In a rainy year, which frequently happens, we hardly seem to get a summer at all before it’s winter again.

    Anna, i’ve heard about those Wisconsin winters. From what i understand, they get colder and drier than our wet, coastal weather. I think the Matanuska Valley probably has similar conditions. It’s colder than my home base in the winter because it’s more open and vulnerable to winds. It also has more open sunlight so the snow melts a little more quickly. It’s still a mud bath though, because the water doesn’t run off as much in the thick glacier soil. It just settles and eventually dries out.

  4. Oh, i forgot to say, the dude in the photo was striking up the grill for some salmon smoking. The salmon season was still a month away, but he thought he’d clean out the freezer and smoke everything that hadn’t been eaten during the winter. He had fish fever; big time.

  5. “The salmon season was still a month away, but he thought he’d clean out the freezer and smoke everything that hadn’t been eaten during the winter. He had fish fever; big time.”Oh yes! (And “Mmmmmmm”).I do the very same with venison…

  6. Venison is a very rare treat for me. Most of our deer live on the Panhandle, although i’ve heard some have migrated to the mainland. However, sometimes we make jerky our of caribou, which is very delicious.

  7. Nice description of the area. I had to put up with that kind of environment one year. I don’t look forward to ever returning to that type of environment.

  8. I must say that by and large I am really pleased with this website. After reading your post I can tell you are educated about your writing. Looking forward to future posts. Cheers!

  9. There should be some approach to forestall these natural disastor from happening…we must think ahead of each possibility, not less than we must always do what we should be doing…

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  12. The Love Hate Relationship of Alaskan Break UpIt posts like this that keep me coming back and checking this site regularly, thanks for the info!6/8/2010

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