A Walk in Deep Cold (by Bill Sherwonit)

Five minutes into my winter walk, I hear familiar, pleasing voices. They descend from high in the trees: soft, reedy trills that are soothing to the ear. While Coya ambles on ahead, I stop and search the forest canopy. In moments I spot the singers: a few dozen bohemian waxwings rest on the scraggly limbs of birch trees. Barely moving in the late afternoon’s deepening cold, the birds seem to pay me no mind as I position myself beneath their temporary roost.

Are the waxwings trilling to each other? Do their songs have meaning, communicate some message? Or are they simply singing for the joy of being alive? And does it really matter? All I know for sure is that their songs bring me moments of pure joy during Alaska’s longest and harshest season, much like the chatter of chickadees, the sweet warbles of pine grosbeaks, or the late-winter guttural trilling of redpolls.

So I stand in the middle of trail, head tilted skyward, a smile creasing my face and body wrapped in song, no reason to move until Coya circles back, curious to know what’s up. I rejoin my collie mix and we play toss and fetch with a stick I’ve snapped from a dead alder, slowly making our way along the hard-packed and largely empty Coastal Trail.

It’s a relatively mild day in what has become the longest and deepest cold spell to settle upon Anchorage in a decade; and apparently one of the coldest spells ever documented here, at least since the National Weather Service began keeping records in 1917.

This morning’s low was “only” minus 7 degrees Fahrenheit and the day’s high (according to my thermometer) will reach 0; yesterday, the mercury dropped to minus 21, only 4 degrees off the date’s record low for our town. Still, I’m bundled for the cold: heavy mittens, sweatshirt hood pulled tight over wool cap, fleece long johns beneath heavy pants beneath wind shell, upper body too draped in several layers.

Dressing for subzero cold has become part of my daily routine these past couple of weeks, because Coya and I have maintained our schedule of daily afternoon walks even as the chill wreaked havoc with the U.S. Cross Country Championships at Kincaid Park, forcing the postponement of races four out of six days. Going at our steady but comparatively slow pace, we haven’t had to worry about inhaling too much cold air, on hikes of anywhere from three to seven miles. My mutt’s enthusiasm for cold and snow has helped pull me out the house on days I might otherwise have joined the throngs of Anchorage residents who, spoiled by recent mild winters, are choosing to remain cocooned indoors except when circumstances demand brief forays outside.

A few hundred yards more and our walk is again halted when more trilling grabs my attention. This time a dozen or so waxwings sit atop a huge spruce tree, bodies bathed in rosy light that accentuates their crested auburn heads. Here, out of the forest’s shadows, I can more fully appreciate the fine beauty of these birds, among the handsomest to inhabit the far north.

Though mostly covered by a gray suit of silky feathers, the bohemian’s body is decorated by a black eye mask and neck bib, a tail brightly edged in yellow, and white-striped wings that bear the small red “wax” bars that give their birds their name. And there’s also that russet-tinted head.

Besides their eye-grabbing appearance and ear-pleasing voices, waxwings appeal to me – and many other Anchorage bird lovers – because they’re something of a mystery. For most of the year, waxwings fly clear of the city. Only in winter, when wild food becomes scarcer, do these widely roaming “gypsy birds” (thus the bohemian tag) descend upon Anchorage in huge numbers. Yet local birding experts don’t know exactly where they come from, what specifically triggers their migration toward the city, where they go after leaving, or how long they remain in large flocks before dispersing.

I’ve been informally tracking the presence of waxwings since they first appeared in my Turnagain neighborhood Oct. 17. I watched their numbers build from a handful to dozens, then hundreds, and finally thousands in December.

More recently I’ve been noticing their predictable decline. With Anchorage’s fruit trees now nearly bare, there’s little reason for the waxwings to stick around. By the end of January they’ll be gone altogether, on the search for other sources of plenty. I’ve heard their winter circuit includes communities in the Mat-Su Valleys and on the Kenai Peninsula. Anchorage’s Christmas Bird Count tallies show that roving bands of these “gypsy birds” have been a significant part of the city’s midwinter scene for nearly three decades. Most years since the early 1980s, thousands have settled into Anchorage for weeks on end to feast on mountain ash berries, elderberries, chokecherries and crab apples. Roaming the city in large flocks, they swoop and dive in synchronized flight while they move from neighborhood to neighborhood and street to street, descending on yards and greenbelts to strip ornamental trees of their fruit.

A few years ago, Christmas Bird Count participants spotted 11,415 waxwings spread through Anchorage, a record for the city. But that record was shattered this past Dec. 20. Of the 30,298 birds counted that day (spread across 42 species), a staggering 22,245 were waxwings. Even more amazing, perhaps, was local birder Dave DeLap’s report of a single flock numbering 3,000 birds. I felt a sort of “birder’s envy” when I heard that, though twice I’ve had the privilege of seeing what surely had to be a thousand or more birds.

This winter I had an experience worth a special mention in my home journal.

The first week of January, while peering out my living room window as day’s first light caressed the tops of front-yard birches and spruce, I happened to spot a group of waxwings rush through my Turnagain neighborhood. I then watched as wave after wave of waxwings followed. They didn’t come close to blotting out the sky, as passenger pigeons once reportedly did, but they kept me transfixed for several minutes. I couldn’t help but wonder how many other days they’ve passed through without me noticing. I’m also amazed that I failed to notice waxwings at all, until the mid-1990s. How could I have missed their marvelous presence for so long?

Nowadays, if asked to name what I love most about living in Anchorage, “waxwings in winter” would surely make my top 10 list, maybe even top 5. Their presence has become one of my great pleasures – and comforts – during winter’s darkest and coldest days. More than once, their appearance in the neighborhood or passage overhead has calmed jangled nerves or pulled me out of deep-winter doldrums.

The flocks of waxwings I’ve encountered in recent days have, as always, brought me great pleasure. But the recent cold snap, with its largely clear skies, has presented other deep-winter delights. The moon, for instance. I have watched our planet’s closest neighbor loom ever larger in the late-December and early January sky, from the narrowest of crescents through its quarter-moon phase and then still bigger until today it is essentially full, a creamy disk floating grandly and gorgeously above Anchorage’s downtown skyline. Pale and shadowed when we begin our walk, the moon gradually brightens in the darkening sky until it is a glowing presence, as if beaming its own light toward the Earth.

I can’t remember ever being so aware of the moon and its gradual passage through the lunar phases. Its steady presence gets me thinking about the Man in the Moon, the worship of lunar goddesses, Neil Armstrong’s 1969 lunar walk, and how the moon, like so many other natural wonders, has become diminished in our modern, high-tech and indoors-directed culture. Today it pulls me outward, into space and the infinite mysteries beyond our own taken-for-granted world.

While Coya sniffs yellow snow, I walk to the edge of the wooded bluff and watch the passage of ice floes up Cook Inlet. This is something else that seldom tugs at my attention: the gradual freezing of coastal waters until the inlet becomes choked with icy blocks that flow back and forth with the tides. It’s an amazing thing, really, the way the inlet and its shores are transformed in winter. The bleak, cold beauty sends a shiver through my body.

Today is still and quiet enough that I hear a kind of hissing or fizzing, like a pot of simmering water or a freshly opened carbonated drink. It must be slush, tiny bits of inlet ice, pushing against each other. There’s also the occasional squeak and crunch of larger tide-driven floes bumping and grinding against each other.

Above the mix of water and ice, soft vaporous tendrils rise into the air, turned golden by the sun. In the distant southwest, Mounts Redoubt and Iliamna – the latter a rare sighting, visible only on the clearest days – are silhouetted against the pale sky. Their presence stirs memories of summer trips into distant wildlands across the inlet and prompts thoughts of trips not yet taken.

Though I can’t see them from here, at other spots along the Coastal Trail I can relish the visages of Alaska’s most famous mountain family: Denali, Sultana (“The Woman,” Mount Foraker), and Begguya (“Denali’s Child,” Mount Hunter). From Point Woronzof the three great peaks loom bold and rosy above the northern horizon. That’s been another benefit of this cold spell: daily views of this high-mountain trio and memories of another place I hold dear, the Alaska Range and larger Denali region.

We leave the bluff and Coya runs on ahead, first her tail and then her entire body wagging until she flops onto the trail, rolling around as if in ecstasy. I always cringe when she begins rolling on the ground, but there’s nothing slimy or stinky this time, only the pleasure of a good head and back rub against hard snow. The pleasure is mine, too, watching her roll and bite at the snow and smile so brightly.

As the sun sinks lower, the temperature drops with it. In this deep cold, the air is a physical presence, pressing against my clothes and body, stiffening my outer layers. I feel the cold against my face – the only part of me directly exposed to its touch – first as a coolness, then a tingling, and, when the chill is especially deep or I’ve stayed outside long enough, a sort of burning. My feet stay warm enough but I feel the cold begin to seep into my mittens and touch my fingertips, begin to numb them.

I recall a headline in this week’s Anchorage Daily News: “Cold wreaks havoc.” The story recounts bursting residential water pipes and city water lines, an epidemic of dead and dying car batteries and, worst of all, house fires possibly linked to the cold and homeowners’ attempts to stay warm. I’m among those who’ve suffered car woes; my car was recently incapacitated for a couple days, a combination of moisture in the fuel line and an overworked battery.

For most of us, though, the subzero cold snap has been nothing worse than an inconvenience. Another newspaper headline – and its weather page – reminds us Anchorage residents that “‘Cold’ is a relative term.” Indeed. Folks living in Alaska’s Interior communities have been dealing with temperatures into the minus 50- to 60-degree range, with some reports of almost 70 below.

Now that’s cold.

I can only shake my head in wonder and feel a sort of admiration for the people who endure the deep cold and even shorter daylight hours of Alaska’s Interior and Arctic regions. As for me, I’ll happily embrace the wintry darkness and occasional deep – but not too deep – cold that comes with living in Anchorage, especially when a cold snap slows me down enough to notice the moon rising slowly above the city skyline, the rosy glow of the setting sun, the hissing of ice, the looming presence of distant mountains, the soft trills of gypsy birds, the tingle of chilled cheeks – and the warmth of good company, whether canine or human.

Face and fingertips numbed, with mini-icicles hanging from moustache and beard, I turn to Coya and say, “OK, we’ve gone far enough today; time to head back.”

With a look of expectancy, she sits on the snow and waits for her ritual turn-around treat. After gobbling down the biscuit, she chases the stick I toss down the trail and scampers on ahead. I pause a few seconds more, listening for the chatter of chickadees. Hearing none, I follow Coya down the trail in darkening woods, the moon now shining brilliantly among the treetops.

This is an original work posted by permission from the author. This work is not to be reproduced or replicated in any form without the express written consent of the author.


Bill Sherwonit lives in Anchorage.

website by clutch media