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SAD? Winter joy all a matter of how you look at it

Winter excursions into high mountain sun, good endorphin boost

Posted: Friday, December 18, 2009

The extended week of Dec. 4 to Dec. 12 was perhaps one of the sunniest I have ever experienced in Juneau.

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Jill Homer / Juneau Empire
Jill Homer / Juneau Empire

It didn't matter that the sun was only out for six hours a day, hovering low on the horizon and casting long blue shadows on the snow between intermittent flecks of gold light. It didn't matter that temperatures were in the 20s, sometimes in the teens and bulbs of frozen sweat clung to my air. It didn't matter that low fog hugged the shoreline, forcing me to gasp and claw my way to new heights. For me, this week-plus was spent basking in sunlight. It's during these short days when many Alaskans are perched in front of full-spectrum florescent bulbs, that these opportunities really matter.

It's that time of year again in Alaska. And no, with the exception of the holiday-crazed among us, it's not the most wonderful time of the year. It's dark. It's cold. Winter solstice offers but a small glimmer of hope, and it's not even here yet. Time to flick on the SAD lights.

I'm no stranger to Seasonal Affective Disorder. I've had my fair share of bouts. I remember one particularly strong flare-up in 2008, when I climbed up Mount Jumbo in a summer gray-out only to be hit with the full fury of a snain storm (for those new to Juneau, that means a chilling swirl of snow and rain.) It was July. I don't think I've felt so SAD about anything weather-related in all my life.

But in December, there's something wholly joyful about pulling on layers of fleece and wool, wedging oneself into a winter coat and pushing out into the wind and ice and yes, sometimes snain. Beyond the initial "yuck" factor of cold weather and sometimes difficult-to-navigate trail conditions, the best-known cure for SAD is out there, just waiting to be discovered.

Take this past week for example. A high-pressure system moved in, bringing lots of sun, light winds and only mildly cold temperatures. I wanted to take full advantage of what, for me, is ideal winter weather:

On Dec. 4, a friend and I trekked up Mount Jumbo, punching thigh-deep snowshoe tracks in the seemingly bottomless fluff. In four years of endurance cycling training, I have yet to experience a more endlessly strenuous workout. But as we stood on the saddle with endorphins pulsing through our blood, basking in full sunlight, I doubted if I'd ever experienced a more satisfying one.

On Dec. 6, I rode my snow bike up the Lake Creek Trail to Spaulding Meadows. I followed the narrow tracks of cross country skiers as they weaved across a frost-feathered blanket of snow. It's still too early for snowmobiles; the meadows were soulfully quiet, reflective on a Sunday morning.

On Dec. 7, I cycled out the road, studded tires crackling like sizzling bacon on the cold pavement, and frosty wind chill amplifying the thrill of movement warming my muscles.

On Dec. 8, I mountain biked Dredge Lake, where beaver ponds were frozen and alder branches sparkled with hoarfrost.

On Dec. 9, I climbed Thunder Mountain, tracing the tracks of a mountain goat along the sun-drenched ridge.

On Dec. 11, I hiked up Blackerby Ridge, which carved a breathtakingly scenic bridge over the thick inversion that kept most of the city in fog.

And on Dec. 12, another friend and I returned to Mount Jumbo, to follow those well-earned snowshoe tracks, now finally hardened into a express "stairway to heaven."

All in all, it was one of my best outdoor weeks in three and a half years of living in Juneau. I'm not saying every Juneau resident should be immersed in the same activities. After all, not everyone has a job that doesn't require them to be at the office until the sun has nearly set. And some winter enthusiasts prefer regular storms and fluffy powder stashes to the hardpack crust and sun that winter hikers and bikers thrive on. And, really, after a week of playing hard for three, four, and sometimes eight-hour stretches in the freezer of December, I'm pretty much exhausted. But I also have enough quality stoke in the furnace to stave off Seasonal Affective Disorder, at least through Christmas.

And that's my point. Whether you're a cross-country skier, a downhill skier, a snowboarder, a snowshoer, an ice skater, a bundled-up beach walker, an ax-wielding ridge trekker or a studded-tire-clad cyclist, the rewards of venturing outdoors in December far outweigh the discomforts. Analyze the risks. Choose some good equipment. Don't push past your abilities. Dress warm. And just get out there!

It can't be worse than snain in July.

• Jill Homer is an outdoor enthusiast and deputy managing editor at the Juneau Empire. She can be reached at jill.homer@juneauempire.com.



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