Spring on the Tundra

The first sign of spring’s arrival is the increase in daylight. At the time of the December solstice, Nunap receives only four and a half hours or so of weak sunlight per day. Intellectually, you know that the days begin to get longer at that point, yet January and February are still dark, cold months. By the beginning of March, however, you suddenly realize that sunset doesn’t come quite as early as it once did. In fact, each day is noticeably longer than the last. If you look at a sunrise/sunset chart for the region, you’ll see the amount of daylight increases by anywhere from five to ten minutes per day.

Rising temperatures can also indicate the impending end of school, but these take a little longer to arrive. Growing up, it was a pretty safe bet that by mid-March the heavy winter coats and knit hats could be put away in favor of lightweight jackets and baseball caps. By April, I’d be running around with nothing more than a hooded sweatshirt to protect me against any stray breezes. Here on the tundra, heavy winter gear is a necessity for quite a bit longer. As the temperatures increase, layers can gradually disappear. Maybe one day you don’t need the insulated overalls. A few days later, you can swap out that heavy parka for a lighter-weight coat. Then you can walk outside with the balaclava around your neck instead of up over your face. About this time, the snow on the ground will start to melt away. You’ll still want your boots, as standing water and mud will soon become problems.

As temperatures rise and snow melts, be prepared for the students to get a little squirrelly. For starters, the warmer weather and increased daylight means the kids are able to play outside for longer periods of time. By late April/early May, sunset doesn’t come until 9, 10, 11 o’ clock at night, and despite the curfew the kids will play outside until dark. So they come to school tired and/or late. When the river starts to thaw, you’ll have even fewer kids for a bit; just because the ice isn’t thick enough to walk on anymore doesn’t mean that boats can break through yet.

Eventually though, the river ice breaks up and melts away. The sun stays out for more than twelve hours (today has just over fifteen hours of daylight). Early in April, I heard songbirds for the first time in months, a welcome contrast to the harsher calls of the ravens that live here year-round. Even without trees, some green begins to appear as the new tundra grass shoots up through the mud. Insects have also appeared again, both the pleasant kind (bumblebees, moths) and the less-pleasant varieties (mosquitoes, biting flies). Just this week, the temperature crept up high enough that I walked to school one morning without a jacket. Several students have started wearing shorts to school. Clouds in the sky now signal rain instead of snow. And the end of the school year approaches.

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