When the Fireweed turns to Cotton
By Leslie Hundhammer, Guide
The first day I noticed the leaves changing color was July 24th. It was partly cloudy; the air was crisp and cool and damp. I imagined what July 24th is like on the coast of southern California, or the high desert mountains of central Oregon, or in the humid, thick air of North Carolina. Summer in Alaska is short, and tends to end abruptly.
In the height of our summer in McCarthy, Fireweed turns the hillside a bright fuchsia. As fall comes along, that fireweed turns to seed and becomes a white spider web of cotton. The saying goes, "When fireweed turns to cotton, summer is soon forgotten." Since early August, the fireweed has been cotton.
In the fall, our endless daylight dwindles and we find our headlamps we'd stashed away in April. Bedtime gets earlier as the darkness naturally draws us to sleep and the constrictions of nighttime are reintroduced into our lives. We lose about six minutes of daylight a day, almost forty-five minutes a week.
This darkness, though, brings back stars and aurora. A clear night in the fall offers the Big and Small Dippers, Orion's Belt, and the Milky Way. We set schedules to check the aurora and sound the alarm if the northern lights are out. Then, sleepy guides wrapped in sleeping bags waddle through the night to sit together in silence under the dancing sky.
The weather gets feistier in the fall and storms become more common. The rain comes for longer and with bigger drops, sometimes leading to flooded debris-filled rivers and soggy, exhausted guides. It is not uncommon for the high rivers to change course, diverging through the canvas wall tents we call home. At this point, we gather in our raingear and boots and wade into the cold brown water and move these homes to higher ground -- sometimes more than once. When the rain subsides, it might be replaced with a blowing wind that uproots trees, rips off roofs, and grounds flights.
But, on those rare crisp, clear, and calm days, the softened sunlight highlights the rainbow mountains of fall. The Chugach Mountains are well defined thanks to shadows and Mount Blackburn towers with its new white snow. The temperature lowers, the snow level drops, and the tourist season slows down.
Alaska, a place of extremes, has something to offer in every season. We see extreme light in summer, extreme change in fall, extreme cold in winter, and extreme skiing in spring. The Wrangells in the fall give us color, storms, and camaraderie. When the fireweed turns to cotton, I rest my head on my damp pillow and welcome the next season.