Goodbye, Winter

 

As spring approaches, I find myself pondering how different Oregon winters and springs are from all the other places I’ve lived. I have a long history with winter — real winter, that is; I grew up in cold places. First my family lived in Northwest Ontario, where temperatures fall to -40° C (which, incidentally, is the same temperature as -40° F… fun fact!) or lower, at least a couple of times each winter. Then we spent seven years in remote northern British Columbia, where winters were less cold but much snowier — the snow routinely accumulated past six feet, and our downstairs windows would be blocked by snow by the end of winter no matter how many times we tried to shift the piles of snow that slid off the roof. We waited with happy anticipation for the snow pile from the eaves of the woodshed to meet the roof, so we could climb to the peak of the roof and slide off in glorious swoops.

We moved back to Ontario when I was eleven, and I discovered afresh the experience of having one’s nostrils freeze together in the frigid air. On the playground (well, parking lot, really) at our tiny church school, the girls’ mandatory long skirts would freeze stiff in the cold wind and chafe our calves during outdoor recess — also mandatory, down to -20ºC.

At the age of eighteen I moved to Alaska. I fell in love with my husband there and ended up staying for fourteen years, mostly in the Anchorage area, which niftily combines the cold of Northwestern Ontario with the snow of British Columbia. It’s not quite as cold as Ontario (or the interior of Alaska) or as snowy as British Columbia, but there’s enough of both to satisfy all but the most demanding winter enthusiast.

All three of these regions have four things in common: long winters, darkness (getting worse as you go farther north), short summers, and agonizingly slow springs.

In Northwestern Ontario, the end of winter generally starts sometime in  March, as the days slowly start to get longer. The snow gets wet and heavy. Roofs drip. Dirt roads gradually appear beneath the ice, and promptly turn to mud. Slowly, so slowly, the giant piles of snow from plowed roads shrink, and driveways turn into small rivers. By the end of March or  beginning of April, roads are often clear of snow. Of course, snow doesn’t stop falling, but the fresh snow gets churned into muddy slush within a few days of falling.

Then comes a day, perhaps sometime in March — around the same time roofs start dripping — when someone gazes out at the scrubby trees that grow in the thin soil atop the bedrock of the Canadian Shield and says, “Is that… green? Do I see green?” Someone else comes to look, and others crowd in. “Nah, you’re imagining things.” But within a couple of days, that optimistic viewer is vindicated, for the bare grey branches now exhibit a faint green tint. It’s barely visible. If you look closely at the tree branches, you won’t see leaves — you’ll see leaf buds just beginning to swell. Despite the faintness of the color, though, this promise of green signals the true end of winter. Several weeks or a couple of months later, probably by mid-May, most of the trees have baby leaves, and by the end of May roses and sometimes lilacs are in bloom. There have been instances of snow in May in Northwestern Ontario, but it doesn’t happen often. Those baby leaves are the beginning of spring.

In the parts of Alaska and British Columbia where I lived, the progression is the same, if a little later and a little slower, with one difference. The winter is so very dark further north that it’s a real occasion when the sun rises as you’re driving to or arriving at work, and when the sun is still up when you leave work. For much of the winter, you literally will not see the sun unless you’re lucky enough to have a day off that coincides with a clear day. So, in Alaska, those glorious first days of sun on your skin, rather than the first green, are the first sign of spring — even though the air is just as cold as before, and the hems of your pants get just as frozen on the way inside, and you have to scrape just as much ice off your windshield, as before.

Our family came to Oregon four years ago, fresh from the long winter and slow spring of Anchorage. We arrived early in June, after leaving our Alaskan home at the end of May. In Anchorage, the trees still had no leaves, and mud abounded. Here, June was full summer. Flowers bloomed everywhere. Grass was a happy green, and lacked that unpleasant sogginess of Alaskan grass after several feet of snow has melted into lawns. We could hardly believe our good fortune. Real summer!

The following spring, we moved from our rental to a permanent home on two acres. We moved in March, just before Easter, and we got to see the onset of spring in a way we’d never experienced before, since our rental home didn’t have a lot in the way of plants. We ooh’d and ahhh’d at each and every new flower, delighting in identifying mystery plants as they each burst into bloom in turn.

The strangest and most wonderful thing to us about an Oregon spring, though, wasn’t the abundance of flowers or the greenness of the winter grass. It was the trees. First of all, Oregon has a lot of evergreens — not just conifers, but broad-leafed shrubs too. Combined with the ivy and moss twining over the massive trunks and branches of trees and the ever-green grass, it’s never really not green here. But even the deciduous trees behave differently here. There’s no gradual onset from bare grey branches, to pale green mist, to buds, to leaves. No, these trees are already making new leaf buds as the old ones fall. You can see that barely-visible green all winter. Then, at some point — as early as mid-to-late February — the early-blossoming trees and shrubs, like plums and forsythia, burst into bloom, along with daffodils and crocuses. Soon after, you notice that the trees look a little more green — and within a short day or two, there are baby leaves everywhere. Here, spring isn’t agonizingly slow — it’s as fast as instant coffee. It lasts long enough to savor it, but its onset is as quick as adding water and stirring.

This year was a bit different than the previous three, and I found myself musing on how much I don’t miss Alaskan winters. We got snow in November this year, and we continued to get occasional snow until… well, until last week. Several times, it accumulated enough for the kids to make snowmen and snow angels. School was closed over and over — we had to readjust the school calendar to make up nine snow and/or ice days. (Do you know how many snow days we had in the Anchorage School District while I was teaching there? Maybe one true snow day over that five-year period, with another one or two days each year for ice.) Niko’s teacher told me, around the middle of January, that between in-service days, holidays, and bad-weather days, there had not been one full five-day week since mid-November.

Niko and Sofia were ecstatic about the snow. Each time flakes appeared in the sky brought a thrill of joy. For me, though, those mornings of begging the kids to slow down on the porch before they slipped on the ice, and scraping windshields, and having to sit and wait while the windows defrosted and defogged, weren’t filled with joy, but with disbelief tinged with resentment.  I’d moan internally (and sometimes not so internally),  We moved here to escape this!  Of course, the fun of seeing the kids go crazy playing in the snow was almost enough to alleviate the snow-induced grouchiness. Almost. That snow was more enticing to the kids than the best toy in the world.

And the snow made everything look so beautiful — winter flower buds peeking through the snow, branches coated with a thick layer of white, fairy lights on the tree in front of our house sparkling through the frost. It was lovely to look at. Like the kids’ delight in the snow, the beauty of the landscape was nearly enough to balance out the resentment. Still, as I chipped piles of icy snow from the porch, it was hard not to feel betrayed by the weather.

The unusually cold and snowy winter delayed the onset of spring, too. Everything is starting at least three to four weeks later than last year. Daffodils just bloomed two days ago; last year they were blooming in February. I saw one single blossom on our plum tree this morning, in the middle of March — last year, the whole tree was in bloom by the second week of February. The cold had one benefit, though — my dwarf irises and pink hyacinths, the first flowers to bloom, had not a single slug-munched petal this year, a far cry from the vicious attacks before buds had even opened in past springs.

But there is one thing — one single thing — about this longer-than-usual winter that is, in fact, awakening nostalgia. The cold winter, now (probably) ended, is finally demonstrating just one redeeming quality. The trees and shrubs have been hoarding their energy, refusing to fatten their leaf buds. Until now. Over the last few weeks of slowly-warming weather, I’ve finally seen that harbinger of spring: a green haze lightly touching all the trees — and not vanishing within days in an explosion of leaves this time. This spring, I’ve watched as the green increases oh-so-gradually. And this time, like all those years in Canada and Alaska, the green haze is true to its word, delivering spring gently and slowly. Every day I see new evidence that winter has released its grip on my little corner of the world. Slowly, slowly, buds are growing, flowers are opening, and tiny leaves are appearing here and there. It’s not (thank God!) the long process it is in colder climes, but this year, for the first time since we moved here, it really is a process. And I’m loving every single slow moment.

 

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Sparkle

A few days ago, I was driving home from dropping off Niko at preschool, and I drove into a fog bank that was shot through with rays from the rising sun. And suddenly, out of the blue, I was swamped with nostalgia.

Here’s the truth: I hate most of the things about Alaskan winter and don’t regret abandoning them all for the mild, really-more-like-prolonged-spring Oregon winter. Some of the key elements I’ve always disliked: Walking through snow. Slipping on ice. Driving on icy, badly-plowed or not-yet-plowed roads. Waiting all morning for my cold, damp pant legs to dry after dragging them through a snowy parking lot. Shoveling driveways. Driving through a blizzard. Brushing snow off windshields, scraping ice off windshields, dealing with ice buildup on windshield wipers. The terrifying, unstoppably glide as your vehicle fails to stop on a patch of ice. And that’s only the snow and ice problems. Don’t even get me started on the darkness and short days and the cold….

But there’s one thing that Alaskan winters do better than anywhere else, and for it to happen, there has to be fog and sunshine. That one amazing thing is hoarfrost. We call the fog that comes before the frost an ice fog, for the obvious reason that it causes the frost, but also because the fog is actually filled with tiny, suspended ice crystals. When the sun finds a way through and lights up the fog, the air is filled with glitter and sparkle. It’s breathtaking in its beauty. You can’t help but stop to stare around you.

The morning after an ice fog, everything is coated in thick, intricately patterned frost crystals. Trees are as white and sparkly as an artificial Christmas tree. The frost turns the world into a magical land of beautiful possibilities. On mornings like that, you suddenly realize that Alaska actually is as incredible as tourists think it is.

A frosty Anchorage afternoon.
A frosty Anchorage afternoon.

Driving through that fog the other day, I remembered. And, believe it or not, driving on the ice-free road in a car that hadn’t had to have its engine run for ten minutes to be drivable, looking through a windshield with full visibility instead of semi-clear streaks scraped through ice, I discovered that I missed Alaska. Just for a minute. It didn’t last long. But for that minute, it occurred to me that I might like just one day of waking up to a fresh snowfall. Just one day to see the world covered in white. One day to see everything shining with jagged-edged, lacy, fragile frost crystals. Just once.

That night, the fog thickened and hung low over our home as the temperature dropped. I’d already forgotten the nostalgia, but Oregon must have heard my wish, because the next morning I awoke to a magical world of white. Not snow, but frost. Everywhere I looked, there was a thick coating of crystals. The grass, the trees, everything was shimmering white.

As I started to get breakfast ready, Niko ran to the window. “Wow,” he breathed, and I agreed. The sun was just starting to shine through the trees, lighting up the frost. On impulse, I asked him, “Would you like to go run in the frost for a few minutes?” He was thrilled, and ran outside, stomping and jumping up and down as he discovered the crunch of the frost.

Exploring a frosty morning
Exploring a frosty morning

My nostalgia is gone now. I know that if we’d had the snowfall I wanted for that brief moment, we’d be shoveling a porch and a long, long driveway to make sure we could get out if necessary. We’d be cold, and wet, and probably lose our footing and fall a few times. Instead, what I got was the sparkle and glitter I’d been craving, without the added stress of dealing with snow.

Thanks, Oregon. You rock.

Throwback Sunday…Two Years

Just now, Aaron texted me to say, “Two years ago today, we were visiting Oregon for the first time to see if we liked it!” It doesn’t seem that long ago. But he’s right.

Two years ago today, Aaron and I took a long weekend to explore the Portland area. We were almost sure Oregon was at the end of our escape chute from Alaska, but we didn’t want to make a decision without having visited at least once. And that one visit did it for us. We were in love! Our visit happened to land on a weekend that was unusually sunny for this time of year, with temperatures in the 60s. Our Alaska-acclimated bodies felt like we were in the tropics. We stripped off jackets and cardigans and tried not to laugh at the locals in heavy sweaters, down vests, and coats. This was summer weather for us. Oh, it does get warmer during summer in the Anchorage area, but those days in the 70s and 80s are rare. When we visited, Anchorage was blanketed in fresh snow, and the green grass, still-blooming roses, and bright oaks and maples of Portland were like a Technicolor heaven for us.

Seven months later, we had packed our belongings, our son, and my pregnant belly and were driving across Alaska to catch a ferry from Juneau to Bellingham, Washington so we could make our way to our rental home just outside Portland. And now here we are, seven months into owning our own beautiful piece of Oregon paradise.

It’s so good to be home.

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Making Chai Citrus Spritzer

I’ve recently begun to realize how important food is to me. Every bite of a familiar food is loaded with nostalgia, accompanied by a dazzling parade of memories. Every recipe comes with a cascading waterfall of linked stories connected to the people in my life. Food brings with it a sense of family, closeness, love, friendship. Even now, far from the commune where I grew up, I dislike eating alone; growing up on the farm, meals and snacks were generally group activities. Someone was always hungry. The rustle of a bag or the soft whooosh of the refrigerator door could draw a crowd even if you started out alone in the roomy kitchen.

[This seems like a good place to mention that if you really just want a recipe, not a long reminiscence, you can scroll way down to the end for instructions.]

So, for me, chai (my preferred method of infusing caffeine into my veins) is a drink fraught with memories. When I took my first life-changing sip, I was nineteen. I was in the dreamy yet awkward stages of undeclared (and, according to the strict rules of the communal college I attended, forbidden) love. Just outside Haines, Alaska, the farm we lived on was a college destination predominately for youngsters like me who’d grown up in a network of communes across the world – mostly in North America, mainly in the North. I had left Ontario the previous year to attend the Christian college for a degree in education.

Now, here we were, a gaggle of sheltered kids freed from the early-morning weekly duty of helping in the commune’s bakery in Haines, basking in the freedom of an unsupervised stroll to a coffeeshop. Mountain Market was dubious territory. It was frequented by the “granola” crowd, modern-day hippies wearing natural fibers, sporting natural body odor, and topped with naturally unwashed hair. We, on the other hand, typically wore modest business-casual attire. Girls in skirts ranging from prim to trendy, but all below the knee, tops carefully buttoned to three fingers below collarbones; boys with shirts neatly tucked; all scrupulously clean. Not a beard, tie-dyed garment, or matted lock of hair in sight.

I’d never had an espresso drink, didn’t care for coffee, had certainly never seen a headful of dreadlocks like the one on our friendly (yet terrifying) barista. “I don’t know what to order,” I whispered to my crush Aaron, who was at the college for just one year “for the experience.”

“You need to get a chai. You’ll love it.”

“A what?” At least espresso was identifiable as coffee. I had no idea what a chai was. It sounded as unfamiliar and scary as the tentacle-headed blond barista behind the counter.

“It’s a spiced tea with steamed milk. It’s really good.”

I wanted to impress Aaron with my willingness to try new things, with my bravery, so I tremulously ordered a chai. I don’t know if he was impressed with my daring, but my first sip drove out all thoughts of wowing the love of my life. It was the best thing I’d ever tasted. I was hooked.

And now the taste of chai is inextricably intertwined with the painfully agonizing delight of new love.

Fastforward a decade. On a frosty winter weekend morning, baby snugly tucked into his car seat carrier, I was meeting my best friend for coffee and gossip at a cafe in Anchorage, Alaska, exactly seven minutes from my home and two minutes from hers. I usually ordered a chai – why change a perfectly pleasing tradition? But I perused the menu anyway, because I’m a compulsive reader and menus contain words. And there it was. CHAI CITRUS SPRITZER. Made with spiced tea, citrus flavors, and ginger. I ordered. I sipped. I was transported. From then on, I was completely hooked. It was cool, it was spicy, it was fizzy, it was a perfect meld of complementary flavors.

At some point I stopped exclaiming over the amazing taste experience I was having and restrained myself from forcing Gracia to try the new drink, and we went on to our comfortable routine of comparing work stories, discussing politics and philosophy, noting tiny Niko’s milestones, and laughing uproariously together. But secretly, in the back of my mind, I was deconstructing the drink with each sip. A little orange…a little lime…a bit of ginger…I was sure I could recreate this.

And of course I did. And now I’m sharing it with you. Here, for your sipping pleasure, is the flavor of deep and lasting friendship; of Alaskan winter turning so very slowly to spring; of the burdens of new motherhood lightened by the irreverent hilarity of a childfree friend; all laced with that original chai flavor of new love on an Alaskan commune. I give you: Chai Citrus Spritzer.

1. Collect your ingredients: prepared chai, crystallized ginger, orange juice, lime juice, sparkling water, a tall glass. I drink chai routinely; I used to get my Oregon Chai at Costco in packs of three. You can get it at Fred Meyer, a Kroger store, too. Or you can brew your own from tea bags, as I do these days. (You can see my recipe here.) The crystallized ginger is usually available in the bulk section of a grocery store. It adds flavor, but if you can’t find it, don’t let that stop you from enjoying this drink. It’s not crucial. For the carbonated water, I like to use the store brand cans of lemon-lime flavored sparkling water from Fred Meyer. The mild citrus flavor helps merge all the flavors of the drink, and it just happens to be really really inexpensive. If it’s not available, just use any plain seltzer water.

2. Grate, crush, or use a knife to trim small pieces of crystallized ginger into the glass. How you prepare it depends on how big the chunks of ginger are. When I started making it, the crystallized ginger I found in the bulk section at Fred Meyer came in very small pebble-like pieces, and I just crushed them between my fingers as I dropped them into the glass. Now that I’ve moved and get it at a different store, it comes in big 1/2 inch cubes, and I have to cut pieces.

3. Add about two fingers of orange juice and a dash of lime juice.

4. Fill the glass just over half full with the prepared chai.

5. Top with carbonated water.

6. Close your eyes and slowly sip the cool, sparkling, ginger-and-citrus concoction. Breathe deeply. Relax. Ahhhh….DSC03305

Spring in October

I’m a northern girl by heritage but not, it turns out, by disposition. I was raised in the frigid winter climate of Northwestern Ontario and the deep snow of northern British Columbia, then migrated to the somewhat milder Anchorage, Alaska. Every year since I was old enough to take notice, I’ve hated the long, dark winters of the north more and more. After the excitement of the winter’s first flakes and drifts, snow is just one more way for my feet to get wet and cold. Watching the sun set at 3:30 in the afternoon as I wave goodbye to my students. shivering, is not my idea of enjoying the majesty of Alaska’s nature. Searching for a dry, snow-free spot to sit at the end-of-school picnic in May brings me no joy. No, beautiful as Alaska is, it’s not the place for me.

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About seven years ago, my husband and I formulated a “five-year plan.” We would keep our new Anchorage condo until we had built up enough equity to make money selling it. That would be our ticket out of Alaska. We would move to a place where you didn’t have to use a flashlight to navigate to your car at four o’clock on a winter afternoon, where the highway wasn’t littered with traffic accidents every time fall turns to winter. Every. Single. Time. Lifelong Alaskans forget how to drive in snow, each and every winter. We dreamed of finding a place where people grew crops like melons and tomatoes right outside in their yards, no greenhouses and heaters needed. A place where summer was summer, and fall was a riot of color. A place where there was no snow to shovel. In other words: paradise.

A year and a half ago, we packed up our belongings and son, and, with the help of my best friend who helped me stay sane on the long drive to Juneau, Alaska so that we could take the ferry to the state of Washington, we left the place that had been home for Aaron for thirty-one years (only fourteen for me).

Now we’ve been in our “forever home,” a low brown house on two acres, built in 1979, for one summer, after renting for a year while house hunting. And it is paradise. Here it is, the end of October, and the slight chill of the last few rainy days feels like a rainy day at the height of Alaskan summer. Friends and family in my former homes of Ontario and Alaska are already shoveling driveways and bundling up for the walk from front door to car. Today I was out shopping in a cardigan over a thin summer shirt, and was perfectly comfortable.

But the comfort of a moderate climate is small compared to the sense of amazement I find as I garden here. A couple of weeks ago I saw shoots coming up near our pond, where last spring grape hyacinths had bloomed. I went to the omniscient Google and discovered that these amazing little bulbs sprout in the fall. Plants that come up in October? I had no idea plants did that!

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That same weekend, I did some fall planting of bulbs that will provide brightIMG_0560 springtime color next year. Planting in the fall! Now, I know people in Anchorage must IMG_0605have done this too, because I have seen with my own eyes crocuses pushing up through snow in late April and early May. But I have never myself done fall gardening. It’s a mind-boggling and delightful concept for someone to whom October means the first snowfall of the year.

Things just grow on their own here, with no help from human hands. In the soil half  of my compost bin (that is, the half that is done decomposing and is now rich garden dirt, as opposed to the half that is freshly discarded leaves and kitchen scraps), I just discovered five young tomato plants and a large patch of parsley, joining a melon plant that has an almost-ripe melon that we’ll pick soon. In fact, this isn’t good, not from a gardening perspective. It’s a sign that the compost pile isn’t decomposing properly, killing seeds with internal heat as it ought to. But I can’t bring myself to uproot these miracle plants. Young parsley and tomatoes sprouting in October, as if no one told them they’re supposed to be curling up and dying under a layer of snow, rigid inside a foot of frozen earth. Incredible.

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But, oddly, the plant that has solidified this sense of magical fall growth has been garlic. Researching this summer, I discovered that garlic is best planted either in fall, for a late-winter/early spring crop, or in late winter for an early summer crop. So said, again, the all-knowing Google. But I didn’t truly believe it. What northern gardener would put plants into the ground in October and expect to harvest in winter? I planted anyway, obedient to the wisdom of search engines, shaking my head at the crazy idea of a January harvest.

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And then. And then. Last weekend I strolled past the garden bed where I’d planted the garlic. And – NO WAY! Seven fresh green sprouts against the dark brown earth. Sprouts in October, promising a winter crop, a frail green proof of paradise.

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Oregon. My own paradise, found.