Personal Essay: Waiting for the Snow

Gavin KentchNovember 9, 2021
Darkness visible: Lights and fog on the multi-use bike trail, Kincaid Park, Anchorage, Alaska, November 2021. (photo: Gavin Kentch)

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — It is the season of darkness. 

When I first thought of this piece, on November 1, Anchorage had 8 hours, 27 minutes, and 57 seconds of daylight. That’s a moving target, however, as we’re losing roughly 5.5 minutes a day. Another week has gone by, and we’ve moved an additional 38 minutes to the darkness side of the ledger. 

You can do the math on your own, but at some point sunset comes before you start your workout, and then it’s all moot anyway. My wife comes home from work at roughly 5:30 p.m. (If you’re reading this, Julie, thank you for earning us a living and health insurance then holding down the fort while I go play neurotic athlete three nights a week. Some day we will all have weeknight dinner together again!) I bring her up to speed on our children and our day, change clothes with alacrity, make the nine-minute drive to the west, and am at Kincaid by roughly 5:50 p.m. Sunset in Anchorage on November 1 was 5:57 p.m.; today, it will be at 4:35 p.m. It’s moot now.

As I head out of the stadium for a warmup, fiddling with my headlamp to perfect the fit over my wool hat, I wonder how much of my life I have spent at Kincaid Park. The total has to be well into the multiple thousands of hours, likely not ten thousand yet but getting closer every year. My will directs that a portion of my ashes be scattered in the park (our family cabin gets the other part). The park has personally been home to a few athletic triumphs and a lot of disappointments – the downhill approach into the finish is unkind to someone who weighs 140 pounds and can’t sprint to save his life; the uphill finish at Fairbanks’ Birch Hill is actually a far better match for my strengths – but mostly has just nurtured the sheer accumulation of hours and time. Like ski training. Or life. I’ve seen more sunsets from Kincaid than anywhere else.

When Kincaid is good, it is very, very good: 50 kilometers of ski trails with no trail fee, a third of them lit. It has challenging national championship courses, flat trails, views of four mountain ranges and two oceans. I’ve seen black bears, brown bears, lynx, coyotes, porcupines, rabbits, bald eagles, sandhill cranes. There’s a lake, sand dunes, beaches, deep cottonwood forests, hillsides of birch blazing golden each fall, ice floes susurrating along in Turnagain Arm. 

This photo was taken roughly twenty minutes after sunrise: View looking out over the Kincaid stadium during the women’s 10km skate at U.S. Nationals, January 2018; it was 33° F and nuking snow. (photo: Gabby Naranja)

When Kincaid is bad, it is horrid: sporadic grooming on some trails, a stadium that is always the windiest place in town, a brutal, damp, moist cold. The Pacific Ocean is a half-kilometer away from the stadium, and laps within 120 meters of some of the ski trails. We’re like a more compact Oslo, but with no public transport. I once wrote the first 300 words of a straight news race report about how brutally cold and humid it was here on race day. It still feels like a defensible authorial choice; the first words out of the winner’s mouth, on the record into a microphone, were, “It’s f–ing cold.”

Tonight it is roughly 35° F, and trying to decide between light rain and a dense fog. The weather vacillates: moisture precipitates out of the air at random, then settles in as fog. It swirls in the beam of my headlamp, swallowing the light within a few feet, illuminating only chaotic particles of moisture in front of my face, my exhalations mingling with the mist. I see moose at every turn, and pray that they are only stump moose. It could not be darker.

I think of the famous allegory of the life of a pagan (🙋) by Venerable Bede, likening our time on earth to the swift flight of a sparrow through a great hall, finding passing respite from the stormy night outside. My weekend exercise times, in broad daylight, are those brief, glorious moments of life within the illumined mead hall. My evenings with my training group, APU Masters, still dark but at least with company, are the anteroom. My solo evenings are the great swaths of darkness on either side, amidst the “wintry storms of rain or snow raging abroad.” I wonder if all of this is pathetic, or just bathetic. The darkness is total. 

Kincaid parking lot in the fog, November 2021. (photo: Gavin Kentch)

I play involved meteorological games with myself of “would you rather” – would I rather it snow a half-inch, so the ground would be white and high-albedo and much lighter, or continue as things are, where the ground is impossibly dark but at least I can still rollerski on non-foot days. The answer, of course, is “C, it snows enough that I can just ski now,” but that is not an option. I review the most recent 10-day forecast in my head, committed to memory after I had checked it roughly 17 times earlier that day – no real snow accumulation to speak of, and borderline for snowmaking weather,  though eventually it should drop back below freezing again. I wonder when temperatures will reach the low-20s required for NSAA to turn on the snow guns, then mentally add 20-25 days to that for them to cover six kilometers of trails. I wonder if my children will ski at sea-level Kincaid with any regularity when they are my age, or if local skiing will become concentrated at Hillside, on the other side of town, slightly higher and snowier. I wonder, for the umpteenth fall in a row, what will happen if the snow just doesn’t come this year. The darkness encompasses all.

I have in my possession, at home, multiple electronic boxes that will at a moment’s notice show me many other people skiing, in the daylight, in many other places around the world, often with teammates. They look happy. Some of these people are at Hatcher Pass, an 80-minute drive from my house yet inaccessible on a weekday parenting schedule. Probably none of these people out skiing are homeschooling children during a pandemic. 

I spend far more time than I want to admit looking at pictures of these people, many of whom I know personally and count as friends. It is probably not helpful for my overall mental wellbeing. 

I wonder if this is all karmic payback for the articles I have written for this very site over the years (Exhibit A, Exh. B, Exh. C, Exh. D, Exh. E; see also Exh. F, Exh. G), exulting in early- or late-season ski conditions in southcentral Alaska. I tell myself that many people have endured challenges during this pandemic more grievous than needing to wait till the weekend to drive 80 minutes to ski on groomed trails starting on October 9. This is, of course, correct, and objectively speaking my family and I are incredibly fortunate. Nonetheless, it does not, at this moment, make me feel much better, nor keep me from feeling cold and lonely. The darkness intensifies. Now it is windy, too. 

I come through the Stadium tunnel to the start of the Lekisch Loop, and the backlit mist and fog from my breath billow up around me and rush past, borne through my headlamp beam by the north wind. It is visually arresting, and I wish for a moment that I had a personal videographer with me to capture the moment. Where’s Reese Hanneman when you need him. “It’s what you do in the dark that puts you in the light,” he could caption it. Gus Schumacher taught me that. Or maybe it was Muhammad Ali.

Screenshot from a video from my coach, November 2016. It was dark then, too. You should really watch the original video for full effect. (photo: screenshot from Galen Johnston Instagram)

I finish my warmup, strip off my windbreaker, and start the workout. I’m 45 seconds slower, over a 10-minute L3 bounding course, than I was when I did this workout with my team two Thursdays ago, which is frustrating to me. I wish we also had practice on Tuesday nights. I wonder if I am proving a frankly pretty obvious proposition about one’s ability to push harder with teammates at one’s side. I tell myself that the swirling fog and 100% humidity are conspiring with my ragged L3 breathing to completely encase my glasses in fine droplets of water within seconds of when they were last cleared, and reason that I am taking the downhills gingerly because I cannot actually see where I am going, and the descents on this homologated course are, like, steep. I may also just be slower tonight, but this theory is not inaccurate. I tamp down the headlamp to its lowest setting, reducing the amount of moisture swirling in my vision, which helps a little. I get the discrepancy down to 10 seconds for the last interval, which is gratifying. 

I complete the intervals, jog a quick cooldown, and return to the parking lot. The gates on the access road remain open till 10 p.m., and the lights are on till 11 – I could stay for two more hours! The great floodlights in the stadium pierce the fog, in places, but somehow only make it look darker. 

The lower stadium lot at Kincaid holds roughly 200 cars when it is full. Mine is the only one left right now. There are many people in this town who train very hard, and many, many people who ski faster than me, but not one of them, in a city of 300,000, is still out training at Kincaid late on this Tuesday evening. This should really help secure my victory in the prestigious “everyone brag about your training log” measuring contest that we all know is a real race awarding real medals. It is surprisingly dark even in the parking lot. 

I am bib 44 in this photo, far back left (emphasis on “far”), fighting to avoid dead f— last before even leaving the stadium. I finished 37th out of 40 in this race, a local JOQ, though also second out of two among racers who were also parents. First and second overall would have World Cup starts within a year. There are a lot of good skiers in Alaska. (Original caption: Athletes leave the start area in a mass start classic race at Government Peak Recreation Area, Palmer, Alaska, in February 2020. (photo: Russell Hood))

I change clothes, mix my recovery drink, and head back home. I am glad I live in west Anchorage, near the park, affording me a short trip. It is dark on the drive home, and I am once more scared of moose, though at least now my heater is running and the headlights in this car actually work and I have on dry clothes. I return home, go upstairs and listen to bedtime stories, and kiss my kids goodnight. I take a shower. Finally, later than really is helpful for my ability to get to bed on time and wake up the next morning, I have dinner. My wife baked the children homemade oven fries, leaving the leftovers out for me. I inhale roughly one cubic foot of potatoes, reveling in their warm, seasoned, carbohydrate goodness, and have never loved her more. Maybe it will snow tomorrow.

Gavin Kentch

Gavin Kentch wrote for FasterSkier from 2016–2022. He has a cat named Marit.

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