By Clark Fair, for the Redoubt Reporter
I used to consider the appearance of robins to be the first true sign of spring. When I saw them bouncing lightly across my still-brown lawn, I knew it was time to throw open the windows, box up the winter coats, slide into my XTRATUFs and stroll outdoors to inhale and hail another season of resurrection.
Robins coincided with the deterioration of the back roads on the central Kenai Peninsula and usually preceded the appearance of snow geese on the Kenai River flats, hooligan and king salmon in the river itself, and mosquitoes at the edges of the forest. Robins were the heralds of warmer days in the lowlands and rising snow lines in the mountains. They signaled earlier sunrises and later sunsets, the squawking of sandhill cranes, the flights of arriving gulls and shorebirds, the hooved tread of cow moose preparing to calve, and the revival of hungry bears.
But over time, my pastoral view of robins as vernal messengers faded, displaced by a decidedly more cynical outlook.
I came to recognize a new (and more urban) symbol — a true peninsula herald — a modern mechanical monstrosity that alerts all peninsula residents to the season (and by that I mean the tourist season). That icon is, of course, the Winnebago and all similar box-on-wheels conveyances that will soon be clogging traffic on the Sterling Highway and filling the fringes of the Fred Meyer parking lot and campsites up and down the river.
Much to the delight of the aggregate chambers of commerce.
Not so much to the average local motorist, shopper or outdoor enthusiast.
Meanwhile, here in Dillingham, we have no Winnebagos. No motor homes to speak of, of any kind.
The reasons for this “deficiency” are simple: We have no campgrounds. We have damn few roads. And you can’t drive here from anywhere else, except Aleknagik — and you can’t drive to Aleknagik from anywhere else, except Dillingham.
So despite myriad similarities to spring on the peninsula, many of the signs of spring here are different.
The similarities are easy to enumerate: (1) As the ice begins to disappear from Cook Inlet and its beaches, the ice begins to disappear from Nushagak Bay and its beaches. (2) As the migratory birds reappear on the Kenai Peninsula, so do they reappear in western Bristol Bay. (3) Canneries in both places begin ramping up for another summer of boot-clad, knife-wielding workers and intense bouts of seafood processing. (4) Warnings are issued in both places to “be bear aware.”
(5) Single-engine aircraft multiply in the sky. (6) Sportfishermen store their winter gear and begin preparing to wet a line in the inlet, lakes or streams. Commercial fishermen migrate to their vessels and nets to start prep work and repairs. (7) Street sweepers motor slowly through town to whisk away the debris previously scattered on winter road surfaces to improve traction. (8) Snowshoes and skis vanish, to be replaced by Frisbees and trail shoes. (9) Residents unseen throughout the cold months of winter suddenly emerge from hibernation to don shorts, bright T-shirts and flip-flops and parade through town.
The differences, on the other hand, while sometimes stark, tend to be more subtle.
In Kenai and Soldotna, lawns reappear in springtime. These lawns have sometimes been gouged or heaped with sand at their peripheries by the blades of snowplows. Many of them reek from wintertime canine visitations. Others are plastered with soggy brown leaves or stubborn spruce cones left unraked during the previous autumn. In Dillingham, there are few lawns. Perhaps fewer than a dozen. Those that do exist here are rarely leaf strewn because the area’s strong winds scour the lawns clean prior to the first snowfall. Because dogs are plentiful here, their poop is, too, but not on lawns. Ditto the gouges and sand piles.
As the snow melts on the peninsula, overland access tends to improve. Back roads clear. Trails open up. As the snow melts around Bristol Bay, overland access tends to decline. The open thoroughfare created by snow-laden, ice-encrusted tundra disappears to make way for spongy, soggy, tussock-dotted, pond-filled terrain difficult to cross on foot. (And as for back roads and trails, there are precious few on public lands.)
On the peninsula, sporting goods stores change over their wares in springtime. Summer gear appears. Big sales are announced. Winter items are marked down for clearance. In Dillingham, there are no sporting goods stores, although a hardware store and a NAPA supply store here cater to marine traffic.
In Kenai and Soldotna, restaurateurs breathe a sigh of springtime relief as the customer volume increases. Extra staff is hired to serve the expected influx of hungry fishermen and tourists. Over in Cooper Landing and at Summit Lake, some of the sleeping eateries awaken and dust off the furniture for another season. In Dillingham, only one restaurant — the Bayside Diner — remains consistently open all winter long; others open in streaks — only on certain days, during particular months, for restricted hours or apparently just on a whim. Openings increase in spring, with regular hours expected by late May or early June.
On the peninsula, commercial greenhouses open their doors to display galleys of already thriving flowers and vegetables. Gardening enthusiasts flock to these plastic encasements, enticed by the smells of potting soil and living green things. Around Nushagak Bay, the start to the gardening season is — pardon the pun — more organic. Flats of starter plants — the seeds for which were ordered from Johnny’s Selected Seeds catalogs — fill windows or lie sedately beneath grow lights in basements or heated garages. Gardeners here longingly eye their high tunnels or add-on greenhouses, praying for an early growing season as they finger the soil to test its temperature.
For those who will not be employed by family or friends in commercial-fishing enterprises, job-seeking youth of the Kenai-Soldotna area may start checking out the fast-food opportunities or clerking jobs at the retail stores. They may start lawn-mowing businesses, apply for YCC or cannery positions, or sign up for temporary employment with city or borough maintenance departments.
Here in Dillingham, according to the local Job Service, the youth do one of three things: (1) go to remote fish camps with their families, (2) go commercial fishing with the fleet or at a set-net site, or (3) do not work. The huge local Peter Pan Seafood Processing plant imports nearly all of its seasonal workers — hundreds of them — and flies them in from the Alaska road system and beyond. Precious few other opportunities exist here for job-seeking youngsters. Certainly, there aren’t enough lawns around here to start up a business.
As I ponder what I miss most about peninsula springtime — the robins, shoots of green grass spiking up from the south side of the house, muddy climbs up the Skyline Trail, early wildflowers (not dandelions) seeking the sun, the first wobbly orange moose calves to stagger through the willows — it’s also easy to recall what I will not miss — the sight of a 31-foot Coachmen Freelander or a 38-foot Winnebago Adventurer (or their ilk) obstructing my field of vision, blocking an entire row of fuel pumps, or filling the lane (left turn signal blinking) while stopping traffic.
Although I know those motor homes signal economic prosperity to some, that’s not a green signature of spring I’ll miss reading. Meanwhile, I’ll watch the last vestiges of snow berms fade and dream in vain of a summer without mosquitoes.
Clark Fair, a resident of the Kenai Peninsula for more than 50 years, is a lifetime Alaskan now living in Dillingham.