Alaskan winters are long, and the many months of seeing nothing but the white of the snow, the blue or gray of the sky, and the brown of leafless trees can wear on one. However, there’s a great deal of beauty and wonder even in that limited palette, such as the glitter of fresh white snow under silvery moonlight or the blush of a sunset warming the cool sky and turning the snow lemon and rose.
The snow created a challenge to everyday life: blocking the roads, threatening roofs, and becoming a 24/7 temptation to my father, who loved a good snowball sneak attack. We did what we could around the house, trying to keep the driveway shoveled to some degree, but the rest of the yard was left to the snow, which could rise up to the windows or higher. One winter the snow came up so high that when Daniel the Spaniel went round the house he could stop and look down through the kitchen window at my mother washing dishes. Sometimes the snow was hard enough for us children to walk on, but much of the time we disappeared into its depths, finding ourselves waist or chest-deep. The blowing wind shaped the snow into drifts, covering some objects, skirting others, creating sharp curves and soft banks. And it was in looking out at the snow one day from the warmth of the house that I saw the ptarmigans and quickly called the rest of the family to look.
Ptarmigans are small, round birds with feathered feet who often travel in groups. In early summer we’d see them raising tiny puffball chicks, and in fall we’d notice them rising to the tree branches when we hiked to our favorite cranberry-picking sites. They are particularly precious to Alaskans because they are our state bird—they are also one of my favorite Alaskan sights. Like a number of Arctic animals, including Arctic Hares and Foxes, ptarmigans turn white in the winter, with just a bit of black on their tail feathers. In the summer they are brown with bits of white and black, their color changes allowing them to blend into the landscape.
I called my family to look that day because I saw something I’d never seen before: ptarmigans sledding. A small group of ptarmigans had found a gentle slope of snow and they were gliding down it, their downy feet blending with the snow itself. They took it in turns, sliding down and then running up the side of the bank to go down again. Every once in a while a ptarmigan would lose its balance and take a tumble, but on the whole they were exceedingly agile. We watched them for a quarter of an hour, straining our eyes to see their shapes—small dark eyes and the black flashes of a few tail feathers showing against the white—until they grew tired and moved off and we sat in front of the fire in the living room, drank hot cider, and talked ptarmigan.