“Pitch Black- Those Long Winter Nights
“The human organism inherits so delicate an adjustment to climate that, in spite of man's boasted ability to live anywhere, the strain of the frozen North eliminates the more nervous and active types of mind.” -Ellsworth Huntington
Alaska is infamous for its long, frigid winter nights. Depending on the latitude, winter nights can cloak the landscape in darkness almost around the clock. In the far northern settlements daylight might reveal itself as a brief period of twilight for a couple of hours. Further south one can count on three to five hours with some lighting. During the late fall and early winter one feels fortunate to catch a glimpse of the part of the sun for a few moments during the day.
Those who haven’t endured the short days at higher latitudes probably haven’t heard about “SAD”, which stands for Seasonal Affective Disorder. This is a modern rebranding of the more-familiar “Arctic Hysteria,” a medical condition where otherwise normal people can lose touch with reality. “Arctic Hysteria” sufferers might suddenly put on slippers and their pajamas and take a long walk in -40 degree weather, turning themselves into frozen munchies in the process. The lack of sunlight can affect the brain and may constitute a factor in the high suicide rates in the far north. Lack of motivation, listlessness, hibernation-like sleeping, irritability, increased appetite, social withdrawal, and communing with one’s inner devils all seem to be symptoms of this disorder which afflicts many of the inhabitants of Seward’s Icebox.
When we first moved to the 49th State we asked, “So, how do you endure the dark of the long winters?” We were very surprised to find the most common answer involved a trip to the 50th State, Hawaii. Maybe the soothing Hawaiian Islands are not lumped with the “lower forty-eight” because of the special place they hold in the hearts of Alaskans. Surviving the subarctic and arctic by taking a generous dose of a tropical paradise seems to be the vogue for those who can afford the time off and money. It is a return to our biological roots. For those who can’t get away there are other tried and sometimes true remedies.
The second most common survival tip involved buying a “SAD” lamp to brighten flagging humors. It was a clever marketing program to make “Arctic Hysteria” into something more sympathetic sounding, “SAD.” Madison Avenue, in Fairbanks, must have come up with this little number. One almost has to feel something for someone who is afflicted with “SAD.” Wouldn’t a person just want to hug and comfort the victim of such a condition? If the victim blurted out they had “Arctic Hysteria” a prudent person might be hiding the steak knives and making sure 911 was on speed dial for the moment when the afflicted finally starts arguing with the toaster. So… SAD=sympathy and AH=fear. It doesn’t matter that they are precisely the same medical condition; it’s more a matter of how the words shape perceptions.
Most of us might have trouble announcing that we were suffering from “Arctic Hysteria” at a public place like the local bar. Could you picture it? The grizzled, old sourdough steps up to the bar and announces, “Oh man, I feel so bad! I always get a touch of the old Arctic Hysteria at this time in the winter. Give me a vodka!” That’s where the bartender reaches under the bar for that sawed-off shotgun. He draws back the two hammers slowly hoping the noise of the jukebox will drown out the clicking of the gun being readied to fire. He’s on alert and ready to do what is necessary for keeping a crazed lunatic in check. In the same scenario, where the sourdough instead says he’s feeling a touch of “SAD,” the barkeep pours him a double to help him get over it and uses some of his tried-and-true bartender banter meant to comfort the afflicted. “Hang in there, old-timer, the days are getting longer again and you’re too tough to let this get you down.” Packaging is everything. Reward and punishment depend on how you describe your condition.
A variation on the “SAD” lamp is the tanning bed. Hard-core, life-long denizens of the frozen north have ripped a page out of the L.A. lifestyle and applied it to dealing with an ailment of the arctic. Under those layers of cold-weather clothing do they wear Speedos for when they hit the tanning booths? Inquiring minds want to know, but I’ll pass on this one. Hopefully the tanners take their heavy boots and hat off before entering the tanning bed to avoid really bizarre tan lines. A to-die-for tan on an Alaskan could be a clue that someone has some “SAD” issues. It’s abundantly clear that tanned Alaskans probably didn’t brave the hordes of mosquitoes and biting gnats in the summer sun to lie outside on a beach blanket.
The number three most-common answer involved consumption of substantial quantities of distilled or malt beverages. This has the advantage of being readily available throughout the state and making the long winter nights seem so much shorter. . Neat… on the rocks…in mixers… frozen… domestic… imported… light… or dark; all seem to have the same level of perceived success. The numbing effects of alcohol probably bias the results somewhat. The key to it all seems to be the substantial quantities involved. Some say the soaring alcoholism rate in the state has its roots as a deterrent to “SAD.” It’s one heck of a story to discuss over drinks in the local bar.