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I Spent the Winter Solstice in One of the Darkest Places on Earth

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About eight years ago, I stepped through the unlocked door of a 1915 cabin-turned-chapel in Wiseman, Alaska, an Arctic settlement of about a dozen people roughly seven hours north of Fairbanks. In the dim light, the pastor’s log was open on the makeshift pulpit for anyone to read, and I quickly lost myself in pages of lilting cursive.

It was September, the Arctic tundra glowed with electric reds and rusts, and every day the snow line crept down the stone pyramids of the Brooks Range. The pastor, who had lived in Wiseman for decades, described the inexorable march of darkness as a force both terrifying and beautiful. She spoke of chopping wood, preserving berries, and squeezing the joy out of every moment of daylight before a winter in which, for more than a month, the sun never rises above the horizon.

The notion of such sustained darkness in a remote corner of the planet unnerved me. Residents of the Arctic tell stories of people losing their minds in the black of polar night. But I also felt strangely curious—and drawn to return one day.

For years, I tried to manufacture a good excuse to travel to the great north in the depths of winter, but it never worked out. It’s not exactly easy to get to at any time of year and services like hotels and transport are few. (During my previous trip, I had been on my way to report on polar bears farther north.) But last summer, a friend forwarded me an email about a tiny off-grid six-person retreat center that had just opened outside of Wiseman. The owners were hosting a week-long trip that included yoga and exploring the Arctic wild with skis, snowshoes, and dogsleds, and the dates fell right on the winter solstice.

I couldn’t resist signing up for the retreat, but I had hesitations. I’m not exactly a cold-resistant creature: I’ve suffered from hypothermia multiple times and frostbite that turned my feet white and wooden. I’m generally dressed in a sweater and jeans when my friends are wearing shorts and flip flops. Even at much more temperate latitudes, seasonal affective disorder runs in my family. I also contemplated the wisdom of traveling during a pandemic, and the carbon emissions of flying long distances. If rationality won, I wouldn’t have gone. And yet, some powerful urge that I can’t quite explain compelled me to commit. Perhaps it was the pull of long-gestating curiosity or some gut-level instinct, but that’s how I found myself on a plane to Fairbanks on one of the darkest, coldest days of December.


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