Pioneer Peak puts its neighbors in the shade

Posted: Tuesday, January 02, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Carl Bingham designed his home to maximize light: high ceilings, white walls and lots of windows. He even picked a light-enhancing shape, a geodesic dome.

This is a good thing, as Bingham lives in a land of shadow, a place where the dusky days of winter are dimmer than most in Southcentral Alaska. Clouds or no clouds, Bingham won't see direct sunlight at his house for another month.

The Old Glenn Highway near Pioneer Peak is one of the most scenic spots in the Matanuska-Susitna region, offering sweeping views across the braided ice-filled channels of the Knik River to the snow-covered Talkeetna Mountains. But this time of year, residents know it for another quality: the dark.

For up to five months, from late October to late March, people who live around the north-facing base of Pioneer Peak are in perpetual shade.

Some residents call it the Dark Zone. This time of year these homes are more likely to be hit by manta rays than sun rays. Their nemesis: towering 6,300-foot Pioneer Peak, a giant sunblock.

''It's not that bad,'' insisted Agnes Quaas, who lives a couple of miles from Bingham. ''We get lots of reflected light.''

Quaas and her husband, Marty, know the sun continues to shine. From their living room window, the two see the first pink rays hit the mountains across from their home in late morning. The light then slowly slides toward them, reaching the far side of the Knik River by midafternoon, then fades away.

At the peak of the day, the light where they live is a few notches above twilight, about what you'd see on an overcast summer afternoon. Green spruce trees start to look gray in this muted light.

''This is it,'' Bingham said, standing outside his home on a recent afternoon as the light peaked. ''Then, phhht.''

Marcus Barbee's two-story frame home on the side of the mountain is deep in the Dark Zone. He goes without direct sunlight for five months.

''It's not that critical,'' he said. ''It's not like, 'Oh, the sun's returning. I'm going to go out and do a sun dance.' ''

He finds lots of projects to keep him busy, he said, indoor projects like stained glass and woodworking. For people who need direct sun, he says: ''You need to move. This is just not the right place for you.''

While there are many shady nooks Alaskans call home, it's hard to find another place in Southcentral, even the depths of Hiland Road in Eagle River or the north side of the Butte, where so many people live in shadow for so long.

A former military training ground, Knik River Road has grown from a handful of residents to more than 300, according to community council officials. The Butte area nearby, much of which also lies in Pioneer Peak's shadow, has more than 2,500 inhabitants, according to state estimates.

An eclectic mix of people live here. It's close to Anchorage, and the land is relatively cheap. Retirees and commuters share property lines with farmers and end-of-the-roaders. They live in all sorts of homes, from blue-tarped trailers to spacious log cabins worthy of Better Homes & Gardens.

Like other people who choose to live where TV reception is poor and daylight slim, residents say other qualities make up for the lack of sun.

The view is spectacular, wildlife plentiful and the privacy something they cherish.

''Home is where you make it,'' said Bingham, a welding contractor whose father homesteaded in the area. ''So what if we don't get two months of sunshine. There's other advantages to living in places like this.''

He gets to see eagles. Bears crisscross his back yard. The view from his home stretches west to the Knik Glacier and north to Hatcher Pass. At night, he sees the lights of Palmer and Wasilla.

''This is everything Alaska is and more,'' said Barbee, who moved here seven years ago from Anchorage. ''I have such a large back yard, front yard and side yard to play in, and I can't see any of my neighbors.''

Agnes Quaas grew up around here. She said she and her husband take pleasure in the reflected light, which casts a deep blue shade on Pioneer Peak, and watching the mountain's shadow move across the rest of the valley.

''You can actually see the outline of the mountain on the Talkeetnas,'' Marty Quaas said.

Like Barbee, they have their hobbies. Their home is filled with handmade Afghans and dolls wearing clothes Agnes crocheted. The basement hides Marty's passion: model trains.

About 2,000 feet of model train track re-creates in miniature a 70-mile stretch of the Sante Fe line in Southern California. The set is complete with towns, sidings, feed stores and lumber yards, palm trees and mountains, all spread out beneath bright fluorescent lights.

He showed it off with a grin: ''Who said it's not bright enough here?''

(Distributed by The Associated Press)

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