Winter sights

Posted: Friday, January 29, 2010

Alaska can be gloomy in January. It's often a bitterly cold, bleak world of black trees, white snow and gray sky. But just when you're wondering what you're doing here, something happens that makes it all seem worthwhile.

While driving through the mountains on a recent trip to Anchorage, one of our winter phenomena kept me spellbound for miles. The overnight temperature had been well below freezing, and the sky was clear. The sun had cleared the mountaintops -- if just barely. I was driving along, my attention divided between keeping between the ditches and listening to Jimmy Smith play "Got My Mojo Workin'" on his Hammond B-3, when I noticed that someone had hung diamonds on the bushes beside the road.

"What the ?" I said, braking to get a better look. Heavy frost had coated the branches, but this was no ordinary frost. Most roadside frost is translucent, and it looks white. This frost, or at least part of it, was clear and glittering in the sunlight. I felt like I was beside a rotating, disco mirror ball. I've lived in Alaska 45 years, and I've never seen anything quite like it.

I've seen what meteorologists call "diamond dust" many times. The National Snow and Ice Data Center defines Diamond dust as: "A type of precipitation composed of slowly falling, very small, unbranched crystals of ice which often seem to float in the air. It may fall from a high cloud or from a cloudless sky. It usually occurs under frosty weather conditions (under very low air temperatures)."

When diamonds fall from the sky, it's exciting enough that I've tried to capture some with a camera. I've had about as much luck as the people who try to photograph Sasquatch and flying saucers.

Diamond dust and similar wintertime phenomena are like magic. One moment they're there; the next, they're gone. They're often tricks of the winter sun, which is weak and undependable. Without sunlight, diamond dust is just so much frozen precipitation.

This winter's weather has been a recipe for spectacular scenes. Take the branches of a birch, build up a foundation of frost, and add two or three layers of snow, being careful not to thaw or blow. Voila! Drooping, snow-covered limbs arching over paths and driveways. A scene right off a Christmas card.

Most winter scenes are in black and white, but not all. No paint or crayon can match the blue of moonlit snow or the reflected glow of a sunset on snowy mountains.

Thanks to my Anchorage lady friend, Susan, and her dog, Grace, I've been seeing many such sights lately. Our long walks on winter trails have have given me new appreciation for things we Alaskans too often take for granted.

Les Palmer lives in Sterling.

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