Spring arrives in Alaska

Posted: Wednesday, March 20, 2002

Don't be fooled by the mounds of snow. Though budding flowers and baby birds may be a little hard to find, today still marks the vernal equinox, the traditional first day of spring.

The equinox -- which literally translates to "equal night" -- is the date when day and night are equal lengths and Earth reaches the halfway point between the longest and shortest days of the year. Though the date of the equinox can vary from year to year, it generally occurs between March 19 and 21.

Through the ages, this astrological date has triggered celebrations of life, light, rebirth and spring in much of the northern hemisphere.

In Greek mythology, it is the day Persephone leaves Hades and returns to Earth as a maiden. Her mother Demeter, the fertility goddess, celebrates by letting plants begin to grow again.

The Druids of ancient Europe considered the day a time to rededicate and clean outdoor shrines in preparation for Beltane, the fertility festival celebrated April 30 and May 1.

The Egyptians built the Sphinx to point to the rising sun on this day.

Even Christians acknowledge the celestial calendar, celebrating Easter (possibly named for "Eostra" which means spring) on the first Sunday of the first full moon after the vernal equinox.

Here in Alaska, when March is rarely a time of warm days and budding blooms, spring looks a bit different. As Alan Boraas, professor of anthropology at Kenai Peninsula College, pointed out, modern Alaskans have introduced many mid-latitude concepts to the region, including the notion of a March spring.

"Spring in Kansas is March," he said. "Spring in Alaska is 40 below."

The traditional peoples of the region would not consider the equinox a sign of spring, Boraas said.

Hunting and gathering groups like the Kenaitze and their ancestors were less apt to follow celestial signs than earthly events -- and earth signs in Alaska don't point to spring for months to come.

"Like any group, they would have been acutely aware of the weather and seasons," Boraas said. "But events normally associated with calendar seasons, like an equinox, were usually acknowledged by agricultural peoples."

The Kenaitze depended on migrating birds and animal births to determine their spring, he said. In fact, the Kenaitze word for April, "nut'aq'i n'u," means geese month. May is deemed the egg month, month of birth or baby month.

But just because the landscape is more white than green does not mean Alaskans can't look to springtime soon.

"The snow we had (last weekend) was just one of those five- to 10-year-type events," said John Stepetin with the National Weather Service in Anchorage. "We may still see some snow, but nothing like we just saw."

Stepetin said the peninsula can expect partly cloudy skies through Sunday with a chance of snow Monday and Tuesday. Highs should be between 35 and 40 degrees with overnight lows in the mid-20s.

"It's already warming up," Stepetin said. "I think we're pretty much on our way toward spring."

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