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Endless Nights : Alaska Gets the Blues, and It's SAD

December 22, 1987|DAVID LAMB | Times Staff Writer

BARROW, Alaska — Most of the world went to bed last night knowing the sun would rise this morning. Not so in Barrow, for today is the winter solstice--the shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere--and the sun has abandoned this frontier town on the Arctic Ocean, casting Barrow into 24-hour days of utter darkness.

The endless nights here will stretch for 65 days, from the last sunset Nov. 19 to the next sunrise at 1:09 p.m. on Jan 23. They will play tricks with the biological rhythms of the body, manipulating moods and behavioral patterns, while the long hours of darkness that will extend to a greater or lesser degree all across the state will remind Alaskans that the winter is their master, as uncompromising as a dictator.

'We're Animals Up Here'

"You gotta remember we're animals up here," said Rosie Porter, who runs a bed-and-breakfast inn in Bethel. "We store up nuts for the winter and huddle in little caves trying to stay warm. Life becomes interior in the dark. You go to bed earlier and get up later. There's more drinking in the winter. 'Course, that's not to say there isn't a lot in the summer, too, but I mean, who the hell wants to go outside when it's minus 70 degrees?"

In Fairbanks, where darkness today will extend for 21 hours, social worker Marsha Schneider finds herself walking through the house at midday, turning on all the lights. (Her husband follows behind, turning them off.)

In Nome, Father Jim Poole notices that nerves get frayed this time of year and depression can trap the unsuspecting like an Arctic blizzard.

High Divorce Rate

At Prudhoe Bay, Don Haverkamp walks into his Arco office each morning and draws the window curtains closed, as though to shut out a world that reflects nothing of itself in the first place.

"We have one of the highest divorce rates you can imagine here," Haverkamp said. "And although I've never tracked this, I guess I've heard more discussions about divorce as we head into the long nights than I did during the summer months."

From Kodiak to the Seward Peninsula, the bars are packed until their 2 a.m. closing this holiday season. In drug stores, jars of Vitamin C are piled high on the shelves, and in tanning parlors there is hardly an empty bench. Late December flights to Hawaii--a destination that one of every 15 Alaskans visited last year--have been sold out for six months.

Snow-covered Alaska in December is every child's vision of Christmas. Carolers bundled in fur parkas stroll through hotel lobbies, and the fragrance of hot, spiced cider fills the shopping malls. Twinkling strings of lights and Christmas trees imported from Montana and Washington bedeck the towns, and Bing Crosby's voice drifts from radios and jukeboxes out onto the dark city streets like a lost spring breeze.

But behind the yuletide scenes, all is not cheer. Doctors have found that the absence or presence of light is an important element in behavior and mood swings, and the far-north, mid-winter blues that Swedes call Lapp Sickness and the Finns refer to as kaamos can turn the sweetest of holiday moods for otherwise normal people into a nightmare of depression, irritability, lethargy, carbohydrate-craving and impaired concentration.

Martha Roderick first noticed the debilitating symptoms of what is now known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (aptly, SAD) when she and her husband, Jack, moved to Juneau in the winter of 1975-76. The thick mist clings to Juneau in the season of darkness and the trees bend low under their burden of snow and the world closes in like a windowless cabin before spring light dawns to revive the captured spirit.

Stayed in Bed

Gradually she found herself unable to get up in time to give tutoring lessons in the school across the street. She gave up (indoor) tennis because she couldn't keep track of the score or who had won the last point. If friends called to invite her out, she made up excuses to avoid them.

"Once when Jack was out of town, I realized I had stayed in bed an entire day and part of the next one," she recalled in Anchorage recently. "I wondered if I was losing my abilities forever."

Then spring came, and finally summer with its late-night sunsets, and Roderick recovered immediately and was again full of energy. But each autumn brought a sense of foreboding, and in the darkness of winter she would slip back into her state of depressed hiberation.

Roderick now has not suffered from SAD for four winters. Working with Dr. Aron Wolf and Dr. Bruce Smith at the Langdon Clinic in Anchorage, she has tricked her body into thinking it is spring with photo-therapy, an anti-depressant light treatment whose benefits are often apparent within a few days.

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