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Backpacker Magazine – October 1999

The Faces Of Fall

If you think autumn is simply a time to rake leaves, then you need to read our guide to the best of the fall season.

by: Thom Hogan and Sherry Simpson, C.L. Rawlins and Franklin Burroughs


In the northlands, you will succumb to winter, but not before tasting the richness of the autumnal land and sky.

The Season Of surrender

In the boreal forests, the birch and aspen leaves are barely rimmed with gold, but here among the White Mountains, a ruddy flush spreads across the alpine tundra. Late in the afternoon, I heave off my pack and sink against the earth. It is like lying on the pelt of a living animal, pungent and warm and soft. I pluck idly at lowbush cranberries and close my eyes against the sun. The morning's brittle frost has eased away in the light.

The light. In the fall, it is providential, bittersweet, draining away moment by moment.

This is how autumn happens in Interior Alaska: One day, the green dreaminess of summer wisps away. You realize that in the late hours, when the sun once poured heedlessly across the landscape, darkness spreads. Below your feet, the globe tips toward winter. You will tip with it.

There is only one way to reconcile yourself with the northern calendar's peculiar balance of seasons. You must see fall as more than the shim wedged between solstices, separating days blurry with light and possibility from ever-lengthening nights that pile up in drifts, one after another. Otherwise, it becomes too easy to look behind at summer receding with all the things undone, or ahead toward the advancing smother of winter.

I look around instead. Deep reds seep into foliage knitted close to the ground, so that the hills smolder with quiet fury. Black spruce shadow the valleys where a low, chill mist will rise tonight. The bony whiteness of the bare tors ahead is like a prophecy of snow. A part of me imagines turning south and walking as quickly as I can, marching far away from winter.

But somehow winter always finds us, and today I cannot abandon the generosity of this view, the benevolent light pouring down. Like the unseen bears, I will groom crimson berries from among crimson leaves and consider it reason enough to linger. Equinoxes are not marked by months but by such moments.

The creaking rattle of sandhill cranes drifts down from the sky. If geese form Vs, then cranes shape hieroglyphics with their angular, prehistoric wings. When enough of them gather, they eddy together, revolving in arcs that intersect and merge into a great wheel. They will turn and turn until the circle breaks and the cranes funnel into a wide stream, coursing southward along a meridian known only to them. Somehow they will decide that this is the day, this is the very hour, to gather themselves up in one simple desire that leads far beyond these horizons.

Once again, I remain behind. Under a sky marked only by passing birds, I reap the intense richness of Alaska, berry by berry. Every year, I rediscover a curious thing about autumn: Lowbush cranberries are sweetest after the frost. And fall, it turns out, is the right word for the season when we yield to the changing light, when we gather ourselves up, when we surrender to what lies ahead.

-By Sherry Simpson Photo by John Warden/Alaska Stock

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