IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Alaska enters dark side of winter

Yes, winter brings shorter days across the United States, along with extreme cold. But Alaska is the U.S. vortex of seasonal blues.
Glenda Fuster lies in a tanning booth in Anchorage, Alaska — part of a strategy to cope with the dark winter days.Al Grillo / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Lloyd Leavitt shrugs off the subzero freeze that blankets the Arctic town of Barrow each winter. It’s the weeks of endless night that get to him, filling him with insatiable cravings for carbohydrates and sleep and natural light.

“There comes a time when you don’t know if it’s morning or evening. You get confused,” said Leavitt, who has lived all his 49 years in the nation’s highest-latitude community.

No wonder residents here eagerly anticipate the passing of Wednesday’s winter solstice, the shortest day of the year and the psychological turning point toward spring.

Leavitt has plenty of company when it comes to dealing with Alaska’s dark side. Yes, winter brings shorter days in other states as well, along with extreme cold. But Alaska is the U.S. vortex of seasonal blues.

The sun won’t rise again in Barrow for another month after the solstice. For Leavitt and others in the largely Inupiat Eskimo town of 4,500, it marks the countdown to daylight.

In the meantime, Leavitt floods his home with rainbow-colored Christmas lights.

“They keep the spirits up,” he said.

Depressing thoughts
Winter is a drag to some extent for one out of five Americans, studies suggest. A smaller fraction — mostly women and young adults — suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, a type of depression stemming from decreased daylight.

Nearly 10 percent of Alaskans suffer from SAD to some degree, according to a 1992 study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry; in sunny Florida, it’s only about 1 percent.

SAD symptoms include lethargy, a heightened desire for sleep, cravings for carbohydrates, feelings of melancholy, fuzzy thinking and loss of libido or sociability, said Suzanne Womack Strisik, an assistant psychology professor at the University of Alaska at Anchorage. She’s also a practicing psychologist in the state’s largest city, where daylight dwindles to 5½ hours by the solstice.

“There’s a feeling like you should be hibernating and carbs are very appealing,” Strisik said. “It can be really hard to get up even after eight hours of sleep.”

Of course, the majority of Alaskans don’t feel any different, no matter what time of year.

Barbara Bowden, a real estate broker who has lived in Anchorage more than 50 years, said she never gets the winter blahs other than complaining about the cold. Only the first two years here did she feel down, a condition she attributes to being homesick for Texarkana, Ark.

Her remedy now for coping with winter: Stay active rather than merging with the sofa. Until a few years ago, she raced sports cars. There’s no shortage of other activities: skiing, snowmobiling, ice skating, dog mushing, snowshoe hikes, even running and power-walking.

“I tell people coming up here to get up, get out and do something,” Bowden said. “Just take advantage of living here.”

The artificial light strategy
While some Alaskans defy winter by embracing it, others cope by exposing themselves to bright-light therapy, which doctors say can be highly effective. Others install full-spectrum lighting in their homes and offices. Some people frequent tanning booths. Some take antidepressant medications. Some self-medicate with drugs or alcohol.

Then there are those who flee the state.

Hawaii is the top choice, followed by Mexico, then Las Vegas, said Brenda La Sane, owner of a travel agency in Fairbanks, where the sun will scrape the horizon for three hours and 42 minutes on Wednesday. It’s not unusual for La Sane’s clients to run into other Alaskans on their winter vacations abroad.

“I try to get away as much as possible,” she said following a trip to California. “The darkness gets to me terribly. I just got back from Anaheim and it made a huge difference visiting for 10 days. I felt so much more energetic.

“Two days after I got back, I was pushing myself to get out of bed.”

That’s not surprising to Kelly Rohan, an assistant psychology professor at the University of Vermont in Burlington. The travel strategy can backfire, she said.

“The problem is re-entry,” she said. “It’s like going to sleep on the Fourth of July and waking up on the 24th of December. That can be very jarring.”