Arctic Science Journeys
Radio Script

Summer's clock: Fireweed, like this one growing along the edge of writer Andy Hall's driveway, marks the passage of Alaska's summer. Photo by Andy Hall.


INTRO: Summer is, for many Alaskans, the busiest season. The nearly perpetual sunlight allows Alaskans to go fishing, hiking, boating—or even catch up on long-undone chores. Still, summer never seems to last long enough. Marking summer's passage is one of Alaska's most ubiquitous flowers, the fireweed. This week on Arctic Science Journeys Radio, writer Andy Hall comments on the fireweed's role in setting the pace of the season.

STORY: ANDY HALL: "Summer in Alaska is the time when the midnight sun convinces me I can spend an entirely unreasonable amount of time out of bed, usually outside. The season's approach brings feelings of excitement and wariness: excitement for the activities that come with the warm weather and wariness because I feel as if I'm steeling for an endurance test.

I'm talking 18 hours of daylight and a dusk that never completely darkens. It is a breathless time: three months, more or less, when the sun must be cached against the dark winter days ahead. It's common to sit down to dinner at 10 p.m. or stay up all night fishing, biking, hiking or just talking with friends when most people are sound asleep.

There is, however, one element of summer I could do without, and it's not the bears, the bugs or the highway-choking RVs.

It's the fireweed.

The tall, reedy stalks waving their magenta petals in the breeze are common throughout much of the state. I can't think of a flower that is more synonymous with Alaska, except, maybe, the forget-me-not. Fireweed is beautiful. In momentary lapses I've even admired the way it tints a field or far hillside in gauzy crimson. Then I remember the flower's insidious little secret and look away.

The thing is, each fireweed is a living, blooming chronometer of summer, brilliantly marking the season's progress. Sometime this month, when the plant reaches a height of a foot or two, the first blossoms will emerge several inches below the tip. As summer progresses, the petals will climb continuously higher. When they reach the tip, summer is all but over.

For me it's like when the villain in a B movie inverts the hourglass and challenges the hero to complete his task before the sands run out. OK, that's a bit of a stretch, but I can't help but think that way. Worse, a patch of fireweed lines my driveway and, every night, whether I am returning from work or a family outing, I gauge the distance between the highest bloom and the top of the plant. It often prompts a moment of reflection: Have I made good use of the day? Can I complete that long to-do list before summer's end?

More than once I've glanced at the shrinking gap between bloom and tip and skipped watching TV in favor of a hike up the valley with Melissa. Or I've forgone dinner and thrown the float tube into the truck to spend the evening casting for trout in a glassy lake.

The fireweed is a compelling signal to get out and do something, because when bloom reaches tip and the plant goes cottony with seed, I know the wind that will spread next year's crop of fireweed will soon bear winter's first flakes of snow.

Come to think of it, maybe fireweed isn't so bad after all.

I'm Andy Hall."

OUTRO: When not eyeballing the fireweed or hiking with his wife, Melissa, Andy fritters his summer away as the executive editor of Alaska magazine.

This is Arctic Science Journeys Radio, a production of the Alaska Sea Grant Program and the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

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Thanks to the following individual for help preparing this script:

Andy Hall, Executive Editor
Alaska Magazine
619 East Ship Creek Ave., Suite 329
Anchorage, Alaska 99501
Phone: 907-272-6070

Arctic Science Journeys is a radio service highlighting science, culture, and the environment of the circumpolar north. Produced by the Alaska Sea Grant College Program and the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

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