Did you hear it? I was outside collecting a winter’s accumulation of trash that the melting snow had uncovered in my yard when I heard it. It was a distinctively metallic sound with a frequency lower than the bass limit of a humpback whale’s vocal range. It seemed to have its epicenter about a mile and a half directly beneath my feet. “SPROING!” There was no mistaking what it was. Spring had officially sprung.
Not everybody is lucky enough to hear Spring springing. In fact, I rarely hear it myself. That is why it’s a good idea to learn to recognize some other heralds of Spring’s arrival. In the Lower Forty-Eight, people depend on their calendar to inform them when Spring has sprung. I guess that’s because to them, Spring is mostly a formality—an honorary title bestowed on a quarter of their year to break up the monotony of a thermometer that never fluctuates more than a hundred degrees.
Well, Spring may arrive precisely on its Equinox to accommodate folks in Pittsburgh, Des Moines, Phoenix and Puyallup, but here in Alaska, Spring is a fickle and capricious guest. It is, however, accompanied by some unmistakable indicators, and once one has trained himself to recognize these, he can know when Alaska has sprung from year to year. Let me discuss three of the most obvious and accurate indicators. As a mnemonic aid, I’ll use the initials DWT.
“D” stands for the biggie. Daylight. It’s amazing how a little sunshine can change people’s personality. You can chart the amount of sunshine an Alaskan is getting on a Winnie the Pooh energy scale. Two months ago, my wife had all the spontaneity and vivaciousness of Eeyore. Nowadays she is Kanga. I anticipate that by June she will have ramped up to Tigger. Unfortunately by the end of January she will regress to a genuine hefalump. At any rate, when you begin to see that vaguely familiar yellow glow in the sky, you know that Spring is not far behind.
Then you have “W”. That stands for Waterfowl. You hear them long before you see them. “Honk hoohonk. Hohoohonk. Hoohonk. Hohoonk. Hohoohonk!” “Quack! Quack. Waaa-waak, Quawa-wa-wawack.” That’s the sweet sound of arriving Spring.
I like to talk to them as they fly over:
“Hey, guys! Welcome back!”
“How was your flight?”
I even tried talking in Goose once, but I don’t think I got it right. Goose has a peculiar nasal quality, and it requires some practice to get the accent on the right syllable. On the Spring in question, I was out in my field when a squadron came flapping over, just clearing the treetops. I introduced myself. “Hoohonk!” The lead gander jerked and skipped a couple of wing beats, causing the geese at 5:00 o’clock and 7:00 o’clock to spin off into a barrel roll to avoid a collision. He snaked his long neck around to peer down at me. As he did so, the rhythm of the call began to falter. It started to sound like a traffic jam on a Manhattan expressway instead of a flock of Canadas. Soon the crisp, streamlined “V” had disintegrated into something that looked more like a paragraph of Braille profanity. I hadn’t realized before that the noise geese make is a cadence which keeps them flying in formation.
I don’t know what I had said in Goose, but in retrospect, I guess it had something to do with the lead gander’s resemblance to a raven with avian mange. He uttered a single commanding honk and a scruffy little gander, hardly bigger than a gosling, peeled off and dove toward me. Just when I thought he was going to crash into my face, he deployed his airbrakes and released his payload. Then he climbed back to rejoin the formation. The whole squadron was back in cadence by the time they disappeared beyond the treetops. As I wiped the payload off of my chagrined visage, I determined to copy no more bird noises. But I comforted myself with the knowledge that Spring had sprung.
Finally, I feel compelled to point out the most reliable Spring indicator of all. “T” stands for “tourons”. “Touron” is not a term original with me. I first ran across it in a paper stapled to a wall in Denali Park. Evidently a touron is an odd breed of creature that migrates by means of a motor home or a tour bus. The female of the species can be identified by a frizzy blue perm, while the male adorns his chest with a collection of cameras hanging from his neck. They seem to feed on souvenirs and their summer plumage consists of baseball caps and T-shirts with Alaska-themed logos. The most memorable characteristic of tourons, however, seems to be their inability to mentally process reality.
It is important to note that tourons must not be confused with tourists. Although tourists may look similar to tourons, and even may migrate together, they are not even the same species. Close observation will reveal that tourists exhibit social behaviors consistent with courtesy and respect. Tourists also possess common sense and the capacity for intelligent conversation. Tourons, on the other hand seem to believe that anything outside of the tour bus is their own private theme park, and that they are entitled to behave in any way they see fit, because: a) they paid for the ticket, and b) everything they encounter is a prop, set, or actor, placed there for their own private amusement.
With a straight face, a touron will ask something like, “Where do the Rangers keep all the animals in the winter time?” or, “Why doesn’t the administration clean that glacier? It has dirty streaks on it”. At first I thought they were simply uninformed and naïve people who were honestly seeking information. I would try to clear up their confusion for them, but the conversation would always deteriorate. I would end up drooling and twitching, whereupon the male would snap a picture of me with one of his cameras, and then walk off commenting loudly to his wife, “See, Ethel, I told you only a loony would live in Alaska on purpose!” Whereupon his wife would reply, “Why do you suppose he started shouting about four hundred and fifty-four castles when I showed him the photo you took of me petting that cute bear cub?” I used to scream after them, “That’s .454 Casull, you…you, tourons!” but I don’t bother anymore. I’ve come to a grudging appreciation of tourons. I acknowledge that at least the early arrivals are of value as harbingers of Spring.
I encountered my first touron of the season the other day. He was seated on a camp chair beneath the awning of his motor home. The motor home was parked beside a gravel pit, and he was holding one of those little collapsible fishing poles that you can fold up and throw in your back pack for emergencies. His bobber was floating in a skinny crack of open water between the ice floes in the pit.
“How’s the fishing?” I asked him.
“Not much biting yet, but I had a nibble. You catch many King Salmon outta here?”
I expertly masked my guffaw with a sneeze before replying, “Not lately, but I haven’t fished here much.”
“I heard that they really strike on pork rinds soaked in WD40.”
“Yeah, but you need to squirt the WD40 in your right eye first. It improves your casting aim.”
The touron brightened. “Hey, thanks for the tip, buddy. Say, are you an Eskimo?”
My blue eye winked conspiratorially, and I ran a hand through my wavy brown hair. “Yep. 6th generation. My ancestors came over on the Oomiak.”
He nodded knowingly. “I could tell.”
When he reached for his WD40 I knew it was time to leave. I was almost out of earshot when I heard the hiss of the release valve on the WD40 can. I couldn’t resist a glance over my shoulder. The cloud of lubricant mist was refracting the evening sunshine into a perfect rainbow. A startled flock of Canadas took off noisily from the far side of the gravel pit, startled by the touron’s sudden screams. I sighed with satisfaction. Yes, indeed. Spring had truly sprung.