1991: Life Shines Brighter Under Midnight Sun (Chicago Tribune)

By Storer H. Rowley
Chicago Tribune

Sunday, June 30, 1991

“There are strange things done in the midnight sun. . . .” – Robert Service

ARCTIC CIRCLE, Yukon – Across the Yukon, the storied Canadian setting of the last great gold rush, it is the season of perpetual light.

Here at 66 degrees, 33 minutes north latitude is the most southerly location where the sun never sets on the summer solstice, June 21.

Instead, it traces an elliptical orbit overhead. The length of time it circles varies, with high arctic communities getting no sunsets for weeks. Those closer to the circle get nighttime sunshine for only a few days on either side of that date.

At the winter solstice, Dec. 22 this year, the sun does not rise above the horizon north of this point. High Arctic villages don’t see it for weeks.

“Light has an incredible effect on you,” explains Dr. Don Branigan, a physician and mayor of Whitehorse. “People sleep an hour less in the summer and your energy levels are up. In summer, people get a lot done.

“Medically, there are no ill effects. People sparkle. They’re in seventh heaven. People have fun. They love summer.”

In the winter, he notes, the reverse can be true. More of the Yukon’s 27,000 permanent residents descend into severe depression, alcoholism and “cabin fever” from the combination of prolonged darkness and cold.

Psychiatrists call it seasonal affect disorder, and hundreds of thousands of Canada’s 27 million people suffer it each year. Symptoms also include weight gain, fatigue, anxiety, poor concentration and withdrawal.

Many doctors blame it on a disruption of the circadian rhythm, the biological clock that governs sleep and hormones and is regulated in part by the planet’s light-dark cycle. Often, only spring can cure it and summer’s light can be an overdose.

“I had to tinfoil the windows to get my kids to sleep,” recalls Sharon South, 40, a nurse who works for Branigan. “The native kids were out till 2 or 3 in the morning playing baseball.”

“Your body does adjust to the longer light this time of year,” says Dawson City Mayor Peter Jenkins, 46. “Kids don’t need near as much sleep as they do in winter. I’ll be screaming at mine at midnight now to get out of the swimming pool.”

But visitors are enchanted.

“I took at least 12 pictures of the sign that says Arctic Circle,” gushed Iza Murray, 66, a retired Toronto nurse who was passing through Eagle Plains.

“We haven’t seen night since we left Toronto,” said Murray. “The whole experience triggers your imagination. It’s like something you thought of, but it surpasses all your expectations. I love it.”

Locals like Harry Waldron prove it also brings out a wacky touch of Yukon magic.

Dressed in a rumpled tuxedo, white bow tie and top hat, the so-called Keeper of the Arctic Circle greets busloads of tourists trekking north to cross this imaginary line to where the summer sun never sets.

The sight of Waldron swaying in his rocking chair beside the lonesome Dempster Highway in the vast Yukon wilderness startles some Arctic pilgrims and delights others.

But they generally warm to the 55-year-old Yukon character when he hands them a proclamation heralding their crossing of this spot, 1,630 miles from the North Pole.

“I think the Arctic Circle is a magic draw to people,” proclaims Waldron.

Waldron, a former gold miner and heavy-equipment operator, started greeting travelers for free at the Arctic Circle in 1984 as a favor to tour guides. He’s finally getting a salary this year from the Yukon tourism office.

Rocking away in his chair along the Dempster, the only public highway outside Norway to cross the Circle, he waits with a mission: “Welcome to the Arctic Circle.”

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