We had just pulled away from the glacier when I spotted it off to one side of the icy road, vainly trying to hide behind a naked bush. It looked at me; I looked at it. I'm certain I was the one who was more impressed.
"I can't believe it!" I shouted to my tolerant Alaskan friends, Aron and Pat, as we stood on the edge of the road in the minus-10-degree weather, staring at a large, brown animal with its hooves buried in a foot of snow. It didn't matter that my friends were indulging me in the Frozen North equivalent of taking your uncle from Kansas City on his first subway ride. I was having a quintessentially Alaskan experience, the most fun I'd had in the world of nature since my parents took me to pet the llama at the zoo.My first moose.
If you go to Alaska and do not see a moose, then you have not really seen Alaska. The moose is to Alaska what the Statue of Liberty is to New York: a big thing tourists take pictures of. Many citizens of Alaska have a love-hate relationship with the lumbering animal, which they love to eat but can't stand to find foraging in the garbage cans in their back yards. The moose is also a symbol of the character of our largest, wildest state, a place where people and nature have not yet completely worked out a truce. Moose have been known to stand stubbornly on the tracks of the Alaska Railroad, staring down locomotives, and to attack dogsled teams during the punishing Iditarod race that goes from Anchorage to Nome. "Palmer Woman, 28, Injured in Struggle With Moose" is not an unusual headline in an Alaskan newspaper.
Of course, the best time for moose-spotting is the long, cold winter, when the heavy snowfalls blanket the grazing areas in the outback and the moose venture onto the fringes of the cities in search of food. The migration coincides with what I consider to be the most rewarding time of the year to visit the 49th state: During the seemingly endless dark season the state really becomes the Alaska of our dread and our fantasies, a forbidding landscape disguised in soft white robes.
And more than just a landscape dotted with moose. During my journeys earlier this year in the dead of the Alaskan winter, I overdosed on nature. On the rocks above a highway leading to an old gold-mining town south of Anchorage, I saw a pair of horned sheep, known as Dall sheep, clinging to an unscalable ridge.
On the porch of a log house in the snow-capped Chugach Mountains, I was transfixed by a trio of bald eagles soaring among the peaks.
From the window of my hotel overlooking the frozen Cook Inlet, I had my first dazzling audience with the Northern Lights, green brushstrokes on the black canvas of a crisp Alaskan night.
Admittedly, I was a prisoner of the Alaskan winter, staying during February and March in the surprisingly cosmopolitan city of Anchorage, covering a long trial. But on the weekends when I was not working, the frozen world outside the courtroom was mine to explore. I cross-country skiied on mountain trails carpeted deeply in fresh powder; flew over Mount McKinley, the tallest peak in the nation, as it basked in the pinkish light of an icy dawn; watched the start-up of the Iditarod, one of the world's longest and most grueling races and even tried my hand at dogsledding.
The toughest thing about winter for many this far north is the lack of light: In late January, the sun doesn't rise until 10 a.m and it sets at about 3:30. Alaskans are so obsessed with winter light that as the winter wears on, local television weather forecasters routinely report how many extra minutes of sunlight viewers can expect the next day. "Tomorrow, a gain of five," they say.
Still, I liked the dimly lit days. They were reminders of the foreignness of Alaska, which is really more of an outpost than a state. The locals refer to the world beyond their borders as "the Outside," as if they lived within a great walled city. But that, too, reinforced the sense of uniqueness - and so did the weather. The day I arrived in Anchorage, a prosperous city that is home to about half of Alaska's 500,000 people, the bank near my hotel flashed a temperature I realized I had never seen - or felt - before.
"-210," the sign said.
But the oddest meteorological event I witnessed was when the substance that fell from the sky wasn't white, but black.
I was standing in a building in downtown Anchorage when a woman burst out of the elevator.
"The volcano's blowing!" she cried.
Other people lingering in the atrium seemed hardly to hear the news.
"What do you mean?" I said, my voice betraying a trace of panic.
"The volcano is blowing!" she said again.
"Across the inlet - they say the ash cloud is heading this way!"
Volcano eruptions apparently are what separate the men from the New Yorkers. My stomach began to ache. Covered in hot ash: It sounded like a hideous way to die. All I could think of was Pompeii. I envisioned myself uncovered during an archeological dig in a grotesquely frozen position.
My instinctive reaction was to look for a cab.
That was a mistake. It turned out that the eruption of Mount Redoubt was one of a series that had been occurring all winter, and none posed any real threat. The volcano had been dormant for many years and suddenly had begun spewing black and brown specks of ash.
To distract themselves from the volatile weather, Alaskans have come up with a variety of winter spectacles that help them get through the winter. Chief among them are the Fur Rendezvous and the Iditarod, a pair of events that represent two different aspects of the Alaskan character.
If "Fur Rondy" is an example of Alaskan civic silliness, the Iditarod is the purest expression of its frontier grit. The race, 1,100 miles over trails of snow-covered bush and ice, starts in Anchorage in March and makes its way to Nome, on the Bering Sea, 11 days later. Dogsled teams from around the world - but mostly from Alaska - compete.
The mushers, the men and women who train the dogs and ride the sleds, are Alaskan celebrities, and the crowds packed along the street cheered their favorites. The most tumultuous applause was for Susan Butcher, who this year went on to win her fourth Iditarod.