Careful what you wish for

by • March 19, 2013 • 61 NorthComments (0)680

The winter that wasn’t is playing mind games

Lars Medred is none too happy about this season’s lack of powder.

Lars Medred is none too happy about this
season’s lack of powder.

Few thoughts pose a greater threat to one’s overall, psychological well being than thinking about fishing in Alaska in March. All who have wintered in should be alert to the risk because this is a year of great danger. The gods of weather have not been kind. They have made it hard to avoid the temptation of looking ahead to the idea of an early spring. For those who haven’t been here to experience most of the south coastal winter, a quick recap is probably in order first:

November: Snowless and colder than the inside of a 40,000-year-old steppe bison found frozen in the permafrost of the North Slope.

December: Still snowless and bitter cold until the winter monsoons hit. Then warm and raining. Yes, raining. Sometimes in torrential, flood-the-streets downpours.

January: Imagine a land coated in ice from December, and then hit the replay button on the schizophrenic weather of December.

As this is written at the start of February,  it is possible the region might still see something of a real, snowy winter, but the hopes are dimming. The ground is barely covered in white. The Susitna and Yentna rivers, the snowmachine highways that lead from Wasilla and Big Lake toward the Alaska Range, are more ice, or overflow water yet to become ice, than snow. The alder thickets that normally disappear beneath the snows in the Kenai Mountains are gray, tangled, brushy impediments to those on snowmachine, skis or snowshoes.

The situation is so dire some were already tempted to think thoughts of spring in January. That is insanity.

As one who has long lived in Alaska, (some might say too long) I have been down that road. I remember another winter of little snow. In 2003 the 2,000-mile Iron Dog snowmachine race from Big Lake to Nome to Fairbanks was canceled for lack of snow, and about a decade before that there was so little snow that musher Jeff King was talking about putting wheels on his dogsled for the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race until other competitors got wind of it and complained. Iditarod officials decided the rules specified a dogsled had to ride on “runners.”

Hopefully, by the time you read this, the Iron Dog snowmachines will have already been up a snowy trail to Nome, and the Iditarod mushers will be getting ready, or on their way. Hopefully.

Whatever the case, please, please, please do not let a snow-short winter tempt you to thoughts of the early arrival of fishing, cycling, hiking and any of the other pleasures of the warm, sunny Alaska summer. I did that once. It nearly put me in a mental hospital, because about the time I was convinced spring was just days away, it started snowing and snowing and snowing. Alaska can see a lot of winter in March. The Anchorage snowfall record for the month is almost three feet, and that’s down at the offices of the National Weather Service in the lowlands. The snowfall could be twice as much high on the Hillside above the city. The record for April, meanwhile, is 30.8 inches set just back in 2008.

Beginning to get the picture here?

It is a bad, bad thing to be thinking about hooking into Alaska salmon or trout in March only to find yourself running a snowblower for the next two months instead. Can you say “mental breakdown?”

The year I came close to that, I learned. Alaska is America’s snow and ice state. To live here, you need to learn to embrace winter: Ski, snowmachine, snowshoe, skijor, mush, take advantage of the snowmachine trails of others to ride a fat-tired bike into places you’d never get to in summer. A lot of this state is wet tundra, swamp and tussock bogs in summer. Such terrain is tough to hike across in the warm months,  and impossible to bike across. But in winter, when it is all covered in snow, it is amazing where you can go.

In a normal winter that is. This has not been a normal winter. Usually (for the uninitiated and those yet to understand the need to embrace the Alaska winter or become a seasonal resident to preserve sanity) March and into April are the best of the winter season. The days are getting long. The sun has some warmth to it. The snow is a white pavement covering the landscape.

In a normal winter, you can skate ski to the Skookum Glacier near Portage, ride a fat-tired bike to Skwentna,  hit the Tokositna River Trail north of the Petersville Road to spend hours cruising your snowmachine in the shadow of towering Mount McKinley or tour the Caribou Hills near the south end of the Kenai Peninsula on one of the best snowmachine trail systems in the country.

Sitting here at the keyboard of a computer writing about winter, it is hard to avoid  fond thoughts of last winter, when record snows gloriously bombed Anchorage. The snow by March of last year was so deep and set up so solid I could ride a fat-tired bike in parts of Chugach State Park that I’d never ridden before. It only got better in April. By then, there was a morning crust on the snow that allowed one to ride almost anywhere in the Chugach.

All the alders, all the tussocks, all the loose rock, all the foot-sucking wet ground – all of it was buried under white asphalt. Lord, it was great. This winter? “Great” would not be a description anyone would use. This winter is a battle to hang on. But there is always hope. The Alyeska Resort in Girdwood has snow, and March into April are the best months at Alyeska, the very best months.

March might mean cherry blossoms in the nation’s capital, and April might bring the start of break-up in America’s Heartland. But in those months in Alaska, there’s still hope for winter. And you better think winter, or else.


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