The madding mania of winter

by • February 19, 2013 • 61 NorthComments (0)127

The odd year 2012 came to an end with the moose still high in the Chugach Range and strangely cranky. After the winter previous, you would have thought them thankful to be browsing on willow thickets usually abandoned to the ptarmigan, or rooting for low-bush cranberry plants. Where 12 months prior, the alpine willows were buried under three or four feet of snow, the moose were this year digging in a few inches of fluff still looking for tasty morsels – dogwood, cranberry and who knows what else.

Life for a moose is never easy in winter. They survive at the whim of nature. Even in the mildest years, they spend the season starving in Alaska. The twigs they usually browse lack protein and calories. Humans would describe this food as “short rations.” The average Alaska moose loses about 25 percent of its body weight most winters. In a bad winter, it is common for moose to starve to death, or become so feeble they are easy marks for the first bears out of their dens in spring.

The winter of 2011-12 was one of those winters with a twist. Deep snows drove a lot of moose out of the mountains above Anchorage and into the Bowl, where they had to compete with hundreds of other moose for what little food was available. But some moose stayed high and hunkered down on south-facing slopes. They got some help from the weather there. It brought not only snow but also periodic hurricane-force winds from the southeast. Those winds scoured the snow from the willow thickets on the south-facing ridges. The moose could find some food.

By February 2012, as the snows kept coming (Anchorage set a record for snow last winter) the sun was also at work. It melted just enough snow so that in concert with the wind it cracked open the window of survival for a few moose. It was an interesting phenomenon to witness. Up the valley above the house, the moose early on abandoned the north-facing ridge, but I watched their movements on the south-facing slope every day I was out skiing, snowshoeing or riding the fat-tired bike.

It was fascinating to monitor how they took advantage of what the sun and wind offered in order to survive. Many a day, while breaking trail over winter snows that in places packed 10 or 15 feet deep, I’d stop to study their trails in the sunshine and usually spot a half dozen or so of the animals bedded down, probably chewing on their cuds and hoping for the winter to end.

I felt for those moose. Alaska can be a tough place.

That reference to snow packed 10 or 15 feet deep is no exaggeration. The tremendous snowpack dramatically altered the topography of the mountains above Anchorage. Gullies and ravines, sometimes deep ones, disappeared beneath a new, white smoothness. One narrow, mountainside crack at least 30-feet deep – a route regularly hiked in summer – filled flush with the face of the mountainside through which it slices. There was so much snow it didn’t melt out until August. Some neighbors wondered if it would melt out at all, speculating about whether or not a new glacier was forming.

Not that anyone complained all that much. Unlike the moose, we are not that dependent on the greenery that sprouts from the earth in this state, and the snow can often make our lives more fun, especially in the spring when it consolidates nicely. It was a wonderful thing, at least for a human, when all of last winter’s snow solidified into white pavement in the Chugach.

In April, I rode a fat-tired bike two-thirds of the way up 4,311-foot McHugh Peak. There was no trail. But the snow had set up so firm, I could switchback up the slopes almost anywhere in Bear or Potter valleys before the afternoon sun started to soften things. I rode high enough that it was scary coming down. Switchbacking up 30-degree slopes while pedaling is a lot easier than switchbacking down them while braking.

Gravity, friction and inertia add a lot to the equation.

Gravity wants to pull you straight down the hill. To overcome this force, significant cross-slope speed must generate the inertia to overpower gravity.

Then the friction factor comes into play. Even the smoothest slopes are not perfect. There’s just enough bumpiness to make a tire bounce and lose contact with the snow, often imperceptibly. Any separation between a smooth, white, pretty slick surface and a fat rubber tire diminishes its ability to hold the bike to the mountainside.

And that’s when gravity comes back into play in a big way. Let’s just say, the riding up was phenomenal, but the riding down was a crash fest.

It was an excellent way to get up close and personal with the environment, and getting in touch with the environment is a good thing. Every smack down reminded me of the bad of nature, and the good, and the role the weather still plays not only in the lives of animals like moose, but in the lives of all of us. It’s easy to lose touch with the latter in our interconnected world.

Everything about the world we live in today seems at first glance radically different from the natural world, and yet one reality as old as the planet still drives most everything. Weather dictates life on Earth today as surely as it dictated life on the planet 10,000 years ago. In some ways, the weather might only have grown more powerful.

For the moose and other animals, nothing has changed, but for us. … That’s another story.

Ten thousand years ago, a monster storm hitting North America certainly knocked down trees, possibly destroyed homes and communities of indigenous people, and likely killed an unlucky few. But the people of that time endured such events and accepted them as part of life. Though more exposed to the violence of Mother Nature, they were in many ways, better prepared to deal with it than we are today.

Look what happened when a storm called Sandy hits the nation’s eastern seaboard last October: More than 70 dead, 8.2 million without electrical power (which many now think of as almost as vital as water) for days or weeks, thousands of homes and business destroyed, damage estimated in the tens of billions of dollars, and people traumatized in ways the nation’s aboriginal inhabitants could never have imagined.

Ancient people rolled with Nature’s punches. They had no choice. Modern-day people are often shocked by natural “disasters” and left helpless in their wakes.

I freely admit to sometimes being among them. When I was in New Orleans and along the Gulf of Mexico Coast two years ago to cover the Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster, I was struck not so much by all the oil gushing to the surface of the water far offshore, but by the lingering damage from Hurricane Katrina that had hit the Gulf Coast seven years earlier. It remained shocking to drive around the region and see what nature had done to the relatively flimsy undertakings of humankind.

Busy as we are with all our ant-like building and paving, we like to think we rule the world. We can move a lot of dirt, and there is little doubt we can mess things up good in the name of self-improvement and self-preservation as much as profit. But let’s not kid ourselves; we’re not in charge. In some ways, we’re not much different from the moose in the mountains above Anchorage.

Mother Nature has the capacity to sock it to us in the blink of an eye – whether it be the eruption of one of the many volcanoes across the inlet or an earthquake even bigger than the 1964 shaker that knocked down buildings and turned formerly solid soil to Jell-O. If the ports at the end of the umbilical cord that connects us to the Lower 48 is severed in any way, most Alaskans are in big trouble.

The land alone won’t support many, and most people today aren’t equipped – physically or mentally – to live off the land anyway. Most Alaskans today don’t even know how to get a fire started without help from petrochemicals, let alone how to bank it, build a heat reflector and sleep outside in frigid temperatures without dying. These are, in general, long-lost skills. We relied on them once. Now, we’ve artificially insulated ourselves from Mother Nature enough to get by without them.

Sometimes, though, it’s worth considering how thin that insulation is. We are not invulnerable. We are a lot better off than those moose, but not immune to elemental outbursts. Most of the homes in the most populous part of the state depend on natural gas for heat. What if the natural gas stopped flowing, even for just a matter of a few weeks in winter? How many would be able to cope? I doubt many have thought about it. I suspect even fewer have prepared a backup plan.

Perhaps we’re not so much better than those moose after all. We trudge through each day hoping we’ll make it to the next with an occasional thought, as I’m sure the moose must have, to how long the Alaska winters are, and how nice it will be when they’re over.

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