The winter of 2016-17 will be remembered as the year the Alaska warming trend took a pause before delivering one of those best-of-the-north springs.
It was the year Mother Nature cooked up the crust to-die-for to top her snowy winter wonderland.
After four months of below normal temperatures around the state’s urban core, March finally started tracking toward normal with April arriving with temperatures daily climbing above the normal high and then plummeting to near or below the normal low.
As a result, a hefty snowpack took to melting during the day only to refreeze overnight. By the mid March, a decent crust was forming on the snow in some areas, and it just kept getting better going into April.
Suddenly snowmachiners found themselves joined in the back corners of the state by crust skiers and crust bike. Nordic skiers and fat-tire cyclists could go almost anywhere as long as they paid attention to the clock: Start early when everything is frozen solid; quit early before it turns to mush.
Thousands of people turned out to take advantage of the conditions. The best crust is downright addictive. Anchorage skier Tim Kelley has a website devoted to it titled CrustOutlookAlaska.com.
Along with offering tips on how to determine where and when the magical crust will form and what ski gear to use to explore it, he posts accounts of enough different trips to keep most people busy for years.
Some of these trips are Alaska classics that were swarmed this year. The Knik Glacier attracted so many fat bikers a nearby lodge owner was talking about starting a fat-tire bike rental business and catering to one of Alaska’s newest forms of recreation.
The Skookum Glacier at the head of Turnagain Arm saw so much traffic the Alaska Railroad started to worry about mobs of snowmobilers, fat bikers and skiers on or along its track running up the Placer River valley from Portage toward Seward.
For most of the year, the Placer valley – an area of swamps, beaver ponds, willow thickets, river braids and creeks – is largely impassable to all but the few people who run up the shallow river in jetboats to fish.
Everything changes, however, when the impediments to travel are buried under feet of ice and snow. Suddenly, there are no impediments. Suddenly, you can find yourself a dozen miles up the Placer River in the heart of the Kenai Peninsula when a group of world-class skiers from Alaska Pacific University come skating out of the wilderness.
This is the beauty of crust all over the state.
It’s almost enough to make one relish the return of a colder than normal winter in a state where more than a fair number of people sometimes have been heard to confess they don’t see global warming as such a bad thing.
How much longer this crust will last is hard to say. There were reports of good crust in the Chugach, Kenai and Talkeetna mountains over the weekend. The weather forecast for the week looks good with clear days producing daytime highs into the 50s and night-time lows down into the mid-20s in the Anchorage area, according to the National Weather Service.
Beyond that, things don’t look so good. The long-term forecast calls for cloudy skies and rain moving in by next weekend. The cloudy skies, which tend to elevate overnight temperatures above freezing, are more of a problem than the rain because they prevent crust from forming.
Get it while you can. Some of the critical snow bridges over they many creeks in the Placer River valley on the way to Spencer Glacier were already gone by Sunday. And even if there is good crust, the crust biking or skiing can get interesting when there are no bridges.