Just as residents of the land of the midnight sun began gearing up for The Great Alaska Sportsman Show – an annual rite in preparation for the short season of long days and warmth ahead on the calendar – Old Man Winter decided to offer one last reminder of who rules the north.
The Chugach and Kenai mountains east of Anchorage were Wednesday buried knee-deep in fresh snow.
For those badly yearning for spring, it was the classic, will-it-never-end snowstorm of an Alaska April. For others….
Well, with the days getting rapidly longer (13 hours, 47 minutes today) and warmer (a late afternoon high of 42 degrees), some more white stuff to keep the ground covered for just a little longer didn’t look so bad to many.
Baseball season might have begun in the rest of America, but for true Alaskans this is the middle of the best of the winter sports season.
Arctic Man, the event that started as a unique ski and snowmachine, only to morph into something of an Alaska motorhead Woodstock staged in an opening plowing in the snow of the Hoodoo Mountains in the normally empty center of the state, is set to kick off next week.
And all of the snow this week promises snowmachine riders, fat bikers and backcountry crust skiers, another weekend or more, in what has become the Skookum/Spencer glaciers playground 50 miles southeast of the state’s largest city.
This is the season visitors to Alaska shouldn’t miss, but they do.
For downhill skiers, the new snow meant fresh powder at elevation. The Alyeska Resort in Girdwood, about 40 miles down the Seward Highway from Anchorage, reported two feet of new fluffies at the top if its ski runs and 10 inches of wetter, heavier, new snow at the base of the mountain.
Farther south – as the highway rounded Turnagain Arm, crossed the Placer River and climbed toward Turnagain Pass – the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center reported a foot to two feet of snow. Unfortunately avalanche conditions in the mountains that now attract large numbers of backcountry skiers and high-marking snowmachine riders proved worrisome.
The day’s avalanche report warned that dangers were compounded by easterly ridgetop winds with gusts to above 40 mph during the last snowstorm. The winds loaded some ridges with up to three-feet of new snow.
“The avalanche danger is considerable on all aspects and elevations, but may increase high by early evening,” the report said. “Triggering a fresh storm slab one- to three-feet thick is likely on slopes steeper than 35 degrees.”
Conditions looked to remain in a state of flux with rain in the forecast for tomorrow, a steadier pattern of cold nights and warm days through the weekend, and then more snow at the start of next week.
Yes, more snow.
Alaska’s 3 degrees of global warming in the past 60 years has pushed back the arrival of winter, but it hasn’t changed spring as much. It still runs into late April, sometimes May.
Winter’s resurgence this year comes at the end of a snow season that started off late and slow, lagged well below normal into February, and since then has only grown snowier. More than 25 inches behind the normal snowfall for Anchorage in early February, the state’s largest city was within about 12 inches of the seasonal total for April 5.
East toward Prince William Sound into the glaciated mountains of the Chugach and Kenai mountain ranges, the volume of snow only increased. That’s good news for those who love snow sports.
But not so good news for those who allowed themselves to think a snow-short early winter might ensure an early spring.
The Anchorage forecast through the weekend and into next week looks to reflect a fairly normal Southcentral Alaska transition into the sunny months with day-time high temperature expected to climb into the 40s and night-time low temperatures expected to drop into the 20s.
For those who like to explore the Alaska backcountry, this makes for the best of times. A cycle of day-time thaws and night-time freezes can often turn the morning snowpack into a white pavement firm enough to support a 1,500 pound moose.
On ideal mornings, it’s almost like the whole of Alaska has been paved over, but those who take advantage – be it by fat bike, skis or snowmachine – must be aware how quickly conditions can change.
Tim Kelley, a crust-skiing fanatic, suggests it’s best to get back to the road system by noon. That warning applies equally to fat bikes. Snowmachines can push the schedule back a bit, but snowmachine riders need beware as well. The downside of spring is that the rock hard morning snow can turn to slush in the late afternoon, and then you need a slushmobile to get anywhere.