The March equinox arrived on Wednesday to end the Alaska winter just as the weather appeared to be doing its best to wreck the best of the Alaska spring.
Normally this would be the time of year cross-country skiers and fat-tired cyclists flock across the snowy flats at the east end of Turnagain Arm to get up close and personal with the Skookum and Spencer glaciers.
The Wednesday temperature in the state’s largest city hit 42 degrees, some seven degrees above the normal high, according to the National Weather Service, and never dipped below 33 degrees, a whopping 13 degrees above the normal low.
As should be obvious from these temperatures, a normal spring in Alaska is not exactly like spring in the rest of the world, although it’s not quite as extreme as the late country music singer Johnny Horton made it sound in the 1959 hit single “Springtime in Alaska.”
Such temperatures are rare even in the frozen heart of Alaska in March. They are not, however, unknown. Fairbanks set a record of 40-below zero on March 30, 1944 during an unusually chilly period in state history.
April has been even more out of sync. Seven of the last eight April’s have been warmer than normal. The trend line is in keeping with climate change and global warming theories.
For those who relish spring adventures in the Alaska wilds, the issue isn’t so much the overall temperature increase as the daily degree of variation between hot and cold.
Those are perfect conditions for forming crust so firm moose can sometimes be seen walking atop the snow as if the wilderness had been paved in white asphalt. And for a few glorious hours every morning before the sun softens that snow, you can skate ski or pedal a fat-tired bike just about anywhere.
The page is heavy with photographs of Kelly and friends skiing over what would be in the summer lakes, swamps, marshes, boulder patches, alder thickets and other terrain seasonably unskiable and often a sweaty nightmare to fight through on foot in the warm-weather months.
Crust travel goes back to the earliest days of transportation with snowshoes and dogsleds in the north, but it underwent a boom when skate skiing burst onto the Nordic scene in the early 1980s.
By the end of the decade, skate skiing had exploded, and skate skiers were venturing everywhere there was crust in spring. It would be another decade before custom, Alaska bike builders began experimenting with fat-tired bikes and five-years after that until the first commercially produced fat bike became available.
But it didn’t take long for fat-tired cyclists to discover that a surface that would support skinny skis would likewise support fat tires, and they were off and rolling.
Rollin’, rollin’, rollin’
Since then, early spring has become the best of times for thousands, if not tens of thousands of Alaska cyclists and Nordic skiers. Travel to the aforementioned Skookum and Spencer glaciers up the Placer River valley only about 45 miles east of Anchorage has become especially popular.
“Crust skiing to Skookum Glacier is often the best from mid-April to mid-May on clear mornings,” Kelly writes. “Skiing is usually best before noon, before the sun causes the snow surface to soften.”
Saturday Showers likely. Cloudy, with a high near 45. East wind around 20 mph. Chance of precipitation is 70 percent.
- Saturday Night Rain. Low around 38. East wind 10 to 15 mph. Chance of precipitation is 80 percent.
And there is no real change in sight through at least next week with overnight lows forecast to remain above freezing or dip just barely below. Such temperatures are not conducive to creation of crust.
Still, there is hope.
“…Confidence is building that dry weather is in sight for Southcentral,” the Weather Service’s long-term forecast for next week promises. “Daytime conditions will trend even warmer than observed this week, though valley locations will likely see cold nights driven by clear skies.”
That could be good news for Alaska fat-bike tourists.
Yes, in the state where “winter tourism” has long been an elusive dream, there are some indications that the one piece of recreational equipment almost everyone knows how to use – the common bicycle – could spark a mini-boom in visitors.
So many fatbike riders were gathering along the Knik River Road southeast of Palmer this winter to jump off on rides to Knik Glacier that local residents began complaining about traffic and parking, and concerns were raised about the need for restroom facilities.
“I’ve biked in a few awesome places around the world and the thought that you can go out to a glacier and see ice formations is awesome,” Houston’s Steve Quach said as he last month prepared for a trip to that area. “I’m totally stoked and looking forward to it.”
Winter cycling, he said, “has grown so fast and with the advent of studded tires and fat tires” ever more terrain has become accessible.
If, of course, Mother Nature cooperates. She “still rules,” fat-tired cyclist Petr Ineman warned Thursday.
The recent co-winner of the 1,000-mile Iditarod Trial Invitational from Knik to Nome, Ineman had stopped in Anchorage on his way back home to Illinois. And after slightly more than 19 days on a fat bike on the Iditarod Trail, he was an expert on the many variations in snow that can make spring travel in Alaska pleasure or agony.
The ITI was hit with unseasonably warm weather as the race rolled onto the Yukon River and competitors spent hour after hour pushing their bikes through slush, Ineman said.
But almost as soon as they turned off the river at Kaltag, temperatures started falling, and they had a white sidewalk to ride for much of the 90 miles to Unalakleet on the Bering Sea coast.
It was the best of times on the heels of the worst of times in a land where a temperature swing of but a few degrees can make travel so much better or so much worse.
CORRECTION: The original version of this story reported the wrong year for the March 30 that Fairbanks hit 40-degrees-below zero.