For Gulf Coast Alaska, March stormed in like, well, maybe not quite a lion but at least a lynx, the feline evolved for the northland.
The snow flew and temperatures dropped. Along the Iditarod Trail – where competitors in the Iditarod Trail Invitational struggled to push their gear-heavy fat bikes through fresh fluff on their way to the crest of the Alaska Range – the temperature in Skwentna plunged to 8 degrees below zero.
Not quite the winter of 2011/12 that Judah Cohen, the polar-vortex guru, was suggesting back in October, but definitely a winter more in line with the old normal than the new normal that had residents of Alaska’s largest city not long ago wondering if Anchorage was on its way to becoming the new Seattle, at least climatologically.
“‘There was just no snow’: climate change puts Iditarod future in doubt,” The Guardian headlined in March 2016. “After record-high winter temperatures reduced parts of the course to a bone-jarring, sled-wrecking obstacle course, is the great mushing race on its way out?”
There is plenty of snow on the trail for the weekend start of this year’s Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. The bigger problem is the global pandemic no one saw coming. It killed the race’s most visible feature, the ceremonial start in Alaska’s largest city, and forced a course change that largely avoids population centers and nearly all of the state’s Native villages.
The race will start on the banks of the Susitna River north of Anchorage, miles from any city; run largely through the wilderness to the old mining outpost of Iditarod, now a ghost town; and then reverse course to finish back at the start.
The symbolism can be read in many ways.
“Over 100 years ago, Iditarod was a vital gold mining community that contributed greatly to the woven tapestry of Alaska’s story,” Mike Mills, the chairman of the board for the Iditarod Trail Committee said in a prepared statement. “The 2021 Iditarod Gold Trail Loop will not only honor the essence of the sled dog culture but energetically draw from those early gold-seeking pioneers.”
Iditarod, the city, was then the beating heart of a vast and economically booming region known as “The Inland Empire.”
“The rush to Iditarod and Ruby, between 1910 and 1912, set 10,000 stampeders in motion, while each community reached peak population of 3,000,” a U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) history records. “Within two decades $30 million worth of gold was dug from these goldfields.
“…Interior camps in the Inland Empire (the Iditarod, Innoko, and Ruby districts) were isolated. Stampeders bound for the mines took steamships to tidewater, then steamboats for as far as 1,000 miles up the majority of passenger and freight traffic used the river system from May to October. Freeze-up shifted traffic to the trails.
“Trails developed in the Inland Empire in direct response to gold discoveries. Prospectors took the natural land routes or Native routes to the Innoko mines in 1906 and 1907.”
The Alaska Road Commission followed in their tracks to blaze the Seward-to-Nome winter trail now known as the Iditarod. The trail in those days looped from Takotna to follow “the creeks to the town of Iditarod, and from there north through Dikeman to rejoin the trunkline trail at Dishkakat,” the history records. “By 1913, an alternate trail to Nome left the trunkline at Ophir and headed north to Ruby. ”
Today the Empire is no more. Of the nearly dozen communities which once dotted the region, all but Ruby and Taknota are gone, and they are barely hanging on. Dishkatat is so gone that when the BLM went looking for it some years ago, no sign of it was found.
What was the Inland Empire is now one of the most desolate and empty places in the 49th state.
Times change. People change. Cultures change. The climate changes. And the weather, well, the weather constantly changes.
What March portends for April is hard to say. Forget the old proverb about how “March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb.”
That might apply in some other state, but in the country’s northernmost province the late singer-songwriter Johnny Horton was closer to the mark with a tune titled “When It’s Springtime in Alaska (It’s Forty Below).”
With the Arctic oscillation trending positive, he writes, “the two regions most likely to experience troughing and relatively cold temperatures in mid-March and into the foreseeable future are Western Asia and western North America.
“There is still a chance of winter to cling on for dear life across North America more so than Eurasia. A strong polar vortex (PV) favors cold air pooling across the North American Arctic that could overspread much of Canada and even make it into the Eastern U.S. especially if there is even a minor disruption of the PV.”
This will come as good news to some Alaskans and bad to others. Snow fun season is a double entendre.
Warm weather lovers have about had it with snow, cold and dark by now. But in much of the state, March and April are the peak of the backcountry snowmachine, fat bike and ski seasons.
After the state ordered a closure of all but essential businesses in March of last year to slow the spread of COVID-19, Alaskans swarmed to the Knik River north of Anchorage and the head of Turnagain Arm east of the city to take advantage of winter-only trails leading to the edges of the Knik, Portage, Skookum and Spencer glaciers.
Though some questioned the behavior as risky – the state of Washington closed public lands because of fears of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes the disease – state advice to maintain social distancing combined with lots of fresh air appeared protective.
There were no reported clusters of infections associated with outdoor recreation in the state. In fact, from March through mid-May of 2020, fewer than 400 COVID-19 cases were reported in the entire state. According to the Worldometer tracker, there were nearly as many cases reported on Oct. 24 as the second-wave of the pandemic was starting to peak in Alaska, and by the next day, the daily count of new cases was over 500.
Alaska infections hit their pandemic-long high in early December and have slowly been declining since, but the risk of infection remains higher than last year at this time with about 125 new infections reported daily compared to the year-ago peak of 15 during the first week of April.
State advice on how to avoid infection is thus more pertinent now than it was then:
- Travel alone or with family – no carpooling – to wherever it is you plan to recreate.
- Make no stops along the way that bring you in contact with other people.
- And maintain social distancing – a separation of at least six feet – from others once you park your motor vehicle and head out.
And take proper gear. Springtime in Gulf Coast Alaska doesn’t go to 40 below, but it can get cold enough to cause hypothermia or frostbite.