Global warming was out as April rolled into the far north. The bad cold days were back. And humankind was struggling to adapt.
Along the Bering Sea in Northwest Alaska, the Kobuk 400 Sled Dog Race was busy rescuing Iditarod mushers after a major winter storm blew up and caught them off-guard.
Near Mount Denali, a gaggle of small-plane pilots out for an adventure on the Ruth Glacier were sheltering in one of the world’s plushest wilderness lodges after getting caught in a storm that buried central Alaska in snow.
“Due to limited survival resources, the group requested a rescue,” Alaska State Trooper (AST) reported. “Due to a lack of aerial resources, (simple translation: no helicopter) the National Park Service requested assistance from AST.”
Due to the realities of weather in the Alaska Range, the troopers, the park service and the National Guard’s Alaska Rescue Coordination Center decided it best to deploy the nearest rescue asset.
“Arrangements were made for an emergency hire of several guides to hike to the group,” troopers reported. The guides roped up and trooped across the glacier to locate the pilots of a Cessna 180 and a pair of Piper Super Cubs along with their passengers.
“The guides and stranded group hiked to the Sheldon Chalet located approximately three and a half miles away,” the troopers reported. “The group will shelter in place until the weather clears.”
Best of rescues
Still veteran pilots in Talkeetna, the jumping-off point for Denali National Park flights, were chuckling about the rescue. Those with a lot of years in-country know about big spring snows in the Alaska Range.
One of them noted it could be quite the chore getting the planes off the glacier. He remembered an incident from some years back when an aircraft from Talkeetna-based K2 Aviation landed on the glacier because of mechanical problems only to get snowed under.
Snow “covered the entire airplane except a bit of a wing tip and the top of the rudder,” he said.
A crew of climbers armed with shovels and a lot of gear was flown in to free the plane. It took them a couple of days of digging to expose it to the point where they could get lines on it to attach to a helicopter for a haul out.
Snow, snow, snow
At an elevation of less than 500 feet in the Tanana River basin, it normally gets a fraction of the amount of the snow as the Alaska Range tens of thousands of feet higher to the south but more cold, given that frigid air is denser than warm air and thus settles toward low-lying areas.
The National Weather Service was Monday warning of plummeting temperatures forecast to reach 15 degrees below zero by Friday night. The so-called Golden North City has already shivered through a chilly March.
The average temperature for the month was 5.9 degrees, some 5.5 degrees below normal. Anchorage, the state’s largest city 260 miles to the south on the edge of the Gulf of Alaska, was 7.4 degrees below normal in March, according to the Weather Service, but still 13.3 degrees warmer than Fairbanks in March.
It hasn’t been quite that cold this spring, but temperatures in the coldest part of the Interior were forecast to dip near 30 degrees below zero by Friday night with temperatures of 20 degrees below the forecast norm north of the Alaska Range and all through the Yukon River valley.
Temperatures were somewhat milder in the state’s far northwest but with the mercury in the teens below zero and the winds howling, dog drivers in the Kobuk 440 Sed Dog Race, usually a pleasant end to the dog-racing season, were taking a beating from Mother Nature.
Sixty-four-year-old Jeff King, a grizzled four-time Iditarod champ, had to summon rescuers when his team bogged down in cold and snow on a blown-in trail as did former Iditarod runner-up Nic Petit.
While King and Petit were being rescued, “the other mushers were diverted and held in Ambler while the storm passed,” reported KOTZ, the public radio station in the community of Kotzebue where the race starts and ends.
Ambler is a community of now less than 300 people living 45 miles above the Arctic Circle. It was named for Dr. James Ambler, a U.S. Navy surgeon who starved to death nearby following the sinking of the Arctic exploration steamer Jeannette which became trapped Bering Sea ice in the winter of 1880-81.
“Ambler was a member of expedition commander George W. Delong’s boat crew, which landed at the northern end of the desolate Lena River Delta in September 1881,” according to a naval history. “During the following weeks, he treated his companions’ frostbite and tried to maintain their strength as they slowly starved….Ambler was apparently one of the last three members of the group to succumb to hunger and exposure, sometime shortly after 30 October 1881.”
Life in Ambler is easier now. The community has an airport, a health clinic and internet service, but it wouldn’t exactly qualify as an urban comfort zone.
“Three village search and rescue teams, as well as the racing association’s trail crew, were deployed to guide mushers into checkpoints,” he wrote. “Many were pinned down by the weather for hours, unable to find each other and unsure if they were on the trail at all.”
One of the rescuers, Robin Gage from Kotzebue, told Wilber the wind was howling so loud that it was hard to impossible to hear whether a snowmachine was running.
“I don’t know how to describe it for someone who’s never been in a blizzard but, just standing in a wind tunnel, just incessant, it just didn’t let up,” Gage said. “You were surrounded by it.
“It just made everything much more difficult, even talking.”
Ah, springtime in Alaska….
Temperatures in parts of the Anchorage Metro Area, home to most of the state’s population, were forecast to fall to near 10 degrees below zero by the weekend.