Early on Friday morning, I threw a leg over the top tube of a fat bike and rode for 35 minutes steadily upward from 1,000 to 2,000 feet in the Chugach Mountain Front Range.
Near the very edge of treeline, the white pavement of April finally gave way to pockets of soft, windblown snow that made it hard to maintain rear-wheel traction and forced me to turn back.
Lower down – between 1,500 feet and 2,000 feet where in summer a jungle of alders between the muskegs makes cross-country travel difficult and/or wet – the otherworld of summer remained buried beneath the winter’s heavy load of snow.
Oh if only Alaska was always like this.
Overhead the sun burned brightly, and the day was warming fast, too fast really. By 10 a.m. it was clearly time to bail before the pavement of morning became the mush of afternoon.
Heading downhill, I followed an old snowshoe trail hard to find beneath the snow. It offered some protection against a tire punching deep into a softening surface.
The bike computer warned of speeds of 15 mph at times. Even if a rider keeps his weight well back, a front tire gone missing in snow at that speed almost always results in a launch over the handlebars.
Mountain bikers have a word for this: Endo.
So I stuck to that old trail as wound its way into and through the woods, and even after there appeared the day-old, inch-deep, frozen snowshoe tracks of a neighbor out too late in the afternoon the day before.
The ride got rougher from there on, the bike banging through the frozen snowshoe prints. But it was impossible to complain. A winter of those snowshoes had, after all, helped to build a trail that doesn’t even exist in summer.
When I finally rolled back into the driveway at home, the temperatures was up to 45 degrees and warming ever faster. Water from the melting snow still three- or four-feet deep along the streets was beginning to run in streams down the pavement.
The flow would only grow through the day at the temperature climbed toward 60 in the sun.
Only days earlier, Mother Nature had driven the knife through the heart of Old Man Winter.
At 8 a.m. on Wednesday, it was a motion-picture perfect “White Christmas” morning out the office window. By noon, the winds that sweep in over the Chugach Mountains from across the warm waters of the Gulf of Alaska 175 miles to the southeast were gusting to 50 mph; the temperature had climbed above 40 degrees; and rain was falling.
Despite an unusually cold March, by the standards of the past decade at least, and a frigid start to April, it was inevitable this was going to happen. The planet was repositioning itself in space in time with the season, the northern hemisphere tilting ever closer to a direct line to the sun.
The building strength of the heat in the sun’s rays was obvious even on the coldest of sunny days. There was no denying the warm season was out there somewhere waiting to arrive as surely as there is a new year every year.
But it didn’t really seem certain until Wednesday.
Mother Nature didn’t outright kill Old Man Winter, but she fatally wounded him. Now, it’s only a matter of time until he bleeds out.
How long that takes and how messy it gets remains to be seen.
In the snow-short winters of the last few years in and around Alaska’s largest city, the water and mud of the season Alaskans call “break up” has faded fast. Last year, many municipal bike trails normally closed until June 1 to prevent damage to muddy sections were open by May 15.
That isn’t looking likely this year with the snow and ice covering the trails just beginning to melt and the snow still piled feet deep in the mountains above them.
The mud season that comes in that brief period between winter and summer in the far north looks like it could be a long one this year.
But then again with luck, there might still be a few great days of riding left here in crustlandia before those thickets of alders emerge from the snow to confront off trails hikers with the alder-bashing hell that makes many wish for more trails in the trail-short 49th state.
I confessed to an old neighbor the desire it was always like this. He set me straight:
“No, you don’t,” he said. “All the Californians would show up.”
There was a time when I would have been of that mindset. Now, the situation looks somewhat different. With the Alaska economy tanking, it might not be such a bad thing if a bunch of techies from Silicon Valley decided Anchorage was a good place to set up a remote office.