Although its only the end of March there is no longer any doubt we are seeing break up (that’s Alaskan for ‘spring’); even the pessimists who always warn ‘be careful what you wish for…’ have been forced to admit our winter that wasn’t is now history. Sure, this is Alaska and we could see feet of snow and minus double-digit temps in April but given the weather conditions across previous five months I’d bet my retirement break up is here. Of the past 27 days in March 19 of them (70%) have seen high temps above freezing and 9 of those 19 days have been above 40 F. Recently we’ve seen an unusual run of clear, sunny days which now numbers eleven consecutive days with clear skies again this morning. The snow pack is now really ice and its down to 11.0 inches in-depth; along rivers, streams and in lakes channels of open water appear every day only to lightly refreeze at night when the temps plunge into the single digits thanks to clear night skies. In the afternoon I can comfortable walk the dogs outside for an hour wearing just sweat pants, tennis shoes, a long-sleeved shirt and a fleece vest – no need for boots, heavy socks, gloves or a hat…
With this abnormally warm weather and early break up the boreal forest is once more springing to life and it seems to be in a huge hurry to get on with break up. There are a myriad of tracks in the snow; in my ‘back forty’ I found both fox and wolverine tracks but by far and away the most numerous – and obvious – are moose sign. They are everywhere and not just in terms of their tracks and droppings but also by their ‘work’ and in person. The following image was taken at the base of my driveway entrance onto East Barge Drive and shows the results of a couple of moose digging for plants beneath the snow:
Such excavations dot the immediate area and are common beneath the thin canopy of the boreal forest. It’s almost as if the moose sense the pending melting of the snow and are in a hurry to get at the fauna that’s been sheltered by the snow pack since mid-November. I knew Talkeetna was known for its abundance of moose and even last fall I saw far more moose than any other mammals while out and about but these past few weeks even I’ve been impressed at their numbers and their willingness to be visible. Indeed, they just do not seem to be concerned about humans until the distance closes to maybe 10 to 30 feet; each moose has its own personal space requirements and they do vary quite a bit based upon personality, previous experiences with humans, availability of food and similar. Across the past week I’ve become so used to their presence I no longer rush to grab my camera and get images; if they are close by and if I have nothing else to do I might try to get a picture but I mean after all…its ‘just a moose’.
There’s a part of me that feels sadness that I could become so jaded so rapidly to the presence of these huge mammals but when one sees them daily – often multiple times a day – they tend to become less ‘exotic’. Sighting a grizzly in my back yard would provoke a rush to grab all my photographic gear and get set up inside to capture images but while moose would have generated this same response last fall now this is no longer the case. However, it’s not that I don’t still find it amazing that I have numerous Alces alces wandering around my property; it’s just that they are no longer the rarely viewed phenomena they were last fall. Of course I still revere these mighty herbivores and treat them with the same respect I would any large wild animal; not to do so would be stupid and dangerous. But the moose have now become a more ‘typical’ fixture of my Alaskan lifestyle and hence not the rare encounters they were previously. When I do have the chance to view one up close, as when I’m in my car or in the house, I remain amazed by their size and their appearance – what we humans refer to as ‘ungainly’ – yet I’ve also seen them moving enough to know that ‘ungainly’ is a complete misnomer! They move with a fluid grace when they have the need and they can truly move quickly when the need arises. After watching them for many months now I have come to appreciate just how wonderfully they are ‘engineered’ to handle their own south central Alaskan lifestyles. Those long legs keep them well above the deep snow while that long proboscis is perfectly designed for punching through snow to reach the fauna beneath the snow pack or to ferret out willow branches amid the tangle of plants that form the forest floor. They must have good noses as they can pick out the location of food beneath feet of snow and their eyesight must be good as well because they certainly seems to notice we humans often before we see them.
As the break up proceeds I expect I’ll see more and more moose in this immediate area and it just feels so ‘right’ that we humans can share this majestic land with such large mammals but still exist mainly at peace. There is no doubt a mutual respect between us and this is good as many lower 48er’s would be shocked to learn that far more humans are killed by moose than any other animal in Alaska. Hypothermia remains the number one killer of we humans but the moose do a pretty good job of enforcing Darwin’s observations; if we are dumb enough to crowd a moose let alone bother a cow with a calf then we will most likely not be around to further pollute the gene pool and that’s as it should be…
With the strengthening sunlight the roof snow is melting but when it extends out into the air where the temp is below freezing it often re-freezes. This image captures just such an event; notice the icicle extending downward at a 45 degree angle from the curved slippage of snow.
A glorious morning on The Parks Highway (AK 3) perhaps 20 miles south of Talkeetna; on the horizon one can just make out the ghostly images of (l. to r.) Mount Foraker, Mount Hunter and Denali – all prominent members of the mighty Alaska Range
Although in the grand scheme this winter has been a huge disappointment with it being largely absent during January – the warmest January on record for this area – and present in terms of temps but sans snow in February at least March has brought a change in these conditions. Our snow event across March 4th and 5th deposited 15.4″ of new snow here at Mile 7.1 just east of the Spur and we’ve seen below zero morning temps across the past three days with afternoon highs rising into the middle twenties thanks to the clear skies and rapidly increasing sunlight. Yesterday I walked the dogs in the middle afternoon prior to my evening newscast and found the conditions to be perfect! The sky was that deep cobalt blue which I still associate with Canadian High Pressure in the lower 48 but has no such linkage up here; indeed, the pressure was falling rapidly across Friday afternoon and is all the way down to 29.20″ Hg (988.83 Mb) as I write this at 09:52 AKST on a clear Saturday morning. There was a slight northerly breeze which was unusual but produced a beautiful sound passing through the snow covered pine trees and the air temp was around 25 F. When in the sun I could really feel its warm and immediately recognized the implication that within just a few more weeks it will be strong enough to begin melting snow on clear afternoons even though the air temps remain below freezing.
The dogs were loving every minute of the walk with Qanuk racing well out in front of me only to turn and charge right back at me running full tilt only to turn away at the last second. I saw a multitude of moose tracks and even some scat on the freshly cleared roads but the moose themselves remained out of sight. Even Anana had a puppy-like spring in her step and she regularly tried to keep up with Qanuk but while she’s still the alpha dog when it comes to running Qanuk can literally run circles around her. All in all it was a glorious day for a walk in rural Talkeetna and this time of year is rapidly becoming a real favorite of mine. Sadly its unlikely I’ll get to experience -30 F this winter or see that 36 inches plus of snow pack but there’s always next year!
Qanuk and Anana on Riven Street with the Alaska Range in the distance
Anana looking north up Riven Street
Anana finds a bit of shelter from the snow and Qanuk decides to have a closer look. Both dogs love the snow and especially love to walk during the snow events; this suits me fine as I do as well..!
Yep, its been a really interesting previous 24 hours in the finest Alaskan tradition. I found it to be a great stimulus especially as with all the mild, sunny conditions and lack of any real weather extremes across the past few months things were becoming rather ‘staid’. The fun started early Tuesday morning with light snow; the snow continued across Tuesday, Tuesday night and right along into Wednesday. When it finally tapered off around 16:30 AKST here at Mile 7.1 of the Spur I measured a total accumulation of 14.8″ which makes this event the largest snowfall this winter. Of course, given the wimpy winter to date it really didn’t take much to make headlines with respect to snowfall. As of 07:00 Wednesday morning I measured 12.5″ of snow with a SWE of just 0.57″ water so the snow is indeed typically light and fluffy. NWS blew their forecast as even at noon on Tuesday they were calling for maybe an inch of snow for the entire day; by that time I was seeing 3.5″ and the snow was continuing. This was another ‘windless’ storm so all the trees, bushes and exterior surfaces have a thick coating of fluffy white snow:
My back yard around 11:00 AKST on March 5, 2014
With this latest visit by winter we once again have in excess of two feet of snow pack although the bottom 11″ is mainly the icy remains of the earlier snow pack that melted in the record-setting warm January and was lashed by rain and freezing rain during that same month. Even with this snow event we are well below normal snow fall for the winter of 2013-2014 but everyone is most pleased to see the snow once again. Anana and Qanuk were a bit surprised by the snow depth when I let them outside this morning; the had largely tamped down the previous snow and ice and therefore had established some definite paths in the back yard. To suddenly find the snow up to their bellies once again was a shock but they quickly took advantage of the powder and commenced playing tag. I think they were just pleased to see more snow but then so was the entire local population.
Yesterday evening I had settled into my rocking chair with my Kindle Fire HD reading a great book (“The Wolf In The Parlor”) while listening to some soft fusion jazz; from time to time I glanced up to watch the snow continuing to fall. Right about 18:13 there was a very loud ‘BOOM!‘ which caused everything to rattle followed by a second ‘BOOM!‘ a few seconds later. Before the second one my German Shepherd (Qanuk) was running down the stairs from the upper floor; he ended up cowering alongside my chair. Even Anana, my Alaskan Malamute who was sound asleep at the foot of the stairs, raised her head and looked around. Understand that Anana is a very sound sleeper and rarely can be awakened by any noise unless it’s the sound of the refrigerator door being opened; for her to jerk awake confirmed my immediate impression that something very loud had just occurred. My first thought was an explosion of some kind but then I wondered if a large piece of the accumulating snow had slipped off the roof. I learned during the extremely warm January that snow/ice falling from the roof can create loud ‘Blam’s’ that do shake the house. I looked out all the windows but saw only undisturbed snow so I pulled on my ‘deep snow’ boots and proceeded to walk the perimeter of the house. Outside it was silent like usual and the snow on the ground was completely undisturbed. I finally decided it must have been an earthquake albeit an unusual one. I’ve experienced a number of earthquakes in the lower 48 but this one was unlike any earthquake I’d ever experienced as it made a definite noise while all the other’s I’d experienced previously did not; in fact they were silent – except for stuff rattling and maybe falling over – and I hadn’t felt the floor tremble or ‘ripple’ as I had during previous events. I walked back inside and went on-line with UAF (University of Alaska Fairbanks); sure enough a magnitude 4.4 earthquake was recorded at 18:13 AKST centered 27 miles SSE of Talkeetna at a depth of 22 miles. I’ve experienced a few earthquakes while working for The Clorox Company whose main office is located in the Bay area of California; generally no one even batted an eye unless it was at least a 5.5 or larger. I also experienced a 4.8 quake generated from the New Madrid fault line which runs up the Mississippi River basin around St. Louis. That was back in ’81 and I was living in Greenville (IL) which was 70 miles ENE or St. Louis; the event occurred in the wee hours of the morning. I was sleeping on a water-bed and suddenly I awoke to hear stuff rattling and then felt ‘Magic Fingers’ in the water-bed. While I’m hardly a veteran regarding earthquakes I’m no novice either; this is why I was quite surprised by yesterday evening’s event. I did note that while KTNA gave extensive morning news coverage to the snow not a word was mentioned regarding the earthquake so I guess it wasn’t a big deal. I knew Alaska is the most seismically active of the 50 states and I also knew the Palmer-Wasilla area gets regular quakes so I wasn’t surprised except by the noise. I’ve never heard a ‘BOOM!‘ with a previous earthquake let alone two of them…
This afternoon I stopped by the KTNA studio after making the mail run into Talkeetna and spoke to a pair of folks who live around me; one didn’t notice the quake at all while the other definitely felt it and had the same recollection of the event as my own. I learned that the earthquakes up here often produce loud sounds in conjunction with the seismic activity. I also had it confirmed that a 4.4 is not a big deal; I guess they occur on an almost regular basis and most of the locals hardly notice them. I was told that 60 miles to the south in the Palmer-Wasilla area it’s even more common and the events are often larger. As stated earlier I knew Alaska was the most seismically active of the 50 states and even knew of the Denali fault line that runs right through this area but I was still surprised by the noise from the event and the fact that a 4.4 shook my house so ‘substantially’. Across the day I continued to find small items that had been knocked around from the earth’s perturbations. Once more I’m in awe of the amazing display of natural forces that just seems to be an everyday part of the Alaskan environment. Things are just a bit different up here in so many ways; just as 12+ inches of snow doesn’t shut down the local schools a magnitude 4.4 tremblor is no big deal. Heck, when the NWS did get their act together they issued a ‘Winter Weather Advisory’ for a snow event with the forecast total accumulation of 10″ to 20″ stating such an advisory meant only that travel might be ‘negatively impacted’. No wonder I just love living up here..!!!