Mother Nature’s Christmas Present for the Upper Susitna Valley

As those of you who follow this blog are aware the winter in south central Alaska this year has once again been mild in terms of air temps but extremely dry in terms of precipitation.  Sadly this is paralleling last winter although to this point there’s been much less precipitation and the temperatures have been much more mild.  To illustrate this I give you the following synopsis:

11/13: monthly average temp 15.5 F / days below 0 F – 8 / days below -10 F – 6 / days below -15 F – 4 / days below -20 F – 2

12/13: monthly average temp 9.1 F / days below 0 F – 12 / days below -10 F – 7 / days below -15 F – 6 / days below -20 F – 3

11/14:  monthly average temp 23.8 F / no days below 0 F

12/14: monthly average temp 21.0 F / no days below 0 F (NOTE: good through 12/25/14)

By the end of December in 2013 we had 29″ of snow pack; as of this morning we are less than half that amount with just 14.0″ on the ground.  For someone who moved to Alaska in part to experience brutal cold and feet of snow to say these first two winters have been ‘underwhelming’ is a bit like calling Denali a ‘big hill’.

But Mother Nature did bestow a gift upon the Upper Susitna Valley across Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in the form of an unexpected snow event which dropped a total of 7.7″ of snow which boosted our snow pack to the aforementioned 14″.  The snow was continuous on Wednesday but rather light; on Christmas Day it was very much a ‘wave’ event with pulses of moderate snow falling briefly followed by longer periods of no snow at all.  This event was just the second snowfall we’ve seen this year dropping more than 2″.  The snow was much heavier north of Talkeetna towards the Alaska Range and dropped off  dramatically just a bit south of here.  Willow, which is 30 miles south down the Parks Highway collected just a couple inches of snow total during this same period while Wasilla which is 60 miles south of Talkeetna saw only an inch or so of new snow.

Still and all we desperately need the moisture so any snow is welcome!  We sure hope we see a lot more across the next few months; otherwise this area will be indeed dry for the second straight spring and break up.  While it makes the latter much more bearable overall it does not bode well for the local wildlife or the boreal forest.  In trying to keep up my ‘always find that silver lining’ philosophy if the drought continues at least the mosquito hordes should be somewhat less come spring.

If I’ve learned anything in Alaska it is that Mother nature will do as she will regardless of what we humans might desire; at best we need to just get sanguine with her ways and appreciate what we do receive.  I know many folks in the lower 48 are mighty happy they’ve seen a winter much more mild than the cold and snow of last year’s winter season.  As it is I’m still waiting to see a real Alaskan winter.  With that I’ll leave you with some images from the past couple of days; Happy New Year to one and all!

'The Kidz' - my Alaskan Malamute Anana and my GSD Qanuk - really do love the snow and cannot get enough of frolicking in the white stuff

‘The Kidz’ – my Alaskan Malamute Anana and my GSD Qanuk – really do love the snow and cannot get enough of frolicking in the white stuff

Anana checking out the Christmas Eve snow while I'm prepping to move the Escape and then knock the snow off the tarp

Anana checking out the Christmas Eve snow while I’m prepping to move the Escape and then knock the snow off the tarp

Christmas morning with 'the Kidz'; we're south of the ole homestead clearing the new snow from the sat dish

Christmas morning with ‘the Kidz’; we’re south of the ole homestead clearing the new snow from the sat dish

Christmas afternoon looking west towards my home and the Escape's 'garage' seen on the left side of the image.  We saw repeated snow bursts which were pulses of moderate snow followed by a period of no snow.

Christmas afternoon looking west towards my home and the Escape’s ‘garage’ seen on the left side of the image. We saw repeated snow bursts which were pulses of moderate snow followed by a period of no snow.

An Unexpected Christmas Gift..?

One of the less pleasant truths about living in Alaska is the cost of living; many items and services are incrementally more costly than their counterparts in the lower 48.  As far as material things this is not a surprise as most everything needs to come to the ‘The Last Frontier’ via either air or water and hence has additional shipping costs.  As to services; Alaska ranks 47th amongst the 50 states for total population and dead last in terms of population density.  Therefore, there’s a much smaller pool of people to draw upon for any given livelihood so the average ‘quality’ of any worker is likely to be a bit lower than one might find in the lower 48 although this is definitely not a given.

It’s always bothered me that Alaska is the source of so much petroleum yet it has some of the highest gasoline prices of the 50 states.  I can see places like Hawaii having extremely expensive gasoline and other petroleum by-products as they are islands with no native source of petroleum so everything must be shipped in.  But this is not the case in Alaska.  The only refinery I’ve seen operating in Alaska is in the NW corner of the Kenai Peninsula – in Kenai – although according to 2014 figures there are a total of six operational refineries.  Regardless, there should be enough refining capacity to supply the needs of Alaska based upon its low population.  But you wouldn’t know this to be the case looking at our gasoline prices which only in the past week finally dropped below $3/gallon.  I’ve heard from friends in the lower 48 of gasoline prices around $2/gallon and even a few below that number.  I also find it curious that fuel oil appears to be much closer to the country’s average ($3.17/gallon versus $3.66/gallon).

Regardless I was pleasantly surprised when returning from picking up donated food stuffs in Palmer I saw the following; and, yes, of course I filled up!

A Shell station on the Palmer-Wasilla Highway had the lowest gasoline prices I've seen since relocating here in August of 2013

A Shell station on the Palmer-Wasilla Highway had the lowest gasoline prices I’ve seen since relocating here in August of 2013

Low Angles in High Latitudes

As we rapidly approach the calendar start of winter – the Winter Solstice occurring on December 21st this year at 14:03 AKST while the meteorological start to the season was December 1st – I once again find myself contemplating the boreal forest and the sky above its mix of birch and spruce trees.  I spend far too much time parked in front of a monitor but I do have a large window just three feet to my left which looks out from the second floor office into the immediate surroundings.  We still remain far short of snow with just 7.5 inches of snow pack and the temperatures have been see-sawing back and forth around the freezing point which is exceptionally warm.  All told this looks to be my second consecutive ‘winter that wasn’t’; while not happy with the prospect I am working to become more sanguine with this concept…maybe next year?

Yet there’s still a lot to marvel at in my new Alaskan home and one of those observations is the extremely low angle to the sunlight this time of year.  While out walking ‘the kidz’ yesterday early afternoon I was reflecting upon just how much the partly cloudy sky resembled an early sunrise or sunset; the underside of many of the Altocumulus stratiformis clouds of the mid-altitude cloud deck were orange and red while the few Cirrus intortus at a higher elevation were brilliant white tinged with fiery yellow against the azure sky.  I had to remind myself this was just 13:25 AKST and thus only a bit more than half way through our current 5 hour, 3 minute and 47 second direct sunlight period; according to my tables the solar ‘noon’ occurred at 12:56 AKST.  Although there were still many clouds on the western horizon when I could see it – the boreal forest really surrounds this area – the sun was indeed very low. Just how low is ‘low’?  Using NOAA’s Solar Position Calculator (http://www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/grad/solcalc/azel.html) I calculated just 5.4 degrees above the horizon at 12:59 AKST.

This is extremely low; for comparison using Detroit (MI) on this same date and the same time (12:59 EST) I came up with an angle of 23.94 degrees.  No wonder this former Midwest boy thinks the sun is darn low up here!  Of course I was aware of this phenomenon as its fairly straightforward physics represented using geometry but to actually be standing on a shadowed, snow-covered back road surrounded by the immense and silent boreal forest while marveling the sun can hardly be seen even between the breaks in the trees really brings the concept home.  I know from previous experience that on the summer solstice a few hours later the sun will reach almost 52 degrees above the horizon; what a difference!

I’d heard many folks – mainly photographers – talk about ‘flat light’ and they often bemoaned its influence at the higher latitudes.  Only after I relocated up here did I come to understand just what flat light is and how it can negatively affect photographs.  The sunlight striking the higher latitudes in their winter season is forced to travel through a lot more atmosphere to reach the surface of the earth because of the curvature of the earth’s surface.  This helps create the lack of shadowing and an overall ‘softness’ to the resultant light which produces a dearth of real detail.  Thus many images taken under such circumstances lack a myriad of subtle visual clues the human eye uses to establish depth of field and hence a degree of three dimensionality to the picture.  I saw this many times when I first started shooting images up here although not until I actually relocated to ‘The Great Land’ did I really see this effect in winter shots.  My eyes and brain compensate for the loss of such cues when I’m just using my normal visual reception but these clues are not reproduced in an image and hence they often look two-dimensional and tending towards a lack of contrast and monochromatic.  As good as my eyes and brain are at dealing with this situation it becomes apparent to me when just walking around this area in the depth of winter; it seems as though everything is composed of either white (snow and birch trees), green (spruce trees) or black (shadows).  The sky will appear blue when clear but it is often overcast in winter and hence it is a shade of gray.   This can be somewhat disconcerting and I can easily see how trying to land aircraft on snow under such conditions causes crashes due to the loss of reference points.

Living in the higher latitudes remains endlessly fascinating to me as there is so much about these circumstances that is quite different from those found in the lower 48.  It often seems as though so many aspects are distorted and done so in the direction of exacerbation; I now more fully appreciate way Alaska is often referred to as a ‘land of extremes’.  I find the more I’m willing to look around me with an inquisitive eye the more I find that fascinates me in my new home.

Taken from my main floor this view is looking SSE across my property; further in the distance but not viewable is Question Lake

Taken from my main floor this view is looking SSE across my property; further in the distance but not viewable is Question Lake.  Notice the lack of depth and absence of any feeling of three dimensions…

Truth In The Age of Instant Messaging And The Twenty Four Hour News Cycle

I guess the enormous spaces that separate my beloved Alaska from the rest of the US might account for some of the cultural differences I’ve noted regarding people and lifestyles in ‘The Great Land’ versus those in the lower 48. It’s also obvious that because living in this magnificent state requires more of a commitment with respect to some facets of living like being aware of the natural world around one’s self and a willingness to be more self-sufficient the locals are bound to be a bit ‘different’ regarding those in the lower 48. Yet we remain Americans and we share a passion for our personal freedoms and a lot of proven technologies. One of said ‘proven technologies’ is the explosion of broadband communications and its associated cellular communications. Like so many such technologies it is indeed a dual edged sword; more and more rural people can now be in touch with family and friends and can call for assistance when required. As such they are ‘connected’ and this is generally a good thing. However, there are some definite negatives and as we’ve seen in recent incidents in the lower 48 there is a whole new mindset and understanding that must come about regarding instant messaging and nearly instantaneous broadband connectivity. Without such recognition and understanding this tool can become extremely dangerous.

No one would argue that more timely communication is a bad thing; having quicker access to information is generally important and being able to contact authorities when in need of assistance can be a life saver. But when digesting almost ‘real-time’ information regarding some situation we, as a culture, need to understand some basic concepts about such information. First and foremost we must come to realize that it is simply that: information. As such there is no guarantee as to its validity; in fact because of its very nature – being the initial output regarding some situation – we should treat it with a high degree of skepticism. Secondly we must remember that every story has at least two sides and more often than not there are even more perspectives; therefore, to react to just one side – and the first side which as mentioned earlier is most likely incomplete if not downright incorrect – is to react and form opinions and judgments without all the information. It is human nature to form some of our most lasting opinions based upon first impressions; so many times we’ve learned to our regret our first impressions were just plain wrong. This should serve as a huge warning bell to anyone building firm judgments based upon a single, virtually real time tweet or ‘breaking news story’ on some website. Thirdly we must recognize that so many situations and incidents are complex and cannot be dissected and fully understood in a matter of a few minutes. We’ve become a nation of information junkies hungering after the next 20 second explanation fix; the death of the print news media illustrates we really do not want to take the time to get any in-depth analysis or understanding of events. And lastly it is critical to recognize there are many groups out there with their own ideas, beliefs and agendas and most will gladly take some news story and use it to support their ideology or agenda regardless of how much the truth needs to be twisted or spun. Sadly this is the classic ‘the ends justifies the means’ argument which has been at the core of some of the most heinous and vile choices made during humanity’s reign.

Yes, it does take time to dissect many situations and often competing views or perspectives may require days if not longer to come to light. Then it may require weeks or even months for in-depth analysis to be made and facts to be checked and rechecked; that’s just how it is nowadays. There is often just no way to get an accurate and thoughtful analysis of something without the investment of time and effort. The fact that we seem to eschew such common sense says to me we really have become a culture that needs ‘satisfaction’ within minutes or at most hours; if we don’t get it by then we seem okay with either running with the incomplete half-truths we have or just dropping it all together and moving on to the next sensationalized issue or situation. Either response is far short of what is required to make sound judgments based upon facts.

Indeed, as we’ve seen with some of the most recent incidents involving white police interacting with’ people of color’ many of those demonstrating against the police do not want to hear the facts lest they become confused. Now that’s certainly a most sound and intelligent method to make a decision or form a judgment upon..!? In so many of these situations people allow their own emotions, agendas and perceptions to over-ride any need for factual information; this is not only unwise but downright dangerous. What has happened that we’ve become okay with making snap judgments based on incomplete information because we happen to agree with the initial analyses and perspectives? I see this as a multi-causal breakdown in a number of areas of our culture:

1. We’ve become a culture that doesn’t believe in personal responsibility; we hold few accountable for their actions. With this kind of perspective there is no value regarding personal integrity so say or do whatever you want; in the end it’s not your ‘fault’ and there will be no accounting.
2. We’ve seen the slow erosion of schools teaching critical thinking; now it’s more about being ‘sensitive’ and having a ‘world view’ than about being able to look at a set of observations or a situation and start breaking it down analytically.
3. We’ve become a society that cannot maintain a focus on any situation or issue for more than a few days at best. We become bored with things that ‘drag on and on’ and we look for the next exciting or new thing.
4. We’ve seen the traditional family breaking apart under so many strains and direct attacks I cannot even begin to name them. With this disintegration we are seeing the fruits of raising children with no moral compass and no appreciation of ethics or empathy when dealing with other human beings or life forms. Such individuals are loath to invest time in analytical thinking and are prone to being driven by emotion even in the face of the truth.

There are many more probable influences but the above list shows what I believe are some of the really influential shifts that have generated some very negative outcomes.

Without question we as a culture need to become aware of the impact almost instantaneous communication is having upon our society be it in this country or the world. I see no ‘value’ regarding the technology; tweeting and constantly being ‘in touch’ on phones or computers are neither good nor bad, they just are. How ‘We the People’ use these technologies is where we are seeing the positive and negative attributes. There exists a certain degree of responsibility that goes with utilizing these technologies although I’d wager very few people even recognize this let alone understand why this should be the case.

In my mind this still goes back to the concept of personal responsibility; if more people accepted the importance of being responsible whether because they had been brought up understanding and valuing this virtue or they were afraid of being held accountable for not being socially responsible then I suspect we’d see fewer people willing to say or do almost anything so long as it agreed with their beliefs or agendas. Oh Yes, there would also be a lot fewer folks ‘confused by the facts’ as well…

Long Time Coming!

Mother Nature definitely decided to take her sweet ole time about giving this area its first ‘significant’ snow fall but this is without question a case of ‘better late than never’.  The snow event started around day break on Monday, December 1st and continued until early evening on Tuesday, December 2nd.  During that time we accumulated 7.5″ of new snow for a snow pack of 9.5″.  This is quite late in the season for the first significant snow event; last Thanksgiving we had 25″ of snow pack although starting in middle December things really went downhill in terms of winter and really never recovered.  As is typical for this area but completely counter to all my previous winter experience when it snows we rarely see any wind at all; this allows the snow to just accumulate on any fairly flat horizontal surface.  The result is the immense boreal forest wrapped up in gleaming white snow.  This also contributes to the incredible silences we experience in winter; all that snow all over the trees, brush and ground acts as a sound absorber.

Here are some images from the recent event:

Driving south down The Spur Tuesday afternoon after doing the noon news at KTNA; almost to the left turn onto East Barge Drive

Driving south down The Spur Tuesday afternoon after doing the noon news at KTNA; almost to the left turn onto East Barge Drive (green sign just visible on left)

Returning from my Monday evening music show at KTNA I had just turned east onto East Barge Drive and decided to try taking a picture.  My place is further up the road maybe another two tenth's of a mile.

Returning from my Monday evening music show at KTNA I had just turned east onto East Barge Drive and decided to try taking a picture leaving my Moose Lights (aka ‘driving lights’) on.  My place is further up the road maybe another two tenth’s of a mile.

Looking NNE at the west and south side of my place from the driveway

Looking NNE at the west and south side of my place from the driveway; the orange plastic fence actually helps contain the dogs in the back yard when there’s no snow on the ground.  To the far right is my ShelterLogic ‘garage’ with my Escape nice and dry inside it.

A look out my kitchen window Tuesday morning; the snow was still falling and showing some definite accumulation by this point

A look out my kitchen window Tuesday morning; the snow was still falling and showing some definite accumulation by this point

Qanuk and Anana enjoying the fresh snow but especially loving the vehicle tracks on East Barge Drive

Qanuk and Anana enjoying the fresh snow but especially loving the vehicle tracks on East Barge Drive

View of front 'yard' with shed; the ole homestead always looks better in snow!

View of front ‘yard’ with shed; the ole homestead always looks better in snow!