After whining about the lack of any real Alaskan winter weather most of last winter and all of this one I finally have seen some true south central Alaskan snowfall and will be seeing some downright cold air temps across the next few days. Jeez but it seems like it took forever but then the mild and dry trend that has been a part of all the winter time I’ve put in up here only seemed to break late last Thursday with the unexpected snow event which finally left behind 17.5” of snow in this immediate area. This gave us a total snow/ice pack of 23.5″. And it was classic Talkeetna snow in being very fluffy and low density; my calculated SWE (snow water equivalent) was 15.54” of snow to produce 1” of liquid water. Anyone familiar with snow densities will recognize this is indeed lightweight snow.
The event started around sunset on Thursday (01/22) and lasted through Saturday (01/24) late afternoon with the bulk of the snow falling between 00:00 Friday morning and 22:00 Friday evening. As is typical for this immediate area but still something of an unusual situation from my experience – all in the lower 48 – there was no wind and the snow fell vertically and hence piled up on any nearly horizontal surface. This gives the trees that appearance of being bathed in marshmallow cream and is truly beautiful in sunlight and especially so in moonlight. It also kills sound transmission and helps maintain the ‘immense silence’ common after such snow falls.
By the time I needed to get out and drive to KTNA for my Friday evening newscast there were 13.5” of snow on the ground. Thankfully the grader had been down East Barge Drive twice by 17:00 so it was very passable; I was to learn East Barge was in better shape than the Spur! I was able to finesse my Ford Escape through the accumulated snow and out to the cleared side road. From there it was an easy trip to KTNA. However, when I returned all Hell broke loose and the ‘learnings’ I alluded to in the title of this piece started falling on me like the snow. Of course it was pitch black and snowing heavily so I couldn’t see Roland hadn’t been around with his front end loader to clear my driveway but I could see a fair wall of snow at the junction of my driveway and East Barge pushed there by the grader. I threw caution to the wind, accelerated and managed to get the Escape maybe three feet off East Barge Drive before I was stopped. I worked for 20 minutes trying every trick I knew but finally gave up and waded the snow to the house leaving the Escape trapped.
Come Saturday morning around 09:45 when daylight returned I dressed for the conditions and headed out to work on freeing the car. I spent almost 90 minutes without success; my worst fears were realized when I saw in trying to rock the vehicle I had allowed the tires to burn through the fluffy snow down to the layer of ice that’s been on all the side roads – and driveways – since the rain/freezing rain of January 14th and 15th. Once this happened the tires just spun and created even deeper icy ruts. I tried putting wooden pieces at the tire/ice interfaces and goosing the accelerator but this only provided the briefest traction before the wood was pushed by the tires along the ice and shot out. I was hoping to be able to free the Escape by backing into East Barge Drive and then parking it and awaiting Roland. I finally gave up and decided to await Roland’s visit hoping maybe he could push or pull me free.
HAH; the best laid plans!! Roland finally showed up at 02:15 this – Sunday – morning (only in Alaska do you get you driveway plowed at 02:00!!) and cleared my driveway!! I heard him working on some of the neighbor’s driveways around 01:30. I was tired and sore and didn’t want to try to get up, get dressed, run out there and see if he could help me so I just rolled over and went back to sleep. After discussing my options this morning with my buddy Sarge I went back out at 10:00 and started working on freeing the Escape. Roland had cleared all the snow around the Escape down to the ice; I know he was trying to help me but this was not good as I couldn’t get any traction. After 30 minutes I was finally able to wedge two large pieces of particle board under the two front wheels and by leaving the driver’s door open and keeping my left foot on the ground while I goosed the accelerator with my right foot and pushed against the door jamb with my left arm I was slowly able to ‘walk’ the Escape in a lateral motion to the left. After five tries I was able to finally get enough purchase for the tires to bite and then I could get the Escape up the driveway and into the ‘garage’. That was way more fun then I wanted at 10:30 in the -8 F air!! The really frustrating thing was this whole sad affair was based on the lousy weather earlier in January; if the temp had been even close to normal we’d never have seen the rain and freezing rain and hence there wouldn’t have been the layer of granite hard ice on all the back roads and driveways. Then, I’d have just burned down through the snow, hit gravel and then found traction.
As I’ve mentioned in many earlier blogs I moved to Alaska in August of 2013 with no winter, spring or summer experience with the land and no previous experience living rural so I knew I had tons of learnings coming my way and I’ve not been disappointed. Based on just the last 68 hours here are some ‘key’ learnings I’ll not soon forget:
1. Low density fluffy snow is a cast iron bitch to drive on if there’s ice beneath it!
2. Break up boots (‘rubber waders’ for you lower 48’ers) are just 17” tall and mainly useless in 24” of fresh snow
3. Much better to leave one’s pant legs outside the boots; if tucked in snow will work its way into the boots and then you get wet feet.
4. Poly-pro glove liners are useless when working in snow; they quickly become sodden and then they transmit cold to the point it feels like you’re working with bare hands.
5. When you really chill fingers – not to the frost bite level but close – DO NOT try warm water to speed up the warming process!!! The pain is incredibly nasty. Instead tuck them under your armpits and slowly warm them; while this took me almost a full hour the pain I experienced during that time was nothing like the pain of just warm water on those abused fingers.
6. Modern vehicles (my Escape is a 2011 model) are useless in terms of ‘rocking’ to try to escape ruts in snow; they have so many interlocks on the engine rpm and the transmission you just cannot rock the vehicle at all. I also discovered my Escape has a damn interlock that prevents on from getting the transmission out of ‘Park’ without having a human’s weight on the front seat. Pushing down on the seat using my arm and hand with all my strength couldn’t break this interlock. Perhaps if one has a manual transmission one can bypass some of these issues; I would’ve killed to have a manual tranny in my Escape (I’ve had one in virtually every other vehicle I’ve owned..!) but there was no option for such a configuration.
7. Before next winter I’m going to at minimum have a box of kitty litter in the Escape along with 50 feet of steel cable and a hand operated winch! If I’d had such a set up I could’ve easily strung the cable across the road, tied it off to a tree and winched the Escape clear of the icy ruts. I’m also going to look into a front mounted electric unit but I know they are costly as in over a grand.
8. I will NEVER again be so cavalier regarding deep snow; better to let the Escape sit on the side of the road and even have the grader push some snow against it than try to push a bad situation and end up in my predicament.
Eight hard learned lessons to add to my list; at least if I can walk away from the past 72 hours with these understandings hopefully I’ll be better prepared for the remainder of this winter and future winters as well. The following are some imagery from this event; I need to get the extension cord run from the front porch to the ‘garage’ such that I can power the battery blanket and the oil heater as tonight I will likely see -25 F air temps and similar temps tomorrow night as well. But all told I’m not complaining; I finally had a chance to experience a ‘moderate’ snow event in rural south central Alaska!