Reflections On An Early Winter

Those of you following this blog will recognize my continued fascination with meteorology in general and Alaskan weather in particular. This is especially true when focusing on winter weather which, since I relocated to Talkeetna in August of 2013, has been rather mild to say the least. Thus far even though the ‘official’ start of winter is still five weeks out we’re finally seeing some very Alaskan winter weather. In early November we saw snow across a couple of days accumulate to around 10” (25.4 cm). This was followed by a week of extremely cold temps featuring a roughly 84 hour period during which we never reached 0°F (-17.8°C) and saw a couple days of -17.2°F (-27.3°C) low temps and one day when we bottomed out at -20.3°F (-29.1°C). The recent cold snap was broken by a series of storms coming across the Bering Sea from Russia the largest of which dumped around 15” (38.1 cm) across an 18 hour period. Since then we’ve seen an additional 7” (17.8 cm) leaving us with, after accounting for settling, a current snow pack of 26.5” (67.3 cm).

Anana Loving Her Situation.JPG

Anana enjoying the snow

I have reveled in the cold and snow and do indeed hope it is the harbinger of my first ‘real’ Alaskan winter. During the past 27 months I’ve been settling into my Talkeetna lifestyle I’ve experienced many learnings and with each one I’ve become better prepared to handle some of the extreme weather conditions which can and do befall this magnificent state. By far the most extreme conditions occur in winter so the focus of my preparations have been skewed to these expected conditions. I added a new wood burning stove to my place last month and it did come in handy during the recent cold snap. But I also ended up with a cord of unseasoned birch, sold to me as ‘seasoned’, so my use of said stove has been limited to the wood my friends have shared with me. However, I now know what to look for regarding seasoned birch so the experience was not a complete loss. In addition I will be able to continue splitting, stacking and ‘tarping’ this wood with an eye to using it next winter.

My wardrobe has also increased slightly with the addition of a pair of good quality gaiters which are almost a necessity if one is to try to wade two plus feet of snow. I also have a pair of heavily padded mittens for use when the air temp drops below -10°F (-23.3°C). My buddy Sarge has fixed me up with a first rate winch system which allows me to mount the winch on either front or back trailer hitches; in addition the winch can pivot to provide an optimal angle for pulling my Escape out of a snowy trap. With the current snow pack the time is ideal for trying out my snowshoes; I intend to see just how ungainly and awkward they are today. I’ve never been one to sit around during winter feeling cooped up by the weather because I truly do enjoy the cold and snow.

At this point I feel very much ready to face the Alaskan winter regardless of its severity but at the same time I have immense respect for the season and understand one can quickly find one’s self in a life or death situation. My Escape is outfitted with moose lights (‘driving lights’ in the lower 48), the aforementioned winch system, my winter survival kit – extra gloves, sweatshirt, food, candles, space blanket, knife, 100’ (30.9 meters) of para-cord, folding shovel and similar – as well as a snow shovel and towing straps. Regardless, I have learned that I never venture out even if I just plan to make a quick run to the ‘Y’ or into the village without being dressed for the conditions and wearing boots capable of handling a walk in the snow should something happen to the Escape. Gone are the days in the lower 48 when I might dash out in winter wearing just a windbreaker and tennis shoes!

With a bit of luck perhaps I will finally be able to experience a real Alaskan winter; for me this would entail seeing a 36” to 60” (0.91 meters to 1.5 meters) snow pack and experiencing at least one morning low in the -30°F to -40°F (-34.4°C to -40°C) range. Time will tell and if I’ve learned one thing about Alaskan weather it will be wildly variable and can be extremely pernicious…

The Kidz Playing on Snowy EBD

The ‘kidz’ playing on snowy East Barge Drive

Home 112015

The ole homestead with new snow cover


A Hopeful Sign..?

The past Sunday (11/08/15) evening the Upper Susitna Valley was treated to a snow event which produced anywhere from 4.0 inches (10.2 cm) to 10 inches (25.4 cm) of accumulating snow.  Although less than expected it was still welcomed by almost all the locals especially given the previous two winters which have set records for both warm temps and lack of moisture.  The main event lasted from around 16:30 AKST to 00:30 AKST but across the next couple of days light snow has appeared in the form of brief albeit random periods of snow showers.  I measured 7.5 inches (19.1 cm) from the main event but have since added another 3.5 inches (8.9 cm) giving the southern portions of Talkeetna around 11 inches (27.9 cm) of snow pack.  this is a good start and most folks are hoping to see a lot more in the coming months.  I would sure love to see another 3 to 4 feet (91.4 cm to 122 cm) )of snow pack by February but if I had to bet sadly I’d say we will probably not see anything near that amount because of the extremely large El Nino and the relative warmth of the northern Pacific Ocean.  But we can always hope!  Here are some images from the most recent snows:

Awakening to 7.5

Awakening to 7.5″ of fresh snow!

The grader heading down East Barge Drive removing snow as it moves

The grader heading down East Barge Drive removing snow as it moves

My front 'yard' Monday morning

My front ‘yard’ Monday morning

The 'kidz' enjoying the fresh snow!

The ‘kidz’ enjoying the fresh snow!

The 'kidz' enjoying unplowed East Barge Drive

The ‘kidz’ enjoying unplowed East Barge Drive

Driving the Spur in a heavy snow band

Driving the Spur in a heavy snow band

Moose lights illuminating the Escape's enclosure in moderate snow

Moose lights illuminating the Escape’s enclosure in moderate snow

The ‘Zen’ of Splitting Firewood

‘Oomph, crack, thump, thump’….’Oomph, crack, thump, thump’; to anyone familiar with splitting wood this sequence is all too familiar and often evokes within me serene and pleasant memories. There’s nothing quite like aligning a piece of firewood on one’s splitting block, taking ‘the stance’, grunting as one swings the 12 pound axe in an arc which drives the head into the wood and hopefully results in two pieces, now ready for the stove, falling to the ground on each side of the splitting stand.

While my experience with splitting wood has been very limited I’m getting a lot more since I had a cord of seasoned birch dropped in my driveway a week back. I previously split wood a few times while camping in Michigan and always when staying at ‘Timbers’; that magical cabin in Kachemak Bay State Park. It was expected that as one used some of the previously split wood to warm the cabin in the evening during the day one would replace the wood used by splitting the ample store of firewood on site. I quickly learned I loved the sequence of splitting the logs and especially enjoyed how it loosened up my back. Indeed, I came to notice as I worked away I entered into almost a trance-like state in which all that existed was me, my axe, the splitting stand and the firewood. There was a certain ‘perfection’ that came from the repeated motions not to mention the satisfaction at seeing the wood pile grow in height and length.

I suspect part of the joy, at least for me, is based upon the feeling of accomplishment; of knowing that my immediate work is responsible for transforming logs into firewood suitable for building a fire to use in cooking and/or warming. Perhaps it is the simple, basic nature of the activity that fuels my joy? Seeing the larger logs reduced to smaller and more manageable pieces definitely produces a feeling of being productive but there’s more. I feel an almost ‘genetic memory’ regarding the activity which is entwined with the pleasure of knowing the split wood will soon find a survival use. In the past such labor was indeed a necessity if one was to survive in the less complicated and developed world. Perhaps this is also what feeds my love for the activity..?

All told I find the very actions of splitting firewood to be a balm for my soul; there’s something just so positive about the physical activity and especially the trance-like state I slide into while doing so. And I’ve discovered I must maintain the aforementioned ‘trance-like state’ because if I actively think about where I will place the axe blade I invariably miss. As I continue my struggles to drop weight such exercise is a God Send which is why I decided to have the wood delivered not split and to a place which requires me to load it into my wheel barrow, or just roll the really huge pieces, and haul the wood to my chopping block. This allows me to get my legs and lower back into the activity; the actual splitting of the wood engages my back, shoulders and arms. I will work at this process until I really break a sweat; at this point I’ve learned it is best to take a break. If I’m feeling really energetic I will return to the work after relaxing a bit. Given my slow pace and unperfected technique there is sure to be more firewood to split.

Reflecting upon the entire ‘ritual’ of splitting firewood I see a fairly simple routine albeit one that requires effort and at least a modicum of technique. It produces the firewood I can then place in my stove that provides welcome heat when it is cold as well as produces that ‘oh so pleasant’ view of the flames licking at the wood in the firebox and that delicious odor of burning wood. As someone who is physically lazy by nature this is one effort I do enjoy and this is good because my property currently has a lot of downed birch and spruce trees which I plan to eventually harvest for firewood. And while such work is indeed physical labor it is also the kind of physical labor I truly enjoy. This adds to my enjoyment of my ‘new’ lifestyle here in semi-rural south central Alaska and does offer me a means to continue to work on strengthening my body while generating firewood for my eventual use. If that isn’t a ‘win-win’ situation I do not what is; just another thing to add to the list of most enjoyable benefits of living up here in ‘The Great Land’!

Anana by the wood pile

Anana by the wood pile

Long shadows, Qanuk and firewood

Long shadows, Qanuk and firewood

Anana by the chopping block

Anana by the chopping block