The Double Edged Sword of Warm and Dry

Spring ‘sprung’ about two to three weeks early across most of Alaska and with it has come uncharacteristically warm and dry conditions. Many of the locals love the warmth – across the past three days Talkeetna has seen highs running +5 F to +10 F above normal – and are particularly enamored of the lack of mud so common during the spring and break up periods. Indeed, I noticed that across the past couple of weeks driving just 25 mph up and down East Barge Drive produces a dust cloud. In the past such conditions have not appeared until the middle of May if not a bit later. Of course the warmth is just a continuation of the above normal temperature regime Alaska has experienced since the summer of 2013 but now the lack of moisture is becoming a trend as well. As with so much in life, in general, and with Alaskan life in particular this is indeed a double edged sword. 

I’ve enjoyed the drought conditions this spring mainly because my two dogs – Anana and Qanuk – are not dragging as much mud and glacial flour based dust into the house. This is a real plus as in previous springs and falls they are often relegated to the mud room for hours after a walk in the hope a bit of the aforementioned detritus might remain on the floor as versed with being carried into the house in general and into my bed in particular. They are not fans of this requirement even though their food and water resides in the mud room. In addition the lack of moisture appears to be slowing the appearance of the annual hordes of blood sucking mosquitoes and no Alaskan will quarrel with such fallout from the dry conditions. If we’re really lucky maybe we’ll see relatively low numbers of the blood thirsty little beggars this season..? One can always hope! 

Warmth is something I do not favor but above normal temps have been the rule in Alaska since I relocated in August of 2013. I have been able to leave windows open the last few nights although I have deactivated the Toyo furnace as the early morning lows have been right around the freezing mark.  I do this to allow the house interior to drop into the low to middle fifties such that when the sunshine returns and elevates the outside temps into the low sixties the interior of the house rarely climbs above 62 F during the day. Because I spend the winter months living at 60 F anything above 65 F starts to feel warm to me; sadly I am all too aware I will once again have to acclimate to 70 F temps as the season unfolds. One negative I noticed about leaving the windows open for multiple days and nights; this morning I awoke to hear two of my interior fire alarms chirping because the relative cold had caused the battery voltage to drop too much. Still and all it has been a boon to be able to open windows and allow the warm and dry outside air to circulate freely throughout my place. 

However, the warmth – especially when coupled to the drought conditions – does have some very potentially negative aspects of which wildfires are probably the most ominous. It seems strange to me that this area could be in a drought when there remain so many lakes, rivers and streams but given this past winter’s snow pack was just 22% of normal and that follows a snow pack of just 30% of normal across the winter of 2013 to 2014 coupled with just 33% of normal precipitation in March and only 20% of average precipitation in April it is no surprise. Sadly we are primed for a bad wildfire season which is based in below normal precipitation in this area across the last year and a half and the well above normal air temps which often foster below normal humidity levels. While most of the locals are cognizant of this potential many of the tourists are not and it takes just one careless camp fire or one smoker flicking a butt from a moving vehicle (why do so many smokers consider the world to be their personal ashtray..?!?!) to ignite a wildfire. By this point the local roadside growth should be greening up but as of yesterday the sides of the Spur remain brown and very dry. 

I have often wondered about this immediate area should a wildfire take hold; the village and most of the outlying areas have just one road to get the local populace out of the area – the Spur. And it runs only from the village south to the Parks Highway (aka AK 3); hence it has just one outlet. Should a fire take hold close to the ‘Y’ – our term for the intersection between the Parks and the Spur – many of us could find ourselves cut off from road access to the Parks and the outside world. Sure, we could walk or use ATVs to make the relatively short trek west to the Parks but that would mean taking only the clothes on our backs and our four legged companions. Needless to say this would not be a good situation but it is something all of us need to keep in mind. All the more reason to stay aware of Red Flag Warnings and be vigilant when burning garbage in our burn barrels as it is much easier to prevent a wildfire than have to fight one. 

So despite all the pluses this warm and dry weather brings to us it also bears the seeds of potential destruction and, as such, is indeed a double edged sword…

Non-Standard NWS Terminology & Alaskan Winter Storms

After reviewing the results of the ‘small winter storm’ as it was termed by some of the locals and wading through the 12″ to 14″ of accumulated snow around my place two thoughts come to mind:  ‘better late than never’, and ‘be very careful what you wish for…!’.   Even after struggling to walk for just 42 minutes – the short distance I walked would have taken less than 25 minutes in wet or muddy conditions – through roughly 10″ of dense, heavy snow with moderate snow falling on Sunday afternoon I am definitely more of the former than latter.  I’d waited for what seemed like a full month to finally see my first Alaskan snow storm and while it certainly did take its good ole time in arriving when it finally showed up it did so in spades!  I remember briefly commenting last Thursday that NWS had just posted a ‘Winter Weather Advisory’ for this area but were forecast 6″ to 12″ of snow; in SE Michigan a ‘WWA’ is posted for 2″ to 4″ of snow.  What I experienced here would have prompted at minimum a ‘Winter Storm Warning’ and probably a ‘Heavy Snow Warning’ as well.  These discrepancies started me thinking and reflecting upon the fact that even though NWS serves all fifty states and does use the same forecast terminology the actual details associated with said terminology can obviously greatly differ.  Given what I noted a bit earlier in this piece I wonder what a ‘Winter Storm Warning’ would imply up here..?  Maybe high winds and 12″ to 18″ of total snow??  Does a ‘Heavy Snow Warning’ imply in excess of 24″ of the white stuff..?  This weekend’s storm did highlight I have a new set of learnings to digest in an unexpected area – NWS forecast terminology.  Of course this is fine by me as I expected I would have lots to learn as well as ‘re-learn’ regarding life in rural Alaska so I’m more than ready.

This ‘small storm’ was unusual, again in my experience, because there was no wind at all; the heavy, dense snow just landed on anything horizontal and quickly accumulated.  Naturally, this led to a power outage beginning around 15:00 AKST on Sunday and lasting almost six hours.  Here, too, I started thinking – if a small storm dropping a foot of snow across one and a half days could take down the local power grid for six hours what effects will a full-scale Alaskan blizzard have on this area?  We are vulnerable, and I knew this, because our electricity is produced in Palmer which is maybe 65 miles straight line to the SSE.  This means the transmission lines travel through some rugged areas and Wasilla is notorious for their wild winds based upon getting air flow off three different glaciers.  I still have around 19 gallons of gasoline for the generator but now I’m wondering if that would  be sufficient in the event of a truly severe storm.  Sadly up here losing power for days in January when the air temp is -20 F or colder could become life threatening although I will be purchasing an oil drip furnace which operates without electricity and I do have a white gas stove as well.

I’m now beginning to wonder about the ‘wisdom’ of deciding to wait to make any big-ticket purchases until I’d experienced all four seasons.  In one respect it was smart because I was leaning towards purchasing an ATV with a plow before a snow machine even though the locals I’d asked had to a person said get the snow machine first.  Seeing that East Barge still has a foot plus of snow on it one and a half days after the storm moved on makes me wonder if I’ll have reliable winter transportation.  An ATV couldn’t get through much more than a foot of snow and it might really struggle to do that much.  Again, if a ‘small storm’ could basically close the side roads for multiple days what would a much more severe storm do to transportation?  Although I drove my Escape around in the height of the storm Sunday afternoon with around 10 inches of snow on the ground I’m unsure I can get the SUV out of the driveway now.  If I cannot I currently have no other means of making the trip into Talkeetna for my Wednesday and Thursday evening local newscasts.  The obvious choice is a snow machine; even multiple feet of accumulation will not stop such a vehicle.  However, I can expect to drop a minimum of $10k for a new unit; my mechanical skills are poor enough I feel I must purchase either a new unit or a minimum mileage used model with a dealer warranty.

In keeping with the theme of learnings regarding rural Alaskan living I sure now understand why the locals all have snow shoes!  During the height of the snow storm I took the dogs out for a walk; I used my new Kenentech boots and they did yeoman’s service; they will be my ‘go to’ winter boots.  However, given the depth of the snow – around 10″ – and the consistency – dense and heavy – I really struggled.  A stretch of East Barge I can normally walk in less than 25 minutes required 42 minutes even walking in the ruts left by an earlier vehicle.  By the time I returned here I was beat and even the dogs were showing some fatigue.  I cannot imagine trying to walk any distance in a foot of this snow yet by January there could easily be two to three times that amount on the ground.  Yesterday I tried out my brand new MSR snow shoes and managed to stay upright and started to get a feel for the rhythm which is so obviously necessary if one is going to walk far.  Once again, I have a lot of learning to do but it will be fun.

I knew moving up here would be a true adventure and I have not been disappointed to this point and its only been a bit more than three months.  I truly look forward to the upcoming years as I fully expect I’ll need such amounts of time to really settle into rural Alaskan living; there’s just that much to experience and learn…or ‘re-learn’!  I’ve seen my first Alaskan snow storm and remain mightily impressed; while a bit daunting this also leaves me hungering for more.  And that’s just the way it should be..!

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Early morning light just beginning to highlight the 12″ plus from November’s first snow storm.