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

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!

‘Sourdough’ Here I Come…

Heading into my second year of living in rural south central Alaska I’m feeling better prepared in terms of my preparations for the pending winter and also much more settled regarding the likelihood of major surprises with respect to living conditions. With this said I also know full well Alaska is nothing if not unpredictable and often full of surprises many of which are downright nasty. I’ve been humbled enough times during my previous 14 months to recognize I need to remain aware of what goes on around me and practice the incredibly important ‘art’ of being prepared. A simple example of this is the now routine practice of rotating the front door handle back and forth a couple of times before venturing outside onto my front porch. Doing this allows any ‘critters’ the chance to recognize something ‘human’ is ongoing and most likely depart from the immediate area. I learned this routine the hard way when I inadvertently surprised a large cow moose early one morning last March when it was still dark outside. I was running a bit late for a Pantry trip and was rushing; as I popped out the door I saw a large dark shape no more than 20 feet in front of me. I froze; it snorted and took off in the opposite direction. I knew it wasn’t a bear as it was still too early in the season but that hardly made me feel any better because an irate moose is just as dangerous!

Yet I do feel this winter will see me much more comfortable with respect to living in my home and correspondingly saving money on fuel oil and electricity. My college buddy Sarge is finishing up a two week visit and we’ve been busy; there’s an additional layer of R30 insulation in the attic and there’s a large hole cut into the second story floor just above the Toyo stove on the main floor. Said hole has a custom built (Thank You Sarge!!!) cluster of four ducted DC fans which are reversible and variable speed; these have dramatically increased the convection loop between the first and second floors. Previously there was virtually no exchange of air which allowed the second floor to become quite cool in the dead of winter and far too warm during the summer. Just since the unit was installed a week back I’ve seen the air temperatures in the master bedroom and one of the two ‘spare’ bedrooms increase from 59 F to 63 F and that’s with no change to the Toyo’s thermostat and no decrease in the air temp on the main floor. We also did a much better job sealing up the two external doors; this has made quite a difference in the mud room. I can now leave it open to the rest of the house as it is just a couple degrees cooler; previous to the sealing work it would be anywhere from six to nine degrees cooler based upon the outside temp. Being able to leave it open to the main floor is important because the dog’s food and water station is in the mud room; last year I had to move it once the snow arrived and given they are not careful eaters and drinkers I had dog food and water all over my bamboo floor. We also assembled a 12’ x 20’ x 8’ ‘ShelterLogic’ steel tube and tarp enclosure for my 2011 Ford Escape. It’ll be great to get it out of the weather especially during the winter months; already I’ve enjoyed not having to scrape frosty windows in the early morning. These are but a few of the myriad of home improvements we’ve made during his visit.

He’s also mounted a set of ‘moose lights’ – folks in the lower 48 often refer to these as ‘driving lights’ – to the front of my Escape. In a stroke of genius he wired them into the bright beams relay for the headlights such that they are operated in tandem with the high beams! This simplified the wiring and negated having to run wiring through the firewall for an independent switch. It’s a given if I’m operating the moose lights I’ll be using the high beams as well so I love this elegant solution! Because I will be making my first series of trips for the Pantry in the dead of winter this year – I started volunteering with them in early March of this year and hence missed making the runs to Anchorage and Palmer in December, January and February – I really do not have a feel for the conditions. But I do know there are moose all along the Parks Highway and the first 40 miles of that road between the ‘Y’ and the outskirts of Wasilla have no lighting of any kind. Using those 130 watt pencil beams to light up the sides of the road far out in front of me could well save me from colliding with a moose during the cold dark of a December or January morning.

With all this said I’m feeling pretty good about improved living this upcoming year. Given this current late summer into middle fall period I’m already seeing just how aberrant last year’s weather was across this same time frame regarding temperatures and precipitation. It has been much drier and cooler which is much more in line with the ‘typical’ conditions for the period. Along with the weather shift I’ve been very pleasantly surprised by the much lower density and activity of the local insect population. During the late summer and through early November the mosquitoes were a continual bother requiring long sleeved shirts and ample applications of ‘Deep Woods Off’ if I was to be outdoors for even a few minutes. This year the mosquitoes disappeared by the third week in August; they were replaced by two weeks of black flies but these vanished around the second week in September. After that I’ve only had to deal with gnats which while annoying are much easier to tolerate. And across the past week the weather has been gorgeous with clear to partly sunny days running high temps in the upper thirties to low forties and crystal clear nights with lows in the upper teens to twenties. Consequently I’ve observed the aurora on a nightly basis and really enjoyed the meteorites which have been so prevalent across the last five days. While the auroral displays have been mono-colored – pale blue – and rather subdued I’m not complaining as given the past week I’ve seen more aurora than I did all last winter! We’ve even seen a couple of dustings of snow although most of us are chomping at the bit to see winter really move in and unload.

All told I’m truly looking forward to my second year in this magnificent state; according to the locals once I make it through my second winter I’ll officially be a ‘Sourdough’. Like most ‘Talkeetnans’ I’m hoping for a long, cold winter with more than the average five and three quarters feet of snowfall. Of course Mother Nature will do as she will and we’re just along to observe and participate in her seasonal dance. So in accordance with this observation all I can say is; “Let’s Dance..!!!”

Reversible, variable speed ducted fan assembly in office floor

Reversible, variable speed ducted fan assembly in office floor

ShelterLogic 20' x 12' x 8' enclosure for Escape

ShelterLogic 20′ x 12′ x 8′ enclosure for Escape