A Winter Postcard From Alaska

Anyone who has read even just a bit of this blog over the years knows I love winter’s cold and snow and, since moving to semi-rural south central Alaska in 2013, I’ve been very disappointed with the winter weather.  In general, the temps have been above to well above historical averages resulting in rain/freezing rain in January and February – according to long time locals something unheard of just five years back – and often we’ve seen a dearth of precipitation.  The winter of 2017-2018 was shaping up to be the driest winter since I moved up here; this was frustrating because we’ve seen plenty of cool temps.  But we just couldn’t seem to buy any precipitation, at least until this past Sunday (02/11) afternoon…

NWS correctly predicted the snow event and posted a ‘Winter Weather Advisory’ for this area calling for 6″ (15.24 cm) to 12″ (30.48 cm) with localized amounts to 16″ (40.64 cm) but these were expected well north of Talkeetna and in the Hatcher Pass area.  We saw significant snowfall from Sunday afternoon through Monday evening; when all was said and done I measured a total of 14.75″ (37.47 cm).  That was the largest amount of snow I’ve seen from a single snow event since I moved up here and it raised our snow pack from a well below average 25.5″ (64.77 cm) to a respectable 39.0″ (99.06 cm).  Kudos to NWS for a timely and accurate forecast!

To me, this area is at its most beautiful after a sizable snow fall as we generally do not see much wind with such events and hence the trees are shrouded in a thick coat of pristine white.  So I thought I’d share a few images from this most welcome winter snow event:

Ole Home From Sat Dishes

The S and W sides of my humble abode as seen from the the location of one of my sat dishes

South Boreal Forest

The boreal forest just to the south of my driveway with the bottom of my wind chimes just visible

This Is How Ya Plow Snow!

This is how ya clear snow! My neighbor (Roland) at work with is front end loader

Doggie Snow Depth Indicators

Doggie snow depth indicators; my male GSD (Qanuk) is 86 pounds and my female Alaskan Mal (Anana) is 112 pounds

Qanuk on Unplowed EBD

Qanuk deciding there’s too much snow to try romping down East Barge Drive

After the Storm

The day after the snow event…


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

And The Learnings Fell Like Snowflakes…

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!

Saturday morning view of the Escape stuck at the intersection of East Barge Drive and my driveway

Saturday morning view of the Escape stuck at the intersection of East Barge Drive and my driveway

The Escape is free and back in it's garage by 11:00 Sunday morning

The Escape is free and back in it’s garage by 11:00 Sunday morning

Sunday morning sunlight on the snow covered roof of my place

Sunday morning sunlight on the snow covered roof of my place

The south side of my place and the back yard buried in snow

The south side of my place and the back yard buried in snow

Even Anana was impressed with the 17" of snow she was wading early Saturday morning!

Even Anana was impressed with the 17″ of snow she was wading early Saturday morning!  The other object is the weather station sensor platform; it is a bit more than four feet off the ground.

Anana and Qanuk playing in the snow around 10:00 Friday morning

Anana and Qanuk playing in the snow around 10:00 Friday morning

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!

Earthquakes & Snow…

Yep, its been a really interesting previous 24 hours in the finest Alaskan tradition.  I found it to be a great stimulus especially as with all the mild, sunny conditions and lack of any real weather extremes across the past few months things were becoming rather ‘staid’.  The fun started early Tuesday morning with light snow; the snow continued across Tuesday, Tuesday night and right along into Wednesday.  When it finally tapered off around 16:30 AKST here at Mile 7.1 of the Spur I measured a total accumulation of 14.8″ which makes this event the largest snowfall this winter.  Of course, given the wimpy winter to date it really didn’t take much to make headlines with respect to snowfall.  As of 07:00 Wednesday morning I measured 12.5″ of snow with a SWE of just 0.57″ water so the snow is indeed typically light and fluffy.  NWS blew their forecast as even at noon on Tuesday they were calling for maybe an inch of snow for the entire day; by that time I was seeing 3.5″ and the snow was continuing.  This was another ‘windless’ storm so all the trees, bushes and exterior surfaces have a thick coating of fluffy white snow:

My back yard around 11:00 AKST on March 5, 2014

My back yard around 11:00 AKST on March 5, 2014

With this latest visit by winter we once again have in excess of two feet of snow pack although the bottom 11″ is mainly the icy remains of the earlier snow pack that melted in the record-setting warm January and was lashed by rain and freezing rain during that same month.  Even with this snow event we are well below normal snow fall for the winter of 2013-2014 but everyone is most pleased to see the snow once again.  Anana and Qanuk were a bit surprised by the snow depth when I let them outside this morning; the had largely tamped down the previous snow and ice and therefore had established some definite paths in the back yard.  To suddenly find the snow up to their bellies once again was a shock but they quickly took advantage of the powder and commenced playing tag.  I think they were just pleased to see more snow but then so was the entire local population.

Yesterday evening I had settled into my rocking chair with my Kindle Fire HD reading a great book (“The Wolf In The Parlor”) while listening to some soft fusion jazz; from time to time I glanced up to watch the snow continuing to fall.  Right about 18:13 there was a very loud ‘BOOM!‘ which caused everything to rattle followed by a second ‘BOOM!‘ a few seconds later.  Before the second one my German Shepherd (Qanuk) was running down the stairs from the upper floor; he ended up cowering alongside my chair.  Even Anana, my Alaskan Malamute who was sound asleep at the foot of the stairs, raised her head and looked around.  Understand that Anana is a very sound sleeper and rarely can be awakened by any noise unless it’s the sound of the refrigerator door being opened; for her to jerk awake confirmed my immediate impression that something very loud had just occurred.  My first thought was an explosion of some kind but then I wondered if a large piece of the accumulating snow had slipped off the roof.  I learned during the extremely warm January that snow/ice falling from the roof can create loud ‘Blam’s’ that do shake the house.  I looked out all the windows but saw only undisturbed snow so I pulled on my ‘deep snow’ boots and proceeded to walk the perimeter of the house.  Outside it was silent like usual and the snow on the ground was completely undisturbed.  I finally decided it must have been an earthquake albeit an unusual one.  I’ve experienced a number of earthquakes in the lower 48 but this one was unlike any earthquake I’d ever experienced as it made a definite noise while all the other’s I’d experienced previously did not; in fact they were silent – except for stuff rattling and maybe falling over – and I hadn’t felt the floor tremble or ‘ripple’ as I had during previous events.  I walked back inside and went on-line with UAF (University of Alaska Fairbanks); sure enough a magnitude 4.4 earthquake was recorded at 18:13 AKST centered 27 miles SSE of Talkeetna at a depth of 22 miles.  I’ve experienced a few  earthquakes while working for The Clorox Company whose main office is located in the Bay area of California; generally no one even batted an eye unless it was at least a 5.5 or larger.  I also experienced a 4.8 quake generated from the New Madrid fault line which runs up the Mississippi River basin around St. Louis.  That was back in ’81 and I was living in Greenville (IL) which was 70 miles ENE or St. Louis; the event occurred in the wee hours of the morning.  I was sleeping on a water-bed and suddenly I awoke to hear stuff rattling and then felt ‘Magic Fingers’ in the water-bed.  While I’m hardly a veteran regarding earthquakes I’m no novice either; this is why I was quite surprised by yesterday evening’s event.  I did note that while KTNA gave extensive morning news coverage to the snow not a word was mentioned regarding the earthquake so I guess it wasn’t a big deal.  I knew Alaska is the most seismically active of the 50 states and I also knew the Palmer-Wasilla area gets regular quakes so I wasn’t surprised except by the noise.  I’ve never heard a ‘BOOM!‘ with a previous earthquake let alone two of them…

This afternoon I stopped by the KTNA studio after making the mail run into Talkeetna and spoke to a pair of folks who live around me; one didn’t notice the quake at all while the other definitely felt it and had the same recollection of the event as my own.  I learned that the earthquakes up here often produce loud sounds in conjunction with the seismic activity.  I also had it confirmed that a 4.4 is not a big deal; I guess they occur on an almost regular basis and most of the locals hardly notice them.  I was told that 60 miles to the south in the Palmer-Wasilla area it’s even more common and the events are often larger.  As stated earlier I knew Alaska was the most seismically active of the 50 states and even knew of the Denali fault line that runs right through this area but I was still surprised by the noise from the event and the fact that a 4.4 shook my house so ‘substantially’.  Across the day I continued to find small items that had been knocked around from the earth’s perturbations.  Once more I’m in awe of the amazing display of natural forces that just seems to be an everyday part of the Alaskan environment.  Things are just a bit different up here in so many ways; just as 12+ inches of snow doesn’t shut down the local schools a magnitude 4.4 tremblor is no big deal.  Heck, when the NWS did get their act together they issued a ‘Winter Weather Advisory’ for a snow event with the forecast total accumulation of 10″ to 20″ stating such an advisory meant only that travel might be ‘negatively impacted’.  No wonder I just love living up here..!!!