Suggestions of Spring

The sun is not yet above the horizon at 07:51 AKDT on the Vernal Equinox – which arrived in this area at 02:29 this morning – but it is light enough to see the surrounding space which remains cloaked in a 22.0 inch (55.9 cm) snow pack although the incessant winds across March have cleared virtually all the snow from the trees.  Our maximum snow pack was 35.5 inches (90.2 cm) back in middle February but within a week or so of that time all precipitation ceased.  This dry spell, coupled with almost Chinook style winds and the longer, sunny days definitely did a number on the slowly compacting snow pack.  Yesterday we flirted with 35° F (1.7° C) under sunny skies but at least the winds of March seemed to have weakened to just gentle (8-12 mph or 13-19 kph) breezes.  This morning the air is calm for the first time in over two weeks.

As I stare out my second floor office window I can just recognize some suggestions that spring is not far away even here at sixty two degrees north latitude.  The exhaust from my Toyo stove, which drifts almost directly across my office window when the air is calm, is much less dense and is occurring less frequently than a few weeks earlier.  While we are seeing a -2.2° F (-19° C) air temp I’m also expecting to see an afternoon high around 35° F (1.7° C) under sunny skies.  The boughs of the spruce trees are beginning to ‘perk up’ a bit after bearing heavy amounts of snow from late December through middle February.  And our direct daylight is now up to 12 hours 17 minutes and increasing daily by 6 minutes 1 second!  These longer days are beginning to slowly melt the snow pack even if the air temps remain well below freezing.  Indeed, when working towards my goal of 10,000 steps/day – I’m currently around 7,800 steps/day – I have started taking a collapsible walking staff with me as the icy hard packed snow coverage on the back roads is becoming slippery especially when just a thin layer of water appears atop it.  This lack of traction is emphasized as I watch my male German Shepherd Dog (Qanuk) perform multiple slips and slides along with a few face plants as he revels in our daily walks.  Anana, my female Alaskan Malamute, is more restrained and hence remains upright most of the time.  There is something to be said for the wisdom of age!

I finally was able to experience a ‘real’ south central Alaskan winter after three previous ‘winters that weren’t’.  I did feel the bite of -40° F (-40° C) air temps, wind chills another ten to fifteen degrees below those temps and an almost three foot snow pack that remained for at least two and a half weeks.  I was treated to intense and vibrant auroral displays across much of the late fall when clear skies coincided with the Aurora Borealis.  Having completed my fourth consecutive winter in Alaska I think I can finally claim to be a veteran of ‘The Great Land’ and its kaleidoscope of weather conditions.  But maybe most surprising to me is I’m actually ready for the seasonal change.  During the three previous Vernal Equinoxes I was lamenting the end of winter and not enthusiastic about the oncoming spring with its insects and tourists.  But now I find myself awaiting the warmer weather even if it brings mosquitoes and the inevitable tourist traffic and congestion.  Perhaps I’m finally becoming sanguine with the aforementioned as well as the knowledge that within five to six weeks there will be no dark night skies again until early September?

Before long I’ll be indulging in what has become a ritual involving preparing for spring and summer.  I’ll be swapping tools and equipment between the mud room/front porch and the shed.  The generator will be drained of fuel which will go into the Escape’s gas tank.  The battery conditioner/recharger will be stowed in the shed and I will be getting the ‘Mosquito Magnet’ ready for operation.  I’ll be smearing some ‘bat attractant’ on the entrance to the bat house which my buddy Sarge hung last October; hopefully I’ll attract some Little Brown bats and convince them to set up house and help control the mosquito hordes.  In this same vein I’ll be relocating my tree swallow houses for the third time in the hopes I can attract some nesting pairs to add to my attempts at natural mosquito control.  So many of these actions are now ‘old friends’ and form a kind of seasonal dance or celebration.  For the first time since I relocated I’ll be doing them with joy and the knowledge that regardless of what the upcoming six months may hold for me winter will again return and I will have the opportunity to experience yet another spring, summer and fall in ‘The Great Land’.

Muskeg Under Clouds

The last of the ice on muskeg a bit east of my place on East Barge Drive is disappearing in the image from spring of 2015

Wintry Wisdom From ‘The Last Frontier’

Wow, what a difference a week can make!  Just seven days back we were entering a substantial cold snap that lasted four full days during which we never saw temps rise above 0° F (-17.8° C) and our lowest temp was probably a bit below -40° F (-40° C).  I write ‘probably a bit below’ because my two electronic temperature sensors stopped transmitting between -34° F (-36.7° C) and -39.7° F (-39.8° C); I did see -39.7° F (-39.8° C) on my Ambient weather station outdoor temp sensor at 05:20 Thursday (January 19th) morning but when I finally arose around 07:30 the sensor was no longer transmitting data.  Given the sun didn’t rise for another two hours I’m sure we dipped below -40° F/° C on that frigid morning.

One key learning was honored with my order of an 18” bi-metallic dial type thermometer good to -60° F (-51.1° C); I will not have to guess at low temps below -40° F/° C from this point forward.  Despite having lived in this area for almost three and a half years until last week the coldest air I’d experienced was Chicago’s record low temp of -27.2° F (-32.9° C) which occurred on January 20, 1985.  Although memory can be a tricky thing, especially across 32 years, my remembrances of that Chicago cold snap were of much colder temps.  However, I’d wager the humidity was higher in Chicago and there were winds to 40 mph (64.4 kph) which were producing wind chills colder than -70° F (-56.7° C).

Living within an immense span of boreal forest – if in doubt just look up Talkeetna using Google Maps and pull out to view the northern half of the Susitna Valley – has the advantage of really degrading wind.  We do see substantial winds off the Talkeetna Mountains to the east and The Alaska Range to the north but while the tops of the birch trees – around 35 feet (10.7 meters) in elevation – might be really swaying in winds probably gusting to 30 to 40 mph (48 to 64 kph) I rarely measure even 5 mph (8 kph) breezes at ground level.  Thus during the cold snap I saw very little in terms of wind chill.  This allowed me to replace the lithium battery in my Davis Vantage Pro 2 weather station’s sensor platform in -30° F (-34.4° C) temps while maintaining complete comfort.  I’d learned the value of layering outdoor clothing when facing Alaskan winters early on.  Only my fingers became a bit chilled when I had to swap my insulated mittens for poly pro glove liners to do the actual ‘fine’ work of swapping the batteries.

My buddy Sarge installed a pair of exterior storm doors on my front and back doors during his October visit and I was impressed no end regarding their insulating ability.  I’d wager my main floor stayed at least 3° F to 5° F warmer thanks to these doors.  I haven’t seen many places that utilize storm doors up here; the most obvious issue would be any door opening out onto an unprotected area.  If we were to receive 12” (30.5 cm) or more of snow it might be impossible to open the storm door.  Thankfully my front door opens onto my front porch and hence snow build up is not an issue; when it is snowing I do try to keep the back porch cleared more often to facilitate getting the door open once the snow ceases.

I also learned a very important lesson regarding said aluminum storm doors; when the exterior temp drops to -25° F (-31.7° C) one shouldn’t touch any of the bare metal with bare skin!  Doing so produces the equivalent of an electrical shock as it almost instantaneously pulls the heat from one’s skin.  This is also true regarding the window glass; I started keeping a pair of poly pro glove liners at the front door so when I needed to let the kidz out I could put one on before pushing the storm door open.  In addition I learned that the brutal cold can have deleterious effects on internal hardware; see the following picture of what happens when ya try to force a frozen hinge to function:


Mostly frozen main door hinge just inside the mud room

This particular hinge is part of my front door which is in the mud room.

My first winter in this area I learned of the necessity of keeping air circulating within one’s dwelling during cold snaps.  My initial inclination was to close off a couple of second floor rooms which were not in use.  Because my dwelling began its life as a cabin and has since had a number of additions, including the second floor, the air circulation is almost non-existent.  During a three day run in December of 2013 when temps never reached zero and lows were dropping to -25.2° F (-31.8° C) I entered one of the shut up spare rooms to find the windows looking as such:


East facing window in spare bedroom on second floor after room was closed up for two days when temps ranged from 0° F (-17.8° C) to -25.2° F (-31.7° C)

Needless to say I was not happy and quickly determined it was best to just deal with the cold air coming from the unused rooms while leaving them open such that some air could circulate!

My new home is an amazing place and Alaska is always teaching me something new; I need only keep my eyes and ears open and learn of her ways.  There are many folks out there who think I’m borderline insane for seeking out such cold weather extremes; I suppose one could make such a case but then I’ve always loved the cold and, not surprisingly, loathed the heat especially when coupled with humidity.  I did venture out briefly when the air temps were below -30° F (-34.4° C) and the conditions were amazing.  The air was clear like I’ve never seen previously and the ‘immense silence’ was even more…immense!  Just breathing took on a new feeling as air at such cold temps definitely causes one’s lungs to ‘tingle’.  I remain in awe of this incredibly majestic albeit amazingly extreme state; while not for everyone those bitten by the ‘Alaska bug’ can never get enough of her magic…