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…


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

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..!


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

The Relativity of Weather Alerts & Volunteer Newscasting

Its been a very warm and wet late summer and fall in much of Alaska and Talkeetna has been no different.  We’re already a week into November and we still have no snow on the ground although across the past few days the temperatures have finally returned to a more normal range with a low yesterday (Friday, 11/08) morning if just 6.3 F and an afternoon high of 22.3 F.  Yesterday I saw an alert issued by NWS for a rain/snow event over the weekend; this morning they had fleshed out said alert with details and these surprised me a bit.  Although NWS just posted a ‘Winter Weather Advisory’ for the northern Susitna River Valley including Talkeetna I was shocked to see the forecast calling for anywhere from six to twelve inches of snow by Sunday afternoon!  In SE Michigan this kind of snow accumulation would’ve generated a ‘Winter Storm Warning’ and probably even a ‘Heavy Snow Warning’ as well.  Yet up here its just a ‘Winter Weather Advisory’.  In SE Michigan such an advisory would be given for snowfall in the range of two to four inches.  Without question I’ll be re-learning the relative severity of NWS issued weather statements across the next few years.

After fumbling my way through my inaugural KTNA newscast last Thursday at noon the program director decided I was ready for a regular posting and assigned me to do the local evening news on Wednesdays and Thursdays from 18:00 to 18:25 AKST.  I was a bit surprised as I didn’t think I’d done very well at all but then the only way to improve one’s presence and delivery is to practice so the poor locals around Talkeetna will just have to buck up while I work to get my sound and rhythm perfected and in place.  All the staff and volunteers I’ve spoken to have been very kind and supportive; without question its their personalities that really encouraged me to give this volunteering a shot.  Never having done anything like this previously it has been a bit of stretch and that’s okay because I’ve found that while I’m usually initially hesitant I ultimately do enjoying forcing myself to try new things.  I suppose to most folks packing up one’s household, driving it 4200 miles to a place one has never lived previously, unloading it and then working to settle into a rural lifestyle after living exclusively urban in the lower 48 for 60 years could qualify as a bit of ‘stretching’ but to me it was fulfilling a dream so I really don’t see it from that same perspective.  Without question I’ve finally found ‘home’ and in this sense the staff and volunteers of KTNA are rather like my extended family.  I am looking forward to really making a place for myself in this eclectic community and I know my on-air volunteering will indeed help this happen..!