Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Catching Up

The temperature dropped below zero yesterday for the first time this fall; I’m not sure what the official reading was, but the thermometer on my deck read minus three degrees about 6 pm. Today we are back to ten above and snowing, and the prediction for Thanksgiving is +30. Bethel is famous for the yo-yo effect when it comes to winter temperatures. It is not uncommon to either drop or climb thirty degrees in the space of an hour or two.

Our brief cold snap is reassuring that winter is truly coming. The elders say there is a Yupik legend which predicts a winter in which the Kuskokwim River never freezes. It has not happened yet, but global warming could bring about the fulfillment of that prophesy. Let’s sincerely hope that never happens; for it to be that warm here in Alaska, the southern portion of the US would be something like a desert, or close to it.

The river is looking pretty solid after a week of temperatures in the low twenties at night, but it is far from safe to travel on. Anyone trying to walk on it had better have a long pole to prod the ice in front before stepping on it—and to bridge the hole and have something to hang on to if they go through. Snowmachines are buzzing around town like bees around a hive, but no one is foolish enough to try taking one on the river yet. The thousands of tundra ponds are mostly frozen hard and have tracks crossing them, but even the larger of those are still iffey. There have been several stories this week of guys going into three or four feet of water trying to cross a pond before the ice was strong enough and having to get help to pull their snowmachines out.

The weather pattern we have had this fall—late getting cold, but early snow—is just what we hope to avoid. The best, and safest, onset of winter is when we have a week or more of pretty hard cold with temps in the teens or lower but no snow. Then the ground and all the standing water that comprises this sponge we live on can get good and frozen. Add a foot or two of snow on top of that and we are in bliss. The surfaces are trustworthy and people are traveling.

When we linger on both sides of freezing for weeks and weeks, a little snow, a little rain, slow ice formation, it leads to dangerous conditions. Fresh snow at 30 degrees can cover treacherously fragile ice on ponds and sloughs and make it appear quite safe. In this part of the world, people lose their lives from such dangers.

Most years the river is frozen hard enough to support snowmachine travel by Thanksgiving and cars and trucks by Christmas. This year we are a little behind schedule; people won’t be riding snowmachine to Thanksgiving dinner in another village. But we could easily catch up with a week or two of really hard cold (think -20) and be driving trucks to Napaskiak or Kwethluk by Christmas.


Saturday, November 10, 2007

Scene in Bethel

There is a reason why football is not a big sport in Alaska...


Monday, November 05, 2007

Creeping Toward Winter

Most years, there is a skin of ice over the Kuskokwim River by Halloween, so that it appears to have stopped flowing. But this year we have had a warm and rainy autumn; though ice is building up in the river, it is still flowing strongly and people are carefully traveling by boat to and from the closer villages.

The river’s freezing process begins at the banks and works towards the center. That fact makes it tricky to travel by boat in the last few weeks before the river becomes solid. While the center of the river may be clear open water, tying up at the river’s edge for even a brief period means your boat may get frozen in. And once that happens, you’ll not be moving it until break up next May. But people take risks because they need to get around, for grocery shopping, hospital appointments, family commitments; and flying is expensive. As long as there are open leads in the river, people try to travel by boat. We are still four to six weeks away from safe travel by snowmachine.

Dutch says that his sources tell him this was the warmest and wettest September since records of Bethel weather started being kept some eighty years ago. I was fortunate enough to miss much of it, traveling out of state; on my return I could see the strain in people’s faces from seemingly endless rain and the ankle-deep mud that goes with it.

October improved a little on the rain scale and the land dried out some. The thermometer dropped below freezing for a couple of weeks and we had some nice snow. It actually looked like winter was starting, and not a minute too soon for most of us. Once summer is over, we don’t like to linger in the in-between. Life around here is much cleaner after the mud is gone.

Then we caught the tail end of a warm and rainy typhoon-generated front that set us back a few weeks on the road to winter. The snow and ice melted and we were back to mud. Sigh.

For the last week we have hovered at freezing, with sometimes heavy wet snow alternating with rain which melts it away. Wet roads in the daytime freeze overnight, making treacherous black ice in the early mornings. Patience is wearing thin with this slow transition to freeze up.

Halloween was a challenge for the trick-or-treaters this year. The roads were wet and muddy and there were intermittent bursts of heavy snowfall. Dutch and I have a long driveway, as our house is set back from the road; only the most dedicated trick-or-treaters are willing to make the trek. Maybe two or three dozen at most.

Trick-or-treating is a bit different in Bethel from other places I’ve lived. It is not just a children’s activity. Lots of teenagers are out pounding the streets and ringing doorbells for free candy. Costumes are not considered a requirement. Just wearing a mask is considered an adequate effort; it IS a challenge to find a costume that fits over a winter parka and knee boots. But many kids don’t even bother with a mask. They just go around collecting candy wearing their regular clothes.

This year I decided to give extra candy to those with costumes and painted faces, took their photos and asked them to explain their costumes to me. One boy was quite incensed that his friends got more candy than he did because they had costumes and he did not.

“You get one piece just for showing up; if you wear a costume or give me a rousing “TRICK OR TREAT!” you get two pieces,” I told him. “If you are not wearing a costume, what are you doing to earn the candy?” I asked. “Do you have a trick?” The teenager looked at me like I was crazy. I just shrugged and told him to go find his mask, which he claimed to have left in his truck.

When we were talking about it the next morning, my friend Joan’s comment was “there is something inherently wrong about trick-or-treaters who can drive themselves around!” I had to agree. It was the under-12 set who were having the most fun; the teens were all about cleaning up.


Happy November. May the cold come soon.

Photos by The Tundra PA