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.



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