Saturday, December 01, 2007

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back



Last Saturday was one of those incredibly beautiful winter days that we may only get a handful of in any one winter. The temperature was in the high 20s, the sky was piercingly blue and there was lots of snow to play in. The drifts were waist high. The sun is making a low, flat arc across the sky for the six or so hours of daylight that we have now, and the long noon-time shadows create dramatic lighting.

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Snowmachines were everywhere, as kids were out having fun. People were cross-country skiing, building snowmen, mushing dogs and generally enjoying the beautiful day. Dutch and I decided to try miniature mushing: i.e., my new kick sled with one dog.

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The snow in our front yard was so deep that to get to the tundra I had to strap on the snowshoes and tramp a path out and over the water/sewer pipes that encircle our subdivision. The drift was about four feet deep, but the snowshoes made it easy to stamp down. The well-used snowmachine path that runs in front of our house is about 50 yards away. It was pretty well packed, but the snow next to it was soft and loose.

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I had high hopes for Princess. She is a well-trained sled dog who ran the Kuskokwim 300 last January. She is 8 years old, and has worked every season since her first year. She is small and light, about 35 pounds, and always pulls hard. But with the soft snow, she was not able to pull me up a small incline by herself. We did well going downhill or if I was running beside the sled or kicking.

Next was Bear’s turn. He is an Alaskan Husky, the son of a very good sled dog from my team several years ago. Bear is 6 years old and has never worked a day in his life. He is quite a bit bigger than most sled dogs these days, but he has never pulled. When I tried him on the team as a young dog, he just lay down and refused to pull. He let the rest of the team drag him in harness. That was the end of his career as a sled dog; he moved into the house and has had a warm bed by the fire ever since, loved by one and all for his good humor and good looks. I thought if he were the only dog and Dutch (whom he worships) were there to encourage him, he might pull.

You guessed it. No. He was NOT pulling. He continues to insist that his career in life is as a Pretty Boy. He was not meant to work.

After such a gorgeous day, the weather had to change, and change it did. The thermometer began rising, heavy clouds moved in and it started to rain. We spent several days at 45 degrees and watched the snow melt like it was a time-lapse movie.

Today is December 1st, and it seems as if the year’s monthly dial has clicked back two notches. It feels like October 1st. The thermometer is above 40, the roads are deep in mud, and last Saturday seems like a dream. What happened to winter? We are back in early autumn.

As much as we all loved having the deep snow, the ground was not nearly frozen enough to hold it. I remember thinking last week that what we really needed was two days of rain to melt the snow, followed by two days of high winds to dry out the land, and then two weeks of hard, deep cold (zero or colder) with no precipitation to harden everything appropriately. And then a good blizzard with a couple of feet of fresh snow. Then we’d be set for a good winter.

To my amazement, that seems to be what is happening. The warm rains followed our perfect winter day, and then the winds started two days ago. Almost all the snow is gone and the landscape is brown everywhere. Dutch and I spent the afternoon working outside in sweatshirts, gloveless and hatless. The wind last night was fierce; the house shook occasionally. The roads have lots of frost to give up, so they are still very muddy, but Dutch’s crews were out grading roads today. The river still has a skin of ice, but no one is traveling on it.

We are poised for our second attempt at starting winter. I predict a sudden drop to zero and two weeks of hard dry cold. And then a big blizzard for an all-white Winter Solstice. My fingers are crossed.



All photos by Dutch and The Tundra PA

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7 Comments:

Blogger #1 Dinosaur said...

What kind of havoc (if any) does this kind of weather variability wreak with the river's freezing and safety?

Sunday, December 02, 2007 6:58:00 AM  
Blogger The Tundra PA said...

Hey Dr. D--this halting march into freeze-up is very hard on the river, and on the people who depend on it for transportation. It is the highway to Bethel for villages upriver and down, except for the transition phases of freezing up and breaking up; everyone waits anxiously when it is time to make the switch from boats to snowmachines or vice versa. We've now been waiting for almost two months, and people are frustrated by the inability to travel. Once we are consistently below freezing it will take several weeks for the river ice to thicken to a depth that is safe for snowmachine travel--a foot or more. For cars and trucks, it needs to be two feet thick, and four feels safer. The ice will be four to five feet thick by March. This extended warm autumn just slows the process down and keeps the river unsafe for travel somewhat longer than it would normally be.

Sunday, December 02, 2007 11:21:00 AM  
Blogger TBTAM said...

We've been waiting for 2 years for the lake at the town where our weekend home is to freeze over.

They do a toboggan slide when it does, but we've never had the chance to do it becaue the lake doesn't stay frozen enough. Not a serious problem like transportation, but a disappointment nonetheless.

Enjoy the respite at least...

Sunday, December 02, 2007 12:52:00 PM  
Blogger #1 Dinosaur said...

Thanks for the info. It's always amazing to me how those of us down here bitch about a day or two of inconvenience from a "winter storm," compared to travel per se being at the mercy of the weather.

Sunday, December 02, 2007 12:56:00 PM  
Blogger The Tundra PA said...

TBTAM--thanks for stopping by! I'm glad to know you're still visiting. My posting has become so sporatic, I'm sure many readers have given up on me. Too bad about your lake. In the past did it freeze regularly? Is this global warming? The elders here say that we are definitely having much warmer winters with less ice than in "the old days."

Dr. Dino--the old phrase "weather permitting" has more meaning here than most people can imagine. Right at this moment the winds are raging outside my house. Sounds like gale force. The house shudders from time to time. This can go on for a few days. No small planes will fly, all transportation will cease. The grocery shelves quickly empty. We may be stranded. This is the frontier of civilization, which is part of the adventure of being here. Thanks for visiting, and for commenting!

Sunday, December 02, 2007 10:48:00 PM  
Anonymous ozzidoc the final yr med student said...

I've not given up on you!

Lovely blog, once again :)

Monday, December 03, 2007 1:06:00 PM  
Blogger Maggie Rosethorn said...

TPA... lovely pictures. I still drop by, but my commenting time has dropped dramatically since lately I just have time to read and run. But I enjoy all your posts.

We had our first "winter storm" yesterday. About 3 inches of snow, turned to slush and mostly gone now. That's OK with me for now. Once Child#1 is home from college in VA for break, it can snow all it wants.

Monday, December 03, 2007 1:23:00 PM  

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