By Jenny Neyman
Were this weekend’s snowfall equivalent to powdered sugar, this was no mere dusting, but full-blown sugar shock.
The novelty, alone, of the season’s first appreciable snowfall in the Kenai-Soldotna area was enough to draw attention. The volume of it — 10-plus inches of wet, heavy white stuff — invariably incited strong feeling about it. The flavor of those feelings depended on one’s interaction with it.
Drivers churning through slushy streets reminiscent of spring breakup, shovelers slopping the waterlogged mass and residents losing electricity as the clingy snow weighted down power lines were of one opinion about it — an opinion not shared by those who see snow as recreation.
In a neighborhood off Kalifornsky Beach Road on Sunday, the whine of snowmachines and shrieks of kids building forts and snowmen, rolling out angels and diving through snowball fights masked the rhythmic scrapes of shovels on driveways and the escalating screech of tires scrolling for traction.
“Yeah, it packs good,” said Liam Miller, 9, of Kenai, as he and his older brother, Jarin Miller, and friend, Jaycee Herrmann, alternated
between snowman and snowball construction.
At Tsalteshi Trails behind Skyview High School, Charlotte Harvey, of Soldotna, was packing her skis back in her car around noon Sunday, having just made a loop around the trails. It beats walking on them, she said. On Saturday the snow was up to her knees and too wet for skiing to be anything other than an exercise in determination. By Sunday the precipitation was more snow than slush and a few loops had been groomed.
“This stuff will be a nice base. It makes it worth it getting dark sooner,” Harvey said.
Trail groomer Bill Holt said the weekend snowfall bodes well for skiers, even if temperatures have been flirting with freezing, which could potentially bring rain on skiers’ parade.
“It’s good, heavy snow so it will make a good base as long as we don’t get a lot of rain on it,” Holt said. “Sometimes when we’ve had these really early snows it can be really cold, then it just doesn’t really bond to the dirt. Now the ground was kind of warm, which is not great because you can go right through the dirt, but it will all freeze together as one blob of snow and dirt.”
The amount of snow has been an added bonus, Holt said.
“It’s really nice to get the new snow and it’s really nice to get a first snow that’s actually a pretty big snow. We do a lot to try to make the trails level so we can ski on a minimal amount of snow. When you get something like this it’s going to fill things in,” he said.
One drawback is the heavy snow brought trees down on some loops of the trail system, which needed to be cut and removed. And the volume of fresh snow takes time to get compacted enough to allow for better skiing conditions. But that’s a problem Holt doesn’t mind having.
“Now that it’s cooling off we’ll get everything rolled out. Hopefully people will get skiing, too, then we can pack it some more that way, because it’s going to take a while for this to really pack out,” he said.
The trail’s lighting system is repaired and expanded, allowing lighted night skiing until 9:30 p.m. And Holt said that a new sprint course crisscrossing the hill above the soccer field is skiable, though rougher than the other trails. He requests that sledders and snowboarders keep to the established sledding hill, and especially avoid the new sprint course trails. Snowmachines and other motorized vehicles are not allowed on the trails, and neither are dogs now that there’s snow.
“It’s pretty nice to be skiing this time of year. A lot of times we start skiing in October but it’s just on marginal snowfall. It will be really nice to have something to work with for a while,” Holt said.
In the Kenai Mountains, backcountry skiers have plenty to work with.
“There’s tons of snow. Up higher it was powder. Off the top it was pretty heavy but it was great skiing,” said Pete Sprague, of Soldotna, who skied Mount Manitoba, in the Summit Lake area, on Friday.
He measured 27 inches of snow at the start of the mining road leading up the
mountain, and said he’d heard from others passing through the area that at least another foot and a half fell over the weekend. Still, that isn’t yet enough to mitigate the hassle posed by tree and scrub cover.
“Midmountain there was a lot of powder but it was baseless so I was really wallowing, and the alder and willows were a real hassle, you kind of had to pick your way through that stuff,” Sprague said. “The access to a lot of places that we ski in the backcountry is pretty limited just because the alders aren’t covered yet.”
It is, however, enough snow to induce anyone venturing into the backcountry to come prepared.
“I didn’t bring a beacon or a shovel but I’m definitely going to start now. I wasn’t too worried about avalanches, but the snow is coming hot and heavy so just always be aware of that,” Sprague said.
The weekend’s heavy dump of snow should provide a good base for backcountry recreation for the rest of the winter.
“Unless it gets radically warm it’s going to be snow for the rest of the winter,” Sprague said.
Snow for the rest of winter is a hope shared by mushers and snowmachiners who head to the Caribou Hills for training and recreation. Jenni Van Muijen, a dog handler for Dean Osmar, took a team out from the gravel pad off Oil Well Road in Ninilchik to Four Corners and back on Sunday.
“This is my third year out there and I’ve never seen so much snow,” she said. “Most of it was about waist deep, which the dogs needed help with. We actually had to have somebody go ahead and snowshoe a trail for the dogs. We had 17 dogs, too, which is a very large team but, gosh, I wish we had more, there was that much snow,” Van Muijen said.
“At one point we went into a hole and when I stood up the snow was even with my shoulders. By the time we ended it was still just snowing like crazy,” she said.
Even the moose she saw were up to their bellies in the fresh snow. The snow was light, fluffy and baseless, which made for slow going.
“We were out for about three hours but we really didn’t go very far, and it was a lot of hard work. The dogs loved it. It was great training, but definitely a lot of hard work wallowing around in that snow,” she said.
Van Muijen said the weekend’s snow was enough for central peninsula mushers to train on a dogsled, rather than hitching teams to four-wheelers or trucks.
“This was our first opportunity to get on a sled so we jumped on it, but once we got up there it was like, ‘Wow.’ It was fun, but definitely not something I’d want to do every day with how much work you have to do to get through it,” she said.
Now all that’s needed are some colder temperatures to help consolidate the snow and freeze up open water. Van Muijen said that snowmachiners aren’t able to make much use of the new snow in the hills yet, since the many streams and swamp areas are still running water.
“With the dogs we’re able to stay above that stuff for the most part, but the few snowmachines that had gone through there I have seen where they’d broken through into the water below. So the water’s still there. I wouldn’t be crossing any lakes at this point,” Van Muijen said. “And it’s so loose and powdery, you have to have a lot of power to get up out of that stuff sometimes, so they’re kind of limited to where they can go.”
Continued precipitation is expected throughout the week and weekend. With temperatures at lower elevations hovering around freezing, it could come as rain or more snow. Winter recreation fans are hoping for the best.
“It’s going to be a good year. Stay positive. Hope for good karma — or snowma,” Harvey said.
Looking to get out and play? Check out these sites for updates on snow and trail conditions on the central Kenai Peninsula:
- Alaska Performance Backcountry Skiing offers a wealth of information, from weather conditions to backcountry skiing tips, suggestions of places to ski and links to several other helpful sites, at http://crust.outlookalaska.com/.
- Caribou Hills Cabin Hoppers posts updates on trail conditions, grooming and road-plowing status; lists current weather conditions; and streams weather camera images at http://www.akchch.org.
- The Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center posts weather updates, avalanche reports and slide advisories, plus a slideshow of avalanche photos that demonstrates why it’s so important to avoid being in one, at http://www.cnfaic.org/index.php.
- The National Weather Service maintains a map showing snow depths throughout Southcentral Alaska at http://aprfc.arh.noaa.gov/sd_pafc_sites.html.
- Tsalteshi Trails has a map and information about the organization and its events and programs at http://www.tsalteshi.org, and trail updates are posted on its Facebook page, http://www.facebook.com/pages/Tsalteshi-Trails/81870883559.