Schandelmeier: Whether fun or a nuisance, snow is as Alaskan as it gets

John Schandelmeier
Sunset light finds its way between Anchorage buildings to some snow-clad evergreens on Tuesday, December 17, 2013.
Erik Hill

Snow is taken for granted in Alaska. It is pretty much guaranteed to be under foot for seven months of the year over most of the state. And snow is visible every month of the year in much of Alaska. If you are an Alaskan, you love snow. There are about four hundred thousand of us. The other three hundred thousand or so are just here because of their job. Snow is not just frozen water. It is a substance unique.

I read that no two snowflakes are exactly alike. Does somebody check them all? Snowflakes are six-sided. Air temperature and moisture sculpt them as they fall. Researchers classify them by their general size and symmetry. This is interesting, but for most of us it is about the type of snow that actually hits the ground.

Wet, sticky stuff makes for great snowmen and snowball fights. Granular, bullet snow rarely adds to snow depth and is tough to scrape off vehicles. Floaty, powdery flurries are a pain when walking through brush. Whatever type of snow it is, at least we know it is white... don't we?

It turns out that snow is not white. The color, or rather, noncolor, is due to how the sides of the snowflake reflect the light. All of the colors of the spectrum scatter out in equal proportions, which we perceive as white. If the snow is very deep and dense, it appears a bit blue.

I like blue snow. It is the best to snowshoe or snowmobile on. Snow allows us to travel great distances during the winter. We can visit places and see things that are impossible to access in summer months. The advent of snowmobiles opened up a new world to the Alaskan traveler and winter recreationalist.

In the early 1900s, snowshoes and dog teams sat waiting for the first useable snow. Neighbors could not visit one another without spending most of the week doing so. The top-notch snowmobiles of today allow for more people than ever to become connected at farther distances. An entire industry has developed around people traveling on snow.

Snow is a great conversational icebreaker. "How much snow did you get at your place?" More is always better, until it needs to be shoveled from the porch. Speaking of shoveling, in 1921, 76 inches of snow fell in a 24-hour period in Silver Lake, Col. Mount Baker, Wash., saw over 1,100 inches during the winter of 1988-89.

I don't like snow that well. As a kid, I remember digging caves in the piles of snow pushed up when my Dad plowed the yard. The Inuit call snow igluksaq -- house-building material. Our Interior snow is generally too dry and loose to build with.

Igloos require wind-packed snow. Inuits who lived around Hudson's Bay actually spent much of the winter out on the sea ice living in, and hunting from, igloos. Our need for snow shelters has mostly passed, except in some climbing expeditions and specialized Arctic travel.

Our personal need of snow has changed over the last few decades, but it's requirements for our planet, as we now know, have not. The list of how snow contributes to the well-being and necessities of life is a long one. Those big fluffy flakes covering your driveway may seem like a nuisance if you just returned from Hawaii. But once acclimated and with the winter gear dug out of the closet, Alaskans appreciate the snowy winters of our state.

John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and two-time winner of the Yukon Quest.


John Schandelmeier
Daily News correspondent