You can survive -- and enjoy -- shoulder season

Lisa Maloney

Breakup seemed like the perfect time to write a story about playing outside in the shoulder season -- except that this year you could make the argument breakup has already come and gone. Despite the mid-March blizzard, we don't have enough snow to even make a decent pile of slush here in town.

Out on the trails, things look pretty mild too -- it's just not as messy as I'm used to seeing.

But there's still mud, ice and slush to be had, and the weather is more unpredictable than usual, seeming to teeter between winter and summer.

Mild weather and early breakup notwithstanding, the shoulder season is an interesting time. When a friend and I were out on Turnagain Arm Trail last week, she marveled out loud, "How is it possible to be hot and cold at the same time?" To one side, a slick of hard ice still coated the shaded part of the trail. On the other side, bare ground reigned, with moss and a few determined sprigs of grass reaching up to the sun.

While runners are hitting a few dry trails and marveling at blooming pussy willows, spring skiers are still carving a few last turns.

If you spend a lot of time outside, dealing with the changing conditions of the shoulder season is probably second nature. But even if you're a neophyte, this is still a great time to get out and play -- as long as you're strategic about it. Here's what I mean:

Plan for everything

You've heard that saying, "If you don't like the weather, wait five minutes," right? While we may not be the only ones who lay claim to it, the phrase definitely applies here -- and it goes triple during the shoulder season, when you can pass from spring to winter and back again half a dozen times on one short hike, or go to sleep in your tent to the sound of peeping chickadees and wake up to six inches of fresh snow.

Fortunately, there's another saying that applies: There is no such thing as bad weather, just poor clothing choices. The basics are:

• No cotton (if it gets wet, even from your own sweat, it'll suck the heat right out of you.)

• Plan your layers from the long underwear layer out, instead of from your outer layer in.

• Take the forecast with a giant grain of salt. Dress for what can happen, not what the meteorologists say will happen.

Even when the days are sunny and warm, stepping from sunlight into the shade can feel like stepping into a whole new climate, and no matter how warm the day, it's still going to be winter at night for a little while longer.

Timing matters

Your timing can matter more during this in-between season. Water-saturated trails may be frozen mud in the morning, then thaw out enough by midafternoon to receive the long-lasting imprint of your boots, tires or (for horseback riders) hooves.

That doesn't mean you shouldn't go but it does mean you should choose your timing and trails carefully. On trails that are dry or hardened to withstand foot traffic in wet conditions, you're good to go at any time of day. But if the trail is saturated with meltwater, mud or snow, get outside in the morning while everything is still frozen solid. And if you're out long enough for things to start thawing, be prepared to deal with the consequences.

Sometimes, on the very muddiest of trails, it's a kindness to yourself and other trail users to hold off until things dry out and firm up. Tire and hoof marks add up fast. And while individual hikers and walkers might not make that much of a solo impact trekking through mud, our numbers add up there too.

Finally the sun can affect avalanche hazard -- the big bogeyman that's not as random as we'd like to think he is. At the time this article was written, the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center advisory said the avalanche hazard forecast was low; by the time you read this, that could easily have changed.

Why bother?

I like to describe shoulder season as the time when you can get the best and worst of winter and summer, all mixed up together. But as long as you take the changing conditions into account, it doesn't have to be uncomfortable -- in fact, there's a lot to enjoy.

My friend and I even saw a butterfly on that half-spring, half-summer hike. An honest-to-goodness butterfly, in April, in Alaska. I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't turned around just in time to see it fluttering off into the trees, traveling in one of the channels of warm air that you can occasionally feel moving across the mountainside. It can even smell like summer, if you stand in just the right spot.

That might not sound like much but after any winter -- even this strange winter that's felt more like six months of shoulder season -- I'll take what I can get.


Daily News correspondent