Anchorage pedestrians navigate a post-snowstorm obstacle course

In some places, walking paths remain consumed by jagged, crusty drifts so thoroughly it was hard to tell if there’d ever been a sidewalk to begin with. In other areas, mini-plows had tunneled deep, precise paths for walkers and bikers. It all seemed changeable by the block.

The morning sky was blue, the snow berms packed and crusty.

Jamal Wheeler stood atop an unplowed sidewalk by a convenience store gas station on Tudor Road, thinking about crossing the road. His hands were too cold.

Starting Monday night, a potent winter storm dumped between 10 inches and 2 feet of snow across Anchorage.

The city has been digging out ever since, with uneven results: Both city and state plowing crews have been hamstrung by shortages of working equipment and staff. As of Friday, only five of 40 snow clearing “sectors” had been completed, according to a municipal map. Many city-maintained sidewalks remained uncleared. School district officials, citing “unsafe” road conditions, canceled school for a third day in a row.

Pedestrians faced a city transformed by snow into an obstacle course.

In some places, sidewalks and walking paths remained consumed by jagged, crusty drifts so thoroughly it was hard to tell if there had ever been a sidewalk there to begin with. In other areas, mini-plows had tunneled deep, precise paths for walkers and bikers.

It all seemed changeable by the block: A perfectly clear sidewalk on one street could abruptly end in a berm. Or a plowed stretch could terminate unceremoniously, dumping a pedestrian into the icy fringes of a roadway. Walking any distance with a stroller would be a serious challenge. A wheelchair would be all but impossible.

Out on Tudor Road, Wheeler was one of those trying to pick their way through hardened deposits of plowed snow.

“I travel on foot,” he said with a shrug.

He was hoping the sidewalks would be cleared, but didn’t see it happening anytime soon. Wheeler said he was staying at a trailer park nearby, in the living room of a friend. The living room was good — warm — but on Friday morning, the cold seemed to have gotten to his hands. The temperature was 7 degrees. He peeled off his gloves to reveal fingertips that looked white.

He declined an offer of a ride to a hospital to get his hands checked for frostbite but accepted some chemical hand warmers, which he stuffed into his gloves. He promised he was going straight to medical attention, and then scrambled over the blocks of snow to the median and then across Tudor Road.

Near the spot where Tudor Road curves into Muldoon, tufts of cloud turned pink behind the mountains as the sun began a midmorning rise.

Patti Crissey was navigating on foot to a bus stop. She looked prepared: A neon construction vest, a walking stick and spikes for her shoes. She had to step into the street where a berm blocked her path.

She would have taken a different route, but a moose was loitering near her — cleared — trail, and she’d decided to walk along the highway for a stretch instead.

She regularly takes the bus downtown to her job, and so has gotten used to walking in all kinds of weather. In terms of plowing, “I’ve seen it a lot worse,” she said. “I’ve seen it better.”

She scrambled over a small berm to the bus stop, off Muldoon Road. She and the other bus stop regulars had stomped down the snow themselves, creating a little pad to stand on.

The plow operators were trying, Crissey said. There was just a lot of snow to contend with. “There’s just so much you can do,” she shrugged.

Over in Mountain View, Mary Nick was hustling to the bus stop to get to her health care job, wearing a warm parka her sister had made her 30 years ago. Some streets were scoured clean while others were rutted enough to throw a truck around.

In her neighborhood, the roads had been so bad and the bus stop was unplowed for the first day or two of the storm, Nick said. Her neighbor had offered a ride to work. But Friday, it looked like things had been plowed out and the bus stop was clear.

Up and down Northern Lights and Benson boulevards — sidewalks uncleared as of late Friday morning — pedestrians fought losing personal battles with berms, starting and then retreating.

On Gambell Street, there was no discernable sidewalk but a half-dozen people had found an alternative, on the plowed ground between the Black Angus Inn and the Carrs grocery store.

One guy named Chuck, who described himself as a longtime walker in unwalkable places of Anchorage, said to watch out: Up ahead was the real tricky stretch, where people walked along the rushing traffic where Gambell Street turns into the Seward Highway.

Sure enough, a woman was laboring to drag a wheeled suitcase over a 3-foot-tall berm. Another man walked in the roadway, facing traffic going 45 miles per hour.

City officials have said crews are working around the clock to complete plowing by the weekend. More snow is expected Sunday.

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Michelle Theriault Boots

Michelle Theriault Boots is a longtime reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. She focuses on in-depth stories about the intersection of public policy and Alaskans' lives. Before joining the ADN in 2012, she worked at daily newspapers up and down the West Coast and earned a master's degree from the University of Oregon.