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Interior Alaska finally has enough snow to play in

  • Author: John Schandelmeier
    | Alaska Outdoors
  • Updated: November 26, 2017
  • Published November 26, 2017

John Schandelmeier’s back yard after the first big snow. (John Schandelmeier photo)

Finally there is snow. Enough in the Interior to work with, too much in other places.

There are places around Delta Junction that received more than two feet in a couple of days. The outdoor contingent has been screaming for snow and now that it's here, the hollering has changed to "Enough already."

Snow allows snowmachiners to get out on the trails. Dog mushers can finally park the ATV and get out the sleds. Sport shops love it. One shop indicated to me that they suddenly have a store full of folks buying winter gear. A week earlier the showrooms had been empty.

Like everyone else, I wait until the last minute to get my second snowmachine operational. I discovered that my little girl had pulled out the key and "put it somewhere else." I called the shop and was put on hold for 10 minutes. It seems everyone suddenly needs parts.

The excitement over snow and the desire to get out of the house is great to see. To truly enjoy winter in Alaska you need a couple of things — good gear and caution.

Extreme caution, especially on a snowmachine, is the most important attribute one can possess. Heavy amounts of new snow brings several danger points. The most deadly is the lack of ice.

October temperatures were well above normal. Small lakes and ponds were not frozen solid enough to walk across. There were exceptions in higher terrain, but a caribou can cross a lake that is not at all safe for a snowmachine. Most locations received at least a foot of snow. The pristine blanket sings a siren song to disguise the deadly trap beneath. The insulating quality of the snow allows relatively warm lake water to melt ice.

One time while trapping on snowshoes near the Arctic Circle, I walked across what I thought was a rock-solid pond. Halfway across I went through the ice with no warning. The temperature was minus 50.

Fortunately for me, I caught the edge of the ice. I scrapped snow down to ice, let my mittens freeze to it in a matter of seconds and I was able to pull myself to safety. I trotted the five miles to the cabin. I am writing, so you know I made it.

Snowmachines are not normally so lucky. We will hear of snowmachiners lost through the ice this winter. All such accidents can be avoided. Stay along the shoreline of rivers and be aware of creeks coming into the main river. Those are spots to steer well around. The same applies to lake shores: watch for incoming streams.

Many people who snowmachine in the back country carry Action Packers. That is OK, but carry your survival pack on your person. Should the machine disappear in a watery grave, you may escape, but your life-saving essentials in the Action Packer are gone. If it isn't on you, you don't own it.

Another danger to be aware of while out on the machine is also disguised by the blanket of white. There is no base to this new snow. My kids want to drive around the yard, but it is imperative to keep the speed in the yard and on unknown trails at a reasonable level. Hitting a hidden rock or even that chunk of firewood you dropped can cause a kid to go through the windshield. Later, when the snow we have settles, conditions will improve.

Now, about that gear. You are out enjoying the snow. Your hands are freezing and your feet soon become blocks of ice. At the risk of over-simplifying, polar fleece is the answer for your hands. Double polar fleece mittens inside a good shell will suffice for most outdoor activities. To save costs, find military overmitts — $35 will get you a new pair as compared to name brands that are of lesser quality and cost well over $100.

For your feet, bunny boots (military VB boots) are without compare. The black ones are not as warm as the white ones but are suitable for most activities. Black ones are lighter, cheaper and more available. There are small ones, down to size 3, so you can get them for your kids too.

Should you opt for pack boots, remember to pick up an extra set of liners so you are not stuck inside while your felts are drying. Ideally, felt liners should be pulled out to dry on a daily basis.

Now you are warm enough and safe enough. Get out and play in the snow.

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 International Sled Dog Race.

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