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Outdoors/Adventure

What happened to winter in March?

Delta Junction received a scant half-inch of snow this morning. That was the second biggest drop for the month of March. The woods were brown by noon and the hares were crouched in heavy cover. They need not worry: The goshawks are fat from the easy hunting and are resting comfortably by midmorning.

One of my snowmachines sits in the yard on dirt, with the first dark-eyed junco of the season picking at a few grains of barley by the track. We seldom have spring migrants in March, but this is not a normal spring. Early on the morning of March 27, I heard a unaccustomed noise and looked overhead to see the first sandhill cranes (the first ever for me in March) floating leisurely by on their way to the barley fields.

Paxson Lake had trumpeter swans before March 25. I have not seen swans at Paxson before April 3. Scary indicators if one lives in Alaska for the winter snows. Fairbanks has snow on the ground, but it is slushy in the afternoons and turns to shards of ice early mornings.

Arctic Man, with its claim to fame being great snow the second week in April, might have to be called Hawaii Man this year. The snow at Summit Lake was good earlier in the month, but it has been thawing during the day even in the high country. There were 30 mallards and a couple swans at the outlet of Summit on the 27th. A half-dozen lesser scaup were mixed in with the mallards at Fielding Lake.

The creeks draining the northeast side of the Alaska Range are running very little water in spite of unseasonably high temperatures. There is little snow to melt, even up high.

The lack of moisture doesn’t bode well for Delta Junction farmers. Decent snow cover or spring rain is necessary for crops if they are to get a good start on the season. Last season was dry early and the rain came too late to provide much relief. Fire danger becomes a very real concern, especially before the spring green-up.

Warm, dry weather has consequences everywhere in the state. Fairbanks was on track to have the warmest March on record. Should “warm” become the trend, the effect on permafrost will be dramatic. It is not about high temperatures, but the number of thaw days.

A half mile from our place near Donnelly Flats is a climate test site. The site consists of a tower packed with monitoring equipment, ground probes, etc. A constant stream of climate information is transmitted via satellite to the headquarters in Colorado. The station is too new to have provided any definitive information, but I was told by one of the climatologists that the growing season (frost-free days) in the Delta Junction area has increased by 11 in the past decade.

Another effect of the spring of 2019 will be travel between villages along the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers. Snowmachines are the common choice for villagers traveling between communities throughout winter and well into spring. Ice along all of the main river systems is significantly thinner than normal — thus dangerous — especially near creek mouths and on the outside of bends.

Unusually thin ice is having another, not so dangerous, effect on the Nenana Ice Classic. The ice at Nenana is the thinnest on record for this date. Classic entries close April 5. There has been some speculation that the tripod may move before entries close. Based on thaw days, and the likelihood of continued unseasonable temperatures, the projected ice-out date is sometime during Hawaii Man. April 20 is the earliest Nenana breakout on record.

For now, I will appreciate being able to get some early construction done while still being within easy driving distance of decent snow. Maybe it will rain in May?

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

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