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Sad days for snow lovers as the holiday season opens

  • Author: Zaz Hollander
  • Updated: November 27, 2019
  • Published November 27, 2019

Danielle DeLucco, of Anchorage, hikes up the Flattop Trail from the Glen Alps Trailhead of Chugach State Park on Tuesday. (Marc Lester / ADN)

Joe Bellavance plans to spend Friday with a bunch of other people in a post-Thanksgiving ritual.

Bellavance, who moved to Alaska last year from Connecticut, isn’t fighting the crowds for Black Friday deals at the big-box stores in his new hometown of Wasilla.

The 50-year-old cook plans to go for a hike in conjunction with a trail run near Palmer.

“In the last two weeks, I did Flattop Mountain twice,” he said.

Normally, for all but the diehards, hiking in late November in Southcentral Alaska has a different name: skiing, snowshoeing or snowmachining.

Snow was predicted starting Wednesday afternoon from an incoming storm system. But meteorologists predicted it will turn into rain throughout the eastern Kenai Peninsula, Anchorage and Matanuska Valley by nightfall.

In Susitna Valley communities from Willow north, however, a winter storm warning was in effect from noon Wednesday until 4 p.m. Thanksgiving Day, with heavy snow expected — up to 32 inches in some spots.

The snow totals so far this season have been disappointing — at least to Alaskans in the state’s most populous region who crave wintry weather as the days grow short.

On average, there’s more than 5 inches of snow on the ground by now, according to National Weather Service statistics. As of Tuesday, forecasters measured 2 inches at their Sand Lake office. The sparse snow isn’t unheard of: There was none at all measured on Nov. 26 in 1957, 2000, 2002, 2007 and 2016. But there’s also been more than a foot in other years.

Skiers and snowmachiners have to travel to play. Ice skaters hope the cold nights continue. Dog sleds in the mushing mecca of Willow are absent from trails along the Parks Highway.

Headlamps on runners streak across a portion of the Viewpoint Trail on the Campbell Tract in Anchorage on Tuesday. (Marc Lester / ADN)

Alyeska Resort, the state’s largest ski resort and an international winter destination south of Anchorage in Girdwood, doesn’t plan to open until Dec. 6. The mountain is closed this weekend as crews make snow and perform tram maintenance. Fat-tire biking was a better bet as this week began, Alyeska spokesman Ben Napolitano said Monday.

“Winner Creek is always popular in the fall," Napolitano said.

Hilltop Ski Area in Anchorage was holding a snow dance contest to trigger enough cover to open runs. Arctic Valley Ski Area hopes to open the first weekend in December but needed “a bunch" more snow first.

Some snow fell in Willow, but then it rained, making for icy dog mushing conditions on the trails that run for miles across spruce-studded swamps.

“You have this glass over quite a bit of it,” said Jayne Dittmar, a musher who runs a dog equipment company with her fiance along the Parks Highway.

The conditions can be rough on racing dogs’ feet, especially in spots crinkled by snowmachine tracks, Dittmar said. Most competitive mushers in the area are traveling up to the Willow side of Hatcher Pass or driving to the Denali Highway to run dogs.

Her team of tough-pawed polar huskies is preparing for an expedition later this winter, though.

“We’re using this opportunity to ice-train,” she said.

For some, the ice isn’t in the right places. Last November, a combination of deep cold and absent snow created ideal nordic skating conditions. This year, while there’s some skating going on, many rivers and lakes don’t have enough ice yet.

“Nordic skaters have been sad," said Daniel Hovancsek, a sales associate at Alaska Mountaineering & Hiking in Anchorage. He said he’s been fat-tire biking up the Middle Fork Loop from Glen Alps.

Some snow did fall in the Anchorage Bowl — enough that the weather service measured about 10 inches so far this season. But much of it melted. The Nordic Skiing Association of Anchorage groomed trails at Kincaid Park for the first time in mid-November.

“There is snow on the trails but it’s pretty slim," program manager Sara Kamahele said Monday. “We haven’t groomed since last week.”

High school ski teams in Anchorage generally expect to be on snow this week, “even if it’s just skiing the golf course at Russian Jack where it might not be perfect but generally we’re able to do something,” said West High School nordic ski coach Branden Fontana.

West pushed back the start date for this season, with the first race now scheduled for Dec. 7. The team has been mostly dryland training instead of skiing, though they got a day in at Kincaid before it melted.

“Dryland is not great for morale,” Fontana said. “Nobody signs up for cross-country running, part two.”

Snow lances cover portions of ski trails at Kincaid Park on Tuesday. The Nordic Skiing Association of Anchorage maintains the cross-country ski trails at Kincaid Park. (Marc Lester / ADN)
Snow grooming equipment moves machine-made snow on a trail at Kincaid Park. (Marc Lester / ADN)

There is snow in the mountains, but conditions are unpredictable for now.

At Hatcher Pass, there’s nearly 4 feet at Independence Mine, and cross-country and backcountry skiers have been making the trip to the area about 90 minutes from Anchorage for several weeks. The most recent avalanche forecast, on Saturday from the Hatcher Pass Avalanche Center, warned that unpredictable glide avalanches “will remain possible, large in size, and are a high consequence hazard.” Numerous such slides have already occurred in the area this season, and with heavy snow forecast Wednesday, the avalanche center cautioned on social media that the “avalanche hazard is likely to RISE to Considerable or higher” by Thursday.

There wasn’t enough snow at Hatcher Pass to allow snowmachine openings as of Tuesday, according to the Hatcher Pass Snow Riders Club. Snowmachiners were heading north, at least until the latest storm materialized, to the Petersville, Cantwell and Paxson areas.

Turnagain Pass on the Kenai Peninsula, a popular backcountry skiing and snowmachining area, was reporting early season conditions at lower elevations — exposed brush and rocks — but good snow at higher elevations.

“As there is limited information about the snowpack, especially above 3500 feet, ease into terrain, look for signs of instability, and use good travel protocol,” the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center warned Tuesday. “This is also a great time to practice rescue skills!"

Bellavance, the Black Friday hiker, has already bagged two dozen trails since summer. He’s just fine with the late start of the snow season, though he hopes to learn to ski or snowshoe this winter to make descents easy.

“I don’t have a lot of experience moving around in the snow and hiking in the snow. I’m learning this year,” he said. “So the slower, the better as far as I’m concerned.”