For the past 4-5 days, I’ve been amused by the local weather forecast. Monday and Tuesday of this week have been drawing a lot of attention for a coming “heat wave”. The extended forecast even had a sizzling HOT! for the two days, complete with an image of a blazing Sun and bright red heat waves radiating up from it. Weather forecasters couldn’t contain their excitement.
The forecast calls for a high of 82F degrees on both days.
Quite the scorcher.
On Friday, Fairbanks saw a high of 80 degrees for the 11th time this season, which historically, is the average number for a summer. In 2020, Fairbanks had only three days where we hit 80F for the entire season.
It should be noted that Anchorage residents have also been complaining about the heat. They saw a high of 78F on Saturday, and people were scrambling up into the Chugach Mountains to find snow. Anchorage hit 80F on Sunday, which was the third day in a row for them having a record high temp. In the past 70 years, Anchorage has seen 80F degrees only 37 times.
The Potter Section House State Historical Site is now home to the Chugach State Park visitor center. The building was built in 1929, and was used to house section workers for this part of the Alaska Railroad. Originally, there were four section houses along the Anchorage section of the railroad. Their use was discontinued in 1978, and the Potter House is the last remaining of the four. It was listed on National Register of Historic Places in 1985.
A rotary snowplow that once cleared the tracks along Turnagain Arm is also on display at Potter House. The railroad car behind the snowplow, is home to the Kenai Visitor Center. Both visitor centers have been closed due to the pandemic, and remain closed.
The section along Turnagain Arm is notorious for avalanche, although today the avalanches are planned events. Back in the day, the rotary plow revolutionized track clearing. The plow’s steel teeth cut through even the most packed snow, as well as debris from an avalanche, and the occasional frozen moose. The snow was launched from the chute hundreds of feet off the track. Two steam engines pushed the plow, with a crew of seven.
This particular rotary plow was retired in 1985, in favor of track mounted bulldozers. The Alaska Railroad still maintains one rotary snowplow in reserve.
Chugach State Park, just outside of Anchorage, covers 495,204 acres. It is the third largest state park in the United States, and the second largest in Alaska. It is truly, one of Alaska’s many gems.
Saturday, March 27 was the 57th Anniversary of the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake that hit south-central Alaska. The 9.2 magnitude earthquake struck at 5:36 pm AST, and the earth shook for the next 4 minutes and 28 seconds. Witnesses say that the earth roared like a freight train for that entire time.
The epicenter was 78 miles from Anchorage in Prince William Sound. It was a relatively shallow quake, with a depth of roughly 15 miles. 131 people were killed due to the earthquake, with 122 of the deaths due to the resulting tsunamis.
Seward, Kodiak, Valdez, Chenega, were all hit by tsunamis. Shoup Bay was hit by the largest tsunami with a wave height of 220 feet.
In the first 24 hours after the main shaker, there were 11 aftershocks over 6.0, with another nine over the following three weeks. Thousands of aftershocks hit the area over the next year.
Anchorage made a go at it, I have to admit. They had been putting together an impressive run of days at, or below, freezing. Not Fairbanks, impressive, but impressive none the less. The record for Anchorage was, and still is, 59 days below 32F. The run ended at 58 days. Oh, so close!
The area north of the Brooks Range has the best grip on below freezing streaks, hitting 250 days of 32F or below.
Potter Marsh Bird Sanctuary is a 564 acre fresh water marsh, located at the southern end of the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge.
The marsh was created in 1917 when the embankment for the Alaska Railroad was built up, effectively separating the fresh water from the Chugach Mountains, and the salt water from Turnagain Arm.
Potter Marsh is often called the most accessible wildlife viewing location in Alaska. The marsh is easily reached by the Seward Highway, and it contains a 1550 foot long boardwalk to keep your feet dry.
This wetland maze sees roughly 130 species of migratory and nesting birds calling it home, for at least part of the year. Moose, beavers, muskrats, eagles and hawks all can be viewed at Potter Marsh. Spawning salmon are often seen swimming up Rabbit Creek from Turnagain Arm in season.
Both brown bear and black bear use the marsh, but they are very rarely seen here. Consider yourself very lucky if you spot a bruin moving through the wetland.
Rail service was just another casualty in Alaska from Covid-19. With no tourists last summer, rail service took a huge hit within the state.
The Alaska Railroad has already announced increased service on all of their routes. Service between Anchorage and Fairbanks will double: 2020 had only four trains per week, while 2021 will see a total of eight. Every day of the week will see either a northbound or southbound run, and Sundays will see both.
Flagstop service will return to the Anchorage-Fairbanks route, which allows riders to get on or off anywhere along to route to access remote cabins and homesteads. The Alaska Railroad is the only train service in the United States that still provides flagstop service.
It’s been an odd year, all the way around, but especially with the weather. Fairbanks had a dusting of snow last week, but nothing measurable. Anchorage had measurable snow before we did.
Juneau beat both Fairbanks and Anchorage for the season’s first freeze. Juneau! That’s just not right.
So winter is coming for Fairbanks. Even though 2-3 inches of snow is hardly much to get excited over, at least it’s a start. Denali Park & Black Rapids are at least looking to get a good jump on the season.
I guess I’m ready for snow. Let it fall.
Graphics credit: National Weather Service – Fairbanks
Denali National Park saw snow on Friday morning. I was just recently out to the Eielson Visitor Center with visiting family members, so the pictures definitely grabbed my attention.
Fairbanks did not see snow, only 6/10 of an inch of rain.
On Saturday morning, Anchorage dropped below 40F for the first time this season. (The season started August 1) It was the first time since 1961 that Anchorage dropped below 40F before Fairbanks did. By Sunday morning, the natural order had returned to normal, when Fairbanks officially dropped to 34F and Anchorage stayed at 40F.
I have seen snow fall in every month of the year in Alaska. Both July & August snowfalls took place when I was hiking in Denali.
The average date for the first snowfall in Fairbanks is September 30. We have seen snow in late August, and the latest first snowfall is Halloween. The average first snowfall of an inch or more is October 6.
I am not remotely ready for winter, mentally or physically. Alaska remains indifferent to my level of preparation.
Ryan Redington comes into the village of Ruby, Alaska; Photo credit: ADN/Loren Holmes
Due to the coronavirus scare, about the only sporting event still taking place in the United States is the Iditarod sled dog race. Interestingly, the Iditarod commemorates the 1925 Nome Serum Run.
Known at the time as the Great Race of Mercy, the race against time stands alongside the Good Friday Earthquake as one of Alaska’s defining moments.
Curtis Welch was the only doctor in Nome in the autumn of 1924. He had placed an order for diphtheria antitoxin, but it had not arrived by the time the port was entombed in winter ice. In January of 1925, Welch had diagnosed the first case of diphtheria.
His pleading telegram to the outside world read as follows:
An epidemic of diphtheria is almost inevitable here STOP I am in urgent need of one million units of diphtheria antitoxin STOP Mail is only form of transportation STOP
With the area population around 10,000, and close to 100% mortality rate, the situation was dire. After the 1917 influenza, in which half the native population perished, time was of the essence.
Nome, Alaska circa 1916
The mail route between Nenana and Nome was 674 miles. The only diphtheria antitoxin was in Anchorage. The antitoxin was put on the Alaska Railroad to Nenana and then hauled west by dogsled. The rural Alaskan mail carriers were the best dog mushers in the State, and the vast majority were Athabaskan. “Wild Bill” Shannon was the first musher to take the serum from Nenana. The temperature was -50F when he left Nenana with a team of 11 dogs. When Shannon reached the village of Minto at 3am, it was -60F, and Wild Bill was suffering from hypothermia and frostbite.
The serum went from relay team to relay team. At times, the serum was brought into various roadhouses to warm up. One musher at Manley Hot Springs had the roadhouse operator pour hot water over his hands so that they could be broken free of his sled’s handle bars. It was -56F.
By January 30, a fifth death, and 27 cases of diphtheria had occurred in Nome. Plans were made to fly serum in, but they were rejected by the Navy and experienced pilots because of the weather. The relay went on.
Leonhard Seppala left Nome for Shaktoolik to take his place in the relay. He faced gale force winds and -85F wind chill. His lead dog Togo traveled 350 miles in total.
Henry Ivanoff’s team was tangled up with a reindeer.
Charlie Olson took the serum from Seppala, his team was blown off course by the winds. He passed the serum to Gunnar Kaasen in Bluff, AK. Kaassen waited for the weather to improve, but it only became worse, so he set out into a nasty headwind. His lead dog was Balto. Kaassen could barely see the first two dogs in front of his sled because of the blowing snow, but Balto led the team through high drifts, river overflow and heavy winds. At one point, a gust of wind flipped the sled. The serum was thrown into the snow, and Kaassen’s hands were frostbit trying to recover the cylinder of serum.
In spite of the hardships, Kaassen reached Point Safety ahead of schedule. The next man up, Ed Rohn, was sleeping, so Kaassen and his team led by Balto continued on. They arrived in Nome at 5:30am. The relay of dog teams traveled the 674 miles in 127-1/2 hours. Not one vial of serum had been broken.
Gunnar Kaassen and Balto
For the first time since the Last Great Race first ran, mushers this year are not being allowed into villages due to coronavirus concerns. Checkpoints are in tents out on rivers away from communities. Spectators have been told not to show up in Nome to cheer as teams cross under the famed burled arch on Front Street.
If nothing else, 1925 shows us how vital it is to step up and come together at a time of crisis.