After the 14+ inches of snow dumped on us last week, there is only one year since recording began, that snow depth this late in the season was deeper. That was the infamous Winter of 1990-91. We have a whole lot of snow on the ground… and on the rooftops.
We have also set some cold records so far in April. On more than one morning, we have tied the record low temp in Fairbanks. On Friday, we tied the record low of -16F, and shattered the record low high when we climbed to a paltry +3F.
Saturday night saw a return visit to the deep freeze, with the temps dropping to -29F officially at the airport. It dropped to -35 at the cabin. The record low for the month of April is -32F, which we have left intact. Not to be outdone: Old Crow, YT dropped to -40.2C. Way to go Yukon!
Temperatures for this coming week have us seeing +40F for the first time since October. That is also a new record.
Southeast Alaska has a new carnivore on the block. Or, I should say that a new one was identified recently. A new species of ermine was identified on Prince of Wales Island, and some were also found in British Columbia. The new species has been labeled the Haida Ermine.
There are three known species: one in Eurasia, one in North America, and now Southeast Alaska. The Haida Ermine was thought to be isolated around 375,000 years ago, due to a glacial period. Over time, it has developed different characteristics and has become its own species.
I am confident that the one living in my wood pile is just the common North American species, but it never sits still long enough for me to say that with 100% certainty.
It may seem like an odd time to think of the fire season here in Alaska. After all, we officially had 29 inches of snowpack at the end of March, and have been adding to that steadily during this first week of April.
In a state that boasts some of the finest summers on this planet, one thing that can ruin a summer in a hurry is a bad wildfire year. Alaska has been trending upward in acres burned over the past 60 years. From 1.6% of the state seeing wildfires during the decade of 1961-1970, to 3.1% of the state going up in smoke in the most recent decade.
2004 was the worst year on record with 6.6 million acres burned. It was a nasty summer here in the Interior. I had hiked the Chilkoot Trail at the end of June, and had made it back to Skagway in time for July 4th, only to find out the embers had really hit the fan. Wildfires were everywhere between Fairbanks and Whitehorse in the Yukon. In Skagway, I called my Dad to tell him not to visit in a few days, because the smoke was so bad, but he came up anyway. We sat on my deck one evening and watched lightning start a fire a couple of valleys over. The next morning air tankers were dumping water over the fresh fire. We climbed to the ridge top in the evening to see a wall of flame across the valley floor.
I couldn’t count the number of dry thunderstorms we saw that summer. I remember standing out on my deck at 2am one morning, lightning was flashing down on the hills all around me, but all I could see was an eerie glow in the thick smoke, followed by the thunder crashing down, rolling across the land. If a fire had started close by, I would never know until the flames were roaring upon the cabin. The smoke was so thick that visibility was down to mere feet.
The largest icebreaker of the three in the service of the United States Coast Guard, will sail through the Northwest Passage at the end of this summer. The sailing will be a joint venture with the Canadian Coast Guard.
The Cutter Healy is named after Captain “Hell-Roaring” Mike Healy, who was captain of the U.S. Revenue Cutter Bear. The Bear sailed the Alaskan coast for decades. The icebreaker Healy has accommodations for the entire crew, as well as for up to 50 scientists. The Healy can continuously break through ice up to 4-1/2 feet thick at 3 knots, and up to 10 feet thick, when “backing & ramming”. The Healy is designed to operate at temperatures down to -50F, and was the first U.S. surface vessel to reach the North Pole unaccompanied.
The upcoming mission through the Northwest Passage is officially a joint research and educational collaboration. That may very well be true, but it’s hard to ignore the geopolitical message that will be sent along with the research.
As the sea ice in the Arctic diminishes, clearly transport through the Northwest Passage will increase.
Currently, plans have the Cutter Healy leaving Dutch Harbor in mid-August for the Northwest Passage. By mid-September the icebreaker expects to do exercises out of Nuuk, Greenland around Baffin Bay.
I do realize that some people find the long summer days of Interior Alaska difficult to deal with. I am not one of those people; I absolutely revel in them. Arguably, the land of the midnight sun has the best summers and we have no shortage of activities to fill the many sunlit hours.
Officially, spring has arrived, but winter is not giving up just yet. Atqasuk on Alaska’s North Slope saw -53F on Sunday morning. The Interior was considerably warmer with Denali Park at -27F, Fort Yukon -13F and Fairbanks a balmy -8F.
As the graphic above illustrates, Alaska and Canada have had a string of amazing northern lights viewing. Even with the waxing moon, the aurora has been dominating the northern skies of late, putting on some impressive shows.
I was invited earlier in the week to attend an online screening of the new documentary Frozen Obsession. For 18 days, a research crew ventured into the Northwest Passage on board the Swedish ice breaker, Oden.
The ramifications of the opening of the Northwest Passage for those of us in the Arctic are large. The documentary explores some of that, along with the drastic changes we are seeing, and some of the history of what truly has been an obsession at times, regarding the famed passage.
The expedition was clearly geared towards education, with 28 undergrad and graduate students on board the vessel, conducting research. It’s extremely rare to see undergrads involved in research at this level. This included two Inuits from Nunavut. The team also did 40 live Q&A sessions via satellite, to museums and education facilities back on the mainland, including institutions in Alaska.
One of the frightening takeaways was the amount of plastic that was found frozen in the sea ice. Researchers could not contain their surprise at the amount that was discovered in the core samples. In an area that is still considered pristine by many, plastics and micro-plastics have made their way to the far northern waters.
The documentary is an hour long, and well worth the time if it becomes available to your community or streaming service. The excitement of the young researchers alone is rewarding to see.
It appears that the “Happiness Engineers” here at wordpress have figured out which behind the scenes gremlin has been messing with life between The Circles. This site is not exactly fixed, but the offending “plug in” has been deactivated, and I hope that action does not cause any unforeseen issues. We shall see. For the moment, at least, the site has returned to it’s somewhat normal state.
Due to the hiatus, I am no longer in the habit of collecting post ideas, let alone building posts, so we will go the easy route and bring you bears. After all, with every movie out of Hollywood on Alaska, they always throw in a bear, whether it fits the story line or not. Here between The Circles, we are going all out by bringing you top of the line, Katmai bears.
The application deadline for permits to head to McNeil River to view the Katmai bears was yesterday. I’m late in relaying this information, but it does increase my odds at getting a permit. Camping within the Last Frontier also appears to be loosening up for 2021, as several National Parks and State Parks are either open for reservations, or are about to open. That is good news for most of us in-state.
Due to Canada continuing the ban on cruise ships larger than 250 capacity, there looks to be no cruise ship visits to Alaska until 2022. Cruise ships below that 250 passenger mark will be visiting both Alaska and Canadian ports. This would be a great year to visit Skagway, assuming Canada allows us to drive through Haines Junction.
As promised in the headline, explore.org, the fine folks that bring the Katmai Bear Cam to the world, has a 2020 Bear Close Up video for your bruin viewing pleasure:
The sternwheeler White Horse was built in 1901, and ran the Yukon River for 54 years. She had a length of 167 feet, a beam of 34.5 feet, and a gross tonnage of 986.65 tons. She accommodated 64 people.
The White Horse had an interesting history. Declared a “plague ship” in 1902, due to a 2nd Class passenger being suspected of having small pox. The sternwheeler was quarantined for 16 days, and the disease did not appear, so she returned to service.
In 1935, the White Horse was sent to rescue the passengers of the STR Yukon, which had been severely damaged by ice on the infamous Lake Labarge. Aircraft from the British Yukon Navigation Company, guided the White Horse through the ice to the beached Yukon.
In 1916, the White Horse took her first venture into the pure tourist trade, by making one of many Midnight Sun runs to Fort Yukon. The trips were a huge hit at the time.
The once proud White Horse came to a fiery end. She was passed up for restoration in 1955 in favor of the STR Klondike, which can still be seen in Whitehorse, YT. She was sold in 1960 along with the STR Casca and two other ships to the Canadian Government, but no restoration was attempted, other than to put them behind a chain link fence.
On 20 June 1974, both the White Horse & Casca caught fire in dry dock, and burned down to the gravel bed. No cause of the fire has ever been officially stated.
Sources: Alaska State Library, University of Alaska, CBC.CA
The great freighter sank 45 years ago today, taking all 29 crew members to the bottom of Lake Superior with her.
Growing up in Minnesota, and spending a fair amount of time along the shores of Lake Superior, the story of the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald is one that I had heard from early childhood.
Construction on The Fitz started in August of 1957. The Great Lakes Engineering Works was tasked with building a freighter that would come within one foot of the Saint Lawrence Seaway’s maximum length. The customer was the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The ship was launched in June 1958, bearing the name of the president of Northwestern Mutual Life. The cost for the 729′ long freighter with a 26,000 long ton capacity, was $7 million.
For 17 years, The Fitz hauled iron ore from Duluth and Superior to cities like Detroit and Toledo. It took five days to make the run between Toledo, Ohio and Superior, Wisconsin.
The Fitzgerald set several cargo records during its time on the Great Lakes, often breaking her own previous record. In 1969, the ship hauled 27,402 long tons in a single run.
The Fitz quickly became popular with the public. Captain Peter Pulcer would play music over the ship’s intercom, whenever they went through the St Clair and Detroit Rivers. Near the Soo Locks, Pulcer would often talk to the public over a bullhorn, explaining details of the ship.
A storm was building over Oklahoma’s panhandle on 9 November 1975. Weather forecasters predicted that it would stay south of Lake Superior. At 2:15pm, on the same day, the Edmund Fitzgerald left the port of Superior, WI.
The storm moved fast, and by 1am on the morning of the 10th, The Fitz was reporting waves at ten feet. By 2am, the National Weather Service had upgraded its warnings from gale to storm.
The SS Arthur M. Anderson, which had been traveling with The Fitz, started to fall behind the faster Fitzgerald at 3am. The Anderson recorded winds of 58mph at 1:50pm. It started to snow heavy at 2:45pm, and the crew of the Anderson lost sight of the Fitzgerald at that time. The Fitz was approximately 16 miles ahead at this point.
At 3:30pm, Captain McSorley of the Fitzgerald, radioed the Anderson that they were taking on water and had lost two vent covers. The United States Coast Guard had closed the Soo Locks, and told ships to seek safe anchorage.
By late afternoon, waves had increased to 25 feet and wind gusts hit 67mph. The Anderson recorded gusts of 86mph and waves of 35 feet. The Edmund Fitzgerald tried to make Whitefish Bay, where the Whitefish Point light was working, but not the radio beacon. By now the Fitzgerald was blind, having lost both its radar.
At 7:10pm, Captain McSorley radioed the Anderson, that they were “holding their own”. The Edmund Fitzgerald sank within minutes of that final message. There was no distress signal.
The fully loaded Edmund Fitzgerald went down 15 nautical miles from Whitefish Bay. All 29 crew members perished; no bodies were recovered. The Fitz now lies 530 feet below the surface of Lake Superior.
A U.S. Navy Lockheed P-3 Orion, equipped with technology usually associated with finding submarines, found the wreck on 14 November 1975. The ship was in two pieces on the lake floor.
Every year on November 10, the Minnesota Historical Society hosts the Edmund Fitzgerald Memorial Beacon Lighting Ceremony at the Split Rock Lighthouse in Two Harbors, MN. This year’s ceremony will be virtual, hosted on the Historical Society’s facebook page. The ceremony starts at 4:30 CST, with the beacon lighting at approximately 7:30pm.