Some regular readers may remember that I was out in the village of Newtok in February. I truly enjoyed my time there, and have great memories of the area, but especially the people.
Newtok is currently in the middle of a move. The village is under siege from the very water that gives it life. Due to the warming of the Arctic, ground is giving way, and Newtok is getting it from every direction. On one hand, the river is laying claim to huge chunks of land, taking homes with the shoreline. On the other hand, the ground is giving way to the melting permafrost, and water is filling in the gaps. In February, approximately one third of the population had moved across the river to the new location of Mertarvik, but it is going to be a long and complicated process.
Newtok made the news again this past week, when word made it around Alaska, that the generator that powers the village broke down, leaving the residents without power for an entire month. A month. In an age when most of us think about power very briefly, when we flip a switch or pay the electric bill, it’s good to remember that not everyone lives in such a situation.
Looking at the village from the air in the summer, it’s an entirely different world than when I was there in February. The contrast is stunning, so I thought I’d share a few more “winter” pictures of my time in Newtok.
When we were camping at Blueberry Lake earlier this summer, we spent a rare sunny day hiking up to Worthington Glacier.
Worthington Glacier is located in Thompson Pass at Milepost 29 of the Richardson Highway. It’s a typical small valley glacier, approximately 4 miles long, and sits at an elevation of 3800 feet.
In normal years, the glacier is one of the most visited recreation areas on the Richardson, but this year we were the only ones hiking out at the glacier, while a few people hung out at the viewing area.
Worthington Glacier is retreating, although not quite as fast as other glaciers in Alaska. Thompson Pass is the snowiest area in the state of Alaska. On average, the pass gets 500 inches of snow every winter. It holds the state records of 974″ of snow in a year (81 feet!), and the most snow in a single day at 62 inches.
Still, Worthington is in retreat. In the late 1990’s, the glacier extended to the pond in the picture above. In the last 20 years, Worthington has retreated a quarter of a mile, in spite of the tremendous snowfall in the area.
The ice went out on the Tanana River at the village of Nenana on Monday. The tripod officially moved the distance to trip the clock at 1:56pm.
This was the second time that I have guessed the correct day the ice went out. I was so close, so tantalizingly close. As they say, close only counts in horseshoes and bear encounters.
Between the years of 1917 and 1989, the ice went out this early only three times. Since 1990, the ice has gone out this early 11 times.
Ice Classic officials say it may be a month before winners are notified and announced. They are running a skeleton crew due to Corvid-19. They have also stated that the number of tickets sold are well below normal numbers due to the difficulty after the virus forced businesses to close.
The temperature on Easter Sunday reached 56F degrees in Fairbanks. The last time we broke the 50 degree barrier was on September 30.
My daily hikes have been taking place in the morning now. Partly, because the day is usually wide open for interpretation, but mainly because the snowpack is still firm early in the day. Breaking trail gets old in a hurry. The mukluks will be retired any day now for the rubber breakup boots.
Our length of day has surpassed 15 hours. In fact, length of visible light, has gone over 17 hours. The northern lights have been out, but they are already faint, unless they put on a show around 2am. Soon, we will not see them again, until late August.
Rabbits can be seen morning & evening, bounding over the massive piles of snow with ease. Already, the new brown fur is mixing with the white of winter. An owl can be heard at night, hooting off in the distance, and I have seen the tracks of lynx, but the wary cat has evaded my camera traps. Neither the owl nor the lynx seem to have put much of a dent in the rabbit population. The frisky bunnies seem as numerous, if not more so, than last year.
Plow it, and they will land:
Creamer’s Field on Wednesday
At the end of last week, the annual plowing of Creamer’s Field happened. The old dairy farm is now a migratory waterfowl refuge. The field is used to tempt waterfowl away from Fairbanks International Airport. Fairbanks has an annual lottery on when the first Canadian goose lands at Creamer’s. It’s not as widely bet on as the Nenana Ice Classic, but it may be as closely followed. Creamer’s saw its first arrival on Sunday the 12th. However, for only the second time since 1976, it wasn’t a Canadian honker that landed first, but a pair of trumpeter swans. When I was out there on Wednesday, the swans were off in the distance and ducks were flying in, and landing on the puddles. The woodchucks are also out and about at the refuge.
This is the first month of April that I have spent in Alaska since 2003! I always leave around the end of March, if not earlier, to get some traveling in, and head to the Frozen Four Hockey Championship, wherever that may be held. It’s a bit odd for me to be here to watch the snow melt.
With the above average snowfall this past season, and the quick upturn in temperature, we are in for a very messy breakup with winter.
The ice hockey arena, where the University of Alaska Nanooks play their home games, was recently converted to an overflow, field hospital. The arena adds 100 beds at the moment, to the 38 beds at Fairbanks Memorial Hospital set aside for Corvid-19 patients, and the 26 beds in the intensive care unit. Like every community around the globe, everyone here hopes the arena beds are never used.
Alaska had 13 new Covid-19 cases on Wednesday. The state total was now at 226 cases, still the lowest of every U.S. state, but our population is also among the lowest. 27 Alaska residents have been hospitalized, and the state has seen seven deaths, with two of those deaths taking place Outside.
Fairbanks had six of those new cases, for a total of 71 in the Fairbanks North Star Borough.
The city of Dillingham, Alaska and the Curyung Tribal Council recently sent a request to the governor to close the Bristol Bay commercial fishery. That was huge news in Alaska. Bristol Bay is the largest sockeye salmon fishery in the world. Both entities told the State of Alaska that there was no way to limit the small communities exposure to the virus, and the communities lack the health care resources to handle a pandemic. Tens of thousands of fishermen and fish processors will soon start their migration into the region, as we get closer to the fishing season. There has been no official response from the State of Alaska, although fishery workers are considered “essential” by the State.
Conoco Phillips, the oil field giant, has shut down its remote North Slope oil fields, and have placed them into long-term storage due to coronavirus concerns. A BP worker at Prudhoe Bay had recently been diagnosed with the disease, putting several workers in quarantine.
Travel to Alaska by nonresidents is obviously frowned upon. Visitors are expected to quarantine for 14 days if they do arrive in the state. The cruise ship industry will not be visiting Alaskan ports until July at the earliest. Alaska has little, to no say in that. All Canadian ports of call are closed until July 1. An intriguing maritime law prohibits international cruise ships from carrying U.S. citizens from one U.S. port to another. In other words, they can not go from Seattle, Washington to Skagway, Alaska without a stop at a foreign port – namely a Canadian port. Until Canada opens its ports, Alaskan ports will remain closed to the cruising industry.
Several blogs that I follow have asked the question: “What is the proper way to blog during this event?” A few have even stopped blogging altogether. I honestly don’t have an answer. I rarely spend much time worrying about proper, so I’m probably not the guy to ask. As for Circle to Circle, I don’t intend to ignore the current situation, but I’m not going to dwell on it either. Every post will not be Covid-19 related, but that doesn’t mean I’m not paying attention to world events or that I’m not sympathetic to the suffering and losses. It isn’t hard for me to get as much coverage as I want on the Covid-19 virus, the difficulty is in limiting it to a manageable amount. One can quickly get overwhelmed, and then it’s hard to pull back out of the funk.
For now, I will continue to do what I do here, which is mainly to blog about Alaska, and its wonderful quirks. Circle to Circle started out to chronicle a long trip, and I still think it’s at it’s best when I’m writing about traveling. Travel will have to stay close to Fairbanks for the foreseeable future, so maybe I can pull some rabbits out of the local hat.
I sincerely think it’s important to remember that there are a lot of beautiful things happening every day out there, among the chaos and uncertainty. Maybe now, more than ever, it is worthwhile to point those things out as they happen. The moose cows will give birth this spring, and I will have little, gangly moose calves wandering about in short order. The sandhill cranes will soon be flying into the region, bugling their ancient call from the skies and tundra. The puddles and ponds will be full of ducks and muskrats, and the beaver will emerge from their domed hut – hopefully with kits.
Everything changes, and, of course, this blog can change at the drop of a wood duck chick. This was/is always going to be a work in progress. Stop by for a virtual Alaskan break, if that pleases you; feel free to fly over, if you feel Circle to Circle is not your pint of choice. Ask questions, leave comments, drop me a line if you’d like. We are all in this together, even as we stay apart.
Not surprisingly, even the 103 year old Nenana Ice Classic has seen some changes this year due to Covid-19. Every year, since 1917, Alaskans have been betting on when the ice would go out on the Tanana River at the village of Nenana.
The Ice Classic time schedule
The earliest the ice has gone out was last year, when the famed tripod tripped the clock at 12:21 am on April 14. The latest the ice has gone out was on May 20, which has happened twice.
As one can see from the above graph, 2019 was an anomaly for more than one reason. The ice rarely goes out between midnight and 9am.
Image from the Nenana Ice Cam on April 7.
As of April 6, ice thickness near the tripod was 32.5″. Usually, all guesses/tickets must be in before April 6, but the deadline has been extended to April 10. We usually buy the tickets at various venues that have the bright red Ice Classic Can on their counter, the filled out tickets are then dropped in the can. This year, since so many businesses are closed, and people are urged to stay at home, guesses can be mailed to the Nenana Ice Classic directly. Entries must be postmarked no later than April 10, 2020. Each guess/ticket is $2.50.
I have never missed an Ice Classic since I moved to Fairbanks, and this year joined the stay at home club, and mailed in my guesses. Last year’s jackpot was $311,652.