Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Windy Wonderland

            The wind has been ridiculously strong for the past week.   It’s also tried to snow a couple of times, but the wind won’t let any of it accumulate, unless you have a doorway that happens to face north.   The snow seems to accumulate right there just fine.   A friend informed me that she had to shovel out her door four times in one day because the drifts kept piling up on her porch.   After spending a day at the aquarium watching the snow blow past the building, I was sure I was going to have to break out the snowblower.  

           Just to clarify, when someone says snowblower, I think of  a handheld, extension-cord-powered, outdoor gizmo – something a bit like a large hair dryer for the driveway.    Here in Alaska, snowblower is the name for the 2-stoke engine, caterpillar-treaded, snow-destroying tank that lives in the woodshed.    But when I actually fired up the snow-destroying tank, not enough of the snow had actually stuck to the ground for the snowblower to do any good.   (No idea where all the snow ended up – probably it’s all piling into drifts on Julie’s porch.)

            We don't have any new snow, but the wind is more than making up for it.   Standing in the aquarium, in some places you can literally feel the building vibrating with some of the gusts.   And when it did snow, it felt like the outdoor exhibits had turned into seal-themed snow globes.   We had to keep the doors to the outside areas locked, because otherwise the wind kept blowing them open.   Not surprisingly, very few of the visitors were interested in going outside anyway, since the wind chill was flirting with 20 below.   So I kept myself busy manning the touch tank, and watching Tongass the seal chasing the surface waves in his tank.   (I didn’t know you could get surface chop in a thirty-foot pool.   The seals apparently think it’s pretty cool.)

            A few nights ago, I got to go on my first Alaskan epic adventure of this winter season.   (Not counting the trip to pick up my car, which the auto transport elves finally delivered to Anchorage last week.   Although if you want to talk about levels of frustration, incompetence, and misinformation, epic would be a very appropriate word.   I’m just glad the car’s here, and the battery still starts.   Now I just need to get the wiper fluid to stop freezing to my windshield, and I will be all set.)

            I went out with a local snowshoeing group on Saturday night, to snowshoe under the full moon at the Mile 12 ski area.   There wasn’t actually a full moon (or there was, but it didn’t show up until after we got home) but the starlight more than made up for it.   Alaska is one of those places where, as long as the sky is clear, something up there will be glowing, regardless of what time of day it is.   On this particular evening, the stars were out in force.   And fortunately, where we were there was at least a little protection from the wind.

            Our intrepid leader, Sam, took us up a woody hillside trail that came out at a series of lakes and meadows all strung out on a bluff somewhere west of the highway.    The view of the stars on the lake was immense, and the snow was reflecting the light back, so you could see really, really well with just the snow and the starlight.   A few more prepared individuals had brought headlamps, but once we got out of the trees, we mostly turned them off.   Plus there were three dogs with us, all equipped with blinking LED collars, running around the meadow like a bunch of hyperactive UFOs.   At the top of the bluff, we intersected a power line cut, which we followed back down the hill to the ski area.   It felt really nice to go downhill through a big, wide corridor like that, especially since from the foliage sticking up through the snow, the corridor is probably chock full of devil’s club during the summer.   And it was too dark to really see the power lines very much, which helped maintain the illusion that we were in the middle of the woods.

            The hike was definitely more of a workout than I had planned on, and in that sense it was good that I didn’t seriously layer up, because I was working up a sweat the whole time we were out.   I was using borrowed snowshoes, and while I tried them out in the yard before jumping in the car, the bindings, which didn’t inspire a lot of confidence to begin with, ended up in a fubar-esque condition after maybe a quarter mile.   Fortunately, Sam pulled out some of the MacGyver-like Alaskan ingenuity that all long-time residents seem to have, and improvised a binding by taking the straps from the nonfunctional binding and tying them in fancy knots around my ankle.   I’m not sure what exactly he did, but all I can say is that it worked really, really well, and was undoubtedly what allowed me to finish the hike.   

            Now my question is, where do they keep this Alaskan ingenuity, and how do I sign up to get some?   It didn’t show up in my PO Box, or with my state ID.   Maybe I’ll get it with the Alaska permanent fund check.  

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