In Alaska, they'd 'kill for snow'


ANCHORAGE, Alaska - Somewhere up in the heavens, they evidently thought it would be a joke: Let's switch the winters on people and see what happens.

We'll sock the mid-Atlantic, where a dusting of snow can cause mass hysteria, with 2 feet-plus in a single weekend. And we'll leave Anchorage with the second-warmest winter since record-keeping began in 1915.

Hence, the bizarre turn of events in this normally white and frigid region, which springs to life each winter with cross-country skiing, snowmobile races, sled dog competitions and ice climbing.

With a warm wind known as the "pineapple express" wafting up from Hawaii, the Palmer Golf Course outside of town opened for business a few weeks ago. Flowers began peeking through the thawing soil as the temperature hit a virtually unheard-of 45 degrees on Feb. 6. And a few bears apparently thought it was time to end their hibernation and venture out of their dens.

When Alaskans heard reports this week of Easterners digging out after that huge snowfall - as much in a matter of days as the 28.6 inches that have fallen here since October - there was grumbling.

"I thought, they get all this snow they don't want and we're desperate here," said Jon Little, a musher who has to travel 90 minutes in his truck just to reach a trail where he can train his dogs for the Iditarod, the famed sled dog race that had to move its starting point more than 300 miles northward to frostier Fairbanks. "We'd kill for 28 inches."

"I play in the snow. I live for it," he said. "It's like being a farmer who can't get rain. A fisherman who can't fish. You live in Alaska, where it's supposed to be snowing. It's extremely frustrating."

For much of Alaska, this year's "unwinter" is nothing less than a disaster, forcing the cancellation of dozens of sled dog races and the rerouting of the Iditarod for the first time in its 31-year history from its normal starting point in Wasilla, 50 miles northeast of Anchorage.

A prestigious skiing event, the U.S. Alpine Championships, was moved from the nearby Alyeska resort to the Lower 48.

"We don't have Johns Hopkins up here; you don't come here for the famous museums or fine arts - you come here for nature and the outdoors," said Paul Denkewalter, owner of Alaska Mountaineering and Hiking, whose business is off about 40 percent this month. "When people here complain about the snow, you look at them like, what planet did you come from? The more snow the better. ... A mild winter is anathema."

The change in the Iditarod's route has sent mushers scrambling to relocate their drop-off points for food and supplies before the March 3 start. And dogs are spraining shoulders and hamstrings while training on uneven trails instead of running smoothly on the snow.

"It's the most miserable thing that can happen to a dog musher," said John Rasmussen, race manager of the Alaska Sled Dog and Racing Association. "You get all set up, you raise your dogs, they're the right age, and all of a sudden you have no snow, no training, nothing."

Restaurants, lodges and bars along the traditional route that rely on the thousands who come to the race will lose out.

"It's been a financial disaster," said Joe Delia, 73, one of the Iditarod's founding trailbreakers. He lives in Skwentna, a remote area 70 air miles northwest of Anchorage.

In a typical winter, the way to reach the area is by plane or snowmobile. But this year, torrential rains flooded the rivers. They were too dangerous for boaters, and the area was all but marooned for weeks. The rivers are now frozen, but with the race rerouted, the area's fishing lodges will lose the hundreds of customers who regularly come to watch, providing about one-third of the lodges' annual income, Delia said.

Even the National Weather Service's Anchorage office is stumped for a scientific explanation for the big thaw. Forecasters steer clear of blaming global warning but observe that, for some reason, balmy weather in Alaska often means the opposite in the Lower 48 states.

"There always seems to be a flip-flop," said specialist John Stepetin. "It's not scientific, just something we've noticed over the years."

The pineapple express rolls into Alaska several times a year, but seldom with such a warming effect. This year, it produced nine straight days of temperatures in the 40s, a veritable heat wave. The normal daytime high for this time of year is about 27.

For a few days in Anchorage, people were walking around in T-shirts and construction work that never happens in the winter was humming along.

Snowplow businesses switched to their summertime jobs, such as roofing and pipe-thawing. "What weather? There is no weather," said Dave Bates, owner of Alpine Roofing and Property Maintenance, who usually gets 50 calls a week to plow snow and this year has had two.

Snowmobile sales are way off, said Chuck Jones, a salesman at Marita Sea & Ski. "It's hard to get the public excited about buying machines when there's no place to drive," he said.

Kincaid Park, normally blanketed with snow and buzzing with cross-country skiers, was deserted yesterday. The only signs of life were Chad Hesson, 30, and his fiancee, Chanda Dorn, 26, checking out locations for their June wedding.

They complained that they usually skate two or three times a week in the winter but can't this year because the ice has been too thin and even the rinks are spotted with puddles.

Ricky Prince, a groomer with the Nordic Ski Club, was using a front-end loader to lay a cross-country trail on a bare track for a coming race.

"You didn't bring any snow, did you?" he asked a visitor from the East.

"People are in grief," said Doug O'Harra, a reporter at the Anchorage Daily News. "Nobody remembers ever looking out the window in February and seeing green grass. The fact that there's no snow and it's warm is just mind-boggling."

To be fair, there are people here who welcome the break - though they're careful not to say it too loudly.

Ice climber Jon Cobb, 27, said although he has to drive two hours to find the ice this year, that area, which is normally cold and miserable, is now lots of fun: "Instead of my pick ricocheting off the ice and breaking, there's lots of 'hero ice,' ice that can make anyone look like a hero."

But most Alaskans are like Joyce Yerkes, who lives with her husband in a cabin on Shell Lake, about 90 miles from here. "We're used to dealing with the snow," she said. "We don't shovel snow so much as we just pack it down and move on top of it."

They sought to commiserate with the snowbound East.

"When I heard about [the Eastern storm] I thought, 'I hope they enjoy it,'" said Joyce Barnett, 52, a physical therapist. "I hope it distracts them from the national political issues. We don't worry so much about that here, the terrorism. We're so removed. But we do worry about the snow."

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