April 23 - For the next few mornings it will be possible to walk or ski on the snow crust in the Talkeetna Mountains until early afternoon---assuming it gets cold enough at night and one gets up before dawn. R.W.
Additional notes: Moose and trails---all shot!
I just ran into a neighbor who told me that the winterkilled moose down the road (which is how it was first reported to me by someone else) was actually the remains of two moose, gutted and dumped close to his house at the end of a side road. He’s not happy about that because, if there are any bears left around here, they will show up. Dogs have already dragged a large piece of hide in front of my drive.
Also, yesterday I snowshoed down to Willow Creek and found the snow trails pretty well shot. The firm parts are getting narrow and you never know when the trail will collapse. Off trail the snow is deep, wet and uneven. My guess right now is that there will be some skiing in some places, such as glaciers and up in the mountains, early on cold mornings. For me, it’s snowshoe time!
I did not run into the pregnant cow but saw recent tracks. She may have wandered to the creek down in the canyon to find a place to have her calf. The creek ice, by the way, is composed mostly of heavily compacted snow and is melting rapidly. I snowshoed along the edges where there is some firm ice but wouldn’t try crossing over unless I was running from something. - R.W.
[I forgot to mention that a reliable, every-day-outdoors couple from Big Lake told me a month ago that calves they knew had gone missing. Now, adult moose may move on, but to see mothers without their calves is troubling. I'm guessing that "Valley" moose are having a hard time---just like Hatcher Pass moose---despite opinions they should be taking these heavy snows in stride.
As for the cow "giving birth" around here, she is, more precisely, big with calf. I do hope she will be able to successfully give birth---whenever that happens. I'll be going by there today on snowshoes---trying hard to avoid her and not to trouble her further. It's a matter of where she has located herself at this time.]
Winter trails in the snow are the most incredible and easy way to travel across the Alaska wilderness. With deep snow and cold weather all the rough spots of the land are smoothed out and paved with a surface suitable for sliding by snowmachines or skis---all while riding five feet above the land over brush and broken ground.
Here in South Central Alaska we had marvelous, deep, stable snow for travel and recreation during the Winter of 2011-2012. Cold weather, which firmed up the snow, was the key. For me it has been a Winter of snowshoeing in addition to my normal ski trekking. Last Winter I barely wore snowshoes because I could either ski or walk on thin layers of snow as they accumulated incrementally. But for a while this Winter, snowshoes were the only way for me to get around. I usually spend a lot of time and effort breaking personal trails for access to more distant territory. This season I was dependent upon knowledgeable snowmachine riders to break trails for long-distance ski-dogging---skiing with the help of a dog in harness. It wasn’t always easy for snowmachine riders either. Quite frankly, experienced riders were the only ones capable of putting in the trails initially. Then, for a while there, anyone could ride just about anywhere.
Winter trails are ephemeral. From the moment snow hits the ground it begins to change. Even during the coldest, most dry and calm weather, snow undergoes a daily crystallization of individual flakes and a compression of its mass. Snow, left undisturbed, forms a crust which seems to protect the layers underneath to some extent. But when snow is disturbed in any way it changes rapidly. The touch of the plow, the boot, the ski or the machine causes snow to “set up.” Everything from sunlight to a gentle breeze causes snow to change. Even a fox or rabbit track eventually hardens the snow somewhat. And the big legs of moose make minor impact sites that harden---though not always in a uniform, easy-to-follow, way. Moose tracks and snowmachine tracks are often the last to disappear as the snow melts in Spring.
Now, while snow is still deep around here, it is wet and heavy right to the ground. Trails are getting punchy. We are back to a situation where snowmachine riders must know exactly where the old, hard trails are located because, once a machine bogs down, it goes right to the bottom and is tough to get out. Until just recently, my friend and neighbor (who joined me on some Willow Creek Canyon adventures) had been riding by on the road below my place with his snowmachine and sled, taking advantage of the last snowfall to retrieve more spruce logs from the woods in order to finish his log home. The roads have now melted clear and, with the snow gone soft, snowmachine travel is difficult.
The great riding and skiing is over. The snow has completely changed. A period of blowing wind was followed by warming weather and now, a bit of rain instead of snow. However, given the deep snow packs still remaining we are having a very gentle Spring breakup. The ground was never frozen very deeply and is absorbing the snowmelt pretty well. Also, the nights are cool, keeping the snowmelt from accumulating too rapidly.
Despite a lot of digging out, this has been one of the most incredible Winters I’ve ever had…and it is not quite over yet. With the snow pack settling, getting wet and soft when warm, hard and rutted when frozen, it’s time for experienced outdoors persons to take advantage of the final opportunity for travel. While the snow was deep and the weather cold, anyone could travel with machine or ski or snowshoe with relative ease. Now it requires knowing what is underneath the snow in terms of conditions of firmness, and an awareness of seasonal and daily changes to the texture of the snow upon which we diehards will travel until it is all gone and some new adventures begin.
PITY THE POOR MOOSE -
Sure, it was a great season for Human snow travelers. But the poor moose in my area were hard hit. There weren’t many to begin with and I recall seeing something most unusual late in Winter---two moose together that were not mother and dependent calf (the closest thing to a “herd“ I‘ve seen for while). They looked like hell---absolutely skinny. I doubt both of them survived.
The “Valley” (Mat-Su) was supposed to have around 8000 moose this season and at least one outdoors writer has downplayed the usual depredations of Winter. But up here in the Hatcher Pass area the moose have never recovered from previous Winters and some really greedy “cow hunts.” This used to be a major moose calving area but after cows were allowed to be “harvested” I noticed that the biggest, best-looking and most healthy cows had been shot, leaving behind mostly scrawny, scared and inexperienced calves. To this day it is remarkable to see a big, muscular cow. There is one right now giving birth nearby and she is ornery about giving up her trails.
Within a square mile area we have lost four cows this Winter that I know of. A local bear hunting guide told me his neighbors shot two because they were threatening the access of Human families to their own homes. One night, coming back from a snowshoe trip, I had to fire up my truck and, from a distance, gun the engine and aim the headlights at one poor creature who was hanging about my doorway and refused to move. I saw her from time to time after that but am guessing it is she who now lies a few hundred feet away with scavengers picking at her body. There is another moose carcass down the road---she died early in the season and there is not much left of her.
I did catch a glimpse of a seemingly vigorous-looking cow and calf up towards the Pass. But away from the roads---where the snow does not tell untruths---there are damned few moose tracks!
It’s not all fun and games for Humans, either. The unpaved portions of Hatcher Pass Road are getting pretty muddy. Think of people actually living off the road network. And those who must negotiate un-maintained roads to get from their homes to the roads.
THE LAST OF WINTER -
On Easter Sunday I broke trail through new snow up onto Baldy Mountain (the Talkeetna Baldy) carrying Telemark skis on the pack. I kept hoping to see a snowmachine but there were none the entire day. I even had to break trail downhill because the snows were so soft---not a bad thing because I could cut across the very steepest part of the mountain without speeding out of control. I suspect that snowmachine riders are sticking to well-packed trails because the off-trail riding is getting pretty dodgy. And, from now on, when I walk on old, established snowmachine trails to get up into the mountains or down into the canyons, I will be carrying snowshoes.
Note: The snow conditions I’ve described apply to altitudes of 1000 feet and above in my area---circumstances may vary elsewhere. Also, remember, the ice on lakes and creeks was never really all that thick this Winter because it was insulated by deep snows during the cold spells. I expect things to melt quickly.
- Rudy Wittshirk