Spring has arrived in Alaska, at least by local standards. It may have been zero degrees this morning, but at least the days are getting really long, the weather is warmer and more stable, and the snow and ice are melting in the mid-day sun. This means the roads are getting muddy and the trails are littered with melting dog poop. Here the defining event of spring is when the rivers “break-up,” which entails violent clashing of house-sized ice chunks and destructive icejam-caused flooding.
I am looking forward to spring’s warmer weather and longer days. And I know that spring quickly leads into summer, a season that plays better to my backpacking expertise. But there are reasons for me to be nervous about spring’s arrival.
I’d much prefer it be zero degrees and snowing than 35 degrees and raining. It’s extremely difficult to function and stay comfortable in cold, wet conditions. This will be common all spring (and again in the fall).
Snowmelt must go somewhere. In Alaska it often flows on the surface of still-frozen rivers and creeks, creating “overflow,” which can be either a few inches or a few feet deep. The rivers begin opening up, too–snowbridges will be harder to come by and fords of swift, ice-cold rivers will become more common.
Highly variable snowpack
The nature of the snowpack (i.e. layers, structural integrity, composition, depth) is extremely dynamic in the spring. Even though I have spoken with many locals about “normal” spring conditions, this year will at least somehow be different–one area of the state may have received more snow than usual (or less), Spring temperatures may arrive earlier (or later), there may be a volcano-caused dust layer that accelerates melting, etc.
The variable snowpack makes it difficult to select appropriate gear (e.g. skis, snowshoes, or nothing?). And, with a fairly pre-determined route and timeline, it’s also difficult to avoid sub-optimal snow conditions somewhere. Inevitably I will find myself post-holing (when I sink through the snow all the way to the ground, which may be just to my knee or maybe to my belly button) numerous times over the next month.
Compared to the Lower 48, spring in Alaska is more intense but shorter. Locals talk about having two seasons here: winter and summer. Spring and fall are really short.