ANCHORAGE — In the 100 years since the city was founded, the people of Anchorage have developed all sorts of tricks to deal with winter. This might be a new one:
For a snow sculpture competition that is a signature event of the Fur Rondy Festival, an annual celebration of the normally brutal, icebound season, all the snow was brought in from a stockpile the city has been saving, because there’s none on the ground. And since it was so warm, volunteers Bill and Griff Tucker used PVC pipes and blue tarps to create a giant curtain to keep the sun from melting the snow.
As Boston is crushed under more than eight feet of snow, with the city’s all-time record just a few frigid inches away, the people of Anchorage 3,372 miles away can also unequivocally say, “We’ve never seen a winter quite like this.”
As of Friday, less than an inch had fallen here in February. The joke on the streets is that the two cities have swapped winters.
It’s more or less true. The cause of Alaska’s mild winter is the same as has created Boston’s punishing one — the “wonky jet stream,” as a headline in Friday’s Alaska Dispatch News described it. High atmospheric pressure in the western US and low pressure in the east are combining to draw arctic air down through Canada to New England, literally rerouting Anchorage’s winter to Boston while basking south coastal Alaska in weather warmed by Pacific Ocean currents.
They want theirs back.
“You give us your snow, and we’ll give you the Palins,” said Nina Walker, the manager of a downtown gift shop called Once in a Blue Moose.
While the massive amount of snow in Boston has wreaked havoc on the city, the lack of it in Anchorage has exacted its own stiff price. One of them was right outside Walker’s door: the ceremonial starting line for the famed Iditarod dog sled race, the Super Bowl of the Alaska winter.
Municipal crews have been stockpiling snow to cover the streets for the kickoff on Saturday, raiding snow mounds that remain from meager storms earlier in the winter, said the city’s municipal manager, George Vakalis. The race itself, which normally begins in Willow, 38 miles outside of town, has been moved 260 miles north to Fairbanks.
“Normally, I can go right out of my yard and get on 40 miles of trails,” said Jim Lanier, who will be competing in his 18th Iditarod, as he unloaded his sled dogs from a truck at his home in Chugiak, just north of the city. He had just returned from an eight-hour journey north to find snow near Denali National Park.
Snow and cold are not just something to be endured in Alaska; they are what allow many people to survive the winter, mentally, physically, and practically.
“It’s dark here in the winter. If you don’t have your winter recreation, you’re bummed,” said Andy Elsburg, who had just mountain biked from downtown to a trail at the base of Flattop Mountain, a popular spot east of the city that is typically packed with people on snowshoes and cross-country skis this time of year.
“This is the worst winter ever,” said Danielle Crelley, 19, who was walking through the toenail-deep snow on the trail in a pair of sneakers and a thin sweatshirt. “We can’t even go sledding. I just want to build a snowman.”
For those who live in remote areas off the road system — what locals call “the bush” — the lack of winter is more than just a loss of entertainment. They rely on the world to freeze solid — the land and the water — and then be covered by a blanket of snow so they can traverse it on snowmobiles and dog sleds. For many isolated communities, it is the only time they can connect to the outside world without flying, and it is a crucial time to bring in supplies.
Tourism has been a mixed bag this season. Ski resorts are still open but have had to make their own snow, leaving the conditions less than desirable.
And while most visitors come to Alaska in summer — when it’s temperate but you can still see frozen glaciers and snow in the mountains — those who make the trek up from the lower 48 this time of year do so for the most dramatic winter experience you can get without a passport. And, for the most part, they simply aren’t finding it.
In downtown Anchorage, the year that winter (mostly) forgot can be spied in all sorts of curious ways. One of the most popular breakfast spots is called the Snow City Cafe, and outside its doors the streets are bare. A forlorn ice sculpture of a snow man looks like it caught fire and someone tried to put it out with an ice pick.
The Mad Hatter, which usually sells a ton of snowmobiling gear, has already started transitioning its stock to motorcycle gear, six weeks ahead of schedule. And Skinny Raven Sports, a running store, has done brisk business installing studs on the bottom of sneakers — there is plenty of ice, for it has been warm enough to actually rain a few times — but there has not been much demand for what is usually a popular item: insulated skirts for women.
And then there are the cracked windshields. They are everywhere. Anchorage does not salt its roads for environmental reasons, but instead uses a mixture that involves lots of gravel for traction.
With no snow to hold it in place on the streets, the gravel laid down during the few light snowfalls early in the season has been getting fired around like BBs by cars running over it.
The city plans to send out its street sweepers in the next week or two to start picking it up, something that normally happens near the end of April.
But this is Anchorage, and living here in winter is a continual story of adaptation. So as the 80th Fur Rondy Festival got underway on Friday night — the event began as a “Fur Rendezvous” for trappers to sell their winter bounty — city crews were busy raiding the snow stockpile to lay a thin coating on 4th Avenue.
They had to cancel the sled dog races through the city streets that are the main event of Fur Rondy. There was not enough snow for that. But the Outhouse Races — think porta-potties on skis, being pushed — would go on as planned.
As the program says, “Don’t be #2 in this race to the finish line.”
Alaskans don’t like losing winter competitions of any kind.