Alaskans crying foul at fair weather

AnchorageSeattleDog (animal)Iditarod Trail

In this city, a decent winter snowpack is a point of civic pride. It turns park trails into ski courses, downtown streets into the starting point for the Iditarod trail and, when freshly fallen, blankets even the scruffiest of urban landscapes in a pure white coat.

But this winter has brought something very different: waves of dank, mild, Seattle-style weather.

Temperatures repeatedly have soared into the 40s. The skies often are gray. They drizzle rain and occasionally unleash downpours like the storm last week that also brought fierce winds clocked at 70 mph along the Chugach Mountains that fringe the east side of town.

All of this has reduced a meager in-city snowpack to tightly packed crust and sheets of ice along the city's extensive network of 130 miles of cross-country ski trails. These trails are normally the great escape from cabin fever for tens of thousands of Anchorage residents who in a typical year would now be striding and gliding after work or on weekends.

But this winter, for the skiers, has been an epic bust. Only heavy-duty mechanized groomers have managed to keep a swath of trails in usable condition.

Many who normally would be skiing have opted for jogging or walking. Still, footing is treacherous. They often strap to their feet plastic strapped coils known as "Yaktrax" or shoe studs known as "Get-a-Grips."

"We can't keep them on the shelves," said Jonathan Briggs, an REI cashier in Anchorage.

Meteorologists say the very un-Alaskan weather can largely be traced to an unusual northward track of the jet stream. In a typical winter, when there's lots of snow in Alaska and lots of rain in Seattle, the jet stream streaks across the Pacific and hits squarely at Oregon and Washington.

But this winter, a ridge of high pressure has protected the Northwest, shunting part of the jet stream north, where it swirls around the Gulf of Alaska and brings moist, warm air into Anchorage and even deep into the interior.

On Jan. 14, Fairbanks hit 42 degrees, just one degree shy of the record high for that day.

All of this balmy weather has been tough on mushers training for the Iditarod Trail Race. Many of them live in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley 40 miles north of Anchorage. Much of the ground there is bare and the trails so icy that dogs risk injury.

Many of the snow-deprived mushers have had to move farther north to prepare their dogs for the classic Anchorage-to-Nome sled race that begins in March.

"It's a tremendous inconvenience," said Stan Hooley, executive director of the race. "They have had to travel, in some cases, hundreds of miles from where they live. And they may be camped out in a friend's home or cabin."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times