SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska
Column - Commentary

'No more ice' will suffice!


January 23, 2022
Sunday AM

Ketchikan, Alaska -
Yes, that title is a play on a Robert Frost poem.

jpg  Dave Kiffer

No, it is not a sign that this column will be a literary masterpiece. Or even a meteorological one.

But it appears that we have survived the "Great Freezer Burn of Christmas 2021."

I have to say appears because, as I write this, there is still some snow on the ground, the roads are still a little slippery and more than a few parking lots remain as impassable as Antarctica.

But the relentless sub-freezing temps have gone and the rain is gradually washing away the three plus feet of snow that has been lingering for more than a month.

In short, we have survived our taste of what winter is normally like in the rest of Alaska.

I don't say that with tongue in cheek. Every time someone posted something about the local weather in the past month, someone else snarkily replied "well, you live in Alaska, right?"

I guess that's the equivalent of assuming that everyone who lives in Southern California stars in the movies. Of course, everyone in Southern California wishes they were in the movies, but that is another subject all together.

Ketchikan is indeed part of Alaska, the place that is "Seward's Ice Box," the land of perpetual ice and snow. At least that's what most Outside folks still seem to think.

Last summer I got an email from a friend from my college days who was planning a trip to Fairbanks and she asked what clothes I thought she should bring. I made a few suggestions and she seemed puzzled that they were summer fare. I explained that while Fairbanks in the winter is -50, Fairbanks in the summer is often well above 70.

That didn't compute with her impression that everyone wore parkas in Fairbanks year-round.

It also reminded me of the time when I argued with an editor in Boston that it wasn't 50 below in Valdez during the big oil spill and it most certainly was never that cold in the "part of Alaska" where I was from. But he had an Ivy League degree and clearly knew more about Alaska than I did.

These days I can pull out one of those internet maps and show that if Anchorage is in Missouri, then Ketchikan is in Georgia, Utqiagvik  is in Minnesota and the far Aleutians are in California. But even that doesn't make much of dent. Alaska remains this small blob next to Hawaii on the maps that most people grew up with.

Which explains why - once many years ago - a classmate in California insisted that Alaska is "warm" because it is "right next to Hawaii."

But I digress, as usual.

Anyway, we just had a "spot of weather" in the First City, as my mother used to say.

And weather it was. Indeed.

Basically, the snow arrived in early December and then didn't leave. That in itself was unusual. Snow is known to show up here, now and again. But it usually rains off in a few days. Having snow stay on the ground is unusual.

But - despite our obsession with recency bias - it was not unprecedented.

While the national weather service records on snowfall in Ketchikan are somewhat patchy, there have been times before when we had a bunch on the ground for some time. Looking back at the records for the late 1960s and early 1970s, we see several storms that dumped anywhere from four to five feet of snow on Ketchikan and that snow stayed for weeks on end.

This coincides with my personal memory of those years - when I was growing up.

One year, I think it was 1968, there was so much snow that my Dad built a six foot "igloo" in the back yard that I played in. Actually, it was more of a snow cave, but it easily held me and three friends, so it was no small construction.

Of course, we always think there was more snow when we were kids, but in this case it was actually true. In an average year, Ketchikan gets between three and four feet of snow. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, there were several years where the annual amount topped eight feet.

The other time that Ketchikan had a similar snowfall was in the mid 1910s into the mid 1920s. We have all seen the postcards of snow piled high on Front and Main streets from those years. Of course, those years were also the years when Ketchikan had its highest and lowest temperatures and set several other - not approached since - weather records. I am suspicious of those numbers simply because weather gauges were easily accessible by my members of the public and I suspect that standards were a little less rigorous. But, if the pictures aren't lying, there was a bit of snow in those days.

Anyway, this is a painfully long way of saying that, while Ketchikan had some unusually cold and snowy and persistent winter weather the last month - it wasn't record breaking.

But I have to admit that - in my several decades here - I have never seen such an ice accumulation on roads, driveways and parking lots.

The fact that is snowed and slightly melted over and over again meant that even when you scraped the new snow fall off, you were left with several sheets of ice impervious to scraping or any sort of chemical treatment.

Not even the "heat" generated by dozens of angry comments on Facebook about how "their roads" weren't being plowed or "their driveways" were blocked was capable of melting that ice.

Our numerous hills just made everything worse. When somewhere like - say Fairbanks - has snow and ice, it is bad. But they don't have the hills to make the loss of traction even more scary.

The past five weeks, we got used to assuming that when we tried to stop at the bottom of said hills, the more likely result was sliding into the intersections.

And we also experienced something even more bizarre.

People who had to park their cars on the ice coated hills found out that even with emergency brakes deployed, there were times when their parked cars would just start sliding down the hill. That was a first.  There is always a question on the drivers tests that ask what way you turn your car wheels when you park to keep the car from slipping downhill. Now we know why.

I don't think anyone is sad that that slippage has stopped.

And we are not sad that much of the ice buildup in the parking lots is now gone. As Alaskan we pride ourselves in being able to get around and forage for our sustenance.

But - in Ketchikan at least - it is not normal to risk one's life just trying to cross a grocery store parking lot to get some milk. There was a lot of slipping and some falling. And a lot a lot a lot of stepping very gingerly. Ketchikan's population is graying. We don't want to overwhelm the Life-Alert system by all taking headers at the same time.

On the plus side, this recent spot of weather did bring that rarest of Ketchikan winter events: A white Christmas. And it was pretty to see.

Even if the parents were locked up inside with their kids who now play winter warfare video games rather than go out and toss snowballs, like the old days.

But after slip sliding away for the past few weeks, I can safely say that I look forward to our normal Wet Christmases in the future.

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Dave Kiffer is a freelance writer living in Ketchikan, Alaska.

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