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How The World Wags

Termination Dust
By Dave Kiffer

October 31, 2005

Ketchikan, Alaska - In early July, I found a wooley bear caterpillar the size of my thumb crawling across the sand at Bugge Beach.

I was surprised to find that such a creature existed in these climes. It was big and black and brownish red and very furry. Later I told a friend about it.

"Were the black stripes wider than the reddish-brown ones?" he asked.

"I didn't notice," I replied.

"Well, that's how you tell if it's going to be an early winter," he said.

I had no idea. Maybe if I noticed before that Ketchikan had wooley bears, I'd have been aware of that old bit of folk wisdom on the changing of the seasons.

Years ago, one of my uncles told me that if the first frost in Ketchikan was later than the first of November, it meant that winter would be harsh. He told me this when I was in high school and I believed it.

Then the next year, the first frost didn't come until early January. It lasted for a couple of weeks and it was the only frost that winter. The winter temperature hovered in the upper 30s and lower 40s that year and we had no snow at all. Go figure.

Predicting the severity of a winter has always been sort of a crap shoot around here anyway. Every fall, I hear lots of guesses and then the weather just goes ahead does what it does anyway. To quote a new cliché, Ketchikan weather: It is what it is.

It's easier elsewhere, in places where they have a real winter with sub zero temperatures and consistent snow.

In upstate New York, they prognosticate the severity of the winter by measuring squirrel tails. The bushier a gray squirrel's tail is in the summer, the colder and snowier a winter will be.

In the mountainous regions of California, they look at the height of wasp nests. The higher in a tree the wasp builds, the colder the upcoming winter. This summer there was a wasp nest (very briefly) in the upper reaches of the roof over our deck (120 + feet above sea level). Make your plans accordingly.

When I lived in Wyoming a few years back, summer weather allegedly determined winter weather. A hot dry summer in Wyoming (is there any other kind?) always led to a cold snowy winter (ditto!).

In neighboring South Dakota, I once listened to farmer explain that he measured the height of prairie dog mounds because the prairie dogs needed to build mounds high enough to so the openings would be above the top of the snow. That same year, western South Dakota got about 10 feet of snow and I don't remember seeing that many prairie dog skyscrapers as I traveled hither and yon.

In the apple country of Wenatchee, Washington they say that the prequel to a cold winter is a bumper apple crop. Then again the last time I was in Wenatchee it was 110 degrees so maybe it's also the hot summer, cold winter theory (see above).

I have a friend who lived in Nebraska for many years and she said that a cold winter was presaged by thicker corn husks. And so on and so on. You get the idea.

One of my high school friends, Kurt, who has since passed away, who used to call me each fall when the first hint of snow appeared on the saddle of Deer Mountain. We would talk at length about the arrival of the "Termination Dust" and what it meant for the winter.

"Termination Dust" has always seemed to be the most evocative description of the change of seasons in Alaska. It is more than just season change. It is the "termination" of our active summer. It is time to huddle up in the old log cabin and hibernate through the dark, dangerous freeze until it is safe to come out in the spring.

The one thing we never determined was weather (oops, Freudian slip!) the termination dust (which arrived in force earlier this month,) ever presaged the severity of winter. Kurt believed it did. He said that an early "dusting" meant a cold, snowy winter. I was never sure. I remembered years in which the saddle got dusted in early October and Ketchikan got hardly any snow at all. I also noted years in which the termination dust was delayed into November and yet Ketchikan was buried by January.

Thinking about it now, it seems like we need a better barometer of winter. Perhaps we need to consult "Poor Skookum Gregorchuck's Alaskan Sourdough Almanac."

On page 10,526, the almanac discusses winter prognostication and offers the following advice.

"You can forecast an exceedingly cold winter by measuring the adenoids of a sleeping Toklat grizzly. If adenoids have swollen to more than 2.36 inches, winter temperatures can be expected to range between -27 and -19 degrees in February and snowfall will be approximately 31.79 inches in March."

Okay, fine.

But what if there aren't any Toklat grizzlies in the immediate area?

We must continue on page 10,527 of "Poor Skookum Gregorchuck's Alaskan Sourdough Almanac."

"Winter weather predictions can often be ascertained by the pungency of the fruit of Lysichitum Americanus, an early blooming plant in the temperate rainforest. While the broad leaves of the plant - also called the Swamp Lantern - have generated the most interest - primarily as a early salmon sandwich "wrap", it is the yellow, club-like spadix that can be used for exceedingly accurate winter weather prediction.

"The spadix contains calcium oxalate crystals which cause a mild burning sensation on the tongue if the following winter is expected to be in the 15 to 20 degree above zero range and snowfall is not to exceed 26 inches. If there is a sharp burning and blistering sensation on the tongue and lips and third degree bubbling on the roof of the mouth cavity then winter temperatures will be in the -5 to 10 degree range and snowfall will exceed 36 inches."

Unfortunately, there remain some "sourdoughs" who think that biting into a skunk cabbage doesn't sound like a palatable way to predict the winter.

I'll leave you with my grandfather's tried and true method. Grandpa loved to have his little nip of spirits every afternoon. Unfortunately, Grandma didn't approve. Grandpa would hide his "pick me up" in the boat shed and Grandma would sometimes go out and replace some of the alcohol with water. She assumed he never noticed the difference.

One chilly October afternoon, he and I were in the boat shed working on some lures. He reached back behind his bench and pulled out a brown bottle. He raised it to his lips. Nothing came out. He shook the bottle. It was full of ice.

"Davy," he said. "It's going to be a very cold winter."


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

Dave Kiffer ©2005

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